Our driver races with the dawn. We bounce around a bit in the backseat of the tuk-tuk as it roars up the road to Angkor in the humid darkness. Even louder than the throaty motorcycle engine, the song of cicadas fills the air. Our guide, Mr. Soeu, sits opposite us, slender and neat in his long-sleeved button down shirt. He twists around to peer forward past the bobbing helmet of the driver. The road is far from crowded, but there are other tuk-tuks, a handful of scooters, and even a few bicycles all moving in the same direction.
I can’t stop grinning, so I direct my smile first toward the people passing us in a faster tuk-tuk, then toward Michael, sitting next to me. He smiles back and takes my hand.
The faintest hint of purple lightens the horizon as we follow Mr. Soeu across a road, along a dirt path, and then, as streams of people converge, up a stone causeway. There is enough light to walk without stumbling now.
When we stop, on a red dirt bank before a large pond, we join a shifting crowd of travelers and guides standing or sitting on blankets, speaking many languages, but quietly—subdued perhaps by the early hour, or by the looming five towers silhouetted against the pre-dawn sky.
A rooster crows somewhere nearby, then another and another.
“You can sit on one of the blankets, if you want to,” Mr. Soeu explains. “You just have to buy something–maybe a coffee?”
There are men circling the blankets, taking orders for drinks and returning with steaming cups of milky coffee. “Oh! I didn’t know it would already be sweetened!” says a girl with a long skirt and short dreadlocks as she takes her first sip. I shake my head at the thought of sweet milky coffee.
I am too excited to sit anyway, so I wander around, looking over at a row of open sided shacks and umbrellas nearby, where food and souvenir vendors are just setting up for the morning. I join a small group of Japanese girls chasing a wandering piglet for a few minutes. Then I stand next to Michael arm in arm to watch the dawn arrive in fantastic streaks of swirling pink and orange and blue behind Angkor Wat.
As the sun nears the horizon I can see more details of the temple and the trees behind it. The entire eery, beautiful scene repeats itself upside down, a perfect reflection in the pond. At last, the sun gleams out from behind the temple and I shiver with delight.
We linger for a while as the day begins. When the sky is fully blue, we walk through Angkor Wat, glimpsing long stone halls carved with elaborate reliefs, and an orange-draped statue of Vishnu, on our way to meet our driver.
We will return later in the day to explore further, but first we zoom off to Angkor Thom, still racing the sun in order to see as much of the vast Angkor complex as possible before the heat becomes unendurable.
When we are tired and sweaty and overwhelmed by ancient stone buildings and elaborate carvings, by the stone faces of Bayon Temple and the terrifying steep stairs of Phimeanakas and Baphuon, our driver deposits us in a small grove where several open-sided structures nestle surrounded by tuk-tuks parked in pools of shade.
“Here we will stop for breakfast.” Mr. Soeu shepherds us into a restaurant made of rough poles holding up a corrugated metal roof.
We sit down in plastic picnic chairs at a table in the welcome shade. In the kitchen area at the back, women chop meat with cleavers and stir sizzling woks.
The breakfast menu is full of soups and noodle dishes, curries and rice. I chose noodles with vegetables.
I am almost too hot to be hungry, but as I sit and rest, the tantalizing smells from the kitchen begin to revive my appetite. Underneath the smell of frying meat there are also the mingled scents of incense, dust, occasional whiffs of garbage, gasoline fumes, and my own sweat. This subtle comingling of odors is with us all day, but it is the smell of adventure and does not diminish my growing appetite.
Then the bracelet girls arrive. First only one. She pushes handfuls of bead bracelets under my nose and singsongs, “Bracelet, lady? One dollar.” I smile and shake my head. “Two for one dollar.” I shake my head again, but with less conviction.
Inevitably, the instant I hand her a dollar, three other girls are there. Bracelets, fans, fingernail clippers stamped with a picture of Angkor Wat, wooden flutes… “One dollar, lady. Please, so I can go to school?” “One dollar,” they drone in an endless chorus. I try to wave them away, smiling and shaking my head, but knowing that this is futile. Beside us, a table full of guides and drivers relax over their breakfast. Our driver looks over and a grin splits his face at my predicament. I buy one item from each of the little girls and finally they disperse, giggling, just as our food arrives.
I am usually conservative at breakfast, an unapologetic fan of the hotel breakfast buffet or a Starbucks muffin and an Americano. Variety is for later in the day. But here, in this dusty magical setting carved from the jungle, a morning plate of noodles seems just right. The delicious, mildly spicy tangle of noodles is filled with crunchy bits of green bean, cabbage, carrots, peas, and some dark greens I can’t identify. My palate craves the salty tang of fish sauce. With each savory bite I feel my energy reviving.
I chase the last strands of noodle from my plate and set down my fork, then I lean back in my chair, drunk on sunshine and wonder. Michael and I take turns swigging from a giant bottle of water, content to rest in the shade for a few more minutes, watching children playing tag in the sunshine, and a woman slicing a giant pile of fruit.
Then it is time to climb back into the tuk-tuk and move on.