Love in Southeast Asia: At the Top of the World

Damn it’s hot here.

The four word mantra that never gets old.

My travel partner, the manliest man I know, is wearing a Sarong to increase ventilation. And happiness. And sex appeal.

Maybe not that last one.

The heat is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. This includes all eight years of summer camping in Sacramento.

At 2 p.m., we leave our lavish accommodations. Even the synthetic magic of Luon can’t keep my shorts from getting stuck between my butt cheeks.

The mood in the van is part excitement, part dread.

At the base of the rock fortress we learn about killer wasps. The top of the rock is covered in wasp nests the size of my (old) mini cooper. Everywhere we look we see handwritten warning signs in questionable English translations.

In our group of seven, there are several bee allergies and at least one paralyzing fear of heights.

Morale is plummeting.

Amidst an enthusiastic debate about the proper way to survive a wasp attack, our rail-thin, wide eyed, Sri Lankan guide appears. Neil. I feel attached to him immediately. He has sunken eyes and a long face. His hair looks like Donnie from New Kids on the Block, circa 1991.

We follow Neil fifteen shuffling steps to a rectangular ditch carved into the red clay dust.

At first, he speaks softly. I turn my body to the right and aim my good ear at him.

He explains about the fortress. About the King who buried his dad alive in the side of the rock. He tells us about Buddhism and Karma, and that, when it finally came to him, the King had it coming. We learn about the 500 concubines and natural irrigation. One by one, each of us is pulled in.

The group energy is shifting as we make our way towards the first of over five thousand steps.

Neil talks about the fortress like he grew up in it. We all feel transported. The eroded cliffs take the shape of a thousand years ago.

We climb up a spiral staircase that juts out over the edge of the rock face. Looking down feels nauseating, and exhilarating, all at once.

A landing at the top of the staircase marks the base of the highest point on the fortress. Two giant lion paws reach out from the base. We look up and see the wasp nests. At first they look like solid masses of black ash. When we look closer, we notice the wasps are moving in a constant, rhythmic wave. They look industrious. And threatening. They’re up there buzzing about how they’re going to kill the next batch of tourists.


A makeshift tent houses two racks of dark green protective suits. We measure ourselves against them, make our choice, and zip-up.

“Let’s do this.”

Thin metal slats run straight up the side of the rock. We take each one gingerly but efficiently. Every time I look down I get woozy. Every time I look up, I see the wasps.

10 minutes inside my suit and my entire body is covered in sweat. The whipping wind feels cold against my skin.

“Do I really feel cold right now?”

I squeeze everyone in celebration.

“We made it.”

Instantly, it’s the most incredible experience of my life.

“It’s like we can see the entire country up here.”

I lean into the wind and take in my deepest breath of the trip. I open my eyes and notice the clouds are touchably close and the ground is almost invisible.

The seven of us sit perched on a ledge overlooking miles and miles of undeveloped, tropical beauty. For the first time I feel like my friends are my family. I feel proud of them, and grateful for each of them making it all the way up here. I feel lucky to have this experience and joyful that we made this journey together. I want to look each of them in the eyes and tell them I love them.

Everything is clearer at the top of the world.

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