Love in Southeast Asia: “I forgot the Umbrellas”

“It won’t stop raining.”

Our hotel driver tells us, solemnly, about the uninviting weather pattern in Siem Reap.

“You should come back when it’s not raining.”

Parker and I glance at each other. We exchange a silent joke about the ridiculousness of that suggestion. In the moment, we share an appreciation for the rarity and specialness of this trip. We share sadness that it’s coming to an end and gratitude for how far we’ve come. The magic of it all. To be in this van right now. On this road. In this country.

This once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

This miracle life.

The tiny, developing streets of Siem Reap are cluttered by Westernization. Every two hundred yards there is an elaborate, ornate hotel. They all look abandoned. It’s like a rainy, Vegas ghost town.

We pull into a beige, stucco monstrosity. All of the sudden I feel like we’re trapped in one of those tourist horror movies that Parker taught me about when we first met. We were flipping through channels late one night after dominating our friends as partners in a sweep of board game night. He paused the scrolling to summarize Touristas, “These movies are all the same. The dumb-ass Americans get wrapped up in some sort of organ harvesting scheme and everybody dies.” Weeks later I agreed to come on this trip with him.

My stomach feels queasy.

The inside of our Cambodian hotel is more whimsical than our previous accommodations. It’s clear Siem Reap has embraced its position at the center of exotic tourism. The hotel attendants are clad in elf-like, gold and green uniforms. There’s a chance it’s an homage to traditional culture, but I’m suspicious it’s an appeal to Western excess and essentialism.

Alone in the lobby, we are suddenly swarmed by six, eager employees. One has a welcome drink, the other a local pastry, four more are there to ensure we feel like the two most important people on earth.

I breathe a sigh of relief. For now, it seems I’ll be returning home with all of my vital organs.

The next day, we hire a local guide to lead us through Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples.

He’s small and stoic. He doesn’t grin from ear to ear like Neil, or pay us effusive attention like everyone working at our hotel. He delivers lessons like a task-oriented high-school teacher. No frills. No nonsense. No attempt to glamorize Cambodia’s brutal history of conquest and imperialism. Just the facts.

We make it from an early morning start to the noon hour under an increasingly dark and threatening sky. So far, no rain.

A torrential downpour interrupts our midday meal but subsides before we’re out and about again.

As we wind up the dirt road to the back entrance of Angkor Wat, the clouds are the color of school-yard asphalt. It’s the type of darkness that blurs the passage of time. Where even 1pm looks like twilight. It’s misty and majestic. The lush, green, swampy background. The ancient ruins.

Five minutes into the tour of the most famous temple in the world, it’s pouring again. Our otherwise poised and pragmatic guide is suddenly fidgety and uncomfortable.

“Is Cambodian rainfall secretly deadly for American tourists?”

We maneuver through every inch of the temple before reaching the front entrance.

It’s still raining. With each falling raindrop, our guide looks more and more distressed.

Parker and I take one more glimpse at the weathered stone walls, then stand at the brink of the dramatic entryway, ready to leave the temple.

Our guide looks up, frowns, then lowers his eyes.

“I forgot the umbrellas.”He says it like he’s telling us we can’t leave the country without giving up a kidney.

Parker and I try to assure him we’ll survive the weather. He’s unconvinced.

The next few minutes are filled with awkwardness and anticipation. In the midst of pacing and contemplating, I think about this quiet, simple man. He devotes himself to sharing his country with eager tourists who land in his life for only hours at a time. He doesn’t rely on recurring business, or building a client portfolio. I can’t Yelp him when we leave. In the absence of traditional incentive structures, he pours his heart into his work.

This trip has been filled with heartwarming encounters among unlikely friends. Over and over, we’ve been met with varied manifestations of love and goodwill; with reminders about the far-reaching impact of small acts of kindness, of how easy, and meaningful, it is to be nice.

I let the rain fall on my eyelids, then my mouth. I twirl with my face to the sky and my arms wide open.

Tropical storms have followed us all over Asia, but right now the air feels special, and unique.

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