It is another balmy, blistering day in Battambang. The air hangs listless and heavy, and I am longing for some respite beyond the air-conditioned sanctuary of our room. We have rented a moped, and decide that the best way to escape the heat is to move; to feel the air speeding across our damp skin as our bike makes its way through the Cambodian countryside.
We plan to head to a nearby hilltop temple known as Wat Banan, stepping out into the late morning heat in search of coffee and picnic supplies before we depart. As we sit at a little outdoor cafe and sip our heady Khmer coffee, sickly-sweet from the condensed milk it has been heavily laden with, I feel the buzz of more than just the caffeine begin to course through my body. I can’t wait to get on the road, and my excitement is palpable.
Khmer coffee, made even sweeter by a Moomin spoon
After eight months of slow travel, with over five months spent in India, and two months in Thailand, the change of pace we have experienced since arriving in Cambodia has been a much needed tonic. We are busy and bustling, full to the brim with a renewed passion for travel, and each other. We are laughing, relaxed, and happier than we have been for months.
The relief is instant as we pick up speed along Street 1, heading south along the river towards the lion-coloured countryside that covers so much of Cambodia. A heady, tropical sweetness hangs in the air, at once both new and familiar to me; the smell of adventure. I breathe it in with purpose and delight, wrapping my arms tightly around Lee, giddy with joy at the simplicity of the moment. Right here, right now, there is nowhere else I would rather be. I tilt my head back in gratitude, and exhale.
I’m almost disappointed as we pull into the shady clearing that serves as a parking-lot at the base of Wat Banan. I reluctantly hang my bike helmet on the handlebars and look up, lifting my hand to shield against the blinding sun. I can just make out the top of a temple stupa peaking above the tree-line, just enough of a promise of what lies ahead. I take Lee’s hand and we walk towards the base of a towering staircase that disappears into the shadows of the hillside.
As we reach the top of the first flight we meet two young boys. They struggle to carry a huge plastic crate filled with bottles of water, their skinny arms almost stretched by the effort. Lee bounds up to them and grabs on, taking one side while the taller of the two children holds fast to the other. They pick up the pace and I can hear Lee joking around with them as they climb, their laughter echoing up the staircase as the distance between us increases.
Lee charges ahead
More children make the climb carrying armfuls of supplies. Barefoot and nimble-bodied, they bound up the stone steps so effortlessly I am tired just watching them. A small girl is left struggling beside me, perhaps she is six years old. A large pack of water bottles shifts in her tiny arms, and a few spill out, bouncing down the stairs. I run back down and get them, then take the pack from her and together we begin to climb again.
My climbing companion
It’s a long way up. My thighs are burning and I feel sweat begin to drip between my shoulder blades, but we press on. One foot, then the next. My breath is embarrassingly laboured, and I pause for a moment, leaning against the cool, intricately carved stone bannister. I watch as a butterfly effortlessly mingles amongst the other climbers, then alights beside me. I reach for my camera, but just as I am about to press the shutter, the butterfly glides further ahead.
I move further too, determined to get the shot, and the butterfly moves again, as if taunting me. I forget the weight of the bottles beneath my arm, the burning of my thighs, and edge closer. The game continues for several minutes until finally, I manage to get just one photo before the butterfly disappears. As I turn to watch it go I notice the hundreds of steps that now fall away below me. I am almost at the top.
The elusive shot
Slowly, surely each of the 308 steps is surmounted, and I arrive, breathless and drenched from my efforts. Lee, having arrived long before me, stands laughing and playing with the children who delight in his carefree antics. With my extra load delivered to the little drink stand we bid our farewells and turn towards the beckoning darkness of a stone doorway.
Always time for a little temple fun
Lee heads off to explore
The crumbling ruins
Originally built in the 10th century as a Hindu temple, Wat Banan was rebuilt as a Buddhist temple using the same stones some two-hundred years later. Once visited by Henri Mouhot, the famed explorer who rediscovered Angkor Wat, there is a sense of magic that hangs in the air, and it’s easy to see why this spot is such a favourite with the locals, who come to receive blessings from the resident monks, then share a picnic amongst the fallen ruins.
The resident monks
And that is exactly what we do now, spreading out our blanket and taking out a bottle of red wine and some baguettes. I watch as two beautiful little girls begin to approach us, begging for money. As heartbreaking as it is, we don’t oblige, but instead invite then to join us, passing them a baguette and a bottle of water. I tap the space on the blanket beside me and they sheepishly sit down and unwrap their baguette, pick out the tomatoes, and begin to eat.
They speak a little English and tell us their names, Gyena and Hoi, eight and six years old, with faces that hold more stories than their age belies. We sit there together quietly beneath the precious shade of a twisted tree, the winds blowing the scent of incense and centuries all around us. I pull out my notebook and begin to write, occasionally pausing to take a sip of wine that is warming too fast in the sun. In this moment, I am utterly content.
For the first time this day, I don’t want to move.