On the way back to our hotel in Hoi An one afternoon, a young woman offered to pop my zit. The whole thing started with a long white string she held to my face as I tried to squeeze through a throng of sweaty shoppers at the outdoor market.
From her seat in the tuk-tuk, Nita held her palm above her eyes and scanned the roadside. She looked not unlike a game scout on safari. Out here in the middle of a large stretch of barren, dusty land, we could have been scouting for an oasis. The air smelled like spicy wood and baked dirt. The earth hadn’t had a satisfying drink in three long years. Even the fish cried for rain.
Despite our early start, we didn’t beat the heat. Cambodia was in the chokehold of a record-setting heat wave, and outsmarting it was laughable. As blasts of thick air and sand exfoliated my face in the back of the tuk-tuk, I thought of all the ways one might describe such a nauseating temperature—blast furnace, chicken roaster, Dante’s Inferno, Death Valley with a monsoon season, or maybe the innards of a Brobdingnagian steam machine.
As I pondered how long it could possibly take to find some kind of village near Beng Mealea, a pig whizzed by on the back of a man’s motorbike. Crusted in dried mud from hooves to spine, the animal was tightly trussed, upside down, alive.
Things could be worse, I reminded myself.
Two shots of rice whiskey and twelve hours of sleep didn’t help. My head and chest felt like pressurized powder kegs filled with snot. My throat like a cheese grater. I stuffed every pocket with face tissues, double-checked my supply of Advil, and hoisted my daypack over my shoulder.
“Let’s go before I change my mind,” I said to my husband, Chris. Blame my lack of enthusiasm on the respiratory infection I picked up in Saigon, but I felt like our side trip to Cambodia from Vietnam would be a lackluster exercise in checking off sites from someone else’s do-before-you-die list.
Back at my desk in Montana, I stare at the Rocky Mountains and try to remember the rooftop of the world. It seems like a dream to me now. All the waterfalls, roadside monkeys, misty valleys, rhododendron forests, and faces that felt familiar even though they belonged to strangers. I see them in my mind’s eye, but it’s like someone rubbed Vaseline on the lens. Sikkim seemed like a dream even while I was there.
In Italy it’s the Catholic churches. In India it’s the Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries. You can’t swing a squirrel without hitting one. Even though they are—each and every one—amazing creations of detail, artistry, and otherworldly inspiration, after a while they all start to look alike. The thrill is gone.
Once upon a time, there was an American socialite named Hope Cooke who longed to travel to distant lands. She was a lonely girl, orphaned by her young, romantic mother and abandoned by her ne’er-do-well father.
One might wonder why it’s easier to bathe a cat than it is to enter Sikkim. I certainly did. But when I asked Nidup about all the stamps and paperwork and military checkpoints, he just shook his head and said, “It is a very special place, Sikkim. Very significant.”
“Yes, I gathered,” I said. “But why?”
We got in the jeep and proceeded to Rangpo’s upper bazaar. Dustin dropped us off in front of a string of open-air stores that sold cell phones, candy, and potato chips. Nidup ducked into a half dozen of them, inquiring where we could get passport photos. Finally, a teenager in blue jeans said he could help and escorted us to the back of his family’s shop.
“Wait here. I’ll be right back.”
Nidup, our quick-smile guide with a Buddha belly, walked up to a bank-teller-like window and handed our passports and e-visas to a woman with maroon hair and the deepest shade of mulberry lipstick I’d ever seen.
Chris and I stood a few feet back and watched as the government official inspected our documents, and then us, from behind a bulletproof window. We were in Rangpo, Gateway to Sikkim. And no one crosses its border without officially stamped permission—in triplicate. Read more