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.