The air was fresh and dewy, the sun not high enough in sky to bring the thick heat that would soon roll over the fields we sped through, a plume of dust feathering out behind us like a golden jetstream.
I watched as bamboo huts, palm trees, small gardens and wide open fields whipped by, scenes from a life so different from my own playing out in montages around me. A barefoot little boy running after a chicken. A thick woman with glossy dark hair falling over her shoulders as she swept a porch. A pot-bellied, shirtless old man smoking a cigarette, crouched over the disassembled motor of a bike.
Everything seemed clean in that early morning light, the promise of a new day stretching out in front of all of us in this dusty back road behind the city of Kampot.
We arrived at our destination, and I hopped off the back of the motorbike. Dozens of little boys ran over, but stopped short a few feet away, brown eyes shyly avoiding contact with me, but giggling with each other. One came forward and asked me in perfect English, “Ma’am, would you like a guide to show you the temple?”
With the assurance that I only needed to pay a tip of my choosing, I was led up a steep set of stone steps by an officious-but-slightly-bored Dara and an entourage of young boys fanning out around me, scrambling over rocks, dancing ahead on the steps, trailing behind, afraid to get too close but desperate not to miss the action.
It was the start of one of the best days of my travels. There wasn’t any particular reason why it was the best, other than the restoration of a peace, a contentment, that had gone missing for a few weeks. It wasn’t the 4th century temple I visited, but it might have been the mischievous smiles of the little boys who accompanied me there. It wasn’t the pepper plantation or the salt flats I saw, but it might have been the pride of my driver, who explained in broken and limited English how these supply all of Cambodia and most of Vietnam. It wasn’t the roads that we traveled, but it might have been the fresh air in my face and my hair as we sped along. It wasn’t the sleepy river city of Kampot, but perhaps it was wildness of it’s riverfront, or the unworried steadiness of it’s countryside.
I spent the entire day with a man I didn’t know and would never see again, using sign language and a few words of English to communicate.
I glided on the river and watched the fisherman coming in at dark, the trees lit up like Christmas trees from the fireflies.
And as I departed the next day for Vietnam, I knew that somehow I had found my equilibrium on the back roads of Kampot.