No traveller should read the health chapter of a guidebook. I had made this mistake and consequently fretted about parasites and fatal brain-swelling diseases. Today, though feeling seedy, I was relatively carefree as I had a hangover: a non life-threatening explanation for my headache. To try and get over it, I’d had several cups of coffee at breakfast which I had supplemented with litres of water. Cambodia is hot in July but I wasn’t going to sweat all this liquid away. I needed to pee.
At that time Angkor Wat received very few tourists and I was in Ta Phram temple which is a less-visited part of the complex. There was almost nobody about but, nonetheless, it seemed bad form to urinate too close to a temple, to defile a national treasure. There was some urgency now so I scurried off a little into the scrub and pissed copiously. As I finished, I realised my mistake. I had left the path.
The grip of the Cambodian government upon the country was incomplete. The Khmer Rouge were still a force in large areas and only the capital and Siem Reap were considered safe for tourists. I was staying in the ramshackle elegance of the Grand Hotel D’Angkor. The previous evening a few of us met on the terrace. The air was viscous with humidity. Condensation poured off our beers and soaked the threadbare tablecloth. Beyond the flaking parapet, remnants of garden furniture rotted in the overgrown grounds. A rat swam across the stagnant swimming pool as insouciant as its French predecessors. Max ordered more drinks. There was the sound of a distant explosion. Such noises were common, nonetheless we speculated idly about its cause.
‘Dynamite fishing in the lake?’ I suggested.
‘Illegal loggers and the army coming to blows?’ thought Graham.
Rob asked the waiter who had just arrived with a tray of bottles.
‘Landmine’ he said with certainty as he opened the beers. ‘Usually animal sometimes man.’
This prompted Rob to tell us how the authorities had a terrible problem with theft of antiquities from Angkor Wat. The area being far too big to guard by conventional means, they had strewn the sites with mines. Every morning they removed the mines in places where visitors and would walk and put them back as the complex closed at sunset. Half of us believed Rob or perhaps all of us half believed him. The conversation moved on to something else. It turned into a drunken evening.
At Ta Phram temple, I did up my fly and stared at the thirty metres that separated me from the path. I cursed myself for not remembering Rob’s story just a little earlier. The vegetation was knee deep and showed no sign of having been trampled or grazed recently. There could be a dozen mines there or there might be none. The places where I had trod as I left safety were not distinguishable. There were no footsteps to follow back. I thought of the dreadful click as one stepped on a mine and the all-too-imaginable horrors that would follow.
I decided against shouting for help as, despite my worries, I might be entirely safe. It would be humiliating to be rescued by jeering guards or, even worse, disdainfully polite guards. No, I would wait until someone came along, get their attention and see if they showed any concern at my being in this position. The weakness in this scheme was that it depended on someone suitable arriving.
After a few minutes a young monk appeared. He didn’t notice me so I coughed and he looked up, grinned and waved cheerfully. I saluted him in return. He had shown no sign of alarm but he was a monk: it was his job to be unworldly and fatalistic. Or maybe he was just a bit dim. All the young men do a stint as monks so they must get their share of dullards. I would have wait for someone else.
A while later the next person came into view. It was a drinks seller. I could see the sun glint on his galvanised bucket. In this he carried a few bottles and cans sitting in cool water that had earlier been ice. He was leaning as he walked which suggested his load was still heavy. He probably hadn’t sold anything since I’d bought water from him as I arrived at the site. The shininess of the bucket meant it was probably quite new. He hadn’t been doing this for long. It was probably his first day here. How would he know anything about the disposition of mines?
However, he did know about hunger. He spotted me and doubled his pace. He would soon be leaving the path to head towards me. A thought flashed through my head that he would establish a safe path. Or he might not. I reeled at my own selfishness, imagining the poor man, legs blown off, bleeding to death because of my stupidity. Lord knows how many children starving thanks to me.
‘Stop!’ I shouted.
He ignored me, probably picturing his return home with some rice.
There was no way he was going to stay on the path unless. I got there first. Having no choice, I set off, crossing the ground in a series of ungraceful, contact-minimising prances. At each footfall I made a sound like a barefoot asthmatic crossing hot sand. If there were any mines I missed them and, gasping, presented myself in front of the puzzled hawker.
I overpaid cheerfully for a Coke. With the flexibility of a man of commerce, the drinks seller connived at my breaking the site’s no smoking rule. I bought another can. The thrill of my escape must have been subsiding as this time I rather resented the inflated price. Soon my thumb was back in the right place in my guidebook and sightseeing resumed. I had a number of friezes and galleries to admire before Ta Phram could be considered ‘done’. The heat was mounting and huge clouds climbed upon each other’s shoulders in readiness to hurl down the early afternoon rain. My head still hurt a little. Could it be cerebral malaria?