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Part 9: The Eight Hundred And Nine Stairs

Stairs to Phnom Santuk Friday morning is hot and sunny. We're shuffling things from bag to bag, attaching nametags, sorting through what goes back with us and what stays in Cambodia.

I'm once again thinking back to our last visit to Cambodia, in 2000. On the final morning of that trip, I remember being struck by the sudden realization that I felt perfectly at home. This time, it's different. On this trip, it was easier to adapt to being in Cambodia. Now, however, on our last day here, I'm ready to go home. I want hot showers and microwave ovens and snow outside the window. I want to drink tap water. I want to sit by myself, in absolute quiet.

When we leave, I'll miss Cambodia. But I'm ready to leave just the same.

In the early afternoon, we make a brief trip to Sisowath Quay; I take a few pictures, then we head back home to prepare for leaving. Soon the sky begins to cloud. We rest and try to nap briefly, and then, suddenly, it's time to go.

Friends and family see us off at the airport, waiting outside beneath the bright fluorescent lights as we check in. With our boarding passes in hand, we ride up the escalator to the second floor. Anna and Sean turn to wave at their aunt, outside the windows. From ground level, on the other side of the glass, she waves back, already a world away.

Phnom Penh to Bangkok, Bangkok to Seoul, Seoul to Chicago. I get my wish: we arrive home to frigid air and a light dusting of snow.

Jet lag takes its toll, and over the next few nights, we awaken at 4am. In the darkness, Srey and I talk about the trip: what we did, what we wish we did, what we vow to do next time.

Srey mentions Phnom Santuk, and I tell her that I hadn't found it very interesting. Sometimes, I said, I simply don't have the patience to put up with a bunch of "guides" that I neither need nor want, strangers clustered around me, bombarding me with pidgin English.

"It's for their life," Srey says simply. "They have to do it to survive. They need money."

I know that this is true, and I suddenly feel very petty and foolish for complaining.

"On the way down," Srey says, "did you see one boy hold Anna's hand?"

Yes, I said.

Another girl saw the boy take Anna's hand, Srey said, and told him that he could not do that. "She told him, 'You cannot hold her hand. You are not a foreigner.'"

No, Srey told them, that is not important. It's OK to do that.

The boy explains that he wishes he could go to America. Maybe holding the foreigner's hand would tie him to that world: maybe in his next life, he would live in America and be friends with the tall, brown-haired girl he was escorting down the eight hundred and nine stairs. If he could someday fly to America, he said, he would not care if the plane carrying him crashed to earth on American soil, killing him. He would be tied to that world.

Tied to another place: As Srey told me this, I thought back to the drive to Sihanoukville. Everyone in the car was quiet, and it was still dark. I looked at the full moon and wondered how my life had become connected so deeply to this place, so far from where I was born.

I want to explain this to my children, but I don't know how. I want to wake them up, show them the moon, and say: Long before you were born, your mother was a slave to a faceless thing called Angka. She walked in the moonlight across fields like these, to work all day beneath a blazing sun.

I want to say: Look at this place. Know how to see the beauty of a rice field in the pale glow of the moon. See it for what it is, but don't forget what it was long ago. Keep Barbie, Princess of Cambodia, on the shelf for everyone to see, but know the past as well as the present. If one day someone should ask, What place is this? Where are we now?

Please know how to tell them: This is Wat Sauphy. This is Sang. This is Cambodia.

This article contains nine parts:
Part One: Princess of Cambodia
Part Two: Banishing Shadows
Part Three: The Man with Three Feet, and The Saint of the Deported
Part Four: Trips Taken and Not Taken
Part Five: Spare Days
Part Six: North to the Temples
Part Seven: Ghosts and Wrong Turns
Part Eight: Changed City
Part Nine: The Eight Hundred and Nine Stairs

Related Articles:
Beauty and Darkness: Travel Section
Cambodia 2000: The Quarter-Ton World Tour
Farther than Wisconsin: Cambodia, 1991

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