22 Days of Living Dangerously

Daunted by the fear that she’ll die young like her mother, one woman finds renewal—and a new sense of purpose—among the breathtaking ruins of Cambodia  

by Laurie Lico Albanese
cambodia image
The intricately carved Bayon temple is located in Cambodia’s vast Angkor Archaeological Park, which spans six centuries of Khmer history.
Photograph: Frédéric Lagrange

In the bustling city of Siem Reap, once the location of the capital of the Khmer Empire, a local guide led us to Ponheary Ly, a woman whose father was murdered because he was a teacher. His legacy inspired her to create a major foundation that helps lift poor rural kids from poverty. We also met Piseth Luon, who spent the first years of his life homeless and returned to build a beautiful school in his home village of Mkak. In a gesture typical of the friendliness of the Cambodians we encountered, he invited us to his classrooms and to his parents’ house, where we ate a delicious lunch of sweet rice balls, chicken soup and banana-leaf salad. Meeting people such as Ly, Luon and Thy was inspiring and exhausting. I wanted to help every one of them: to go back to build, to teach, to live for a week or a month. And now I know that I will do that; I will return to teach, at least for a short while. But frankly, I was ready for some rest and reflection when our small ferryboat crossed the Gulf of Thailand to Koh Rong island.

I’d chosen Koh Rong solely for the R&R factor. Touted as an undeveloped beach at the end of the earth, it consisted of a funky ring of laid-back bars and a string of simple coconut-and-palm huts dotting the white-sand beach with a backdrop of dense jungle. Tropical birds nested and called from thick palms, and our charming bungalow—wooden, with a thatched roof—had a straw hammock on the porch, a huge bucket of clean water for washing and panoramic views of the bay filled with brilliant longboats bobbing streaks of red, yellow and blue across the water. Frank, Melissa and I slept in beds draped with mosquito netting.

After absorbing so many stories of death and renewal on the steaming, crowded mainland, we let sunny, barefoot days and evenings of wine, music and barbecue at water’s edge lull us into unbroken tranquillity.

On our final morning, I was awakened in the dark bungalow by a blazing strip of orange light. Finding my glasses, I pushed aside the mosquito netting and threw open our crude shutters. Dawn poured through cracks in the walls and up through the floorboards beneath my bare feet. I grabbed my camera and stepped into a silent world bathed in pink.

Pulling on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, I coaxed my husband onto the empty beach. The blaze of dawn was gone, but the morning hush was opening into something ripe, filled with gentle tides. Soon we would be returning home. I thought about the date and came to a stop.

For years I’d anticipated the day I would outlive my mother, and feared that day might never come. That morning on Koh Rong island, the specter of that dread lifted. My beautiful mother was 53 years and two months old when she died. I was now 53 years and three months. Without my noticing, the day I’d long feared had come and gone in the heat of the trip. As I remembered Mom’s final words to me—“You are so lucky, Laurie”—I felt nothing but joy.

“The rest of my life is a gift,” I said. Then Frank and I swam in the turquoise water.

LAURIE LICO ALBANESE is an award-winning fiction writer and memoirist. She is working on a novel about Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I.

Next: Experiencing Cambodia

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First published in the July/August 2013 issue

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