Oh, my God, I’m going to die. Terrified, the thought loops through my mind as the impossibly green leaves of the Cambodian jungle go whipping by. I should have bought the extra travel insurance; my policy definitely doesn’t cover this. As though the words printed on a flimsy plastic card in my money belt meant anything here, nearly two hours by tuk-tuk from the nearest paved road. How on earth did I get here?
When I was in third grade, I came across a dog-eared paperback describing the hidden jungle temples of Angkor Wat. The vine-covered ruins came tantalizingly alive in my imagination, and with childlike certainty I decided I was going to see them someday. Nearly 20 years later, having finally amassed enough vacation time to make the trip possible, I convinced my friend Andrew to come along and picked a departure date.
Always the consummate planner, I set about conceiving every possible thing that could go wrong while traveling on the opposite side of the world. Spreadsheets were populated, antimalarial prescriptions were obtained and the addresses of our lodgings were translated into a dizzying variety of squiggly local scripts, as we prepared for everything from a missed flight to the sudden onset of civil war. A friend who had previously visited Cambodia provided a long list of recommendations, including the name and number of a local tuk-tuk driver to hire as our guide.
Our first two days in Cambodia were an euphoric blur. Though a bit skeptical at first about the safety of our tuk-tuk (a motorcycle-drawn rickshaw), Andrew and I soon found Mr. Rob to be as friendly and reliable as promised. The food was delicious and the temples were sublime, surpassing my wildest expectations in their mystical beauty. Fully in touch with our inner Indiana Jones and buoyed by our jungle adventures, for our third day we decided to stray even farther off the beaten path and visit the far-flung waterfall of Kulen Mountain.
Our request seemed to surprise Mr. Rob, as 60 kilometers each way in a tuk-tuk was well beyond the tolerance of any sane Western tourists. But perhaps unwilling to offend paying customers, he seemed resigned to the determination of the crazy Americans — after all, we’d just spent 13 adrenaline-fueled hours clambering around jungle temples in 100-degree heat without any visible signs of slowing down. He laid out the added costs and transportation options, struggling for the correct words in English. Almost as an afterthought, he added, “And when we get to mountain, is extra $10 to have bike up.” Assuming this was yet another local fee to extract money from the visiting foreigners, we agreed, and we made arrangements to meet Mr. Rob the following morning.
As we left the relative development of Siem Reap, paved roads soon gave way to hard-packed dirt. We made a quick stop for petrol at a roadside stand consisting of a dozen dirty 2-liter bottles on a wooden rack, their flammable contents half-heartedly protected from the sun by a brightly colored plastic umbrella. After what seemed like an eternity of bumping along dusty red roads dotted with occasional livestock, we came at last to the bottom of a mountain rising out of the rice paddies. Mr. Rob pulled over to converse with a local man, and, much to our confusion, began to unhook the tuk-tuk from his motorcycle. As Mr. Rob gestured that Andrew should get on the back of his motorcycle and I should get on the back of the stranger’s, we belatedly understood the meaning of “take a bike up the mountain." Whether my driver had specifically requested the American girl, or in a bout of chivalry it was deemed safer on the local’s bike, I was not quite sure. Neither seemed a particularly comforting option.
So there I was, clinging white-knuckled and terrified to a strange Cambodian man I’d just met, zooming helmetless up a dirt road on a beat-up motorcycle. Each time we would slow and lose sight of Mr. Rob and Andrew ahead around a curve, my heart would skip a few beats, painfully aware that my personal safety was in the hands of a total stranger, one who could have easily stolen all my belongings and left . . . or worse.
But as we wound our way up the mountain, something wonderful happened. I began to notice the exotic beauty of our surroundings, enjoy the feel of the wind in my face and share a nervous giggle with my driver when our bike wavered in the sand. As the intermingled prayers and expletives in my mind began to fade, I let go of my fears and began to enjoy the ride.
At the top of the mountain, we settled down to lunch. As Andrew and I devoured tasty noodle dishes of questionable roadside origin while perched on dirty plastic lawn chairs, Mr. Rob uncharacteristically joined us. Clearly thrilled at the opportunity to enjoy the mountain park he’d only seen twice, he began to open up about his life. He spoke fondly of the British schoolteacher who taught him English in exchange for a daily ride to school, and told us about a fishing accident at age 10 that swept him out to sea and left him deaf in one ear. He was candid about struggling to provide for his family, and his tone grew fiery as he attempted to convey in broken English the corruption that funnels billions of tourist dollars into the pockets of a few officials and foreign investors while rural families starve. I’ve spoken English all my life, but I can find no words, either.
Of the country’s dark past in the late 1970s under the Khmer Rouge, he does not speak. No one does, though the collective national trauma is indelibly etched in the faces of the beggars mutilated by land mines and the impoverished children desperately selling trinkets to tourists. With Mr. Rob and everyone else we meet here, however, the impression I have is unequivocally one of hope. Despite the stark disparity between the gilded four-star hotels and the corrugated metal shelters across the street where the hotel employees live, despite an uncomfortable awareness that the spending money in my pocket is enough to feed a family for a week, what I see most clearly is a fierce sense of national pride and determination to restore a culture endangered by decades of instability.
After lunch, we carefully picked our way down a steep cliff trail to the waterfall. Shangri-La was all the more beautiful given the unexpectedly risky journey to find it, and we reveled in the crystal-clear water alongside local families, chasing butterflies with Mr. Rob and grinning from ear to ear. The ride back down the mountain was exhilarating, all my fear replaced with stomach-swooping thrill as the untouched jungle streamed past.
That afternoon stands out among the best experiences of a two-week trip that spanned four countries and countless cultural treasures. And the irony haunts me — had we known exactly what we were getting into, neither Andrew nor I would have ever even considered it.
I will always be a planner. I leave my apartment each morning with a neatly printed to-do list on a Post-it note in my purse, and that’s not likely to change. But I’ve realized that sometimes the most interesting bits of life are found in the chance encounters, the unlikely beginnings and the challenges we least expect. A few months ago, in a move that mystified my Midwestern family, I gave up the stability of suburban Pennsylvania to take a job in New York City. Trading the quiet neighborhood I loved for the appallingly high rent checks and selfie-stick-toting tourists of Manhattan was not an easy decision, but in return I’ve discovered an incredible array of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities happening around me every day. I don’t know where my new life in the city will take me, but for once, I’ve decided to let go and just enjoy the ride.
Brenna Decker is a licensed architect practicing in New York City. Her essay was awarded an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2015 Young Alumni Essay contest.