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Asian Triptych: Brief Encounters

By Andrew McCarthy

ANGKOR • I had stayed too long. The sun was going down fast and I was far out at Ta Prom, where giant banyan and fig trees had grown over, through, and atop the low-slung, sagging temple walls. I’d given the young boy in Siem Reap a few dollars and hired his bicycle for the day, with a promise to be back by dark, so I pedaled hard. At a crossroads I swung left and heard a shout. A small child stood by the side of the road, shaking her head. She pointed me in the other (correct) direction. I spun around, and waved my thanks. I was funneled onto the main road, where locals on foot, bicycle, and tuk-tuk raced back toward town—a joyful chaos trying to beat the dark. On the corner where I had first met him, the worried boy burst into a triumphant grin when I pedaled up in the purple dusk.

SAIGON • Alone, I would never have done it. But I was with a pretty woman. And that dictates a lot. Kate and I had met earlier, near the flower stalls of Ben Thanh Market. As night fell, we decided on dinner. The guidebook cautioned that the restaurant was down a side lane, and I quickly saw that this was the kind of dark alley that mothers warn their children about. I felt her hesitate. “It’s fine,” I promised, touching her arm for the first time. With chivalry born of bravado, I escorted her toward a single bulb hung over a splintering door. I breathed once and swung it open. The bright room inside buzzed with life, tables were overcrowded, waiters hustled by with armloads of food. The pungent aroma of nuoc mam pha filled the air. We fell into each other’s arms, found the last two seats, ordered a bowl of pho and the spicy catfish, and dove in.

BANGKOK • We were acquaintances from New York, both passing through Bangkok, and we’d agreed to meet for an afternoon. We took a cruise on the choppy waters of the Chao Phraya River and visited the Royal Palace. We tried to go to the floating market, but it was closed. We ate dinner at a restaurant beside a koi pond. She asked me to take her to the red-light district of Patpong, “just to see what all the talk is about.” We didn’t go. Later that evening I caught the overnight train up to Vientiane. A few weeks after my return home a photo of me arrived in the mail, taken by my friend that day while I was unaware. I was looking off toward the terraced Khmer tower of Wat Arun. A few months later my friend died. I framed the photo. Now when I look at it I see only her.

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