The traveller, fresh meat in Cambodia, has a revelation. They find themselves in Kampong Cham with no memory of their arrival but with the knowledge of being here before.
Searching for alms, they find a temple; that of Kuk, high in the Han Chey hills and overlooking the central province. The monks tell them in no uncertain terms to “avoid the scales”; these kindly benefactors cast alternating looks of dread and pity on the figure as if they already know the outcome of this particular episode.
So too does the traveller, they murmur to themselves. The nearby Mekong river, the vast, unknowable, elemental force carving a rugged path through the kingdom’s heart, gurgles in anticipation at the oncoming occurrence.
As if on cue and guided by some unseeing hand, the traveller stumbles from the almshouse into the mesmerising sway of undulating rice fields. For a moment they fall into a trance, locked into inaction by the balmy embrace of the midday sun. But still, the traveller knows they cannot delay. Wat Han Chey, the ancient temple and the object of their approach, awaits.
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With a supreme show of will, they force themselves forward, stumbling with the controlled fervour of one drawn upon invisible tracks. The accumulated detritus of the surrounding fields slows their progress, although the traveller still finds time to enjoy a fleeting moment of whimsy: amongst the rubbish lies a discarded condom packet. Glistening in the sun, its incongruity serves to corrupt the holy nature of the scene and hint at the internal power struggle betwixt life and religion. Here in Kampong Cham, the traveller deduces, some supplicants kneel before an altogether more secular altar. Cynical and refreshed, the seriousness of their venture now tarnished, the traveller begins their ascent.
But they find it difficult to move now, the coarse granite stairs proving more hindrance than a help. Disembodied voices emanate from the summit, their sibilance permeating the air and engendering a profound sense of unease within the interloper.
The traveller clings to the stairway, unaware of the fatal error. All around exists a watchful, limbic fury, as though the whole temple has come alive, undulating and writhing, brought to life by this outside presence. A forked tongue, impossibly big, wraps around the traveller, holding them still. They should feel lucky; their mind goes blank, they feel nothing. They will never know what awaited them atop the snake temple of Kampong Cham.