Ask a runner what she likes about running and guaranteed one of the top 5 things will be the sense of freedom. There is no clearer demonstration of what it means be free than the act of moving forward through time and space on one’s own terms. Freedom is mobility.
Two months ago I visited Thailand and Cambodia on a family vacation. In typical American fashion, I took my habits with me and practiced them wherever I went. I had a marathon to run in 2 weeks, so naturally I was intent on executing the taper portion of the training plan during our 11-day vacation. My single piece of luggage was one-third occupied by the Holy Trinity of running: sneakers, a Garmin, and a running outfit.
Of course I knew that no one runs in Southeast Asia. Not outside on the roads, not if they’re not being chased. There is a reason Olympic long-distance runners don’t hail from places like Thailand and Vietnam. It is not part of the culture, nor is it practical. First of all, it’s hot and humid as all get-out. Moreover, no one can afford the luxury of disappearing for hours to huff and puff on the road and spend time in one’s own head. In places where people struggle to make ends meet, running is a form of vanity and, worse yet, idleness.
And so that morning when I took a 4-mile lap around my hometown in northern Thailand, I was met with stares. Blank, perplexed, amused, and perhaps even chiding. I was also met with nonchalance. Rightly so, because who has the time for my foreigner eccentricity? While I look Thai and am part Thai and spent my early childhood in Thailand, the activity I was engaging in was all “farang.”
One of the other stops on our trip was Siem Reap, Cambodia, home to the World Heritage Site known as Angkor Wat. Cambodia, as many know, is a country that has been rocked by civil war and strife of unimaginable proportions in recent history. Having emerged from the brutal totalitarian grip of the Khmer Rouge just over 30 years ago, it is only in the nascent stage of peace. Siem Reap’s genteel French gardens, chic restaurants and luxury hotels certainly belie the city’s bloodstained past. As do the streams of air-conditioned buses emblazoned with alphabets of various kinds – Korean, English, Khmer, and French. “The past is past” seems to be the sentiment here. Then again, what is the alternative? Who among these survivors can spare the emotional capital to dwell on the execution of at least 1.7 million of their brethren by their own government?
On the second day of our stay in Siem Reap, my training schedule called for a 9-mile run. I approached the hotel concierge to help me map out a safe and straightforward running route. She directed me to follow the main road that would take me from Siem Reap to Angkor. “Many guests like to run that route,” she said. Sounded good to me. I was excited to pull another Forrest Gump in yet another country.
At 7:30 a.m. when I started off, the temperature had already reached the low 70’s Fahrenheit, which meant it was on the cusp of becoming uncomfortable. I ran on the shoulder of the road since the sidewalk was uneven and crowded, sharing the space typically occupied by tuk-tuks, motorcycles and bicycles. I yielded to everyone who I sensed coming up behind me. I was in no rush and had no interest in becoming the next unidentified subject of an unfortunate traffic accident (I carried nothing on me that morning except one gel and one bottled water). I was pleased to be able to keep pace with a few of the tidily uniformed children commuting by bike to school. By this, I mean as many as three 5- to 10-year-olds astride single-rider bikes shimmying alongside me, their schoolbags dangling from various angles.
Finally the temples of Angkor came into view. There in the golden light were the unmistakable carved stone towers that have persisted since the 12th century, jutting out of the green sweep of their jungle surroundings. I always have to catch my breath in the presence of monuments of civilizations gone by. Doubly so, when I approach them running.
I stopped at the promenade in front of Angkor Wat to eat my gel and finish the bottle of water I had been carrying. As I squeezed out the last globs, I walked up the handful of steps to the promenade, debating whether I had time to keep walking to the gate of the temple city for a closer look. Two steps into my thought process, a uniformed guard blocked my path and said, “Can I see your pass?”
Confused and slightly winded, I mumbled, “What?”
“Your tourist pass. Show it to me.”
“Um, I don’t have one. I just came running here,” I replied, taking stock of the fact that I had no identification on me, let alone a permit apparently needed to stand at this World Heritage Site.
“Then go back,” he orders, swiveling his index finger counterclockwise.
I rejoiced. In not being hauled off to a Cambodian jail. In not getting a fine that I wouldn’t have the ability to immediately pay. In being allowed to go back on my merry path without police escort, or who knows what. It was the last time I would take the freedom to roam for granted.
I am lucky to live in a place where running for leisure is possible and commonplace. I am grateful I don’t routinely have to answer to inspectors and guards wherever I go. I am thankful for open roads and public spaces that allow me to run free. It is clearly an immense privilege.