It must have been the tenth or so temple I'd seen during my 3 day Angkor Wat temple tour in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Naturally, being part of a complex and built by the same hands, the temples, individually, felt fairly similar to one another, but this one was a little different. There were fewer tourists here -- and the visitors that were there were not there for photo opportunities, but to pray. This put me at ease.
I strolled its grounds as unobrusively as I could. The smell of incense seemed to reach into me today more than in the past. The silence felt not lonely, but holy. I made my way to the temple's heart which was easy enough to find -- it was at its precise center and was marked by a large buddha statue. When I arrived, I marveled at the precision of the temple's engineering. From this spot, I could see that the doors lined up with such incredible precision that I had a clear line of sight to each of the temple's four entryways, an impressive feat for a temple built at least 800 years ago without the aid of computers or other sophisticated construction tools that we have today -- just the hands, ingenuity and patience of men.
I stood in the bowels of this temple with another man who looked like he belonged there. I told him how impressed I was with the precision of the temple's construction and he concurred. He went on to tell me bit about the history of the temple. I donated some money in a donation box at the foot of the buddha and thanked the man.
As I turned to continue my exploration, I spied an old, plainly dressed woman hunched over a cane and carrying a basket. She looked at me and gestured at a tapestry that I was holding in my hand -- a red blanket with a gold pattern of Angkor Wat. After admiring it for a second, she approved of its beauty and then returned the tapestry to me and proceeded to give me a blessing. The man tells me the old woman was a nun. I stood there, watching the nun tie on colored string to my wrist, absorbing the silent serenity of the grounds, the chill of the frigid stone surrounding me, the cosmic scent of the incense. It was a singularly perfect moment -- like something out of a Richard Linklater movie.
In fact, a lot of my visit to Siem Reap felt surreal, like I was a third person watching myself experience it all -- right from the very start when Pheak, my tuk-tuk driver for the entire trip, picked me up from the airport. A dutiful, knowledgeable, and capable man of 28, after a few hours with Pheak, it was clear to me just where the inspiration for The Green Hornet's Kato was drawn from.
He was sent from the hotel, but was also the driver on my tour as well. The tour allowed me three days to visit Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples and it would be broken up into three heats, dessert first. I'd would see Angkor Wat, the most famous temple, and Angkor Thom, the second most famous attraction, the remains of the main city in Angkor. I purchased my ticket, but had not planned to begin my tour until my first full day in Siem Reap. But Pheak wasted no time. I left my bags in my hotel room and Pheak whisked me off to catch the sunset at Angkor Wat. Like I said, dessert first.
The grounds of Angkor Wat were still brimming with activity when I arrived. There were others like me who were scurrying to catch the sun set at Angkor. But frankly, I could barely tear my eyes from the magnificence of the temple to see the sunset. There would be other sunsets I told myself.
Though the attraction would soon be closed to the public, the festivities continued. The buskers continued to play, the dancers continued to dance. I would make it past the temple's outer gate to its front doors before I was turned around and asked to leave -- the temple was now closed. But it was a mouthful of a first taste of what was to me clearly one of the great wonders of our world.
Pheak was waiting for me early the next morning to return me to Angkor Wat for a real visit and then to take me to nearby Angkor Thom. Angkor was beautiful during the day. I had only hours to experience its magnificence, and in the day, I could more clearly see its details, of which there were very very many. Architecture was not then like it is now -- fairly minimalist, and functional -- at least that was not my experience with the temples I saw throughout Southeast Asia. Like all of the cathedrals I've seen, temples are exquisitely ornate with details covering every last inch of the structure. Each temple is a veritable feast for the eyes. It could take a lifetime to appreciate every detail of any single temple in Angkor. I tried the best I could with the time that I had.
It was here that I realized how much photography can enhance one's appreciation for architecture -- maybe this is a commonly known thing, but I never quite got it until now. Taking photos forces you to look for the best angles, best details and to appreciate the lines. And all of the beauty you can spot at a temple is all the more impressive when you consider that it was most likely deliberate and intended by the designer. Taking photos gets you inside the mind of the architect.
Angkor Wat was as impressive as I had heard, rivaling the majesty of Machu Picchu which I visited in 2009. It was surprisingly well preserved considering its age. It's restoration was impressive as well. But what surprised me the most was the level of access enjoyed by its visitors. We were practically able to access any part of the temple that we could physically reach, no matter how dangerous.
But I would say I enjoyed the remnants of Angkor Thom even more than Angkor Wat. Angkor Thom is a collection of sites, actually, but are grouped together because they once belonged to a city. It's remnants include the arches where visitors come and go, and a few temple ruins. Being a bit more spread out, it had the same number of visitors as Angkor Wat, but in less concetration. There were no lines like we saw at Angkor Wat. And the din of the crowd was much more muted here. It was more peaceful.
I was to walk the entire grounds of Angkor Thom. Pheak dropped me off at one site and we arranged to meet again about 2 - 3 miles away on the other side of the city at my leisure; he would be waiting. I actually really loved how this tour was set up. There was no guide getting in the way of my enjoyment of the temples -- I was free to enjoy the temples as I saw fit.
One of the things I thought about a lot was how all of these ruins fit into the lives of the locals before its tourism boom. Angkor Wat really only exploded in popularity as a tourist attraction after the Tomb Raider movies were filmed here. But the temples have been known to the people for time immemorial. I asked Pheak what the sites were like before Angkor became a major tourist attraction. As I understand it, most of the sites were hidden from view and access since they were overrun by forest. Still, they were known to the people. Pheak himself would often trek through the poisonous snake infested forests as a child to explore the temples against the wishes of his parents. The temples, he explained were actually still in use before they were all restored since they were all still considered holy sites by the monks. I asked him how the people felt about all the visitors. "Not so good" he replied; I appreciated his honesty. But he went on to say that tourism has been good for the economy bringing a lot of money into the area which has been good, so the locals are learning to appreciate the tourists.
Part of me wished that the temples had not been restored; I would have much enjoyed exploring the temples in their unrestored, snake-infested condition. But being a snake-fearing man, that was just fantasy. Were the temples not restored, I would probably not have visited for fear of my life.
The remainder of the tour was great. We caught the sunrise at Angkor Wat early in the morning and then went out to see more ruins. The surrounding temples, though less impressive than Angkor Wat and Thom, were much less visited and therefore, more peaceful and soulful like I tried to portray at the top of this blog entry. But what I enjoyed the most about the remainder of the tour was just getting to know Pheak. There were long drives and naturally, we talked a lot. I learned about his family, a new wife and a young daughter. His stage fright despite having just had a wedding with 700 attendees. We talked about religion and the impacts of colonization on Cambodia. We even talked about the elephant in the room -- the strained relationship between Cambodia and Vietnam.
This part of our conversation was a bit cathartic for me. I had always heard that Cambodians and Vietnamese were not exactly friendly, but never quite understood why. Pheak broke all down for me -- the most important detail being there is no longer any tension between Cambodians and Vietnamese. The two countries have a long history of invasion and war, but the last century has been particularly tumultuous for the two neighboring countries. The early part of the last century saw the two countries fighting side by side against a common foe. Both countries were colonized by the French but yearned for independence. After successfully ridding themselves of their French colonizers, the Vietnamese came to Cambodia to help their friends achieve their own independence. It worked! As I understand it, with the presence of the Vietnamese there, the French agreed to leave without a fight much to the delight of the Cambodian people. But with a new relationship forged in peace and friendship, many Vietnamese decided to remain in Cambodia, even marrying and starting families, so there is a lot of Vietnamese blood in Cambodia even to this day -- Pheak was himself 1/4th Vietnamese.
Having just recovered from rule by outsiders, it's understandable that there were Cambodians who were suspicious of the Vietnamese who were living in Cambodia and feared another attempt for colonization. But how they dealt with it was an atrocity that is mourned by Cambodians, Vietnamese and the world at large. It was this fear that lead to the rise of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge and their infamous Killing Fields of Vietnamese and their accused sympathizers.
Pheak assured that once the Khmer Rouge was toppled and Pol Pot removed from power, the remaining Cambodian people held no ill will to their Vietnamese neighbors and in fact, there was quite a bit of interaction between the two neighbors in the forms of commerce and tourism. But Pheak and I made one last pilgrimage before retiring to the Hotel that night: we visited a monument to the victims of Pol Pot located at the site of one of many Killing Fields used by the Khmer Rouge.
Angkor Wat proved to be one of the Crown Jewels of Asia; it offered me more than just a visual experience, but a spiritual one as well. Its history, the serenity of its temples, the magnificence of its ruins -- any one of its Wats would justify a visit to this little city in Northwestern Cambodia, but there were dozens of sites to visit; I didn't even get to see half of them in the time that I had. But my main takeaway from my visit to Siem Reap was not what I expected -- I'll mostly remember it for the kindness of its people. For the old nun who took the time to pray for my health and wellbeing asking nothing in return. For Pheak who treated me like family even though he barely knew me. For Phem, the girl at the front counter who came to my rescue after my travel arrangements through Kayak.com fell apart. It was a kindness that can't be described adequately; it can only be experienced.
Location:Siem Reap, Cambodia