The passage of time is a funny thing. Your perception of the passage of time, even funnier. And your memory of your perception of the passage of time, funnier still.
As I’ve mentioned, this trip was a ballet of time and memories and moments that seemed to last a lifetime. Some countries expanded to fill the whole of my eternity while others were simply a snowflake on your glove, there and gone in the same instant. And some countries, some that caught hold of my heart and will be with it always, those countries managed to fill all of time and space in the blink of an eye.
Cambodia, unfortunately, falls into the category that flew right on by, lickety-split. I would like to go back. I plan to go back, someday. But I have a lot of other countries to visit first. For now, lets talk about where I have been, not where I am going. That will come later, but travel daydreaming tends to spiral me into a land that is not so easily escaped. I dare not bring you there today.
I went to Cambodia, as many people do, to see Angkor Wat. It was nicely nestled between a month in Thailand and several weeks in Vietnam. Unfortunately due to timing and my tendency to lean towards longer visits in fewer places rather than a running bounding leap through many, Cambodia was lost in the space between. An easy enough stop between Thailand and Vietnam, how could I not go?
Keeping true to my traveler tendencies, I had little planned for my few days in Cambodia except to see the great Angkor Wat. Also true to form, I hadn’t done all that much research about what I was getting myself into. And boy was I in for a treat.
Located in Cambodia’s northern provence of Siem Reap and only 5.5 km from the city of Siem Reap, the ancient city of Angkor sprawls across 400 square kms of land. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is designated as such to protect the history and splendor of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire. In power from the 9th to the 15th century, Khmer influence over the development of art, culture, architecture, and politics resonates even in the unique cultural traditions today.
As the center of the Khmer Kingdom, Angkor has a highly developed system of urban plans, including reservoirs, canals, dykes, etc., as well as a multitude of temples distributed along different communication routes. As one of the largest archaeological sites in the world, great efforts have been taken to maintain the remains.
The history of this great network of temples, aqueducts, and communications, has been pieced together through evidence gathered through subsequent clearing and restoration work. Early on, however, many Western visitors thought the magnificence of the construction would be dated to the same era as Rome.
Now that we have reviewed some of the history, some of the cultural implications, some of those basics you need to know before going to somewhere like this, let’s get down to it.
Go. Rent bikes. Wear your best wicking clothing. Pack as much water as you can carry. And see all that you can see.
Really. Bikes are the way to do it. Exhausting, exhilarating, slow and pensive, the perfect vehicle for contemplating the grandeur of the structures climbing up around you.
What I didn’t realize was just how big the whole complex really is. Just how sprawling and overwhelming in every sense. Just how much the roads unfurl beneath you and and world extends in every direction and your hours of visiting can be consumed in just a moment.
As you enter the park, you cannot help but crane your neck to take in Angkor Wat Temple stretching out before you. Careful not to wobble off your bike like I nearly did.
Enjoy this vision of the site that we all know so well, fodder for any good National Geographic cover. Enjoy it and then carry on. Take your taste of that glory with you while you continue deeper into the park.
Get up early. Seek out those smaller temples where you can be relatively alone to take in the peace and solitude of the world around you. As a destination that saw over two million visitor in 2013, you will be hard pressed to find yourself completely alone here in Angkor. But, be that early bird and get that worm.
The other temples scattered throughout the park may not carry the fame or greatness of Angkor Wat but they bring a unique beauty and an understanding of the age and history of the structures crumbling around you. Many of the other temples have not been as well restored and they instead demonstrate the perfect union of ancient architecture and the creeping, crawling, devouring natural world.
Continue on your bike ride through the south gate of Angkor Thom, the “Great City”. Built in response to the earlier sacking of Angkor, this walled city is surrounded by a then nearly impassable moat to fortify against future attacks. The south gate entry is flanked by 52 gods and 52 demons of popular Hindu legend and make for a grand entrance.
Continue on, deeper into the park. I encourage you to get lost. It will be fun to find yourself again. I stopped in temples and continued by others. Found modern areas of worship and my own peace and harmony.
Pre Rup challenges even those fit fiddles to travel up it’s towering staircases and rewards with a lovely place to rest overlooking the surrounding forest lands.
Banteay Kdei speaks to the beauty that comes with the integration of man and nature and hums with the vibrant greens of life overcoming all.
Similarly, Temple Preah Kahn is a maze of tunnels and doorways opening into a world of nature running wild. Largely unrestored, the remains burst with greens and come alive with all that has grown since construction.
Ta Prohm offers perhaps the most striking example of this integration of nature and ancient worship. Trees grow throughout the buddhist temple, sending roots through every structural opening.
Finally, one of the most well known structures, second possibly only to Angkor Wat is the Bayon Temple. Located in the heart of Angkor Thom, this is the a perfect stop towards the end of your day journeying. Enjoy the 200 massive stone faces as the sunlight slants low and kisses their giant cheeks. Wonder at the curious smiles playing across their faces, ancient day Mona Lisas.
End your day with Angkor Wat. It was originally constructed as a Hindu center of worship but gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century.
And if you can do me one favor, before you leave, go find my little friend. He is hiding so can be a bit hard to spot. I hope you’re up for the challenge!
If you missed all the food talk this week, come join us for some Pho in Vietnam, same time next week…