I first heard of Angkor Wat when I was finishing the Inca Trail. Even as I stood above Machu Picchu in total awe, another traveler told me that the two didn’t compare. He spoke of an ancient Khmer temple complex so vast that you needed a driver and several days to fully explore it. I didn’t understand the wonder of this place at the time, and I’m not sure I do now, either, but as this bus throttles toward Bangkok and Angkor Wat fades behind me, there is a feeling that needs articulation.
Phnom Penh: capital of Cambodia, former jewel of Asia, and the first destination on this journey I chose to skip. I booked a flight to Siem Reap to spend an extra night in Saigon, wishing I could have stayed an extra week. I’d loved the city, and feared I’d seen the best of what was to come, yet as in all good stories, I was wrong.
Siem Reap is where I first saw the Cambodian circus and a village raised entirely on stilts; not quite a city, it has thriving night and street lives owing to the tourist $ pumped into the area. But the real reason for any visit there is that it is the origin of expeditions to the Angkor Wat temple complex. Tourists may purchase either a one, three, or seven day pass – one is fine if you only care to see the major sites, but you need more time if you want to get a good feeling of the place.
On my first day at Angkor Wat, I decided to see the “smaller” temples, knowing that they’d pale in comparison to what was yet to come. I hired my host’s neighbor as a tuk tuk driver and set out around 9am; tomb raiding is a full-time job, you see, and I’d only have two days to explore. On the way into the compound, we passed some of the major temples. I used all my restraint to cover my eyes: they’d be better tomorrow.
Eventually we came to a stop. My driver pointed toward a pathway into the forest. “Down there is the west gate. I will meet you at the east,” he said, then adding with a smile, “take your time.” I headed in the direction he’d indicated with a bottle of water that dwindled quickly in the sweltering Cambodian sun. As I advanced down the path, stone alters began to rise from the forest soil around me. I was here.
I followed the alters to a bridge that stood before a massive gate. Lining both sides of the bridge were dozens of decrepit warriors, painstakingly carved with elaborate detail, teeth beared, standing together to strike cold fear into the hearts of all who dared cross, but now decaying into crumbling stone, ominously. I touched one of the statues as I passed, and for the briefest of seconds, I imagined I felt warmth.
I walked through the gate and into the first temple complex. There is much to know about the Khmer empire, and I hadn’t done my homework; the road may be a great teacher, but it isn’t much of a classroom. Yet as I came before the mossy stones, towering high above me and stretching, seemingly without end, into the whispering trees, my ignorance fluttered between regret and wonder: who were these people, who went through unparelled lengths to devote themselves to these elaborate complexes, collections of alters and stones that have immortalized their name in the memory of the ages?
Thus passed my first afternoon: I took my time exploring the temple, and then another, and another. When my driver would shuttle me to a yet further site, I’d pause to wonder at the countless images the Khmer had etched into this stone, elaborate scenes of wars, festivals, and the gods, all painfully detailed, with such dedication and perseverance it is hardly possible to describe and even more difficult to comprehend. Around every other crumbling bend, I was greeted by a collection of Buddha statues, perched upon pillars or a wall, whose eerie, knowing half-smiles saw into my soul and filled the air with mystery. What did they understand that I didn’t?
Perhaps you are the sort for tour guides, but here, I was not. I’d hired a driver to lead me the way, who’d answer a question if posed, but otherwise would leave me in my own contented company. As I shuttled between the sites, I saw buses of tourists, huddled in groups, straining in apparent boredom to hear what a rehearsed local was lecturing about in broken English. They traveled between the temples in groups, sometimes large, sometimes small, but always in loud voices, in pursuit of that ever-elusive photo. I waited and breathed as a trio of Japanese girls dominated a gateway with silly poses and a selfie stick, asking me to get out of their way so that they could have the space.
If you are this sort, that’s fine; I do not mean to judge. But it’s not for me – they were missing something. As often as I could, I escaped from the crowds, lingering at a pagoda, or chasing a dilapidated wall into the trees to discover a hidden temple, entirely my own. Gradually, I slipped back into boyhood, leaping between the stones, climbing up and down the walls, pursuing any path that wasn’t barred by a sign or a rope, regressing to the days when every destination was an adventure and the world was shrouded in wonder. More than once, I’d look up from the bottom of the three-tiered pyramid I was exploring and meet the smiling eyes of a mother or a child. I’d wave, and they’d wave back, and then I’d go back to playing. I passed the whole long day in eight short hours. It never felt like enough.
I rose the next morning, this time at 4:30am, setting out again with my driver to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat before visiting the other major temples. It’d been a week now since I’d slept for more than four of five hours, but there was still so much to see. We arrived at a parking lot, unremarkable in the dark, and I followed my driver’s directions toward a bridge over a lake. I was surprised to find it was already busy: by the busload, tourists streamed over to the other side, chatting in tired voices that carried over the water. From the glow of their cellphones, I could make out a distant entrance beneath the shadowy form that towered on the horizon. I chose a quiet spot on the near side of the lake to watch the people disappear inside and the shadows give form to the fabled complex.
The sky was overcast, and when the sun arrived, it had to fight its way through deep, blue clouds to cast the reflection of the great temple across the water. Later-arrivals came and sat near me, and eventually we were more than a hundred, but not nearly so many as those who’d continued ahead. People talked, but it was softer and more serene here. I’d have missed the dawn if I’d have followed everyone in.
At the right time, I crossed to the distant shore, and entered through the hugest gate I’d yet seen. There, ahead, at the end of an endless walkway, was Angkor Wat in all the majesty of the early morning. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen; it was more immense, more splendid than I could have possibly imagined, and it was here, waiting to be discovered.
There were hordes of crowds scattered among the lawns that stretched toward the temple. The early-crossers lollied about, occupying space in this once sacred site. As I made my way forward, I saw all of them standing side by side, pointing their cameras this way and that, jostling for the best picture or pose to throw up on social media. I couldn’t help but think that it seemed frivolous. I took my picture, too, then put my camera back into my pocket.
The stature of the temple grew as we drew nearer. As I approached the main entrance, I overheard the guy in front of me ask a girl if she’d been to so-and-so before. “It’s really cool,” he said. “You should check it out.” They were missing something, too.
The situation was worse inside. It wasn’t impossible, but tiresome to appreciate the place for all the noisy guests. As I walked through the halls of the temple, my footsteps echoed off of the ancient stone; yet as I made my way through he crowds, I did not recognize anyone who was truly there. I longed to impose a code of silence, or for a way to see this place by myself, untarnished. It was impossible. Was I being selfish?
I fled from the empty pools of the courtyard to the grasses that lay between the complexes’ inner and outer walls. There were fewer people here, and again, momentarily, I was happy. In some quiet corner, there were piles of small stones that had been gently stacked upon each other, and I was reminded of something I’d once read about lines of energy that fall from the heavens. I decided to sit with the stones for a while and see what they had to say.
When I rose, there was an unmistakable lightness to my being. I felt grounded, whole, aware, fully conscious of the ever-elusive fact: I am here. I floated through the crowds, no longer bothered, simply enjoying this miraculous place for what it was and my ephemeral intersection with it. Like a magnet, I could feel my energy drawing the wandering eyes of a stranger, and if I caught them, we were both filled with smiles. Slowly, blissfully, I retired the same way I’d came. I felt the good feeling evaporating with each step away from the sacred place, but knew that its memory remained inside of me.
I walked once more back through the giant gate, thinking that it was suited for the gods. As I eased my way down those stairs, a women and her daughter hurried toward me. “Have you seen a monkey here?” she asked. Almost three weeks, and still I hadn’t. “Look, there’s one up there!” Following her hand, I turned, and on the roof near the gate was a monkey, perched ever so deliberately. The women and her daughter yelled at the monkey, trying to get it to turn and notice them, but it just sat there, stoic as a statue, the deep, blue glory of the dawn surrounding its tiny figure. I laughed, feeling closer to the monkey than I had to anyone in that morning crowd, and then made my way back across the lonely bridge.