Gateway to Angkor

It’s hard to say whether it was the circumstances leading up to Siem Reap, or its subsequent events that made my time there so memorable. In my travels of Southeast Asia, Siem Reap was the one ‘must see’ location that escaped me, and continued to elude me. Following my family’s trip to Thailand and Vietnam, on a whim they purchased a trip for me to Siem Reap. Flying out of Saigon, I was treading on the heels of an incredible last two weeks, and was simply elated with life and the journey I was taking. I was caught by surprise by this trip, and with less than 24-hours to prepare, I confronted the bittersweet realization that I was for once not armed with an arsenal of things to do, places to eat, and people to contact.  My limited knowledge of Angkor Wat was rooted in the video game stills of Tomb Raider, and you better bet, I was ready to take on Cambodia a la Lara Croft.

Flying into Siem Reap, you begin to grasp the scale and undertaking required in building such a massive complex. Like a mirage, it comes into view from the windows of the airplane. It’s quickly replaced by endless stretches of water and jungle. The experience overhead doesn’t do justice to the experience below. Walking through the jungle, you become entranced by the temples, the humidity and the cicadas. I felt as though Slash and Axl Rose would burst onto the scene at any moment to perform “Welcome to the Jungle.”

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It was during this sweat-drenched journey into the jungle that I happened upon Ta Phrom. The sun was setting, and most of the other temple-dwellers had taken for the hilltop to catch the sunset over Phenom Bakeng. Aside from myself, there were two other guards and tourists inside Ta Phrom. It was my favorite hour of the day, and the fleeting sun danced through the trees and onto the rocky outcrops and carvings of the complex. It’s amazing the things your imagination begins to construct when you’re alone inside an 13th century temple.

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The following day, I hired a tuk tuk driver to take me to the temples on the outskirts of the complex.  The driver was slight even for a Southeast Asian, but had eyes with depth and warmth, and the most beautiful, white, and perfectly aligned teeth. For the next three days, while touring around the countryside, I had the good fortune of getting to know him. I’ve always affirmed that it’s not the places we go to, but the people we meet in those places that make the difference. Never has this been more true. Despite working four different jobs, going to school, and paying for his family, he arrived punctually outside my hotel every morning. At lunch, his large eyes and mouth, grew even larger as he was excited by the idea of eating for what appeared to be the first time that week.  I found it hard to believe that such a small body could devour such large quantities of food like a snake. In between heaping bites, he told me of his family, and their life growing up in Cambodia. During Pol Pot’s reign, they were forced to the fields for 12-16 hours a day, deprived of sleep and food. Their health was in sharp decline now, and it was up to him to support them and his siblings. I found it difficult to grasp the devastation that took place under Pol Pot, because the facts and numbers are so staggering To hear these confirmed from my driver, you begin to see the country through a new lens. Despite their dark past, they look to the future with unshakable optimism. I still have a mental image of my driver that I see with incredible clarity, and there’s something about that image and all that it represents that continues to gnaw away at my subconscious. Cambodia certainly wasn’t the most luxurious place I visited, nor did it have the best food, or the most spectacular scenery, but it will certainly stir something within you.

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