I arrived to Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor, after a seven hour bus ride from Phnom Penh. All beaten up and tired? Nope. I had a good time streaming my favourite podcast from the on-board Wifi. I then checked in at a small boutique hotel with a colonial touch and had a drink at the rooftop poolside. The modernity of Cambodia was not the only thing to exceed my expectations, something I was about to find out exploring the largest temple monument in the world.
You will read about Angkor Wat in about every travel magazine you can find. Does that mean it’s overcrowded with tourists? Yes. Does it mean you will get a slice of a Japanese head in every picture taken? Probably. Does it mean that you shouldn’t visit? I would say, no. Keep on reading and I will tell you why.
Cambodia is, despite of what you might think, a quite modern country. I noticed this even before I arrived. The online Visa application system wanted to know if I was a man, a woman, or simply…transgender.
The temple city of Angkor has gone from a couple of thousand visitors per year in the 1990s to over two million today. So how should you relate to these magnificent but touristified places. The Colosseums of Rome. The Chinese Walls. The Taj Mahals. Well, you go for the details.
Angkor, once the heart of the Khmer Empire, was lost to the western world for about five hundred years. That’s a long time. Luckily, it was rediscovered by a french explorer called Henri Mouhot in the 1860s. He spent three weeks exploring the dense jungle and made detailed sketches of the ruined temples.
Mouhot was the Indiana Jones of his time. He writes about the expedition in his travel journal: “The temples of Angkor are grander than anything left to us by the Greek or Romans”. I’m willing to agree.
Mouhot died of malaria only 35 years old after an expedition to Laos. He was buried outside of Luang Prabang by one of his servants. Ironically, the tomb was forgotten and lost in the jungle just to get accidentally rediscovered a hundred years later. History tends to repeat itself.
The french colonists set up two routes for visiting Angkor; le grand circuit (17 km) and le petit circuit (27 km). The routes are still present and the short one is well enough for a day’s visit. That is, giving room for an afternoon glass of champagne back in the colonial quarters of Siem Reap. It covers all the main sights, including Angkor Wat, Bayon South Gate, Angkor Thom, Ta Phrom, and a couple of smaller temples.
The Angkor Wat tour was traditionally undertaken on the back of a slow lumbering elephant with a set of binoculars. Alas, today on a speedy tuk-tuk with a GoPro action camera.
A unique thing with Angkor is that you are allowed to explore the temples with no off limits. So I did. I followed the locals. The monks. They guided me to every corner of the temples. Made me look for the details. The hidden things. I went face to face with the Apsaras, sensual Khmer dancers carved into the walls. The more I looked, the more I found.
The stone faces of Angkor Thom watched me as I wandered further into the jungle. At first glance, I could barely see them. In the next moment, they appeared right in front of me. I reached the Phimeanakas Temple. Kept walking.
Distant voices disappeared. The humidity was intense. I wiped the sweat off my forehead as I climbed a big rock. Suddenly, I was all alone. A ruined temple lied in front of me. I could for the first time feel how it once was. The temple city of Angkor. Before the tourists arrived.
At Ta Prohm, there is an old tree with enormous roots that encircle the temple. The tree is featured in the Tomb Raider movie and the place is crowded with selfie-taking visitors. The silk cotton tree twists its long branches around the temple as it is trying to eat it.
Funnily, this was where I made my biggest discovery. At the backside of the temple, away from the crowd, a Cambodian couple were getting married. The mother, in tears by the moment, hold the long white dress. It glowed in the afternoon sun. After all, that is something you don’t see everyday.
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