Exploring the intoxicating landscape and rich history of this Southeast Asian nation.
Close your eyes and imagine you’re walking a long driveway. It’s pre-dawn and the only light is from hundreds of multi-sized beams ranging from small pen light size to standard flashlights. The only sounds are the patter of feet padding along the path and the occasional whisper almost too soft to make out. There is a reverence to the silence, as if even the stones beneath your feet are holding back their sound in expectation.
The humidity weighs you down and presses against you from all sides, grounding you in the magnitude of the moment. You and the hundreds of other beams of light turn east and trek, still in silence, another hundred or so yards. Just ahead, you see the water’s reflection. You find a place on the edge of the pond and turn off your beam of light. You take a deep breath, exhaling gently as the sun begins its ascent and the first outline of the magnificent structure before you is illuminated. This is sunrise at Angkor Wat.
As the sun continues to climb, my first impression is of the perfect reflection of the temple that is now apparent in the water we are standing beside. My next is that the majority of those sharing this sunrise with me are locals — Khmer (Cambodians) and not tourists like myself. I was able to identify them by the checkered scarf or krama they wore. This durable and versatile scarf differentiates the Khmer from their Vietnamese, Thai, and Laotian neighbors. It’s used for style, to help climb trees, as a sarong, or as a sling to carry babies.
Our guide, Finn — or "Fun Finn" as we would come to call him later in our ten days together during AmaWaterways "Vietnam, Cambodia & the Riches of the Mekong" itinerary — explained that many locals take advantage of the sunrise over Angkor Wat as a way to "get right with the world." He went on, "If I wake up and feel out of sorts, I will come here and watch the sunrise and it helps me get back on the right path."
Our journey began with an evening arrival in Siem Reap International Airport, Cambodia's busiest airport. Following a quick entry through customs and securing our Cambodia visa there at the airport — a 15-minute process costing $30 per person — we transferred to the Hotel Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf & Spa Resort. Following a late room service snack and a fabulous night’s sleep to recoup from the 20+ hours of flying, we were anxious to begin our three-day tour of the Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The park stretches over some 150 square miles and includes the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th century.
Angkor Thom is our first stop. Our tour driver stops on the outer edge of a causeway leading to the entry tower and flanked by a row of 54 stone figures on each side — a depiction of the Hindu creation myth of the Churning of the Ocean. This first encounter with the ruins of the city’s temples is transcendent. You could spend hours simply investigating the grimacing expressions and military headdress of the figures on one side while comparing them with the serene almond eyed stare and conical headdress of those on the other side. Some of these heads looked newer than the others due to their condition. We were told that the original heads had been moved to the Angkor Conservancy in Siem Reap.
Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer Empire, was a fortified “sacred place” and its design is believed to symbolize the universe. The Bayon temple, bordered by smaller towers, sits at the true center and is a symbolic representation of the link between heaven and earth. Military, palace officials and priests likely lived in the city. Foundations and an enclosing wall around the palace have been identified and are all that remain of the royal buildings.
Hallmarks of an August in Cambodia are the humidity and heat. I joked that I felt as if even my shadow was weighed down by the dense humidity we encountered. That may be why Ta Prohm will forever be one of the most magical places I’ve visited. It’s shrouded in dense jungle. The fig, banyan and kapok trees have staked their claim on the land and the temple, holding the structures in their stranglehold of gigantic roots and intertwining branches. There’s such a haunting charm and a calming stillness to the place that I felt as rooted there as the trees themselves.
It is left mainly untouched, except to clear paths for visitors and strengthen the structures. The natural state brings to mind locations formerly only seen in the movies — literally, as one towering tree is often referred to as the Tomb Raider tree as it was featured in the Hollywood film. It’s a compelling visual of the destructive and healing abilities of nature. The invasive, powerful roots split carved stones while the lush moss provides a protective canopy.
The layout is that of a typical “flat” Khmer temple with long, low buildings, once enclosed by a rectangular wall of which only traces still remain. You can reach the center through a series of towers connected with passages. Some are still passable, but very narrow and dark. You shouldn’t attempt it without guide, or unless you have a strong knowledge of the route and its landmarks.
We spent the next morning enjoying the above-mentioned sunrise over Angkor Wat. Following that glorious beginning, we set off for a full tour of the famous temple. Believed to be the funerary temple for King Suryavarman II, it was built in the first half of the 12th century (1113-1150 A.D.). It’s estimated to have taken 30 years to build and spans some 500 acres. Don’t miss the Hall of Echoes, which is named for its unusual acoustics. Upon entering, you won’t notice anything out of the ordinary. However, stand against the wall in the room’s left corner and pound your chest. You (and everyone else in the room) will hear its echo.
Throughout our journey of Cambodia and Vietnam we would often catch sight of the flowing saffron robes of Buddhist monks as they made their way through city streets or through the temples we visited. At one point in Angkor Wat, our guide indicated a monk who was sitting with what looked to be a large amount of red yarn. We approached, and in exchange for a donation, were given a blessing and a red string bracelet for good wishes and luck. After departing, I asked my son what his thoughts were on the blessing. “Mom,” he answered, “while he was praying to Buddha for me, I was praying to God for him. I figure the more people praying for each other, the better, don’t you?”
Indeed I do. You can never have too many prayers, especially when zip-lining is next on your agenda!
(May/June 2017 issue of Traveler)