Our last adventure left off in Malaysia, boarding a flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia. And this is where today’s story begins. On a flight, filled with dawn and brightness. Siem Reap’s airport is tiny and within minutes of landing, we were on a tuk-tuk, headed into town. Tuk-tuks are the most prevalent method of travel in this area—essentially a motorized pedicab. So slowly, but surely, we motored along toward the city, wild cows munching away alongside us as we rode past makeshift straw huts and dazzling golden tiered buildings, side-by-side.
I was unprepared for how charming Siem Reap turned out to be. Coming from the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur, Siem Reap was like a little oasis. Much more greenery and tree cover than I’d expected, and an awfully sweet river running through town. Of course, it has its brightness and darkness, both. On a walk to town, we stumbled across poverty and luxury side-by-side quite often. Makeshift huts and camps would simply be built up in any convenient corner—sometimes in the shadow of golden tributes. And one must remember that as the town next to Angkor, there is a thriving tourism community. “Western” food is available everywhere (albeit, it’s not particularly good anywhere). Folks thought I’d have a tough time being a vegetarian in these regions, but tourism has changed the landscapes of these places dramatically. Parts of Tombraider were shot at Ta Prohm, and as a result, a slew of menu items are named for Angelina Jolie and/or Lara Croft.
And here, perhaps the moment Scott was waiting for all his life—a bunch of ravenous fish were downing his dead skin in a not-so-sterile tank by the side of Pub Street. As you wander down these streets, you’ll hear many locals call out at you, “Our fish so hungry!” “Please give Doctor Fish good food!” Yes—our icky travelers’ feet are just what their little medical-degreed fishy hearts desire. The next morning, we woke before dawn to be dazzled by the temples. And we were. Sure, we’d seen and heard so much of these in the past, I knew the build-up could be problematic. Only, no amount of prep or viewing of photographs can diminish the impact that these mystical places have.
So, let’s be clear. Angkor Wat is one (amazing) temple, but Angkor as the “city of temples” is not just one temple. It would seem this is a commonly mistaken assumption. There are dozens of individual temple complexes, developed as ancient places of worship and other activities, across a huge spanse of land (for example, one trek between two temples took us 45 minutes in a tuk-tuk). Many villages have sprung up between these temples, and so despite their history, majesty and reverence, you’ll easily find young local children playing in and among the fallen stones—when they’re not busy trying to sell you something.
These temples were actually developed not in one period, by one culture, but over a very long period of time, and during the rule of several differing cultures. The architecture and art you come across can vary quite a bit as a result, if you’re paying attention. There are both Hindu and Buddhist elements everywhere, as well as references to other worship as well. This is the largest religious monument in the world. It’s dizzying.
Many fallen stones have been marked in order to eventually become part of a reassembly attempt. In some of these images, you can see that there is uneven wear on many of the temple stones, re-stacked sometime in the not-so-distant past. There is a strange combination of places in utter ruin, beside a handful of somewhat revamped temples, restored to appear as they once might have been. For me, this was an odd feeling—I was here to see things in ruin. I didn’t expect to wander into some of these thousand-year-old temples to find cranes and workmen. It seemed so wrong, somehow, despite the fact that they are still often used as places of worship. I think what didn’t quite sit right with me was the feeling/threat of erasing the past. Of course, some places remained utterly untouched, allowed to morph, shift, change, and tumble—to let the years pass over them, grow into them, and do to them what years do best—transform quietly, slowly, and with grace.
We’d heard that we could expect a barrage of sales coming our way from the sweetest, saddest kids outside the most popular temples. It is suggested that you keep candy on hand to give them freely instead of purchasing anything. I later learned that the problem here is that parents will pull their children from school as kids make better sales than adults do. It’s so hard to imagine growing up in this culture that is so impacted by tourism that education is long-forgotten. To be fair, it may never have been much of a priority. I wish I’d had longer here to really see this for myself. As it was, all I had was a glimpse of conflict in these kids eyes—eagerness to make a sale to bring something back to their waiting parents, balanced by eagerness to be off playing games.
Delineating everything from everything else were vast rice fields, small, thatched huts, and occasionally a farmer or fisherman. I think these encounters were most significant for me—seeing people at work, running their day-to-day lives or at play, bathing in the waters that line the rice fields, beside these breathtaking monuments, utterly unimpacted by the majesty. Even unimpacted by the weather. There are two monsoon seasons in SE-A, depending on if you’re in the north or south. We caught the one that has downpour consistently every afternoon, despite the bluest skies otherwise. I think we adapted quickly… ish. But locals just pull on their rain smocks, and keep on motorcycling, even bicycling, down these unpaved roads that meander through the region. Have I mentioned that seatbelts don’t exist in this area, and multiple children are known to ride between two adults on one bicycle or scooter alone. I think the most I saw were three kids at once.
One of the best parts about being out here was the firm reminder of “what’s the rush?” Life is paced in this world. Along every road there are cafes—not like those you know in North America, but essentially the rest stops of motorcyclists and tuk-tuk riders. There they’ll sell some drinks, they’ll sell lots of gas in old soda bottles (we were initially creeped out by all the old bottles full of yellow liquid before realizing what they were), and most of all, people come there to stop and nap in the dozens of hammocks that are set up, awaiting tuckered behinds. As someone who has always had trouble napping, slowing down, taking it “easy”—this was a strange and intriguing world to indulge in. With the intensity of the heat being what it was, I recognized the need to slow down. You book a tuk-tuk driver for the day, and when they drop you in certain spots, they park and sleep, even in the back of their tuk-tuks.
As for temples, I think these below were my favourite ones. They weren’t the largest or even the most elaborate. Most people seemed to walk right by them in favour of the more spectacular ones nearby. But these took my breath away. I gazed into them and felt a sense of not just history, but personality. A soul gathered over the years that made them strong.
No matter how dazzled I was by the temples, I’m compelled to realize I was equally as dazzled by the people. Those hocking goods. Those playing in the waters. Those whizzing by on all manner of vehicles. I could’ve stayed here for so much longer—to watch the cops sit around just as lazily as the tuk-tuk drivers, to watch the kids wave from the back of a moped, to even watch the tourists overlook so much of the wildness tucked behind every tree and ancient stone. This is my most wistful regret—that we did not make more time for Cambodia in our travels.
But so it goes. This brief glimpse, this thunderous quiet of a world so different from my own—I’m so glad we went. To think that this whole trip only happened because my sister would be out there, and threw the nutty idea at me at the last minute. When I talk about my year of learning to say yes, to jump at opportunities that come at me—this is a shining example of why. There is so much world to know. So much world to understand. So much more to learn. We’re going into this May trek to Scandinavia with so much readiness for all that which we are unready for. I can’t wait to say yes to everything that comes my way.