Cambodia: Siem Reap and Angkor Wat


It’s been several weeks since I got back from the trip, now, and it’s getting harder to remember it; like, I know I went, I know I was there (it was only a couple weeks ago!) but I feel like I’ve told all the stories and put away all the souvenirs and just slipped effortlessly back into the Wellington whirlpool, like it never happened. I’ve been thinking about the idea of composting, lately: everything that happens to you, everything you do, sort of goes into the mushy ferment of your brain, whether you know it or not, and then turns into something bigger and wilder and you don’t really know what will grow out of it, or when, or how, but it’s all in there somehow. Right? I’ve fitted myself here in this city like a book on a shelf but who’s to say when I won’t wake up and think about the carvings and the stillness and the history of the temples I touristed around for two days.


I went to Siem Reap mostly because I was in the neighbourhood. I mean, I went to Cambodia because I was in the neighbourhood, more or less, and I thought it’d be a shame not to see Kat if I were only a two hour flight away, and of course what is Cambodia known for, beside Angelina Jolie and devastating genocide but Angkor Wat, right? I mean I was right there, a mere six-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh, and so it seemed like a good idea to go and see what it was all about.


In keeping with the feel of the rest of the trip, I was supremely lazy about this. We were at our gorgeous guesthouse in Kep and I was all, “Hey Kat, remember how I said I might want to visit some temple things? Maybe we should sort that out now,” and she was all “No problem!” and called a friend and spoke in Khmer for ten minutes and then was all “Okay I’ve booked your hotel and your temple guide and your driver and set your itinerary to visit my favorite temples. The driver will pick you up at the bus station. Another iced coffee?” And that was that. So I basically did no research and knew nothing about the temples or Siem Reap, the main tourist town that supports the area. Kat took me to get some fish bread (French baguette-type roll with, yes, dried fish in it, and it’s awesome) dropped me off at the bus station where people were loading up their live chickens, and we hugged goodbye and I was alone for the first time all week, having no idea what I was going to do but trusting that she’d sorted it out for me—which, of course, she had.


The bus ride was pretty funny—there were no actual chickens on the bus with me, but there was a very loud TV that played a variety of what I think were Cambodian karaoke videos, which had to be seen to be believed.


I couldn’t understand the lyrics of course but I could get the gist of most of them and I seriously could not tear my eyes away—I got really disappointed when the video would switch to a Khmer stand-up comic or an old Jackie Chan movie. The themes were mostly the same: big strong buff dude loves delicate shy lady and looks at her longingly, where she demurs but secretly she looks at him too. And then sometimes they hug, chastely, with ecstatic looks on their faces, but they never kiss. One time there was this one dude, who, according to my close read of the video, was engaged to this one mean girl but only to please his mother, and there’s this other girl that’s in love with him but she can’t tell him but I think he probably knows anyway and then he invites her to his wedding and she is so sad! But she goes anyway, which honestly I do not advise, if you’re a lady who likes a dude who’s, like, engaged. Anyway the dude’s mom is all excited at the wedding (where the mean girl wears a big puffy white Western-style wedding dress and stands around looking mean) and then the dude, as he’s saying his vows looks over at the other girl and she looks at him, bravely holding back the tears, and he looks at her, and the mom looks at him, and so does the mean bride (but maybe she wasn’t even that mean! Maybe you had to get to know her!) and THEN the dude is all like, “Eff this mate” and he runs away from his mean bride (who maybe had problems of her own, did anyone ever think of THAT) and grabs the other girl and the mom freaks out and the dude and the other girl leap into this silver convertible and they rush away in the night with absolutely no traffic which makes me think that this video was not filmed in Phnom Penh.

Anyway, between the karaoke videos and the fish bread, six hours on the bus wasn’t long enough and soon we arrived at the Siem Reap bus station and the driver Tola was there to pick me up and take me to my hotel, which, although it was a very reasonably priced fifteen dollars American a night, was like a palatial marble mansion, at which I felt like something of an imposter, with my fuzzy hair and my green pack. It was a little lonely but it was very close to all the main tourist things in Siem Reap, which was perfect for me. I ended up not going out at all in the evenings, except to eat dinner, and reading a book a night for three nights when I got home from the temples.


About the temples, I’m not sure what to say. I didn’t know what to expect—I mean I expected to see temples, and I knew there was one with a big tree in the middle, and I knew they were thousands of years old, but that was it. I went to all the big ones: Banteay Srei, Ta Prohm, Angkor Wat, and Bayon. Kat had hired an official guide—I just realized that I didn’t get any pictures with him or with my driver, stupidly, nor of me sitting in the back of the tuk-tuk drinking a bottle of water and looking around from behind my oversized sunglasses, which is how I spent a fair part of those two days—and that was really useful, as you’d imagine. Muni studied full-time for three months to learn the history of the temples, and even sketched out a couple of the construction methods and floor plans on the back of a postcard. “Beautiful, delicate, intricate,” he said, many times. We talked about other stuff too (he asked my opinions on Obama) but mostly I tried to take in what he was saying and make some sort of sense of what I was seeing.




It’s all mashed together in my head now, several weeks later—but to be fair it was all mashed together while I was walking around with Muni the first day, and alone on the second, too: gods and priests and kings, Hindus and Buddhists, carvers and engravers and dancing girls and even ordinary people too, who would have just lived in the nearby villages and I guess gone over to the temples at various times for various reasons, just a part of their lives. I had all the thoughts people usually have when they walk around through all that history: who made this? What were they like? What did they think about as they walked through these corridors?





Everyone likes Ta Prohm of course, because it is so cool.



I did too—I mean I’m not made of stone!


There were heaps and heaps and heaps of other tourists, as you’d imagine, from all over the world. It was really nice having my own guide (Muni told me that the English-speaking guides get paid the sort of basic rate—they can make more money if they speak German or Japanese or Chinese or something other than English) because I wouldn’t have had the slightest idea of what was what otherwise, and I don’t think I would have enjoyed being part of a group for some reason, though I’ve certainly had a good time on group tours before. It was just a lot more chill and relaxed to be on my own agenda, just to walk around and chat and look and take pictures and look around some more and then get in the tuk-tuk and go on.




Many of the temples were really well-preserved but I was sort of shocked to see how much rubble was just laying around. We talked about how when you go to a duomo in Italy or something, you generally can’t just bust up to the frescos and leave fingerprints on them there, but that’s what happens at the temples, all the time. There’s been a lot of vandalism over the years and there was a whole room of headless Buddhas who were too heavy to carry away altogether.



This Buddha was dressed up; the open palms mean “Don’t be afraid.” I thought that was a good thought to start the new year with.


I dig this apsara’s hair.


Depictions of hell on the Churning of the Sea of Milk wall.


I was a little more interested, as usual, in animal pictures. I like this lobster.


Also this elephant.


Because I was leaving no stone unturned, tourist-opportunity-wise, of course I got up at butt-thirty in the morning on my third and last day in Siem Reap to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat.


The atmosphere reminded me of nothing so much as a summer hippie music festival for some reason—lots of people milling excitedly in the dark, waiting for something big to happen, taking pictures. Everyone cheered when the sun finally came up, like the headlining band finally had come on stage.


My favorite part of the whole thing was walking up the loooong arcade in the dark, before dawn, knowing that the big temple was in front of me and that I was walking toward it but not being able to see anything but the stars and the shadows of everyone else walking along. Kind of hugging myself in a little secret way, thinking that no one on earth except Tola knew right where I was at that moment, and I was completely alone with all those other people who maybe had come there, maybe, to be a little bit alone as well.


After the sunrise it was, of course, still really early, so Tola took me to Bayon for my last site of the trip. By that point I was feeling slightly templed out—I mean I had had very intense discussion about bas-relief for about six hours the day before—so I just sort of ambled along quietly looking at things and taking the occasional picture. Somehow I was always a step ahead of the big tours so I had a lot of it to myself that morning.




At a certain point when I was just wandering towards the tuk-tuk pickup point I randomly veered off to the right and hopped inside a very small temple—it seemed almost human-scale-sized, after all the others. There were some carvings but nothing like Banteay Srei or Angkor Wat, nothing famous I don’t think. I don’t even know what it was called. I just found a non-carved little window-seatish place to sit and looked out at the jungle for a while. Watched a spider weaving her web, which felt like watching an action movie after looking at so much architecture. It was so quiet, sitting there, thinking about nothing, not having to be anywhere for a few moments, not required to admire. Early morning in a falling-down temple, cool and green and misty. It seemed like it took me a long time to walk back to the main path.


It was so strange being there—not even at the temples themselves so much, because it was an activity and there were sort of protocols to follow and things to do: get in the tuk-tuk, take pictures, repeat “Intricate! Delicate!” I felt very alone for most of the time I was in Siem Reap though—which for the most part was a nice feeling although I did start to feel the effects of not having any conversations except with people with whom I was having financial transactions: Tola and Muni, the ladies at the spa where I spent three hours and the last of my discretionary funds when I got back from the temples that last day, the various people who sold me my lunches and dinners and iced coffees. A huge contrast to all the time I’d spent in Kep talking with Katherine about pretty much anything I could think of, for hours at a time.

It was good couple of days, though, if sometimes a little unsettling and awkward. I got to see some things and think some thoughts that maybe I wouldn’t have been able to, if I’d had anyone to share it all with. It was good to be there alone.






One response to “Cambodia: Siem Reap and Angkor Wat”

  1. g. Avatar

    So cool — reading this makes me want to travel alone, something I’ve done rarely and without much success. Being alone in a strange brings out my DANGER!!!!! instincts and I always feel on edge.

    But you do it so gracefully that you inspire me to let go a little bit and give it another try. Thank you. :)