“At [Angkor], there are ruins of such grandeur that, at the first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilised, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?”
~Henri Mouhot, French naturalist & explorer who first documented Angkor Wat to the Western world, Travels in Siam, Cambodia and Laos (published posthumously, 1863)
A trace of feathery clouds hangs in a blue Bangkok sky as we wait in line to board our Bangkok Airways flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Herb and I are part of a group of 18 travelers who have signed on for a post-cruise trip to Angkor Wat. The one-hour flight will take us eastward, over farmlands of Thailand and northern Cambodia. We are traveling light for the two-night stay, with carry-ons in hand and the rest of our luggage on its way to a hotel in Bangkok.
The journey is a bookend of our travels that began in Tokyo two-and-a-half weeks earlier. It feels as if we’ve been away much longer. Time has a way of stretching out when you’re away from home. My thoughts turn to Angkor Wat, a place that has been dancing in my travel imagination ever since I first learned that such a place existed. I try to settle my enthusiastic nerves by looking out the window, concentrating on the green fields below. Big dreams, of course, can lead to big disappointment. But I highly doubt that will happen with Angkor Wat. I just can’t wait to get there.
We are traveling with a Bangkok land agent named Kat who coordinated our travel arrangements with Regent Seven Seas Cruises. At the Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport, she introduces us to our guide Salon. The airport just opened in October, and Salon explains that it’s about an hour’s drive to Angkor Wat – much farther than the old airport was, but more equipped to handle the crowds. This is the beginning of the dry season, he tells us, when tourism starts to take off. It’s hot and humid, and it will only become more hot and humid as the season gets into full swing.
Salon spends the hour’s ride talking about plans for the next two days. He seems eager to show us his part of the world, and his knowledge, enthusiasm and humor are immediately evident. We will be visiting Angkor Wat after lunch, later in the afternoon, when the light will be optimum. And we shouldn’t worry about getting great photos. “I know all the best spots!” he assures us.
A Little Angkor Wat Background
Angkor Wat is the largest religious complex in the world, spread across more than 400 acres. It was constructed during the Khmer Empire between the 9th and 13th centuries, with most of its temples, monuments, terraces and moats built in the 1100s. Angkor was the capital of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer civilization and had a population of one million at the peak of the empire. Originally a Hindu temple, it was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple at the end of the 12th century.
French naturalist and explorer Henri Mouhot reached Angkor Wat on an expedition into the interior of Cambodia in 1860 and recorded weeks of observations and illustrations in his travel journals. Although he was not the first Westerner to explore the area, his writings generated extraordinary interest, and he is credited with being the first person to document Angkor Wat to the Western world.
Mouhot died from contracting malaria on an expedition in Laos in 1861. His journals on Angkor Wat were published posthumously two years later.
Angkor Wat At Last!
It’s after 3 p.m. when we arrive at the western entrance to Angkor Wat. The sun is hanging low in the sky, sometimes disappearing completely behind a heavy cover of clouds. We begin our walk on a stone causeway that serves as a bridge over the moat surrounding Angkor Wat. The temple stands majestically on a raised terrace above the rest of the city. It looks much larger than I’d imagined, and once inside, the scope becomes impossible to describe.
It’s simply endless.
It’s nearly dusk, and Salon is keeping us on track to arrive at his favorite photo stop just before sunset. The crowds have thinned, and the empty feeling that settles over the temple is palpable. I try to imagine what it must have been like when one million people lived here. When there were rooms instead of ruins. When life was rich and full of promise.
On to Tomorrow
On the way to our hotel, Salon fills us in on the next day’s activities. “Meet me in the lobby at 8 a.m. I want to get out early when it’s cooler, and we have a lot to see.” Covering our knees and shoulders will no longer be required, he tells us – welcome news in this part of the world.
The staff at the Borei Angkor Resort greets us by putting the palms of their hands together in a praying position and slightly bowing – a practice we begin to experience everywhere in Siem Reap. Like learning how to say “hello” or “thank you” in another language, it’s one of those customs that seems natural and easy to reciprocate, and we find ourselves greeting the Cambodian people we meet in the same manner.
I fall asleep recreating the past hours in my mind, with images of Angkor Wat weaving in and out like a slide show that keeps repeating. It has been an extraordinary day – even more wonderful than I had hoped. And I can’t wait for tomorrow.