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Travel Image: Cambodia
Travel Image: Cambodia

Angkor Wat: The Jewel in Cambodia’s Crown (cont.)

I spend the first day at the Bayan, a ruin of surpassing beauty in the Angkor complex, adorned with fifty-four huge faces of the Boddhisatva Avalokisesvara. I wander the ruins in a daze, ignoring the incredible heat beating down on me. The children are a novelty at this stage of my journey, and I indulge them as they try to sell me guide books filled with facts I already know, and musical instruments I have no desire to lug around. A few offer their services as guides, and occasionally I take them up on their proposal – though we must be careful none of the licensed guides catch us, lest we both wind up in trouble with the authorities (or more realistically, doling out more money to grease the wheels of the law).

My second day I visit Angkor Wat. This is the jewel in Cambodia’s crown, and for excellent reason. Though the throngs of tourists are disheartening (this is the most accessible of Angkor’s ruins, and therefore the most frequented), I manage to find niches to hide away and soak up the energy on my own. Every inch of this place seems covered in facades, either of apsaras (the dancers of Indra’s court), or else some battle or hunting scene from the Khmer empire’s glorious past. It is nearly nine-hundred years old, but still has a living, breathing pulse so strong you can feel it pumping through your veins. I find a window sill at the top of the innermost temple, and sit meditating for an hour or so. It is here I will spend much of my next two weeks; here I will befriend the many monks with whom I trade English lessons for Khmer lessons; and here I will watch the sun set over the jungles of Cambodia.

Time in this place ebbs and flows in a manner that defies all explanation. The days pass by in the blink of an eye, yet upon reflection whole lifetimes seem to have elapsed. I spend days at Ta Prohm – a jungle temple made famous by being a shooting location for the film Tomb Raider – and yet those days could not be expressed in an entire book, much less a few words. A temple reclaimed by the jungle, Ta Prohm is filled with a raw and primeval energy evidenced by the enormous strangler figs that seem to grow forth from the very stones.

The Khmer are the kindest and most gentle people I have met in my travels, even in this tourist trap and with all the Western lures these travelers bring. Entire evenings are spent around a fire singing with Khmer women and men, them laughing good-naturedly at my broken Khmer, me simply trying to keep up with their songs and fast-paced speech.

When it is time to leave Siem Reap, I feel as though I’m leaving my home. My hosts have become my friends - an ephemeral family - and our parting is a tearful one. As I sit on the bus heading south, however, I know I will be returning to this place. Two weeks is not enough time to understand the resonance of this holy place. A lifetime would not suffice. These mighty ruins, and the amazing people that live among and around them, are more than reason enough to brave sweltering heat, mosquitoes, and kamikaze drivers of all stripes – and after all, what fun would it be if not for a little hardship?

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