Love in the Ruins of Angkor Wat

Erica Jong once wrote that the most effective way to exorcise a lover from your mind is to write about him. It is through words with which your memories of him can be expelled, out of the heart and into the air, until his presence stops clouding your head. I think the same goes for the places you fall in love with, places that grab the heart and trap the soul. Places from which you can physically leave, but are impossible to depart completely. Places that haunt you with their beauty, long after you have left. siem reap-33 One such place is Siem Reap, the tourist hub of Cambodia. What can be seen in Siem Reap, aside from the famous UNESCO-hailed temples of Angkor? I am not privy to the hidden gems of Siem Reap. There are many must-see sights that I had missed. For instance, I walked inside the ruins of Ta Prohm but did not find the recently discovered wall carving of a curious creature, purported to be a dinosaur. siem reap-211 When you are visiting a foreign land for the first time, with roughly 24 hours to spend in it, getting off the beaten track does not seem like a smart option. It takes time and effort and a whole lot of Internet research to plan a unique itinerary, so being unoriginal, being a tourist, in most if not every sense of the word, doesn’t seem like such a crime, especially if the place you are visiting is as majestic as the Angkor Wat complex. siem reap-4 At first sight from a moving tuktuk, reflected by the still waters of a baray, the Angkor Wat is beautiful: it being all stone and shadows and looming grandeur. There is no better word for it. Towering against a backdrop of rather gloomy skies, the Angkor Wat, which dates back to the 12th century, could elicit a “Wow!” from the most world-weary traveler. You may have seen it before, but does the mystique ever fade? change? To lose oneself in the age-old temple corridors is to be lost in the folds of ancient time. siem reap-24 Just think: the dusty stone path you are walking on is the same path walked on by Khmer royalty. The walls bear exquisite bas-reliefs that will make you marvel at the dead empire’s creative genius. The temples, rising steeply a hundred feet above the ground, testify to the power once held by the Kingdom of Kampuchea. All that remains are bones, brittle and weathered but beautiful, nonetheless. siem reap-49 But the kingdom’s fall from power is best evidenced through the children that roam the temples like ghosts. Walking to a souvenir shop is impossible without being approached by at least one child, skinny and hungry-eyed, carrying an assortment of things in his or her arms: postcards, woven bracelets, little Buddhas, t-shirts, wooden drums. They clutch your arm and tug at your shirt while saying, “Please, lady. Just one dollah! One dollah! Help for school, lady. Please.” siem reap-159 On the way to Siem Reap, while we were stopped at a loading dock on the Mekong River, a dirty faced boy with scraggly hair climbed on our bus, holding on to the roof for support, feet on the ledge, hanging outside the window like a monkey. He rapped on the window and gestured towards his mouth. Feed me, he was saying. Behind him, on a vast expanse of red sand, stood a couple of spindly-looking tin houses. siem reap-9 Cambodia is considered by the UN as a “least developed country.” The country currently has a per capita GDP of $2,700, whereas the Philippines has $4,600. I am accustomed to the sight of poverty in Manila—homeless families, shanties along highways, child beggars. In Cambodia, which is, I think it’s safe to say, a poorer country than the Philippines, the same destitute air prevails. To think that a land so rich in natural wonders is held back by a corrupt, bass-ackwards system is nothing short of sad. siem reap-139 Inside the Bayon temple, we met a college-aged boy who engaged us in small talk, casually dishing out historical trivia about the ruins. He offered to take our picture, which ended up slightly unfocused. I no longer recall how he drove the conversation to his straightforward request for a dollar, a fee for his less than five-minute stint as our unexpected—and unsolicited—tour guide. Yet I found myself drawing out money from my wallet anyway, and handing it to him with a smile. He thanked me in his accented English and walked away, perhaps to look for more tourists to guide. siem reap-137Outside the temple, we chanced upon a boy hiding behind the shade of a pillar. I asked if I could take his photo, but he just looked at me wordlessly, and stood as still as the stone faces of the Bayon when I snapped my camera. He did not ask me for a dollar afterwards. siem reap-218 In another world, in some distant past, it would have been quite the spiritual experience to visit the temples alone: to become lost in history with only your thoughts, and maybe a friend or two, to accompany you. But, as with any popular tourist destination, this is impossible. siem reap-147In recent years, the Angkor complex has been suffering from unsustainable tourism, aggravated by issues concerning management. On a related note, tourism is one of Cambodia’s foremost industries, second only to textile manufacturing. siem reap-25 The Angkor complex is so packed with tourists that taking a panoramic shot of the Preah Khan, for instance, is difficult. Pictures have to be retaken several times to get the perfect shot: a sweeping view of the temples, backdropped by lush greenery and bright skies. And just when you think you’ve had it, the photograph to end all photographs, warranting at least a hundred likes and a trail of appreciative comments on Facebook, you’d spot a disembodied rubber shoe-d foot on the corner of your picture, or a pair of bemused Chinese tourists, calmly gazing at the camera despite the “accidental” photobombing they had just committed. IMG_1914 Then again, maybe the secret of travelling IS getting off the beaten track—finding time to wander off into a quiet empty space, where the sense that you are here, on this spot on Earth, at this particular moment in time, consumes you like a lover who is hard to let go.

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One thought on “Love in the Ruins of Angkor Wat

  1. Hi Karmela ang ganda ng experience niyo sa Cambodia :) Cambodia will always leave a special ‘dent’ in every traveler’s heart who has visited the country.

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