the first thing any western tourist will notice visiting cambodia. temperatures always pushing 100 and the kind of assaultive humidity that sets your body to sweaty-mess mode within minutes. while air conditioning is somewhat prevalent, you don’t often encounter the arctic freezer level settings you’ll find in the US, so heat is your constant companion. you are always warm, you are always thirsty, and you spend a lot of your day marveling at how the cambodian people have adapted to this climate, nary a drop of sweat to be seen from the locals. you, however, will almost always look like you bathed in your clothes and will sweat from places you didn’t realize you had pores. so, you get over it and simply surrender.
siem reap, a city accommodating the hordes of visitors to angkor wat, feels at once a smallish country town, positively cambodian, but also entirely dictated by the whims of hospitality. riding along any of the city streets on a ubiquitous tuk tuk (an auto-rickshaw), the passing stores will inevitably go something like this: bar, bar, massage parlor, bar, craft store, massage parlor, massage parlor, craft store, bar, bar, guest house, bar, massage parlor/guest house/craft store, etc. etc. it’s a city built upon tourism, not without charms, but seeing restaurants promising the best mexican or italian cuisine in cambodia can be jarring if anticipation of visiting ancient temples leads you to expect a civilization untouched by western influences. you’ll hear the latest US top 40 songs blaring from bar rooftops, you’ll never be truly forced to use anything but english to communicate, and while the road traffic experiences might be unsettling to more conservative drivers, visiting siem reap isn’t the drastic culture shock one might expect traveling to one of the poorest countries in the world.
that being said, there are noticeable differences between walking the streets of siem reap and say washington dc. for one, you’ll smell durians. the rotten-sweaty-gym-sock fruit of south-east asia. like a spiky, stinky melon from hell, it’s everywhere, and you either love it or hate it. the markets in siem reap are tight, repetitively stocked, and filled with store owners ready to talk you into buying yet another scarf or buddhist bauble. sex trafficking is blatant, alarming, and deeply unsettling. you’ll see large, old, white men, flying solo around town, clearly on the prowl, while less than subtle pimps peddle available individuals to them on cell phones or in some cases simply by pointing. it’s revolting, pervasive, and hard to ignore.
and yet, generally, the cambodian people create a cultural atmosphere that is so utterly welcoming and charming. any misgivings aside, it’s hard to imagine anyone open to just a little bit of adventure not feeling almost immediately at ease in siem reap.
angkor wat is the tourist destination that brings people to this area of the world. and for good reason. even compared to other ancient ruins the world over, it is wholly unique. part testament to empire and hindu iconography, part otherworldly spiritual sanctuary, walking on the stones of these temple cities never feels quite real. it’s the kind of experience that while enjoyable in the moment, feels more profound days later when the magnitude and elegance of those ancient stones really sinks in.
a person could clearly spend days in the angkor wat national park. angkor wat itself, a funeral monument for king suryavarman ii, is overwhelming, confusing in its magnitude, and incredible to behold. but other temples and monuments scatter the land around angkor, ta prohm (the jungle temple), prasat bayon in the city of angkor thom, and other ruins dot the landscape, testament to the majesty of the khmer empire. it’s a very special place to visit.
angkor wat is a tourist destination, but the park itself doesn’t feel touristy. the temples are not closely surrounded by vendors (though you won’t have trouble finding souvenir stops), elephant rides are purchasable, but are also easy to avoid. perhaps we weren’t visiting during peak season, but as much as you’d see tourist groups, you’d just as often find yourself alone in the labyrinthine corridors of the temples, staring into the carved reliefs of ancient artisans.
the mix and match quality of buddhist and hindu iconography throughout angkor is fascinating. there are images of brahma everywhere, the four-faced creator god of hindu lore, but locals will suggest that the image is simply a multi-directional effigy for king suryavarman ii. the battle of kuruksetra of the bhagavad gita is everywhere. carvings of soldiers, war elephants, and chariots, outline walls that will often surround a statue of the buddha. you’ll see garuda, hanuman, ganesha, and indra, among other hindu deities, right before bumping into a carved reclining boddhisattva, it’s truly bizarre.
while buddhism and hinduism are close cousins, they are also completely different religions, and the marriage of the two faiths here is perhaps even more stark than any examples i could think of from judaic, christian, and muslim religious monuments being repurposed for another faith.
ta prohm, the jungle temple, is a favorite among tourists. while angkor wat overwhelms a visitor with its sheer size and ornate structure, ta prohm evokes an otherworldly serenity. nestled in a forest of banyan trees, the temple stones are being destroyed by the encroachment of nature, but this slow destruction creates a strange and peaceful beauty. there’s something wholly buddhist about the experience: the ancient stones of kings slowly brought to ruin by the ever continuing passage of time. it’s a study in impermanence; finding beauty and meaning in the cycle of creation to destruction to recreation. and if you’re not into metaphorical philosophical contemplation, it’s just really pretty.
apparently some of the lesser known temples within angkor are worth visiting and you can visit them undisturbed by other tourists. some are a little trickier to get to with limited access by road, so if you’re in a group with a limited schedule rest assured you won’t be disappointed with angkor wat, ta prohm, and prasat bayon. those temples will give a visitor all the iconic imagery people associate with angkor wat.
all photos by a.strain.