Say you’re an adult American who went to decent elementary and high schools; maybe even attended a good college. At some point during your life, you become aware there’s an amazing edifice in Egypt called the Great Pyramid of Giza. Although Egypt today is a pretty grubby, unstable place, you like to travel and resolve to see it. Only after arriving do you learn that Egypt once was the center of an advanced civilization, one that shaped a big portion of the ancient world. You might be shocked by the fact that somehow, you never heard of this.
That’s how I feel about Cambodia. Prior to this trip, I associated this little country only with American bombing raids toward the end of the war in Vietnam and the genocide that took place during Pol Pot’s regime. And, oh yeah. The largest religious building in the world was there, legendary for its beauty.
Travelers to Vietnam, like us, often tack on a side trip to this place, Angkor Wat. The closest Cambodian town to it is Siem Reap, which Steve and I reached Saturday via our speedboat up the river from Phnom Penh. With the help of our elegant Golden Butterfly guesthouse ($33 a night including a free half-hour transfer from the boat and two one-hour full massages), we arranged for a tuk-tuk driver and English-speaking guide to take us to the famous temple first thing Sunday morning. My first clue that this structure is more than just an building came when we drove along the man-made moat that surrounds it. As wide as 2 football fields, it forms a perfect rectangle almost a mile long in one direction by more than three/quarters of a mile in the other. Beyond the distant inner side of the moat, we could discern a great wall.
I’d seen plenty of pictures of Angkor Wat over the years, but none of them communicate the vast scale of the complex.After climbing out of the tuk-tuk, we crossed a long elevated causeway that took us over the moat. We passed through beautiful stone gates, then crossed an even longer, more majestic causeway spanning a vast green expanse. Only past a second gate does one truly behold the wat itself, composed of 5 separate towers, the central 100-foot-tall one built on three levels.We explored the first and second levels of the inner compound, then climbed a scarily vertical set of (modern) wooden stairs to get to the top of the central tower. There we surveyed the grand and beautiful composition surrounding us.
Not just the big picture is mind-boggling. The ancient Khmer laborers built most of these structures from big gray sandstone blocks that were quarried more than 30 miles away and floated down the river on rafts. Craftsman carved beautiful images on a staggering percent of their surfaces, images that tell elaborate stories from Hindu mythology.
At some point, I realized this was the first time in my life I’d been in a country where Hinduism is practiced. The wat was built by Suryavarman VII (between 1113 and 1152) to honor the Hindu god Vishnu. This great Khmer king was renowned for his tolerance, however, and also revered the Buddha (just as many Cambodians today observe practices from both religions). He did this while reigning over the greatest expanse of territory in Khmer history, including big chunks of what today is Vietnam, Thailand, and southern Laos. Like the Romans, Khmer engineers created a far-flung, complex network of roads and irrigation channels that laced together the realm.
They also built temples; more than 1800 of them have been identified in what today is Cambodia, according to our excellent guide, Tep Nat. In the two days we spent with him, we didn’t get close to seeing any of the oldest Khmer temples (some go back to the 600s). But the guide took us to a few built in the mid-900s. He showed us the celebrated Ta Prohm temple, crumbling and literally being consumed by gigantic trees (the movie Tomb Raider was filmed there.) Although some sites were crowded with cocky young Chinese Beautiful People and boisterous Korean groups and a potpourri of other international visitors, Nat several times led us to back entrances and adjoining pathways through the fantastic green cathedral of jungle, where we were the solitary worshippers.
Like Varik, our guide to the 60s architecture in Phnom Penh, Nat a few times expressed regret at all that the Khmer people have lost over the centuries. Still, things sometimes improve. At one point, Nat mentioned he was keeping a written record of his life to pass on to his three young children. That memoir is already more than an inch thick. Just a baby when the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, he lost his father, two brothers, and numerous other relatives during that dreadful period. Life as a subsistence farmer (how most Cambodians today survive) didn’t seem promising to him, so he worked for a while as a fisherman and then a waiter (in Phnom Penh). Civil war — between Cambodian government forces and the remnants of the Khmer Rouge — raged during most of his childhood and teenage years. That conflict killed around 5 million Cambodians (dwarfing Pol Pot’s toll of 2 million victims). But the war finally ended in 1998, and Nat moved to Siem Reap the next year, sensing opportunites there. He did odd jobs at first. Then he bought a motorbike to make a living with it, then moved on to tuk-tuk driving (struggling along the way to teach himself English). He finally saved up enough to go to guide school and got his guide license in 2007.
He confessed to us that his dream was to one day save up enough money to visit Singapore. He yearned to see what life in a modern country was like. I could have told him. But sometimes you have to go to a place yourself to get it.