I have popped my Siam Reap cherry.
By which I am not inferring some kind of South East Asian euphemism, I simply mean: I finally have been – copious photographic evidence below to attest to the fact – to Angkor Wat.
Our parents have visited Angkor Wat. Our visiting friends, too. All the backpackers that shuffle their blackened feet and crusty vests across this spectacular chunk of the world, have been to Angkor Wat (it’s only $20 for a day’s entrance, to boot) and, without exception, every ex-pat I have met these past two and a half years in Saigon has been about four or five times.
I’ll confess early-doors, I am not the most accomplished and well researched of tourists, even when it comes to seminal, life enhancing trips such as this one.
For example, I climbed (in a car) Machu Picchu back in February, conscious at the time of the following: that this was a very old set of immaculately preserved ruins, stumbled upon by a Dutch guy, some time back. I then discovered myself that if you actually hike up to one of the surrounding mountains, you are afforded a view quite unlike anything you have ever seen before in your life.
Afterwards, I did write about my Peru adventure on my rather poorly attended to sister blog (http://definitelymaybe.me/2013/03/12/inca-magic/) but here is that Machu Picchu “money shot” once more for anyone who hasn’t seen it with their own eyes…(“what, you’ve not been to Machu Picchu? oh you really must go, it will change your life, it’s so amaaazing…” blah, blah…)
But whilst travelling to this lost Inca world, I also found myself nestled quite happily into the quiet humdrum scene that is Cusco, a popular vantage point – at altitude – that Machu Picchu tourists use as a preparation base.
Quite an incredible place, somehow unchanged over centuries, yet with discreet Starbucks and KFC joints tucked away out of sight, and alpaca shawl sellers neatly situated on every street corner for that essential purchase.
As Cusco provided me with just as many highlights over that particular five day experience in South America as Machu Picchu itself did, so too does Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, offer you a perfectly pitched launch-pad to the country’s world famous temples in Siam Reap.
Phnom Penh is a tiny city compared to Saigon. It is charming, its people are full of that gentle and warming demeanour that is rife across certain parts of this region, but nowhere (in my limited experience so far) more in abundance than in Cambodia.
I kind of knew the trip was going to be a fun one, from the moment I frequented the toilet in the Saigon bus depot at 5:30am, iced coffee in hand and new novel at the ready for the six hour journey to Phnom Penh…
From then jumping off the bus (six hours, $11, and full of sleeping Vietnamese eager to cross the border, in large part for the men at least, so they can monopolise on Cambodia’s casinos – gambling for locals is illegal here in Vietnam) and picking up my first of many $3 tuk-tuks (tuk-tuk journeys in Phnom Penh are $3, regardless of your destination) all the way through to the final Cambodian exchange at the airport – buying chocolate at duty free – every brief encounter with hotel porter, waiter, and shopkeeper, helped contribute to the overall serenity and pace of a trip that was not so much about Angkor Wat, but more about pressing pause on life, and embracing being a tourist.
So, in my best tourist impersonation, I can tell you that Angkor Wat is also a very old set of ruins, temples, the oldest Sanskrit religious places of worship in Cambodia. I couldn’t tell you whether they are older than Machu Picchu or not (and I feel checking on wikipedia right now would almost compromise the lingering ignorance and oddly comforting uncertainty I feel about not knowing the answer to this). However, what I can say is that I want to go back and see more.
I am not a person of strong religious faith, nor someone yet with any real sense of the spiritual. That said, during some of the moments at Angkor Wat – peaceful snatches of time reflecting in front of a heap of antiquated bricks and mortar and water and trees (trees with roots the size of transit vans) – it was very easy to slip into the sort of meditative state of thought that certainly feels as spiritual as I have known it before.
At the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, eighteen years ago, I had a similar ‘moment’, stood gazing upon the hundreds of fellow visitors, bowing and praying in unison in the evening light. Their chanting causing my skin to bump, and my mind to wander, and wonder.
Back in 1995 I was a volunteer on a kibbutz (feet almost always blackened, and my vest drawer stocked full) and I will never forget that ‘pressing pause’ feeling, and duly soaking up all there was around me.
Wind forward, and wind forward some more. These pause moments are very plausibly each connected, they can thread feelings and emotions together, over time and against all odds. Essential items to be packed in the tourist kitbag.
Cambodia, I will be back.