It was the summer of 1999. I had just finished my undergraduate degree, found out I had been accepted into McMaster medical school and was preparing for a trip of a lifetime to Southeast Asia. Life was awesome, the stars were aligning. The trip I had planned was slightly daring, very exciting, and held the promise of something I had wanted to see for years: ruins of an ancient civilization buried in the jungle of Cambodia – Angkor Wat.
I flew to Hong Kong first, then Thailand, reveling in my newfound doctorishness. Bangkok, down to the beaches in the south (THAT was crazy), then up north to Chiang Mai for a three day trek in the jungle. The plan was to fly to Cambodia from there for the grand finale – the jungle temples.
Only that never happened. On the second day of the jungle trek I woke up with the worst headache of my life, then I got a fever and the body pains. Dengue fever. I remember snippets of the febrile delirium – floating on a raft; our guide piggy-backing me because I couldn’t keep up with the group. He took me straight to the hospital when we returned. I was admitted for a week. No time for Cambodia.
Twenty years later
Twenty years have passed and I find myself back in Southeast Asia – this time with a wife, four kids, and a prime directive to see and do as many cool things as possible. Hello again, Cambodia!
We flew directly to Siem Reap from Thailand. Our Airbnb (which was amazing) was located on the north side of the city and just minutes away from the nearest Angkor site: Angkor Thom (the “Great City”). Some people think Angkor Wat is a singular phenomenon. In fact, it’s fame is due to its size – at over 400 acres, it is one of the largest religious sites in the world. And it was built almost 1000 years ago. In the middle of the jungle.
Logistics – cheap and easy
The locals are used to showing tourists around the temples. For $15 – 25 USD per day (depending on which sites you want to see), you will have your very own tuk tuk driver who will drive you where you need to go, then wait until you’re ready to drive to the next temple, often stringing up a hammock and napping while you’re out getting your mind blown by ancient ruins. First stop of the day, however, is the permit office where you will pay $37 USD for one day or $62 USD for a three day pass. Kids under 12 are free (yeah!).
Setting foot on sacred ground
It’s one thing to be told a fantastic story, quite another thing to see proof. As we approached Angkor Wat for the first time, those images I’d seen in a Lonely Planet book in 1999, flickered over the scene in front of me like some weird augmented reality experience. It was like seeing Pokeroo for the first time. A myth materialized. Suddenly, unexpectedly, my view of the world changed.
Angor Wat, Angkor Tom, Bateay Srei, Ta Prohm, Bayon . . . these are just a few of the Angkor temples spread out in the jungle around Siem Reap. Originally built as Hindu places of worship, they were gradually converted to Buddhism. Like the Aya Sofia in Istanbul, another example on one religion adapting another’s buildings for their own purposes. Waste not.
It’s a place you have to experience to understand. You need to see the 9km moat that surrounds Angkor Wat; the 10 million giant sandstone blocks that were mined 40km away – far more material than all the pyramids combined – then brought together in perfect geometry and meticulous joinery; the miles of bas-relief carvings that adorn nearly every surface. The whole thing was accomplished with elephants, coir ropes, bamboo scaffolding, and the cooperation of thousands of people over many decades.
The best part is what you can’t see
The temples are gorgeous marvels of history in isolation, but the truth is even more awe-inspiring: nine hundred years ago, they were all connected as part of a thriving jungle metropolis the size of London England. The stone temples are the parts that remain – barely.
Jungle vines and trees are slowly overwhelming the blocks and carvings, tearing them apart in slow motion. But for five hundred years the landscape around around Angkor Wat and the other temples was very different. The climax of the Khmer civilization saw miles and miles of farming villages connected by waterways, supporting a population of up to a million people. This at a time when London had a population of 30 000 and the Iroquois and Algonquin cultures were squabbling over the wilderness that is now New York City.
Around 1600AD, the Khmer people abandoned the Angkor temples as the Thai empire overtook the land. Angkor Wat is one of the only temples that was not completely abandoned, being cared for by a small group of Japanese Buddhist monks who had coexisted alongside the Khmer. In contrast to the other temples, it is remarkably well-preserved. Four hundred years of neglect had turned many of the other sites into jumbled piles of ornately carved rubble. It has taken an international cooperative effort to put these massive puzzle pieces back together.
Empires never last
Once recovered from the shock and awe of seeing the temples in person, it’s hard not to think about the evolution of empires and transience of power. The fall of civilizations is no longer a story. I’ve seen proof. It’s not just a possibility; it’s an inevitability. The question is how to navigate that process.
When we got back to our Airbnb that evening, we got chatting with our host about the demographics of her customers. It used to be that many of her guests came from Western countries. Now, as the government forms stronger ties with China, more and more of her customers are Chinese as well. She seems to have mixed feelings about this . . . but you can’t stop the winds of change.