Siem Reap – rhymes with Read ‘em and Weep – is the home of the famous Angkor Wat. Why is it famous, you ask? It’s famous because Angelina Jolie once posed as Lara Croft Tomb Raider in front of some temple ruins, twisted and crumbled under the weight of an ancient banyan tree here. I kid, I kid. I think even Angelina would protest that one. The temple ruins are the star attraction here. The network of temples takes over a space of 162.2 hectares, one hectares being roughly the size of a football field. Pretty dang big. It’s the biggest religious site in the world, in fact.
Nate and I planned a quick, two-night stay in the small town to go see what the buzzfeed (Top Ten Places to do Take Pictures of Monks in their Natural Habitat!) was all about. Quick, because Cambodia, like its neighbor to the north, Laos, doesn’t have any railways. Our PTSD flared up a bit at the country’s reputation for having rough, dirt roads and only buses to traverse them. Our experiences with buses hadn’t been great up to this point, to put it mildly, so we were not keen to spend more time than necessary. Actually, the 12 hour bus ride and border crossing from Saigon to Siem Reap wasn’t that bad. Or maybe it’s just that our expectations were set so low. As Nate and I are learning, the key to happiness – maybe in all aspects of life, but certainly while traveling – is low expectations.
Angkor Wat is one of those attractions in SE Asia that is best enjoyed at the crack of dawn so that one can glimpse the full majesty of the main temple while back-lit by a sunrise halo. At 4:30 am, then, Nate and I found ourselves shuffling down to the hostel lobby to meet up with some other gluttons-for-punishment while we waited for our tuk-tuk driver to take us to the ruins. Our fellow sunrise enthusiasts included: Juan, a Psychologist from Argentina; Marta, a Nurse from Spain; and George, a Project Manager from the Netherlands.
Maybe it was the pre-dawn ride, squished together in the back of a tuk-tuk that bonded us all immediately (and literally) together, but hanging with this group of people was quite possibly one of my favorite experiences of the SE Asia trip. We came from some pretty diverse backgrounds, but I found it vastly easier to relate to this laid back crew of young-ish professionals than say a gap year-style youngin’. My inner worry-wort didn’t once force me to obsess over how I might contribute to the free flow of conversation. It was so easy! I began to think of us as the cast in Wizard of Oz post-visit to the wizard. Juan the Tin Man, with his giant heart, shared everything without hesitation, keeping us all sustained with apples and peanuts when the food stalls around the temples were five times the normal price. George the Scarecrow had knowledge and curiosity, keeping the conversation stimulating with talk about everything from tattoos to probiotics to bitcoin. Marta the Lion told us about how when she wasn’t busy helping patients in the Oncology ward was bravely traveling alone to various corners of the world. I guess that makes Nate and I Dorothy and Toto, but I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide the rest of the metaphor from there.
We waited dutifully as the sun rose unseen behind some thick clouds, being entertained instead by children trying to sell George postcards that he’d already purchased and listening to the breakfast hawkers getting a laugh with their calls of “Angkor WHAT??!! BreakFAST!! CoFFEE!!!” After Nate purchased a painting of the temple at sunrise, the next best thing, we continued our trip down the yellow brick…er…I guess kinda blackish-brown brick road, chatting, posing, and taking surreptitious photos of monks (this was mostly Juan, but we tried to help the cause). The rest of the tour took us around some pretty amazing stone carvings and, of course, the banyan tree-covered ruins. We gave tourist groups wide-berths and talked about how the ruins would make excellent paintball fields [IMPORTANT NOTICE: Ancient ruins are never to be used as paintball fields]. Finally, we piled back in the tuk-tuk after monkeying around, and headed back to our hostel for some much-needed sleep.
We ended the night with happy-hour cocktails ($1.50 margaritas!) and a trip to the night-market for street food ($1.00 chicken anus on a stick!) and a stroll down Pub Street. This is where we had to say goodbye to our crew. Instagram accounts and invitations to stay in one another’s home countries were exchanged all around.
The temples of Angkor Wat were very awesome, but the impression I left Siem Reap with was one of comfort and reassurance. All throughout SE Asia, I’d been struggling with this new identity as a traveler. Previously, I’d categorized travelers as either young, pre-work people (how do they look so effortlessly boho-chic?!) or older, post-retirement people (same question!), and both groups of people intimidated me with how well this lifestyle suited them. My category of people was supposed to be making a living, or at the very least, making babies. Doing neither of these things, I felt like I was shirking my duty somehow. It’s not the American way! Meeting a motley crew of other like-minded and like-aged people really helped me to realize that travel is there for anyone at anytime. It’s not about why or how you’re doing the traveling but about the way it impacts you in the end.
Huh…I guess I really did get a gift from the Wizard after all…