Cambodia and the Pull of Angkor Wat

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Since I'm the only person I know who would choose Cambodia over the Bahamas, I ended up flying to Siem Reap from Singapore alone. I would touch antiquity. Stand in the looming shadow of the sacred. I could hardly contain my thrill.

I descended from the plane into the morning light and stepped into my steamy Southeast Asian dream. The air, visibly hazy with humidity, fogged my glasses and the lens of my camera. Cambodia's lush beauty and its brutal history of genocide invoked a kind of intrigue that made me feel I was embarking on an adventure or a pilgrimage, or both.

I'm finally here. Oh my God, I'm really here! The entire trip felt pre-destined, like I was being sent (or summoned) to Angkor Wat, the largest religious complex in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site - the "City that is a Temple".

Angkor Wat
Image: Suetone Emilio/Hemis via ZUMA Press.


Strangely enough, I was seduced to this region by author John Burdette's unflattering portrayal of Khmers in his Bangkok-based crime series. He paints "jungle Khmers" as violent, illiterate, dangerous and deeply superstitious. In person, the Khmer I encountered possessed an uncommon beauty I found appealing for the dark fullness of their features and their "unChinese"-ness.

I am accustomed to Asians being smaller than me. The first Khmer men I saw were not small. Or maybe it was only the menace that made them seem bigger. None of the male airport officials were small and none of them smiled. I couldn't help but wonder whose side the older officers had been on during the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields years.

I'd read enough novels and travel essays set in Southeast Asia to know the Khmer still very much believe in magic. So when I would look up and see the male tuk tuk drivers staring with disquieting intensity at me from across the street, I wondered if they were reciting silent incantations. And when the children circled me at the temples, hawking their junk trinkets while chanting, "Madame, you buy from me! Madame, okay? You buy four for one dolla, okay?" It seemed even the children had the power to cast spells.

The towers themselves were beyond imagination. Ancient stone temples sprout dreamlike out of a mist shrouded jungle. Partially collapsed towers wrapped in massive jungle tree roots, thick trunks thrust upward through crumbled ceilings and limbs snake over walls. Shaven Buddhist monks draped in saffron robes linger in the shadowy temple interior, praying and making offerings to Buddha, enveloped in wafting ribbons of incense. Khmer women in Apsara dance costumes glide past, serenely unaware of their unearthly beauty. (Incongruously, I took a picture with a group of Apsara dancers at the famous smiling faces Bayonne temple for a buck.)

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then sacred must be in the soul of the seeker. Angkor Wat is every bit as awe-inspiring as it seems.

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