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Unexpected Gifts of Siem Reap

Siem-Reap-sanctuaryCicadas chirp and the fragrance of jasmine wafts across as I walk down the sunless hallway. I have come to Siem Reap, Cambodia with expectations. I want to be Pierre Dieulefils spying Victory Gate peeking from the luscious tangle. I want to be Nathan Drake hunting for Jayavarman’s crown among the haphazard rubble. I want to be Jean Commaille capturing the eerie Bayon profiles in watercolor. A dragonfly curtain parts when I emerge into the courtyard to encounter a hundred vacuous faces staring into their cameras. Two girls scream as they chase each other around the cornucopia of fallen slabs. Their brother howls in misery as they steal his hat. A mother yells at her son because he has strayed out of her eyesight. A lady holding a canary-colored parasol jumps in front of me and twists into various contortions to achieve the perfect pose for her selfie. I duck back into the passage, playing hide-and-seek with my unknowing participants. I clamber down the only vacant corridor, however, the shrieks and guffaws and interminable shutter clicks echo and amplify in the narrow space. 

Siem-Reap-towerTravel abhors assumptions; at every turn it takes the opportunity to disappoint. At Ta Prohm, I seethe among the thousands upon thousands of tour groups milling like killer ants over the debris and crowding into the minuscule chambers. They have a bathetic effect upon the romance of jungle and ancient ruins. The drama of discovering wilderness devouring undisturbed residuum from a past civilization is inexplicable. Siem-Reap-ruinsI know that it is only the skeletal refuse of a complex and vast metropolis. I understand that once this dense forest was plastered in wooden huts, canals, roadways, and palaces teeming with people. I realize that the moss eaten laterite does not resemble the garish gilded magnificence of the original Khmer edifices. I prefer the decaying bones; dignity effuses through the crumbling framework. The viscous grip of the ropey fig trunks entwined about the sanctuary roofs seduces me. The mood piece I envisioned is what I presume to experience.

Siem-Reap-treeI meet my driver Mr. Satheay and tell him that I yearn to avoid hordes. He giggles and takes me to the Elephant Terraces. The weather darkened platforms are empty of people. A monkey perches on a toppled column chewing his banana in peace. I wander the gallery of carvings, musing over broken symbols and headless figures. Every so often a polished white statuette gleams, incongruous and jarring among the soot-colored compilation. Siem-Reap-carvingsRestoration work is essential in archaeology to gain a fuller comprehension of history, but I had not anticipated how incompatible it would look amongst the deteriorating decorations. Although the reconstructions replicate authentic workmanship, it feels as if I am witnessing a plastic head upon Michelangelo’s David. Expectations of mystique vanish and I scurry away, disenchanted.

Siem-Reap-templeOutside the vast Angkor Thom compound I battle a phalanx of tuk-tuks, idling buses, taxis, coconut sellers, and tots peddling hats. The provocative postcards never reveal the tumult of humanity encircling each temple, desperate for lucre. Seething with frustration, I stomp in and out of the empty rooms in a heat addled daze. What was the purpose of these quarters? Devoid of meaning, they tell me nothing about life back then. The small of my back has grown a leaky faucet while the parade of tiered galleries and stepped rostrums merge into a hazy blur. Turning a corner I see a monk, his face mapped in wrinkles, mesmerized by a panel. He studies it as if he had unearthed creation’s secret; I study him, wondering how he is oblivious to his raucous surroundings. Siem-Reap-apsaras-BTWhen he leaves, I scoot over to the area to examine his object of attention: two exquisite apsaras float in a midair tantric pose. Their delicate voluptuous bodies contort in the joys of dance, at once transcendent and sensuous. They are whispers from the past and I stand transfixed before the effervescent pair. The multitudes fade, the cicadas begin their melodious orchestra, and I imagine a scene from yesteryear: the real dancers sway hips in the courtyard to languorous strains.

Siem-Reap-hallPerhaps I do not need to imbibe the entirety of these sites, perhaps I need only find a niche which can transport me backwards in time. At Bayon tourists swarm over the enigmatic visages and the dim maze of tunnels crawls with cell phones. I am determined to engage with the place, so I hunt for a spot where I can view the stacked effigies. A couple takes over a ledge, a family of four picnics on choice mantel, a kid seizes a sill. I wedge into the corner opposite to view two of the bodhisattvas. Taking out pad and pencil, I concentrate on sketching the sphinx-like profiles. Siem-Reap-Bayon-BTCracks and abrasions make outlines difficult; still I persist as beads of sweat drip onto the sheet. The drone of voices fades into the background while I struggle to express on paper the terror and elegance of the countenances before me. I picture the artisan hunched in absorption, bare toes clinging to wooden support, striving to embody serenity onto stone. He and I are one at the moment, engrossed in our work. I have created my peace.

Siem-Reap-roadHours later, as the sun sets, I request Mr. Satheay to take me to Angkor Wat. There is a traffic jam of vehicles and vendors leaving for the day. I grapple against the flow of a sightseers’ stampede, following the twisting arcades to the rear of the multiplex. Scaffolding encases most towers, tarp hangs over many entrances. New, soap-hued pavers interspersed among the soot hued walls twinkle in the fading light, smug and opulent. I ignore the repairs, instead marveling that I am allowed to walk within collapsed grandeur, able to touch beguiling craftsmanship. Siem-Reap-doorwayA woman, barely perceptible in the shadows, sweeps dust off a door frame. Squinting to detect her, I notice the portal leads nowhere; rather it is a frame displaying shattered pillars. Dragonflies flit through it towards a banyan tree. I chase after them and run into a carved window shuttered for infinity, a surreal spectacle I would not have witnessed if it had not been restored. I fixate upon its dreamlike essence, lose myself in its romance.

Siem-Reap-columns-BTI came to Siem Reap with expectations about what I would uncover and how it would look. I am leaving grateful for the unexpected gifts the universe has brought to me in this place. To be still in the midst of chaos, to submerge into a fantasy world through the gyrations of a sculpted wrist, to discern beauty in tumult are enviable abilities to me. Yet, here I sit upon an aged stoop, an explorer of fresh delights; an adventurer amid the extraordinary because of felicitous circumstance and faded apsaras.Siem-Reap-yogi


There are plenty of temple ruins at Siem Reap that continue to provide the romance and atmosphere of yesteryear. Spend the day at Preah Khan, East Mebon, Banteay Kdei, and the smaller shrines of the Ruolous group to experience the enigma and splendor of the ancient Khmer dynasties.

Have your expectations been exceeded or crushed by a travel experience? Is there a destination about which you have certain expectations?


33 replies »

    • The architecture at the temples is very beautiful, more so in the ones where nature has overtaken the ruins. Since there are at least fifteen temples in the Angkor region, it would be difficult to spend only a day in the area if you want to visit several.

  1. “I prefer the decaying bones; dignity effuses through the crumbling framework” I definitely agree with this. I prefer Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur to garishly-painted Tamil temples elsewhere, for example. But I also realize that most temples were once painted. Time makes people wiser, it surely makes temples look more elegant as well.

    • I too realized that the ancient temples at Siem Reap were once garishly gilded and painted. What a surprise it was to see a recreation of what they probably looked like in their heyday. I love your quote, “Time makes people wiser, it surely makes temples look more elegant as well.” Perhaps it is the imagined possibilities that appear when we see ruins rather than restored history that make them more powerful. Or perhaps it is how forcefully decaying relics remind us of our own future that fascinates us. Thank you so much for sharing your particular experience and your thoughts about temple ruins!

  2. Angkor looks pretty much the same as it did 10 years ago when I visited the temples. I hope they continue to keep it in shape, despite the huge amount of tourists every year.

  3. Fantastic journey and photos, thank you! We visited Angkor Wat a few months ago and can relate to the heat-fuelled urge to escape crowds…

    There were two things that helped though: one, we were warned ahead and adjusted our expectations; two, we asked our guide to do the exact opposite route that most of the visitors do. It certainly worked, and I cherish the privilege of visiting a place such as Angkor Wat!

    • Great advice for those planning on seeing the temples, especially in peak season. It does help that some of the complexes are so large, walking a bit further into them guarantees quiet spaces. Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your own experiences with us!

  4. Such beautiful words and descriptions to share your experience. I loved my time exploring the Angkor temples, and like you, yearned for a reprieve from the masses. The amazing thing is that I found stillness on a daily basis by just stepping out of the stream of tourists. I even managed to clamber up an obscure temple in the dark, and witness the sunrise all by myself with no one else around!

    • Thank you so much for reading my story. I so love hearing about people’s experiences at the Siem Reap temples and the different ways they have found to make the place their own. I think those who wish to have that immersive experience find ways to do so.

  5. Great post!! Thanks for sharing! I visited Siem Reap around 5 years ago and have longed to go back!! Thanks again for the great read! 🙂

      • No worries at all … It was a great post!! I loved the Angkor Wat but also the food and the buzzing nightlife was so brilliant too! Cambodia is really special and I will be returning one day I am sure!

  6. The Elephant Terraces was one of my favorite sites ~ and I had to smile at your introduction, you had the exact same feeling I did; dreams of the explorer moving into the unknown 🙂 I think that is something Siem Reap will always bring to us travelers, and even when I was surrounded by tourists the buildings or even a broken statue would take me back to the past and I felt alone. You say it well at the end, what a feeling it was to be submerged into a fantasy world. Even with high expectations coming in, Siem Reap blew me away 🙂

    • Who doesn’t dream of being a real-life treasure hunter? 🙂 The temples of Siem Reap, like the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu engage those sorts of fantasies. The reality of jostling with the crowds is a rude awakening for me, but it is wonderful when a place can allow for both the multitudes and the surreal at the same time.

  7. Outstanding post! I couldn’t agree more about the crowds and the necessity of seeing past them and finding places off the beaten path in Siem Reap and elsewhere. We tried to get to the various temples at either end of the day, which helped. Fortunately, the complex is enormous with many hidden nooks and crannies. I am not sure I would return, but I am glad I visited once.

    • Thank you so much! Yes, as you say some of the temple complexes are so vast that you can enjoy that feeling of being lost within. Was there a particular temple you enjoyed above the others?

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