What will be our Angkor Wat?: Explorations in Angkor

[This post is the second part in a four-part series on my recent trip to Southeast Asia]

Walking past the people hawking elephant pants and the fresh fruit stands, I approached my first temple within Angkor Wat – Pre Rup, a temple in tribute to the king’s mother. A Hindu temple, built in the 10th century before the Cambodian people converted to Buddhism. Our tour guide explained how a whole town would have lived surrounding the temple and where we stood was once covered in water. He drew in the sand to detail the layout and used the hand carved leather works for sale to illustrate the symbols of the ancient civilization.

Pre Rup carvings

The endurance of the structure became clear as I slowly climbed the steps of the central tower, the cremation tower. The steps rose more than a foot each time, ensuring a calmer, more solemn pace, especially as centuries of footsteps followed by modern-day tourism have rounded the edges of each stair. The restored ornate carvings marking each doorway add an otherworldly charm. The dancing and fighting figures intertwined with plants and animals tell stories I only begin to understand after sitting and reading my guidebook and looking and reading and looking.

Exploring Angkor

The Angkor Archeological Park Complex is immense. It is larger than life and has withstood centuries of life. From weather to rediscovery to theft to the Khmer Rouge, this immense center of worship that expands over 400 acres is the largest religious monument in the world, Lonely Planet’s number one site in the world, and is hard to truly comprehend.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

We explored it by van, by tuktuk, and by bicycle. By guide, by guidebook, and by gut.  The site is overwhelming and has a lifetime of exploration possibilities. After just three days and scratching the surface, I walked away with a feeling of awe and endurance.

Angkor Thom
Riding rickety bicycles through the impressive gate of Angkor Thom was a highlight.

These temples were built for the ages. I can’t imagine King Rajendravarman planned for a curious Canadian to crawl over his places of worship, yet given the intent, the construction (and the geologically stable location), these structures stand as a testament to the Angkor people, their faith, and their history. It’s a source of fierce pride for a people who have suffered so much in recent years.

Asparas at Phreah Khan
Asparas at Phreah Khan Hall of Dancers

Make Your Mark

If I can take anything from Angkor Wat, it’s this idea of durability. These temples were symbols and constructed as long-time tangible versions of intangible ideas. Thinking of what our generation, our people are building for the future raises interesting questions. There will be no Angkor Wats and no Egyptian Pyramids. Perhaps some towers will stand. Yet, it will be the everyday impact that will stand longer. More likely, our waste will mark our civilization. Instead of carved store, will our impressive lives of modern convenience be recorded by its tangible, nearly eternal mark of plastic? Is plastic waste our Angkor Wat?

Waste Management in Phnom Pehn
Waste Management in Phnom Pehn

The beauty of travel is that it’s a great teacher. There’s no better way to pull at your assumptions, stereotypes, and preconceived notions than to visit other places and cultures. There’s no better way to learn what you don’t know, and what you need to learn more about. There’s no better way to find you place in the world than to learn the lessons of history and of people. To learn how to leave a good mark. After visiting the impressive Angkor Wat, I wonder if leaving no mark is perhaps the best mark of all.

View from Bakheng
View from Bakheng temple

There’s a lot of work to do to shift our mark from plastic waste, but there’s great work happening all over, including in Cambodia with Plastic Free Cambodia. My brilliant friend and environmentalist Camille has been writing about their plastic-free month at home in Phnom Penh after being inspired by PFC. There’s lots of inspiration and lots of small steps. Perhaps a most clever lesson is to add two more R’s to the traditional 3 R’s: Respect and Refuse, then the rest!

Wat else?

It’s hard to summarize the depth of the experience, but I’ll let these photos guide you through my other highlights of Angkor Wat and Siem Reap.

Leper King Terrace, Angkor Wat
Explorations in the narrow double-channel of carvings in the Leper King Terrace
Beheaded by thieves these asuras guard the bridge to Preah Khan.
Beheaded by thieves these asuras guard the bridge to Preah Khan.
A must: the Jungle Temple - Ta Prohm
A must: the Jungle Temple – Ta Prohm, left as ‘rediscovered’ allowing nature to take its course.
Banteay Srei, Angkor
The intricate carvings of Banteay Srei.
Five am tuktuk rides to see sunrise.
One of my favourites: the perilous climb to the top of Bapuon. Not for the faint of heart.
Counting the many, many faces of Buddha at Bayon.
Counting the many, many faces of Buddha at Bayon.



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