not WAT i
expected (my troubled relationship with angkor wat)
Ever since we started planning our trip, in
fact ever since we starting even thinking about it several years
ago, I have been waiting anxiously to see Angkor Wat. Countless
friends and acquaintances have proclaimed its greatness: "The
most amazing thing I've ever seen," "a religious experience,"
Up until a few years ago, I didn't even know
what it was, but slowly I learned bits and pieces (see sidebar).
Somehow, however, I had never seen a picture. So when we started
planning the trip, I made a special effort to maintain my visual
ignorance. I wanted my first viewing to be in person, instead
of via a photograph; I wanted to see it in its full glory. (Please
accept my profound apologies if you were hoping to do the same,
'cause here's a picture.)
the view of
Angkor Wat from the main road
Countless times, I narrowly escaped catching
an unwanted glimpse (searching for Cambodian hotels online, studying
the Cambodian guidebook). And when we finally arrived at the airport
two days ago, I walked out staring stoically ahead to make sure
that I didn't accidentally see a brochure or tour offer. We found
our driver (most hotels in Cambodia will send a car to pick you
up at the airport) and jumped in the car. I had made it. In 36
hours, we would meet the guide we had hired and hike through the
jungle to see the temple for ourselves. I was extremely excited;
I had been waiting for this for a long time.
On the way to the hotel, our driver told us
that he was taking a slightly longer, more scenic route. And before
I knew it, much to my dismay, he proudly announced our arrival
at… Angkor Wat! There was no hike through the jungle; it
was right there on the main road. Or rather, they had built the
main road right next to it. There was a large parking lot filled
with buses. And a whole section to the left of the main entrance
bridge was under construction with tarps all over it. I was crushed.
Shouldn't it require some amount of effort to see this thing?
Shouldn't we trudge up slippery slopes and slap bugs for several
hours? Make no mistake, it *was* impressive, in the extreme, but
somehow it all seemed… well… too easy.
A day and a half later (which was yesterday),
our guide taught us a lot about Angkor Wat. We learned who built
it, how it was built (at least as much as they know), when it
was built, etc. It was all amazing. Unfortunately, having 8 billion
other people learning about it at the same time made it a bit
harder to appreciate. (But hey, Susan and I are just two *more*
tourists clogging up the scenery, so who are we to complain?)
I decided to go back early the next morning
to beat the crowds and catch the sunrise. Susan slept in while
I got up before dawn, packed up the camera, and headed off (I
paid our driver an extra $5 to pick me up at 4:30am). We arrived
at the temple and I waited around until 5am - that's the earliest
they let you in. I walked into the center area (across the large
bridge) to view the main tower from the other side of the lake.
To my horror, within 30 minutes, the bank of the lake was lined
with photographers and backpackers and God-knows-who-else. I'm
pretty sure Elvis was there, too. Didn’t these people realize
it was way too early to be prowling Cambodian ruins? The sun came
up. We all took pictures. I was sad...
in the early morning
I walked farther in to the temple to escape
the throngs. I decided to climb up to the top of the tower. Susan
and I had done this the day before (along with several hundred
others), but for some reason I thought that maybe it would make
me feel better. And I was right. Amazingly, nobody else had decided
to go up there, at least at the same time that I had. So I sat
by myself (finally), looking out over the forest (instead of in
the other direction over the rest of the temple, since that would
have meant looking down at all the other early bird tourist ants
scurrying around). Eventually, some other folks climbed up the
tower, too, but only a few, and we all kept our distance from
each other, somehow silently agreeing that this would be, for
each of us, our own special moment with Angkor Wat.
Call me a grouch, but sometimes I like to see
things without the crowds. And after all these months of anticipation,
I really wanted my own special time with the granddaddy of all
wats. It was a tough journey (through competing tourists instead
of thick jungle), but I made it. And it really was spectacular.
I will remember it fondly for the rest of my life.