Angkor Wat is one of those magical, timeless places, a doorway into another era and yet ever present. I’ve never been that interested in guided tours, the controlled timing and static narrative doesn’t allow for discovery or surprises. I like to walk and stroll around ruins and archaeological sites at my own pace, but Angkor Wat is so big, it’s footprint literally that of an entire city. The solution: rent a bicycle. You could, also, hire an elephant or a tuk-tuk, if that’s your thing.
Like Palenque in Mexico, or Copan in Honduras, Angkor Wat is covered in the stories and narratives of the cultures past. Originally built by Hindus, then converted to Budhism centuries later, the temples are a palimpsest of ritual and spiritual meaning. Intricate stone carvings bevel and emboss the walls of every passageway and corridor. No surface is flat or unadorned. There are an infinite number of angles and routes to choose from, no two quite the same. Over the week I spent exploring the grounds, I biked well over a hundred kilometres, circling and spiralling between buildings and walls, over bridges and moats and through massive arched gates.
I’m a very tactile person, my sense of a place and its beauty necessarily involves touch. Museums and galleries often leave me cold and disappointed, everything forever out of reach, encased in glass, walled off from context. Being able to retrace my footsteps and bike route each morning, after having a coffee in Siem Reap and pedalling down the road, gave me a deeper sense of connection, of being able to feel how the inhabitants of the city connected with the place, and its spiritual connections to Vishnu and Budha.
The story of Angkor Wat as a tourist site, as a place visited and crowded and trampled by the commerce of European foreigners is, also, a very long one. In the 1860s, Frenchman Henri Mahout wrote of the lost city of Angkor Wat in his bestselling memoirs, inspiring everything from Indiana Jones to Tomb Raider. But even before that, in the 16th century Portguese explorer, António da Madelena, described the city as “of such extraordinary construction … that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.”
It is one of those endlessly lost places, even though it is flooded with tourists. As a foreign visitor, a tourist, I realize I am walking the footsteps of colonialists, and I realize that I am taking part in an economy that commidifies a holy site. But Angkor Wat is still the largest religious site in the world, and if you believe your interactions with the holy are based in your own faith and spirit, well, then it’s probably best to wake up at the crack of dawn, and to go alone down the road. There is no replacement, no substitute for watching the sun rise over the red flats of the Cambodian soil and the verdant green of the jungle, from the top of one of the many temples.
There is nothing quite like it, no way to describe it in words, to see the beauty and the stature of a culture trying to speak with their god through art and sculpture so powerful that it still speaks directly after a thousand years under the sun.
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