We bought a seven-day pass to the Angkor Archeological Park. Nobody was standing in that line up. We walked right up to the teller. It turns out that most people visit for one day. Some stay for a 3 day pass. But we are planning to go big. Our plan is to see a lot, but not as a sprint. We need some soak time.
When doing research for this trip, I was astounded to learn that many people come here and visit the temples of Angkor as a marathon affair. Young people often check them off a list and then head for the cheap drinks on pub street, in Siem Reap, happy to be out of the heat. They are heard to proclaim, seen one temple, seen them all. I suppose it could be thought of that way. (And the drinks are ridiculously cheap).
As I dig into the extensive history of the park, it seems such a shame to limit the experience to a limited selection of temples on a list, checked off as you go. And the early morning sunrise shared with hundreds of others in order to get the money shot at Angkor Wat, I just don’t get it. Even if it was not crowded beyond belief, I’m not sure that experience would be for me. I’m all for beating the heat, getting first tracks and all that stuff, but that ritual seems a bit strange.
What interests me is the story. Or in this case the stories. Developed over a long period of time involving up to a million people at the zenith of Angkor’s heyday. I’m so curious to understand what that might have been like. What was the experience of living here? It would have been different from age to age as the city began, prospered and then faded away.
The stones are left to tell the tale, but so few of us are listening. There is a wealth of history which is known, all very interesting. Which king ruled during a certain time frame and the public works he was responsible for. But the human stories are missing. What was life like here? I don’t think it can be deduced from what life is like for a regular Cambodian person today. Times were different, then. So how did it all change so profoundly?
There are so many reasons for the fall of Angkor, offered up by the experts. It is probably safe to say that the combination of unfortunate events and the passing of time, provide an accurate assessment of what happened here. But you do get a sense of walking with ghosts as you scramble over the ancient stones. I can’t hep but wonder, was this the legacy these kings hoped to leave? Or the stone masons, did they realize their work would stand the test of time? The wives who made a life in the home, did they know their city would whisper their secrets over a thousand years in the future?
I suppose life then, was no different from today. Any thought of a thousand years in the future was beyond comprehension, as it is now. I assume many people of the Angkor period, didn’t even live to see their own grandchildren. So legacy might have been a rather lofty idea, reserved for the kings who had the temples built in their name. Even some of them didn’t live to see the completion of their building projects.
But in the grand scheme of the public works, lies evidence of a vastly different philosophy from our governments today. The system of irrigation and planning for wet and dry seasons is sophisticated. It also speaks to a goal of providing for vast numbers of people. For example, King Jayavarman VII, considered to be the most powerful Khmer monarch of all time, built 102 hospitals and 121 rest houses, spaced every 15km across the region. How many countries today, still lack the basic level of public care?
We paid homage to the great ruler today by wandering through the ruins of Angkor Thom. We only did that, nothing else. We didn’t try to cram in more, from a different period, like Angkor Wat. We kept it simple and manageable. Otherwise, we too, would start thinking a temple is a temple. By narrowing our focus, we felt more in touch with what we were looking at. It was magnificent.
We toured backwards, on advice from our tuk tuk driver as we asked to avoid the crowds. The first ruins we stopped at, we had the place to ourselves. We wandered freely and got into the groove. Now it looks like we may experience the whole park in a backwards way, by starting where we did. That’s OK. I am happier knowing what we are looking at, in small digestible chunks. For there is nothing small about this Unesco World Heritage sight.
It is such a privilege to be able to do this tour. To walk in the footsteps of the ancient culture who built the most amazing structures, is hard to reconcile. The experience kind of makes me feel a bit more humble. Which is what I was hoping for.
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