Finding the Heart in Kampuchea

Ta Prohm Temple

Ta Prohm Temple

I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was about Angkor Wat that entranced me so many years ago. Perhaps it was the unique architecture or the stark contrast of orange-robed monks against the dark stone. I’m sure Tomb Raider had an influence of sorts as well. With my background in archaeology, I knew I would have to eventually make my way to Cambodia, to Siem Reap, to Angkor. I could not tell you what I expected. The idea was like a cloud hovering just out of reach, obvious in shape, but not in detail.

When I finally set foot on the stones of Angkor Wat, I held my breath. The sound of tuk-tuks, tourists, and salespeople slowly came to nothing, like it does in the movies when someone is realizing something that had always previously been only an idea. If you were to ask me now, I would not be able to accurately describe my feelings about the weather or the noisome tourists fawning over monkeys. They all contributed to the experience in a way that I wish I could share with the people I love. They were the beginning of the pulse beating through Cambodia, though only so much in how I was just beginning to listen. That rhythm had been there for an eternity before me, before the war, before the stones.

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Angkor Wat

I have played with the notion of going into a brief history of Angkor, but considering the wonderful tool of the internet, I’ll trust you to do your own research if you’re so inclined. I read up with National Geographic a few days before my journey, and retained enough to feel my way around the ruins. I am not one who enjoys following a guide trying to sell me a guidebook at the end of a tour. Instead, I prefer the silences of ancient spaces, discovering and creating mysteries that may never be solved. That is what I did at Angkor.

Bayon’s faces and Ta Prohm’s trees were well worth the hours spent in the tropical sun. And though I would have liked to photograph the ruins at Angkor during dawn or dusk, I was content enough to retire to my hostel and sleep. Had I spent more than a weekend in Siem Reap, I would have happily wandered about the ruins at any permitted time.

My second day in Siem Reap, I hired the tuk-tuk driver from my Angkor visit to take me to Phnom Kulen, a sacred mountain about two hours northeast of the city. It was my first time on the back of a motorbike, and though it was a rough and bumpy ride, the chance to see the countryside and all those residing in it was eye-opening.

The sacred falls at Phnom Kulen.

The sacred falls at Phnom Kulen.

Small mountains of dragonfruit, plantains, and coconuts would be on the side of the road, waiting for passerby to stop and purchase all that could fill their arms. The land was green and fertile, making it difficult for me to picture the destruction of the recent war and the heartbreak of the Khmer people. In some manner, I suppose my trip to Kulen mountain was a sort of pilgrimage. In my mind, it was a journey to somehow connect with a land I barely knew by going to the sacred falls like so many before me.

My weekend in Cambodia turned out to be one of reflection and rejuvenation. It was a dream come true, though in a way I could never have guessed. I am quick to tell the people who ask me that I would return in a heartbeat. I would happily spend a month or two there given the opportunity and explore more of Siem Reap and of Phnom Penh. Cambodia has such a warm heart. If you ever get the chance, experience it for yourself.

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