My hair fluttered in the wind on the back of the hired tuk-tuk. Driving twelve kilometers into the Angkor jungles, the amazing Cambodian air was cool and luscious, yet upon stopping it instantly created a "stick" factor that made me look freshly emerged from a pool. I even wore my Bayern Munchen soccer jersey in order to avoid the unfriendly cling and sag of wet cotton. I loved it. My driver friend and I were on a quest to see massive, ancient temples and wander the jungles littered with hidden landmines. I didn’t care how terrible my entry photo looked on my ticket stub or that I had a "moistache". The earth was red, the leaves were electric, and stone towers were on the horizon. Every explorer wishes to discover amazing locations themselves without the help of a guide book or treading an already "beaten path." But the reality is that we often travel because we've heard things from previous travelers and want to see for ourselves the wonder they witnessed upon discovery. The real trick is trying to blind yourself to the ambiance created by word of mouth and imagine that first moment of awe that shakes the timeless traveler to the core.
There are many UNESCO World Heritage sites and major city landmarks that receive a lot of hype, yet never surpass their reputation, in my eyes, when experienced in person. I was let down by such structures as the Eiffel Tower, the London Bridge, the main tourist drag of the Great Wall (until I illegally branched off and went along the crumbles), the "romantic" canals and piazzas of Venice, the Forbidden City, and more.
But not the Angkor temples.
Virtuosity. The human capacity for perfection. We as people are obsessed with seeing, feeling, hearing and tasting the best accomplishments of mankind. It's one of the main pulls on us to look elsewhere from our home bases to find something better or different than what we know. Child prodigies in music, gorgeous cathedrals in Italy, or practiced chefs that write the book on their specialty, we know how to measure the rest in a genre if we know what to compare it with. And when one dips their senses into an ambiance orchestrated by many virtuosos simultaneously, enlightenment is almost within reach.
"Fly on little wing." Jimi sang my favorite melody through the buds in my ears, as I placed my bottom atop a mound of elephant-lain stones. Pulling out my journal, I jotted the things that elevated my spirits to the status of "inspired."
Some time in the early 1000s, the people in this part of the world wrangled wild elephants into hauling massive chunks of the Earth's crust together and chiseled their mark with great cultural and artistic pride, displaying a skill level hardly matched one thousand years later. The expanse is vast; the design incredible. Even the bite of the slow "cattle herd" atmosphere isn't strong enough to deter from Angkor Wat's isolated magnitude.
I was in the presence of greatness, evident by sight and the tactile touch of its elephant skin-like surface. The dampening rain or the dew-filled air revealed colors reminiscent of a riverbed cross-section: murky olive greens, smears of light rust, cold tint-less gray, thin browns and streaked tan. The stones were earth-toned rainbows, and between the stone corridors and colonnades wove the solemn monks, decorating the steaming enterprise like half-melted popsicles.
Like mountains, these elaborate religious complexes take what mankind and Mother Nature dish out, and they come out more resilient on the other end. I saw the main temple of Angkor Wat as having a face, one so wrinkled, jaded and too old to even roll its eyes at the shutter-happy, grouping tourists in matching hats.
And when all the tourists got in close to squint and contemplate a bundle of Angkor-inspired questions, I thought to myself, "Are we all trying to look like we discern what we see?" Have we all read the history and the books on ancient architecture? Have we all decided to pretend like we look amused, even though the humidity is directing us to take the obligatory shots and evacuate ASAP? There's a reason we all trek out into the personally unknown to see for ourselves the things of this physical world.
Why do I do it? Understanding others and the path of humanity helps me understand myself and the next inch of my path. Some times I'm barely aware of where I am, but one look sends my internal thoughts a-spinning.
Those who were able to delight in the wonders of Cambodia while on Semester at Sea all brought home a t-shirt from the roads of Angkor that I envied. I left my earbuds in, sunk my hands in my pockets, and moseyed the stretch of vendors outside Angkor Wat to peruse their goods in search of such a find. One woman sitting in a lone chair called out to me saying she liked my style, maybe not so much my clothing choices but my nature as I strolled the local "strip mall," and we began chatting. I told her friend I wanted to buy some t-shirts in bulk for a good price and proceeded to get 8 shirts for roughly $10, while showing off our grins to each other and enjoying the game of the haggle. I had a little posse of women in my periphery all there to giggle at something or offer their own brand of souvenir. I took one up on a sweaty bottle of water and walked away content with all my purchases.
The relentless saleschildren tried to coax me into other painting stands, but only one man summoned real appreciation and praise. I found a guy that not only took his art seriously but was selling the work of his master, both artists finally breaking the molds of the mass-produced Angkor artwork. With all the cash I had left, I invested in the master and had the piece quickly rolled for transport to avoid the heavy showers that soon lacquered my hair to my face.
Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and a jungle filled with rock piles; I wandered like I was a very damp Lara Croft in the very structures that inspired the movie's plotline and destination. I stepped from stone to stone to the grand pathway in front of a monkey temple and time traveled to the moments when the buildings' grandeur was at their pinnacle.
While my toes baked in my cracking flip-flops, I was mesmerized by the ringing I couldn't place. Looking around for a row of monks with little clinking bells, I thought I was a little bit crazy for hearing things so foreign in the middle of nature. After asking my driver, busy chowing at his favorite open air restaurant, what they were, he enlightened me by spelling out the word he had trouble pronouncing, "C-I-C-A-D-A-S."
I joined my driver for lunch of Khmer soup at the restaurant/trivia zone for the wandering saleskids. "What is the capital of Madagascar? Do you know the population of your own country? If I know, then you buy something from me!" Many of us were made fools of based on the knowledge we lacked in our own world geography and by children who were skipping school in order to profit from these impromptu quizzes. I sat in the back, very torn by how I felt about these kids and their daily routine, hoping this wasn't evidence of their necessity-imposed priorities but that they just didn't have school in the afternoons.
When my stomach churned, letting me know it would soon be quite aggravated, I climbed on top of a pile that marked the site of a dilapidated temple and sat for one last experience before I bid the jungle farewell. It was atop this mound that I finally could form the descriptions I was feeling of a place so enlightened. I began to sing under my breath the song I paired with this leg of the journey in a video: Lauryn Hill's "Miseducation". The cicadas provided the starting note fittingly in the key of "C".
The driver and I burned diesel as we flew out of the jungle. He offered me the name of his brother in Phnom Penh if I ever needed a ride anywhere, and I thanked him for the comfort he provided every time I turned to the parked taxis in search of my kind chauffeur and saw his easy smile.
That was all I wanted to see. That's the only other thing I wanted to do in this country besides hang out with some kids. I booked a bus for the next morning, recovered in my room and took to an empty Thai restaurant for some grade A service and tasty fare. The boys served every glass or dish with an outstretched right hand and a gesture of respect with the left, presenting me with two extra treats I didn't even order in the name of hospitality. When a personal fan materialized to waft a calming breeze in my direction, my mind solidified, "Siem Reap is stellar, clean and homey, from the initial breath to the ride out of town."