It was the right kind of quiet. Not quiet as in to say there was no noise. There was plenty of noise. The chorus of any number of species of birds pierced the air; chirping, singing, warbling, and calling. The cries of monkeys, the rustling of leaves, the snapping of branches, the buzzing of insects. The jungle was alive with all the natural ambient noise that one would expect to come from it.
The humidity hung in the air like a weight. You could taste it on your tongue. You could feel it on your shoulders. I sat down, perching myself atop one of the many crumbling stone blocks. The rock was rough and cold to the touch. A beetle, as yellow and spotted as a jungle cat scurried over my fingers just before spreading its tiny wings and taking flight.
I was sitting in the middle of the ancient Khmer city of Angkor. The massive complex consisted of hundreds of temples constructed over centuries and through generations of rulers. People flocked from all over the world to visit Angkor. Most of them coming for the main attraction, the famous Angkor Wat. The Wat is the single largest religious structure in the world and arguably the most architecturally pleasing out of all the Angkor temples. Contested as a wonder of the world it is the only existing man made structure to be featured on a country’s national flag (spoiler it’s on Cambodia’s), its name can be easily uttered in the same breathe alongside the other global marvels such as the Great Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, and Petra.
Me and my two travel companions decided to spend the day exploring the hundreds of other ruins that made up Angkor and save the iconic Angkor Wat for last, going to see it just around sunset. As we walked through the winding dirt paths, we veered off at the first sight of dilapidated ruins. When we neared the site we each broke away from one another without preamble, letting our heightened senses lead us. That was how I happened upon my stony seat.
The small temple, which I later learned was called Prei Prasat was a wonder in its own right. Staring up at the stone blocks around me it was like something out of a movie. Something out of my dreams. The aged and weathered rock looked fragile in some places and stout in others. Twisted vines, gnarled roots, and crooked trees jutted their way through the crevices. It was impossible to decipher whether the jungle was a part of the temple or the temple part of the jungle.
“There you are.” Jessica said, poking her head out from around a corner.
“C’mon lets go.” she added with a wave of her hand.
We explored the ruins of Angkor in a similar fashion. Breaking off and enjoying the moments of solitude and exploration the different sites invoked. Each temple seemed more intriguing than the last. Ancient trees that grew from ancient stone, pillared corridors that led to cracked Buddhas, Hindu gods smiling back from etched walls.
As we neared the famous Angkor Wat and grand finale there was a different sort of noise. The ambient jungle sounds were replaced with the bustle and clamor of people. Throngs of them herding across the causeway towards the rising towers of the Wat. Shouting, calling, laughing. Children crying, peddlers yelling, thousands of shuffling feet.
We weaved our way through the crowd, abruptly having to stop every so often so people could take that stereotypical posed shot in front of the temple. Single file with the masses we climbed the stone steps into the heart of the temple, passing security checkpoints and filtering out into the structure’s corridors.
Trying not to pay attention to the chaos around me I focused on the beautifully detailed bas-relief walls. The entire hallway depicted a carved recreation of the Khmer army in action. Speared warriors, rampaging elephants, and raining arrows covered every inch of the hall. The detail, down to the horror on each soldier’s face was remarkable.
“Erhm.” It was the sound of a man clearing his throat.
“Excuse me.” a man said.
I turned towards the French accent. The source of the voice was a large man in a white buttoned down shirt. Sweat gleamed over his bushy eyebrows, his armpits were dark blotches, and his ample stomach protruded out from his waist. He was precariously balancing a camera tripod on top of the chipped remains of an elephant statue pointing it towards the carved wall. His two compatriots, a fanny packed woman and another man, tall and skinny, his own camera dangling from his neck stood off to the side with their arms folded.
His eyes hardened when I met his gaze.
“Move along.” he said with a swift shooing motion towards the corridor’s exit.
Aghast I didn’t know how to respond. Who does this guy think he is? I thought. His tone was uttered with such annoyance and bombast it was as if we had stumbled into the man’s home during a family dinner.
“Lets get out of here.” Jessica whispered.
“Just a minute.” Elliot said, loud enough for both parties to hear.
He then took out his own camera, snapping pictures of the relief and making a show of photographing the wall, taking his time.
The overweight French fellow grumbled to himself as we leisurely took our leave.
We exited out back of the temple. Getting away from the bustling crowds until their noise was nothing but a dull chatter. Sitting ourselves atop a stone wall we sat and waited to watch the sunset.
I tried not to let the vast crowds get to me. To have them take away from my experience. It seemed so many people were there just for that bucket list tally mark. Piling out of busses and tour shuttles, frantically snapping a bunch of pictures, piling back in, “Quick, next stop the Great Wall!”
These sites are world renown for a reason. Was anyone really taking the time to stop and take it all in? To experience it, learn from it, and try to understand it? It reminded me of a book by Paul Theroux, novelist and travel writer. Stuck next to a man on a plane he is subjected to listening to the man’s world tripping exploits. With each listed destination the man is corrected by his wife, incorrectly naming cities, mispronouncing countries, confusing islands like Tahiti with Haiti. “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been.” Theroux writes, “Travelers don’t know where they’re going.”
The horror struck me that I might be just as bad. After all was I not bent on globe tripping, hoping to see all the things and places I possibly can in one lifetime. I told myself I wouldn’t let it devolve to the point where it would just be something to brag about. I wanted to learn and grow from each awesome thing I saw. I wanted to savor the experience while I was there.
As the sun descended behind the temple taking away its light and drawing out that iconic silhouette I made my personal vow. I thought on how glad I was that we chose to wander around all of Angkor and not only hit the big hotspot. Those moments of jungle solitude would be the most memorable, they were what made Angkor a part of me.
The sun dipped lower. Angkor Wat rose high. The towers pierced the evening sky.
Of course I took a picture.