People have asked me what draws me to a certain place or why I have chosen a destination to visit. Often times it is something as simple as a photograph that I see or a place someone tells me about that spikes my interest.
Southeast Asia was not one of those places. I was not even remotely interested in visiting the area until my daughter moved to Vietnam to teach English three years ago. I had visions of chaos, noise, dirt (I’m more than a little OCD) and crowds of people. All of those things are true and yet I am now madly, wildly and totally in love with the region.
The very first place I landed was a quick five day stop over in Siem Reap, Cambodia in April 2014. I decided to go there after hearing about the stunning ancient temples from a friend who had visited. I really had absolutely no idea of what to expect other than I knew I’d be viewing the place where Indiana Jones was filmed!
As soon as I touched down in Cambodia I was completely awed. I felt like I had landed on a different planet…the people, the colors, the history…oh and the Tuk Tuks…an open air contraption hauled by a moto that costs about one dollar…I was hooked! I was filled with a crazy sense of excitement! I had spent the past two decades living in a nice little suburban bubble. I was ready to explore!
My first excursion in the city was of course the most famous temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.
The modern name ‘Angkor’ means ‘temple city’ or ”city of temples.’
The Lost City of Angkor is, historically speaking, still a relatively new discovery. It was only stumbled upon in 1860 by missionaries who came across the massive complex hidden in the jungle.
The great city was built in the early 12th century and was the last capital of the Khmer Kingdom. The ruins are scattered over an area twice the size of Manhattan and is considered to be the 7th Wonder of the World as well as a Unesco World Heritage sight.
One of the things I especially loved is the intricate and well preserved detail in the carvings which show historical events and stories from mythology. They were originally constructed to honor the Hindu God Lord Vishnu.
The temples were incredibly beautiful and of course educational but there was so much more life to be seen behind the scenes! In keeping with my intrepid nature I told my guide I’d be back in an hour or so and left him behind to eat his lunch…. I heard the faint sound of far away chanting down a dirt road and needed to follow it!
Much to my delight I came upon the humble homes and personal temple of the people who live and work at the site and a celebration for an elder monk. They greeted me with open arms and invited me to have a meal with them and participate in the just beginning rice ceremony which represents blessings on the honoree.
Many of the people I met were survivors of one of the most horrific mass genocides in history. Between 1975 and 1979 around 2 million people were slaughtered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime. My guide shared the very intimate and personal story of how he lost most of his family members and how he was raised by his one remaining older sibling.
Despite living through such a tragedy I found the people of Cambodia to be some of the friendliest and warmest I have ever been fortunate enough to meet. The resiliency of their spirit was inspiring.
I arrived to Angkor Wat with little knowledge of what I’d experience and left that day with a heart that was incredibly full with gratitude.