There are many things to say about Angkor Wat and what makes it one of the world’s treasures and the crown jewel of Cambodia. Its image graces many things here, including the flag. It’s regarded as one of the major accomplishments of the Khmer people and is held in such high esteem that even the Khmer Rouge wouldn’t destroy it, citing it as a symbol of the greatness of this country at a time when they were destroying other temples, libraries, universities, and historical sites. It has captured the imagination & attention of the world.
It captured my imagination decades ago when, as a young girl, I first saw a photo of one of the face gates on the cover of National Geographic. When we were planning this trip, we often mentioned it as one of the milestones of our round the world trek.
We arrived in Siem Reap on a Friday afternoon, tired from a 7 hour bus ride and a dusty tuk tuk ride. Our hotel suggested we go out to Angkor Wat for sunset that afternoon & we eagerly agreed. It has been a dream to come here for so long and we didn’t want to wait any longer. We arranged for a tuk tuk to pick us up in a couple of hours and take us to the temple for sunset.
Later that afternoon, we got our first glimpse of the towers of Angkor Wat rising out of the jungle, as we drove along the Wat’s moat. My heart was in my throat as we walked across the great causeway, and passed through the gate.
I always joke that I have cried more in the past year than I had in many years prior. This year has been packed full of life-changing moments and even more moments of gratitude (so strong as to be palpable) for the experiences we have been granted and the dreams we have realized. That afternoon at Angkor Wat was no exception. I struggled to take it all in (& take a few photos) as happy tears silently streamed down my face.
We wandered along the corridors and through the courtyards. It was sublime. And yet, at the same time, it was a bit of a letdown. “Is this all there is?” I thought to myself. I didn’t feel transformed like I have at other places on our journey, many of which had been just as special to me before I ever visited them. No feelings of connection to this place, as if I had been here before, or that it felt like home – feelings I have experienced at other special places on this trip.
I’ve struggled with why that is. As our time in Siem Reap has passed, I have fallen deeply in love with Cambodia, with its people, its history, its food, and with Angkor.
The special feeling of connection that was so lacking that first afternoon at Angkor Wat – well, I’ve found it in spades at so many other temples throughout Angkor as a whole. But figuring out why Angkor Wat left me feeling so lacking has proven to be elusive.
A few things I have discovered about Angkor have helped to explain a bit why Angkor Wat was such a letdown for me. First up is the assumption, shared by many (including us before our arrival in Cambodia), that Angkor Wat is all there is. To be quite honest, I thought that Angkor Wat was the only temple outside Siem Reap, and that it was a larger temple with several smaller temples within its walls. In reality, Angkor Wat is just one major temple in a huge swath of countryside dominated by many large and spectacular temples from the Khmer period. It just happens to be the one that was never abandoned or lost to the jungle.
And many of the images from Angkor that I have fallen in love with over the years – well, in reality it turns out many of them are not even from Angkor Wat. Face towers & temple buildings taken over by massive trees. You won’t find either of those at Angkor Wat. Face towers are part of Angkor Thom and its famous gates and main temple of Bayon. Ta Phrom is the most famous of the temples taken over by Spung trees, but many other temples have equally spectacular tree images. What I saw and experienced at Angkor Wat during my three visits to that temple pale in comparison to the images I had seen before I got here, and the many experiences I had at other temples throughout Angkor while we were here.
Press coverage of Angkor hasn’t helped in this regard either, often referring to Angkor Wat while showing images of other temples in Angkor. Even on our flight from Cambodia to Malaysia last week, the article in the in-flight magazine was about Angkor Wat, but all the images were of Bayon.
To say this is confusing is an understatement. But I think it helps explain why what I expected didn’t match up with what I experienced. This is certainly not a new emotion. In travel, as in life, experiences often don’t live up to expectations. It’s actually one of the reasons I love to travel, because it challenges me in so many ways, including what my expectations for people and places are. Many times on this trip, my expectations have been exceeded or proven to be wrong, replaced by a reality that is often so much better and so much more rewarding. This time that happened as well, but it was all of Angkor that saved the day rather than Angkor Wat. All 400 sq miles of Angkor, with its amazing ruins, temples, bas-reliefs, face towers, and fantastical mythology. Those places and experiences made this a special place that exceeded my expectations & captured my imagination and my heart- not Angkor Wat.