I’m looking down a seemingly unending chasm of steep, stone steps. Patterns of ruts appear in expected places, footprints made permanent through time and erosion. Somehow, during the climb up to the top of this temple ruin, I failed to realize I’d have to make my way back down those steps with no railing. Or maybe I’ll stay up here forever.
A young girl, seven or eight years old, hops up and down the steps without fear. She is dark skinned and barefooted, and wearing clothes that are much too big for her small frame. She laughs at me and plays with blue and purple plastic beads. She chases a couple up the steps and giggles as they gingerly decide on the best footing position for this crumbling stone.
Once upon a time, Angkor was a great empire. It is a place of deep complexity, detail, and precise structure, spirtuality and meditation, power and mystique. Today, it is a tourist site, Cambodia’s pride and joy. A place to watch the sun rise over the temple prongs, alone with a few hundred people. A place to wander stone ruins while avoiding crowded arches.
But, it’s still easy to find solitude in Angkor, as long as you are looking in the right places. Not in Angkor Wat, the Bayon, Ta Prohm—those are the central attractions where visitors flock. Come to the outliers, places like this. Smaller and less flashy, but detailed and worn all the same. Dozens of these ruin sites exist in Angkor Archeological Park, and with the right timing you can have one to youself, if only for a meditative moment. Here alone, in the jungle, monkeys in the trees and tuktuk drivers napping in the shade.
From the 9th to the 15th century, the Khmer empire, seated in Angkor, ruled over much of the Southeast Asian region. Though a vast city, all that remains in Angkor today are ruins of religious sites. This is because less significant structures were composed of materials like wood, as opposed to the stone walls of the temples. Elements of Hinduism and Buddhism can be found throughout the ruined city, dispersing themselves through the years.
In the end, a losing war with the Ayutthaya Kingdom to the west would hasten the collapse of the empire. Changing of religious structure, and potentially the occurrence of natural disasters or diseases have been proposed as other explanations for the population’s rapid decline.
Today, signs of restoration and preservation can be seen throughout the Park. Metal and wood scaffolding frames archways and crumbling wall in some places. Some temples lay partially under tarp. And still, nature reclaims the lost civilization. Places like Ta Prohm are slowly wrapped in stretching roots and coated in green moss.
On my last day in the city of Angkor, I watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat in the early morning air. It’s rainy season, and I’m a bit disappointed by the cloud cover that obstructs my postcard view. Crowds of people hold their cameras above their heads. They are trying to catch that moment, the pretend moment of being alone in a place where there are hundreds of people surrounding you.
The sun edges higher and the temple is silhouetted in dramatic cloud and morning light. Maybe it’s the most popular thing in Southeast Asia, to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat, but it’s completely worth it.
The scaffolding comes into view as the sun rises higher, but it’s not so bad. For the sake of preserving this historical and significant site for many more years, I’ll take it.
Read more about our time in Angkor in Tim’s blog here.