It made perfect sense to my traveling companions and me that, during a cruise to Antarctica, we were deciding on our next journey—a tropical adventure.
As our cruise ship skirted the coldest place on earth—itself a destination for the travel bucket list—we talked excitedly about one day going to Cambodia’s long-hidden temple city, Angkor Wat.
I have explored many far-flung places with my friends Mindy, Randy and Kathy—China, Tibet, Machu Picchu and more. We travel well together because we share the same philosophy about travel: to journey far and wide, to go deep into the countries we visit, and to get as close as possible to the locals and their lives as they’d allow.
That was our goal when we ventured to Cambodia last April. Cambodia’s incredible, moat-ringed temple of Angkor Wat was our primary destination, although the country itself, so different from our own, was of great interest, too. As we flew into the capital city of Phnom Penh, where we would stay for a few days before heading to the Angkor region, I checked my hand luggage for Teddy.
We were joined by a special guest, one of my mom’s teddy bears. Mom had passed away only two months before and this was my way of remembering her and the annual cruise vacation we took. She also loved to travel, so perhaps she passed along the travel bug to me. On my more exotic trips, she enjoyed reliving my experiences through the photos I’d share with her. Now, Teddy was part of the team. He was our special mascot and tribute to my mom.
It was not quite the rainy season, and Phnom Penh was very hot. Clearly, motorbikes were the preferred mode of transportation—they were everywhere. The food was a delicious blend of French colonial and traditional local. For breakfast, our hotel served exceptional croissants and baguettes alongside the typical rice congee, with dried fish, pickled vegetables and salted eggs. There is also an Indian influence to Cambodian food evident in the flavorful curries.
Then we traveled from bustling modern to the ancient and mysterious, as we boarded a bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, the gateway to the Angkor region. Here we were met by a guide, who proved to be an Angkor expert that prepared us for the many incredible wonders we would soon experience.
Angkor Wat was built in the early 12th century, originally as a Hindu shrine, but gradually became Buddhist as the monarchs adopted the new religion. It took four hundred years to complete and this complex, which is regarded as the world’s largest religious building, was the center of the Khmer civilization for centuries. However, it was largely abandoned and hidden by the forest when the Khmer monarchy built a new capital city in Phnom Penh. The site was rediscovered by the West in the mid-19th century by French explorer Henri Mouhot. By the turn of the 20th century, worldwide curiosity had built a thriving tourist trade.
Unfortunately, years of civil war and hardships under the Khmer Rouge regime from the 1970s through the 1990s made the country difficult to visit, and Angkor Wat laid off the tourist routes until recent years. But now this amazing place is once again on “must see” lists and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In the two days we were there, my travel group and I eagerly covered as much territory as possible. In addition to Angkor Wat, we visited the ancient city of Angkor Thom, the gemlike Banteay Srei and the mysterious and lovely jungle temple of Ta Prohm.
The visit involved a lot of walking and explaining by the guide. Every step of the way, mascot Teddy was in my arms or travel pack. The temperatures must have been approaching 100 degrees, so it took some stamina, too. But to my intrepid travel team, it was all worth it.
Angkor Wat was reclaimed from the jungle and today, still seems to emerge as a surprise on the landscape. First there is tumbling green foliage, then the giant moat that buffers Angkor Wat, then Angkor Wat itself, topped by five carved towers.
The temple is covered in stunning carvings that tell the story of wars, royalty and the gods so integral to the region. We were free to walk through the compound and study the amazing carvings, but with so many stories depicted on the sandstone walls, it would take a lifetime to absorb them all. As I wandered among the extensive bas-reliefs portraying everything from conquests to everyday life, I tried to imagine what it was like to be in Angkor Wat during its prime, a thousand years ago.
Our guide also took us to Angkor Thom, an ancient gated city that served as a capital and royal home at one time, and from there to Ta Prohm, another nearby temple. The desolation is beautiful here. Banyan trees engulf buildings; roots drape over walls and grasp hold of roofs. The sculpted temples are cocooned by jungle, very much the way parts of Angkor Wat itself were in the 19th century.
These scenes are a great reminder of how remote this area became. But lately, these locations have also starred in movies—if you saw “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” you saw Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom.
Out of all the carvings our group noticed in the Angkor region, one at Ta Prohm stands out the most. It is a representation of a stegosaurus. Even the guide was stumped. Were there creatures like that in the Angkor of 900 years ago or was this a mythological beast of some kind? Nobody knows.
Banteay Srei, an even older temple than Angkor Wat, also stunned our group. This 10th century “jewel of Khmer art” features more dramatic carvings for sure, but its impact really comes from its red sandstone that creates such a contrast with the green of the jungle.
The beauty was unbelievable. As is our custom, we all took many pictures that we’d email to each other later. Everyone made sure that Teddy was in photos taken of me.
These ancient wonders opened our eyes to a long-ago civilization, but my visit to Cambodia also made me appreciate the strength of the people of today. One of our bus drivers told us the story of how she survived the genocide of the 1970s as a 17-year-old, and spent 14 years in a Vietnamese refugee camp. It was stories such as these that made us realize how much this land has gone through, and appreciate how much history lay behind the friendly people who helped us on our journey.
I also felt lucky to have taken this journey with my dear travel friends—and we even met some potential new members of our group during our Angkor Wat adventure. Like-minded souls, our potential group of six (seven counting Teddy) are talking about visiting Borneo or Eastern Europe.
Until that day comes, we’re still reliving the amazing images and experiences of Angkor Wat and one of my most memorable travel bucket list experiences. I’m glad Teddy has been initiated into my travel circle, as he’s a constant reminder that mom still travels with me.