Students living around the Angkor Wat complex regularly skip school to hang out on the grounds, according to our tour guide, just like students in the states skip to spend time in a park or the mall, and I’m convinced that would be the best way to get to know the temples.
Growing up clambering around sandstone corbeled arches and bas-reliefs half-hidden by tree roots would transform these godly, otherworldly sites into a playground of such cultural significance that I’m not sure of the proper way to describe it. It’s also a great place to make some money off selling ponchos to idiot tourists who disregard the rainy season. (Read: most everyone Saturday)
I’m not advocating playing hooky, but with somewhere like Angkor Wat so close by, I’m not sure how you could combat the immediate benefits.
We traveled in the exact opposite way of that idealized slow immersion.
This weekend was the definition of rapid-fire travel. As a group, all 22 of us teachers-in-training visited four temples in two days, spent at least 22 hours on a bus, and told so many Khmer kids we didn’t want to buy postcards or scarves that saying no to them became an ingrained reflex.
It was a whirlwind of feeling like Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider references, and getting lost after trying to take photos just a little bit away from the tour guide.
Our final temple was Beng Melea, which seemed like a giant playground made of sandstone blocks. Tour guides scattered throughout offered context for the imagery and pointed out safe paths to the tops of rock falls and through lower galleries for tips.
After the confusion and size of Angkor Wat proper, the smaller scale of Beng Melea felt more manageable and the tidbits guides provided personalized the experience.
It probably also helped that the staircases were shorter and less steep.
I’m still trying to process the beauty and scale of the architecture without using words like “awesome,” “sweet,” and “cool.” It’s pretty difficult, because the temples envelop all those things.
It’s like visiting four museums on the National Mall in two days and expecting to gain perspective about how native art and U.S. history intersect with only a basic grasp on English.
And if I lived in Washington, D.C. as a student, I’d probably skip school to stare at my favorite paintings at the National Gallery of Art.