When we first visited Cambodia in 2005, we didn’t know what to expect. Pol Pot, the genocidal leader of the Khmer Rouge, had been apprehended only 8 years earlier—and as far as we knew, Cambodia was still a country in turmoil.
When we arrived in Siem Reap, though, the sense of rebirth in the air was palpable. People smiled warmly, and laughed easily. Scratch the surface of anyone over a certain age, and horrors stories would emerge about life under the Khmer Rouge, which made the Cambodian people’s resilience all the more admirable.
Like most people, our main reason for visiting Siem Reap was to experience the spectacular ruins of the Angkor archeological site, which includes the magnificent Angkor Wat. Crowds swarmed on the street in front of Angkor Wat, and we were dismayed by the prospect of seeing it elbow-to-elbow with hundreds of tourists. But the temple was quieter on the surrounding grounds, and we found ourselves alone at a vantage point to watch the sun set.
Fascinated by the ancient city of Angkor, we stayed in Siem Reap six days, visiting the ruins daily. Or at least Emil did. I was sick one day, and stayed in bed reading Eric Newby’s “Something Wholesale.” Here’s a pattern I repeated throughout the day: after falling asleep, I’d wake up to see tropical leaves and flowers waving in the sunlight outside my window. Then I’d think of a ridiculous passage from the book, and burst out laughing. It was the best sick day of my life!
We’ve visited Cambodia many times since then. Phnom Penh is an exciting, busy city, building like mad. And Siem Reap has exploded. In 2005, there were 125,000 visitors to Angkor Wat. Last year there were 2.5 million. But when we visited Angkor Wat yet again, and returned to our vantage point for the sunset, we still found ourselves alone.
“[Angor Wat] is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.” António da Mataleña, 1526 a.d.