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Encountering the Khmer Smile in Angkor Wat

Author Tom Vater at the Angkor Archaeological Park at dusk.
Angkor Wat at dusk. Photo © Tom Vater.

A “trip of a lifetime” is not a journey undertaken easily. It’s a journey of the heart and the soul. It need not be a trip to the end of the world, but it does perhaps need to be a trip that will linger in the memory long after one has returned home. For me, the very first time I visited Angkor Wat was such a trip. It was my first visit to Cambodia; the country had just come out of a long civil war and there were few tourists. I flew into Siem Reap, the town nearest to the Angkor temples, on an ancient passenger plane that threatened to fall out of the sky.

In Siem Reap, I rented a motorbike. Visitors approach the world’s largest religious building via a long avenue lined with huge, ancient trees. Monkeys sat in the middle of the road challenging each passer-by for whatever food they might carry. Twelve kilometers out of Siem Reap, the road hits the temple’s moat, which is two kilometers long on each side. One does not quite see anything but the temple wall yet, which I followed around to the east. I stopped in front of a giant causeway, parked the bike, and crossed this wide, beautifully restored ramp to the outer gate. Once through the gate, the view was simply breathtaking.

Two small ponds lie just in front of the temple building in which the towers of Angkor Wat are reflected amongst blooming lotus flowers. I sat there for twenty minutes before the next person came along. That person happened to be one of the temple guards, a young woman in a rather austere grey uniform. She spoke no English and I spoke no Khmer, but she smiled at me shyly, happy for me to be there, and then went on up the temple steps. That was the moment: a moment in time I will always remember. I fell in love with Cambodia there and then.

For me, a “trip of a lifetime” is always a combination of things—a great location, a foreign culture, perhaps an amazing structure or spectacular view of nature, a unique ambience, and a human encounter.

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