Discovering my inner Lara Croft wasn’t difficult once I was faced with the temples of Angkor, looming ahead of me like so many monolithic giants. In their somewhat neglected and abandoned state, rampant vines and overgrown silk-cotton trees, I felt like I was stepping back in time to when men ruled with conviction and life was simpler.
The Khmer Empire, once the most powerful empire in South East Asia, controlling the entire of what is now Cambodia, and most of modern-day Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, has a foundation dating back to around 800 AD. Officially Buddhist by religion, the people of the Khmer Empire founded their capital at Angkor, and today thousands of tourist flock to see the temples representing the disintegration of this once mighty political power.
And so I came to be standing in the midst of a jungle, surrounded by fallen temple pieces, shaded by large trees, and listening to my local guide give me a detailed history of the region. The area is silent, even while other tourists from across the globe surround me; everyone is speaking in hushed tones, as if their voices will resurrect the kings of the past. In the dark half-light, I wander the halls of Ta Prohm, and my imagination runs wild. In my head, I am not sedately walking alone, I am outrunning all kinds of dangers, Indiana Jones is right there with me, and together, we’re going to save the world from ultimate doom.
While the theme music from Indiana Jones plays in my head, I turn to look at another carving in the stone pointed out by my guide. His words wash over me as all I can think about is how long it must have taken to build these remarkable temples, and how lucky we are they are still standing. This part of the world has seen flood, drought, war, earthquake, bombings, genocide, famine, corruption and other atrocities, and these buildings have stood, testing time, waiting patiently for some love and attention.
And love and attention they have received. Recently, Cambodia has realized it’s tourism potential, and set about restoring the temples of the Khmer kingdoms. This has led to a huge boom in tourism numbers, which both makes my heart swell with pride, and makes me feel like something has corrupted the innocence of this beautiful landscape. Nothing really compares to watching monks walk through a temple compound with a mobile phone and a cane of Coke.
Much of the heavy restoration work was still taking place when I went through the area, and most is now finished. The scaffolding I remember has now disappeared and given way to new structures replacing the old. Safer walkways, restored rooves, and more weeding that I could ever have imagined.
Angkor Wat, definitely the most famous of the temples, stands out in my memory as a sprawling compound, overrun with tourists, all waiting for the sun to sink behind the temple while they set up for that perfect photo. The other temples I walked through – Ta Prohm, Bantey Srei, Angkor Thom, Preah Khan – are definitely on the path well travelled, but I still felt a tug in my belly, a spiritual pull like I’ve not experienced before or since.
The sun filters through the canopy of trees, causing rays to dance and play in front of me as I walk. Monks in orange robes wander through the complex, and for all the popularity of the temples I visit, I hardly see a soul until I get to Angkor Wat. Even here, in the major drawcard for tourism in Cambodia, I am able to find pockets of peace, places to sit and ponder life and what man can accomplish with great wealth and power behind him.
I urge each and every one of you – go. Experience the wonder that is Angkor. Let your inner hero run wild, explore your sense of adventure and feel the spirit surround you.