It was July of 2017, in Cambodia, where it was always a scorching 98 degrees almost daily. That day was no exception, and it felt even more humid than it ever was. Still, I wasn’t going to let this weather ruin my day of walking and sightseeing one of the most famous landmarks in all of Asia: the Angkor Wat. I was born in Philadelphia to a Khmer family, and I’ve only visited Cambodia once before then, but I don’t remember much of it. Now, I’m visiting the once rich, and flourished country again. To get there, we took a car, and during the ride, I could not stop but smile and think about the marvelous ruins and luscious plant life that is found in Angkor Wat. As soon as we parked the car, I hurriedly opened the door and took a step outside, breathing in the fresh air and smelling hints of river water and various trees and plants. All around me were other tourists; some were locals who took annually flocked to their most prized source of pride in the country while others were tourists who came internationally, from countries such as China, Mexico, America, India, France, etc. It appears to me that they were all here for the same reason that I am.
There is an old stone bridge that would normally take me towards the main entrance of Angkor Wat, but its status and shape are so bad that it has been closed for renovations and examination by Cambodian and Japanese experts. Instead, I cross a temporary floating bridge that is able to contain hundreds of people walking on it at once. As I walk closer, I can see birds flying around on the jungle-like trees and various tiny insects crawling on the old stone ruins that leads up to the bridge.
When you start to walk on the bridge, there will be officials on the bridge who gives you a simple test; they say Hello to you in Khmer. The catch here is that if you respond to them in a language other than Khmer, they will stop you and ask for your “ticket” which is essentially a tourist admission fee. If you say hello back in Khmer, they will assume your of Khmer ethnicity or a local. I know it may seem like a shady practice, but believe it or not, hundreds of thousands of people visit the Angkor Wat every year, and about 65 percent of them are tourists, which makes this a very lucrative source of money for the government and officials. Luckily for me, my family is all Khmer and we had no trouble getting past officials. Looking back, I saw a lot of officials talking to foreigners and at the time, I didn’t know why we were not stopped and all my dad simply said to me was “They are just looking for directions.” Being born in America, I never really witnessed an event similar to this, but today I understand now why my dad didn’t tell me the truth and I respect him for that.
Walking on the temporary bridge did not take long and soon, I was ready to explore the Angkor Wat in all its glory. As I headed into the main courtyard, I visited one of the shrines and was given some money and a piece of silk fabric which acted as a gift for which we were supposed to give to the shrine and the monk that was present. The monk said some blessings and prayers and gave me a red bracelet, which means good luck in Cambodian culture. After this, I headed to the main courtyard that led to many different small and various temples.
The courtyard had a rustic charm to it, and the atmosphere was archaic but in a cool way. All around me were guides, vendors, and photographers, all of which were implemented to generate income for the country, which relies heavily on tourism so it was no surprise that every employee was bugging us to buy their services. We just ignored them as we walked by. I kind of felt guilty because these people are usually people in poverty which is a common sighting today in Cambodia.
After that, the entire day usually went on as normal. I took many photos, and read plaques that were scattered along the walls of the temples, which detailed the history of a particular part of the ruins. For example, there was a huge wall in which there were thousands of carvings that depicted heavenly nymphs and it was a sight to see. I also happened to get the chance to ride an elephant! Not many people can say that and it was such a riveting experience. The elephant ride was slow and calm, but I was very high up as we went around the main courtyard in a circle. I even got to take some photos along the way. It just felt like a magical and exotic experience that you could get nowhere else in the world.
In the end, it was a truly magnificent experience that lived up to my expectations. The breathtaking views of the ruins combined with the majestic and dense jungle-like vegetation made it feel like you’re hiking on an expedition and it will be a journey that I will never forget.