Angkor Wat, Cambodia

 

As we crossed the stone causeway above the dark, reflective waters of the moat below, three pinecomb-shaped stone towers began to peak above the outer wall of the massive complex. My excitement grew as we entered through a gateway in the outer wall. “I’m finally here,” I thought to myself. I had dreamed of coming to this place for years and now I was finally here.

As I stepped through the other side of the gateway, I held my breath as I gazed at the sight that lay before me. The stone causeway extended before me for what seemed like another mile at the end of which were the magnificent ruins of Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century as the capital and state temple for the god-king Suryavarman II. Amazingly, it has been used continuously as a religious temple ever since, first as a Hindu temple and now as Buddhist temple.

While exploring the ruins and marveling at not only the perfection of the architecture but also the beauty of the carvings and statues, I came across a monk-in-training wondering through the hallways. His bright orange robes stood in stark contrast to the aging gray stone from which the temple was constructed. He offered to take me and my friend on a tour of the complex. We gladly accepted the offer.

His English was very poor and we missed much of what he was trying to say. We asked him to repeat himself several times but soon this became awkward. Finally we just nodded our heads and pretended we understood everything he said.

Thankfully the tour was quite short. At the end he asked if we’d like to take a photo with him. We each took turns having our photos taken with him. I went first and stood with my arm around his shoulder. My friend went next and when she tried to do the same thing he instantly pulled away . He explained that as a monk-in-training he could not touch or be touched by a woman.

He then took me to a spot where I could get a good photo of just him with a nice architectural element behind him. He adjusted his robes and turned so I could get his “good side” I smiled at the thought of a monk being so vain.

Once the photos were complete he turned into a salesman. He wanted us to give him US$40 for the tour and photos in order to help him buy books. I was beginning to think this was no monk. He then lowered his price to $20 but I eventually settled on $10 for his services. In a country where the average person makes less than $1 a day, I thought this was more than adequate considering he never mentioned there’d be a fee when he first offered the tour.

As he reached into his robe to put the money, I also noticed a cell phone and a wallet. Clearly he was not a monk-in-training or, at the very least, not taking his training very seriously. But the photos were nice so overall I didn’t feel too badly about the whole affair.

We continued touring the complex on our own, turning down passageways and climbing stairs to ever higher and higher rooms. In one room (or shrine) we came across a female monk with her head shaved sitting on the floor reciting prayers with her prayer beads. The room smelled of the fragrant incense she was burning. Offerings lay at the base of a statue that was adorned with brightly colored cloth. I noticed a small tray before her containing money so I made a small donation before bowing to her and leaving the room.

I was really impressed and delighted that these ancient structures were still being used for the purposes for which they were designed.

After walking around some more and taking a few extra snapshots, we decided to return to the parking lot, find our driver, and have him take us to the next temple ruin.

Overall we spent three days visiting all of the temple ruins at Angkor. We also visited the Killing Fields monument, the War Museum and took in a traditional Cambodian dance performance. It was by far one of the most amazing travel experiences of my life.

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