Unreal Angkor


The jungle-carpeted capital of the 1,000-year-old Khmer Empire has been accessible to tourists for less than a decade. Before that, the area was so ridden with landmines and Khmer Rouge bandits that the only people who had visited the site were a handful of archeologists and explorers, plus a centuries-long string of invading armies, all the way up to the Vietnamese in the 1980s. Today, the astonishing ruins of Angkor form the glittering jewel in Cambodia’s budding tourist industry, the single attraction that makes people like us decide to come to Cambodia in the first place.


The nearby town of Siem Reap is coping and constructing to handle nearly half a million visitors a year, a number that promises to keep rising; and the fight for so many dollars, Euros, yen, and Yuan brings out the good, bad, ugly, and uglier inherent in any comparable economic boom. But despite the profusion of cookie-cutter hotels, scamming touts and tuk-tuk drivers, and obnoxious convoys of tour buses, from the second we step onto the famed causeway of Angkor Wat, we are swept away.


Our seven-day pass to this vast expanse of ruins which occupy the Cambodian rainforest in an inconceivably huge network of wonders ensures that we will have ample time to scrape the surface of such a place. We contract a thin, smiling tuk-tuk driver named Mr. Marom to drive us each early morning from our guesthouse to the various sites. Today, after three days of wide-eyed exploration, I remain completely overwhelmed by everything about this place.


Angkor is unlike anything I’ve seen in my travels. Still, I find myself making entirely futile comparisons — to real places like Tikal, Caracol, and Copan (Maya ruins in Central American), and to fictional realms like Middle Earth and Narnia. Angkor’s beauty, its simultaneous struggle and symbiosis with the living jungle, its phenomenal architectural accuracy — I am still figuring out how to take these things in for myself, let alone figuring out how to share them with you, dear reader.


Please forgive my loss for words; I can only attempt to compensate with a few simple images. For now.


More from Joshua Berman
“Visiting the Mundo Maya” on June 2, 2012, episode of “Travel with Rick Steves”
My interview with Rick Steves about “Visiting the Mundo Maya” aired on radio...
Read More