These could be a visitor’s first impressions of Angkor and Siem Reap, recorded 40 years ago, 15 years ago, even last month. Kampuchea, as the Khmer call their homeland, has a timeless, mysterious, and somewhat anarchic quality.
I still vividly remember my own first glimpse of Angkor Wat. I was riding a motorcycle along the wide tree-lined road from the ticket booths toward the temples. Monkeys swung from the trees. A couple of elephants stood in the shade, waiting for passengers. I turned and followed the road running parallel to the dark green water toward the causeway. Suddenly, across the moat, I glimpsed the massive central towers rising out of the dense foliage. It was a pleasant shock, then disbelief at the temple’s form and sheer size kicked in; the forest ambience induced a personal sense of discovery.
True marvels to behold, the temple ruins of Angkor—stone remnants of the Khmer Empire, which ruled much of Southeast Asia almost 1,000 years ago—have put Cambodia on the map and attract more than two million foreign visitors a year. No one leaves disappointed. Add the bustling markets and lively bars in the capital Phnom Penh, the quiet streets of Battambang, and the only just recently accessible forest temples away from the main highways, and a journey to Angkor Wat is an adventure, an experience, a moment in time.
Above and beyond the magnificent sights, visitors are rewarded by the warm welcome of Cambodia’s people. Despite the country’s tragic recent history, despite poverty and years of isolation, the sourire khmer—the Khmer smile—remains intact. The Khmer are looking toward a peaceful future with cautious optimism, which makes a visit an experience you are likely to cherish forever.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Angkor Wat.