Strangler Fig and Banyan trees have almost consumed the remains of the temple at Ta Prohm, one of the largest ruin sites at Angkor in Cambodia. Ta Prohm was originally built around 1186 as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university. Its more recent fame comes from the film Tomb Raider. Trees hug the stones intimately while also squeezing the stability out of the once enormous structure. Despite its resilience, Ta Prohm is dependent on the forest for life.
Angkor, the Sanskrit word for "city," was the capital of the Khmer Empire and flourished from the 9th to 15th centuries. At its peak the megacity of more than 1,000 temples may have supported one million people. Today Angkor Archeological Park has ruins that include small piles of rubble along the canals and rice fields, unrestored structures like Ta Prohm — the last Khmer capital, Angkor Thom — and the largest single religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat, which is also the most well-known. Wat is the word used in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos to describe a Buddhist temple. The entire ruin complex at Angkor is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We finalized our plans to visit Cambodia when we were already in Southeast Asia. It was easy to arrange a flight from Danang, on the coast of Vietnam, direct to Siem Reap. We'd heard that the city itself was not worth the visit but with a range of hotels, shops and restaurants, it fulfills its role as a stepping stone to Angkor. Strolling beside the canal in the evening was enjoyable after dining along Pub Street, which was also very memorable. After misreading the menu we ordered vegetables with rice, the safe choice we relied on for our month of travel, only to find chunks of white meat on our plates, too. "It's crocodile, like the menu says," the waiter explained when asked. I'd skipped that detail when ordering and assumed Khmer Crocodile was a fancy Cambodian preparation for vegetables. Turns out it was a basic preparation for reptile.
We stayed three nights at a budget hotel a block from the canal and arranged to tour each day with the hotel's driver, Sunny, with his awning-covered tuk-tuk. The two-seater, open carriage was pulled by a motorbike. It gave us the experience of being embedded in village life and made it easy to hop out quickly at each ruin.
We took Sunny's advice to purchase a three-day pass for the Park and were able to see the recommended Little Circuit, Big Circuit and the farther afield Roluos Group of temples. Drivers are not permitted to act as guides. For the DIY approach I armed myself with multiple guidebooks and read aloud along the route. I recommend brushing up on Khmer history and architecture before you travel, or hire a guide with good English skills. Sunny was not shy about adding his own perspectives. He'd lived through the terrorizing reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 when he was a child. His family was forced to work on a rice farm as most of the population was at the time. Walking back to the tuk-tuk beside the river one afternoon, we found Sunny crouched at the edge of the mud helping a friend dig for snails. "For dinner," he said, proudly explaining the black, slimy morsels contained in the plastic bag in his hand. We'd also seen a young man in bathing trunks earlier that morning balancing on a log mid-river. The graceful, meditative arcs he cast with his net across the dark water occupied my photographer for some time. Resilience and resourcefulness are ingrained traits in Cambodians and no food source is overlooked.
We arrived before dawn one morning to watch the sun rise at Angkor Wat (the city which is a temple) alongside travellers from across the globe. Built in the 12th century, the Angkor Wat complex was originally dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu, the Protector of Creation, but was later transformed to Buddhism, which continues today. Saffron-robed monks, dark-haired Asian tourists and tall Europeans jostled for position while the cloud-streaked sky revealed only a hint of the sun's orange glow. There was no postcard sunrise that morning and the best images we captured were of brightly clad monks in training, intricately adorned ruins and ancient, stone buddhas.
Angkor is a place of contrasts — Hinduism and Buddhism, jungle and rice fields, ruins and restoration, and ancient history with third-world commerce. It is a symbol of resilience for a nation looking to regain some of its former strength and an inspiring destination to explore.