All right, roll out the superlatives.
Angkor Wat is everything it's cracked up to be - magnificent, glorious, colossal, beautiful.
It fully merits it's place in the pantheon of the world's great wonders, along with the Pyramids, Machu Picchu, Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China, etc.
It's sheer size is breathtaking. Angkor itself is but one wat (temple) among a series that span an area of some 5 miles. Thousands more a scattered for hundreds of miles in northwest Cambodia.
And they weren't only places of worship. Angkor was the hub of the ancient Khmer kingdom that reached far into present-day Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. To put things in perspective, in its heyday which was somewhere between the 9th and 13th centuries, Angkor's population was more than one million inhabitants, at a time when, say, London was a town of 50,000.
Fast forward about 500 years when Western adventurers in the early 20th century "discovered" the hidden civilization and began clearing the jungle and scrubbing the walls, so to speak, for all the world to see.
Cambodians were filled with national pride, and revenue from tourism wouldn't hurt either. The terror years of Pol Pot killed this venture, along with 2 million countrymen, and it wasn't until the 90s or so that peace broke out and the ruins became a worldly destination.
How's that for an abridged overview?
You can't just walk into Angkor, and you can't stroll from one wat to the other.
It's a protected area a few clicks from the feeder town of Siem Reap and once inside, the distances are too great.
I'd be damned if I joined an organized tour, and with my gear and the heat, renting a bicycle was also out. So I hired a tuk-tuk driver for the day. From my hotel, he'd drop me off from one location to the other and wait patiently from my return. Sun up to sundown, 18 bucks. My guy Phoeung was so good and caring, I tipped him $10 each of my 2 days, and picked up the lunch tab too. Hordes and hordes of visitors and busloads of Chinese tourists assaulted the place. Thank goodness it's so big.
And there's also a large population of locals, many living within the confines, who hawk souvenirs at each stop. But none of this alters the fact that Angkor is truly an exquisite relic of the ancient world.
By stark contrast, Siem Reap is anything but the dusty provincial capital of old.
Think Cabo at Spring Break. New Orleans at Mardi Gras. Gaudy tourism with an Asian flare and a Third World underbelly. Siem Reap is swanky restaurants and massage stables, nightclubs and markets overflowing the tidy quarter around Pub Street.
It's the height of party decadence, neon lights and incessant hawkers.
The air fills with thumping traditional music of Whitney Houston and The Who.
Siem Reap is the debauched Yin to Angkor's sublime Yang.
It provided an interesting distraction, but a stone's throw from the mayhem, I walked the grounds of a serene Pagoda and befriended a young monk in saffron orange robe feeding pigeons in front of his tiny cinderblock room.
His name is Pheayum. At 22, he's been studying at the Buddha school for 2 years, and hopes to one day move on with scholarship to a university, become a lawyer, or a doctor.
Monks are numerous in Siem Reap, but are usually furtive and steer clear of foreigners.
Pheayum was eager to talk, to practice his English, to learn more about the outside world.
How long are wedding ceremonies in Canada? (They last 2 days in Cambodia). How do people live in your villages? How many countries have you traveled to?
He spoke softly and had clever eyes.
He told me how difficult it was at first not having dinners, as monks eat only in the morning and at lunch. Nothing more is permitted.
He has 4 siblings back in the village, and he said he chose to become a monk because, no, his English is not good enough to explain.
His arm gestures and facial expression suggested a calling within his heart.
I asked him about girls. Does he ever think about being with a girl.
"Yes," he said, unabashed. "But I am a monk."
Simple as that.
We sat for nearly an hour as dusk settled over the stupa.
He posed too formally for a picture, and I also snapped a selfie two-shot.
I gave him a couple of dollars and, somewhat stupidly, wished him a blessed life.
Back at the hotel, I had a massage appointment.
Dash your filthy minds, my body ached and it was just a massage.
Slightly pricier than on the street, but that's because these girls were professionally trained.
It was awful.
On a twin bed, both of us fully dressed, she twisted my limbs in directions they shouldn't go, pressed on my organs until I grunted and pounded on my backbone in no particular manner.
Still, it was nice to feel the hands of a girl on me.
It brought back, um, ancient memories.
See earlier blogs at www.armandthomas.com/blog