I WAS standing at the central shrine of Angkor Wat, high above the Cambodian jungle, when I suddenly realised this was one of the most surreal moments of my life.
Beside me stood a Buddhist monk who had introduced himself as David, and we had paused to take in the view towards the setting sun. The busloads of tourists exploring the ancient temple were suddenly nowhere to be seen, and I was alone with my new holy friend at the world’s largest religious monument.
David, who was visiting from a nearby pagoda, had offered to show me around after a chance meeting in one of the vast corridors. I certainly wasn’t going to refuse a monk.
I had been in Cambodia for a week, immersing myself in the country and its people and trying to grasp the rich and fascinating history of the small South-East Asian nation that today exists in tentative harmony with neighbouring Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. The final push to the central tower is very much like climbing to the summit of a mountain, which is exactly what David’s ancestors had envisaged when the temple was built in the 12th century under the rule of King Suryavarman II as a shrine to the Hindu god, Vishnu.
The steep steps to the top are too challenging for many visitors, and as such, a large crowd had gathered near the base of the steps to witness my friend in his bright orange robes lead me skyward.
Besides our guide, Danith, David was the only local I had engaged in conversation apart from the many street hawkers and market vendors eager for tourist dollars. These conversations were mostly always the same, with their scripted sales pitches and my poor Kmher response, usually “tee aakune”, meaning “no, thank-you”.
As we gazed out over the broad moat and beyond the grand western entrance, David took the opportunity to share a huge life decision with me. After 15 years of daily prayers and meditation, he was considering becoming a tour guide. At first, I thought he was humouring me, but Danith assured me later that a monk would never tell a lie.
It soon dawned on me that my holy friend may have been visiting the temple to satisfy his curiosity about life outside of religious devotion rather than as an act of worship. He was certainly proving to be more than a capable guide.
For decades, Cambodia has been a no-go zone for travellers after the horrors of the Vietnam War and the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, but today tourism is flourishing and local guides are paid well. David’s dilemma is a sign of the times in Cambodia. Although religion has resurged and helped nurture the psyche of the people since the dark days of Pol Pot, Cambodia is rapidly catching up with the rest of the world.
Many youth are more interested in MTV and brand names than religion and crumbling temples.
Tourists are treated well in Cambodia and the Australian dollar goes a long way.
Hopefully, the cash flow will be good for Cambodia, too, which is largely poor and lacking in the basic infrastructure and healthcare we take for granted.
The temples are easily the nation’s biggest drawcard, and even if you only have a week in Cambodia, you need at least two full days to appreciate the diversity and absolute grandness of them. Many hundreds of temples can be found throughout the country, but, despite restoration projects funded by more than a dozen nations, most are buried under thick tropical forests with only a small percentage accessible to the public. Discovering your own hidden temple is not recommended as land mines are not uncommon away from the major tourist areas.
Angkor Wat is part of the Angkor region in the country’s north-west which is about a six-hour road trip from the capital, Phnom Penh. Located near the great Tonle Sap lake, this is where the best temples can be found and naturally where most of the tourists visit.
The nearby town of Siem Reap serves as a base camp for day trips to the temples and has become a bustling tourist mecca with no fewer than 13 five-star hotels and an amazing selection of fine restaurants. And you can pay as little as 75 cents for an icy cold bottle of, you guessed it, Angkor beer.
The temple crowds can be daunting, but they should not deter you from visiting what is truly a marvel of mankind.
I would recommend getting there early before the tour buses, or seeking out some solitude in one of the lesser-known temples.
You won’t be disappointed.
Cambodia is a fascinating place.
Even in the major tourist destinations such as Siem Reap, you will find everyday life existing in all its colour and rawness alongside the glamour of five-star hotels and tacky souvenir markets.
If you ever make it to Angkor Wat, perhaps you, too, will meet David. Whether he’s in his orange robes or proudly wearing a tour guide uniform remains to be seen.
Either way, I hope he’s happy.
The writer was a guest of Air Asia
Good to know about Cambodia
Air Asia flies to Cambodia via Kuala Lumpur ex-Melbourne and Perth daily and Coolangatta five times a week with increased services over the Christmas period.
Entry to Cambodia is either through Phnom Penh (twice daily) or Siem Reap (once a day).
Fares from Coolangatta to Kuala Lumpur start from $220 and you can get from Kuala Lumpur to Phnom Penh for as little as $45.
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