Week 12, Siem Reap, Angkor Wat, and Angkor Thom, Cambodia

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Diary of a Globetrotting Family: On the ground and in the air of one of the world’s great cities

In the 1100s and 1200s, the world’s largest city wasn’t London or Paris, not Mexico City or Tokyo. Nope. The world’s largest city held an estimated population of around one million people, had engineered water reservoirs and channeling on a scale possibly not seen again until the US Army Corps of Engineers, and had built stone structures that people outside the region didn’t know existed until the early 20th Century.

Today, the temple of Angkor Wat remains the world’s biggest religious monument. The former capital city of the Khmer Empire, Angkor Thom, has a physical footprint larger than Manhattan’s, with massive rectangular reservoirs the size of small lakes. 

Ever since my first visit to Cambodia in 2003, I’ve been completely besotted with Angkor. As long as Jodie and I have been together and have talked about traveling with the kids, I have talked about wanting our family to visit.

Now, after years of planning, on a hot Southeast Asia morning as our driver brought his motorcycle and our towed tuk-tuk to a halt, at last, we were here.

“Angkor is dance, song, legend, dream, philosophy, and history, recorded in stone.”

The trip that almost didn’t happen

What amazes me now as I write this, is that we nearly passed over Cambodia completely, and for one simple reason: It was going to be an expensive week, and a bit of a pain to get here. Even from Bangkok, Thailand, one of the region’s busiest international and regional hub, flights were going to be spendy. We’d also have to pay for visas, not to mention passes to visit the Angkor complex itself.

Looking over routes, dates, and numbers one evening in Chiang Mai, I was damn near in tears. I desperately wanted our family to experience Angkor together. This is one of the world’s great cities. The stone building, architecture, carving and decoration exist on a scale that can make Angkor feel like something that just sprang out of the ground, out of the jungle, out of some divine dream.

But in the very real world, an itinerary kept eluding me, and the costs just seemed like there were piling up.

“Maybe we have to skip Cambodia,” I told Jodie. “We’ll head straight to Vietnam instead.”

“Going here has been one of the places you’ve been the most excited about,” she told me. “Let’s look it over together.”

Jodie checked over a few different things, and came at the itinerary from a different perspective. Instead of having to overland back to Bangkok, which would take most of a day, we instead could fly straight out of Chiang Rai. Granted, we would still have about a 4-hour layover in Bangkok, but we realized we could hole up at a lounge there (thanks to our Capital One Venture X card) and get through some work and school tasks.

The flight was going to be one of our more expensive regional flights. However, Jodie excels at finding great accommodation deals, and she had a feeling that we could offset the flight with savings in our other costs. Not only did she find a safe, clean, comfy hotel in Siem Reap that was an affordable price for our family, it included a made-to-order breakfast.

The visa fees? There were simply a cost of travel. However, we realized we could apply for Cambodian e-visas online, which we did. This turned out to save us a lot of time at the Siem Reap airport. While others waited in long lines, we quickly found ourselves meeting our shuttle driver and heading to our hotel.

Our main reason for visiting Siem Reap was, frankly, to go to Angkor. We wouldn’t be doing other attractions or activities. That meant we wouldn’t be going out much, so we could save on transportation and attractions costs. Food was also reasonably priced, and we could use apps like FoodPanda to order in delivered meals that fit our budget.

And the last thing we saved on? Our tickets to Angkor itself. When you get tickets to Angkor, you can choose from a 1-day, 3-day, or 7-day pass. We’d been considering the 3-day pass. To help get tourism flowing again, the Cambodia government had a sort of special going until the end of 2022: Each pass now got an extra day attached. Suddenly, the 1-day pass had become a 2-day pass. We decided two days were the perfect amount of time for us and the kids. We could take in the major highlights without overwhelming ourselves.

The key to all this? Jodie and I each are amazing travelers, who can problem-solve and persevere. But working together as a team, we always find a way.

We were going to Angkor.

“By the time we left, we were ready for our first day at iconic Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm.”

But first, some context: National Angkor Museum

When we go places with the kids, we first try to give them some context. Prior to going to Disneyland, for example, we watched different videos and shows with the kids, and Jodie would tell stories about her own prior visits. For Angkor, we’d watched a couple of videos, but we also wanted the kids to understand a little more about deep culture and expansive history of the Khmer Empire and its people.

So, the day before we visited Angkor, our driver dropped us off at the National Angkor Museum in Siem Reap. Exhibits showcase the long history that encompasses the different buildings of Angkor. Short films give you context—and a chance to sit down.

While we didn’t stop for every statue or example of decorative stone carving, we made our way through all the exhibit areas. The traffic flow of the space also has a natural break at the museum’s coffee shop. Over sugarcane juice, a chocolate smoothie, an iced latte, and an americano, we discussed what we’d experienced so far, and recharged to see the rest.

By the time we left, we were ready for our first day at iconic Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm.

“For years they’d heard me talk about where we were going. Now, we were finally on our way. And we’d start big.”

Angkor Wat: Imagination and endeavor come to life in enduring stone

New family portrait.

A big start

Across a bridge over a moat, the tall lotus buds rose from high walls of gray stone. The towers had endured centuries of weather, sunshine, and jungle. And I, simply, beamed, not just because I was seeing Angkor Wat again, but because Jodie, Aster, and Connor were seeing it for the first time.

Around 8:15 the next morning, we had piled into our tuk-tuk, rumbled out over the dirt and gravel, and turned into the traffic heading north out of Siem Reap, from the bustling city to the thick forest—and stone buildings—beyond.

I kept looking around at my kids and my wife. For years they’d heard me talk about where we were going. Now, we were finally on our way. And we’d start big, with one of the world’s most iconic buildings: Angkor Wat.

As the outskirts of the city thinned out, the trees thickened, and soon we were in the forest outside Siem Reap. Stopping at a checkpoint, I opened my phone and pulled up the PDF of my and Jodie’s e-tickets for Angkor on my phone. (Kids under 12 don’t need tickets, but we had to show the children’s passports to prove their ages).

Our driver let us out at the western entrance to the Angkor complex and said he would meet us at the eastern entrance.

“Don’t come back here,” he says, grinning. “Or you will have a very long walk to find me.”

Imagination and endeavor made real

In the vast walled courtyard surrounding Angkor Wat, grass grows over piled stones. Throughout Angkor, there are stones that simply do not have a place. They may have been walls or roofs, parts of buildings that fell to time and forest centuries ago. The stones have been placed in rough rows and low piles. Some of them are mostly blank, but every stone has at least some sort of decoration or carving.

It’s one thing to look at Angkor Wat’s scale, and to consider that its construction took about 30 years. It’s another thing to learn that the island Angkor sits on is made a rock that can’t actually support the weight of the stone complex. The Khmer engineers of the time understood this. That’s why Angkor Wat is built on a giant moat: The water provides support and counter-pressure that neutralizes the downward push of the weight of the sandstone above.

Making our way across the field, we climbed a set of wooden steps that have been constructed over the original stone stairs. Searching my memories of my first visit, I’m pretty sure the staircases have been added since then—and I am grateful. The stone steps are tall, steep, and shallow. Jodie knew we’d be navigating a lot of stairs, and she brought both her trekking poles accordingly. While it would still be an arduous day of stairs, at least the wooden steps were easier to go up and down.

As we rose, our gazes lifted too. In photos or on the Cambodian flag, Angkor is usually depicted at an angle that makes it look like there are three towers in a row. Now, before us we saw the truth of the temple: There are four towers, one on each compass rose corner. The taller, grander central spire stands even higher. Angkor Wat has five towers, meant to represent Mt. Meru, the holy mythical mountain in Hinduism where divine beings live, sort of like Mt. Olympus in Greek mythology.

Angkor is dance, song, legend, dream, philosophy, and history, recorded in stone.

Next time, Angkor

While many visitors come for sunrise—both for the drama of the first light on the Angkor moat, and for the relatively cooler temperature—we are not sunrise people. The sun was getting higher, and the day was heating up. Still, inside the stone passages, we wandered in the cool dark. But we also wondered why in the world the Khmer felt the need to place a couple of steps every few meters, making it more difficult to pass from passage to passage, chamber to chamber.

Still. The carvings on the walls held our gazes and our attention. Flower designs. Dancers. Battles. So many stories and recollections, each one meticulously carved out.

“This place can look like it was simply here,” I said to the kids. “But the thing we always want to remember, is that every stone, every carving, every bit of imagination and work, was done by people.”

At the Bakan, the steep stairs rose so steep up the 30-meter tower, they might as well be a ladder. Some people were going step over step, but others faced the stairs, going up or down ladder-style. The kids wanted to come with me, but a sign turned them back: You have to be at least 12 years old to go up.

Connor shook his fist at it and called, “Next time, Angkor!”

Jodie found a shady spot, where she and the kids could rest while I went up. The sun’s heat was more apparent here, but the tower was no skinny spire. This was an entire complex all its own, with its own exposed central courtyard, dark passages labyrinthing throughout the structure, and chambers where offerings lay near Buddha statues. From an open-air window, I gazed out over the tops of the jungle. There’s a quiet here, of rest and reflection. I wondered what the Khmer big-wigs thought about, or talked about, when they were here, looking out over the heart of the empire.

And I wondered what they would think of us here, all us tourists, old and young, women and men, from all over the world. For what it’s worth, I hope they know that our family is here in sheer and absolute awe.

Making my slow way down the steep stairs, I left the Bakan and returned to Jodie and the kids. We made our way to the eastern entrance, found our driver, and then we made our mistake.

Ta Prohm: Roots rule the rock

Where iconic trees grow out of temple walls

If you’ve seen photos of Angkor Wat, you may be familiar with some other images of the area, especially if you’ve seen Angelina Jolie play Lara Croft in the 2001 Tomb Raider film. Other than Angkor Wat, the images most often associated with Angkor as a whole are of massive trees, growing from the tops of bent stone walls. Long, thick roots have poured down the blocks into the ground below. In some temples, the trees seem to be holding up walls, which otherwise would have tumbled over centuries ago.

East of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm is one of the other most significant parts of Angkor. On my 2003 visit, Ta Prohm was open to the public, but restoration and preservation work was still in earlier stages. I remember going down half-lit passages where you came to a sudden halt, stopped by piles of rocks that for hundreds of years had lain where they had fallen. There were areas you couldn’t go to, because the rock was too unstable.

Nearly 20 years later, in 2022, much had changed.

Many doorways, passages, and walls have been rebuilt, restored, and reinforced. There’s a more defined flow of traffic, so it’s easier for visitors to see the most impressive walls, carvings, and temple trees. Plank platforms have been set up in some areas, both to protect the stone, and to make it easier for visitors to get selfies and group photos with particularly iconic trees.

To me, Ta Prohm was a wonderland of history, a sort of ultimate combination of human initiative with nature’s slow yet unstoppable pace.

However, to a ten-year-old who, it turns out, really needed lunch, Ta Prohm was neat, but—

“Could we get a move on already?”

Ta Prohm with kids

It’s one thing to explore Angkor with kids, to gaze into the living history here, and ponder this culture, this civilization, and all the work it took to make Angkor an enduring reality.

But it’s quite another to go to another temple, with flagging kids, after only a brief rest.

One of the mysteries of Angkor is we don’t actually know why the Khmer abandoned it. Over time, it’s said, the Khmer Empire made mistakes that led to its diminishment and downfall. Some say geopolitical changes affected the empire’s wealth and size, and they had to move to get away from potentially threatening powers. Others say that in time, climate conditions changed, and Angkor was no longer as favorable a site. Another theory is that even though the Khmer were incredible engineers and builders, they began to let their infrastructure maintenance slide.

Well, we parents make mistakes too, albeit on a rather different scale. Still, we were deep into the temple area before we realized that we really, really should have taken the kids to lunch first.

While the dark passages and tumbled stones fascinated Aster, Connor felt tired and grumpy. We worked with him to try to carry on, and we would try to see the best bits of Ta Prohm, but not linger too much. Using her sticks, Jodie would make her careful steps up, over, and down the dark passage’s thresholds, with their one or two stairs on each side. Sometimes, though, there might be a couple of different ways we could wander.

“Connor?” said Jodie. “Could you check those paths and see which one would be best for me to take?”

“I’ll help too!” said Aster. Together, the kids zagged down one of the paths, turned behind a broken stone wall and were gone.

If they can’t have a meal yet, at least they can have a mission

While we waited, Jodie smiled at me, and I handed her a water bottle. She’s always known when to let Connor have some space and silence. But she’s also been the first to glean when what Connor really needs to reset his perspective, is a helpful mission. Ever since Connor was a little boy if Jodie has needed help finding a safe, navigable path, Connor has zoomed ahead to scout things out.

A few minutes later, the siblings returned. Aster jumped over rocks and came to a stop in front of us. Connor followed, still examining the path—but more importantly, with the beginning of a smile. Tired? Hungry? Sure. But he was also helping his mama when she needed it, and that sense of purpose could help him reprioritize.

Making our way along the paths the children identified, it was easier to pause and talk about the trees, the rocks, the tumbled stones, and the broken walls. Since my visit in 2003, more of Ta Prohm had been restored, and we could gain a more cohesive sense of what the temple would have looked like in its heyday. Still, the trees remained, and so did piles of stone. It’s as if the idea was more to give an impression of what the original could have looked like, rather than a full reconstruction. I liked the approach. It gives us modern visitors some context, while keeping the present in touch with the real effects of the passage of time.

Stopping to examine a lion at the edge of the temple’s raised entry platform, Aster and I lingered a little longer to pose our little black plastic cat, Noodles, in the lion’s mouth. Connor and Jodie went on ahead. As we caught them up, we came to the perimeter wall—and a tall staircase, with a flat platform at the top, that would take us over the wall.

Jodie stared at it, wooden step after wooden step—and understanding, of course, that we still would have to make our way down too. With a sigh, she turned her focus inward, and shifted her strength into safely making her way. The kids waited on the other side of the wall, but I stuck with her. In silence we went up, paused a moment for breath, and when she was ready, continued down. Finally, relieved, a bit shaky, and hungry, we piled back into the tuk-tuk, and our driver took us toward a well-earned lunch.

“These glaring visages are your boss, your beige, your god—and here in the Bayon, they are truly always watching you. It’s like that old Police song, “Every Step You Take,” rendered in stone.”

Angkor Thom: Heads up at the Bayon

As we loaded into the tuk-tuk for our second and final day of exploring Angkor, Aster giggled. Just behind us, a little gray cat romped at the side of the road.

“It’s such a cute kitty,” said Aster.

“Kitty?” said Jodie, as she sat down. “I only saw a chicken.”

“No Mama,” said Connor. “There’s a cat there, not a chicken.”

We all looked back. Sure enough. Cat. Not chicken. Unless this critter was one heck of a shapeshifter.

Half an hour later, we found ourselves under what can feel like another type of shapeshifter. Going up a path toward low gray walls that led back to rising passages and a massive central tower, we stared eye to eye with face after face of the Bayon. Dozens of square pillars rise into the air—but this is the thing: On each of the four sides of each pillar, a carved stone face stares out, up, and even down—at the same time. Today, 173 of the faces remain—and their gaze is ever-present.

Just off the middle of Angkor Thom, the Khmer Empire’s former capital city, the Bayon is the heart of the city—and at one time was likely the heart of the empire. The carved faces have been referred to as the “Mona Lisa of the East” for their inscrutable expressions that, even as carved stone, seem to follow you everywhere you wander. (Though given that the Bayon predates da Vinci’s masterwork by about 300 years, perhaps the Mona Lisa should be called “the Bayon of the West.”)

Snails not playas

As we scrambled along passages, climbed steps, and read descriptions of the carved wall scenes before us, I kept thinking about what it must have felt like for the people who long ago would have wandered these grounds and hallways. The faces, you see, have been described as representations of Hindu gods, of Buddha, and of Khmer kings. These glaring visages are your boss, your leige, your god. Here in the Bayon, they are truly always watching you. It’s like that old Police song, “Every Step You Take,” rendered in stone.

Of course, just as times long ago can mystify us, the present brings plenty of enigmas too. Making our way back to the grounds outside the Bayon, we passed a group of teenagers. One of them wore a thin black jacket, but beneath it, the boy’s white t-shirt just about had me doubled over with mystified laughter. I pointed it out to Jodie.

“His shirt,” I said, brushing some tears from my eyes. “It says, ‘Salt kills snails not playas.’”

She turned and looked for the kid too. “What does that even mean?”

I shrugged. Though now I wonder if it means when someone hits on you in a bar, are you supposed to pour salt on their head and see what happens?

Gazing back toward the Bayon, the many faces on the pillars gave me no answer. Though if they were watching me, they were also watching the kid—and I’ve got a feeling that t-shirt had these god-Buddha-king faces just as stumped as it had me.

Maybe the gods really are just like us after all.

“If I felt anything profound, it was a deep appreciation for where I was, and for the people waiting for me, and for a species that could bring imagination into reality.”

The unexpected temple: Baphuon

Monkeys and elephants

Along a grassy path shaded by tall trees, the four of us let the god towers of the Bayon watch our backs. This is no small consideration in Angkor. While people don’t live here anymore, macaques do. I passed by a family of the silver-gray monkeys as they romped on a short wall of gray-black stones. I kept lots of distance between us though. Monkeys in places like Angkor are not shy around people. They will gladly nick your snacks, your water bottles, even your bag if given a chance, even though in 2019 quite a few of the more aggressive macaques were removed from the park.

Down a wide dirt path, we passed by a dig site, where over a dozen workers wielded hand tools as they excavated. Wide stone staircases went up to broad promenades that ran parallel to a moat. In between them ran our next stop, the Terrace of the Elephants.

For starters, that has to be one of the most compelling names you could give a place. Repeat it in your mind, or maybe so it out loud: “Terrace of the Elephants.”

Do you suddenly want to grab a monkey-proof bag and head there? Exactly.

All along the terrace, life-size carvings and sculptures of elephants appear to hold up the terrace’s walls. Trios of elephants stand together, and their straight trunks cascade down to the dirt.

What to do when a mountain temple won’t let you go

Farther down, at the other end of the raised promenade, the Terrace of the Leper King was perhaps not quite as compellingly named, but I will give it points for sounding like something Edgar Allan Poe might have titled a short story. Past the Terrace of the Leper King, our driver waited in a parking lot. Connor beelined down the path, ready to sit down in the tuk-tuk and have a rest. Jodie made her way along as well, while Aster and I stopped to pose Noodles, our little black plastic cat companion, with one of the stone lions on the terrace.

Then Aster ran down to join up with her mother, and I was left to wander the promenade alone.

Set back in the forest, to the left of the promenade, past the trees and a marshy moat, a stepped stone mountain temple rose from amidst the tall trees. Archways framed a long, narrow stone causeway that cut through the moat, connecting the terrace to the large temple complex.

The Baphuon.

I walked along the promenade, but kept stopping to turn and stare at it. I took some photos, snagged a little video, and kept going. Back at the tuk-tuk, we all loaded up, and our driver started out of the parking lot.

But I shook my head. “Wait,” I said quietly.

“That big temple, the Baphuon,” I said. “It… I feel like it’s calling to me. If you all want to stay, no worries, but I would really like to check this place out, even if it’s on my own. I’m fully aware that I’ve been fortunate to see Angkor not just once, but twice. I’m not banking on a third time. If we leave and I don’t go see this, I just feel like I’m going to regret it.”

A couple of minutes later, I was crossing the causeway I had been marveling at. Before me, the squared walls rose in tiers, with passageways and courtyards in between the different levels. Initially I thought that maybe I’d just have a wee look, then head back. But as I crossed the doorway into the first courtyard, I looked up, and knew that if I was going to be here, I needed to go as high and as far as I could.

What the temple told me

While a few other people were in the Baphuon, the immense temple complex felt nearly empty. No breeze stirred leaves or carried voices. I could occasionally hear the steps of other visitors, or catch a snatch of conversation as someone went by. Otherwise, it felt like just me and the stones, the past and the present.

Going up steep staircases, I made my way toward the tapering top. While the absolute tip-top of the Baphuon was closed off to visitors, I had gone as high as I could. Staring out across the green sea of vast jungle, I wondered why I had felt so moved to come here. In a story, saying yes to this excursion, being willing to step off the normal path of exploring with my family, would be the open door to whatever challenge and opportunity the story had to offer.

This, though, was life. No secret messages from the past revealed themselves. No bearded warrior sages appeared with a dire urgent mission. While I had my share of stumbles, not one of them accidentally pressed a secret button that opened a hidden passageway to a forgotten temple within the temple.

None of that. I looked out over the forest. I thought about the scale of the human work under my feet. And all I felt, all I understood, was gratitude. I felt grateful to be here. Grateful that this incredible place had endured. If I felt anything profound, it was a deep appreciation for where I was, and for the people waiting for me, and for a species that could bring imagination into reality on a scale and timeline that could stagger comprehension.

Driving age

Back at the tuk-tuk, I thanked Jodie and the kids for being so understanding. I told them what I had felt and seen (and how I had gotten lots of photos and videos for them too).

And they told me about the monkeys. A macaque had climbed on top of a nearby trashcan, swung into the side opening, and emerged with trashy treasures. Another macaque had raided a nearby tuk-tuk, swiping a mango and a clear plastic disposable water bottle. The macaque had considered the bottle for a bit, then sank its teeth into the side. Water spurted out.

While they watched, another macaque had tried to grab Aster’s dress. Fortunately, Jodie, the kids, and our driver had managed to shoo it away.

“Daddy,” said Connor, “guess how old our driver was when he started driving not just a motorbike, but a tuk-tuk?”

Suspicion grabbed me like a macaque who’d found a mango.

“How old?”

Connor’s grin beamed. “Ten.”

Unlike the inscrutable faces of the Bayon, his expression was most readable. “So, when can we get me a motorbike?”

“‘Ta Som’ absolutely is not the Khmer phrase for ‘introvert temple haven,’ but it might as well be.”

The tranquility of Ta Som

Out-of-the-way temple is easy to manage for kids or people with mobility conditions

Angkor is one of the most amazing places on Earth. Like I said, I felt grateful enough that I had seen it not just once, but twice. Yet on this second visit, there were still so many places I had not seen, and one of them would be our Angkor finale.

After the kids took over the hammocks at our lunch spot for a while, we loaded up into the tuk-tuk for one more temple excursion. Some folks like to cover as many temples as possible. Others, on a final jaunt in the complex, like to head north, and visit a far-flung temple (usually also tied in with the Landmine Museum).

However, as we looked into Angkor, we realized that there was a temple perfect for us. There wasn’t as much in the way of stones or steps for Jodie to clamber over. The overall area was pretty flat, actually. While other places, such as Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm, had to be reached by making your way over hundreds of meters of path, this last temple started just a few meters from the side of the road.

Even better? Not only was it small, it was located at the northeastern corner hinterlands of Angkor. To reach it, we’d even get to cross the rectangular reservoir of the Eastern Báráy, taking in not only trees and water, but a reminder of just how incredible the Khmer were at channeling, storing, and directing water.

Getting out of the tuk-tuk, Aster followed a hen, trying to get close enough to its chick to pick up the little chicken. “You’re a great chicken wrangler,” I told her, “but maybe let’s leave this chicken on the ground.”

Temple of the introverts

“Ta Som” absolutely is not the Khmer phrase for “introvert temple haven,” but it might as well be.

The square, small complex was full of tumbled walls, intricate carvings of stories and dancers and such, and cool, dark passageways, complete with teeny side rooms that had us chatting about what they possibly could have been used for. Bedrooms? Broom closets? Introvert reading nooks? All of the above?

However, the joy of Ta Som lies on its far side. You start at the temple’s western gate, and make your way in a relatively straight line through passages, gateways, and courtyards. Here and there, smiling, staring-down Bayon-style faces watch your every move.

As you go through the East Gate, though, the dark opening of the final gateway is nothing compared to how wide open your jaw will fall.

The melding of root and rock

Throughout Angkor, trees grow next to walls and even on top of walls. But at the East Gate of Ta Som, the massive roots of a giant fig tree have become so enmeshed through the stonework, that the tree and wall have become one, a mutually supporting structure woven in stone and wood. Tree and wall are even the same gray in color. Without the tree, the gateway looks like it would have collapsed long ago. It’s as if the tree had made a choice to grow here, to save this little bit of beautiful history.

I loved this area. It was quiet, and we got some pretty cool photos of the tree and the wall. But it is not the image I will carry with me.

God among children

Earlier in our passing, as we neared one of the gateways, the kids had been playing “the dirt is lava.” Wandering amidst the trees down a dirt path, we neared a doorway. Aster and Connor clambered onto a long vine-like branch that curved along the ground like a giant scoop. Across from them, atop the gateway, one of the inscrutable god-Buddha-king faces stared down at them.

I am sure those faces have seen many sights over the years. In centuries past, goodness knows what spiritual or political discussions the face must have been privy too. Perhaps, in more recent years, the occasional macaque has held up a punctured water bottle or a squished mango, as if to show off its prowess at foraging in the vicinity of humans.

But I feel quite confident in guessing that it would have been a rare, rare sight for this god-faced statue to get to watch little humans at joyful, free-spirited play.

Whatever that carving’s expression is meant to be is one thing. From now on, though, I hope that it will always be a smile.

“Sometimes a little bit of persistence, an instinctive change of plan, and a bit of hustling come together into a memory that will now always be part of you.”

Angkor Balloon at sunset

There is one more Angkor tale I want to share with you. Sometimes a little bit of persistence, an instinctive change of plan, and a bit of hustling come together into a memory that will now always be part of you.

After our finale day at Angkor, we had a free day. The following morning, we would leave Cambodia on a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam.

However, I’d been asking around about what I understood to be a tethered hot air balloon, located just a little outside the Angkor complex. Apparently, around sunrise and sunset people could go up in the balloon and have about 10 minutes to gaze in wonder at Angkor from the air. Finding hard info had been difficult to come by online though, and when I’d made inquiries about this hot air balloon, I hadn’t heard back from anyone.

Our driver knew exactly what I was talking about. On our last full day in Siem Reap, we arranged with him to pick us up at 5 p.m., so we could aim for the sunset float.

Not early enough

On the day, though, we messaged him.

“Let’s do 4:30 instead,” I had suggested to Jodie. I had no reason. Just a feeling.

Driving toward Angkor felt different this time. Instead of being one of many vehicles heading toward Angkor, we mostly saw people leaving, heading toward Siem Reap, as closing time for Angkor neared. Under the a sky of low gray clouds, our driver turned left, and a few minutes later, we saw the massive balloon, on the ground in a clearing. In a covered waiting area, a bunch of visitors sat and waited, and I went up to chat with one of the attendants.

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said, and she nodded toward the group of people we had passed, “but the sunset ride is full.”

Even leaving earlier hadn’t helped. I’d simply been wrong. Or we hadn’t been fast enough. Or hadn’t been able to put together the info fast enough or thoroughly enough to be able to make arrangements. Damn. Jodie and the kids and I all had been so excited too.

The attendant smiled. “But there is one more float before sunset,” she said.

My eyes widened. “When?”

She gestured toward the ticket counter behind her.

“Now.”

The sight of sun and stone

Moments later, the four of us watched the balloon lift off—from inside its circular viewing platform, which save for the pilot, we had all to ourselves. The enclosed heating apparatus was all contained inside the balloon itself. Looking down into the center of the donut-shaped platform though, we could watch the thick cable unspool from underground.

As we rose above the treetops, we looked out over the green trees. And there, to the east, also rose the spires of Angkor Wat. Seen from ground level, Angkor inspires you to look up, to marvel at its construction and all the story and culture it embodies. However, often when you look down at something, its significance diminishes, both from your changed perspective and as the structure looks smaller from the funhouse lens of height and angle.

Not so, though, with Angkor Wat. The mass of gray stone, complete with its Mt. Meru lotus bud mountaintop tower spires, looked not diminished, but distinguished. It was a survivor, of time and heat, trees and neglect. Angkor looked proud, as if it were looking up to meet our gaze. And the old temple looked eternal, flawless and remade, ever enduring, ever newly built, everlasting in the eye, the imagination, and the soul.

Was it sunset? No. It was right before sunset. Instead of seeing the sun set down behind the mountains, we saw the orange fire slip down below the clouds, as if deciding it was ready to leave its hiding place and come back into view for one last look at the world it liked to gaze down upon.

I like to think that Angkor Wat met its fiery gaze, and did not blink.

Between the sun and the temple, I then gazed upon the most important sight of all. My family and I were in the sky, above one of the world’s most incredible structures, as the bright orange sun made its way toward the green hills to the west. The sun would set. Angkor would fade into the night’s darkness. But the four of us, here, together, would endure, brighter than sun, stronger than stone, as eternal as love, bonded by the memories we built every day we traveled the world as a family.

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