Sam, our tuk-tuk driver, was leading us out of town toward the temples of Angkor Wat when I began to notice the trees. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I was noticing them, there was something different about them, a very subtle difference. They were pretty much the same trees I see in Thailand, tropical trees with big thick trunks, mottled gray bark, and branches towering high above, but here they were invoking some vague otherness. It wasn’t all the trees that I was noticing but only those along a few of the streets. I was also noticing more bicycles than in Thailand. The bikes were the old-fashioned kind, like the ones I used to ride when I was a child a half a century ago, before bicycling became a competitive sport and sprouted entire industries for spandex clothing, luggage, seats and other accessories. These are the kind of bikes where you sit up straight and aren’t in a hurry. Young women and tourists were pedaling leisurely, their front baskets displaying lunches to be eaten and food to be shared.
I was in Cambodia, Siem Reap to be precise, the tourist hub for the temples of Angkor Wat. It was the high season in Southeast Asia and besides being crowded in Siem Reap it was hot and dry and dusty. The seasonal rains would be coming soon and if anyone was thinking about it it was wistfully imagining that a little rain might cool things down a bit, at least wash some of the red dust off the cars and signs and leaves and building fronts. The brochures touting Angkor Wat all show lush green foliage, and right now the foliage wasn’t so lush. The trees needed water, inside and out.
Angkor is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses a 400 square kilometer area around Siem Reap in Northwestern Cambodia. I knew it was big and important and much visited and it was someplace I had long wanted to see, mysterious and exotic. Finding myself next door in Thailand for two years, visiting Angkor Wat moved up to the top of my must-see list. It was a forty-five minute flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap (pronounced as quick, short syllables, Si-em Re-ap), easy in every way, including obtaining a tourist visa at the modern and spacious airport.
I didn’t know an awful lot about Angkor Wat, or Cambodia for that matter. There were vague recollections of US involvement here during the Vietnam War and I only glanced at the headlines and occasional photographs over the years: of King Sihanouk, Lon Nol, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. I turned an ignorant eye away from such a faraway and foreign place when I was young when the War was raging on. In my 30s I became interested in Eastern philosophies, searching for a different direction. I learned a little about Hinduism, Buddhism and the other main religions of Asia. And mention was made of the ancient Khmer Empire and of Angkor Wat and I filed it away.
I thought that Angkor was just one big Buddhist temple of importance to the Cambodian people. I didn’t realize that it was a sprawling civilization that had housed over a million people at its peak, that Angkor Wat was just one temple among dozens built over several hundreds of years, honoring first Hindu gods, then later Buddha. Khmer art, architecture and engineering feats spanned more than six centuries. Wars came and went as did the power and influence of the Khmer and other civilizations in the region. The Angkor-Khmer Empire reached its zenith in the 11th and 12th centuries, its realm extending into Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. It came to an end in the 15th century when the Ayutthaya Empire of Thailand obtained regional dominance. Angkor was abandoned by the many and left to the elements.
Now visiting Angkor Wat I was beginning to get a clearer picture of the enormity of the Khmer Empire and its significance. (Do not confuse the Khmer Empire with the latter day Khmer Rouge.) Although most of the picture wouldn’t become all that clear until I left Cambodia and was able to sift through the brochures and Googled information at leisure. While visiting the ruins it was all rushed and confused: taking in this temple, that ruin, waiting patiently for people to move out of the frame of that perfect picture, being pushed past the plaques and signs that told which king and which religion we were honoring. Things weren’t presented chronologically or concisely. The names of the temples were confusing too: Banteay Kdei, Banteay Prei, Banteay Srey. The day tours were long and hot and tiring and the tuk-tuk drivers led us to all the hotspots according to a menu of prices, letting us figure out what was what on our own.
Tuk-tuks were easy to come by and we hired Sam for 2 days to drive us around: to the ancient sites and to the more recent Cambodian War Museum with its displays of tanks, artillery, land mines and genocide. He drove along a couple of tree-lined boulevards in Siem Reap—one named for Charles de Gaulle—on our way to and fro and that’s when it hit me. Siem Reap had boulevards, wide, shaded streets with columns of big old trees at both curbs. That and the slow pedaling bicyclists precipitated a feeling of old Europe and its expansionism, another period of history. It was the colonial influence. Thailand didn’t have these old tree-lined boulevards as far as I had seen, it had never been colonized by a Western power. Cambodia had been. It had been a French Protectorate, part of French Indochina, for almost a century until gaining independence in 1953. French influence wasn’t great in Cambodia, particularly in this northwestern enclave; Vietnam was the prize back then. Admittedly I haven’t seen much of Thailand and my visit to Cambodia was only for a weekend, but the trees and their placement along the wide streets unwittingly put a short period of Cambodian history into perspective. While the French didn’t “discover” or even re-discover Angkor Wat, what they did do was show the world–the Western world–the beauty and magnificence of the temples and the ancient civilization. They planted the seeds of discovery. And they planted some trees.