I was invited by a friend who was living in Stockholm to meet her in Cambodia. She was going to Laos for work, and then had a week vacation and was looking for someone to join her on a trip to Angkor Wat. I had always wanted to see Angkor Wat, so I seized the opportunity. From the pictures I had seen, I was pretty confident that I was going to have some sort of mystical, spiritual experience there.
I met up with my friend at the Bangkok airport, and when we arrived in Siem Reap it was evening, so we went straight to our hotel. The next day we explored the town, and while I enjoyed the markets and the food, all I could think about was our plan to see the sunrise the next morning over Angkor Wat. In the late afternoon we went to get our entrance tickets for the next day, and stayed to watch the sunset at the ruins surrounding the Angkor Wat complex. There were so many tourists, I started to feel like I was at a music festival as everyone rushed to the best sunset viewing point as if it were the main stage. But I didn't worry, because I knew the next morning the place would be all mine.
The next day our tuk-tuk driver picked us up at 4:30am. As we made our way to Angkor Wat, there were a few other tuk-tuks on the street, everyone going to the same place. The closer we got to Angkor Wat, the more people I started to see. The hard-core travelers, I thought to myself. It was still dark as my friend and I walked towards the viewing area, using the flash on my camera as our source of light to make sure we didn't fall into any moats. We were early enough that we were near the edge of the water around Angkor Wat, essentially putting us at the front of the line. There were a few others around us, and I felt like we were the exclusive club, about to share something special. As dawn started to break, I took a deep breath, smiled, and awaited the spiritual awakening that was about to happen. And I heard the voice of God say, "dude, it's raining."
Puzzled, I turned around to discover a group of American college guys behind me. As well as a crowd of about 100 other people behind them. Cameras were flashing away to capture the day breaking over the temple, so I quickly turned back around and grabbed my camera. While I tried to focus on capturing good shots, I found myself feeling anxious and annoyed. Don't get me wrong, the sunrise was a beautiful thing to see. But it was followed by the realization that this was not a unique experience.
We spent the day visiting the various structures at the Angkor Wat complex. There were some moments where I found myself alone, and I treasured those opportunities to indulge my inner Indiana Jones. But more often, there were tourist groups around, and so I took my picture then got out of the way for the next person.
We had been with the same tuk-tuk driver since we arrived in Siem Reap, and when we decided to head back to the hotel, he asked if we wanted to see where the local people like to go at night. My skeptical self was apprehensive, but fortunately my friend told him yes. He took us away from the main road, and down some smaller streets until we got to a park area with a carnival. We walked around the area, watching the children play on the rides, young adults hanging out and being silly, and families having picnics. It felt so familiar and fun. I realized that it was the first time I was relaxed all day.
Angkor Wat was amazing, and certainly didn't disappoint. But my expectations of the experience were so high, and I spent so much time taking pictures, wanting to capture everything, plus the unexpected presence of so many other tourists stressed me out, that I was grateful to have the carnival remind me of what travel is about. It's about connecting with other people, and seeing how they live. I suspect if you're reading this, you've already figured this out. But at some point in my life, the more I started travelling, the more it became a checklist game – more stamps in my passport, more continents on my Facebook profile, more UNESCO sites. The best thing that could have happened to me is having that tuk-tuk driver offer to show us where he hangs out. It changed my perspective on travel. In fact, you could almost say it was an awakening.