Immunity is Key

posted by Alicia Harper

There is a disease that spreads terror in the hearts of travel lovers around the globe. Symptoms can range from boredom to irritability, and can even result in the innate sensation of déja vu. In the months leading up to my departure to Cambodia, I was warned of the dreaded condition by almost everyone I knew. “Be very careful,” they would whisper. “I know a guy that got it in Paris and he never recovered. It ruined his whole trip.”

Temple fatigue is the leading cause of a tourist’s lack of interest in a foreign location. Every traveler knows of the dreaded condition, and most have experienced it first hand. The onset of this sydrome begins when too many temples are viewed in a small amount of time. Though this is only my seventh day in Siem Reap, I am self-diagnosing myself as immune from the mind infection that everyone seems to be so wary of. The temples of Angkor are the most amazing structures that I’ve ever laid eyes on. Though many are in dire need of restoration before they collapse, each temple continues to wow me more than the next. The architecture and craftsmanship is astonishing, but the sheer history of the structures themselves is enough to draw me in to the culture, religion, and stories of this land.

On day one our class set out in a drove of Tuk Tuks to the big kahuna of all temples in Cambodia, and my favorite of the visits thus far, Angkor Watt. This is the world’s largest religious monument, built during the reign of Suryavarman II during the early 12th century. It served not only as a temple, but a city as well. It is unbelievably daunting when you approach the complex from the moat that surrounds it and feast your eyes on the peaks that rise before you, which were constructed to resemble the mountain that Hindu’s regard as the home of the gods, Mount Meru.

Our guide for the day, a native Cambodian named Vanith, told us stories and history as we moved through the wondrous complex. Every single piece of stone in the walls of the temple has been carved, and Vanith explained that the sandstone blocks were first put into place and then transformed into the pieces of artwork that remain today. My favorite images were that of the aspara, a beautiful and supernatural female spirit that is pictured eternally dancing in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. There are over 200 asparas carved into the walls in Angkor Watt, only one of which can be seen grinning with a mouthful of teeth. With every step emerges a new story about the religious beliefs and the people of a time that seems so long ago that it is difficult to wrap your mind around.

The central and tallest shrine was for the King’s use only, and still today no building can be constructed taller than the King’s shrine stands. The structure was closed on our visit, but I’m certain I will return to climb its steep steps to the tallest and most holy point of the temple. Young monks dressed in bright orange robes were scattered throughout the grounds, and could be seen physically lounging while mentally striving for nirvana and ultimate peace. The monks’ vibrant garb, paired with the moist green grass and the massive graying fortress that surrounded them made for a magnificent site that I still cannot believe I witnessed in person.

After taking in about as many views and as much history as we could stomach, it was time to head back to our faithful Tuk Tuks and return to our home away from home. This is the key to avoiding temple fatigue. When you begin to feel a twinge of un-interest in the attraction you are touring, call it a day and retreat for a while. After peeling my clothes off, jumping in the pool for a swim, showering, eating lunch, and relaxing, it was again time to set out again to Phnom Bakheng, a temple commonly visited during sunrise and sunset.

Phnom Bakheng was constructed in the 19th century under the reign of Yasovarman I, and served as the state temple of the first capital of Angkor. A steep ascent to the top rewards visitors with fantastic views of Siem Reap, and most notably an aerial look at Angkor Watt. Two guardian lions stand watch over all who enter from the east entrance. The temple is comprised of a large pyramid that sits on a mountain summit. The structure is comprised of five terraces that hold 60 symmetrical towers made of sandstone. In total there are 108 towers in Phnom Bakheng, the total number of which is meaningful and sacred in the Hindu and Buddhist religions. A large sandstone Buddha sits peacefully in the central shine and greets all who visit. Our group, along with hundreds of other people, came to witness the sun set on a mysterious city that is both troubled and hopeful at the same time.

Temple hopping is a task that cannot be taken lightly. Read all you can about your destination prior to arrival, and your interest will guide you. Ask every question that comes to your mind, and you should find enlightenment in your discoveries. Each temple has its own unique story. The Angkor temples are unlike anything I have ever and will ever lay eyes on, making it difficult for me to see the occurrence of travel fatigue in my near or distant future.

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