Life And Death And Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat monks at sunset

The sun was sinking into the jungle turning the horizon orange and throwing long shadows across the ancient ruin. Drenched in sweat, I rushed around the surprisingly empty rear portion of Angkor Wat, snapping as many photos as I could during the golden hour. I left the temple and headed toward the exit. With a few minutes to spare before the ruin closed for the night, I walked along the outer wall toward the jungle.

As the sun went down a high-pitched scream slowly rose from the jungle like a sound-effect from a horror movie. As the ancient ruin darkened, and the scream filled the night, the moist night air felt thick with ghosts. 

As I rode my mountain bike back to town, I turned off the road into a rice field to record the sound. In the distance, a khmer flute began to play.

This is what it sounded like.

This is the recording of the insects that I took. The flute was too faint for my microphone to pick up, so I’ve added one that sounds almost exactly the same by khmerangkor on YouTube.

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Death and sadness seemed to hang in the air.

Some trips cannot be separated from the circumstances under which they took place. My trip to the ancient city of Angkor was one of them.

Three years before I visited Angkor Wat, I moved from home from Tainan, Taiwan back to Canada when my father nearly died from heart problems. Eventually, he got better. Then, just when I was ready to move back to Taiwan, my girlfriend’s sister was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer, so, instead, we moved to California to help care for her.

Two very difficult and grief stricken years later, my girlfriend and I broke up. No longer having any reason to stay in North America, I decided to return home to South East Asia. I put all my things in a storage locker, packed my bags, and one month later I was laying on a hard bed under a fan in a guesthouse room in Siem Reap that I’d rented for 10 days.

Gaining distance from the events of the preceding years gave me opportunity to reflect on them.

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So, when I say that Angkor Wat is a haunted place, I can’t tell you whether I was given that impression only by the grand ancient Hindu structures slowly being eroded by the elements and consumed by the jungle, or by my reflections on a family that was robbed of a kind-hearted young mother, sister, and daughter.

It was probably a bit of both.

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Angkor’s eerieness had no quality of fear. It was a still sadness. A melancholy calm settled on the ruins each evening. As the sun set the azure sky turned orange, and then yellow, and then purple. As the dusk dissipated and night flooded in a scream from the jungle would gradually and steadily grow to a maddening pitch. Then it would rise and fall unceasingly—the sound of the insects in the humid jungle night.

Ankor Wat rice field
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I rented a mountain bike for my ten days in Siem Reap. Most days I would work until about 2 or 3pm. Then I would get on the mountain bike and ride 10km to the ancient city which, was, historians say, the largest city on Earth before the industrial revolution. It is said to sprawl across 1000 square kilometres and dwarfs the next-largest ancient city in the world, the Mayan city of Tikal, which covers just 150.

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I wandered the ruins alone for 5 or 6 hours most days, returning to the city only when it got too dark to take photos. I had a lot of time to think. I often found myself thinking about the mystery surrounding the fall of Angkor. There are several theories about why the city was abandoned, most of which involve catastrophes such as plagues, earthquakes, and war.

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I also thought about the holocaust that brutalized the country less than 30 years earlier, and the enduring poverty experienced by the survivors.

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I would spend the hours before sunset exploring the ancient ruins on my bicycle. After I’d seen most of the major temples, I began riding down random paths into the jungle to see what was there.

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I found half-buried statues of lions, strange artifacts that I couldn’t explain, and small, seemingly unvisited temples. I found unrecognizable structures choked in tree roots and overgrown with vegetation that were slowly being devoured by the jungle.

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Each night I would ride my bike back to town on the narrow strip of pavement that split the thick jungle, light dwindling, sky turning yellow, orange, and purple, the jungle the insects screaming all around me.

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During my trip I struggled to find some kind of lesson in the morbid unfairness and suffering that I’d seen during the preceding years. The experience was too awful to have been in vain. I must have learned something from it.

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I don’t think they’re very profound—and they’re certainly not unique—but these are the conclusions I reached.

Death is inevitable, and therefore not worth worrying about. And, although it may sometimes feel that way, the inevitability of death doesn’t remove the meaning from life.

The jungle consumes all. With enough time, it will devour the greatest city in the world, but that doesn’t mean the city isn’t worth building. The act itself is a thing of beauty. And, if it’s built well, it will be remembered and appreciated for a long time.

There is only one worthwhile thing we can do in life: build temples to the people and ideas that we love.

The jungle consumes all, and it will consume me. The best I can do is leave behind my own slowly eroding, root-choked temples.

If I’ve built them well, then it will mean two things:

First, it will mean that I lived a purposeful life and stayed true to those things that mattered most.

Second, it will mean that, just maybe, my temples will be appreciated and remembered…for a while at least.

The jungle will eventually consume them too, but that matters not, for the act of creating them was a thing of beauty, and that is something not even the jungle can erase.

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40 thoughts on “Life And Death And Angkor Wat”

    • I’ve come back to Taiwan, which really is home for me. Now, I’m traveling, but I value the time I spend with friends and family much more. I’m thinking of buying some land and building a home here and, although I’m going to keep travel blogging, I’m looking at starting a new project that is aimed at having a positive social impact.

      How about you Kerwin?

  1. I cannot begin to tell you how relatable this story is. Back in 2009, I “blew my life up”, sold my apartment, threw everything into storage, and decided to venture around the world for a year. All I had was a one way ticket, a first destination, and a heart full of promise. Two weeks before I left, my father commit suicide. I was so grief stricken, I could barely get out of bed. Naturally, I planned on cancelling my trip. My entire family rallied around me and told me Dad would have been furious if I didn’t find myself out there in the world. In every 28 of those countries I visited, he was with me. It was almost like feeling haunted, and while there was a pervasive, yet tranquil sadness emanating from those exotic soils, it was the best decision I ever made.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    • Thank you for sharing your story Jordana! I think that a lot of people deal with issues like these during travel, but we rarely hear about them because people tend to blog only about positive things. I’m now making a conscious effort to write more about real life and travel. I’d love to read a post about your story as well!

  2. Matt I’m so sorry to hear things didn’t work out, I know it must have been really difficult for you both to make that decision.

    I lost my father when I was 5 and so it’s given me a unique perspective on loss both of people and relationships. Great people come in and out of our life but it doesn’t mean they are supposed to be there forever. A life is filled with moments where people come to teach us something and help us grow and then they are gone. All we can do is cherish what we had and look forward to the next moment we learn some another amazing person.

    • Yup, that is definitely true Ayngelina. That’s part of why I like living abroad. I find that as much–or maybe even more–than living in another culture, I like the expats that I meet. A lot of them are interesting and inspiring people, and I really enjoy being around them.

  3. Such a captivating post, more so because of the audio you included. I felt like I was there exploring the ruins, temples and jungle with you.
    Your photographs are fantastic and offer a very different view of Angkor Wat that what I usually come across.

    I like ruins and temples, with all of their undeniable character, they are a constant reminder that nothing really lasts forever. This was a lesson I learnt the hard way when I lost a loved one, someone who was until then my entire world.

  4. That’s a beautiful story, Matt… surprisingly (and hauntingly) not unlike my own! I visited Angkor only a month after my own father passed away from a heart attack. He was visiting me in Thailand, and we were boarding the bus to go to Siem Reap from Bangkok. That’s when it happened. In a flash my life changed as his ended in my arms. My trip to Cambodia, and specifically to Angkor Wat, was one to finish his trip. Some of his ashes now rest eternally in Bayon, overlooking the majesty of the fallen empire.

    The realizations that came to me took a fair bit longer, though “Death is inevitable” is one lesson I learned too, and that each day must be valued and cherished. Something my father was a master of. I’m grateful for the last 2 weeks I got to spend with him, living his life to the fullest and happiest I’d seen. Something we all must remind ourselves to do when ‘the daily grind’ takes precedence over ‘the daily living’.

    Thanks for sharing this mate. Brought back some sad, and happy memories!

    • Oh man, Ian. That is sad. It’s nice to hear that he died while living well, and that you got to spend his last days with him, though I’m sure that was little condolence at the time.

      Thanks for telling your story here! I’d like to see travel writers and bloggers write more often about where real life and travel collide–rather than just descriptions of trips– because that’s where the humanity of the story usually is, and that’s much more interesting.

  5. You definitely have a unique story thanks for sharing with us. On a positive note you have nice writings and the pictures are amazing but sure doesn’t do the place justice.

  6. A beautiful story, Matt, but it’s the photos that really stand out for me. It’s as if they are telling the same story as you – just from a different time and for different reasons. I love the way you’ve pulled this all together.

  7. Cambodia definitely had a haunting past. And though Angkor appears to be a relatively ‘tamer’ place as compared to the likes of Killing Fields, some temples give an eerie feeling. On a slightly off-topic note, I love your shots!!! They’re very well done.

  8. This is a beautiful post Matt. And very wise words; the Earth reclaims even our most astounding monuments, both physical and emotional. But in saying that, let’s erect the monuments anyway. Like a mandala, everything is made to be destroyed and that’s part of the beauty of the process. We commemorate what’s important to us, then hand it over to the Earth and let it go.

  9. Some fantastic photos, you captured the peacefullness of how the temples must have been like before the tour groups descended on Angkok (we were there for a week in December and it was crowded).
    Frank (bbqboy)

  10. Cambodia certainly had a frightful past. What’s more, however Angkor seems, by all accounts, to be a generally ‘more manageable’ place when contrasted with any semblance of Killing Fields, a few sanctuaries give a scary inclination. On a somewhat off-point note, I love your shots!!! They’re finished.


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