Tomb Raider

I have wished to be Lara Croft on more than one occasion. Don’t judge me. And today my dream came as close to coming true as it ever will.

I can’t believe I almost didn’t go. The sun wasn’t even warm yet when I hopped on my bicycle determined to experience life, even if it meant I would be going to the temples sans friends. If I hadn’t gone, I never would have realized how much I enjoy being part of a delegation party. With the same amount hoopla, a police escort led our bus to Angkor holding up traffic the entire way. During the ride, our tour guide filled us in on Cambodia’s colorful history and the anthropologist in me couldn’t resist scribbling notes. Several people asked me if I was a student, nope, just really into notes.

Consider this a warning: if history, pictures of temples, or awesome hats aren’t your cup of tea, this might not be the post for you. Also, I was jotting down as much as I could as fast as I could resulting in barely legible handwriting, so if I get something wrong don’t judge me too harshly.

The three main temples at Angkor: Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Bayon were all constructed out of sandstone blocks around the 12th and 13th centuries and there are around 1,000 temples spread across what once was the Khmer Empire. The temples (at least the ones we visited) were built by “volunteers” and were completely for religious purposes. The volunteers worked for food, love of God, and love of the king. They must have had huge hearts too because the sandstone isn’t naturally found in this area of Cambodia and had to be hauled in by river and elephant during the dry season.

Originally, animism was practiced throughout what is Cambodia today but contact with India and trade with China sparked changes towards Buddhism and Hinduism. Today, 90% of the population practices a form a Buddhism originating in Sri Lanka. One of the presentations during the conference asked whether a code of conduct should be enforced at World Heritage Sites, like Angkor. Because of the religious nature of the site, there already is a set of rules for entering the park: no shouting, no alcohol, modest clothing (shoulders and knees covered) etc., but they aren’t readily enforced. Although I did see one woman barred from entering the top of Angkor Wat despite her valiant efforts to wrap a scarf around her booty shorts. No go, lady.

And Angelina Jolie definitely wasn’t following a code of conduct…

Tomb Raider was filmed at the Ta Prohm temple, which was left alone by the French when they arrived and wasn’t refurbished until a few years ago by the Indian government. It is still a work in progress. Easily recognized by the giant trees growing in and around the ruins, Ta Prohm is my favorite temple.


Like any tourist attraction though, several platforms were built up for photo-ops in front of areas from the movie.

I wasn’t really sure what a “Tomb Raider” pose would be, but I definitely nailed it…

One giant tree we passed was hollowed out in the middle and the tour guide turned to me, “Do you want to get in the tree?”

What kind of question is that? Of course, I want to get in the tree!


Our gala dinner Friday night was held at Bayon Temple, named for the tree pronounced “banyan” in English. During the day it was bursting with tourists and the sun beat down mercilessly. Luckily, we were given these awesome hats so we could enjoy the famous faces in style.


The youngest of the sandstone temples, the smiling faces carved into Bayon originally represented Buddha but were defaced by Hinduism to symbolize Shiva. It is also rumored the faces are the king, looking out over his empire.

Of course, Angkor Wat is the most widely recognized temple in Cambodia. As we entered the temple our guide pointed out a large Buddha statue, which is considered the most spiritual and is known as the “Ancestor King.” Apparently in 1985 real-life tomb raiders pillaged anything they could carry from the Angkor temples, including the heads of Buddha statues, to sell in Thailand on the black market. The head of this particular Buddha was removed but left at the foot of the statue because spirits protected it.


As we passed by our guide splashed holy water on us stating, “Good luck and prosper.” He then added, “If you don’t believe in it nothing will happen, it’s just water.” From a Christian perspective, I thought this statement was particularly interesting. According to my beliefs, God can work in someone’s life regardless if they believe.

Before the main temple, our guide pointed out a library that had once housed books written on leather and papyrus. Today, only the Sanskrit written in the stone walls remain. During the Angkor Empire, only royalty and dignitaries were allowed to enter the library. “Normal people like us,” our guide shook his head. “Sorry, like me, couldn’t come.” Again it hit me just how lucky I was to be touring Angkor with delegates from all over the world. Even as we walked through crowded Angkor Wat we had guards around us. I saw one literally push a tourist out of the way as we passed by. Craziness.

After visiting the three temples, the headless Buddha’s still stick out in my memory. I asked our guide if any artifacts have turned up. A few years ago a former Prime Minister of Thailand returned four faces to Ta Prohm, but other than that nothing has been recovered. As much as I love the Tomb Raider movies (again, don’t judge me) it makes me sick to think people actually raided (and probably still do) historical and religious sites all in the hopes of making some money. Who knows how much knowledge has been lost forever.

“Now that you know what they look like,” the guide began, “you can keep watch.”

Kingdom of Wonder

Even though I kept pinching myself the scene kept unfolding in front of me. This can’t be real… my brain churned over and over. Smashing my face against the bus window I could barely make out the silhouette of Angkor Wat in the darkness.

All day our PEPY team kept shaking our heads at each other, flabbergasted by our surroundings. At the last minute, we had all registered for the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Regional Conference on Tourism Development in Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites, which was being held in Siem Reap. I don’t think any of us knew exactly what we were signing up for other than a chance to hear some presentations on how other countries are handling tourism and maybe score some free meals.

Delegates from all over Asia, as well as South Africa, Iraq, Tunisia, Germany (just to name a few), had flown in to discuss sustainable tourism practices, cultural preservation, and ecological conservation. On the registration table, our “Participant” lanyards looked a little insignificant next to the titles like the Secretary-General of the UNWTO and Deputy-General of the Ministry of Tourism. Even though we didn’t have fancy titles we still struck gold at the bottom of our “swag” bags:


It’s easy to get an inflated sense of self-importance when National Road 6 is shut down for an event you’re attending and your entire route is lined with police stopping traffic. Despite an earlier presenter’s comment about Angkor, “not being a park for Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider,” I almost peed myself as our bus squeezed through the gate to Bayon Temple.

Daniel Craig is standing in front of the gate we drove through. (I probably could have found a better picture of the gate, but this one had Daniel Craig…)

Still in a state of disbelief, we hopped off the bus, past guards decked out in traditional clothing and began weaving down a candle lit path through the temple. Along the way, attendants carried trays of assorted juices, you know, in case we got thirsty. In case the garnished pineapple juice wasn’t extravagant enough glowing ice sculptures (yes, you read that correctly) lined a red carpet leading to our banquet tables.

Interrupting the MC’s introduction the audience let out a collective gasp as spotlights switched on illuminating the temple.


Of course, the evening wouldn’t have been complete without a series of cultural dances, musical performances, including a few songs written for Cambodia’s tourism industry touting lyrics like, “The methods and laws are important” and “Cambodia is a safe place”, and a 15-year-old beatboxer (I thought I read the program wrong too).

Because the gala dinner wasn’t enough, tomorrow the UNWTO conference is (supposedly) providing limo service to Angkor so we can explore the temples during the day…