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Footsteps: around the World in 80 Countries

A collection of short stories from the road less traveled

 by Adam Rogers




Under the glimmering Cambodian sky, I found myself immersed in an era caught between a grim recent past, a spectacular ancient history and an optimistic future. The shadow of the Khmer Rouge was just starting to lift, Siem Reap was yet a humble village, untouched by the bustling tourism that it would eventually come to know. The quietude of the landscape was only broken by the low hum of my borrowed motorcycle, its headlight illuminating the faint trails leading to the little schools and health clinics nestled amidst the green expanses surrounding Angkor Wat. It was hard to imagine that in the 13th century this place was the largest known city in the world, with a population of around one million people.  


In this compelling tranquility, I found a purpose, a sense of fulfillment, serving on behalf of the United Nations. Each day was a new journey, filled with profound encounters and rich experiences. Riding along trails through the dense forest, I would often encounter ancient walls out of which grew massive trees.  Among my favourites was the Bayon Temple, an architectural marvel of the Khmer empire, nestled in the heart of the ancient city of Angkor Thom, a tangible testament to King Jayavarman VII's devotion to Buddhism.


On the evening of a full moon, the landscape bathed in a soft silver glow, I stood alone before the awe-inspiring Bayon temple. As if drawn by some unseen force, I climbed higher and higher until I found myself in a spot where I could witness the grandeur of the carved faces on the temple's exterior walls and the majestic rise of the full moon above the jungle canopy.


As the full moon ascended, casting its ethereal light over the temple, a moment of pure magic unfolded. The celestial glow kissed the massive stone faces, giving them an eerie semblance of life. The profound serenity was interrupted only by the occasional whisper of the wind, rustling through the ancient trees and stones, carrying with it tales of a glorious past.


In the silence of the night, there I was, standing before a monument that bore witness to centuries of change, its stone faces now illuminated by the moon, almost smiling down at me. The awe-inspiring sight left an indelible imprint on my heart. This was not just a temple; it was a testament to the resilience of a civilization, a beacon of faith amidst the ruins of time, its faces forever watching over the land they've guarded for centuries.


As the moon continued its ascent, casting long, dappled shadows over the temple complex, an uncanny phenomenon unfolded. Though physically alone in the sanctity of the temple, I could distinctly hear the hushed murmurs and faint echoes of movement resonating from the narrow labyrinthine corridors beneath. A chill ran down my spine as I realized these were not voices of the present, but echoes from a time long past. They did not belong to the living, yet, in that mystical moment, they were as real as the stones under my feet.


In that moment, the stone face on the temple wall seemed to shift ever so slightly into a sardonic grin. Its omniscient gaze seemed privy to secrets of the city that I would never uncover, knowing things about the ethereal visitors that I could only surmise. The colossal faces, basking in the moonlight, seemed to come alive, their smiles cryptic yet inviting, revealing and concealing secrets of the ancient city in equal measure.


Under the moon's ethereal light, the whole cityscape of Angkor appeared to stir, stirring awake the echoes of a time when this was the thriving center of an empire, the largest city in the world. Between the 13th century's stone walls and under the moon-dappled canopy, I was gifted with a rare glimpse into the past when nearly a million people populated the bustling Angkor region. The sight was nothing short of awe-inspiring, the magnitude of the city's past grandeur mirrored in its quiet present.


In the silence of the moonlit night, amidst the enigmatic faces of Bayon Temple and the murmurs of a spectral past, I found a profound connection with a civilization long lost in the pages of history. A timeless tale of human endeavor was laid bare before me, narrated by the mute stones, illuminated by the moon, and echoed in the whispers of spectral inhabitants. In that fleeting window of time, I was a transient guest in the grand narrative of Angkor, a silent observer of its past glory, present peace, and eternal resilience.


As I sat there, perched precariously on the edge of a temple ledge, the stone beneath me cold and unyielding, I found myself transported eight centuries back in time. I observed the life around me, not as it was in that moment of solitude, but as it might have been in the vibrant era of the Angkor Empire. In my mind's eye, I could see artisans and stonemasons, their hands deftly carving intricate designs into the stones around me. Women, with woven baskets balanced on their backs and children trailing behind, moved about, their laughter ringing through the air.


Monks, clad in their distinct saffron robes, wandered in thoughtful clusters, engrossed in philosophical discourses, perhaps deliberating on the profound intricacies of Dharma. I watched this unfolding tableau, like a silent spectator perched unnoticed on the wall of a grand theater, fully absorbed in the spectacle, the moon steadily charting its path across the expansive night sky.


As the moon neared the horizon, the first rays of the rising sun began to pierce the curtain of the night. As if awakened by the dawn's arrival, the phantom inhabitants around me began to fade, their forms dissolving into the morning mist. The echoes of their laughter, the hum of their conversations, all began to dissolve into the morning breeze. I was desperate for the spectral scene not to end, for the phantom city to remain alive, but to no avail.


The world around me gradually returned to its present state, the spectral city and its inhabitants slowly dissolving into the ether. The stone faces around me regained their stoic stillness, their smiles forever frozen in stone. As the sun spread its golden light across the ancient city, I was once again alone, seated on the cold stones of a temple built centuries ago.


The experience was surreal, yet poignant. As I sat there, the lone observer in an ancient, once-bustling city, I was reminded of the transient nature of time and our place within it. It was a stark reminder that while we may strive to carve our stories into the stone of history, like the spectral city before me, we too, eventually fade away, leaving behind only the echoes of our existence.


Return to Reap


A quarter-century later, in 2022, my path again meandered back to the captivating expanse of Angkor. However, this time, the serene solitude of the temples was replaced by a bustling torrent of tourism. What was once a secluded sanctum had become a popular destination on the global travel map, marked by air-conditioned buses, rented SUVs, and an ever-watchful security presence. Yet, despite these shifts in the backdrop, the heart of Angkor remained unaltered, its essence ensconced within the labyrinthine corridors and intricate carvings of the ancient temples.


The closest echo of the mystical night I had spent all those years ago came during a sunrise visit to the main Angkor Wat complex. Picked up from my hotel in Siem Reap at the still-dark hour of 4:45 am, I joined a legion of likeminded travelers all eagerly anticipating the same spectacle: the first light of dawn illuminating the grandeur of Angkor Wat.


The sunrise tour, now one of the most coveted experiences at Angkor Wat, draws in crowds by the thousands. As I arrived, the silhouette of the temple complex was already thronging with visitors, their hushed conversations merging with the dawn chorus of the jungle. In the vast expanse, it was a challenge to find a spot where the horizon wasn't punctuated by the heads of fellow spectators.


As the darkness of the night gave way to the first hues of dawn, the spectral city I had once encountered in the moonlight was nowhere to be found. The air was thick with the hum of modernity, the ancient temples serving as a picturesque backdrop for the throngs of Western visitors and their Cambodian guides. The sublime beauty of Angkor was ever-present, but the scene was unmistakably one of the present, a vibrant tableau of cultural exchange amidst the immovable stones of history.


Angkor's magic, while still palpable, was now tightly woven with the threads of the present. The ancient temples of stone stand as an enduring testament to the past, silently watching over the comings and goings of the modern world, just as they had watched over the spectral city of my moonlit memory. Their message was clear: times change, but the essence of places and the memories they evoke remain, as constant as the stones from which they are carved.

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