There’s just something about watching that glowing ball drop below the horizon, seeing the colors that light up the sky for a few beautiful minutes before the last bits of daylight fade away, and feeling the natural pause as day shifts to night that gets me every time. Add to this a good view or special setting and you have a real sense of occasion. In that moment right when the sun disappears, everything seems to stop for a moment – you can even feel a shift; there’s a sort of acknowledgement by the animals and insects in nature. Everyone and everything senses that parting of the veils, as there is a momentary glimpse of the beyond.
I’m sure I’m not alone on this, but sunsets (sunrises too, to be fair) always evoke a sense of the divine, of the force of something greater, reinforcing a feeling of one’s connection to the larger whole by inviting reflection on one’s day and the cyclical nature of all things. The day will die and be reborn tomorrow. How did you spend your time today? How many other people are watching this sunset and having similar thoughts? How nice is it to be able to emerge from your busy day, to pause for a moment to enjoy such a simple event as a sunset (trying not to spend the entire time capturing the perfect picture on your smart phone). I always feel a sense of gratitude and connection in these moments.
So it’s fitting that my first encounter with Angkor Wat began with a sunset. Since the Apsara Authority royally hiked up ticket prices to Angkor Wat this year, I had been putting off my visit for a long time, knowing that I’d be in Siem Reap for awhile, waiting for the right moment, or just when I was ready to fork over a large chunk of hard-earned cash. One day, somebody told me that you could go to the temples after 5pm without a pass – although, really, you can’t go inside; they meant you can travel down the roads to the temples without penalty. So finally, on one Friday afternoon when I wasn’t teaching, I cycled down the leafy green shaded road to Angkor Wat in great anticipation. I found a beautiful moat surrounding the elegant entrance to this amazing dedication to global spirituality and religion, only partially marred by the throngs of tourists, souvenir sellers, and tuk-tuk drivers clogging the entrance. As someone who naturally avoids such crowds, I did a silent bow, turned around and cycled back to the far side of the moat, which afforded a nice view of the dusk sky reflected on the water.
Surrounded by locals enjoying beers, snacks and loud music, it wasn’t exactly the idyllic setting I’d like to paint, but I found a relatively quiet spot and immediately dropped into my happy, peaceful place. Sunsets always take me there. I felt a welling of bonhomie for the Cambodians and everyone around me, enjoyed the sense of presence and connection to mother Earth that a good sunset in a natural setting provides, and then cycled home happily after snapping the requisite pics.
Soon after, I bought my official Angkor Wat pass; so this is indeed where this stage of the journey began for me. A weekly ritual began whereby I would cycle out to the temples for a visit and stay to enjoy the sunset at least one afternoon a week, usually on Fridays. I waited until September, when I had a break in my teaching schedule, and bought the 7-day pass, which is good for a month. This gave me the time to approach the temples slowly and intentionally – not trying to pack as many temples into one day as I could like most visitors do, hiring a guide and driver to narrate the highlights, but instead taking my time and combining this with my own journey of discovery, always asking what link to their former glory and spiritual legacy these temples still hold.
That remains an open question, but it seemed to set the right tone that my Angkor journey began with and was punctuated by many nice contemplative sunsets. It also, I realized upon reflection, responded to a long-standing urge to get out in nature and breathe fresh air: Wherever I am in the world, I absolutely have to find a good green space and to visit frequently, whether it’s a park in the middle of the city, a trail in the woods, a beach or waterfront locale or otherwise. This first sunset was a reminder for me to make a greater effort to reconnect to nature. Siem Reap is dusty and rapidly being built up, offering little in the way of green space beyond the meager riverfront. These trips became a literal breath of fresh air; they were my time to enjoy physical activity in green space, and to reconnect with myself and reflect on the week, whilst encountering a place where religious history and nature collide.
Step 1 of the journey: reconnecting to nature and its rhythms.