Asia's Golden Age of Travel
Departures discovers how Asia is far richer and more accessible than ever.
Chenda knocked softly on my door to wake me before dawn. “It is time,” she whispered. When I emerged in the hallway of the old inn, a smile overtook her cocoa-colored cheeks. She wore the same white cotton shirt and tight blue jeans as she had the evening before, when we sat by the inn’s front desk to map out another day’s adventure.
Chenda was my guide to the treasures of Angkor Wat, the stunning assemblage of 12th-century temples in Cambodia, and it was my first visit there, 20 years ago. I was a young journalist in what now feels like a distant century. At that time, visa restrictions and armed conflict made it hard to get to Angkor. Remnants of the brutal Khmer Rouge still haunted the jungle surrounding the area, as the government forces protecting Angkor reminded all visitors.
I’ll never forget the chill I felt the day before, when one of those government soldiers, a barefoot young teenager in a worn green uniform with a Kalashnikov rifle slung nonchalantly over a shoulder, wandered up to Chenda and me outside a temple and asked what country I came from. His eyes carried the vacant look of a young man with nothing to lose. Chenda sensed my apprehension and squeezed my hand as a signal to keep walking. She said something quietly, and he let us go. I was surprised, when Chenda and I sat down in the evening to discuss plans, that she insisted that we go back to yet another Angkor temple before the sun rose.
“The light, the light,” she said over and over.
“Isn’t it dangerous?” I asked.
“The light,” she said again.
We saw almost no one on the grounds of the temple when we arrived in the misty light of dawn. The towers loomed like majestic tributes to the sky. The supple light of the hour did indeed coax a richness from the russet-colored sandstone in a way I had not seen before. Chenda took my hand and led me to a corner where she pointed up at the carved apsaras, explaining the Cambodian lore that these divine nymphs, depicted as dancers with bare breasts and elaborate crowns, were sent by the gods to seduce or persuade a hero to take an unexpected turn, to move off the well-trod path, to explore, to discover. To my young and restless soul, standing before magical figures and bathed in an otherworldly light, the possibilities seemed infinite.
Like others who explored Asia in the last century, I can easily bore dinner guests, not to mention my children, with nostalgic stories about a simpler, more dangerous time, when the thrill of travel to faraway places was accentuated by logistical and political challenges. But my old memories are really only a short flash of perspective, a measuring stick of just how much has changed.