The Unexpected End of the Bucket List

from my “revisiting” series…..

For the longest time, I have talked about how my visit to Angkor Wat was my first experience with over-tourism. Except, it wasn’t really. I had encountered crowds in Venice and Paris and other parts of Europe. But I was expecting crowds there. I was not, however, expecting crowds at Angkor Wat. And so I was bothered that the magical experience I had been anticipating did not materialize. I still enjoyed my trip, but as a consequence, I came home and reconsidered the other destinations on my must-see list. The Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall – would they all be like this? Was it worth going? I decided to bump them down the list. I would no longer plan a trip around one attraction, even if it was a UNESCO heritage site. Better to pick a place where I could spend my day happily sitting in a public square drinking coffee and watching people instead of competing with hordes of tourists for a picture of something that could just as easily be found online.

But as I began this project of cleaning out older posts, I came across my pictures from Angkor Wat and was reminded of how stunning a place it is. I started organizing some of my favorite travel photos to put into a proper album, but I couldn’t narrow down my pictures from Angkor Wat. Each picture I came across reminded me of how excited I was to be there. After I got over my shock at seeing the crowd behind me during the sunrise – and felt grateful that I had arrived early enough to have a front row view – my friend and I managed to find many moments where we escaped the crowds. Much like with Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, Angkor Wat is one part of a series of temples in the Angkor area. Some, like the one made famous in the Tomb Raider movie, were full of people. But others were so deserted that I could actually channel my inner Angelina Jolie, pretending that I was discovering an ancient artifact. In the end, I had so many great pictures from so many different perspectives that I decided to give Cambodia its own album. It was deserving.

The pictures reminded me of many forgotten moments from that trip. It’s funny how certain memories carry more weight than others, and how over time the dominant memories can crystallize into a distinct impression of a place. The main reason I started travel blogging was to retain all of my impressions, yet it is only when I go back to a post that I am reminded of how I felt. Otherwise, the lasting impression is always the dominant one. Angkor Wat was crowded. But the pictures remind me that it was also awesome. And they lead me to recall forgotten experiences and laugh, like running into the same two German guys at every “hidden” spot, or the evening spent drinking Singapore Slings and trying to impress my friend with my knowledge of British pop star love triangles.

Many of the destinations which were bumped down my list have now been removed from the list altogether. I’m sure they are impressive, and they are obviously popular tourist attractions for a reason. But we live in a time where so much is available online that it does cause you to question the point of travel. If I can use my VR glasses for a trip to Antartica, certainly that is more environmentally responsible and cost-effective. Of course, the trip I’m taking online is someone else’s experience. What I’m not going to get from that virtual experience are the little moments – meeting a fellow traveler from another country, trying a popular local beverage and being mystified as to its appeal (Irn Bru, anyone?), sitting in a plaza noticing how teenagers are the same all over the world. And isn’t that the best part of travel?

I’m glad I went to Angkor Wat and I highly recommend it. Once it’s safe to travel again, it may even be a good time to go, before the crowds return. But I’ll be heading somewhere else, someplace where I can explore on my own, then find a spot to have a coffee and watch the crowds go by.