Visiting Angkor Wat, the great temple site in Cambodia, was always on my bucket list. And though it is far away and expensive to get there, it was a trip I felt I finally had to make. I wasn't disappointed.
Angkor Wat, which means "City of Temples," is the largest religious monument in the world: a 500-acre complex that encompasses the remains of hundreds of temples. It is part of the larger Angkor region where 750,000 people of the mighty Khmer Empire once lived. Angkor Wat is also the name of the best preserved and most magnificent temple built in the early 12th century by a powerful Khmer warrior king.
Originally a Hindu temple honoring the god Vishnu, and now a Buddhist site, it is vast and beautiful and amazing. Angkor Wat is built on a swamp, yet its five towers are twice as high as the Tower of London, an architectural feat. Almost as amazing is the nearby Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom, which is filled with masterful carvings that depict Hindu epics as well as the daily life of the people of the time.
I was lucky to visit Angkor as part of an Abercrombie & Kent group tour, which meant staying at the elegant Raffles Hotel in Siem Reap, the bustling shop-filled town near the complex. We also had a shrewd and well-informed guide who led our group to Angkor Wat before 6 a.m. and positioned us in exactly the right spot to watch the sun rise between the temple's soaring towers.
Yes, Angkor is filled with tourists, mainly Chinese and Korean. And Cambodia is very hot and very poor — a country still struggling with the aftereffects of the brutal and genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. But I found spending three days at Angkor — visiting the temples in the cooler early morning and late afternoon — absolutely enchanting. What greatly added to my enjoyment was reading a historical novel called A Woman of Angkor, written by a colleague, John Burgess. Few records have survived from Khmer times; rather, the people were master builders and carvers whose history is in stone. But Burgess has managed to create a believable tale about a beautiful and remarkable woman, adored by the king, whose son just happened to be the architect of Angkor Wat. Is it a true story? In a place filled with such wonder, I believed every word.
Although my visit to Angkor was the highlight of my Southeast Asia bucket-list journey, other places I visited were memorable as well. I spent a weekend in Laos in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is a charming, tidy mix of French Colonial architecture and unique Buddhist temples. Every morning monks from the town's many monasteries parade through the streets with begging bowls that are filled with rice by kneeling villagers and tourists, including me. I was also there on International Women's Day and watched local women happily picnicking and toasting each other with beer. It is the one and only day of the year when men do the cooking.
I spent a week in Vietnam, which has become an increasingly popular destination. Every guide, even in Hanoi, the capital, assured our group that the war we fought there was forgotten and that the Vietnamese now loved Americans. And though the country is unified under a communist government, the northern and southern regions remain very different. Northern Vietnam is quiet and rural. Southern Vietnam bursts with commerce and energy. In central Vietnam, Da Nang, which was once the site of a major American air base, is now a vacation city with a sparkling new airport, million-dollar seaside villas and many hotels, including the InterContinental Da Nang Sun Peninsula Resort, the most over-the-top beach hotel I have ever stayed at. It was filled to capacity with very happy luxury-loving Vietnamese honeymooners.
My final couple of days were spent in Bangkok, a city of almost 9 million people and almost 8 million cars. The sites, including the Grand Palace and several ornate temples, are impressive, but so is the gridlock. Best advice: Try to stay on the river that runs through the city, learn to use the elevated train system to get around, and shop at one of the many Jim Thompson shops for gifts made of absolutely beautiful silk and cotton fabric.
A final note: Angkor Wat is the gift of a long-forgotten empire, but one as powerful, rich and capable as any that has ever been on Earth. Vietnam and Thailand are filled with millions of energetic young people eagerly building better lives for themselves and their countries. My trip to Southeast Asia gave me a rare look into a remarkable past and an insight into the burgeoning future.
Myrna Blyth is senior vice president and editorial director of AARP Media.