The Man Who Had Never Heard of Angkor Wat

Stone carvings of deities

Bas reliefs

Sun streaming through the temple

“Angkor Wat…” the Russian traveller waited for a response from the young Aussie seated across from him, “but how is this possible you do not know Angkor Wat?”

I had been listening to their conversation for a while now. Maybe it was the way the Russian man was pronouncing the name of the temple that was confusing the poor Aussie, so I turned around and tried to help out.

“You know, Angkor Wat, the giant temple complex in Cambodia. It’s one of the wonders of the world…”

But he just shook his head and laughed, “I really don’t know it.”

The Russian man stared at him in wonder, “no, I don’t believe it. It’s not possible you do not know this Angkor Wat.”

* * * * *

I woke up this morning thinking about all the photos from the temples of Angkor which I haven’t even come close to sharing, and I remembered the story of the young Australian who despite having Cambodia on his Southeast Asia itinerary, hadn’t the faintest idea about the most famed temple in all of Cambodia.

And then I started wondering what it would be like to arrive at the temples of Angkor without any preconceived notions of what it looks like.

No idea of the smiling stone faces at Bayon, or the tree roots that wrap themselves like octopus tentacles around the walls of Ta Prohm, or the way the sun rises over Angkor Wat as hundreds of pilgrims sit by the pond under the cover of night.

I bet he was wowed.

* * * * *

I still remember what it felt like to go to Europe for the first time – either the travel bug hadn’t bit me hard enough yet, or I was really horrible at researching destinations, but I arrived in Germany without the faintest idea of what was out there.

In a way, my ignorance was bliss, because even though I didn’t have a clue of all the things I wanted to do or see, all these new places and experiences found me – the pink castle ruins in Heidelberg, the hot dog stands serving up Frankfurters with Sauerkraut in Frankfurt, the lush forests in Baden-Württemberg, the summer picnics in the gardens behind the palace in Karlsruhe.

It’s hard to be disappointed when you have no idea what you’re going to find.

I now prefer thoroughly researching my destinations and having a general plan of what I want to do while I am some place new (I don’t like missing out on things!), however, there was a certain magic to wandering around a city aimlessly like I did back on my first European visit.

For the Aussie guy coming to Cambodia for the first time, it probably felt the same way.

Have you ever visited a place without expectations?
Have you been wowed by a place you knew nothing about?

33 Comments

  • Vanessa says:

    Oooo yes, there’s definitely something about not having expectations, but there’s also the fear of missing out! I went to a lot of European countries without doing much research minus booking a hostel while I was studying abroad. Sometimes it worked out great (like in Krakow), but sometimes it went terribly wrong (like in Rome). After having traveled here in Korea a lot, we just pick a city and go with the flow. So far it’s worked pretty well!
    Vanessa recently posted..Anyone Wanna Suction Cup My Back?My Profile

    • Audrey says:

      I have to agree with you. For me it worked out really well travelling through Germany, but then I didn’t spend a lot of time planning my trip to Paris, and I completely overlooked places like the catacombs and a day trip to Versailles, both of which I really wanted to see but completely forgot about once I got there!

  • Yes! I have a problem with over expectations. I dream big when I’m planning a trip and honestly think the most ridiculous things will result from something as simple as going to the Eiffel Tower. I’ve had to sort of train myself to stop that and slow down my planning as well. But one place I can think of off hand that was an amazing surprise: Taormina, Italy. I didn’t even know it existed until I was look at my Eurorail map and just went to break up a journey. I absolutely loved it.
    Bobbi Lee Hitchon recently posted..The real ‘Beach’: Ang Thong National Marine ParkMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      I just had to google Taormina now that you mentioned it, and it looks charming! That would have been a pleasant surprise. 🙂 Some stunning views from that ancient amphitheatre overlooking the city.

  • Visiting a place with no grand expectations makes the experience more worthwhile. There’s the ‘wow’ factor, which is priceless 😀
    Micamyx|Senyorita recently posted..KLM Flight Experience: Manila-Amsterdam-BirminghamMy Profile

  • Heather says:

    Like you, I research and plan quite a bit before going somewhere to new to ensure I don’t miss anything. I didn’t do much research for my first trip to Hong Kong and came away feeling like I’d missed so much (remedied on a return visit.) It was a different story in Laos. Once we arrived in Luang Prabang and saw just how quaint the place really was, all planning of day trips and hikes went out the window as we sat by the river reading, drinking beer and eating lots of yummy food. Sure we missed all the waterfalls and caves nearby, but for once I couldn’t care less!
    Heather recently posted..Hotel Madera Hong Kong: Boutique Bliss with Stunning City ViewsMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Ahh, Luang Prabang sounds like bliss! Sometimes all you need is a book and a tranquil setting to enjoy a place. I feel like a lot of my time in Chiang Mai has been like that. I’ve been trying to do a bit more sightseeing, but most of my time has been spent relaxing.

  • Karisa says:

    Lovely post! I admire how you refrained from being judgmental towards the man who hadn’t heard of Angkor Wat and instead just wished him the best. 🙂
    Karisa recently posted..8 Hours in VientianeMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Thanks Karisa. I was surprised, but I know there are plenty of places that I still don’t know about. 🙂

  • OCDemon says:

    Imagine if that guy HAD missed out on Angkor Wat, because he only met polite people that didn’t poke fun at his ignorance. It’s like realizing your fly has been down for 12 hours, but nobody had the guts to say anything.
    OCDemon recently posted..Top 10 things to do in UkraineMy Profile

  • Maria says:

    Beautiful storytelling in this one Audrey – Kudos!

    You’re right about disappointment, I find child-like wonder over takes me at ever corner if I don’t have a lot of intel before hand. Some knowledge is good so you don’t get overwhelmed, but too much can set unrealistic expectations.

    The appropriate level in either direction? That’s unique to each of us. I’d love to catch up the young Aussie and hear his thoughts post-visit. Wow!
    Maria recently posted..Essential Tips to Find Free Wi-Fi or Internet ServiceMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Hehe, I’d also like to hear how the Aussie’s visit to Angkor Wat went. It must’ve been pretty impressive for someone who’s never seen photos of it before. 😉

  • Ms Huong says:

    Cambodia is one of the best interesting destinations in the Indochina. Select one of our tour to visit the most interesting places that you must see when you are planning a trip to experience Cambodia’s history, culture and people.You will be impressed by the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, the Silver Pagoda or the historical Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the killing fields. Siem Reap offer you the Angkor complex with the South Gate of Angkor Thom, the famous Bayon, the great wonders of the world Angkor Wat and a traditional wooden boat on the Tonle Sap Lake.
    Let visit my website to detail about Angkok Wat

  • Sara Hardman says:

    This is really interesting. I like a lot of spontaneity and often turn up in places that I haven’t researched very well and I enjoy the adventure of exploring without expectations.
    Sometimes it goes wrong though, you can underestimate how much there is to see and end up not having booked enough time.
    Still, that’s a great reason to go back one day 🙂
    Sara Hardman recently posted..Too Cool to Cruise?My Profile

  • I do no research – I want no expectation. Rather, I want to be surprised. My writing is better that way. Of course, as a perpetual traveler I have the benefit of being able to stay in a place as long as I want to, while folks with just two weeks of vacation would probably have to do a lot more planning.
    Barbara Weibel recently posted..PHOTO: Gorey Castle looms above colorful homes and shops on Jersey in the British Channel IslandsMy Profile

  • Agness says:

    This is why I love travelling so much. There were plenty of places I had no idea they existed before I saw them, like for example the famous Ha Long Bay. Vietnam was a real mystery for me, but the more time I spent there, the more I learnt about the people and the country.
    Agness recently posted..Travelling the World under $25 a Day in style! How? Housesitting!My Profile

  • James says:

    While I’m not sure if I’ve ever just arrived in a city with no clue what to expect (though maybe? … the luxury of having visited so many places means that I’m really not sure), I do love to wander.

    It’s a wonderful feeling to experience the daily life of a city or the true character of a destination. Wander unknown neighborhoods. Stumble upon parks. Glimpse local churches and temples. Encounter locals, who are happier to speak you with you and enjoy a genuine interaction as opposed to being hit with the derision for tourists or make-a-buck attitude you find in heavily travelled spots.
    James recently posted..Floating Dreams – Loy Krathong, Thailand’s Most Beautiful Holiday FestivalMy Profile

  • memographer says:

    I can’t imagine what I would feel arriving at the Angkor without any knowledge about it… I am sure it would be incredible experience! However, I always prepare for my travels and, even more, I maintain a bucket list (call it To-Do-Go list) where I collect tips and info about my future destinations.
    Great subject/post, Audrey.
    memographer recently posted..Cambodia. Siem Reap. Floating VillagesMy Profile

  • Christy says:

    I’m still bummed I miss Angkor Wat when we were in SE Asia, but unlike the Australian, I think I’ve seen enough photos of it that it almost feels like I’ve been there. 😉 I love that last photo!
    Christy recently posted..How to Plan a Trip to Scotland’s HebridesMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      That’s too bad you missed the temples, though I’m sure if you spent enough time in SE Asia you probably had your fill of them. 😉

  • Amanda says:

    Traveling without expectations is the best! You are hardly ever disappointed that way.

    I, too, like to do a little research before I travel somewhere new, but I never plan everything out anymore. Because you never know what surprises may be waiting to wow you!
    Amanda recently posted..My Growing Love of Bike ToursMy Profile

  • Sam says:

    I often fall somewhere in between; I like to have some basic research down (why should I bother visiting this country/city/region in the first place?), but I also like to be surprised by things I didn’t know anything about. The blank slate experience you describe does sound lovely in theory, but I think in practice, I’m way too much of a control freak to just turn up somewhere without looking up anything about the place beforehand!
    Sam recently posted..El Fuerte de Samaipata: Bolivia’s Answer to Machu Picchu?My Profile

  • Andrew says:

    As much as I like being able to know about a place and book hotels/apartments/trains ahead of time, I am getting tired of having expectations of places. It seems to just lead to disappointment. The best things recently have been the surprise places. It brings a stress of its own, but seems better on par.
    We were talking a few weeks ago about what it would be like to travel before the Internet had deluged us with pictures and advertisements of everywhere.
    Andrew recently posted..Castle Gravensteen : A Castle as I Wanted It to BeMy Profile

  • Angkor Wat temples are very different from the European temples.
    Calogero Mira recently posted..Playa de la Concha in San SebastianMy Profile

  • Nicole @ Green Global Travel says:

    Great photos. Looks like you have changed the way you travel. Like you say, both ways are good. Not knowing much about the destination makes everything a surprise, but might mean you miss out on a lot. I remember when we were younger and went to Fiji, we missed out on going to some of the other islands (“oh there are other islands here??”). Like you, we now prepare for all our travels.
    Nicole @ Green Global Travel recently posted..The Triumph of Tenacity & Our Next Eco AdventureMy Profile

  • Zara @ Backpack ME says:

    I knew little about Ecuador before going there last year and it is now one of my favorite countries in the world.
    We were in Brazil and our flight to Bolivia never arrived so we just took the next flight available to anywhere in South America. When we came out of the airport we took some money out of the ATM and thought “shit! it came out in US dollars!”. So we asked a guy around “excuse me? do you know where we can find an ATM with local currency?” The guy obviously looked at us as if we were aliens. USD is the local currency now and we were about to be surprised with many other things all over Ecuador. Love it there and the fact that I didn’t have any expectations definitely added to the magic!
    Zara @ Backpack ME recently posted..Misson District: Street Art in San FranciscoMy Profile

  • This Battered Suitcase says:

    As some have mentioned above, I love this about travelling. In fact, I often try NOT to research a lot before I go, just so I can be wowed and not have any expectations.

    I think, in recent memory, I was most floored by the Schwedagon Paya in Rangoon – I simply didn’t know anything about it, and had only seen a few photos. I’m glad that I was a bit naive before going, as it allowed me to be utterly overwhelmed (in the very best way).
    This Battered Suitcase recently posted..Around The World: SeafoodMy Profile

  • Lisa says:

    I am exactly like the Aussie, I was coming from England to Cambodia and had never heard of Angkor Wat or any of the other temples until a few days before I turned up and that was back in March. I would say that Angkor wasn’t my favourite, it was beautifully architecturally but Ta Prohm was the one that amazed me and leading the history behind all the carvings made it so much better 🙂
    But I’m one of these people where if something is hyped up so much that when I get there I don’t find it as amazing as it probably is. If I know nothing about it then I’m generally amazed. (I’m weird I know lol)

  • Kerri says:

    Sometimes that’s the best way to travel 😉

  • Last year I had the opportunity of visiting Angkor Wat. It was really a great experience. I am happy to see that you have enjoyed the place, too… It took me by surprise.
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  • Apol of Wanderful Together says:

    When we went to El Nido in Palawan, Philippines, I was surprised. Not because I didn’t research but because I tried not to know more about it. Came the trip, I never expected the road to be intestine-like. I couldn’t help puking, haha. Seemed like my own intestines went upside down. If only read more about it, i could have pretended that.

    Now I prefer reading about places before trips, so that I’ll know about how to save on cash while traveling in that place too!
    Apol of Wanderful Together recently posted..Khmer New Year | Snapshots from Siem Reap, Cambodia IIMy Profile

  • Stephanie - The Travel Chica says:

    You make a good point. I certainly wouldn’t want to miss out on something amazing simply because I had not done my research, but if you travel slow enough and talk to locals and other travels, you’ll catch all the good stuff and get the “surprise factor.”
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..Asian soul food (my most anticipated meal in Charleston)My Profile

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