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Angkor Dawn #RTW

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Angkor Wat at dawn, near Siem Reap, Cambodia (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Sleep is entirely overrated—travel is not.

While both sleep and travel share priority status in my life, the latter tends to beat out the former in every case.

For instance, after flying more than 18 hours from San Francisco (with a water and wi-fi break in Korea, as it were), I touched down in the Kingdom of Cambodia—a kingdom that had just lost its King—Norodom Sihanouk. Even in the dark of midnight, I could see the red-and-blue flags at half-mast—and stepping off the plane and into the thick, smoky jungle air of Southeast Asia, I noticed the small black ribbons pinned to everyone’s shirts as a symbol of grief.

My midnight entrance to Cambodia at a time of mourning was unintended, but I was glad for the stillness around me—a few seconds of the tropical Asian night, with its cricket chorus and shadowy palms, and I remembered how much I loved Cambodia and its people . . .

. . . so much so that I only slept for two hours. Sunrise was at 5:45ish, and we needed to be gone by five. That’s the thing about traveling with a group—there is a plan that everyone must follow, no matter how little sleep you got the night before.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat has become a “Thing To Do”, and while I was certain this endeavor promised loud human voices that would shatter the mood, and a sea of flashing flashbulbs that would ruin my own photos, I went anyway. I wanted to see the light itself—to greet the sun that like me, traveled around the world.

We were in place by 5:35—our little group among the tourist hoards who were busy lining up their tripods in a row, as if making last-minute preparations for a final battle against an unseen enemy. And yet, a few minutes later, our little gang was called away from the masses—a uniformed guard waved us over and led us in the opposite direction, away from the hubbub and to the edge of the glassy moat that surrounds the temple of Angkor. The sky was already bleeding red fire along the dark silhouette and to get a better view, I climbed atop a square-cut stone—a rectangular, rough-hewn remnant of temples past.

As if someone turned down a dial, I sensed all the unnecessary sounds disappear. Even the birds seemed to hold off their singing for that singular moment when early morning burned into day. I watched hot red go to pink and then to wispy lavender and then finally, pale blue and white.

It was over in seconds, really—the sunrise achieved, the crimson horizon fading from its glowing glory into the clouded shrug of plain, ordinary daylight. Already, the crowds were packing up their tripods, mission accomplished, their exotic dawn memories captured in pixels on flash cards to be uploaded later. I flipped through my own photos, content with the outcome but knowing what all of us know—that no photo comes close to the real thing, and that was all that mattered.

More than sleep, really.

I had flown halfway around the world in a single day, and then two hours later, I stood at the edge of an ancient Asian temple to greet Cambodia’s new sun.

I was sleepless and suffering, but Angkor at dawn was still the placed I needed to be. This is at the heart of why we travel, and though I can always find a way to escape sleep just a little bit longer, I will never be able to escape the day.

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