After traveling on eight flights starting in New York and throughout Southeast Asia to reach Siem Reap in Cambodia, aside from a few compulsory family pictures here and there, these are the only photos I took at Banteay Srei in the legendary city of Angkor. Yes, in this widely talked about jewel of classic Khmer art and Cambodian architecture I photographed none of the art or the architecture. And not because I couldn’t. I had my beloved camera, some great lenses, and an iPhone in hand.
Today I was disturbed.
A man, who constantly interchanged a set of high-class lenses with his two Nikons without a pause in his clicks, asked his wife: “So, what happened in this place?” to which she responded, “I think it’s important for Buddha” and then went to pose for a series of photos in front of a stone tower uninterested in any remotely valid answer to the question. Shockingly, derivatives of this same ignorance manifested themselves throughout the day in Angkor’s most historically critical spots. People were venturing from the opposite site of the world to witness the extraordinary relics of humanity that few are lucky enough to see in their lifetimes, and traded the experience for a full flash card and a superficial (sometimes nonexistent), understanding of where they were. 90% of their time was spent behind a camera screen and not really what they came to see. I felt frustrated for hours. And then it sunk in that the irritation stemmed from the fact that I was one of these people. Even if I had always researched a destination before arriving, I had never in my life really been present.
I’ve had the tremendous fortune of spending moments in the world’s most enthralling places, but the tremendous, self-imposed misfortune of misspending those moments. I’ve taken thousands of images, few if any that can’t be Googled, of history’s most magical, humbling, and awe-inspiring gifts to mankind. But I have barely a handful of genuine of moments in my memory bank that evoke magic, humility, and awe within me. Really, all I have are recollections of being in important places. Recollections? What a mediocre and unacceptable celebration of the privilege I’d had to see this incredible world.
As a film student and lover of photography, I’ll be the first to say that taking pictures during travel is a beautiful thing. Good images immortalize fleeting moments, and have been, at least for me, a lasting source of joy over the years. But as someone who respects the visual medium and the art of travel even more, I have come to realize that I have liberally offended both. I’ve diluted the meaning of moments, insulted the rare opportunity to constantly roam and learn from the world, by allowing a piece of technology and not my flesh and soul to be the carriers of experience.
The Pyramids of Cairo, The Great Wall of China, the Colosseum, the Parthenon, and even the Empire State Building I see daily but barely glance at – all of Earth’s magical sites have become visual trophies on my Facebook profile instead of memories that arouse the emotional and physical meaning of standing on the very geography that wove human history.
While I speak volumes about how travel has shaped me as a person, my words have been hollow, guided from behind a lens and not the enriching quality of presence. So today, I did something I haven’t done in my entire life of travel. My camera, the domineering eyes of my journeys, was tucked away in my backpack for the duration of the day and replaced by my naturally endowed lens.
Today, I decided to travel consciously, with all my senses.
Today, I ran my fingers against 12th century stone and felt, with my 21st century hands, the same exact piece of stone that once built an empire, my handprint perhaps matching one of an ancient soul. Today, with my Japanese running shoes purchased in America, a country that hadn’t even been discovered when this temple was built, I treaded the same grounds as the Thai invaders, my invisible footprints over theirs, painting the paths that once rewrote Khmer history. Today, I just stood. I stood and let not a highly reviewed monument, not a heritage site, and not a Kodak photo spot define where I was and why I was there. Instead, I saw Angkor as living, breathing time capsule of ancient civilization that science, technology, and human spirit had enabled a 20 year old from modern day New York to enter, interact with, and be awed by. The feeling was just amazing, wholly consuming, so beautiful.
Today I felt humbled and empowered at the same time. Human flesh like mine once forged these magnificent testaments of dreams. Just like mine. If humans can construct such splendor, I’ve accomplished very little thus far in tapping into my own potential. If humans can construct such splendor, there is nothing in this world I can’t do. I can only imagine how enriched a person I could have been had I seen the world more genuinely earlier on.
We all travel for different reasons. Some of us really don’t know why we travel, but we like framing the pictures we bring home or making our friends jealous on Instagram. If that achieves personal fulfillment, it’s awesome.
But for true enrichment and true memory, don’t reduce travel to a checklist, don’t reduce travel to pixels. Be eternally in awe. Be eternally present.
(and once in a while a selfie is totally cool. #YOLO)