Why We Need History When We Travel

My first view of Angkor Wat — vast, aged stones overgrown with moss and grass, cows grazing, and what seemed like thousands of butterflies — evoked the feeling of a post-apocalyptic civilization over which nature had continued to run its course — for any gamers reading this, it was much like the scene from “The Last of Us” where Joel and Ellie happen upon a herd of giraffes.

Angkor Wat is one of the most renowned tourist destinations in the world, and yet before going I knew very little about it. Of course, the sheer fact that this structure had existed since the 1100s was impressive in itself. But without context, why did it matter?

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I’m somewhat reluctant to admit this, but I’ve never really been a history buff. Sure, I’ve always thought that history should be preserved, and that individuals and civilizations alike should learn from history, but to say that I truly get my kicks from it would be a stretch.

I did, however, start to develop a genuine appreciation for history when I first met my husband, around six years ago. Initially, I was amazed simply by his ability to instantly recall people and events, evoking a detailed picture of any given moment that cut across time and place — never in a vacuum, and always cognizant of the parallel realities that would eventually converge.

But what struck me even more was the way that history constantly informed his present. For instance, he would never speak about his family’s hometown of Hyderabad and its surrounding areas as being frozen in modern time, but rather, his understanding of it stretched back to the third century B.C., when it was ruled by Ashoka the Great and the Mauryan empire, followed by the Satavahanas, and much later, the Mughals and eventually the Nizams, whose influence on the culture continues to this day.

When I truly started to appreciate this perspective though, was during our first international trip together, to Turkey. Istanbul’s breathtaking beauty, and its unique position as a geographic and cultural crossroads of east and west make the city alluring enough as an international destination and provide ample fodder for any tourist’s appetite, whether gustatory, aesthetic, or photographic. But I realized that, without going beyond the surface, it was difficult to truly understand or appreciate the incredible sites we were seeing.

For instance, most people who visit the Hagia Sophia know that it wasn’t always a museum. But some may not realize the extent of the storied history that is documented within the walls of the structure, from its construction by Emperor Justinian in 532 A.D. as a bastion of Christianity; to the period of iconoclasm in the eight and ninth centuries that resulted in some of the mosaics being destroyed; to Constantinople’s fall to the Ottoman Empire and the church’s subsequent conversion to a mosque.

Travel is an investment. We hoard our precious vacation days, saving up for a trip across the country or across the world. We pinch pennies to fund our getaways, opting for overburnt office coffee and removing that dress we love from our online shopping carts. And we plan meticulously, scouring the web for insider tips on the best places to stay, restaurants to eat at, and things to see.

When travel is such a resource-intensive endeavor, then why do we often choose to travel without any substantial understanding of the place we’re going? Without the context of the history that brought a place to its current moment, our interaction with it is superficial, molded by our own assumptions and notions of what it is.

The simple answer to this question is, not everyone cares. Not everyone has the same motivation for traveling. For some it might be to fulfill a dream of visiting a place they read about as a child. For others it might be for the pure novelty of being in a strange new city. And for others still, it might simply be an escape, in which case the ‘why’ of it may not matter at all.

When I was younger, my motivations for traveling fell into the former two categories (and perhaps still do). I loved seeing new places and experiencing new cultures, but if I’m honest with myself, I never really placed a great deal of importance on understanding the history of a place.

As I’ve gotten older, and my desire to gain a more meaningful understanding of the places I am visiting has grown, I seek out history to equip me in gaining this understanding.

On our most recent travels to Siem Reap, Cambodia, I had not had the opportunity before arriving to do this, and thus I found myself standing at the magnificent Angkor Wat without any context. We sought out this context immediately after leaving the site, and our perspective of the significance of what we had seen increased multi-fold.

Cambodia today is 95% Buddhist, and Angkor Wat still serves as a Buddhist center of worship. But Angkor was built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II of the Khmer Empire as a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, and remains the largest Hindu temple in the world today. Intricate carvings of scenes from the Mahabaratha were still preserved even when Angkor Wat was transformed into a Buddhist temple, indicating Theravada Buddhism’s connection to Vaishnavite and Shaivite strands of Hinduism.

Aside from being a major spiritual site for Cambodians and people from surrounding areas, the illustriousness of Angkor is said to have played a role in making it a target of outside invaders, thus further impacting the course of its history.

Although this only scratches the surface of the significance of Angkor, seeking out this history gave me a much more substantial perspective than had I simply gone to see the site, taken a few pictures, and been on my way.

Whether with sites, food, or activities, digging a little deeper when we travel and equipping ourselves with at least some knowledge of a place’s history — and what events have brought it to the point at which we are interacting with it — often reaps a richer and more meaningful experience than we ever could have expected.

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