Traveling during monsoon season in Southeast Asia is not for the faint of heart, but for those with a sturdy plastic poncho, ribbed-soled sandals, and a good attitude, it can mean lighter crowds and an exceptional experience on a rainy day in the forest.
When I arrived to Siem Reap, my guest house operator looked at me like I had two heads when I said I was ready to go to the temples despite the rain. All of the other guests appeared cozy inside watching a movie, but I was determined to explore.
My first visit was to Ta Prohm, the jungle temple that served as a setting in scenes of Tomb Raider. With rain pouring down and several-inch deep pools of water gathered in every courtyard, the temple was a ghost town. As I admired the high and low-relief stone sculptures, I danced in jubilation to the natural rhythms of rain falling in the forest, birds chirping, and monkeys howling. This was all I imagined Angkor would be!
The next morning, I set my alarm to 4am in order to make it to the main temple of Angkor Wat in time for sunrise. My dedication to the cause made me among the first to arrive, with an excellent spot for viewing. In the dark of the late morning, Buddhist monks could be heard chanting mantras in the distant temple. As the sun rose, silence fell upon the reflection pool for several moments before the buzz of tourists returned.
The quality of art and architecture within the Angkor complexes is exquisite, representing some of the finest humankind has made. Many of the temples were constructed around a central mandala design, with several including reflecting pools nearby that extend the images of the architecture to two planes resulting in incredible visual appeal.
During my days of wandering in and out of various surrounding temples, I was inspired by the images of Hindu and Buddhist deities that lined the halls. There was something so powerful about the religious messages shared by Indians traveling in Cambodia that the local people decided to convert and construct these monumental structures. The entire society became based around temple life, complete with festivals, religious ceremonies, and royal celebrations aimed at creating a connection with the divine.
Today, the temples of Siem Reap support the livelihoods of thousands of Cambodians who survive off of the tourist industry. Despite the heat and humidity, every person I encountered was equally inspired and pleased with their decision to visit Angkor. Like those who came before me, my pilgrimage was a moment to connect with the divine, a childhood dream come true.