During my visit I walked the temples' dark corridors, climbed their precipitous steps and studied up close the finely carved bas-reliefs, where pictorial legends of Hindu and Buddhist mythology and the exaggerated exploits of Khmer kings are engraved on their walls. Usually around noon, when most tourists seemed to escape the sweltering heat to have lunch, I was able to find an empty, contemplative space once inhabited by the gods.
As I took in the vast temples, I had to remind myself that the daily life of the early Khmers was violent and exacting. In their careful adherence to routines and rituals, could they have imagined how their efforts would one day be so revered? How different their experience must have been from the feelings of wonderment and awe now inspired by their temples, or by watching a sunrise at Angkor Wat.
Cardiff de Alejo Garcia, a freelance writer in Southeast Asia, has written about Muay Thai fighting for Smithsonian.com.