Angkor: When It Rains, You Score

During monsoon season, the biggest crowd a visitor might find at Angkor Wat is a wedding party gathering on the temple grounds for photographs.
During monsoon season, the biggest crowd a visitor might find at Angkor Wat is a wedding party gathering on the temple grounds for photographs. (Photos By Stephen Brookes)
By Stephen Brookes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 4, 2007

Rain was lashing against the side of the plane as we broke through the clouds. Below us, Cambodia stretched out like a perfect disaster: fields flooded to the horizon, palm trees whipped by the wind, a sky so dark and heavy it seemed about to collapse. As we dropped closer, we caught a glimpse of two people pushing a truck through knee-deep water, struggling to keep from being washed away.

"It's fantastic!" I said to my wife, whose hand was clamped on mine in a vise-like grip. "It looks like we timed this perfectly!"

We'd come to Cambodia to see the famous temples of Angkor, those magnificent ruins that make up one of the most extraordinary landscapes in Asia, if not the world. And we'd come in July -- in the heart of the monsoon, which sensible people had told us was pure madness. Wait until the dry season, they said, when the skies are clear and you're guaranteed as much sunshine as you can handle. Go during the long, wet summer -- when more than 50 inches of rain falls -- and you're certain to get stranded in your hotel, swatting at mosquitoes and hoping you don't come down with malaria.

But we were here to test the contrarian idea that the monsoon might, in fact, be the best time to see Cambodia. Because the truth is, even though it rains almost every day -- sometimes in torrents so thick you can barely see -- it rarely lasts more than an hour or two. And the effect is usually refreshing. The rain clears the air, washes away the dust and cools down everything. The landscape turns lush and fragrant, colors take on richer hues and, instead of scorching tropical sun, you get constantly changing light and spectacular sunsets. For photographers in particular, it's the only time to go.

Besides, prices for everything drop dramatically -- hotels typically charge half of their high-season rates -- and there's never a problem getting into a restaurant or booking a last-minute flight. And best of all: Tourists stay away in droves.

* * *

"It's empty," groaned general manager Didier Lamoot, gesturing at the deserted lobby of the Sofitel Royal Angkor, one of the new hotels in Siem Reap, the town where all visitors to Angkor stay. "People are afraid of the monsoon," he said. "Germans, if they think there will be one second of rain, they don't come. And the French, if they hear about heat but no sea, then, non." He shrugged his shoulders in Gallic resignation.

But actually, "empty" was the reason we were there. Lost for centuries, the ruins of Angkor were rediscovered in the 19th century and until a few years ago were still well off the itineraries of most travelers. Decades of war and civil strife had kept the crowds away, and when I'd first visited in 1999 for a rushed, two-day trip, I had the place almost to myself. You could climb to the top of Angkor Wat, the most famous of the many temples at Angkor, and contemplate eternity, or lose yourself in the enigmatic stone faces of the Bayon, or privately indulge your Indiana Jones fantasies in the overgrown ruins of Ta Prohm.

But all that has changed -- with a vengeance. The political stability of the past decade has reassured travelers, and Angkor is now suffering a flood of tourists -- more than 1.7 million last year, up from 200,000 only three years before. And with a new airport open and roads being built to connect Angkor more easily with Thailand and Vietnam, officials expect that number to rise to more than 3 million by the end of the decade.

Not surprisingly, Angkor is a madhouse during the November-to-April high season. Buses cram the parking lots, spitting out diesel fumes and tour groups. Thousands of people clamber over the temples, turning them into human anthills, and at the peak viewing times, gridlock sets in; so many people are trying to climb the hilltop temple of Phnom Bakheng, famous for its view of the sunset over Angkor Wat, that officials are even thinking of installing an escalator. Forget trying to contemplate the timeless mystery of the place. The only mystery is how to avoid being trampled.

So when we got up the next morning and set out for Angkor Wat, it was with crossed fingers, hoping our theory about the rainy season would, um, hold water. But we needn't have worried. The rains of the night before had given way to scattered clouds, the air was fresh, and as we walked out the long stone causeway to the temple, the biggest crowd we saw was a Cambodian wedding party having its picture taken.

We weren't completely alone, of course. Two elderly monks in saffron robes passed us, and a few Korean families peered intently at each other through digital cameras. But it was easy enough to avoid the tour groups as we made our way through the temple. We climbed higher and higher up the narrow stairways, over the wide stone terraces, past the churning friezes and delicately carved celestial dancers. It was eerily quiet -- the loudest sound was the cry of birds in the jungle -- and the huge temple spread out below us, infinitely ancient, evocative and remote. We sat in silence, letting the sweep of the centuries roll over us.

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