“Wherever the crowd is, go the opposite way.” That was my mantra while in Siem Reap. I was looking for something pure and undiscovered- as impossible as that may sound. Although at times the droves of tourists were unavoidable, following this mantra would ultimately lead me to the most genuine experience Cambodia could have unveiled for me.

I stumbled on to the Pagoda while trying to escape the tourists swarming Angkor Wat. While I admired the Temple as a historic structure, I still felt a sense of disappointment. Maybe it felt superficial somehow- like a bucket list check mark. I couldn’t find the magic. There was something about seeing all the other visitors take the much hyped  “I’m here!” selfie that made Angkor Wat feel more like an amusement park. Something like Disneyland instead of the sacred place I had imagined.

When I walked on to the grounds of the Pagoda, although empty, something told me to look deeper… to go in a little further. So I listened and allowed myself to be led. I was seeking something authentic, raw, unfiltered… something real.

I started passing the houses on the grounds. No one else was around until I saw a monk cutting vegetables outside. We both immediately stopped and stared at each other; caught off guard and mutually curious by the other person’s presence. After a moment, he continued to perform his chore, but this time his robes moved, revealing his tattoos. As he continued working, he looked up to make sure I was still observing him, then moved around his robe to show off more of his ink. We couldn’t understand each other’s native tongue but within one another’s presence there was a mirrored image, a reflection.My own tattooed arms reached for my lens to capture him in his element- unfiltered. In that space between us, we somehow created a comfort and acceptance with no need for facades.

For the next few hours I wandered around the grounds meeting monks of all ages. As the day progressed, they let their guards down and continued as if I weren’t even there. I observed a hierarchy amongst the novice monks and the veterans. The older ones were picking on the younger ones; teaming up on each other to deliver wet willies and brotherly smacks on shaven heads. Some of the younger ones had a savviness to them/ They knew how to maneuver between one another, avoiding the pranks from the older ones.

One of the monks, who spoke basic English, gave me a personal tour of the Pagoda and told me about the life of Buddha. He took me from mural to mural, each one depicting a different chapter of Buddha’s journey.

For the next three days, the monks invited me to return to the Pagoda at Angkor Wat. Each moment with them allowed another peeled back layer of life. They let me in, not just as a foreigner, but as a friend. They shared stories of their families, stories of hardship, trauma that pushed them to seek deeper meaning for their experiences and finally the path that led them to Dharma.

On my last day in Angkor Wat, the monks invited me to their morning prayer. I arrived to the temple in the early hours of the morning when it was still dark outside. Seeing the temple before dusk, dimly lit by candles and hearing them chant their prayers completely insync was life changing. It was one of those moments in which I was fully consumed by the present — from a higher sense and vibration. They radiated discipline and devotion. They seemed connected to something beyond themselves, something unseen to our eyes but always omnipresent.

It was in these moments that my previous expectations were fully dethroned and any westernized illusion of what I thought a monk should be was stripped from my memory. They had achieved a balance in their lives, and that balance didn’t have to make sense to anyone else. After leaving the Pagoda of Angkor Wat, and departing Cambodia, I realized I also started wearing my gratitude outwardly — just like the first monks I encountered.

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