It is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.
– António da Madelena, Portuguese monk who, in 1586, was the first westerner to see Angkor Wat
In general I am an early riser, still I rarely see the front side of 5:00 AM. However, on this day, I turned off my alarm at 4:15 AM and excitedly, though a little slowly, started to get dressed in the outfit I laid out the night before. I made sure to fill my backpack with the necessities: camera, notebook, wallet and phone, draped a light scarf around my neck and headed down to the hotel lobby.
There waited Tiger, or at least that’s the name he went by, who would be my guide to a few of the most famous temples of Angkor Wat. We climbed into a waiting Toyota SUV and started to drive along the abandoned streets. Within 20 minutes we were nearing the entrance to our destination, Angkor Wat. It was still too dark to see much of anything, but from the increased number of car headlights and tourists on bicycles, I knew we were not far away.
Stepping out of the car, Tiger and I fell in line with other visitors who were silently hustling towards a predetermined location. For me, I just had to trust Tiger and follow along as I didn’t know the lay of the land and I could barely see 4 steps in front of me. Along a dirt path, down a few steps and then out onto a temporary, plastic floating bridge which bobbed up and down as it lead us across a water way – all with the goal of getting a prime spot to see the sun rise above Angkor Wat.
As we arrived close to our destination, Tiger explained that we could either go to the right or the left of the entrance bridge that leads to the temple compound to watch the sunrise. Both sides led directly up to the edge of a lake that separated you from the temples, but the left side had more lily pads and lotus flowers which made it a bit more picturesque. For that reason, the left side was also typically more crowded with large tour groups. I chose to head to to the right side.
[Above] Crowds on the left side of the entrance to Angkor Wat even after the sun has come up
[Above] Crowds to the right side of the entrance to Angkor Wat: clearly a better decision
Luckily we arrived early enough for me to get a front row position. Tiger encouraged me to stand right up against the waterline so that no one would try to sneak in front of me possibly obscuring my view. Once I established my position, my guide drifted back into the crowd. He saw this view several times a week…better to leave the spots for the paying tourists.
By now it was about 5:45 AM and according to my iPhone, sunrise was set for 6:15. Within minutes the sky began to lighten and bits and outlines of the famous temple came into view; at first a little hazy then a little more clearly. For the most part the crowd (and yes there was a crowd by now) was quiet. Likely they were still half asleep. Only a few chatty tourists and the occasional call of “Coffee…Coffee!” from an entrepreneurial vendor broke the silence. As much as I love my morning cup of coffee, I decided to skip it for the moment. The excitement of seeing the sun rise in a new, beautiful place was enough of a caffeine substitute for me.
As the sky continues to lighten, the crowds get larger and larger. The coffee vendor has gone so now you hear just the near constant click of camera shutters and the frequent splash of whatever was living in the lake. The sky was a bit cloudy, so there was no crisp sunrise to capture, but that did not take away from the beauty at all. Moment by moment, the main temple of Angkor Wat came into more crisp focus. To be standing in front of this magnificent building that I have only before seen in photos and videos; I don’t know how to describe it other than magical, spiritual and fulfilling. The phrase that keeps running through my head is “This Is Why I Travel”.
With the sun nearly fully risen, people begin to stream off towards the entrance of the temples area. I look back over my shoulder to find Tiger who is quietly chatting with a couple of other tour guides. He nods that it is a good time to move on. He explained that as soon as the sun comes up, its smart to head directly towards the line that forms to visit Bakan. This is the upper level of the temple area that they only allow 100 visitors at a time to explore. If you take too long to get in line, you can find yourself with an hour or longer wait – out in the full strength Cambodian sun.
As we walk towards the area where the line is forming, Tiger tells me a bit of the history of Angkor Wat. Originally built in the 12th Century as a Hindu temple, in the 16th century it converted to a Buddhist temple. I found it interesting that the Hindu elements were not destroyed when the Buddhists took over. So often in other countries and cultures, images or references to past religions are completely removed from buildings and artwork after a conversion like this.
I learned that there are 1083 temples in Cambodia, 500 of those are located in Siem Reap. Of those temples, Angkor Wat is the largest. It took 385,000 stone workers 37 years to build this temple made out of lava stone, covered in sandstone and then covered in red paint which you can still see on some of the walls and carvings.
After waiting in line for only about 15 minutes, it was my turn to climb up to the Bakan area. The stair case was much steeper than I had assumed, but with a good grip on the railing I made my way to the top.
This part of the complex is considered a holy site, and in many of the nooks and hallways, you will see statues and candles lit by the monks who worship there. Having about 15 – 20 minutes to wander around on my own, I was able to explore, take pictures, marvel at the detailed carvings and enjoy beautiful views of the Siem Reap countryside.
Coming back down the steep staircase, I met up with Tiger again and spent about another hour exploring the far side of the Angkor Wat complex. I got close up to stone carvings, walked through grassy open courtyards and then just sat to take it all in. Hopefully the pictures I have added here give you some sort of idea of the beauty of the place, but as is often the case, it is no comparison for actually being there.
It was close to 9:00 when we left the complex and walked towards a restaurant where I got one of the best cups of coffee in all of Cambodia. On the way out we got an up close look at some macaque monkeys that live in the forest. Initially surprised to see a monkey, I quickly grabbed my camera to take a picture before it disappeared. Then I saw a second one…and a third…and one with a baby on its belly…and then two more. By about the 10th one I realized these monkeys were about as rare as a tour group at Angkor Wat. Still, for a city girl, seeing a monkey up close is a pretty unique event.
After leaving Angkor Wat we explored three other temples that day. Though each of other temples was stunning in their own way, being able to watch the sun rise in front of a place I’d only ever seen in photos…well, it was a dream come true and a fabulous way to start my exploration of Siem Reap.
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