I am not kidding you when I say that this is the moment I have been waiting for the whole trip. It was when I picked up an old copy of National Geographic while sitting on the throne with a picture of a stone head with large roots overlapping it and even growing out of it. Lush vegetation surrounded it, and various lichens clung to the stone, making it look like a Jackson Pollack canvas. The exoticness of it just drew me in. I leafed through the pages and saw more and more exotic images of these massive temples, in the midst of the jungle, all overgrown. I knew at that moment that this was not just a bucket list item, but something that needed to be done soon. Just like that, I had my destination for the whole trip set. Everything else just revolved around it.
We woke up bright and early, around 4 am, to see the sunrise over the largest and most complete temple in the complex, Angkor Wat. It was rush hour in Siem reap, with a long line of tuk tuks, minivans, and tourist buses heading to the temples. I noticed some people were biking it, but I preferred the luxury of our tuktuk. We were quickly ushered through security, camera flash going off, visitor badges handed out, and rushed back to the tuk tuk. Now for the next three days, every one will know exactly how horrible we look at 4 am as we proudly wear our badges everywhere.
This was our first time here, and you could sense the immense stone structure in the east, but that was it. It was pitch black out. We walked across the bridge with large cobra heads lining the path. Pass through an ancient gateway with our flashlight beams illuminating the sneakers of the other tourists. Minus the fact that it was before sunrise, this could be the walk to any sporting event in the world. A large crowd had gathered at the Lotus Pond, clearly thinking they had the best view. But we saw two dark blobs on either side, impressive buildings in their own right, and chose to hunker down in them. We had the added gift of a few feet, giving us an elevated view above the tourists. That way, none of our pictures would be ruined by Bahamas shirt wearing tourists. Funny, as a tourist you want unspoiled pictures, like you were the first there, but you get annoyed when other tourists are doing the same thing. Wait, did I call my self a tourist, I meant a traveler. There is a difference, trust me.
Well, after a fair amount of time, the sun slowly crested over Angkor Wat, and though it was not the spiritual fiery sunrise with vibrant colors I was hoping for, it still was a pleasant experience. Angkor Wat is a massive temple complex, with five ornate towers jutting up to the sky, with the central one being the largest. I’m trying to think of the best way to describe these, and I would say rocket ships made with lots of lego’s, giving a nice curved feel with geometric bumps. Surrounded by a thirty-foot wall with towers and promenades. We entered into the temple through the North East corridor, and what can I say, everything they said about this place was true. There was not a pillar, archway, or staircase in stone not adorned with decorative elements. There were numerous courtyards inside. They had long promenades with hundreds of pillars, maybe thousands.
Well, that was nice, but my stomach was growling like a Siberian tiger. We stopped to eat at one of the stands, seeing how it was 7am now but we had been up since 4 am. I ordered my standard Pho soup. Did I mention how much I love Pho, well I do. Yvonne got a fruit plate, and Jeff ordered a beef curry dish, at 7 am. A bit spicey, and let’s say, it was not long before he was running to Angkor’s historic dropping point. Now we were all ready to go and wander around some more.
We headed back and all the tourists had scattered about, making a much more peaceful image of the glorious temple. The sun was quarter way into the sky, right above the temple, and wouldn’t you know, it reflected perfectly in the lotus pond in front. Turned out to be the best picture of the morning, and if we had known that, we could have slept for two more hours.
Only one of the towers was open for visitors today, and it opened at 8:15am, so we got in line to climb. Yvonne purposely wore shorts with a sarong, out of respect for their traditions. But the stairs were so steep that only people in pants or long shorts were allowed up. It was a little silly, because their standards were all over the board, with some girls with shorts a bit longer going up, or even skirts longer then hers. So if you go make sure you have every kind of pant wear you can think of, just incase they change the rules again.
One of the unique things about these temples compared to the Pyramids or Machu Picchu is the fact that they have never been completely abandoned, and how much rebuilding has been going on. If the archeologist can’t find the original stone, or if they remove one to protect it in a museum, then they will replace it with a new copy. Though they make the copies bland and often have some marking on it so that no one will try to steal it to sell to some rich collector.
We climbed the tallest tower, with stairs so steep that a misstep would send you to the bottom like heads in Chitzen Itza. The tower was much bigger inside then I thought, with a courtyard and numerous shrines to the gods. The main shrine was to the God Shiva, and various other Hindu gods. The Hindu gods are so plentiful, and mythology so intricate, that I feel I could study it for decades and still have no clue. I suppose if you take all the saints in Christianity and all that it might be a comparable, but I would times it by a thousand. Being an atheist, I find all religious mythologies fascinating. As interesting as the Greek pantheon or the Lord of the Rings. They are both fiction, I guess you get my point.
There were some young Cambodians dressed in what I assume were traditional outfits, winged peacocks, monkey gods, and woman in pointed hats. I have read that the Hindu dance is incredibly intricate, with the slightest change in posture representing some thing new, almost like a language. We posed in some pictures with them, it was a little hard to pass up. The sun was now getting up there, and the heat was cooking us, so it was time to head back to out.
It was interesting to see the shapes that were just blobs in the hours before dawn materialize into beautiful buildings on their own. There was an elevated stone pathway going to the gatehouse, with both of the amazing libraries on either side. One of them was being renovated by a Japanese team at the moment, but still really beautiful. Outside the gate was a bridge to the moat which was probably a hundred feet wide and surrounded the entire complex. The railing of the bridge is the Naga, a serpent with numerous heads on it.
In the 12th century Khmer King Suryavarman II began the building Angkor Wat. It was a Hindu site, but around the thirteenth Century is converted to Buddhism. It was originally the main temple for Shiva. It has 2.2 miles of moat going around the temple complex. Its set in three levels, with the five towers on the last level. This is the largest religious complex in the world.
I’m so envious – not of the pre-dawn start – I’ve always wanted to visit Angkor Wat, and National Geographic is the cause as well. It looks wonderful and the transformation from darkness into daylight must have been fab.
I have never been a pre-dawn fan but it was pretty nice, just too many people. From talking to the guides there are many spots better for the sunrise with no crowds. I really recommend people spend a week out in Siem Reap, instead of a day or two. Theres so much to do out there that we never even got to.
Thanks for the post! My wife and I will be traveling to Vietnam and Cambodia soon and yours is a very informative post. And the photos are superb as welI I see you’re a seasoned traveler; quite observant and have deep understanding of humanity. I enjoyed reading your post and look forward to going thru the same experience during our planned trip to Cambodia.Best regards!
I think this is the nicest comment I have gotten so far. Thank you. I miss the road everyday, and Cambodia is filled with such great beauty and sadness. Enjoy, I look forward to hearing about your trip.