Cambodian sunrises and Tomb Raider temples at Angkor…
It was 4.30am and I was motoring through a dusty Cambodian side street on a rickety tuk tuk in the pre-dawn darkness.
Now why on earth would I be up and about at that ungodly hour you might be asking…late night out? Early morning bus ride?
No, none of the above…
I came for this!
Angkor Wat at sunrise, a spectacular sight indeed.
But how did I end up on this side of the world? Well, after a 20 hour bus ride from Spain to the UK, a week in London and a hellish transit through to Bangkok, I had made my way into Cambodia and over to the town of Siem Reap. My immediate impressions of Siem Reap weren’t overly favourable – I found it a rather dusty and unattractive place. Not to worry though! The town was not my reason for being there…
The real draw card of the area was the Angkor Archaeological Park, situated a 15 minute tuk tuk ride out of town. The park was home to the remains of countless magnificent temples from the powerful Khmer empire that had flourished there from the 9th to the 15th century.
Angkor Wat is currently recognised as the largest Hindu temple in the world. The massive structure took close to thirty years to build in the early 12th century and is still in remarkable condition today. It is the largest and apparently the most intact of all the remaining Khmer empire temples.
All the research I’d been doing had said that seeing the sunrise from behind the temples was an experience that couldn’t be missed, so I thought it would be worth the early rise to see what all the fuss was about!
Our rickety tuk tuk pulled up in front of the main entrance to Angkor Wat whilst the sky above us was still almost completely dark. As we walked along the wide walkway that lead over the 200 metre wide moat that surrounded the outer temple walls I was just able to make out the faint outline of the 5 main towers of temple up ahead.
We settled into position beside a large pond nestled just outside the entrance to the main temple and waiting for the sun to start doing it’s thing. I would love to say that the atmosphere was serene and peaceful – but that simply wasn’t the case! It seemed everyone had been given the hot tip to arrive in time to see the sunrise so the grassy knoll by the pond was crammed with people standing shoulder to shoulder whilst jostling to get the best view.
Hordes of tourists aside, the view of the temple as the sky began to lighten was incredible and well worth dealing with the lack of serenity! Seeing the sky shift from a deep inky blue, to crimson, pink and then a buttery yellow before spotting the sun bursting off the shoulder of one of the temple’s main towers was a spectacular and unique experience – and I can definitely say that’s it’s worth the early rise!
As the sun shifted a little higher in the sky the photos became a little less spectacular and with that, the majority of the tourists seemed to head back to their hotels for breakfast or a little more shut eye!
This made it the perfect time for us to head into the temple for a proper look around whilst everything was calm and not too crowded.
We began at the back and worked our way forward, climbing up the crumbling stairs and wandering past the long corridors, towers and courtyards of the central building. Many of the walls of the temple were intricately decorated and one of the most impressive of these is a huge bas-relief frieze in the Eastern gallery. This intricate section of carving depicts the ‘Churning of the Sea of Milk’ – a scene in which 92 Asura deities and 88 Deva deities use the serpent Vasuki to churn the sea under the Hindu god Vishnu’s instruction. Bizarre but very beautiful, it looked somewhat akin to a very strange game of tug-a-war.
The sun grew higher and everything started to get a lot hotter, so after a little over an hour of wandering through the temple it was time to move on. We walked back out over the moat to find our embellished denim jacket wearing tuk tuk driver waiting to take us to our next stop – the Temple of Bayon.
This temple was built a little later then Angkor Wat and is renowned for the multitude of gigantic tranquil stone faces featured on the peaks of its many towers that surround the upper terrace and central peak of the structure.
The faces were indeed impressive but we happened to arrive at the same time as a massive tour group all kitted up in matching awkward hats, so it was all feeling a little crowded and I was glad to move on to the next place rather quickly!
The day continued in a similar fashion with our trusty driver motoring us from temple to temple, allowing us to jump off, explore and fend off the swarm of little ladies trying to sell us soft drinks before returning and setting off for the next place.
One of the absolute highlights of the day was our visit to Ta Prohm – informally known as the ‘Tomb Raider’ or ‘Indian Jones’ temple. The fact that we visited Ta Prohm rather late in the day when I was hot and bothered and suffering from a slight case of ‘temple-fatigue’ – and I still loved it – is a testament to the fascinating and unique nature of the place. A number of scenes from Tomb Raider were actually filmed here and as I wandered through the temple’s grounds I could easily see why the film chose to feature this magical location.
The overall impression of the jungle taking over the ancient buildings was remarkable. Strangler figs almost completely covered the stone walls, silk cotton trees burst through the ceilings of crumbling rooms and thick and wiry tree roots wound their through the rubble at every corner I turned.
Although it was crowded we still managed to somehow escape to a section that was virtually deserted so it was easy to imagine how the dare-devil explorers must have felt when they discovered abandoned temples such as this for the first time.
Eventually it came time for us to jump back on to the tuk tuk for the final time and we began to wizz our way back past some of the many temples we had had the chance to explore on the way back to the main road.
There was only time for one fleeting final glimpse of the towers of Angkor Wat before we turned a corner and left the spectacular sites (and the hordes of tourists) of Angkor Archaeological Park behind us.
What a day!