We woke up at 4 and met our tuc tuc driver, Som, out the front of our guesthouse to head to Angkor Wat for sunrise. A surprising number of people were up at this time, some of them tourists and drivers doing the same as us, but there were also just groups of people having a chinwag on the side of the road. This city never sleeps, people are always working so hard, it’s admirable but I just hope it’s a choice, not just a necessity to get by.
There were hoards of tuc tucs outside the ticket office and we began to believe the rumours of Angkor Wat being jam packed for sunrise. It was clearly popular. The tickets were expensive at $40 for three days, added to the cost of $20/ day ($10 each) for a driver this was the most expensive part of our trip by a long way so far. But that’s just the cost of tourist areas.
We were dropped off outside the gate of Angkor Wat just as the sky was beginning to brighten up. First, streaks of yellow and orange emerged, followed by pinks and purples blanketing the sky and doc using behind the tall spires of the ruins.
We were unsure on the best spot so first sat by the moat outside the gate and took photos of the reflection there, the view spanned as far left and right as you could see. After a couple of minutes we moved inside the gates, up the long walkway.
Once inside we caught our first real glimpse of Angkor Wat and its five spires, representing the five summits of the mythical Mount Meru worshipped in Hinduism, Brahmanism and Buddhism – the religions of Angkor at various times – said to be where the Gods live.
Sunrise was spectacular and well worth dragging myself out of bed after three hours sleep. There weren’t as many people as I expected luckily and we were able to watch the spectacle in peace. To beat the crowds we decided not to go straight into Angkor Wat, but to immediately move on to Angkor Thom, the largest site at 9 square kilometres.
In the very centre of Angkor Thom is Bayon Temple. When we arrived it was still technically closed and it was totally deserted. It didn’t seem to be an issue that we were early, and we were so lucky to be able to experience it alone, without crowds of people.
We climbed up the steep steps – apparently tall thin steps were all the rage back then – and explored the dark twists and turns inside the temple. Some of the rooms were eerily dark with figures and carvings inside. It was very atmospheric. This would’ve felt so different with people moving through constantly.
A flight of secluded stairs led us up to a the higher level with enormous stone towers with four faces carved into them on each side. The faces are depictions of Brahma, the King God. They are amazingly well preserved and quite awe-inspiring. We were able to wander around the large site reasonably well and fully explore the place. Every wall is covered in carvings and every door has a grand frame with an ornate archway. Building these temples must have been a seismic task!
Later we went to Ta Prohm, one of the most famous temples. This is where part of Tomb Raider was filmed. The jungle has started to reclaim this temple and immense trees grow through the ruins, forcing their way through the solid rocks.
It really is a spectacle! And again we were so lucky to have it mostly to ourselves! A few monkeys were running in the trees overhead too, splashing water on us from the wet leaves above.
We spent the rest of the day exploring more amazing temples and finished at Angkor Wat itself. The only annoying thing about the trip were all of the people trying to sell you stuff outside. You can’t sit quietly and reflect on what you’re seeing in some parts because you are hounded by women and children persistently shouting and trying to shove items in your face. My advice: do not give in. Ever. The park advises you not to give any money because it encourages them to stay out of school, and giving in encourages them to push the next person further. However generally a firm “no.” is sufficient.
Even the walk up to the temple is grand, over a loathe moat to get inside the old city walls, then it is further in front of you, towering above with its iconic spires. We walked down every corridor and covered every square metre.
The ground floor was made up of four corridors forming a square and the walls told stories of the Brahmanism interpretation of the beginning of the world. Huge scenes were depicted with all the mythical creatures and gods. We walked along these all and I swear that although there appeared to be only four corridors, we walked for an eternity and at every turn there was another corridor. It became ridiculous and I started to question how many laps I had done only to find out I was HALF WAY! (Check out the totally safe walkways too)
There were quite a few monks seeing the sights too. Taking selfies! Monks taking selfies, I tell you! Some tourists were asking for photos with them and would put their arms on them for photos which is incredibly disrespectful to them, you aren’t allowed to touch monks.
It’s amazing how well preserved Angkor Wat is. It’s not ruins by any means. I’m glad we saw it last as it sort of built up to it, saving the best until last that day so we were amazed every step of the way.
The next day we returned and took the longer route around the site. We arrived later, but still in the morning and saw the difference in the crowds. People were riding on the backs of sad trekking elephants around Angkor Thom! I understand that elephants look like they can take that weight, but they can’t, it damages them. The sight made me very unhappy. I am so glad we came earlier and missed this atrocity. On the plus side, more monkeys had come out to see what they could scavenge so we shouted “MONKEYS!!!” At every one we saw, including a teeny weeny baby monkey clinging on to its mum. That was a highlight.
Each temple is unique in its structure and function. Some have been reclaimed by the jungle more than others too so they vary between themselves but in all of them you are more or less free to roam around and you find the most beautiful carvings in the stone.
I highly recommend seeing Angkor Wat over at least two days, seeing the sunrise the first morning and then beating the crowds by heading to Angkor Thom. Renting a moto would be a good way to see it if you can bring a packed lunch and then stop off where you like and take it slow as it will be a long day!