The most touristy activity possible in Cambodia is going to watch the sun rise behind Angkor Wat. So after a few days in Siem Reap we gave in and booked a tuk tuk to take us there, leaving our hotel at 4:30am.
As we arrived it was still pitch dark and we both instantly regretted not thinking to bring our head torches, but we had our phones so that was good enough. We debated a bit where to stand, I had seen plenty of photos of Angkor Wat at sunrise on the internet and I knew most of them had water in front of it so I wasn’t sure if they were taken from the other side of the moat or if there was more water closer to the Wat.
From the vague outline I could see in the sky that was beginning to lighten ever so slightly I decided we weren’t close enough, after looking on google maps we saw that there were in fact two smaller bodies of water within the outer walls, so we went in search of them.
As we approached we saw that the bodies of water were on either side of the main walkway and judging by the number of lights there, the one on the left hand side looked like it was already pretty crowded (we found out later that is because it is the “northern reflecting pool” while the southern one doesn’t have a name so is probably less popular). So we headed to the other pool, which it turned out only had two people there when we turned up.
We chose some spots to stand, or at least I stood and my husband sat down and tried to set up a time lapse on his phone. We soon found out we weren’t standing close enough to the water for people not to come and stand directly in front of us. I am afraid I was a bit rude to one lady who did just that, but she hadn’t realised, and I did apologise to her later, it was just so early in the morning. Because this incident happened fairly early on, I ended up right on the water’s edge and my husband gave up on sitting and set his phone up right at my feet and then stood back a bit. He took photos of the crowd later on in the morning.
This doesn’t happen often but for this sunrise, I wish I had a tripod with me, then all the pictures I took would line up. Despite my lack of tripod, the crowds surrounding me and the fact that my husband’s time lapse didn’t work, we were still rewarded with the most spectacular sunrise I have seen in my life.
I haven’t used any filters on the photographs (I am not even sure how to do that without Photoshop) it was genuinely that spectacular. I might even go so far as to say it is the most beautiful thing I have seen on this entire trip so far.
When the sun was up and the view started to become slightly less awe-inspiring, we decided it was time to start exploring Angkor Wat. There were guides offering their services on the main walkway into the Wat and we decided that on this occasion we would probably benefit from one.
According to our guide Angkor Wat was built by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century after he achieved the assassination of his uncle and brought stability to an unstable Khmer empire. He built Angkor Wat as a temple to the Hindu god Vishnu, and it is still considered the largest religious monument in the world. It is also the symbol for Cambodia, even appearing on their flag.
The temple is designed according to sunlight and star light. Sunlight first of all as it is designed to be viewed with the sun rising behind it as we saw it that day. There are two times of year during April and September where the sun will appear to rise directly from behind the central tower. Starlight because the view from the bottom of the steps to the center of the temple was designed to be at the same angle as the north star at these same times of the year.
Before we entered the actual temple our guide explained that the two buildings outside of the main complex are called the libraries, but there was in fact no evidence that these were ever used as libraries, they were given that name by the french who found similar buildings in Angkor Thom which was a much more recent building after the nation had converted to buddhism.
As we entered the complex our guide pointed out some dents in the door which he said were bullet scars, showing that even an ancient couldn’t escape the horrors of the civil war, although later he explained that they were unsure if they were from the Khmer Rouge or from the period that the Viet Cong were using Angkor Wat as a hiding spot. I expressed my surprise that the Viet Cong made it that far west and our guide told us that they used it because they knew the Americans wouldn’t bomb a world heritage site.
The first we saw of the inside of Angkor Wat was what is now known as the hall of a thousand buddhas. This is the main area which had been converted to buddhism when the Khmer empire did, we were told that there used to be many buddha statues lining the walls, but unfortunately at some point in history most of the statues had their heads stolen and sold as they would be very valuable.
It is quite sad seeing all of these headless statues, however buddhism is still practiced here today and after giving a donation to one of the monks there I received a good luck bracelet and what I think was a blessing but felt like I was stood under a shower. When I saw other people have this blessing before me it looked like just a sprinkling of water but I got really rather wet.
In this hall as well there were large areas with steps down into them. Our guide told us that these used to be pools, which were used for religious purposes. I can imagine when they were filled they must have been quite beautiful, but drained as they were I found them quite scary and it made me wonder whether someone scared of water would be as scared of them full as I with my fear of heights was with them empty.
We continued on to the outer gallery which apparently was called the third gallery as they were numbered from the centre going outwards. There were some wonderful reliefs to be seen in this gallery, some of which even had some residual colour on them as pointed out by our guide.
The reliefs depicted the rise of King Suryavarman II, with his many armies, horses, elephants and even Thai mercenaries depicted, however the names of the Thai general had been removed during a period when the monument was owned by Thailand.
Our guide took us though what seemed like the quieter parts, which was really nice as I felt like we got a greater appreciation for the galleries we walked though, it was not only the reliefs that were impressive but the long empty stretches with rows of columns which almost made me think of roman architecture.
We passed though the second gallery more quickly as it was basically more of the same but on a higher level and into the courtyard beyond. Here our guide showed us some reliefs where an indian company had been doing restoration, but unfortunately they had used a corrosive substance to clean the stone which had led to a lot of the details in the carving to be lost. We were however assured that Unesco put an end to this practice and now the restoration was being done properly.
Finally our guide showed us the stairway to get up to the first gallery and get close to the central tower, and where to queue before leaving us to wander around or take more pictures. It didn’t cost any extra to go up the stairs and we were told the line would take around 15 minutes, so we decided to go for it. I am glad we went up then as by the time we came down the queue was much longer. There was a limit of 100 people allowed at the top at any one time so it was a one out one in situation and I think we ended up waiting a little less than 15 minutes. Although while we were waiting we spotted a few cheeky characters starting to gather to take advantage of unsuspecting tourists.
There were some fantastic views from the balconies at the top and it was nice to have a closer view of the tower and the amazing sculptures on them.
We got a bird’s eye view of some foolish tourists feeding the monkeys and just when we thought that we were safe from them, we came to the front balcony and there was a monkey right there. He was very close so I was a bit scared that I wouldn’t get a good photo because I didn’t want to go too close, our guide had warned us that these monkeys can be quite violent. But luckily he moved back some distance allowing me to capture the spectacular view with a slightly more unusual foreground.
By the time we descended from the first gallery we decided that since we were over an hour longer on the estimation we had given our tuk tuk driver that we should probably head back to him. When he saw us he told us that he thought we must really like this temple because we were in there for so long and he was right. This experience was up there as one of my favourites of this trip so far.