Sunrise at Angkor Wat, what an amazing experience! Not exactly a unique one, though, as there must have been about a thousand people there, all poised ready with their cameras and smart phones (see below, after sunrise when some had already left). Part of the reason for the great number of people could have been the fact that the previous two mornings had seen heavy rain and overcast skies. I got up at 4:30 am and was picked up at 5 am, after a hasty shower and a breakfast of soy milk. We would have breakfast later. For my day 1 adventures in Angkor park, see here!
It was an experience driving to Angkor Wat in pitch darkness, with mostly only other tuk tuks out and about, bearing tourists with the same goal. My driver left me at the west entrance, and fortified with a hot chocolate in one hand and a flashlight in the other, I trekked to the view point. We walked through the gatehouse and onto the walkway, and I followed everyone else taking a turn to the left soon after. We were at the edge of the northern reflective pool, it turns out, where the best views of Angkor Wat silhouetted against the sunrise can be seen. Despite how early I was, as it was only about 5:20 am at this point, there were already people in rows four deep in front of me. I took my place behind the shortest people I could find and settled to wait, sipping my hot chocolate. Soon, there were people standing five deep behind me.
Slowly the starry skies started to pale and a faint blush crept in. We were extraordinarily lucky to have clear skies, but the sunrise wasn’t the most colorful I’ve seen. Seeing Angkor Wat’s recognizable silhouette coming to view slowly was definitely worth it though. There were several persistent sellers of scarves and other knick knacks, and I bought a midnight blue silk scarf with a golden silhouette of Angkor Wat to remind me of my morning there, and for use in days when it is too hot to wear my warm pashmina.
As most others, I left the exploration of Angkor Wat for later that day, when lighting conditions would be better. I set off on a “small circuit” of popular temples north east of Angkor. After a quick breakfast at restaurant 20 near the Terrace of the Leper King from my previous day in the park, we set off again. The first visit on my list was Preah Khan, a 900 year old monastery and school which is like Ta Prohm and Bayon in miniature, with some strangler figs growing out of trees and a few faces in the towers. It was fascinating, a jumble of crumbling masonry and still standing buildings, rich carvings and intriguing hallways. It also boasts a unique building in all of the Angkor park, a two-storied building with round pillars that more readily brings to mind Greece or Rome. A side columnade in the main part of the complex was my favorite for the delicate pink dancing girls carved into the columns. And of course the massive tree growing out of the west entrance. This early in the morning it was cool, quiet and had only a few other people touring it. Perfect.
Next up was a short visit to Neak Pean, a temple in the middle of a set of pools, reached only via a long walkway across a square, man made lake which lies between Preah Khan and Ta Som. The reflecting pools were full, so there was no closer inspection of the temple to be done, but it was a peaceful visit. There was a small group of musicians who had been injured by land mines that were playing traditional Cambodian songs under a small band stand along the walkway, and the lake had water lilies, dragonflies and partly submerged trees.
From there it was a short ride to Ta Som, another monastic complex. It also has a gate with a face on it, and inside it is a jumble of buildings, some propped up by huge wood beams from the outside of the walls to keep them from collapsing. Ta Som had laid in a ruin for centuries and was extensively restored only a few years ago. It is a great visit for anyone interested in carvings, as there are lots of excellent ones, in a relatively small temple complex.
We passed by East Mebon with a quick photo opportunity, as it is very similar to Pre Rup, which is in better condition. They are called twin temple mountains, as the layout is very similar. Both have a pyramid like design with three towers on top, which is a great climb. There are original stone stair cases on all four sides, but one side has an additional wooden staircase with railings built over the stone steps, which is safer to climb. There is a great view over the surrounding jungle, some pink flowers bursting through the stone work, and great lion statues guarding the top level.
And then it was time to return to Angkor Wat for a proper tour. Most guides recommend going there for sunrise, and to return back after 2 pm as the light is best in the afternoon when the sun swings to the west. My driver had heard me complain about the number of tourists blocking my shots (I mean, how dare they?!) on my first day in the park and suggested that I should go to Angkor Wat after 11 am, when the big tour groups from the morning had gone and before the afternoon visitors came. It turns out he was absolutely right, and I could see Angkor Wat with as few people as it is possible. Also, he dropped me off at the seldom used east side, which was great, as the light was still coming from the east, so I could view the east side with great light.
My favorite part of Angkor Wat turned out to be the amazing bas relief galleries on the outer walls of the temple complex. These bas reliefs are exquisite in their detail and imagination and run for 600 meters, in two sections of about 70 meters for each of the four sides. Also some of the corners are beautifully carved with exploits of the then-king Suryavarman II. Not only are the bas reliefs amazing, but the corridors are fully shaded from the sun on all sides, making a tour a lovely cool experience on a scorching hot day. I took almost an hour just to view the bas reliefs, taking peaks of the inner temple through the entrances at mid points on each side, and of the surroundings. The view from the galleries toward the west entrance is also stellar.
The inner courtyard is, by comparison, much less decorated. To be honest, I didn’t tour it a lot, it was just too bloody hot. But of course I had to visit the top part of the temple, on the level with the base of the five towers, four in each corner and the big one in the middle.There is only one entrance and exit, a double staircase with metal railings, one side going up, the other coming down. I could just walk right up to the start of the staircase, but I noticed later that in the roped off queue area there were signs showing the amount of waiting time, going up to 45 minutes. Another sign that I had timed my visit very well. Up I went, climbing just ahead of a Buddhist monk in his wonderful orange robes. I wondered if he found my butt in his face offensive in any way, but as there was no way around it, decided it was his problem to keep his eyes averted if he did. He did smile sweetly as we got up, so I gather no harm done.
As Angkor Wat is no longer a working temple, most of the monks I saw were there as tourists, snapping photos and selfies and everything. There was one small shrine in the upper level where there were two very young monks, who I assume where there to worship. Interestingly, Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple but was converted to Buddhism in the 14th Century.
The central tower is decorated by lovely carvings, but parts of the surface have suffered through the centuries. I found a video online that shows a reconstruction of what Angkor Wat might have looked like when it was built (see here). It was likely covered in a white lime wash and the towers and other decorative elements were gilded. It is quite impressive today as well, and considering it is 900 years old, it has held up remarkably well.
Two visits to Angkor Wat completed, one more to go. On my last day I plan to stop by there briefly to see the view from the west at sunset, when the setting sun gilds the towers. Fingers crossed for a nice weather!
There are lots more photos available on Flickr!