From the moment we arrived in Siem Reap – the gateway to Angkor Wat and the surrounding ruins – we were offered tours, from the tuk tuk driver who collected us off the bus; every tourist information along the side of the road; and the receptionist at our hostel. We found it cheapest to arrange it directly with the tuk tuk driver. He asked for $15 (£11) and an extra $5 (£4) if we wanted to be there for sunrise.
An Early Start
We were up at 4:30am. So early, there was a night-time chill in the air and it was windy as we huddled in the back of the tuk tuk. We passed quite a few people still stumbling home from their drunken night before. The main road, heading north out of Siem Reap, led right into the heart of the ruins. The high-end hotels and resorts made way for fields and forests. Our tuk tuk – along with most of the other traffic at that time – pulled off to the side where we had to buy our tickets. We had our pictures taken and bought single day tickets for $20 (£14) each.
I assumed it would be quieter at sunrise but it’s very popular to gather around the lake to the west and watch the sun rise behind the temple. Our driver dropped us off, explained where he’d be sleeping if we needed him, and we followed the crowd. Using phones and torches to light the way, we crossed a cobbled bridge over a moat and through a stone archway. Ahead of us lay the lake surrounded by hundreds of people and the constant flash of cameras.
We stayed for a little while, watching the sky turn from black to purple to blue. Unfortunately it was a cloudy day so we didn’t get the best view of the sunrise. Instead, we decided to explore Angkor Wat while it was still peaceful. We walked through big, open rooms with hundreds of pillars; narrow hallways with detailed carvings in the walls; a square divided into four pits by a raised walkway; prayer rooms with the eight-armed Vishnu and burning incence; and up and down steps that dipped in the middle and had been worn smooth from use. Some areas were closed off as they hadn’t been restored, so we followed the signs to the east of the building, where the sun shone on the five iconic towers, tinting them red.
We found ourselves walking around the rest of the grounds within the moat, looking for more untouched archticture. Through the woods (and massive, dewy spiderwebs), along a dirt track, we came upon a gatehouse on the remains of the eastern wall. Its columns were collapsing and propped up but it added to the character
Our driver picked us up and drove us to the largest structure in the area, Angkor Thom, an ancient capital. The outer wall wan’t far from Angkor Wat but it was a long drive, over bridges lined by now-headless statues, to the Bayon at the centre. Over 200 faces stared down at us from every angle. Monkeys spotted the walls and skreeched at tourists that got too close.
It was here that someone without any form of ID asked for donations to help a childrens’ hospital. For some reason we were skeptical.
From there we walked to the palace; I wasn’t allowed in wearing shorts but Sam took some great shots of the view. I sat in the grass below and got bitten by a very vicious ant.
We heard chanting, drifting through some giant trees in the distance and stumbled on a large religious ceremony. Maybe a hundred monks sat on the floor facing away from us. Keeping a respectful distance, we listened for a while but understood nothing.
Backing up, we found ourselves on the Terrace of the Elephants. The elephants had eroded leaving their trunks barely visible, as if they were retreating into the stone. However, the men surrounding them had been carved with much more detail, even the looks on their faces were still legible.
Outside the city walls stood Ta Keo, a pyramid with steep, sloping steps as high as our knees. The construction was ongoing so there weren’t many people around. We climbed to the top, and then – much more slowly – back down. On top were more shrines with burning incence, flowers, and strips of orange cloth.
Ta Prohm, made famous for its appearance in Tomb Raider, was our favourite, despite the mass of people. There was queues to get in and no matter where we stood, we were in someone’s photo. Huge white trees dwarfed the temple, growing in and around the rocks. Their roots climbed the walls and had to be supported in places. The reconstruction had been done sparsely, so as not to disturb the trees. Piles of rubble hid around every corner and blocked archways. Even with the map highlighting all the best view points and photo oportunities, we walked around atleast three times getting lost.
Finally, we went to what we think was Banteay Kdei. The walkway leading to it was overgrown, sandy, and lined with traders. A group of disabled musicians sold their CD; a woman sold bright paintings of temples and elephants, and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer; children sold instruments, playing a tune to catch our attention; there were racks of light trousers so girls could cover up before entering the temple. It was the least restored of them all, only the outlines of walls and the feet of statues remaining.
To see such immense structures built in the twelth century, and remaining largely untouched, was amazing. Although it was early, doing so in the morning calm was even better. I’d suggest for anyone staying long enough to get more than a day pass. We only followed our guide and a popular tour, but there was so much more to see.