I don’t know what all the fuss is about. Today I got up at 4.30AM, to jump into a tuktuk with my sleepy face at 5AM, race to the Angkor ticket office and through to the Angkor Wat. Arriving at Angkor Wat I found a huge crowd of people doing exactly the same thing. Of course we all wanted the best spot to see the sun rise over the ancient temples. We waited and waited and then it was over. For me it was a very underwhelming experience.
A sunrise at Angkor Wat is probably the must-do thing in Cambodia. It is so hyped and every week there seems to be a gorgeous photo of it on facebook. Because of it, it is super crowded and expectations are high. And because of that, I was very disappointed. The sky didn’t turn all sorts of amazing colors. The reflection in the pond was obscured by flies jumping on the water’s surface. And once the sun was really out, it made Angkor look harsh, the colors fading and making it hard to take a nice photo. Looking behind me though, the smaller buildings in the complex had the softest colors in the early morning light.
It is too bad that Angkor is the only sunrise temple. There is one more temple that opens early enough to catch the sunrise, but I only found out about it the morning I bought my ticket. The other temples don’t open until 7.30AM. Such a shame. I remember Bagan, where you can just pick a temple, climb it, and stare out over the plain. But in Angkor, it has to be Angkor Wat. My first impression of Angkor wasn’t one of wonder and amazement. And quite frankly, the actual Angkor Wat wasn’t nearly as impressive to me as some of the other temples in the Angkor area.
Straight after the sunrise we went into Angkor Wat. Vendors were shouting at us, urging us to buy breakfast, books or souvenirs. First we walked around the big temple, admiring it from a distance. We found a corner with monkeys climbing the over the 900 year-old stones. After this entertainment we made our way towards the East gate, to see the temple from the back, framed by trees, in the soft morning light. Then we made our way inside. There are some impressive bas reliefs on the first level wall. Inside the temple we cued up for about 20 minutes to climb towards the top level. Inside were more beautiful carvings on the walls and pillars and there was a great view towards the entrance of the complex. After several hours around the temple and a blessing for my tuktuk-buddy Jamie, we walked back towards the tuktuk, grabbing a sandwich for on the way.
Our next stop was Bayon, which to me was much more impressive than Angkor Wat itself. Bayon is the biggest temple in the city of Angkor Thom. It is known for its massive stone faces, integrated in the temple’s towers. As you walk up to it, it takes some time to find them. I saw a big building, built with huge stones, that looked slightly unorganized, like it was built without patience. In all these building blocks are huge, smooth faces. It is like a sci-fi movie where faces appear out of ones and zeroes. Once you enter the building turns out to be a maze.
There are so many passage ways, some with low ceilings or uneven floors. According to my guidebook this temple was one where they experimented with the interior design. On all the sides are steps leading up to the higher platform, from where you have a brilliant view of all the faces. The temple may look a bit unorganised, but there was a lot of attention to detail. Almost every stone had carvings, with the surrounding wall being the masterpiece. It depicts normal life in the time the temple was built. Well, if this was ordinary life in the 12th century, it seems like they had a lot of war. Tour guides and their groups are crowded around the restored part of the wall, but if you go around the corner, you’ll find you have it all to yourself. I also found some great views of the temple, through doors in the wall.
Our tuktuk driver decided we would head to Ta Keo and Ta Prohm. It’s probably the most popular itinerary, but here I wish I’d done my research. There is so much more to see in Angkor Thom and we skipped things like the terrace of elephants and the terrace of the leper king. Perhaps they are totally unimpressive, but my guidebooks both mention a fair bit about them. Since I have three days, I can add it on to another one, but it would have probably been more convenient to do it after seeing Bayon. On the way we did see an interesting looking building and asked if the driver could stop. It was Chau Say Tevoda. Exploring it doesn’t take too much time, but it is a wonderful, small, ornate temple. Some of my nicest photos are from here.
Ta Keo, in contrast, is not ornate at all. I don’t know if the carvings here have disappeared, or if the builder was a more modest, sober man. The building certainly is big, but the building blocks are smooth and there is not a lot to see. I climbed up the steep steps, using my hands and feet. I was expecting to get some views in return, but the surrounding jungle is about as high as the temple. You only see green.
Another highlight of the day was the wild side of Angkor at Ta Prohm, better known perhaps as the Tomb Raider temple. This is the temple that was left the way the explorers found it. The others have been cleaned up, some have even been rebuilt stone by stone. A lot of the temple’s buildings are still standing, but huge trees have grown around and through the stones. Sometimes you just cannot understand how the trees are still standing. Massive, thick roots creep over walls and roofs. Around the building are all the big bricks that didn’t survive. After walking around the building, we followed a walkway that led through the ruins. Again it was a maze, with more than one way to follow. I loved the atmosphere here. For the first time I felt like I was really walking into something that was really old. And even though it was old, I saw beautiful carvings of people in the stones.
After all these temples we were quite ready for a change of scenery. It was hot and sticky and we feared a temple overload. Our tuktuk driver said he knew of a place where handicapped people make art and we were keen to check it out. I am always interested in paintings, but when we found out the prices, we had to admit we just couldn’t afford it and went back to our hotels. Angkor is a huge place, with some of the temples about 50km away from Angkor Wat. Today we stayed around Angkor Wat, but still drove a fair bit. Because of the jungle, you have no orientation and no clue where everything is in relation to each other. I try to imagine this ancient city, filled with people and wooden houses, the metropolis of the 13th century. It feels surreal.