Today we rise, not shine, at 4:25am, which is actually my usual time, so not a problem (for me). Our guide picks us up for watching the sunrise reflect Angkor Wat in the pond on the west side. Much anticipated, we rush in the dark, our path only illuminated by cell phones, over nearly hidden tree stumps and old rocks (tripping disasters waiting to happen) to secure our spot at the front of the pond. We see a pond. That's it. It is dark. It is 5am. Our guide takes a seat well behind us, having seen this a thousand times already, and we stand close to the front of the pond with just one group of Asian women seated between us and the pond. It is 5am. Sunrise is at 6:40…
As the dawn ever so slowly sheds its light on the new day, we take note that we are surrounded by over 500 close new friends. Very close. Personal space means something different in much of Asia, so the Chinese and Korean tourists are quick to worm themselves in the 3 inches we politely leave between our waists and the back of the heads of the ladies seated directly in front of us. Before we know it, our great spot became mediocre due to 5 to 6 people simply pushing themselves forward without caring whose views they obstruct. This goes on for about 20 minutes, and then we get so tired of it (and we realize we've lost any opportunity for a good shot) that we extract ourselves from this photo frenzy.
Our guide surprised, he sort of jokingly suggests we go to the main entrance that opens in 20 minutes. Standing back from the pond, we see the sea of people shooting pictures as if Buddha himself is floating in the middle of the pond. We decide to actually go line up to enter instead. It was the best decision, and not just under the circumstances.
Once inside Angkor Wat, you can access the third level in the main tower of the temple. Groups of 100 people are allowed in at a time. We make it into the front third of that first group, and as a reward for our exceptional foresight, we actually see the sun rise over the horizon from about 300ft above ground level, with few people around us. It is an amazing sight and a privilege to witness the start of a beautiful day from such a special place on earth.
Our guide Sukkong has a knack for finding the next place to visit and to leave before loads of people assail the same place. By the time we walk out of Angkor Wat, it is about 9am and we've seen most of the highlights in relative privacy. Amongst history and architecture, I walk out with a new cool panorama photo trick.
Originally Hindu, Angkor Wat was built in the early part of the 12th century. However, Jayavarman VII converted Cambodia to Buddhism and went on a building spree in the latter half of the 12th century, only for Jayavarman VIII to equally aggressively return to Hinduism and defacing as many Buddhist structures as he could during his reign. Not easy given the volume, but he was a driven man and highly successful. Today almost all temples have gaps in decorations because of the defacing of Buddha images, or otherwise simply because people chiseled out any remaining images to sell. A couple of our pictures highlight this.
One story of the recent history of this temple is that the Indian government (the real Indians, not the native American ones) offered to clean the temple for free. They did so using ammonia to remove the moss. After a few weeks, people noticed that what little was left of the structure and carvings was eaten away as if it were hit with centuries of heavy acid rain. Much of the detailed carvings are faded or simply gone entirely. Key temples like Ankor Wat have been under restoration for many years, and the work is ongoing.
We continue with the Temple 500 by, in short succession, visiting Ta Promh, the small, hidden temple Ta Nei and the wonderful 4 square mile-site of Bayon. A quick mention here on Ta Promh, as it is the temple made famous by the original Jolie-version of Tomb Raider. This temple is, like many others, overgrown by parasite trees. When the large Khmer empire declined and split into smaller pieces, temples were simply left behind. Unkempt for over 400 years, these parasite trees were able to grow freely, and the jungle took over these beautiful sites. Roots growing over and through walls turned these beautiful structures into ruins.
When is the best time to visit Cambodia? During the rainy season. People picture 7 days of uninterrupted rain, but thanks to climate change today's rainy season may see an hour or two of rain most days (not all) of the week. Many temples have basins and are surrounded by moats that were completely dry for us, but filled towards the end of the rainy season. The stone of the temple turns a darker grey and the moss blanket covering that stone comes back to live in bright greens. And tourists stay away… We will probably come back to Cambodia one day, and it will be during the rainy season, which starts around June.
Back to now. 12:30pm. We give. We're done. It is 96 degrees, not a cloud in the sky, little to no shade, and we just wrapped an hour-long walking tour of the Bayon complex. We are officially templed out. Uncle.
We spend the afternoon reading by the pool, have an early dinner and watch, what else, the 1980 version of Tomb Raider. Well, Liz does. I last my usual 20-30min before I just can't keep my eyes open any more and I fall into a deep, deep sleep.
Back to Thailand tomorrow, three days of Chiang Mai.