Forgive my pictures and words, but it seems that nothing can adequately capture
the ineffable magic of the Angkor Wat temples. You should just book your flight now.
Across the room a sharp sound breaks the silence. I lay there, tolerating the brash repeating tones and debating whether or not to silence the 5am alarm and return to sleep. But I get rise, grab a tuk tuk stalking out the remaining patrons of the bar across the street, and bargain a fare for a day-long tour of the Angkor Wat temples.
Due to recent Chinese investment where Cambodia sold off the rights to its most culturally significant artifacts, to the Khmer people and to the world, the price of visiting the park had doubled starting just a few days before we arrived. Even at 5:30 in the morning, herds of tour buses and other hired tuk tuks were already descending towards the namesake temple that the entire Angkor Wat complex is named after. There are many reasons why we were here so early, including beating the crowds, beating the unrelenting 100 degree heat, and ensuring we had plenty of time to see everything on our list in this massive compound. By far the best reason is to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat.
Right on the banks of a moat dug around Angkor Wat we waited patiently for some magic to happen. Gradually the night faded away into a murky daybreak as the sky continued to brighten. It's like when you're waiting for a concert to start; they prepare the stage, turn on the spotlights, and yet the star hasn't yet emerged from behind the curtain. Suddenly a sun the color of a blood orange peeks our from behind the temple and the scenery is drenched in hot pink. The entire spectacle is reflected in the moat water and you can hardly tell which way is up, which may be also due to lack of sleep and coffee. Make no mistake, there are hundreds of other tourists right behind me snapping pictures and videos but that couldn't possibly ruin this moment. It sets an other-wordly and mystical tone for the rest of the day.
The inside of Angkor Wat was just as spectacular as the outside. We climbed up the steep steps to those iconic towers housing a still-functioning Buddhist temple, although it was originally built as a Hindu temple. Throughout the years, iconography from both religions has lived in harmony and has influenced more modern structures like the Killing Fields memorial to include Hindu and Buddhist symbols to create a distinctly Cambodian style.
The rest of the day was a blur of beautiful, mysterious ruins. There are no information placards and the tuk tuk driver certainly didn't know enough about the temples or enough English to educate us. We were limited to what we could find on the internet but historians know remarkably little about this ancient former capital. I'm stepping on the remnants of a once powerful and developed civilization, of which we have very limited information about the people who lived here, what they did, and the uses for these many structures. Historians believe the civilization fell due to an unfortunate mix of bad politics and inadequate infrastructure, like the dams and irrigation, that was unable to support a ballooning population. This massive city was deserted, gobbled up and silenced by the jungle. Buildings crumbled, whole towns were shrouded in thick foliage, trees grew right through the foundation.
One of my favorite temples is Angkor Thom, distinguishable for the unique faces carved into the many towers making up the complex. I've seen (too) many temples around SE Asia and I've never seen this before- to my knowledge, this temple is one of a kind.
Here are some of my favorite spots from the rest of they day- missing a lot of great photos by Dain and even more sights!