Imagine staring at the blackness of the Cambodian sky, waiting for the first beams of sunrise to reveal the silhouette of an ancient empire. Your 4 am exhaustion is all but forgotten and the anticipation grows with every minute approaching sunrise. For a moment, you are simply a witness of the past and as the monks begin their daily pilgrimage from the largest religious monument in the world, you feel like you have been transported back in time to an ancient world – a stark contrast to everything you’ve ever known. You’re once again reminded that you travel for moments exactly like this where you are temporarily lost in time.
I’m confident to say that Angkor Wat may just be one of the most impressive ancient sites I’ve encountered during my globe-trotting. We (my partner Justin and I) reluctantly dragged our jet-lagged selves from the comfort of our king-size bed at Shinta Mani Club in the heart of Siem Reap at the less than impressive time of 3 am to encounter a traveller’s rite of passage: sunrise at majestic Angkor Wat.
Shinta Mani Club organised us a half-day tour with a local driver and tour guide. We were collected from the accommodation at 4 am and navigated through the dark, sparsely populated streets past local Tuk Tuks on the way to an ancient wonder originally founded as a Hindu temple for the Khmer Empire before transforming into a Buddhist temple at the end of the 12th century.
It was October at the time of our visit, the height of the wet season, which meant the promise of a heart-stopping, colourful sunrise was slim to none but we were hopeful nonetheless. We stopped on the way into the ruins to have our photo taken for our day temple pass ($20 USD each).
Instead of following the hordes through the main gate into the ruin, our local guide turned left as soon as we arrived and took a seat on a stone wall in front of the lake. I was skeptical of our location but our guide assured us that we were in for a prime viewing experience. He explained that he often came to the exact spot on his days off to watch the sunrise. It was pitch black at the time and I didn’t know which direction to look in but as the first rays of the sun appeared from the clouds we were moved to our feet, marveling at one of the most spectacular ancient treasures in the world across the lake, imagining the days when the Khmer emperor walked in and out of its grandiose entrance flanked by elephants.
We ate our breakfast picnic packed by the hotel whilst admiring the sheer beauty of the UNESCO world heritage listed site. Unfortunately, we missed out on the full effects of an Angkor sunrise spectacular due to the time of year but we were still hypnotized by the phenomenon occurring before us.
As soon as the sun had settled in the grey sky, thousands of tourists poured out of the ruins. Our guide explained that this time of the morning was the best time to venture inside as once the tourists left after sunrise to have breakfast, you could enjoy the entire site almost to yourself. Tourists flocked back around midday when the humidity was at its most formidable.
We ventured leisurely into the ruins, learning about the history of Angkor Wat. We were almost alone in our viewing of the temple. Sunlight slithered through the heavy rain clouds and cast a beautiful pattern on the lily-pond before us.
After exploring Angkor Wat for 3 hours, we left at 7 am to continue our day of exploration of the other local ruins.For the remainder of the day we temple-hopped between Cambodia’s most spectacular ancient sites including:
Part of the ancient city of Angkor Thom, the Baphuon is a climbing challenge if nothing else! The steps are extremely narrow and left me feeling a sense of intense achievement for facing my fear of heights! The view from the top of the ruins was well worth the climb.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful ruin complexes we saw that day, the Bayon is known for having approximately 200 faces carved into the stone. The temple is condensed and jam-packed with tourists at all times of day but is well-worth a visit for the charming tight passages and the happy smiling faces that have lasted the test of time.
This charming temple has been blessed by time thanks to the many tree branches that have wound their way around the ruins. Used for part of the set in the Tomb Raider movie, Ta Prohm is extremely popular with tourists so it’s a good idea to take your photo opportunities while you can! As you wander through this magical ancient place, you will feel like you’ve stepped into an alternate universe.
Terrace of the Elephants
Part of the walled city of Angkor Thom, the 1000 foot Terrace of the Elephants was used by Angkor’s king Jayavarman V11 as a platform to view his victorious returning army. Don’t hesitate to marvel at the intricately stone-carved elephants that line the terrace.
We completed our Cambodian temple adventure at midday (after 8 hours of exploring) and spent the remainder of the day lounging by the pool at our resort. The heat at noon was intense and we narrowly missed a ferocious thunderstorm. If you are visiting in the wet-season, local guides highly recommend finishing your tour by midday and then re-visiting in the late afternoon if you have time, especially if you want to see an iconic sunset at Ta Prohm.
Exploring the ruins of Cambodia was one of the most exhilarating activities I’ve encountered during my travels. Don’t hesitate to marvel at Cambodia’s ancient temples the next time you find yourself planning a journey to exotic South East Asia.