I gripped a hot mug of bitter, stewy tea in both hands, the steam warming my face as I shivered in the 5am early morning darkness. What little moonlight was left glinted off the lake which lapped at my toes, and the air was filled with the humming wings of the hundreds of insects hovering over the surface of the water. Across the lake, I could just make out the five pointed towers of the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat, silhouetted duskily against the night sky. People arrived in droves as the dawn approached; sleepy-eyed backpackers with printed scarves wrapped around their shoulders, tourists with tripods, and the ubiquitous Chinese tour groups with their GoPros and Micky Mouse t-shirts; all lining the water’s edge in anticipation of the sunrise.
As we watched, the darkness began to fade and the sky over the temple roof flooded slowly with light, awash with a rose gold glow that seemed befitting to the antiquity and grandeur of the setting. The five cone shaped towers stood clear of the treetops, mirrored in the reflection cast across the surface of the vast lake, broken only by lily pads and the tiny frogs jumping across them. Finally, the sun appeared, a fiery orange ball rising from behind the tallest tower, rays breaking through the low hanging clouds to bring in the day.
We made our way along the walkway to the entrance of Angkor Wat, the huge sandstone slabs glowing warm gold in the morning light. The largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat is part of a 154 square mile Unesco listed archaeological site comprising the remains of the seat of the Khmer empire. Built in the 12th Century and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, Angkor Wat is designed to represent Mount Meru, the mythological home of the Hindu devas, with three stepped galleries rising up to surround the five tower peaks.
Breaking free of the crowd on the front steps, I stepped through the tunnel like entrance into the coolness of the temple interior. A series of doorways connects the many chambers and covered walkways that make up the temple complex; each wall, floor, column and ceiling carved with intricate drawings and daubed in places with coloured paint. Some of the chambers hold shrines and offerings of incense and flowers. Sitting cross legged on a woven floor mat opposite an elderly holy man, I received a prayer blessing and a plaited string bracelet in red, yellow and orange.
Our tuk-tuk driver was waiting, asleep in the shade of an enormous tree; he leapt to his feet as we approached, ready to take us on to further temples. Swaying along the dusty road in the back of the tuk-tuk, we passed young boys wrapped in the burnt orange cloth of Buddhist monks, small children with huge eyes and no shoes cradled by their mothers, the shadows of monkeys swinging through the trees along the edge of the road. I attempted to enlighten Rikki with historical snippets from the Angkor guidebook I was carrying. He attempted to go back to sleep.
We explored two further temples that afternoon. Bayon is beautiful and eerie, with its huge stone faces staring out in every direction from the towering walls, cold eyes vigilant to the surrounding forest and at least three faces watching whichever way we turned.
We ended the day at Ta Prohm, where the curling roots of colossal trees have twisted themselves into the ancient stones, their pale trunks growing up from broken walls and thrusting through moss covered ceilings. The history of this place twines through its structure, as palpable as the gnarled tree roots that have been left to proliferate, as though after so many years the forest has taken back the temple as its own.
The easiest way to visit Angkor is from Siem Reap, which is about 5.5km away. Tuk-tuk drivers are available to hire for the whole day for a fixed price, including transport to and from the site as well as between temples. They will try and take you to their uncle’s/sister-in-law’s/best friend’s mum’s restaurant shack for lunch, but it’s not compulsory – just decline politely and ask to move on to the next stop. You can also make your own way to the site by taxi and hire bicycles to get around.
We set off at 4am from Siem Reap to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat – this is a great way to beat the huge crowds that turn up for late afternoon here and leaves the rest of the day free to explore the other temples.
To gain entry to the site you will need to have your photograph taken on the gate and will be issued with an ID card to present to security. Entrance fees for one day admission are currently $20, with tickets available at $40 for three days and $60 for seven. Several people more qualified than me reckon you need 5 days here to do it full justice; I think that unless you are especially interested in architecture or Khmer history any more than 3 days would seriously test your temple enthusiasm.