Footsteps in… Siem Reap… the land of Angkor Wat

Who gets up at the crack of dawn…and by that I mean rising at 4 am on holiday? Well, when one is in the land of the mother of all temples, Angkor Wat, this is the norm. I am not a morning person at all, and M even less so yet we were up and out of the hotel by 4.30 am this morning. Why, one may ask? For the sunrise shot over the majestic temple of course!!!

And to get this shot, one must stake out a prime spot in front of the temple, and being so popular, the only way to do this would be to rise and shine early! You have to get a pass from the main entrance, with your photograph on it which costs US $ 20 per person but it lets you in to all the temples within the circuit for the day.

As you walk the causeway in the dark, aided only by the light of a torch, and you see the silhouette of the majestic temple approaching as you walk closer and closer, adrenaline cannot help but coast through your veins. Mind you though, the temple grounds get crowded in a matter of minutes…with tourists and vendors, selling everything from breakfast to mats to sit on the ground! We had a fleeting moment of having the serenity shattered when, after having arrived and set up our tripod and camera etc, we had to get feisty with a girl who decided to sneak in an hour later than we had been there and perch herself smack in front of our tripod justifying this with a statement “I need the sunrise shot” !!! Errrm, so do we and that’s why we were here at 4.30am???!!!! We were having none of that and thankfully those around us weren’t either, and she had no choice but to move!
Feistiness, early morning rising and all….when sunlight begins to break through those clouds, and the sky turns from pitch black to purple and the ensuing colours of red and pink and the sun rises like a fiery orange ball over the main tower of Angkor Wat – well it makes everything worth it.

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Words cannot describe the feeling or justify the beauty of Angkor Wat or the serenity that one experiences with this break of dawn over this majestic place, but a picture speaks a thousand words….and M and I got our coveted sunrise shot…

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This colour show lasts but a few minutes, and once day had broken we were amazed to see just how packed the temple grounds were! After having absorbed a spectacular sunrise, we decided to head out to get some breakfast and come back to visit Angkor Wat later on. We ate greasy eggs and bread at a local roadside restaurant not far from Angkor Wat – the sign of a good restaurant being it was full of locals and we didn’t go wrong!

Tummies filled up, we headed to the first stop of the day– the temples of the walled city of Angkor Thom, from the South Gate with its restored heads lining both sides of the causeway leading to an imposing gate with the face of Bodhisattva Ava(something) staring down at you….impressive! (And an elephant who chooses to terrorise you…not impressive…)

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First stop..the Bayon. This temple is flanked with staircases and towers decorated with more than 200 smiling (albeit coldly) faces of what I think is King Jayavarman VII (though I may be wrong) and is a marvel unto itself. The upper levels afford the best views of the faces, and having got there relatively early, M and I had the whole temple to ourselves for a good hour or so and we had a tonne of fun clicking away and photographing the various bas reliefs, exploring the temple, watching monks float in and out, and I had a particularly peaceful moment taking pictures of a Buddha I spotted from between staircases.

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When the crowds started drawing in, we walked over to the Baphuon via a humungous statute of Buddha. The Baphuon is known as the “worlds largest jigsaw puzzle” because it was taken apart and then put back together, piece by piece. The only memorable thing about this temple was that as I was wearing a sleeveless top, I had to cover my shoulders with my jumper in the sweltering mid morning heat while puffing and panting on the stairs to the very top, where the view is well worth the climb…well…almost!

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Once back down (we didn’t spend very much time there) we walked around the complex of Angkor Thom towards the Terrace of the Leper King and the Terrace of Elephants, stopping briefly to take a picture of the Phimeanakas Temple and for a well-deserved and refreshing ice cold drink from one of the numerous vendors in the Angkor Thom complex. Having had our fill of the temples at Angkor Thom, we wandered over to the parking lot to find Panha and head out towards Ta Phrom.

A short drive away from the walled city of Angkor Thom is the temple that has been made famous by Lara Croft and Tomb Raider – Ta Phrom. Now, having had the benefit of visiting Beng Melea the day before, forgive me for saying while Ta Phrom is definitely one of the more ethereal ruins at Angkor, and I loved exploring it, I was not blown away by it although this didn’t stop me from taking a picture of the tree made famous by Lara Croft! The shade and coolness provided by the temple, which looks like a manicured version of the jungle engulfed Beng Melea, is welcome amidst the midday heat and we spend another good hour here, hopping over stones and posing by areas of the temple engulfed in tree roots.

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Onwards for a spot of lunch!! More Khmer delicacies at yet another local restaurant that Panha took us to, and then a 45 minute drive to yet another one of my favourite temples Banteay Srei. This temple is nothing short of an art gallery, and when approaching the temple I had a déjà vu….almost like I had been there before!!! The temple is smaller than the ones in Angkor yet has the charm of a thousand Bayons put together. The carvings in the temple are stunning and so intricate. I could spend hours describing them but hopefully the pictures will describe what I cannot seem to put into words:

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We did buy a magnet from the market at Banteay Srei, to adorn the ever growing collection on our fridge at home, before heading to Banteay Samre, for some more hopping around temple corridors and windows, and a cool drink of fresh Cambodian Coconut Water and onwards again, towards Pre Rup for a photograph.

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We finally headed towards the Angkor Balloon, which is a huge yellow helium balloon which offers a really good birds eye view of Angkor Wat. The Balloon is attached to the ground, ascends approximately 200 metres and the “ride” lasts about 15 minutes but we were lucky enough to have a clear day and we got some pretty good shots of Angkor Wat and a bird’s eye view of the vast complex.

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Our final stop after a very long day, was Angkor Wat. Heading back last thing in the evening, at about 5 pm is, on the one hand a good idea because the crowds are just leaving, and there is about an hour to explore the temple in peace before sunset. The down side is you need a day to visit every corner and admire every bas relief and you need your Lonely Planet Guide to Cambodia to understand the meaning behind every bas relief. Anyhow, we did manage to see the bas reliefs depicting the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, making our way to the Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas and onwards and upwards the steep staircase to the Bakan – the upper level of Angkor.

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We met some tourists who mentioned this was their umpteenth visit to Angkor Wat, and I can see why. I would love to go back, and do it all again, having done the whistle stop tour, spend more time in the temples I loved the most, soaking it all in again.

A foot massage was a welcome end to a very busy, but incredibly calm and productive day, before our exciting evening…

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