“It never normally rains at this time of year sir, perhaps you’d like to buy a poncho?”
It wasn’t meant to be like this. I had planned the ultimate Instagram photo and it involved a 3:45am alarm and the sun rising above the main temple at Angkor with me snapping away whilst elbowing the other tourists out of the way. Instead I was getting wet and being elbowed by said tourists. But with the sky getting lighter by the moment I was glad that my camera was tucked away (bar a selfie to prove I was up at that time) and I could just enjoy one of the most spectacular man-made sights on earth slowly come in to view. And what a view.
When planning my sabbatical Angkor Wat was the first place on my list of ‘must see’ attractions and even with my expectations sky high it still surpassed them. I had followed all the advice and booked a tour guide called Sen (photo below), through Beautiful Cambodia, and a tuktuk to take me round for the day. Taking me in to the site through the least touristy way and walking through the temple before dawn was incredible, especially with him making it feel so much more real with the history and stories he was sharing.
It’s difficult to describe the feelings that come as you go from temple to temple; perhaps a cross between being Indiana Jones or Lara Croft and yet a sense of feeling very small in somewhere so big. However, it’s easy to understand why the kings of the time felt like this was the closest place to Gods on earth and, in fact, the very centre of the universe. Not only does the religious importance become more apparent at every turn, with the many references to Hinduism and Buddhism, but the technical advancement of the people that lived there. At it’s height in the 12th Century over 1 million people lived in the capital, Angkor Thom. To give a comparison London had under 50,000 people at the same time.
One of my favourite parts was that as you approach a new temple the walls give the impression of being old and uneven but as you get closer there are often huge, if slightly craggily, faces smiling out at your from the stone. The level of detail that makes up each wall is equally impressive, depicting battles or other major societal events. And the best part is you can really explore the sites, climb up to the top and see what it would have been like to walk around the temples 800 years ago. Hardly any areas are restricted from tourists.
To be honest my proper camera stayed in my bag for the whole of the first day, I was a little overwhelmed by the sheer magnificence of the place and I didn’t feel I could do it justice. A few photos from my mobile but nothing more, it felt better to try and take it in.
If day one was about walking round in a slight state of awe, then day two was about falling in love with what I was seeing as the sun came out and lit up the temples. I booked a tuktuk to drive me round again, making it easy to zip from site to site to see as much as possible. Highlights included the huge walkway over a completely still lake to a temple, how nature has fought back with many trees climbing out of the stone and another magical Southeast Asian sunset.
Angkor is a truly magnificent place and I easily could have spent many more hours and days exploring. If you’re visiting the region don’t even think about skipping it.