We stumbled down the outdoor staircase and passed reception where a man stood, a bit dazed in the early morning hours. The clock face on my watch flashed 5:00 a.m. We were directed to one of several waiting carts hooked to the back of a moped, called tuk-tuks, where a local wrapped in a light jean jacket greeted us. I crawled onto the tattered leather seats behind my lone companion on this escapade, a friend and fellow student, Mitali.
It was mid-March in Cambodia and when the sun was at its highest, it seared through any resemblance of comfort. Thus we joined several tuk-tuks rattling through the dirt roads of Siem Reap in the almost cool morning air hoping to escape the inevitable afternoon swelter. Several upscale resorts whirred past us, a bit out of place in this desert landscape, as we made our way towards today’s adventure — Angkor Archeological Park, or perhaps better known as Angkor Wat.
Joining the Masses
The UNESCO World Heritage site stretches 400 square kilometers and boasts remains from the Khmer Empire dating as far back as the 9th century. Angkor Wat is just one of its temples, and arguably its most magnificent. Many people whose ancestors once occupied the site still live in villages scattered across the property, heralding guests with food and souvenirs. It’s riddled with history and religious significance, and on this morning, many tourists like ourselves.
Our driver, who we’ve paid a mere $10 US to drive us between sites for the next eight hours, took us to the ticket center where a rather unalluring photo captured my disdain for mornings. We drove another seven minutes or so before he pulled into a bumpy lot and parked. It was pitch black, and I feared at first he’d taken us nowhere in particular. But he turned and said in plain English to cross the street, take a right and walk straight until we saw the temple.
“Don’t eat the food or drinks they offer you,” he warned. “I’ll take you for breakfast with western food so you don’t get sick.”
Soon I realized there were hoards of people around, humming in the dark as we stumbled over precarious stones and through what I sensed was a very old archway until a looming structure appeared in front of us. Now, we waited.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
More people arrived as the minutes ticked by. Most everyone sat or stood by a small pond to the left of the temple, disrupting the majestic morning with their chatter and calamity. Dawn broke and the sky lightened around 6:30 a.m., but the sun hadn’t quite caught up. Some started exploring Angkor Wat, but we’d been told the sun rising over this temple was among nature’s most beautiful moments here. So we kept waiting.
Finally, about an hour later, the first hint of a blaring orange sun began to sneak over the horizon. Within minutes it traveled up between the pagodas of Angkor Wat and the image I’d seen painted by the locals materialized before me — it was magnificent.
The temple itself is wide, difficult to capture in its entirety in a photo, with four or five pagodas condensed towards its center and a long elevated walkway that beckoned visitors to its doorstep. It’s hard to relate the beauty of such an arresting site without repeating words like “magnificent, grandiose and majestic” one too many times.
Angkor Wat and the scores of temples encompassing the property are filled with something untouchable by words. The structures are built from brick and stone with endless hallways and dilapidated pillars. Some sport steep staircases with metal railings to assist you in your ascent through crumbling floors. Buddhist and Hindu statues and etchings fill the empty spaces.
In Angkor Thom, a temple another ten-minute drive or so further into the property, we got lost trying to find our way out as the ruins began to repeat and our memories failed us. Massive faces carved into pillars greeted us at every turn. It was a place you didn’t quite mind getting lost in.
Mitali and I spent the latter half of the morning wandering by foot between temples condensed at the center of the property. Monks tied yarn bracelets around our wrists while chanting unintelligible words, tourists rode overheated elephants through the dirt paths while our tuk-tuk driver napped in his cart under the shade of a tree. He encouraged us in our exploring as we delved deeper into the property and the sun climbed higher.
Some people buy two-day passes to cover the entirety of Angkor, but time wasn’t a luxury on this trip and we were limited to what they call the “inner loop” of temples. It was quieter the further we drove. Small monkeys appeared along the side of the roads like squirrels at home, and the structures decreased in size and grandeur.
As the sounds of life and people became muted and we eventually found ourselves alone among the ruins, the civilization that existed here 1,000 years ago began to take shape. I love history, and to feel apart of it was something I was entirely unprepared for. But I think even those who find math and science to be more noble pursuits (bleck) would sense the same awe as we did, standing small at the center of ancient stone that simultaneously towers above us and crumbles around our feet.
Nearly eight hours after we arrived in the shadowed complexity of ruins, Mitali and I finally asked the man at the handlebars of our tuk-tuk to drive us back to our hostel. We planned only one day in Siem Reap, and since our arrival the evening before had slept for only two hours in an effort to devour every atom of this place before an overnight bus took us farther south. Sleep is for the weak, but, my advice? Spend as much time in Cambodia as possible. I found it to be an underappreciated slice of southeast Asia that gives Thailand a run for its money.
Hayley is a disoriented senior at UNC Chapel Hill where she occasionally fantasizes about dropping out and becoming a professional wanderer. After spending a semester abroad in Hong Kong, she has a newfound love of Dim Sum and an improved outlook on airplanes. You’ll most likely find her walking dogs or reliving the glory days, a.k.a. pretending she’s still galavanting around Asia.