December 18, 2011
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Rising up at 4:30am wasn’t too difficult when the lure was to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat (Temple City in Khmer), although our sleep-deprived minds failed to generate much excitement for the occasion. Our driver Raksmey didn’t look too animated himself – we hopped on the car anyway and put our blind faith in his ability to drive without enough sleep.
Dark and early as it was, the road to Angkor Wat was full of tuk tuks and cars, each carrying similar-intentioned visitors. At 5:15 we reached the ticketing gate and bought the three-day passes for $30 USD each and we were dropped off at Angkor Wat ten minutes later. Although none of us had a flashlight, not for a moment were we lost as we immediately joined the stream of people who were crossing the ancient city’s moat. Quickly proceeding forward, it dawned upon me that we had entered Angkor Wat despite not being able to identify any of the structure in the dark. A huge crowd had already gathered in front of the pool on the left, so I went to the smaller pool on the other side to set up my tripod.
My mind was starting to process the fact I was standing in front of the world’s largest religious monument. It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple of god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire. As Buddhism gradually became the official religion by the end of the 12th century, Angkor Wat was likewise transformed into a Buddhist temple.
I won’t go all hyperbolic about the sunset – it turned out to be very ordinary, perhaps due to the fact that in December the sun rises up from the very edge of Angkor Wat on the right side. Slightly disappointing was the sunrise, though seeing Angkor Wat in person was definitely a boost in adrenaline and an inspiring start to our long day.
As I wished to photograph Angkor Wat again at sunset, we would come back tomorrow (Raksmey said the central temple would be closed this afternoon) for a proper visit.
Prasat Bayon and Angkor Thom
After a quick breakfast, we followed the Small Circuit route and moved on to Angkor Thom, the last capital city of the Khmer Empire. At its peak, some speculated that Angkor Thom (Large City) supported a population of around one million inhabitants.
There are a huge number of sites in Angkor Thom, such as the five city gates, Baphuon, Phimeanakas and the Terrace of the Elephants. We had visited most of them but none was able to leave much impression, so I will just focus on Prasat Bayon, the richly decorated temple famous for its many giant stone faces.
Prasat Bayon is much smaller than Angkor Wat, which made walking away from the crowd an impossible task. My friends lost track of me while I was waiting for the crowd to clear up to take a wide-angle shot of the temple, so I decided to take a quick walk around the temple and then wait for them at the entrance. I joined the horde to the upper terrace and there they were – the massive stone faces of Lokesvara whose images have been reproduced across the globe. Seeing them in person was an unparalleled experience. This fleeting sense of thrill was there when I went to Machu Picchu eight years ago but was emphatically absent earlier at Angkor Wat.
I reunited with my friends at the entrance. Tour groups were showing up every other minute, causing us to hasten our pace and ended up spending less time at the Bayon than we would otherwise prefer. The breath and depth of Angkor is mind-boggling – I would gladly fly into Siem Reap just for Bayon.
Tour groups tend to cluster at the most popular places. Packed as it was at Prasat Bayon, many lesser known temples such as Thommanon were completely deserted. For a change I could take my time to walk around a temple and look at some of the finer details of the carvings.
The Thommanon is a fine temple complex on its own right, but it is completely overshadowed by its much better known neighbours. For us to experience an intact Khmer temple without a single soul in sight just goes to show the scale of the former Khmer Empire and a main reason why Angkor ranks as one of my most unique travel experiences.
Overgrown trees and outstretched roots. Even from a distance it was clear that we were in the proximity of Ta Prohm, the rare Angkorian temple that has been left in somewhat similar condition as when it was rediscovered.
Quite demeaning it is for a magnificent ruin like Ta Prohm to be linked with a cringeworthy action movie, but that’s precisely what we encountered as many visitors passionately clamoured out the words Tomb Raider and Angelina Jolie.
Perhaps because Ta Prohm is able to project the image of a once abandoned ruin, many visitors, especially a group of Taiwanese tour group, were extremely hyped up. They jumped and shouted and generally acted like Ta Prohm justified their long flight to Cambodia and they had to visibly show their excitement as much as possible.
Ta Prohm is no doubt the most photogenic of all the temples at Angkor, but I find its current state to be a little too manufactured.
Sunset at Phnom Bakheng
Asked where to watch the sunset, our driver recommended Phnom Bakheng, a hilltop Hindu Temple that I thought about skipping because of its immense popularity. But since Raksmey insisted, that’s where we were heading – crowd be damned.
The hike from the parking lot to the hilltop took around 25 minutes. When we arrived at 16:40 there was already a long lineup of people waiting to climb atop the temple. A guide told us that only 250 visitors were allowed in at any one time, yet strangely even after the limit had been reached the ratio of people entering and leaving was about 10:1. Our turn came after a half-hour wait. Disappointingly, tripod was forbidden, so I had to leave mine with Raksmey.
All of the good spots facing west had been taken. My friends found some space to sit down while I squeeze my way to the front among a group of Chinese tourists. Curiously, each of them were shooting with high-end Nikon and Canon models such as the D700 or EOS 5D Mark II when it was as plain as day that none of them had any idea how to make use of these expensive cameras.
Amazing sunsets seem to be a given in this part of the world and I was treated to another spectacle of the fiery star gradually disappearing into the horizon. Though just like yesterday at Tonle Sap, the absence of an interesting foreground meant that Phnom Bakheng is a much better location for sunset watching than photo taking.