Everyone who has been to Siem Reap tells you to do the pre-sunrise tour of Angkor Wat. What that means is waking up at 4am, pickup at 4:30am, a short ride to stand in a long line to buy your temple pass, and then a long walk guided only by an iPhone flashlight through sandy paths, over a floating bridge to the two lakes that sit in front of Angkor Wat.
As you make this walk you’re slightly discouraged by the hundreds, no, thousands of people also making this pilgrimage. Will this be peaceful? Am I going to have a thousand foreign heads in my photos? Is this going to be worth it? If you have a guide that is worth his salt, as I did with Huat, he’ll lead you to the lake on the right, which to many people is the lesser of the two lakes (so I’m told). You can only decide for yourself after sunrise because you can’t see a thing before, but I trusted Huat. He led me to a corner of the lake where there were no people in front of me, so I set my feet like any good New Yorker who knows how to stake out space on a subway and prepared for the show.
At about 5:50am the sky starts to lighten ever so slightly and catches your breath. I cried. I didn’t expect to and can’t explain why. Maybe it was because I finally arrived at this magically place after weeks of planning and talking about this trip — it was real. Maybe it was because I didn’t really know what to expect to see and the act of revealing itself slowly really was one of the most moving things I’ve ever witnessed.
Over the course of the next 40 minutes the sun rose, the sky evolved from deep navy, to hints of cotton candy clouds, to a magnificent stripe of gold. And here is why the right lake is better. There are no lily pads, there is no lake scum, there’s absolutely nothing to break the perfectly mirrored image of this magnificent temple that makes this moment of reflection pristine.
After I captured the steady evolution of this magical 40 minutes, I made my way to the left lake to see why it attracted the majority of the crowd (and what a crowd it was), The view wasn’t much different, but the lake was covered in lily pads which made for a poor mirror and a better post-sunrise shot in my opinion. Huat is starting to earn a very good tip.
Of course the only thing worth seeing isn’t just the sunrise. Huat led me throughout the interior of the temple sharing the rich history that dates back to 1113 and pointing out details throughout the laterite and sandstone walls of Angkor Wat. Many of the carvings seen on the wall depict Hindu stories of gods and demons fighting. How many hands it must have taken to carve such intricate detail so many years ago. It’s moments like this when you wish time travel was a real thing and you could witness those hard at work with not much more than their bare hands and a few primitive tools.
Next stop: Ta Prohm, the temple made famous by the movie Tomb Raider, which I now feel compelled to watch, and by the otherworldly photo ops resulting from the Spung trees hugging / hiding / overtaking the Buddhist structure built by King J VII back in 1186. This is what happens when you forget to trim the trees for 900 years. Many of the trees have been cut away in recent years, which has unfortunately led to a pile of stones that were being held together by the trees like glue. Me thinks now is not the time to start doing yard work.
Tired yet? No? Good, because we’ve got 6 more hours to go on this temple tour. But the next is one of my favorite — a hard vote to give given the last two blew me away. Favorite really means nothing here. Angkor Thom, which means “big city”, houses 28 temples inside its walls, the most famous of which is called Bayon, or Smiling Faces Temple. The walled gates on each of the four N/S/E/W sides all have a smiling face tower, each with 4 faces representing love compassion, sympathy and equanimity.
When you enter Angkor Thom you come upon the Terrace of the Elephant and the Terrace of the Leper King, so called because his hand and sword are missing and many thought it’s because he had leprosy. I’m told by Huat that it’s just because they broke off. Unfortunate for that king that no one printed a retraction.
And now for my favorite temple, Bayon, which has 49 towers, each with the four smiling faces on their four sides. This temple as also built by King J VII as the main temple inside Angkor Thom, built in 1191. Hard to come home from a long day at work at not be happy, right?
One last temple, Bah Phuon, which is older than Angkor Wat and also abandoned and destroyed by trees (these trees are starting to sound worse than the Khmer Rouge.) What’s fascinating about it is the French pieced together the entire temple during their occupation, numbering each stone and documenting its numbered reconstruction. And then during the civil war the Khmer Rouge actually did destroy the temple a second time, as well as the architectural documents. Remarkably, the French came back after the civil war and restored it a second time making their best guess as to which stones fit where. The temple reopened in 2011.
Ready for lunch? Me too. There are 294 temples in all of Angkor and 2K is all of Cambodia. I hardly made a dent only visiting six, but after eight hours I think I walked away with a deep understanding of the importance of these temples and a sense of awe that they’re still standing after 900 years and an oppressive civil war that wiped out 25% of the population.
We took a lunch break at what was likely a very tourist spot outside the temple, but I asked for Huat’s recommendation so felt at least I had that on my side. His eyes lit up when I asked and immediately pointed me to the Steamed Amok Fish, essentially a fish stew in coconut milk with Khmer spices, lemongrass and peanuts, beautifully served in a coconut shell. I also couldn’t resist ordering another banana smoothie, because they’re delicious and A DOLLAR!
Changing gears from our marathon temple tour, we spent the afternoon visiting the floating village on Tonle Sap lake. True to Cambodian form, this place is also magical. It’s the largest fresh water lake in SE Asia, but only 2 meters deep and fluctuates between 3K sq KM in the dry season and 12K sq KM in he wet season. This is not because of the amount of rain they receive, but rather because the Mekong river, which is higher than the lake, flows into the lake in the wet season and vice versa in the dry season. There are 80K people who live on the lake in floating houses and make a living fishing the waters. As the water expands and recedes they simply move their house to another part of the lake. Best part about this way of life? If you don’t like your neighbors you can just move.
And that’s a wrap. I could tell you about the 65 year old woman who approached me at the restaurant I had dinner at and asked to eat with me because she too was dining alone. I could tell you that I welcomed her to join me. I could tell you that she was completely off her rocker and spent the entire meal telling me about her divorce, her son who just got married 16 days after meeting someone, and her bout with diarrhea, but why ruin a perfectly good day with these details. It was not the best dinner I’ve ever had, but it left me with a story I will likely tell for ages. Remind me to tell you over a beer.
Instead I prefer to remember Cambodia as a truly remarkable country. One that you all should visit and should have very high on your list. Cambodia is bright and full of color, and while there is hustle, it’s not jarring. The people are warm and welcoming and work hard as hell for very little. And while I joke that everything is a dollar, I’m also aware that the average person only makes $5 / day and that’s a harsh reality.