Given my own background in archaeology (an academic “concentration” but never a declared major plus a membership in the Kansas Anthropological Association and participation in a few digs), you would have thought that just one day would not be enough for me to take in the hundreds of ancient temple ruins within a 60km area just north of Siem Reap.
However, I knew exactly what I wanted to see on this first visit and how I wanted to go about doing that. Before I’d even left Phuket, I had decided that this would be a “recon trip” and that I would return for more extensive visits later. After all, it is fairly close to what has become my home over the past eight years.
What research I’d done prior to leaving Thailand was minimal – I’d read a bit on Wikipedia and Wiki-Travel and watched a few documentaries downloaded via YouTube. I’d pinpointed three “can’t miss on a first visit” temples: the most famous (and world’s largest religious structure) – Angkor Wat itself – along with the beautifully-overgrown (and locational “star” of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) Ta Prohm and the notable “smiling” temple known as The Bayon. Another “must do” was to experience sunrise with the masses at Angkor.
My dutiful tuk-tuk driver Mr. Bohm was waiting for me as I entered the lobby of my guesthouse at the ungodly hour of 4:50 am. I hadn’t slept much the night before, doing some channel surfing (my inexpensive room had more than 100 channels of satellite television – a shock to the senses for somebody who hasn’t lived in a place with TV for several years) before settling on a strange sci-fi movie on HBO. I wish I could remember the name! I was prepared for the day in my “safari” gear – an oversized long-sleeved “cooling shirt” from Land’s End, matching long water-wicking light-weight pants, and a bag slung over my shoulder containing camera, tripod, and plenty of extra batteries. The “boonie” hat I’d purchased in Laos was also in the pack; I only broke it out much later in the day.
Arriving at the entrance to Angkor’s massive causeway, I was very happy I’d made an initial visit the previous afternoon. I was even happier that I had remembered to bring my trusty Maglite keychain as it was pitch dark. I climbed up the steps onto the causeway, fished out my photo-pass for the ever-present blue-shirted pass-checking girl, and proceeded eastward. To conserve battery power, I only switched on the light at spots I knew I’d need a bit of light – I see fairly well in the dark under normal conditions but still managed to stub my toes on the edges of several giant sandstone blocks.
At the far edge of the moat, I climbed the steps and entered the doorway of the west entrance gopura and caught my first Saturday morning glimpse of Angkor’s towers – dark shadows against a slightly less dark sky. Perhaps a dozen people were already gathered along the 260-meter length of this structure (which runs north to south) but my goal was the western shore of the northern pool – the only one still containing water this late in the dry season. If I was going to “do” the Angkor sunrise, I wanted the iconic photos of the temple and it’s reflection in the water. On my next visit, I’ll watch the sunrise from the gopura.
I was very lucky in that my early arrival meant there were very few spectators and I had a good choice of viewing spots. I climbed down the slope right to the shoreline and was able to sit down on a well-worn sandstone block. I was positioned towards the southern end of the pool – in the middle or at the northern end may have given a better angle but they didn’t seem to offer the nice seat I had! I didn’t notice until the sky had lightened a bit more that a large palm tree obscured one of the towers in front of me. By then, it was too crowded to make shifting position worthwhile.
I arrived in almost total darkness. Indeed, my first few photos and initial bit of video show nothing unless you tilt them to discern shapes. I had no idea of what settings to use for the best photographic results so I shot a lot of photos using a variety of pre-sets. Once I’d returned to Phuket and viewed the photos on my large monitor, I deleted a hefty portion of blurred images. But I am very pleased with the relatively minor percentage of usable shots. I love to take pictures but consider myself to be a fairly crap photographer. Thus, I shoot in bulk in the hope that something comes out nice!
As the giant orange ball of the sun began making it’s appearance, every available piece of ground was occupied by others come to experience the magic of the Angkor sunrise. The soundtrack was quite remarkable: despite the large number of people all that could be heard was the hum of insects, the whirr of camera shutters, and the occasional “ooh” and “ah” of amazement. Magical indeed.
By six in the morning, the sunrise “event” was all but over and I made my way back up to the causeway in order to enter Angkor Wat. I knew that the big tour groups would be returning to Siem Reap for breakfast so that I would have the temple virtually all to myself. But it was bloody dark inside – I could barely see as I stumbled through the gallery surrounding the first level of Angkor. So much for trying to take photos of the bas-relief sculptures.
I made my way to the center portion of the temple and saw that the stairs to the second level were still blocked-off. However, half a dozen tourists were climbing the steep steps to one of the towers. I thought they had just climbed snuck under the barricades until I saw that the park rangers were charging them US $20 each for a “special view”. No, thanks. I’ll wait until it’s free. By the time it was, however, the crowds had arrived so that’s something else I’ll have to save for my next visit.
Re-entering the galleries, I soon came across a Buddhist shrine. A man there thrust a handful of lit joss sticks into my upraised palms and proceeded to chant with me; my life in Thailand has made me well aware of the process. Once I’d put my joss sticks into the enclosure on the shrine, the man told me I needed to pay him $10 as a “donation” to the monks. I did, but I wonder if the monks ever received the money – seems like another scam to me.
The main thing that distracted from my visit to Angkor Archaeological Park was the numerous people trying to sell me things upon entering and exiting the various ruins. I believe these vendors are not allowed into the middle of the ruins themselves as I rarely saw them inside, but there were a few on the edges and especially on the approaches. Most were fairly polite when told “no, thanks” but some were rude. One group of boys uttered a profanity when I didn’t want to buy the same batch of postcards I already had. Several literally begged me to purchase yet another copy of Ancient Angkor – a fine book, indeed, but why do I need more than one copy?
A particularly persistent young lady (well, they ALL looked extremely young) tagged along at my heels like a dog for almost twenty minutes as I searched out my tuk-tuk driver pleading me to buy a bolt of Cambodian silk for only $1. The silk was quite beautiful, and dirt-cheap, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to pack it to take home. I did feel rather guilty that I was on such a tight budget as these vendors actually live at Angkor and make very little money for themselves.
Around 6:30, a huge group of Chinese invaded Angkor Wat. I suppose they didn’t want breakfast back in town. Now, if you’ve ever tried to share a tourist attraction with Asian tourist, you will understand that any sense of solitude is completely destroyed. Nor is it easy to shoot photos devoid of people. The South Koreans and Chinese, in my opinion, are the worst in this regard having no awareness of anyone else’s feelings. They clamor all over the ruins, shouting encouragement at each other, and will step right in front of you as you attempt to frame and focus a picture. Or, the entire group of 30 or 40 will walk in front of a very scenic spot in order to pose for a group photo. Only it takes them numerous attempts to arrange the photo to their satisfaction and then they need to do the same with every person’s camera and smart phone. And then individual pictures! If you are waiting for a chance to snap a single photo of the spot, you will be waiting a very long time. I tend to give up quickly and hope that I can double-back later.
While the crowds became worse later in the morning, I became a little flustered trying to avoid the sound of these tourists and so began my trek down the causeway somewhat earlier than I’d planned. It was only a bit after seven when I found my tuk-tuk driver for the journey to the next temple on my itinerary.
But before that, I came across a group of Khmer women donning traditional dress and makeup. It was quite interesting to watch for a short while before the Chinese tourists began clamoring for pictures with the ladies. I assume they were preparing for some sort of New Year’s ceremony. The front “porch” of Angkor Wat had red carpeting laid down and the throne was having further decorations applied. I would have stayed longer, but…
Still, I think the brief time I spent exploring Angkor Wat – at sunset on the 12th and post-sunrise on 13 April – was perfect for my first visit. I didn’t become overwhelmed and left plenty to do in the future. For example, next time I will head straight for the super-steep stairways leading to the second and third levels. The views from the top are said to be spectacular.
I also plan to arrive at the most famous of the bas-reliefs, “The Churning of the Sea of Milk,” at a time when I can examine it’s detailed carvings in complete isolation. There must be a good time when 30 people aren’t standing in front of it and a good time when the light is perfect in order for the photographs to capture the figures. I had great success with bas-relief photography around mid-morning but those were of more remote and lesser-known sculptures.
Finally, on my next trip to Angkor Wat, I would like to take in the aerial view either by clamoring up the slopes of Phnom Bakheng or via the tethered hot air balloon near the airport. The latter is pretty steep at US $20 but is still much better than the helicopter – US $90 for eight minutes aloft.
Anyway, my next article will be about Ta Prohm – a temple which became my personal favorite of the day.
Photo Album – Sunrise At Angkor Wat, 13 April 2013