Holy temples Batman - these beauties were unreal! Basically, the only reason we were in Siem Reap (maybe the only reason this town really exists) was to visit Angkor Wat & the surrounding temples.
In the chilly, pre-dawn air we were being whisked out of the streets of Siem Reap & carried the roughly 6km out to the famous complex. We were amongst the hundreds, if not thousands, of early morning tourists hoping to catch the sunrise light over the most famous of all the temples, Angkor Wat. It was calm & quiet except for the whirl of tuk-tuks, there was an electricity in the air, a building excitement that woke me up enough despite not having my morning cup of coffee. It's difficult to describe the anticipation, the feeling you have when you can sense there is something magnificent just out of reach. You’re driving along a stretch of the surrounding moat, the temple maybe just 150 meters away, so close you can feel its presence watching as you arrive yet its walls are still bathed in darkness.
With great anticipation, we lined up amongst the other tourists & waited for the sun to rise. Instead, what we got may be the world’s most boring time lapse that looks exactly like the snapshot photo below.
Sunrise may not have cooperated with us, but it was still worth the 4:00am wake-up call & battling the tourists.
There's a few moments of peace before the selfie sticks come out & the bus loads of day trippers arrive. A small pro-tip: many people staying closer to the temples will come for sunrise & scurry back to their hotels for breakfast before coming back out. If you hang around immediately after the sun rises you’ll find slightly diminished crowds while you explore. You can (almost) feel more alone.
While it’s fun to romp around & explore like you're Indiana Jones, the temple is first & foremost a spiritual place, full of peaceful energy & a sacred site. In the early light of day, you can soak in all her ancient power. Regardless though no one misses a chance to make a buck & you’ll be greeted by dozens of vendors selling coffee, breakfast & loads of souvenirs. Most have inventive names to ensure you won’t forget about them later. We met a “Spiderman”, “James Bond” & even miss “Lady Gaga”. It’s a good laugh so early in the morning!
Angkor Wat is arguably the most famous of the temples, but by far not the only one worth visiting. For complete temple fanatics you can get a 3-day or week pass to visit them all at your leisure. While we were impressed, we weren’t that committed & decided we were 1-day tour people, squeezing in all the adventure that we could.
Another small piece of advice is to resist the urge to have the tuk-tuks drive you the “normal” route. It's easy to pick & choose which temples you’d want to see or at least do them in a reverse order (counterclockwise) as its helps miss the crowds some.
The picturesque temple gives the allure of a perfect balance between man & nature. The ancient temple has slowly been descended on by the surrounding jungle, whole sections still left in ruins yet now the trees are mostly kept at bay by the conservation work.
We were lucky we got here so early. For nearly an hour we were only a handful of visitors wandering around the maze of dark corridors, climbing over giant tree roots & taking in a quiet morning.
By late morning though, we had run out of ways to avoid the larger crowds. Bayon Temple was the most overrun by far. Which was a bit of a shame because it is truly magnificent.
All the temples are so different from one another, it’s amazing they could be so close, share such common origins & yet each have their own unique personality. The ancient temple faces that look down on you from above feel like a friendly welcome, inviting you to explore & learn their secrets. I wonder how many of the ancient architects envisioned the countless number of selfies that would be taken alongside them…
In all honesty, the terraces were way smaller than we expected from pictures we’d seen before. The marvels of a good angle….
Siem Reap itself has been built up entirely for the service of these temples. Apparently, even when “Lara Croft” was filmed in 2000, there were only 2 hotels to house the crew. Now there must be hundreds of hostels & guesthouses, including large resorts & conference centers.
The famed “Pub Street” has almost any type of food you could want; Mexican, pizza, burgers, etc. There are certainly no shortages of bars with happy hours running for 5+ hours starting from the afternoon to late at night serving $0.50 beers.
Whether you are crazy about temples, interested in only a few, or maybe just want to try some crispy, buggy street food, Siem Reap has exactly what you are looking for. An experience completely unique to Cambodia, it’s nearly impossible to walk amongst these marvels of human ability & not feel moved. It's a small piece of beauty & emotion that you will carry with you long after you leave.