Friday, April 10, 2015

Persistence. Perfection. Poor Planning.

Angkor. The magnificent remains of the Khmer Empire (often referred to by the name of its most famous temple, Angkor Wat). The filming location of Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider movies. One of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. The largest religious monument in the world, stretching over some 150 square miles in the Cambodian jungle. And at the top of my bucket list for the past several years.

Our ticket allowed entry on any three days within one week. On our first of these visits, we checked off the item on every tourist’s itinerary: Watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Our tuk tuk driver picked us up from our guesthouse at 4:45am. We’d chosen him days earlier because we liked his smile, his festive tunes, and the bounty of LED lanterns swaying ferociously from his tiny roof with every bump in the road.

We sped down the dark roads under the blanket of night, air already thick with humidity of the day to come. Music blaring, passing other tuk tuks, hearts racing as the time was finally upon us. We arrived amidst a sea of others and raced across the long moat into the temple, our path illuminated only by the dancing beams of flashlights, unable to catch a glimpse of the imposing outer walls we were about to penetrate. Once through the main gate, the whisper of dawn began to reveal the outline of a magnificent temple within, and we took our seats amongst the crowd to witness what we’d come all this way for.

Now, it’s tough to be present and in the long-awaited moment when hundreds of people are competing with you for the perfect shot. But we got a few nonetheless, and when the sun's rays finally ascended above the temple, we took a seat nearby to eat the breakfast picnic we’d packed the night before. Sunrise over Agkor Wat: Check.

We’d paid our driver just $20 for a full day tour, so we proceeded to be whisked around the complex, stopping at various sites of interest along the way. It was packed. And hot. An inferno unlike anything we’ve felt in most places in the world. Record high temperatures, we later learned. Each time we returned to the tuk tuk from exploring yet another temple, Mr. Saan offered us a fresh bottle of water and cool cloth to wipe our sweat. The piles of old stones began to blur into one another, a haze of history under an unrelenting sun. But we were determined to see all that we came for, heat stroke be dammed.

By noon, we had completed our circuit. The hotel's not-quite-cool-enough pool offered a reward for our persistence.

On the second visit, we took a different approach. Go to where the least amount of people will be, and avoid the sun altogether. Another 4:45am pick-up, but this time we ventured deeper into the jungle to Bayon Temple. With every surface covered in giant serene faces, it was a magical and eerie place to watch night turn to day. We were literally the only two people out there, secluded and enveloped by the sounds and smells of the surrounding jungle.

Once the sky was lit to a soft powder blue, we sped off to my favorite of Angkor’s temples, Ta Prohm. One of the few in the complex where nature has been left uninterrupted to take it’s course, the crumbling walls have been consumed in places by ancient tree roots. A beautiful reminder of the power of mother earth, and a rugged place where you can actually feel the years that have passed since the fall of the Khmer empire. We had seen this site on our first day's visit, but being one of just a few people there - while everyone else was miles away at Angkor Wat - was a truly magical experience.

We returned home for a mid-day swim and snooze, following by another swim and lunch. We finally had this Angkor thing figured out! That evening, we returned to watch the sun set at Angkor Wat, catching it in a different light and from the reverse view of our first visit. Day 2, absolute perfection.

The very last day that our passes were valid, we skipped the sunrise and opted for a sleep in, another swim, and some $1.50 margaritas at our favorite Mexican joint in town instead. Just two more items lingered on our wish list: Exploring a temple I was denied access to prior (for wearing a tank top), and watching the sun set from high atop the hill of Phnom Bakheng temple.

As the afternoon drifted on over frozen beverages, we realized we may have waited too long to contact our favorite tuk tuk driver. By the time we reached him, the sun hung low in the sky, and we nervously awaited his postponed arrival while debating whether we should go with one of the dozens of other guys parked on the street beside us. But we loved our driver! And wanted to stay loyal to him! I guess we better order another.

Our guy finally arrived and we rushed to Phnom Bakheng, with just a half hour to spare before we had to make our way tot the famous sunset spot. We parked and sprinted to the gates in my long sleeved shirt, but I was denied again, this time for wearing shorts. WHAT?! The sign didn’t say anything about shorts! Upon further investigation, it turned out that shorts were okay, they just had to be longer than my shorts. Between you and me, I think this is a ploy for the nearby vendors to sell their wares, but that’s neither here nor there. I sulked back to the tuk tuk where Reece, never missing a chivalrous opportunity, offered to trade shorts with me. This way I could at least run up and get the photo I wanted before our time here came to a close. 

We struggled (and failed) to find a private place, so we covered up as best we could with a towel and dropped our pants. All the while considering whether showing a bare ass in front of the temple was any less offensive than wearing shorts inside it. In my rush, I fell and sliced up my knee on thousand-year-old rubble. The pleasant margarita buzz had evolved into a hot and hazy sleepiness. So far, things were not going as planned.

I finally limped across the pavilion, inside the main gates, and up the stairs to the viewpoint I sought. Oh, so many stairs. Oh, so hot. For a moment, I actually felt like I might pass out. No shade in which to seek relief. No supportive husband by my side. No stop to the pounding in my head. It was a miserable rush but I got the shot. You can see the overwhelming excitement on my face.

Now it was time for the grand finale. A short hike to the top of a hill where we could sit upon ancient ruins and watch the sun dip into the distant horizon, across Cambodia’s lush landscape, while contemplating life and counting our many blessings... And being pushed and shoved by a swarm of other tourists trying to capture the same moment of peace. We had to wait in a line to even get up the stairs to see the view, where we stood around idley searching for a place to rest our sore bums.

Did I mention Reece was still wearing my shorts??

Ultimately, it was so crowded that it wasn’t even worth waiting around for the sun to go down. We took our time strolling down the hill back to our waiting driver, pausing to appreciate the orange sky for a moment away from the hoards. Our final day may have been poorly planned, but we couldn’t have asked for a more well-rounded Angkor experience.

For more photos of our Angkor Wat experience, click HERE.


  1. You two are amazing!! When I saw that the high temperature in Bangkok yesterday was to be 98°F, and 99°F today, I thought of you two. Having travelled the hot-and-humid worlds myself, I cannot imagine functioning in near-100°F temps with near-100% humidity, but you two did! I hope that you did not end up with any ill effects and that the knee cut is healing nicely. Your photographs are beyond gorgeous! Thank you, Leslie