Its time for Awesome Angkor Wat. I'm beyond excited. We've parted ways with the Aussie girls I met scrubbing down elephants and i've stayed on travelling to Siem Reap with Rich, the laconic, blonde ad man from London.
Rich and I have time to spare and really don't like the idea of cramming in all of the sites into one hot, touristy day – (1 day pass -$20) so we are opting for the 3 day pass ($40) .
After much deliberation we have a plan – its Sunrise Strategy 101...for beginners...
We want to do our own route and (steel yourself) we've opted to do sunrise at a different temple on each of the three days. That means a sprightly 4.30am start. Luckily the three day pass can be used on any day over a given week so we plan our selves a day off in between to recuperate by the pool. Which (as I am not quite as young as I used to be) allows time for the greying skin and bags under the eyes to retreat as well, and if you are not time starved I highly recommend.
The logic is this: although there will be plenty of people hauling themselves out of bed at that ungodly hour to see Angkor Wat, the main tour buses don't arrive into the site until 9 am. We've been tipped off by the Aussies that if we catch sunrise at the other temples – Ta Prohm (the jungly temple where Tomb Raider was shot) and Bayon, the temple of enigmatically smiling Buddha heads, we may just get them to ourselves.
The site is too large and spread out to do on foot; enthusiastic and very fit cyclists can show themselves around by bike, but otherwise if you are not part of a tour group - hiring a tuk tuk and/or a guide is your best bet. Rich leaves me with the job of sourcing our transport for the next day. As I leave the hotel i'm met by a bank of the fellows – who have a rather strange habit of raising their arm in a salute to command your attention whilst lying supine in the shade of their tuk tuk.
“I wouldn't mind” says Rich later – “but its the fact that most of them can't even be bothered to stand up for the business that gets me!”
The consesus amongst them seems to be $20 and $25 per day (the same quotes as the hotel) and they really don't like the idea of us going “off piste” as it were with our own route.
Slowly they fall away. One driver comes out of the shadow of his tuk tuk and smiles hesitantly.
“I do for $10” he says shyly.
“Really?!!” I say
So we agree $10 a day and for the one where we want to go further out – we agree $20 and the next day Mun (pronounced Moon) meets us bang on 4.30 am. Its wise to take along long sleeves and also something to cover legs, not just because its chilly at this unholy hour but because its required out of respect in some of the smaller temples (and within part of Angkor Wat itself.)
I'm also sporting my new Cambodian Army baseball cap that April persuaded me to buy.
“Good God you are not actually going to wear that are you?” says Rich looking aghast...
“Yes why not?!”
“Well it could go either way couldn't it?...I'm not sure
how much sense of humour they have about their army...
“The Khmer Rouge might see you and kill you!” he adds a tad dramatically.
They don't, you'll be pleased to know. Actually the opposite is true –they laugh and shake my hand -Cambodians that is, not the Khmer Rouge...that would just be scary.
We start our half hour journey to the temples and gradually shapes come out of the darkness. Villagers live within the temple grounds and as we pass little straw huts balanced on building bricks; we see the faces of children lit up by the smoke and glow of early morning fires as they crouch outside with their parents. One small boy is curled up across the thigh of a huge supine water buffalo.
I'm accosted by a little girl and her mum selling “hot coffeeee!” as I stumble out of the tuk tuk which should please other night owls and caffeine freaks but is too early for me to drink anything or be polite. We watch the sun rise over The Royal Bathing Pools with only a scattering of other people for company. The palm trees across the lake create an inky silhouette mirrored back perfectly in the flat undisturbed glass of the water. Gradually the light at the corners of the sky shifts from indigo to turquoise and a warm peach glows lights the horizon. Its a tranquil, magical start to the day.
At 6 o clock Ta Prohm opens so we walk over and through the ornate archway into our first Angkor Temple.
We are the only people here aside from one other French couple. The first rays of early morning light filter through the leaves onto ancient stones grey and mottled with a pale moss, giving an unearthly feel to our first ruin. We stand and admire the entrance – a crazy paving of broken up slabs and archways speared by the bone white trunks of two large trees that leer out of the top of the temple.
Ta Prohm was built in the 12th to 13th century by Jarvarmun V11 as a Buddhist monastery. It looks like the jungle has been trying to reclaim it ever since. Enormous tree trunks thrust their way through the open rooves and branches drape their way around windows. Its an extraordinary monument – nature at its wildest trying to swallow whole the offering man made to her. When the French couple leave we have the place to ourselves and we can explore the place in silence; its awe inspiring and just a little eerie. The pale rays of the sun send slivers of light through archways; touch with gold the curling tendrils of the vines; and light up the giant grey roots that lurch over doorways. My scream shatters the silence. A millipede as long as my hand winds past me and drapes itself over a stone step. The heat of the morning sun brings more tourists with her. So we leave, pleased to have shared our first Angkor temple with nothing but birdsong and the creatures of the jungle.
As we leave Mun greets us where we left him and takes us to a restaurant he knows for breakfast. Usually tuk tuk drivers will have a deal set up with cafes but Mun says he doesn't get free anything and sure enough we watch him pay at the end.
“ I don't know how you did it but I think you managed to find the only honest and cheapest tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap! “ says Rich appreciatively.
Breakfast is thick Cambodian coffee with sweet condensed milk and a delicious Ban Xeo – a frilly edged, freshly fried pancake stuffed with bean sprouts and pork with sweet dipping sauce and aromatic herbs and crushed peanuts for garnish.
Our next main temple is Banteay Srei – this temple is set a way out of the main tour circuit of temples so you will need to pay extra for a visit. In my opinion it is worth it.
Built around 967 its name means Citadel of Women and it is strikingly distinct for its intricately delicate reliefs that are carved out of red standstone. It has an intriguing Pink Panther-esque history as well as its the victim of a theft by the French writer and artist Malreaux who tried to remove and take home two of the bas reliefs. Ironically he was arrested by French colonial authorities who much later in his career made him Minister for Cultural affairs!
On our way back we visit the Landmine Museum. It was created by a boy soldier who fought under the Khmer Rouge and afterwards dedicated his life to removing landmines -using his technical knowledge and his bare hands. The museum is a little ramshackle in its set up but you can see all kinds of ammunitions and landmines that have been used both by Cambodia and the USA. Cambodia has the worst landmine problem with Unexploded ordinance still peppering the rural landscape, and its well worth visiting and supporting this cause.
We finish our first day with a visit to a smaller temple - Thomanen. A woman in straw pointed hat offers me some incense and I say no. You have to pay to make an offering at the Buddha shrines within the temples and I'm feeling hustled but as she shuffles away she removes her hat to reveal a shaved head, she is a Buddhist nun.
Thomamen is a series of curling arches set back amongst pine trees and away from the hustle and dirt of the road and its tuk tuks. It feels special here somehow, the air feels thick with energy.
I go back and find the nun and give her some money for a donation. She smiles a gappy toothless sile and ties a red cotton bracelet around my right wrist. Its a Buddha bracelet -for good luck.
When I meet with Rich he says:
“that place had something really …..magical about it. But maybe its because it was set away from the others...in the trees.”
I nod silently. Its strange we've both thought the same thing.
By midday we are ready to call it a day. Well we have been going 8 hours and the sun has burnt off the early morning coolness; the sky is a pristine navy blue. I like our Sunrise Strategy as it allows us to get in early and avoid the thrust and bustle of the packed tourists who are now scurrying over the remains like ants, and then leave when the heat is at its peak. We head back to the hotel to build up our energy reserves for another 4.30am start to morrow, and the biggy – Angkor Wat itself.