The headlight bumped and swung wildly over the thick blackness of my vision outside the minivan. Tree trunks, emancipated branches mimicking demonic claws, and the boards at the side of the road signifying the barrier between tarmac and a cold murky morning swim in the lake flicked erratically as we bumped along the long road leading up to the complex.
“Ok, so now we are going to be getting your tickets, your pass. We will be going to the ticket office in a moment, and then we will be able to go to the temple. Does everyone have their passports”? He shouted, over the rattle of the engine.
“Yes? Good” he replied as he clung to the seat in front of him.
“Ok, let’s go in, and get our passes, just follow me” he said as we pulled into the first are of light since we left the town center. We filed off of the van, adjusting our eyes to the dim light, trying to keep up with our guide and not trip in any of the potholes of the car park.
The ticket office was rammed, and in full swing a few minutes before the stated opening time of 5 am. Row upon row of queuing tourists made up the length of the building. We stood in line at one of the more sedate ends, not having to wait long. Once the unflattering yet compulsory early morning photo had been taken for our passes, we were off again, back to the van, and driving back along the dark winding roads, following the trails of the other super early carpools as they made their way to the belly of the beast.
“Ok, now we are going to the temple. Get your torches out, or your phone for a light, so you can see where you are going. There are no street lights here. No electricity” he said jokingly. Of course, I neglect to have a working smartphone from this decade or a torch, so I clung to my group like glue; it would be just my luck to fall over my own feet - much to the dismay of my outdoorsy, nightman father - as I lose all sense of balance and direction if I don’t have any light.
Soon the ground underneath us began to wobble and ebb, I guess we had reached the bridge. The temple and complex are surrounded by a 190m moat on all four sides, and when you are unbalanced and in darkness, it’s a very long 190m indeed. The muffled talking of hundreds of people moving en-mass in the darkness made me feel as if I was part of some pre-dawn religious procession.
We immediately headed left, following the outer walls until we reached the first gate and my first glimpse of this monolithic structure. Just from walking through one of the outer gates I had the sense of being inside a giant. I was in the dark, I was yet to see the actual remaining 90% of the temple, and this didn’t even include what it would look like in daylight. I had gotten so used to seeing the glossy photos that I had never really thought how big it will actually be in real life. Needless to say, I sat in awe of the gatehouse for the first hour we spent there.
As the light began to emerge, so did the contours of the buildings; a hulking silhouette of the gateway expanded in each direction behind me, on my right, the 350m central path began to come into form, leading all the way to the faint pinnacles of the inner temple.
As the sun rose our guide grew restless, insistent upon proving the claim he had just proudly announced, that he "Would normally do some press-ups after his morning 5k run. But because I am here, today I cannot do my run". Angkor, and the baffled people next to us didn’t dampen his confidence to do a round of press ups on the 12th Century stone steps while we waited for the sun to rise.
Thankfully we were all saved from more workouts, but this proved to be Borey’s warm-up for when he saw the glint of the full, red sun, he had us running past the library and towards the lake for a better view. We looked at one another, laughing and with little choice but to keep up as this small but nimble Cambodian man practically left us to fend for ourselves, forgetting he was a guide for just one moment and being truly excited to be witnessing this.
And for good reason, as it turns out we picked a good day to visit.
“I have been coming to Angkor as an official guide for a long time, and this year I have not seen the sun like this for some trips. It had not been a red sun for some months, so I think we are very lucky to be seeing this” he exhaled breathlessly.
Watching him take in the moment, and with a big smile on his face, “It’s so beautiful to see” he stood, hands on hips, with sincere gratefulness to stopping and taking in the moment. Watching him, I knew he was one of those lucky few who would never tire of seeing this site or take it for granted.
We were soon dashing off again, this time towards the throng of robotic, photo inclined masses, all congregating around the edges of the north lake, eager to get THE SHOT. Everyone thinking they were the next in line for a Nat Geo front cover shot, Apart from those who more than likely were, mingled on the edges of the water, gently pushing their ways to the front for a selfie or photo with a million hands or edges of phones in the frame.
A special little chair come stool had been assembled. Left in a rare clearing, I only figured out what it was when I saw someone step down from it. In my moment of bravery I slowly climbed up the step, grabbed onto the chair back and stood on the seat, in sloth-like slow motion releasing my grip from it to ignore impending wobbly vertigo trying to take a clear photo. I still got someone's hand in it, for all my effort.
Because of the month, the sun’s rising path was directly over the third spire. If we were to come in a month or so, the sun would rise directly over the central spire, and if taken from the long entry path, make for an award-winning front cover, something like this...
A fiery, red ball was making its way towards us, and once our guide decided it was time to move positions, upon leaving our spot, I took a look at where we just were, and couldn’t stifle my laughing shock. I gasped at the sheer cachacphonous mob of people around the lake. A literal sea of pulsing bodies crammed around the contours of the lake, thinning out at the edges and draping themselves over the library steps and nearby trees.
Until you are out of it, and looking away from the object of everyone’s attention, you don’t realise how utterly ridiculous the number of people there are. In front lies an architectural beauty, with wonderment to man's creation. Look behind, and a scene of desperate camera vultures we are. Laughably shameful. But I just had to take a photo of it.
END OF PART 1