I am whizzing along the silent, sleepy roads of Siem Reap in the dark. The 4am start is tugging at my eyes and aching in my belly.
I arrive at the entrance to the temples, purchase my pass and stumble blearily towards the lake. I sit on the edge of the water in 5am darkness. People buzz around me, setting up tripods and refusing offers of hot drinks from local storeowners. I am silent. My eyes strain in attempt to make out the dark outline of the temple in front of us, searching for a glimpse of sunrise.
Everything and everyone stills when the first threads of colour start to bleed across the sky, dispelling the dawn. And as the sun rises, Angkor Wat emerges, a filigreed shadow against the rising sun. My world is now entirely stained pink. It’s breath taking.
I’m tagging along with a group of friends I’d met the night before at the hostel, a motley crew composed of a Polish natural light photographer, a Philippino doctor and a hilarious Spaniard. We are chaperoned by our Cambodian tuk tuk driver – Honda. He is 23 and has big ambitions; he teaches himself English as he waits for us.
Once the sun is high in the sky, we begin our exploration of Angkor Wat, the largest temple in this ancient Khmer Empire. Yellow buildings push out through the green jungle; ornate carvings fleet across stone, depicting battles won and lost, forgotten kingdoms. Light spills through columned window and crevices in stone, creating the perfect photography environment. Maciej, the natural light photographer, is in heaven and I find myself on an impromptu photo-shoot, although harem pants and the rising temperature don’t make me feel like a supermodel.
We emerge from the stone enclaves into the heat of the day, monkeys scamper in wake of the temple and a hot air balloon hangs in the sky. I feel an immense sense of calm, of something bigger than me.
The next temple we visit is Angkor Thom, of Tomb Raider fame. It’s clichéd to say, but it’s my favourite. Tree roots grow through the temple, an organic sculpture of gnarled roots and old stones; nature meeting man in perfect harmony.
The heat is setting in deep. Fried rice on the roadside revives us for the next three temples, which are stunning and wrapped in spirituality; windows into ancient worlds. But by 3pm, we’re all exhausted. The guilt at not staying for sunset is eaten away by the baking temperature and the incessant but gorgeous children trying to sell us things.
After bidding a fond farewell to Honda, we arrive back at the hostel and I sleep for 12 hours straight, dreamless, before catching a bus to Thailand in the morning. My travels move on but the memory of Angkor Wat emerging from a sunrise soaked sky won’t ever fade.