Angkor Wat sunrise

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.

 a filigreed shadow of temples against the rising sun

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.

Angkor Wat emerging at dawn
Temple reflections at Angkor Wat 

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 Filipino 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.

Ornate carvings fleet across stone at an Angkor Wat temple
Tourists exploring an ancient temple 

Photographic inspiration 

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.

Dress Code at Angkor Wat 

The dress code for Angkor Wat prohibits revealing clothes such as clothes that leave shoulders, knees, and cleavage exposed. Visitors should wear garments that cover their shoulders, and trousers, or below-the-knee skirts when visiting Angkor Wat.

Beside the giant tree roots at the ancient temple
Entwined tree roots, Cambodian temple

Which Cambodian Temple was used as film location for Tomb Raider? 

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 Lara Croft, Tomb Raider route includes a visit to the Bayon Temple within the boundaries of the ancient city of Angkor Thom and a trip through the tree-entwined, similarly aged 12th and 13th century, Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university of Ta Prohm.

Tomb Raider was filmed in 2000 staring Angelina Jolie, Daniel Craig, Jon Voight, Iain Glen, Noah Taylor and Chris Barrie. The film was released onto the cinema screens in 2001. After the film release, Angkor Wat drew a lot of tourist attraction. Starting a boom in local tourism. 

Angkor Wat a brief history 

Originally built in the first half of the 12th century as a Hindu temple, and spread across more than 400 km2 Angkor Wat is said to be the largest religious monument in the world. Dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu who is one of the three principal gods in the Hindu pantheon (Shiva and Brahma are the others).

Did you know that it took 35 years to build Angkor Wat and Around 1,000 elephants in addition to 300,000 human labourers to help build the temple? 

It was built by Emperor Suryavarman II, who ruled the region from 1113 to 1150, as the state temple and political centre of his empire. 

Angkor Archaeological Park contains the spectacular remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptural decorations. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Angkor Wat was added to the World Heritage List on December 14, 1992, at the sixteenth session of the World Heritage Committee. 

Iconic giant tree roots at an Angkor Wat temple 

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.

Looking back at an ancient world, a spiritual place, Angkor Wat

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.

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6 Comments

  1. Avatar of No Roads and No Horizons No Roads and No Horizons says:

    Very cool! I just booked a tour and will be going next week. I’m really excited. It’s the perfect way to start the new year.

  2. Cambodia life is incredible, I was lucky enough to see Angkor Wat on a helicopter tour as well as roaming around myself and it was unbelievable! Definitely a must do if anyone gets the chance to do it.

  3. Avatar of Matt Boyd Matt Boyd says:

    Thanks Ruth for the blog. I’m heading to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam soon. Can’t wait. I often find a driver with “big ambitions” in my travels. They are always entertaining.

  4. Avatar of Spirit tourism Spirit tourism says:

    Will be going there this november ! I have always been mystified by this structure. Damn, can’t wait

  5. Avatar of David and Sandra David and Sandra says:

    Heading off to Cambodia tomorrow. Thanks for the blog. We are looking forward to a week of soaking up Cambodian life.

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