CAMBODIA TALES 1998
Sunrise Over Angkor Wat
Watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat is a virtual pre-requisite of any visit to Siem Reap and the Angkor temple complex nearby and mine was no different. It was my first full day of exploration on this trip and my guide, Soydy, was waiting for me outside the hotel doors early at 4.30am. Navigating my way around the sleeping front desk clerk and his hammock strung across the stairway, I climbed aboard Soydy's moto and we were off. The streets were already alive with people despite the early hour and the darkness, although their shapes were a blur and only highlighted by the beam of our motorbike lights. We drove past the recently refurbished Grand d'Angkor hotel and out along the seven kilometre road to the temples. The cool breeze helped to wake me up as we slowed to a halt at the main ticket booth. Soydy had given me my temple pass when he picked me up and by torchlight, my ticket was inspected, stamped and signed. We carried on, speeding past a procession of locals making their way into the temple complex by bicycle.
At the foot of the steps to the broad causeway of Angkor Wat, Soydy bade me farewell as he remained with his moto. I immediately recognised my error in not bringing a torch as I stumbled along the 250 metre long causeway in complete darkness. Not able to see my own feet, my fingers were crossed that I didn't stray too far and fall into the moat surrounding the temple. Angkor Wat took nearly thirty years to build in the first half of the twelfth century under the kingship of Suryavarman II and is without doubt, an awesome architectural masterpiece and recognised as the largest temple in the world. It covers an area of 500 acres, its moat is 200 metres wide and the perimeter of the enclosure wall surrounding the temple measures a staggering 5.5 kilometres.
It wasn't my first visit to Angkor Wat and I had the benefit of recalling the layout in my head, but without the aid of light, I gingerly negotiated the steps to the western entry tower or gopura of the laterite enclosing wall and through the covered gallery. Since leaving Soydy, I had encountered no-one, although I knew from experience that members of the Cambodian army were doubtless resting in their hammocks close by. Unable even to see my own watch, the darkness was total, as I settled myself on the stairway on the other side of the entry tower. Before me lay the inner courtyard with another 350 metre long paved walkway leading to the central complex, where the sun was due to rise above the five massive towers at around 6am. However, at the time of my arrival, none of this was visible.
My only company was the sound of a few cicadas and geckos. I could hear the flap of bat's wings above my head and the muffled chanting of monks from the nearby pagodas, hidden by trees on both flanks of the temple grounds. In the distance, I could just make out a tiny flickering light as it slowly approached me. At a metre away, I realised it was the cigarette of a temple guard, who breezed past me with his accompanying dog growling softly at my presence. As dawn broke and the light began to improve, my watch informed me it was 5.50am when a trickle of other tourists began to arrive. I'd been sat on my own for at least an hour and my bottom was numb, whilst their arrival coincided with a deafening crescendo of noise from a dawn chorus of cicadas which lasted for quite a few minutes. It was a memorable moment which ended as quickly as it had begun. On the stroke of 6am, the arrivals increased all at once, when a couple of bus-loads of Tawainese and Korean tourists signalled the arrival of the ubiquitous souvenir sellers, who promptly spread their wares out on mats on the walkway and kept up a continuous sales pitch to the newly arrived visitors.
As the sun rose slowly, silhouetting the five towers of the central sanctuary, it bathed the enclosure wall behind me in an intense golden light, highlighting some of the 2,000 intricate stone carvings of apsaras and devatas that decorate the walls and niches of the temple (above). I changed position to photograph the rising sun from different angles but words can never do justice to the whole experience. Seeing really is believing. It was 7am when I decided to rejoin Soydy (left). I retraced my steps of two hours earlier and felt pleased that I'd managed to negotiate a tricky set of steps and thresholds in the dark without falling flat on my face. The food stalls opposite the causeway entrance were in full swing with local trade as Soydy appeared out of the throng. We made our way back to the hotel for an egg and bacon sandwich breakfast in preparation for a trip to Angkor Thom an hour later and back to Angkor Wat for a much closer inspection after lunch that same day.
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