Angkor Wat at sunrise
By John Lechner
The Angkor Temples near Siem Reap including Angkor Wat
The stark contrast between the country that Cambodia is today compared to what it was a thousand years ago is evident with even the most cursory glance at the Temples of Angkor. There is little doubt when studying the temples how powerful, cultured, wealthy and civilised Ancient Angkor was.
My first glimpse of the temples was as the sun rose in the sky above Angkor Wat. I was expecting the sunrise over Angkor Wat to be almost biblical, it is talked up as one of those 'bucket list' things you must do before you die. Was it beautiful? Yes you can see that above but was it heartbreakingly beautiful? Um no, especially when you share your sunrise in the intimate company of over 500 other people. Without moving my feet or hands i could have touched at least 10 people from my spot and I had a tripod in front of me.
Think I am kidding? This is two pics from my iPhone one each side of me. Angkor Wat is a must visit, sunrise yes do it once but honestly in my opinion there are far more enjoyable experiences and more stunning temples to visit.
Sharing the Angkor Wat with hundreds of my most intimate friends
That said having a tripod gave me an infinitely larger personal space than most, without it I would have been brushing against people on all sides. Don't get me wrong Angkor Wat is mind-blowing, the complex is enormous, it has countless buildings and the reliefs are just stunning even today but I guess I found the crowds a setback to enjoying the temple as much as I could.
By contrast when I went to the Preah Khan one morning after my second crack at the Angkor Wat sunrise. Preah Khan was deserted I had the whole huge complex to myself. That was magical. Preah Khan is similar to Ta Prohm (think Tomb Raider) in that there are many trees growing on and in buildings. Preah Khan was one of my favourite temples and I recommend you get there early in the morning and enjoy it without the crowds, which is a luxury you don't get much of in Siem Reap.
The entrance of Preah Khan
The magic of the temples is much easier to appreciate when you have the time and the peace alone to enjoy it. To explore such a large complex alone without seeing another soul is wonderful and one of the pleasures that are rare unless you use a couple of tricks.
My first advice is find a Tuk Tuk Driver when you first arrive in Siem Reap and stick with them for the duration of the trip. My driver Lean, was excellent, he was happy, knowledgable, patient and spoke excellent English (I can connect you with Lean if you are heading there). Having your own reliable driver makes it easy to plan to be out the door at 4 or 5am to catch some of the magic. While spending sunrise at Angkor Wat isn't terribly intimate, heading up to "The Hill" - Phnom Bakheng for sunrise is a hot tip. It is beautiful and intimate. If there was 30 people there on the day I was for sunrise that would be the max. Whereas at sunset which is what all the guides will tell you there are thousands at The Hill, do the sunrise.
Detail in some fallen stonework at Preah Khan
Thinking laterally is also a tip. If a place is great for sunrise or sunset then go the time of day opposite to what they are telling you. Also, an early start by 6 or 7am if you are not chasing a sunrise is also advisable for two reasons. Firstly it is cooler you can go until 11ish then head back to your hotel, the pool or bar for some rest out of the hot sun. But also especially if you head a little further afield from Angkor Wat, there are far less crowds early in the other temples and you may get lucky enough to miss most of the crowds.
Most days I headed out before sunrise and was back at my hotel by around 11, then headed out after 3:30 again. In between is was a chance to process some photos in the AC, have a nap and a cold shower to cool off.
Much more to tell about the temples but for now this is it, back soon.
Inside Preah Khan