I’m not a morning person. In fact, before 9 am and a strong coffee, I’m barely a person. But on this day, when the alarm went at 4.15am I leapt out of bed. I’d been looking forward to this day for ages. I was about to see Angkor Wat.
Sunrise over Angkor Wat is big business in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Tuk Tuk drivers hope to score business not just for the morning, but also the rest of the visitor’s stay. Hawkers hang around the viewing site, selling everything from coffee to jewellery. There’s a lot to do in Siem Reap and it’s surrounding area, but the temples are #1 and most people who visit will want to see the sun rise over Angkor.
It was already hot and humid as our tuk tuk sped out towards the temples. We stopped at the ticket booths at the entrance to the archaeological park. We paid for a 3-day pass, had our photo taken, and waited for our identity cards to be issued. The whole process was quick and cost $160 US for 4 of us. Our two youngest kids were free.
Back into our tuk tuk, this time our route was beside the moats of Angkor… the dark was lifting, a fine mist hung over the water and there in the shadows loomed the heart and soul of the Khmer civilisation. It’s a breathtaking sight, and that’s only the outer wall of Angkor. In all my years of travel, I’ve never been so moved by a scene than in that moment.
Angkor Wat means city of temples in Khmer. While the image of Angkor’s main temple is familiar to many of us, Angkor Archaeological Park actually stretches over 400 square kilometres and contains scores of temples, large and small, as well as monuments, canals and reservoirs. Most tourists, like us, buy a three to seven day pass and fit in as many sites as they can during that time, starting with sunrise over Angkor Wat.
We pulled up out the front and our driver pointed to where he would wait for us. We joined a throng of people heading towards the temple’s west entrance, along a sandstone causeway, and to the forecourt pond. It’s a fair hike to the main viewing spot for sunrise.
This is the off-season for tourists, but we were still jostling for good photo spots around the pond with a few hundred other tourists. Apparently there can be thousands in peak season.
The sun rises slowly over Angkor Wat, but when those shafts of light hit the top of the central complex, it’s nothing short of spectacular.
Afterwards, many people head back to their hotels for breakfast. We headed into the temple instead and spent about two hours exploring the temple and gardens. It was amazing, and not overly crowded.
It was hot! So take water. Many tuk tuk drivers have extra if needed.
We figured we’d manage three to four hours of temple hopping tops. We’d researched the route and the heat and this seemed doable with older children. I wanted to see as much as possible but knew that ultimately I’d be guided by the boys and how much they could handle.
It is a testament to the sheer magnitude of these structures, and the excitement of being there, that eight hours passed before the boys decided they’d had enough. In those eight hours, we saw a lot.
From Angkor Wat we headed to Bayon… and what would be the boys’ favourite temple. Another two hours passed at this incredible complex. We explored Baphuon, the elephant terrace, Phimeanakas… and Ta Prohm, made famous in Tomb Raider.
My favourite temples were Ta Keo and Preah Palilay. We were totally alone at both places. It was magical.
In fact, apart from Ta Prohm, most of the temples weren’t that crowded. Ta Prohm is amazing, but was filled with Chinese tourists while we were there, and they clearly didn’t give a damn about anyone else’s experience but their own. They were loud, pushy and obnoxious. Ta Prohm was the only place we experienced this.
Everywhere else was amazing and all four boys had a blast. I was moved to tears on two occasions. Being there, having the opportunity to see this incredible place with my children is something I will always hold dear. It was the perfect day for me.
Eventually heat and exhaustion set in… and we decided it was time to return to the hotel pool.
We saw way more than expected, and loved every minute. As all the boys said… best day ever.
Wear sleeves and modest clothing. It’s not only necessary to enter some of the temples, but protects you from the heat.
Exploring these temples takes a decent level of fitness. Lots of steps in intense heat…
Not suitable for strollers.
Children under age eleven aren’t allowed into Baphuon. I sat with our younger two on rocks under some trees in the surrounding gardens, which was a respite from the heat and climbing.