My tour of the temples started bright and early when Dara picked me up from my guesthouse at 5 am. I had planned on wearing shorts and carrying a sarong for when I wanted to enter the temples but Dara advised me that "No, not possible, longer is better", so I changed to my trendy elephant pants. Seeing as it was just me I told Dara that taking his motorbike, rather than tuk-tuk would be fine. Unfortunately, Dara is not yet licensed as a guide for Angkor (although he plans to complete this soon) so he could only drop me at the entrance and give me a few details before entering.
Our early start allowed me to beat some of the larger tour buses into the temple and secure a seat along one of the main ponds. I was joined by hundreds of people of every age, nationality and gender, all waiting for the simplicity of the sun to greet us with a new day. The views were gorgeous, crowds were bearable and tons of pictures were taken. One more note on stupid people though, remember how Dara advised me to change? Well clearly other girls did not have as helpful guides or brains, I saw some train wrecks for outfits, the worst of which being the pair of girls whose ass cheeks were quite literally hanging out of the bottom of their shorts, so much for respect.
I was getting impatient waiting for the sun and figured I could only take so many pictures of the same view so I made my way inside the temple to explore. It's not until your inside that you really start to realize just how big this place is, with the five groups towering overhead and hallways leading in every direction it's somewhat difficult deciding where to start. You can hire a guide to lead you or purchase a book but I chose to rough it and just let my own two feet guide me. I made my way to the north library and caught a spectacular view of the sunrise, one that I shared with only three others, instead of the hundreds I left at the pond outside the gate.
Once inside there is a ton to explore so be ready to take your time as you weave through the different levels of the temple. The bas-reliefs around the first tier of the temple are truly impressive, even if I'm not familiar with all of the historical events and stories they refer to. As you continue on there is a second and finally third tier of the temple that you can explore, all of which offer great views, impressive architecture and of course, the often talked about steep and somewhat dangerous staircases. In total I spent roughly two hours exploring the complex, taking photos and trying to capture the significance of where I was.
Finished with Angkor Wat it was time to move on to some of the other famous temples that the park has to offer. Our second stop was at Angkor Tom with a quick photo op. at the south gate before moving on to the Bayon, another of the more famous and well-known temples in the park. This is another temple with multiple levels and lots to see, but what it's most famous for are the faces that adorn the various towers. I was lucky that there weren't too many tourists when I visited so I was able to enjoy the temple without the annoyance of pushing through crowds. I thought this was going to be my favorite temple but then I realized it was only 9 am and I still had a lot to see before the day was over.
Dara dropped me at the entrance to the Banyon and gave me instructions of how to proceed throughout the rest of Angkor Thom before meeting him at the opposite gate. While walking through the Baphuon, hunger and heat started to hit me, I guess the two apples I threw in my bag that morning weren't quite cutting it. The Baphuon is a hill temple and supposed to represent Mount Meru so there's lots of stairs to climb, long steep stairs. When I reached the highest level a girl approached me asking about the "Tomb Raider" temple and our conversation rolled on from there. Turns out she's from Bangkok and upon finding out that I'll be there in approximately a week, urged me to contact her when I get there. We walked through the rest of Angkor Thom together which included the Terrace of Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King. By this time I was hungry, a little tired and had to use the bathroom so my attention was starting to wan.
Dara took me to one more temple, Ta Keo, but I was completely not into it. Aside from being extremely hungry the sun was scorching so I had no desire to hike up another set of stairs. Also, the temple is being restored so there is tons of construction going on. Instead, I found a nice little patch of shade and camped out there for a few minutes, reflecting on the temples I had seen so far and gathering my thoughts.
Lunch wasn't anything spectacular, a simple fried rice, but it was delicious considering how hungry I was. It was a little odd as I sat there and ate while Dara napped in a nearby hammock, but I guess it may have been equally as awkward if we sat together trying to find conversation. After lunch it was time to move on, this time to Ta Phrom, which was definitely my favorite of the temples I saw that day.
This temple is most famous for the trees that are literally growing straight out of it, but also causing much of the damage to the temple walls. Strong roots forcing themselves down to the ground have caused temple walls to crumble, leaving behind a somewhat mystical scene. Another thing that added to this temple's fame is the appearance it makes in the movie "Tomb Raider" now that girls question makes more sense, doesn't it? Although I'm not familiar with the movie, this temple was awesome, and easily ate up more than an hour of my time. I guess it didn't hurt that most of the crowds went home, or to lunch, in order to escape the mid-day heat, so I got this one mostly to myself.
I wasn't sure how many temples we'd get to throughout the day but when I met Dara at the gate he told me we only had one more, which actually took me a little by surprise, it was only 1:30! The final temple we visited was Banteay Kdei which is pretty similar to Ta Prohm, but not quite as impressive. Again I had this one mostly to myself which I found worth battling the heat, thanks to a few patches of shade it wasn't that bad. One problem with being one of the few visitors is that your also one of the few prey to the many men, women and children trying to sell you things. I met a very determined girl at the entrance who I thought might follow me throughout the entire temple complex earnestly trying to persuade me to buy her postcards or bracelets. Upon exiting the temple it was a short walk across the street for a quick stop at Sras Srang a large pond which provided a good spot for a short rest.
Just when I thought we were finished Dara told me there was one last small temple we could stop at, if I wanted to. I figured as long as we were out, why not? It's not everyday that you're hanging around ancient ruins. The temple, Prasat Kravan, wasn't extremely impressive but there were some really cool carvings of Vishnu on the inside of the center tower, so I'm glad I stopped for one final look.
Ten hours after my early morning departure Dara dropped me off back at my hostel, a little tired, drenched in sun and sweat but appreciative of the great day I had. Was one day enough? In a sense yes, I saw the temples, learned some history and took a million and one pictures (actually I kept it under 200), but there is a reason I would like to return. As I strolled through the temple grounds there was something that intrigued me, possibly more so than the gigantic masterpieces surrounding me, and that was the people. The tour guides, groundskeepers, tuk-tuk and moto drivers, hardworking shopkeepers and even the begging children; I'd love to have some more time to talk to these people and learn more about their lives.
Only recently has this country shown up on the SE Asia tourist route. With a dark, harrowing past it's amazing to see the smiles spread across the locals faces. I've met travelers with mixed impressions, but if you're lucky enough to connect with a few locals I'm confident you'll fall in love.