Day 4: While I am an early riser, 4 am wakeups are not my forte, especially on a vacation. This after being out till late was even harder, but this was said to be one of the best sunrises to watch, anywhere. Almost everyone had said we need to be there by 5 am, so we were out of the hotel and in a pre-booked tuk-tuk by 4:30 and at Angkor Wat by 5. It was still dark and only a silhouette of the grand temple and its three spires (or ‘shikharas’) was visible. The crowd had already built up and some of the better vantage points taken. The lawns are quite large, so there was still space to get some clicks without people getting in the way. A small temple West of the lake offered higher standing (or sitting) ground.
Hundreds of pairs of eyes waited for the Sun to rise. The moment the first light of day hit one of the many clouds in the sky, magic happened. There were tinges of purple and red in the sky as the temple started glowing in the light. As the day got brighter, the colors change and became more magical until the first ray of yellow light emerged from over the structure of Angkor Wat. This process had taken over 30 minutes and I had probably clicked 40-50 pictures in the time. Every minute was a new type of beautiful sky! Once the Sun emerged from behind the temple, there was a mesmerizing minute when it appeared as a halo to the temple but then the colors disappeared and it was just a grant temple on a hot day. The early morning ritual was worth the effort – it was something not to be missed.
We had a quick breakfast in the nearby market and then got back to enjoying the temple while it was still not as hot and we could walk more comfortably unlike the day before. There was still so much to see with steps to climb, carvings to appreciate, and statues to pray to. The light was also softer in the morning making it easier to click pictures. Before we left for Angkor Thom, we took out time to buy some paintings.
Angkor Thom which translates to ‘Great City’, was the capital of the Khmer empire built by King Jayaraman VII. It is a short tuk-tuk ride from the Angkor Wat and you need a tuk-tuk to even go around inside the Thom. The entry gates are well-carved stone and there are several temples, both small and big, inside that were made by the Khmer rulers who followed a tradition that each king had to build a temple during his reign. The last surviving temple in the complex was completed in 1295. The more recent constructions did not survive the test of time, while the older stone structures held on. There are many temples inside but the one that is most worth a visit is the Bayon.
Bayon lies in the center of Angkor Thom and was built by Jayaraman VII, who also built the city, in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. The temple is characterized by several smiling faces on pillars around the two main peaks which have many levels of pathways to walk on. The structure one of the best surviving examples of the baroque Khmer architecture and even in the current state is spectacular and intriguing at the same time. There are many theories on what those faces represent, but there is no consensus on which one holds more water. However, there is a good consensus on the ‘must visit’ categorization of this masterpiece. Make sure you walk up to the higher levels where you can appreciate the faces up close. There are also many locals dressed up as kings and queens to get pictures clicked with. One drawback is that the passages are not very wide, so they can get crowded as more tourists come to this wonder. When I went, it wasn’t too crowded but I could feel the crowds lot more than in Angkor Wat because of the size of the place. I assume the crowds have gotten worse in the last seven years.
It was getting hot and we were getting hungry as it got close to lunchtime. We headed back to the city for lunch and said goodbye to Angkor Wat. After a hearty lunch, we would have some rest and head to a local market to just hang around and enjoy the other cultural dimensions of the city. There were local spas offering 4, 6, and 8 hand massages for a few dollars. The markets were full of local art and craft at very reasonable prices, though it took quite some bargaining to get the prices right. At times we got things for 25% of what was originally asked! There wasn’t too much to do in the city and maybe we should have headed out to the floating market which is about 45 minutes away, but having woken up so early, we weren’t really up for it. We rested, tried the spas, bought a few things, and then headed to the night market again for dinner before crashing relatively early.
Day 5: We started with a good breakfast and got into a car to take us back to Phnom Penh. The driver spoke a little English as we had negotiated the car from the local market and specifically asked for this. The trip was a lot less eventful than the prior drive in the other direction. We got into the hotel just before dark and this time we had chosen to stay in a different part of the city. We were at the King Grand Boutique Hotel right next to the Botum Pagoda Park. This was a much smaller hotel located a little away from the tourist hotspots. The parks around the place were full of locals and even the eateries were much cheaper and there was no sign of the English language anywhere. The hotel itself was okay, nothing too luxurious but clean enough for the one night.
The highlight of the second swing in Phnom Penh was the local dinner. In one of the parks right next to the hotel a bunch of street vendors served delicious local food on plastic tables and stools. There were many types of meat, some noodles and a few other things we didn’t fully understand but tried anyway. The language spoken was the language of food. We walked around a bit and realized it was the area with government offices and buildings. There were a few pagodas and local landmarks that gave me some opportunities to use the camera.
The last day in Cambodia is a bit of a blur. We hired a car to take us around and the driver took us around to some museum, a market, some historic landmarks, and the palace. I remember that visually none of these compared to what we had seen over the last few days, so there wasn’t much to take away. We had read a lot about the killing fields and realized they are like the “Jaliawala Bagh” in India. There is a great story of brutality and sorrow but nothing to see there, just a story to read. So we skipped the most well-known landmark of Phnom Penh and headed home more than satisfied at having explored one of the greatest heritage sights on the planet.