I clamber, hand and foot like a monkey, up the uneven and worn stone steps, wondering at the stillness of the night. Can we really be the only people here? Wouldn't everyone want to watch the sunrise from the top altar of a 1,100-year-old mossy temple?
There's a coolish breeze but the stone isn't cold beneath my hands or knees while climbing. I pull off my scarf at the second level of the temple and use it as an impromptu tripod, trying to catch the moonlit shadowy profiles of the temple towers.
The temple is probably 5 stories tall, if you were using a modern building to gauge the height. From this altitude we can see over the trees of the jungle that has consumed Angkor Wat, but we can't make out any other temples' towers from the darkness of the other trees.
Eventually another couple and their guide come, but we stay in peaceable silence with them, watching the eastern horizon, brighten, flame up and then pale to cornflower blue as the throbbing sun rises on my birthday morning.
Since it was my birthday we had a less hectic sightseeing plan than our first day at Angkor Wat. We spent the photographic “golden hour” after the sun rose at tall, weedy Pre Rup, then examined elephant statues and our picnic breakfast of orange juice and chocolate cookies at nearby Eastern Mebon.
Rundown Ta Som was next, and a favorite. This small temple had root-overtaken walls, mossy blocks of worn-down carvings, miniscule frogs jumping by our feet, the cleverest soldier in the army of children selling postcards (we only succumbed twice to their sales pitches), and a tour group of monks showing a Californian brother around.
By 11:30 it was time for lunch, we decided, and treated ourselves to another picnic, at Preah Khan, one of the largest Angkor temples. We'd discovered that the French influence on Cambodia had brought them cheap European wines, reasonable cheeses and nice fluffy bread—so we bought a bag of these goodies and some foie gras for a real feast in the shade, sitting on stone rubble by the eastern gate. After the bottle of red wine, we weren't very good at taking pictures, but I have to say my somewhat fuzzy recollections of Preah Khan make it my favorite temple that day. It's another of the temples that got caught in the middle when the Angkorian empire switched faiths from Hinduism to Buddhism. The result are carvings of the Buddha along with bas reliefs of Hindu celestial dancers, lotus flowers in the doorways and linga (stones worshiped as the god Shiva) stands in the passageways.
We let our driver off early and got ready to go out in the evening—to a different kind of sightseeing. Siem Reap is becoming famous on the backpacker circuit as being a good night out. The most notorious of the bars is called Angkor What? --serving a literal bucket of rum and coke for $5. If you buy two buckets, they give you a free shirt. I got a shirt, Dan got a shirt, our new friends got shirts...that's not counting the free shirts from the margarita pitchers at the Mexican bar either!
After that kind of hilarity, we were ready to lay low for a few days before checking out the oldest temples at Angkor Wat, the Rolous Group.
**Click here to see photos of our second day at Angkor Wat**