Our motorcycle-pulled wagon, or tuk tuk, raced through the pre-dawn dimness just a tad too fast for comfort.
I wondered what the hurry was—it was 5 a.m and our goal was a 6:15 sunrise, after all.
Then I turned around, and saw behind us a line of headlights. Tuk tuks, motorcycles, buses. So that's who we were racing.
We were on our way to Cambodia's biggest tourist attraction, Angkor Wat. It's a holy place with the ungodly early ritual of watching the sun rise from behind the three pine-cone shaped towers of the biggest temple, the one the whole park takes its name from.
Our driver pulled up in a dusty parking lot where tuk tuks, cars and buses were releasing their sleepy crowds. “I'll be there,” he says, pointing in the opposite direction, a pitch black area.
“Sure,” we say groggily, brushing the dust from our ride off of our faces, and with that join the other tourist-zombies carefully making their way over the ancient, uneven paving stones to the moonlit silhouette of famous Angkor Wat.
The wat is a mammoth edifice, or series of them, with a giant moat around it and a small lotus-strewn pond on the west side, perfect for catching the reflection of the temple and the dawn sky behind it.
We vie with the other tourists for plastic chairs to sit by the pond bank and take photos of the sun: the newest kind of worship at this temple that has been Hindu and Buddhist. Later, we wander through the still-deserted hallways and past the shallow engravings on the sandstone walls, worn away by time and love. We exit on the east side and watch a very money-conscious couple take their own wedding photos with a tripod. The woman is in a full, frothy bridal dress, the bustier of which she hitches up while her groom adjusts the camera. Then, pushing the self-timer button, he kicks off his crocs and runs to pose with her.
Our driver, on a $12 all-day agreement through our guesthouse in Siem Reap, has planned a marathon of temple-seeing for us today, so before too long we are back in the tuk tuk and zooming through the vast Ankgor Wat Historical Park, made up of dozens of temples and ancient, holy sites.
Angkor Wat is the remains of a mostly Hindu (sometimes Buddhist) empire that had trade links with China and cultural links as far south as Indonesia. Today's ruins were started in the 800s with a series of smaller temples known as the Rulous Group and then extended a few kilometers west to the huge, walled royal city of Angkor Thom, just north of Ankgor Wat. In its heyday, the city probably had more than a million residents.
Angkor Thom has the second most famous temple there, Bayon temple. People who watched Angelina Jolie's Tomb Raider movie will know Bayon as the gate of the temple that gets pulled down by the bad guys. Angkor Wat is breathtaking for the sunrise, for the immense proportions of it. Bayon, though, is as astounding as something from a comic book come to life—huge, blue-gray omniscient faces peer down from the four sides of each jutting tower on this temple built to remind the viewer of a Hindu holy mountain.
We climbed to the top story up steep new ladders and sloping, rounded old stairs and tried to catch portraits of the weathered stone faces. What fun to be able to climb a temple! Tactile tourism.
Then, there were the grounds of the ancient Royal Palace to be explored. The palace and the other buildings of this 800-year-old city were wooden and long since disintegrated, but we could stand under the trees and among the rubble of the holy buildings and imagine.
Later in the day we climbed another temple-mountain, Ta Keo and visited another Tomb Raider set—the overgrown Ta Prohm. In this scene, Angelina Jolie looks for a jasmine bush in an abandoned temple to find the secret entrance to the underground temple the dumb bad guys are pulling down Bayon temple to get to. (Our guesthouse kindly lent us the DVD to refresh our memories about this film.) Ta Prohm isn't as tall or large as Angkor Wat, and doesn't have the spooky faces of Bayon, but its moss-covered, lost-in-the-jungle feel is peaceful. Motorcycle-width trees grow out of the sandstone blocks of the temple, their root systems draping over doorways and crushing statues. Looking at the massive trees on top of the walls is a clear reminder of just how old the temples are.
And, since there's nothing like being in an ancient place to make you feel young, we decided to start the next day, my 29th birthday, on top of another temple-mountain.
**Click here to see our photos from the first day of visiting Angkor Wat**