Since my 30 day Thailand visa was about to expire, I decided to do a visa run to a neighboring country to extend it. It just so happens that Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat, is right on the border of Cambodia and Thailand, and only about an 8 hour bus ride from Bangkok. I decided it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. This post chronicles the first day of temple sightseeing including the sunrise over Angkor Wat and Angkor Wat’s grand circuit.
The two most travelled paths of Angkor Wat are commonly referred to as the grand and small circuit. These descriptions relate to the distance needed to cover to complete the circuit. The most famous temples are actually part of the small circuit, while some of the lesser ones comprise the grand circuit. Technically the name of the complex is Angkor Archaeological Park, as but most people commonly refer to it by the name of the most famous temple, Angkor Wat. The complex has over 1,000 temples, and would take days to see them all. 1 day ($20), 3 day ($40), and 7 day ($60) passes are available. I chose to purchase the 3 day pass, as I knew I wanted more than one day to explore, but am not such a history/archaeological buff to examine every single one.
I was lucky enough to meet some friendly Germans at my hostel named Annika, David, and Vanessa. The four of us decided to rent a tuk-tuk for the day together and tour the temples of Angkor Wat’s grand circuit after viewing the sunrise over Angkor Wat. David and Vanessa had toured the major temples of the small circuit the day before, while today would be Annika and myself’s first day in the park.
Sunrise over Angkor Wat
At 4:45 am, our tuk-tuk driver picked us up at the hostel and drove us to the park to enter at the 5:00 am opening time. Annika and I paid for our tickets and got our pictures taken that would prevent anyone else from using our tickets. We then proceeded into the park and headed to Angkor Wat, like everybody else who was entering the park at that time. We had heard that the best place to view the sunrise over Angkor Wat was from the left back corner of the pond that overlooks Angkor Wat, as the temple faces the water at a bit of an angle.
We were able to stake out a decent spot, and settled in for the next hour until the sun would rise. Unfortunately, any of the great tourist attractions of the world rarely come without crowds. There were at least 500 other people spread out over the pond, trying to jockey for the best position.
Soon the sky began to lighten a bit and we were able to make out the silhouettes of the towers. Next the sky turned shades of red, orange, yellow and purple, as the crowd stood transfixed. The sunrise seemed to take longer than many of the sunsets I’ve seen, but I was not complaining. It was then possible to see the mirrored reflection of Angkor Wat in the reflecting pond, a truly stunning sight. I was able to leverage my height and arms to my advantage and snap some shots without any of the other cell phones and cameras.
Probably my favorite part of the sunrise was when the sun itself began to peek over the towers, causing the reflecting pond to mirror the bright shades.
At about 7:30, the sun was fully risen, and we returned to the tuk-tuk to head to our first temple of the day, Preah Khan. We hoped to beat most of the crowds there, as many people choose to head into Angkor Wat after viewing the sunrise. My brother Ryan had been to Angkor Archaeological Park a few years ago, and had gave a few pointers, and this was one of his (and later mine) favorites.
When we arrived at Preah Khan, we had to walk along a pathway that was flanked by trees on either side. This gave it a mystical and “Legends of the Hidden Temple” feel. The temple itself was beautiful, very ornate with shades of pink and green mixed in. Since we had beaten most of the crowds, we were able to get a lot of photos of the temple without anyone else in them and had fun trying out a few different poses. We spent about an hour exploring this beautiful temple and all its nooks and crannies before deciding to move on to the next one.
To get to Neak Pean, we had to disembark from the tuk-tuk and walk across a bridge over some water. Back when the temple was built, boats must have been the only means of transportation to get to there from the mainland. Neak Pean is known to be more of a “hospital” than a temple. It consisted of a large fountain of water a few crumbling sculptures, a bit of a letdown compared to Preah Khan. Nonetheless, we snapped a few pictures before moving on.
Ta Som was segmented into several different parts with space between the ruins. This was when we met the crowds, as well as the hot Cambodian sun, even at only 9:30 am! Ta Som had quite a few figures and faces carved into its walls, making it very interesting to walk through. There was also some tree roots growing over one of the doorways which was really neat.
East Mebon was the first temple that had ascending stairs. It is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and honors the parents of the king. Like many of the temples built at that time, stairs were made to be both narrow and steep compared to what we are used to now. This provided a bit of difficult for some of the elderly people that we came across during our day. Several lion-like and elephant statues dotted the temple grounds. They appeared to act as guardians to the temple.
Pre Rup was the last of the temples we would visit that day. It is believed to have been used for funerals. By this point of the day we had become hot, sweaty, and tired. We spent the shortest amount of time here compared to the other temples we visited that day, and there weren’t too many distinguishing features about it as compared to East Mebon, as they body had three towers laid out in a row.
At about 11:30 am we had completed Angkor Wat’s grand circuit, and were ready to go back to the hostel to recharge. Luckily our hostel had a pool, so the hottest parts of the day were spent cooling down in there. While it was an enjoyable day, it was only a warm up for the following day, as Annika and I had planned to rent bicycles to tour the famous temples of Angkor Wat’s small circuit!