The 4am wakeup call on our first day in Siem Reap was mitigated by the fact that, after spending close to 20 hours in the air over the course of the previous day, I was woefully unadjusted to the time zone. Any worries about inclement weather that day, which the weather app perpetuated with the cloud and lightning bolt icon for the entire week, were assuaged when we actually stepped outside and saw stars twinkling above.
Approaching Angkor Wat's main gate, our guide used his phone as a flashlight so that we wouldn't trip over tree roots or the uneven pavement. Passing the moat that borders the temple grounds, I could just make out the silhouettes of the iconic ridged turrets as the sky began to lighten around them. The gate opened on to a vast grassy expanse, the main temple looming ahead at the end of the paved causeway. The further we went, the more the pink and purple hues framing the temple like a halo intensified. It always surprises me how quickly sunrise comes after first light.
We explored the main temple, admiring the ornate carvings that depicted ancient stories, before climbing the steep stairs that led to the highest level. With all the intricate details, I'm amazed that it only took 37 years to complete.
Exiting through the less used east gate, we continued our temple tour to Ta Prohm, made famous by its appearance in the film Tomb Raider. It was in much worse condition than Angkor Wat; piles of rubble where structures had collapsed were everywhere, but so were restoration crews. Also called the Jungle Temple, in many areas the roots of deciduous 'spung' trees covered walls and structures like giant tentacles. It was peaceful and quiet, even with other tour groups around.
Our last stop was Bayon, known for its myriad smiling Buddha faces. The crowds here were rowdier and pushier, but I still managed to get some nice photos. Unlike Ta Prohm, Bayon had virtually no shade, so we were grateful for the nearby stand selling fresh smoothies.
Particularly at Angkor Wat, young children were everywhere selling souvenirs. Ten postcards for $1! Seven magnets! 8 magnets! The parents force them, our guide said. And so they don't go to school. To buy from them is to encourage the system, and so I hid behind my dark glasses and turned them away, but it's hard.
See more photos on Flickr.