From the Road: Alone In Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is the single largest religious complex on Earth and it would take weeks to fully explore its endless ruins. I have been lucky enough to visit Siem Reap, Cambodia, where the temples are located, three times now and have yet to see all it has to offer.
On Thanksgiving Day, 2010, my good friend Ryan and I rolled into Siem Reap stuffed in the back of a chicken bus, smelly and exhausted. We were filming a documentary together and just happened to end up in Cambodia in Thanksgiving day. We set down our bags in a local bed and breakfast and headed to the main drag to get dinner. I’ll never forget that years Thanksgiving dinner consisting of fried beef noodles and a Ovaltine milkshake. The night was made complete by a fish massage and a cold Cambodian beer.
By 4:30am the next morning we were squeaking our way down a pitch black road in the back of a rickety Tuk Tuk destined for the entrance of the main temple complex of Angkor Wat. Still in the pitch black we slung our camera bags and gear over our shoulders and marched into the darkness, down a bumpy stone walkway with water on either side. We knew we were walking down a path thousands had walked, and for thousands of years, heading the the iconic temple entrance, but could barely make out the stone blocks in front of us in the early morning darkness.
As we entered the main gate and felt our way through the entrance, fingers sliding along the cold stone walls, a strange sensation swept over me. I was overtaken by what these stones must have witnessed over the years. The change in landscape, the religious rituals, the attack from Hindu extremists, even the completion of the building itself by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century. The pitch black and the silence only helped to let my mind run wild with imagination of these scenes.
We soon found ourselves through the main gate and wondering down a well trodden path toward a set of twin ponds in the center of the complex. Almost like a set of Russian dolls, each entrance revealed another, smaller, entrance into yet another inner temple. The sky, now a deep blue with hints of light, was starting its transformation as it would soon reveal the light of day. We slowly started to notice the shapes and shadows of others who were joining us to witness the sun rise over this incredible location.
The silence I had enjoyed so much the past hour was slowly filled with murmurs and the darkness was slowly creeping away, revealing the stunning silhouette of the main temple. See the crowds were gathering at one spot, a bank along one of the ponds in hopes of taking the perfect sunrise temple reflection photo, I realized this meant there must be large areas in the temple with no people at all.
Trying to maximize our visual gathering potential, Ryan and I had decided to split up and film separately in hopes of getting the most footage we could. I had by mistake almost, ended up getting one of the best spots in front of the lake for the sunrise, but felt myself being pulled towards the temple entrance, consumed with the hope that the inside would be empty, magical, silent.
Soon I had all my gear on my back, my hands full, walking briskly towards the main doorway. Ducking inside the first rays of sunlight started to peak out from behind the ancient stone walls above me. A light sweat on my brow, I entered the smallest inner temple, which still massive, held a certain sense of calm. Turning left I slowly stepped through the tall grass, my shoes soaked with the early morning dew. I walked to the side of the main structure, gazing up at the many faces of buddha, still unable to release the images of the past in my mind.
Walking throughout the entire temple I never met a soul. I intensely read the carvings on the inner walls, depictions of parties, weddings, ceremonies and conflicts. Each bas relief more intricate than the next, telling the complete story of the Khmer people and their detailed history in this place. The shadows slowly crept along the stone floors and gradually the inner most hallways and window openings were filled with the glow of warm morning light.
Lost in it all I took time to pause, take a seat, catch my breath and bask in the moment I had found myself in. Here I was in the largest temple complex on Earth, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world, as the sun was rising, as it had done every morning for thousands of years. This day was no different than any that came before and no different than any that would come after. I felt like I had won the golden ticket, the lottery, the chance of a lifetime. While the entrance to the gate had been watched intently by hundreds of tourists, none had taken the amazing opportunity handed to them to step inside the temple and experience the morning sun filling the temple as I had been lucky enough to.
The sun, now fully above the stone walls, was warming the cool morning air quickly, and it soon became quite warm. Gathering my things and starting to make my way through the tunnels and walkways to the entrance, a handful of curious tourists were starting to make their way through the main entrance into the temple. From behind a giant stone wall Ryan appeared with a huge grin on his face. We both instantly knew we had experienced the same thing in a way no one else had that morning. For those precious few minutes, we had joined the ancient ruins in welcoming in the new day, watched the darkness transform into light and unveil one of the most impressive accomplishments of mankind. It’s not every morning I wake to watch the sunrise and I feel lucky every day that one of those mornings I was able to do it while alone in Angkor Wat.