It’s dawn at Angkor Wat and the cicadas are singing. I’m standing here with my guide and many hundreds of other people, waiting for the sun to rise above the largest religious complex in the world. It’s the green season — the wet, rice-growing time of year — so almost every day has some rain, which means the crowds gathered at this UNESCO-listed temple are somewhat thinner than usual.
When day breaks above the central lotus-bud towers — representing Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods, and its neighbouring smaller peaks — it becomes clear why Angkor Wat is one of the world’s most visited historical sites (2.5 million people came here in 2017) and a source of fierce national pride in Cambodia. In darkness, I had walked along the rainbow bridge, with seven nagas (multi-headed serpent deities in Hindu and Buddhist mythology) standing sentry, across a moat symbolising the cosmic ocean. Watching the morning light dance across sandstone, the eye beginning to pick out towers and terraces, before seeing them reflected in the vast mirror pool before you is astonishing.
I return for another dawn, this time eschewing the crowds and heading to the back entrance, the east gate, in pursuit of a more peaceful experience. If you have only one chance to visit this ancient capital of the Khmer Empire, head here straight after the sun comes up — almost everyone else will enter via the front — and for a blissful 20 minutes or so you’ll find few people to spoil your view. Then spend a moment in quiet contemplation of this place that was not just a temple, but a living imperial city.
Passing along courtyards and through galleries, I quickly join a queue to climb the vertiginous stairs to the upper level of the principle tower, known as Bakan Sanctuary, which opens at 7.30am. Ascending here to the kingdom of the gods affords views out over the moat, lotus-filled ponds and the vast forest beyond — and allows the imagination to colour in the bustling lives that would have been lived here centuries ago.
As the clock ticks and the crowds dissipate, I remain to explore the bas relief carvings on the walls of galleries. There are more than 2,000 apsaras (female spirits of the clouds). The detail of the headdresses and jewellery adorning these celestial beings is exquisite, leading me to conclude that these must’ve been modelled on real women who lived in the Angkor Empire. I study the great friezes that portray epic stories and warriors heading into battle. The intricacy of the craftsmanship is utterly beguiling.
The Angkor Empire began in the late 8th century and the construction of Angkor Wat, meaning city of temples, was started in the mid-12th century by King Suryavarman II as a Hindu shrine for the god Vishnu. It also served as the capital of the empire. It was transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. Continuously used as a site of worship by Cambodians, Angkor Wat was brought to the attention of the Western world by French naturalist and explorer Henri Mouhot in 1860.
I visit the eight-armed sandstone statue of Vishnu (also known as Ta Reach), the guardian spirit of Angkor Wat revered by Hindus and Buddhists alike. He stands in a hall near the west entrance, dressed in saffron robes and sheltering under a similarly hued parasol. Cambodians can enter Angkor Wat for free, and many come to worship Ta Reach. Pilgrims leave scarves and other offerings for the deity considered the supreme god of all beings.
As I cross the rainbow bridge upon leaving, I turn again to take in this archaeological wonder. Tour buses and tuk-tuks have whisked almost all the visitors away. Modern life has withdrawn for the moment from the imperial city, enabling me to imagine carts and oxen trundling along, and people working and worshipping in what was once a sprawling, urban space.
Angkor Wat is just one site in the vast, UNESCO-protected Angkor Archaeological Park, spreading out across 150sq miles, containing the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. It’s the key temple, but others are incredible, too. I love Bayon at Angkor Thom, where there are more than 200 stone faces smiling.
Angkor is the busiest historical site I’ve ever visited but it was still possible to avoid the crowds, to stop for a moment to take a breath, before having that breath taken away by the glory of it all. It’s a place that takes time to fully appreciate — time worth taking slowly. Then you can hear the cicadas singing.
Top 5 tips
Take your time
Buy a ticket for a few days and visit Angkor Wat a number of times. Go very early in the morning, then return in the afternoon to watch the sunset. Come back another morning and avoid the sunrise crowd by heading to the east entrance at the back.
Visit in the green (wet) season (May-October) when visitor numbers are lower. It rarely rains in the morning, which is the best time for temple visits. The peak months are November to February. Whatever time of year you visit, wear a hat and sunscreen and bring water as many of the sites are exposed.
Plan well and decide what you want from the visit. If it’s that iconic sunrise image, then be aware that hundreds of other people are there angling for the best view, too. Looking for fewer people? Then time your visits so that you can remain behind when the masses go.
You must cover your knees and shoulders. Be respectful to the monks, and ask their permission if you wish to take their photo.
Angkor Archaeological Park contains dozens of temples and ruins. Visit at least one other site than Angkor Wat. Less well-known sites have far fewer visitors and may allow a quieter visit.
Published in the Trips of a Lifetime guide, distributed with the Jul/Aug 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)