No visit to Cambodia, and in fact SE Asia, would be complete without a visit to magnificent Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world with 150 square miles containing more than 100 beautifully carved temples and shrines.
Despite a restless night in a humid roof tent with an all-night deafening amphibian chorus (how can frogs be that loud!) we stumbled down the ladder at 4.30am, determined to make the most of our budget-extravagant $40 3-day passes.
Our first dawn stop was the show stopper of the ancient site itself; Angkor Wat. As the sun rises over this centrepiece of the vast Khmer Empire capital, reflected in an orange glow in the surrounding moat, your breath is simply taken away. No matter how many times you’ve glanced the iconic silhouette on postcards and guide books, it’s still a guaranteed jaw-dropper.
Inside, the religious site is still very much active with saffron-clad monks placing smoking incense and offerings at the feet of Buddha statues. Shady, green lawns surround the central temple complex of colonnaded walkways, carved stone towers and steps into grey courtyards surrounded by sculpted Hindu gods, the huge, iconic lotus-bud towers rising above.
Away from the crowds and the manicured lawns, it was the semi-ruined temples that encapsulated the true lost-city feel of Angkor Wat. Preah Khan was the perfect example of a crumbling fusion of Hindu and Buddhist ancient architecture, hidden amongst dense jungle with huge tree roots penetrating the mighty stone walls to a point you weren’t sure which was supporting which. Amongst the dark corridors, sunlight peacefully infiltrating where the ceilings had collapsed, were glimpses of a violent recent history where many Vishnu and Krishna statues had been ‘decapitated’ by Khmer Rouge forces.
For me, the feeling of nature taking back many of the temples across the site is what gives Angkor it’s mystical beauty; roots and vines so intertwined with temple walls it’s difficult to see where one ends and another begins. Man-made history merging seamlessly with present natural structures. Intricately carved patterns on walls are thinly shrouded with beautiful pale-green lichen, this slow-growing, dry algal fungus as delicate as the statues they gracefully envelope.
Our second eye-watering early start was a climb to the less-visited Pre-Rup for sunrise, sat silently among the rock-carved upper terrace as the changing dawn light turned the stone through a myriad of orange and red hues.
The incredible Ta Prohm was another magical example of ancient ruins intertwined with nature, a few Angelina-esque jumps through root-twisted archways as we ventured through the original jungle ‘Tomb Raider’ temple, with lichen-covered relics and giant tree roots both destroying and holding ancient stone structures together.
“If Pre-rup is lego, with its small, tightly packed brickwork then Ta Keo, with its enormous bulkly blockwork is Duplo” Andy, 2016. The early mornings clearly getting to him.
A short distance away from the main Angkor site, we visited Banteay Srei Hindhu Temple, containing some of the finest, most intricate stone carvings on earth. Beautiful, fine carvings in rose-coloured stone grace the walls and archways of this very delicately different small temple.
Early on our third morning, Bee-bee paused underneath the huge stone archway of the Victory Gate entering Angkor Thom, last great capital of the Khmer empire, with Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara staring down commandingly.
We rubbed shoulders with hordes of colourfully-dressed, selfie-obsessed Chinese tourists entering the incredible Bayon temple; 54 stone towers graced with 216 huge carved stone faces of Buddha staring both contemplatively yet domineeringly down on us.
The first level of the temple contains an enormous walkway with carved Bas-reliefs depicting life in 12th Century Cambodia; elephant processions, hunting, fishing, dolphins, turtles, deer, lions and underwater pond scenes. The upper terrace boasts huge, stone towers four-sided with the giant carved faces of Avalokiteśvara amidst a labyrinth of shaded, vaulted walkways.
An afternoon hot, sweaty climb to the top of the Baphuon, in the 12th-century royal Buddhist city of Angkor Thom was rewarded with spectacular views across the temple courtyard and gardens. Bee-bee posed in front of the splendour of the carved wall ‘terrace of the elephants’ and we rounded off our final Angkor adventures with a sunset climb back up to the Bayon. Eeerily devoid of the earlier tourist crowds, a light monsoon shower fell amidst the many stone faces of Buddha making them look serene, like closing their eyes into the sunset and our time here.
The entire, epic site is breath-taking and worth every cent of the budget-denting 3-day pass. I think even Andy considered walking through ancient history to be worthy of 3 consecutive pre-dawn wake-up calls, a must for any travel to the region and one of our finest SE Asian memories.