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Why an Angkor Wat sunrise tour is absolutely worth it

“Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat… Tourist cliche, or worth doing?” Brandon from Journey’s Within smiles before he answers. I’ve only just touched down in Siem Reap and arrived at his boutique hotel but I can’t help asking the big questions. Turns out, it’s a bit of both.

As Brandon explains, an Angkor Wat sunrise tour is definitely a hit with tourists, but it’s also absolutely beautiful, and after seeing it, you have the added advantage of being at the temple for the cooler, quieter, start of the day.

I’m surprised to hear a lot of the tour buses load up again after sunrise so that people can go back to their big hotels, eat the buffet breakfast, and come back again. Which to me seems absolutely crazy considering how hot it gets later in the day. But I for one am glad they’re clearing out for a while and giving us solo travellers and smaller groups the run of the place.

“The only thing is, you have to start early,” Brandon explains. “You’d need to leave at 5am.”

While getting out of bed at 4am isn’t high on my To Do list when I’m travelling, for this experience, I’m in. Brandon arranges for a Angkor Wat sunrise tour guide and a driver to be waiting for me well before dawn, and also makes sure I have something to eat and a cuppa waiting at 4.30am to help me on my way. And so it is that I’m to do a tourist cliche that is absolutely worth it.

The next morning as I step out into the night air the world feels peaceful, magical. The stars are shining in a clear sky, and the only sounds are those of crickets singing and a lone rooster in the distance, unsuccessfully trying to wake up the neighbourhood.

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My tour guide, Kham Sina, and driver are smiling and waiting, and at 4.50am we’re on our way. I soon discover Sina has a knack for timing. As we arrive to buy my three day Temple Pass there’s hardly another tourist in sight. By the time I’ve had my digital photo taken and put on my pass, cars and tuk tuks are pulling up all around us. No queues for us, though, thanks to Sina’s fantastic timing, and we’re off.

As we drive towards Angkor Wat’s entrance, Sina points out the moat that goes around the temple, and can be seen shining against the night sky. Beyond that I can see a dark shadow, the temple’s walls. But nothing else. The anticipation builds.

It turns out this is one of the best things about arriving before sunrise. The mystery about what awaits, about where you are going. As we step out of the car, Sina shines a torch so I can see the road, and then each of the steps we need to go up to reach the bridge across the moat. It’s still quiet, only three people walking in front of us, and a handful behind, and it’s easy to get swept up in the moment.

I can see a large shadow looming above me, and then we’re stepping up into it, and then down the other side. What did it look like? I’ve seen pictures of course, but what’s it really like up close? I’ll have to wait until we leave to find out, because now we’re inside the temple grounds, walking down the cruciform terrace under the stars.

As those who have been to Angkor Wat (and those who have dreamed of going) know, there are two ponds on the Western side. We go for the one on the left as Sina explains it has more water, and so it casts a better reflection as the sun rises. Again, timing is with us, and we get to sit on a large stone on the edge of the pond, our legs dangling next to the water, and settle in.

It’s still too dark to see anything, except the stars, a shadow of Angkor Wat’s towers, and the torches of tourists arriving behind us and looking for a place to sit. For the most part, people are respectful and quiet, and there’s a hush around the pond punctuated only by the whirrs and clicks of cameras.

And then the sky starts to change. The stars fade, and the towers – and their reflection in the water – become clearer. Over the course of the next hour or so, we’re transfixed, watching the slight change in the colours in the sky, and taking dozens of photos in an attempt to capture the moment.

Sina explains to me how important the Angkor Wat is to the Cambodian people, and its role as their national symbol with a reverence in his voice that goes beyond patriotism. He tells me how the five towers represent the peaks of Mount Meru, the tallest being home to Vishnu, the god Angkor Wat was created for, and that it’s best to see the towers lined up as a group of three, as seen on the Cambodian flag.

After the cicadas have all burst to life in the trees, drowning out the crickets, and after we’ve savoured one of the very strong, very sweet (after all the condensed milk I added, that is) coffees that are brought around for $1, it’s time to explore the temple.

Exploring Angkor Wat after an Angkor Wat Sunrise Tour

But rather than follow what would have been my plan and going through the front entrance like most of the other tourists, Sina has another ideas. Instead we walk around the outside, see the towers lined up in threes, and avoid the tourist rush.

After seeing three different angles of the three temples lined up, we’re at the far side of the Angkor Wat and it’s finally time to step inside and see everything up close. And yes, it’s been worth the wait.

By using the entrance at the opposite end of the temple it feels like we have it all to ourselves. As we look over the “Churning of the Milk” scene carved into the walls, I light up at the sight of the Aspara, or dancing nymphs. After seeing so many statues and carvings of them in souvenir shops in Siem Reap, it’s wonderful to see them in a temple for the first time. And it certainly won’t be the last. I’m told 1876 of the angelic creatures can be found in the walls of Angkor Wat, and I think I took photos of 900 or so of them.

As Angkor Wat looms large around me, my mind boggles to think how they managed to create it all back between 1113 and 1150. It’s not until the next day that I read the news that India has announced it will build an “even bigger” replica of Angkor Wat on the banks of the Ganges in Bihar. The replica is expected to cost around $20 million and take ten years to complete. Hmmmm… I wonder how they’d feel if Cambodia said it would build a bigger replica of the Taj Mahal?

But back to the real UNESCO World Heritage site Angkor Wat, where I also wonder how they ever managed with those frighteningly steep stairs. Sadly we don’t have a chance to climb to the higher level to get a feel for it ourselves. It turns out my first visit to Angkor Wat is on a full moon, which I love. But that also means that the higher level is off limits to tourists. Dang.

Those steps remind me of another temple travel tip… ladies, (and gents for that matter) make sure you pack some shorts that go below the knee, and have a light shirt that will cover your shoulders. To go into the higher sections you need to be dressed appropriately, and while a dress or skirt that finishes below the knee may seem decent enough, I ask you to look again at these stairs and imagine a group of people climbing below you and looking up to see how much further they have to go. Yes, you’ve got the picture now.

I don’t actually own any shorts like that so had to suffer in the heat in a pair of upturned jeans. But we live and learn. And one day I’ll come back to Angkor Wat, properly prepared and not on a full moon, and will be able to climb up into that next level.

But there’s no time to dwell on missing out on one aspect of Angkor Wat, when there’s so much to see all around us. From the Buddhas to the swimming pool for the gods, to the beautiful Devatas with their different hairstyles and expressions… look in a direction, any direction, and if you’re not blown away, you’re probably dehydrated and need a little water and a sit down.

As the sun – and the heat – continued to rise, I thank my lucky stars I decided to go for the Angkor Wat sunrise tour cliche and have been able to spend hours exploring before the worst of the heat kicked in. And with that, Sina and I make our way back to the car for some cold water, a blast of air conditioning, and a ride to the next temple adventure.

Amanda Woods visited Angkor Wat before joining a Cambodia to Vietnam river cruise down the Mekong with Pandaw Cruises.

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  1. Gorgeous! Can’t wait to read about more of your travels!

  2. What an amazing day and well worth waking up early for! I wonder what the thinking is behind India building their version of Angkor Wat?

  3. Apparently they want it to be the world’s largest Hindu temple… seems a little strange to me that they want a bigger version of someone else’s landmark.

    The news was actually coming through when I was in Cambodia, and when I told my Angkor Wat guide it was the first he’d heard of it. I think some people i mentioned it to may have thought I was suffering from heat stroke or making it up!

  4. Awesome post, and what a great tip – nipping around to the back door for the chance to escape the early crowds! And I bet that coffee did wonders at 6 o clock in the morning… Bouncing off the temple doors, methinks! Hopefully I’ll be visiting Angkor Watt early next year… and I’ll be sure to get there early!

  5. Great place. I like the sunrise effect.

  6. Great article, thanks, we are heading there in a few weeks and will use your tips! I laughed at your comment about how would India feel if they built a replica Taj Mahal….Dubai is! Check this out…Taj Arabia, a 350-room hotel and serviced apartments that will be a replica of one of the original seven Wonders of the World, India’s Taj Mahal, will be ready by early 2016….http://www.emirates247.com/supplements/cityscape/dubai-s-taj-mahal-by-2016-2013-10-09-1.523988
    And Worst of all is it will no doubt be built by poorly paid Indian labourers! Tsk!

    • Thanks Steph, and well spotted! I missed the news that they’re going to try to recreate the Taj Mahal. It all sounds very Las Vegas, and somehow i don’t think it will be as magical. Just a theory of course 😉

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