Enjoying the bustling life of Siem Reap was so nice but getting to bed early was essencial. We've booked a Sunrise tour to Angkor Wat. This meant waking up at around 4 a.m. as the tuk-tuk would pick us up at 4:45 a.m. I was super excited but no one deserves to wake up that early on vacation.
We left the hotel on time and headed to buy the tickets - 37$ per person/one-day ticket. The ticket booth was much bugger than I was expecting and this was the first time I realised how touristy actually this place is. At least buying the tickets was no pain at all - queue went fast and there was no need to bring photos - they took them on site. There was also a coffee shop there which was great news for me! Also, there is a chance for some last minute hat or Cambodia silk scarf shopping to protect yourself from the hot sun or in order to be respectful - Khmer people still consider Angkor as temples, so covering the shoulders is necessary. Also, they are very respectful of their history, specially having in mind that Angkor represents its more glorious era.
Khmer Empire was founded in the beginning of 9th century, as Jayavarman II proclaimed himself "devaraja" of the divine King of the Land. He was a Shiva follower, so he built an enormous, pyramidal temple-mountain, whose structure was used as the foundation of Angkor's architecture style. His successor Indravarman I got to expand the empire but it was during Yasovarman I (889-910) that the capital was moved from Rolous to Angkor and built the temple of Phnom Bakheng. The great Angkor Wat was built between 1113-1150 during Survayarman II, while Angkor Thom was built between 1080-1201 during Jayavarman VII. Unfortunately, after his death Angkor faced a long era of decline, while Thai invaders were destroying the land until european explorers "discovered" the ancient city in 19th century. Major restoration works were held up to the middle of 20th century, when it almost disappeared again during the Vietnam war (1955-1975), as Vietnamese communists used Cambodia as a staging post. The US responded with large-scale bombs that killed thousands of Cambodians. This led to the birth of Pol Pot's Maoist party Khmer Rouge, that seized power in 1975 and by the time it was overthrown by the Vietnamese in 1979, it had killed around 2 million Cambodians! In 1998 Pol Pot died and also Khmer Rouge. Around the same time Angkor also gradually reopened to the world.
There are two circuits possible for exploring Angkor Archaeological Park - a "small" one - around 18 km that includes Angkor Wat, Phnom Bakheng, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei and Prasat Kravan. The "great" circuit is around 27 km and includes the "small" one plus Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon and Pre Rup. We've planned only one day to explore Angkor, so we opted for the "small" circuit plus Banteay Srey (around 10 km further). Even though, may be after the 4th or 5th temple they all started to seem kind of the same. Don't mean to be disrespectful. Just the 30*+ heat, combined with crowds of tourists everywhere and rocks, all the same colour, may lead to exhaustion quite fast.
We started our day of discovering the ancient heritage of Angkor around 5:30 a.m. when the tuk-tuk left us in front of Angkor Wat. The hotel staff were kind enough to prepare us a breakfast in a plastic bag. So, after we left the tuk-tuk, we sat on the wide mural by the moat, still outside Angkor Wat, and watched the dawn as we had breakfast. There was nothing special about the food - a simple sandwich, two bananas and boiled eggs (the last ones I gave to the kids that were passing around us), but the scenery was unique and because of that - amazing.
Once we passed Angkor Wat's gate, I got to understand why it is the world's single largest religion complex. It is enormous. We observed the sun rising behind its pyramidal structure, and although we were already inside its walls, it still looked quite far. And big. And mystical.
Angkor Wat's causeway is long and also offers great views to the temple, walking towards its entrance. The wide pathway's balustrades are carved in the shape of "nagas" (serpents) all the way its length.
Inside, all the galleries are craftsmanly carved. There are more than 700 carvings of "apsaras" (celestial dancing girls) to be seen only in Angkor Wat.
The Central Sanctuary is the highest tower of the complex. It was the only place we had to wait on a line (around 20 minutes) to visit, as the number of people up there is controlled. The steps are extremely steep but it's all worth it, as the view to the entire temple complex is stupendous.
When we left Angkor Wat it was already around 9:30 a.m. No idea how we spent around 4 hours there, as they passed on a blink of an eye.