After spending a little over an hour at Angkor Wat the previous evening, Anthony and I were ready for a full day of temples, jungle, and photos in interesting places thanks to our wonderful guide, Mao. We packed a few snacks in our bags, made sure our water bottles were full, laid out our clothes for the morning, and turned off the lights…only to watch four episodes of Grimm before finally getting to sleep somewhere around 1 a.m. Needless to say the 4 a.m. wake up call came VERY fast, and had me very tempted to call Mao and tell him we’d skip the sunrise and he could pick us up at 1 p.m. instead. Fortunately once we were up, dressed, and relaxed in the back of Mao’s tuk tuk, the excitement started to replace exhaustion. The cool morning air whipped at my skin as we made our way up the road, and for the first time since we’d touched down in Bangkok I was actually chilly. The feeling quickly gave way to overwhelming heat and by the end of the day I was almost as sweaty as after our hike to the Tiger Cave Temple, but for a few minutes before the sun came up I welcomed the brisk breeze.
When we arrived we parked in the same spot as the evening before, and, just as Mao had promised, the lotus blossoms were awake and ready to greet the sun with the rest of us. Mao assured us he had a “secret spot” for viewing the sunrise, so while the throngs of tourists entered and went straight for the two lakes in front of the temple, Mao guided us along the ledge of the entrance and we sat down on the stones away from the action, but with a perfect view of the five towers. The three of us sat there quietly and watched as the hazy pre-dawn sky transformed slowly. First purple, then pink, then red, and finally streaks of orange framed the towers of Angkor Wat as the huge gold sun sat stop the central spire like a crown. It was even more breathtaking than I had imagined, and my lack of sleep was quickly forgotten.
Once the sun was totally awake, Mao led us out of Angkor Wat and back to his tuk tuk to start the tour of the rest of the temples we would be visiting that day. He had told us the day before that he likes to do the tour backwards to avoid the huge crowds, and since most people stay at Angkor Wat after the sunrise and tour it first, we left for Ta Prohm, better known as “the Tomb Raider Temple”. Ta Prohm earned this name because Angelina Jolie actually shot on location at the temple for Tomb Raider, and those in charge of conserving the Angkor Wat Complex have let the jungle grow around it. It was about 20 minutes by tuk tuk from Angkor Wat, so we relaxed in the back with our ice cold waters and watched the jungle fly by.
When we arrived at Ta Prohm, we had about another half hour before the temple opened, so we chatted with Mao while we waited. He told us that this particular temple was one of the best places in the whole complex for pictures, and that the huge trees and jungle plants had been allowed to continue growing up through the stones of the temple foundation in order to give it the appearance of being untouched…as though it could have been discovered that morning even. I was eager to get into Ta Prohm and channel my inner Angelina. The time finally came, and when the guards moved to the side to let everyone waiting in, it was as though everyone wanted to be first. For a minute I thought we would be run down by a group of German tourists, but fortunately they walked around us instead of trampling over us, and we made it in one piece.
The first look was everything I hoped a jungle temple would be: eerie yet stunning. The trees were so high they covered the sun yet rays streamed through casting green shadows everywhere. The crumbling walls and sculptures were covered in moss with vines snaking through cracks in the stone, and the path leading up to the entrance was studded with broken rocks protruding through the sand that made walking around in flip flops fairly hazardous. As we wandered around the maze-like structure, Mao pointed out various relief carvings and points of interest. He told us the trees were called “snake trees” due to the way their trunks twisted and wrapped around the stone, and the closer I looked, the more the bases of the thick trees looked like giant boa constrictors squeezing the stones in their grasp. We spent the better part of an hour at Ta Prohm, and I could have happily spent all day there. Every inch of the temple was both mysterious and beautiful. It felt as though we were walking around in the middle of the King Louis scene from The Jungle Book. Eventually though it was time to move on, and we made our way to our next stop.
Now, in the spirit of honesty, I’m going to quickly explain why I almost let my day get ruined while we were touring the Angkor Wat temples. As I mentioned, the cool morning quickly gave way to blazing heat, and before too long I was dripping with sweat from head to toe. Besides Ta Prohm, most of the temples ended up being in direct sunlight, and although the morning had started off cloudy, the cover burned off by the time we left the shady canopy of the jungle. Part of our decision to book Mao was because every review mentioned what a great photographer her was, and we were excited to have him there with us as our guide and photographer. Unfortunately, I hate having my picture taken under the best of circumstances, and as it got hotter, and Mao had us posing for more and more photos I started to get a little grumpy. This coupled with the fact that my whimsical (and apparently cheaply made) elephant pants had first started to rip, then disintegrate entirely made me a very unhappy camper. Needless to say there are a good chunk of photos where my smile is VERY forced, but I learned my lesson. Don’t tour temples in 100 degree heat with an empty stomach, very little sleep, and cheap rayon pants.
In spite of my grumpiness, we powered through and continued on our tour. After a few smaller temples, Mao brought us to Bayon Temple, or as I like to think of it, the temple of a billion faces. The walls surrounding Bayon are etched with carvings of elephants, Khmer soldiers, Aspara dancers, and epic naval battles during the Angkorian Era. We meandered around the wall as Mao narrated the scenes and told us what stories the reliefs were telling as well as what all of the symbols meant. As we made our way into the courtyard of the temple, the huge carved faces that Bayon is famous for loomed above us in greeting. Mao led us up a set of rickety stairs to the top where we followed him around to each of the face reliefs…all of them just slightly different from one another. I was expecting the faces to be intimidating, but in reality they all seemed congenial and goofy…as if they were all trying not to laugh at the silly little people taking pictures with them. As we finished up at Bayon, Mother Nature seemed to read my mind, and clouds started rolling in. The lack of sun paired with the beautifully intricate reliefs at Bayon helped improve my mood as we made our back to where we started for our final stop: Angkor Wat.
As we made our way back through the entrance to the temple courtyard for the third and final time, the wind started to pick up and the smell of rain hit me hard. I wanted to skip up the path leading to the temple entrance, but by then the backside of my pants had all but disappeared and anything more than a slow walk was impossible. As I looked around the courtyard I realized Mao was right! There was almost no one at Angkor Wat with us, since most people had toured it that morning, and I couldn’t be happier. We took our time walking around the four walls of the first floor of the temple as Mao yet again impressed us with his knowledge of the relief carvings. He described clashes between gods and demons complete with monstrous snakes and flying fish. Here there were more Aspara dancers as well as Khmer soldiers riding elephants, and as we listened to the myths of the Khmer people, the rain finally started to fall. The wind howled through the open corridors of the temple and the rain pelted the stone walls, giving me goosebumps as I ran my hand along the carvings. The sun and heat had all been worth it. The ancient building was one of the most beautiful places I had ever visited.
We spent the last hour at Angkor Wat wandering around the massive structure, including the very top, until the rain started to fall so hard the guards kicked everyone out. As the rain really came down we walked out of the temple, and back to Mao’s tuk tuk for the last time. The rain had chased off the monkeys, the lotus flowers had closed back up, and my pants were ripped to shreds, but it had been an unforgettable day. Mao drove us back to our hotel and let us know if we needed anything or had any questions about Siem Reap we could always contact him. We told him to give our best to his wife and daughter, and said our goodbyes. We made our way to our room where I promptly took a much needed nap. I was sad to see Mao go, but so thankful we had managed to secure him for our tour. He had been so much more than just a tour guide, and in the days following, as I looked over our pictures, I was so grateful he had taken so many, even if in the moment I would have given anything to never see a camera again. The day had been long, and hot, but absolutely worth every minute.