Exploring Angkor – The grand circuit

4.30am the alarm started ringing. Fortunately, I wasn’t sharing the dorm with anyone else, so I switched on the lights and freshened up. I met Catherine outside in the hostel lounge, both of us eager to hit the road. We had booked a tuk-tuk for the grand tour today and were greeted outside by our driver Lei Lei. Everything outside was pitch dark as our tuk tuk hurtled through empty streets of Siem reap towards Angkor wat.

Dawn in Angkor

We reached Angkor just as thin streaks of light were starting to pierce the night sky. There was faint glow on the horizon which indicated it was just about dawn. We hurried inside Angkor towards the central courtyard and found a sweet spot in a small temple like structure on the right side of the courtyard. We sat down with our cameras out just like scores of other tourists ready to capture every single minute of the sunrise.

It is known that witnessing dawn over Angkor Wat is beautiful and stunning but to be honest words can never describe what I saw that day. The darkness slowly gave way to streaks of early sunrays giving the sky a pinkish hue. The silhouette of Angkor Wat standing in front of this faintly lit up background made it look surreal and beautiful. As the sun slowly appeared on the horizon, the pink sky transformed to a fiery orange lighting up the entire Angkor complex.

Silhoutte of Angkor Wat at Dawn

Gradually entire complex became visible under now blue sky. The silhouette of Angkor during the transition from pitch black sky to bright daylight through different colors blew me away. We sat there witnessing this incredible dawn for nearly an hour before finally leaving Angkor Wat to finish off rest of the inner circuit tour and explore the outer grand circuit.

Angkor Wat

We ate breakfast outside Angkor Wat at a small roadside stall which offered a filling salad sandwich for only $1. We headed back towards Angkor Thom to restart from Baphuon where we had left off the day before. Baphuon is a huge temple sitting on top of a large platform rising nearly 2 meters above the ground. The temple is preceded by a long central pathway which gives the entire structure a royal appearance.

Baphuon

The temple was closed this early in the morning, so we circled around it and took a small track which weaved through giant tress and dense foliage to come out behind the next adjacent building, Phimeanakas temple.

Hidden pathways

Phimeanakas temple is a large pyramidal shaped structure hidden among dense trees and ruined pathways. To see this beautiful now ruined buildings surrounded by nothing but nature in early morning sunlight is such a blissful experience.

Phimeanakas

Next to it is a large rectangular pond full of Lilliput called sra srei. We walked the length of Sra srei admiring the Lilliput filled pond. Since it was so early in the morning, it was just me and Catherine exploring these structures.

Sra Srei

Walking ahead on the track we came out on a terrace with walls carved to form elephant sculptures. This was the terrace of Elephants. The terrace platform is quite long extending north with its entrance guarded by lion sculptures.

Terrace of the Elephants

Further north the terrace merged with another terrace, the walls of which are covered by complex carvings. This was the terrace of the Leper King full of beautiful and intricate wall carvings nearly 20 feet high. We were so impressed by the carvings on these walls that we lingered around these terraces a while. It was quite fascinating to see these carvings preserved over hundreds of years and still standing there taking us back in time. With these terraces we finished Angkor Thom and concluded our inner circuit tour which we had begun yesterday.

Terrace of the Leper King

We got back to our tuk-tuk and headed out from Angkor Thom to begin our grand circuit exploration with Preah Kahn temple. Preah Kahn temple lying to the north east of Angkor Thom, is a large complex made up of extensive network of passageways. These passageways are held up my numerous columns and walls each adorned with beautiful carvings.

Passageways of Preah Kahn

Like all other Angkor structures, most of these passageways, walls and columns are now in ruins with their carvings slowly fading away to be taken over by overgrown moss. Having reached here so early, again we found the temple all to ourselves and spent a good couple of hours, exploring its ruined passageways and examining its detailed carvings. Having explored almost everything this ancient temple had to offer, we jumped back into our ride and continued east towards Neak Poan.

Preah Kahn

Neak poan is located on an island surrounding a huge reservoir. From the parking area, we had to walk around 100m along a small pathway bisecting the reservoir to take us to the island.

Reservoir surrounding Neak Poan

Unlike others, Neak poan is not a temple. It has a small central building surrounded by a circular pool. This central pool is further surrounded by 4 other rectangular pools. It didn’t take us much time at neak poan and coming out of it, we took a small break for refreshments. I must say, the coconuts in Angkor are absolutely enormous and filled with sweet water and thick flesh. Having just one of them was enough for both of us to feel energetic and fresh.

Neak Poan

Our next stop on the grand circuit was Ta Som. Ta som was more like Ta prohm in resemblance but much smaller. Walking in through a single central entrance door, we walked into an entrance courtyard, beyond which was a huge open space.This open space was now being used as a marketplace where locals were trying to sell all kinds of paintings, clothing and accessories to the tourists. Walking on, the temple ended abruptly at a central spire which had a huge tree growing onto it. We clicked some pictures and admired the surrounding areas and the central spire before heading back out.

Ta som

From Ta som, we drove south towards East Mebon. East Mebon is a temple perched on a huge platform, if we could call it one. Astonishingly, this platform was almost 30feet high and had a central spire surrounded by 4 more spires at 4 corners.

East Mebon

But one of the most fascinating things about East Mebon was that, East Mebon was made of rusty orange stone which on closer look appeared to be porous. It took us some effort to climb the stairs to the temple, but the view from the top was quite beautiful.

East Mebon

Last temple to conclude the grand circuit of Angkor was Pre-Rup. Similar to East Mebon, Pre-Rup was made of same orange rusty stone. The structure was also similar to East Mebon with central spire surrounded by 4 corner spires all perched on a platform.

Pre-Rup

But the most distinguishing part of Pre-Rup was its eastern side. On either side of its eastern gate stood 3 huge spires, almost 30-40 feet tall, made of same orange stones. The climb to the top of Pre-Rup was more treacherous since the stairs were huge and some literally broken down. It was getting muggier now and dark clouds hovered on the horizon.

From atop Pre-Rup

Both I and Catherine sat down on the top of Pre-Rup enjoying the cool breeze blowing in. We talked and discussed of how beautiful everything had been and looking forward who knew what more was in store for us. For months, we had been looking forward to exploring Angkor. We hardly knew each other before, but both of us had this wish of someday exploring Angkor and South east Asia. Here we were now, about to conclude the Angkor Circuit!

With Catherine

What started off as a chance meeting in New Zealand had forged into a great friendship and a travel experience of a lifetime. Although this was just the beginning of our journey through Cambodia and Vietnam, we knew it would work out, for us it always had.

Looking back now, Angkor Wat will always hold a special place in my heart, a travel experience I can never forget. Not only was this place beautiful but it taught me how small we are in front of nature and it doesn’t take much for nature to reclaim what belongs to her.

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