It is dark when we are begrudgingly awoken by my alarm. Ugh 4:30 am, is this even morning or does it still count as the middle of the night? Sleepily, we stumble through our morning routine to a tuk tuk waiting outside and off we go, bumping along the pot holed road into the surprisingly chilly Cambodian morning. I have only brought along my sarong to use as a shawl later in the day when we make it to the temple, but as for now it is being used in my pathetic attempt to stay warm, despite the cold wind demanding otherwise. Kane laughs at me curled into myself against the wind; I look like a grumpy old woman huddled next to him, but despite a little laughing he wraps his arms around my shoulders and covers my legs with his jacket, being ever the gentleman.
When we arrive at the ticketing area, our driver points us into the direction the mass of people is currently moving, a mass that is, in my opinion, way too large for 5 am. We push our way through the crowd and somehow end up with tickets in hand. We were lucky that, the day before, the day we arrived in Siem Reap, the friendly owner of our hostel warned us that the government would be raising the prices of entry into Angkor Wat in two days time, February 1st, from the already steep price of $20 USD per person to $37 USD. For a country whose people, on average, live on $4 USD a day this cost is exorbitant. However, Angkor Wat is a wonder of the world and I wouldn’t have trouble paying it, if the money did indeed return to the people in the form of government services, but a quick look around at the trash piles on the roads, the polluted river ways, and the lack of clean water one feels otherwise. At least the locals get free entry.
Grumbling about the government’s disregard for its own people, I spot a tiny, overpriced cafe and quickly my thoughts have moved on from their governmental grumbles and are now solidly on the “get me some caffeine” track. One US dollar later and I’m clutching my tea while bumping along to the actual entry point of Angkor Wat, all while trying desperately not to give myself a boiling tea shower every time we hit a pothole. Just before sunrise we pull up to a dirt parking lot filled with other backpackers in their tuk tuks, minivans full of wealthier tourists, and even the occasional thrifty backpacker on a bike who probably woke up at 3 am to ride a bike to Angkor Wat by sunrise. I am seriously impressed by the dedication needed to ride a bike before sunrise and that’s saying something as I really do love cycling, I just also really love sleeping.
Once we pass the hawkers selling their breakfast items we begin to line up with the hordes of people already camped out on the bank of the lake in front of the main temples and then I remember I hate crowds so we decamp for a much less busy section of the path. I don’t even know why everyone wants the sunrise shot of Angkor Wat’s main temples from in front of the lake, that famous shot is best with the midday sun that causes a reflection to create a beautiful dual image of the temples. However, while I think that waiting for the perfect sunrise photo is a little silly, there is something surreal about walking up to this vestige of an ancient empire in the calm, quiet pre-dawn light. The temples rise high in front of us as Kane and I decide to leave the perfect sunrise picture to the masses. Stepping inside these ancient ruins takes you back to another time, a time when the Khmer Empire ruled and people did not have selfie sticks. Seriously, be careful on your visit to Angkor Wat, you might lose an eye if you’re not careful. This is another reason to get to the temples for sunrise, to avoid the even larger crowds of late rising, selfie stick carrying tourists.
We have the first twenty minutes or so of the temples relatively to ourselves and they are a wonderful twenty minutes. We walk slowly through the darkened ruins, occasionally taking pictures, but really just enjoying the beauty of the space. I am also pretending I’m Indiana Jones at times, because we all are children at heart and there is no better place to pretend to be a bull whip toting bad ass than at Angkor Wat. Alas, this is a wonder of the world we are talking about and soon our peaceful quiet is gone, replaced by the noises of tourism. We spend the rest of the day wander through a few of the most famous sites in Angkor: Angkor Wat (the main temple complex), the Bayon (best known for the stone faces carved into its walls), the Baphuon (known for the stunning views from atop its terrifying staircases), and Ta Prohm (famous for being the site of Tomb Raider filming, but most interesting due to the trees that have grown into the ruins). All the temples are awe inspiring in their own way, but by the end of the day we are suffering from a case of temple burnout and the once fascinating ruins start to blur together. I think we only spend about 20 minutes at the last site, while we spent multiple hours at the first site. By the time we make it back to our hostel we are pleasantly exhausted, covered in red dirt, and the proud new owners of about five million photos of glorified rocks. It was a truly wonderful day.
Tips for a Day Trip to Angkor Wat
Dress code: If you are a woman please be aware that the dress code is strictly enforced so make sure your shoulders are covered, legs are covered to the knees, and that you don’t remove any of these coverings during your trip. The reason for this crack down is that some tourists were recently caught posing nude and as Cambodians take the sanctity of Angkor Wat very seriously this sparked a huge backlash, and rightly so as it is a religious site. Shawls as shoulder coverings are mostly accepted by the guards, but if you have a particularly grumpy guard encounter, as I did at one of the main temples, they may deem it insufficient covering (despite covering my entire upper body to the elbows) and ask you to put on a jacket. Luckily I had Kane’s jacket to wear for the rest of our time at that complex, but I switched it for the much more heat friendly shawl the minute we left this particular guard’s area. I didn’t have any issues the rest of the day despite being inspected by multiple other guards, but if you want to be sure you won’t run into issues just wear a shirt with sleeves. Men are also expected to follow the dress code, so no bro tanks guys, but it is much less strictly enforced for our XY brethren.
Cost: As of February 1st, 2017 it is $37 USD for a one day pass, $62 USD for a three day pass, and $72 USD for a seven day pass.
Transport: We hired a tuk tuk driver for the day to take us between the sites for $18 USD total. This was a very good idea as there are more than 150 sites at Angkor Wat and the distance between them all is quite large. However, if you are fit and keen, a bike will work as well and should only run you a few dollars a day to rent.
Accommodation: Siem Reap is the most popular place to stay for a visit to Angkor Wat as it is only a short drive from the ruins. We stayed at Pool Party Hostel and loved it. The owners were very friendly, the pool was clean, and the rooms were huge. We paid $16 USD for a private room with air conditioning, a lovely ensuite shower/bathroom, and a king sized bed.