Today starts with an obscenely early start (the alarm had a 4 are the beginning of it, that is how early we had to get up) for our second Grasshopper tour in a row.
Why on earth would anyone get up at this time when on holiday?
The answer being, it enables you to see sunrise over one of, if not THE, tourist attraction in South East Asia. The temples of Angkor. The centre of the Khmer empire and home to over 1 million people in its prime.
On the minibus journey to the temple we see a huge snaking queue of people outside the only hospital in the city that provides free child health care. There must be 150 people in the queue already at it’s still over 3 hours before they open. Another reminder of the problems that local Cambodians face Ina daily basis.
This makes the fact that at the ticket gates they have webcams and photo-printed tickets installed seem a ridiculous waste of money. That is until you realise that the operation of the Angkor temples national park, that serves over 1000 people a day paying $20 a time, has been subcontracted out by the government to a Vietnamese private company.
Sadly this 25 year contract only sees 20% of the revenues remaining in Cambodia, and you suspect that the deal was a better deal for the corrupt individuals that signed it than for the country.
We site on a wall eating a lovely pain au chocolate provided by Lot, our guide for the day, and watch the stream of torch lit tourists disembark from hundreds of Tuktuks and make their way along the walkway over the impressive 190 metre moat towards the most famous temple here, Angkor Wat, whose image that takes pride of place in the centre of the Cambodian flag
Originally a Hindu temple built between 1130-1150 for the Hindu God of Protection, Visnu, it was converted in the 16th century to a Buddist temple and renamed Angkor Wat. Subject to a reconstruction following centuries of jungle reclamation between 1920 and 1970 by the French after it had been abandoned it had a brief period of being a tourist attraction before the Khmer Rouge regime. Following the fall of the regime the Princess Diana Foundation helped to clear the area of landmines before it could be once again open to the world.
The temple is dominated by the famous towers, the tallest standing at 65 metres, and watching the sunrise from behind them is something that everyone wants to see. You can tell this by the numbers of people along the causeway that runs from the main gate to the temple structure when we arrive – it feels as though every tourist in Siem Reap is here with us.
Lot though is very good at knowing the places to move to within the grounds to give us some space away from the masses, and explains that like the Inca temples we saw in Peru the building is constructed in line with the equinoxes. More impressively the temple and city locations within the Khmer empire were set out in the shape of the constellations in the night sky. Pretty impressive stuff over a millennium ago.
Inside there are some vertigo inducingly steep steps that lead up to the highest temples. Intentionally built to symbolise the ascent to heaven, and make you walk up sideways and bent down as a show of deference (but also act as an architectural buttrice). Thankfully to preserve the stonework, a modern less steep wooden staircase has built constructed over the top making access a little easier.
There is a danger in Asia you can become a little Templed-out, but Angkor Wat is reportedly the largest religious building in the world, and certainly of the most amazing man made structures and should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Grasshopper provides a wonderful breakfast after the tour of Angkor Wat in a shelter by the river (complete with fresh cooked omeletes) to ensure we are fueled for our cycle tour round the other temples of Angkor.
Each of the temples we see are different and beautiful, from the Bayon towers with a smiling carved face of Buddha on each side and carvings showing the everyday life of the Khmer people to the over grown Ta Prohm (another local from the Tomb Raider film) with a 400 year old tree growing on its roof. Just as enjoyable is again being out on the bicycles and seeing some of the scenery in between the temples, riding through the large stone gates, across rickety bridges and even along the top of the walls of Angkor Thom.
We finish the day with a wonderful traditional Cambodia lunch and chatting happily to our fellow tour members before it’s time to head back to Siem Reap and a relaxing late afternoon by the pool.