5.30am in a tuk tuk flying through sleepy Siem Reap en route to see Angkor Wat at sunrise. Women are sweeping their shop fronts with their scratchy brooms and people of all ages are zooming around on their motorbikes. Siem Reap doesn't sleep.
Pastel orange is starting to creep into the lilac sky and the air is ready starting to feel heavy with humid heat. Crickets create a steady hum of white noise complementing the bass of the tuk tuk's engine.
Riding out through the forest, we're the only vehicle on the road heading to Angkor through the majestic forest, already alive with the songs of a thousand birds.
The beauty of the Angkor region is almost overwhelming. Living in a sprawling city such as London, it's easy to forget the powerful beauty of nature. Angkor Wat at sunrise is indescribable, the thousands of beautiful pictures barely scratch the surface of what it feels like to actually be there. The sky was purple bleeding into orange, I've never seen it look so beautiful. It was like its own world, its own universe.
As beautiful as the sunrise is, I prefer the Angkor Wat just after sunrise, bathed in natural light soothing its weathered features. I spent each step crossing the serene water to the temple complex drinking in the world's largest religious site and the jewel in the crown of the sprawling ancient city of Angkor. As I crossed the threshold, the smell of incense filled the air. I took a stick from the holder and said two prayers; one for my friends and family and the other was thankful for my experiences, past and what was to come.
An earthly representation of Mount Meru, Angkor Wat is the house of ancient Gods and heaven on Earth. Surrounded by an enormous most, Angkor Wat took less than 40 years to construct. I spent two hours wandering in and out of the main temple and its wings, climbing up and climbing down. Time seemed to stand still, actually, everything was still save for the hundreds of people milling around. I was glad to be exploring this beauty by myself, I felt indulgently selfish wandering through the temple complex at leisure. I walked out onto a ledge running across the length of the main temple building. About half way across I sat down to take in the views and just appreciate being.
After a couple of hours, I left to find my tuk tuk driver, I'm sure he was on the verge of sending out a search party. We headed to our next stop; Angkor Thom. Made up of several small temple complexes, if they were to be combined they would be larger than Angkor Wat. My tuk tuk driver took me to the South Gate, dropping me off so I can walk past some of the 54 gods and demons leading up to each of the five gates to Angkor Thom.
The Bayon lies at the heart of Angkor Thom. If Angkor Wat is serene and peaceful, the Bayon feels quite oppressive with 54 gothic towers decorated with 216 faces. Though they're smiling, they gave me a feeling of being watched as I climbed around the temple. There are also two ancient library structures on the site of Bayon, if you can manage to scrabble up the steep steps.
The giant pyramid temple of the slightly dilapidated Baphoun was next on my list. As well as being the grandest temple, Angkor Wat is the most well preserved as it has been in constant use since it was constructed, even after the city of Angkor was abandoned. The rest are either slightly crumbling relics or being slowly reclaimed by the jungle. Though the Baphoun is undeniably impressive, I can see that the years have taken their toll.
By this point, the intense heat was beating down and made the long ascent to the top of the central structure a little challenging, well worth the climb, there's a great view of the long walkway leading up to the temple's entrance as well as cool cloisters to escape from the heat.
After a spot of lunch at one of the food stalls and a wander around some of the smaller, quieter temples, I ended my day at Ta Prohm, better known as the Tomb Raider temple or the jungle temple.
After the city of Angkor was abandoned, all of the temples aside from Angkor Wat fell into disrepair and were slowly reclaimed by the jungle they were built on. This is most evident at Ta Prohm, which has huge trees growing through its walls, roots curling and breaking the rocks apart.
I’ve never been as aware of the powerful beauty of nature as I was here. It was quite poetic; man conquered nature to build the city and temples but now nature was conquering man and reclaiming its land. Life is a funny, beautiful thing.
Check back for more on Cambodia over the coming weeks.