At four thirty am, my cellphone alarm exploded me awake in my ridiculous supply attic room (pictured left– no joke).
Was a torrential lightning storm going to foil my plans like yesterday morning? There are no windows in my supply attic room, so I padlocked the door and barefooted down to the second floor to peer out the grated balcony. Clear! Dark! This meant ten minutes to throw on clothes and meet Sopheak at his tuk-tuk downstairs. Woo hoo!
We hit the road fast, joining a parade of tuk-tuks, bicycles, minibuses, and maxi-buses, all headed for the same glorious destination: Angkor Wat, the biggest temple in the world, at sunrise.
Twenty minutes later, we squealed into the packed, muddy parking area as the first glimmers of sun wavered though. “Run that way!” Sopheak urged in his soft, sweet voice, pointing to the beautiful line of humanity streaming through the gate. “I meet you at the big tree there in two hours!”
Through the giant stone gates I ran, clutching my camera, and easing past Japanese tourists of all ages. A massive stone walkway rolled out beyond the gates, and at the end, the most delicious peaks of architecture pointed up to the dawn sky: Angkor Wat! It’s you! Hello! You’re gorgeous!!
At first I got confused and ran right in the looming temple itself, but soon realized that the inside the pitch black masterpiece was a dumb location to watch the sunrise. Out again I sprinted, and made straight for the hundreds of enraptured people clustered by the side of the lily-pad kissed lake.
For the next hour and a half, we were awe-struck paparazzi. Each inch more of sun brought fresh gasps of delight and sparkles of flashbulbs. “Ooh yes, that angle there,” you could almost hear the Japanese grandfather cooing as he adjusted his giant tripod. “Stunning, honey, stunning– now just a little more in the light so I can see that graceful curve…” Everyone passed around their cameras to everyone else to take different permutations with and by strangers. Everyone became less strangers and more family, united in the cause of timeless, centuries-old wonder.
Cambodian children and adults milled around the crowd, selling coffee, water, and books. I snapped a photo of a man wearing an Angkor Beer shirt in front of Angkor Wat itself and chuckled. Indeed, one can see from the fact that Cambodians name and shape everything from their beer to their border gate like Angkor Wat that the temple is the absolute pride and joy of their country. The Lonely Plant Guide emphasizes that it was to this heavenly, distant past, that Cambodians clung when Pol Pot was massacring their countrymen and women.
After the sun was fully glowing above the temple, we all began to flow inside. One can basically climb over and up nearly any part of Cambodian temples, and often I would look up in shock to find a tourist way out on an overhang.
The inside of Angkor Wat is breathtaking, boasting ornate carvings on every surface, painstaking sculpture work, and columns, halls, stairs, and turrets to make Cinderella drool.
And yet– that wasn’t even the end. From 7:30 am until one in the afternoon, Sopheak took me and my English lady friends to about fourteen other temples in the “small circuit” of the hundred temple complex. Tomorrow we go back for the “Big Circuit”, and the day after to the far-off sections. WOW.
Truly, Ankor Wat deserves its title as the Eighth Wonder of the World!
The author, Lillie Marshall, is 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English, fitness fan, and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog in 2009, and over 3.7 million readers have now visited this site. Lillie also runs TeachingTraveling.com and DrawingsOf.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media!