It's 4:45 AM as we cycle away from our hotel into the darkness and the invigoratingly cool pre-dawn air. Though we're still groggy, fighting to keep our eyes open and our legs spinning, the rest of the world is remarkably active.
Many Cambodians have already started their day, gathering around baguette stalls and sitting on plastic chairs near roadside soup vendors. Passing by all the cheap food, we feel foolish about spending $5 at our hotel for a meager bite to eat. Oh well; next time, we'll know that getting breakfast so early in the morning won't be any trouble at all.
Following the headlights of tourist-filled tuk-tuks and minibuses, we ride about ten kilometers to arrive at the ticket office of the temples of Angkor. Along with scores of other people who have traveled here in the wee-morning hours, vying for a glimpse of the iconic Angor Wat sunrise, we wait.
When we reach the head of the line, we're instructed to stand on a white mark while a camera takes our picture; the three-day passes we've purchased come complete with mugshots of our sleepy faces. Once we are granted entrance, we cycle away from the crowds and the bright yellow lights of the ticket office, heading once more into the dim morning light.
Jungly trees loom around and above us, their branches black against a slate blue sky. I am not usually one to be dramatic, but it feels as though we're riding right into the heart of a fairy tale! Cicadas, along with a legion of undefinable insects screech and moan loudly in the trees, further setting the mood for an epic morning.
As the skies brighten, bringing out the greens of the vegetation surrounding us, our road dead-ends into a silvery body of water, mist rising from it into the air. It is the huge square moat surrounding Angkor Wat.
We turn one corner after another as we pedal the circumference of the barrier, watching as morning light begins to creep up on the water's dappled surface. And then, the towers of Angkor Wat appear in the distance!
One thousand and forty days ago, we said we would come here, and this morning, we've finally arrived!
Unfortunately, the grounds are teeming with hundreds of tourists, poised and ready with zillions of cameras, waiting for the sunrise. Without hesitation, we pass on this supposedly required activity.
As we pedal further into the grounds, away from the crowds, daylight rising swiftly at our heels, I am trying to imagine what it must've been like coming here in the 1800s – when the French explorer I read about last night, Henri Mouhot visited.
At Ongcor, there are …ruins of such grandeur… that, at the first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilized, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?Henri Mouhot
Though this area was known to explorers for many centuries before his own visit, Mouhot wrote so passionately about the temples that he is directly attributed to popularizing the site in the West. There almost is no doubt that his adventures over one hundred years ago have brought us to this very place.
In the early stages of this trip, there were times when my only frame of reference for the new things we were seeing and experiencing, were the feelings I had when playing adventure video games growing up. Now, with experience and hindsight, it seems totally backwards, and maybe even a little sad, that embarking on a grand journey felt like a video game to me, instead of the other way around.
This morning, I can't stop the similar comparisons bubbling up in my mind. Here we are, riding our bicycles at one of the most impressive archeological sites in the world, and my brain keeps returning to a campy game show I used to watch when I was about eight years old!
When we pedal through a giant stone archway under the stern gaze of enormous carved heads, entering the temple complex of Angkor Thom, our morning ride has almost reached its end.
From here, it's only two more kilometers before our road curves around slightly, ending at the temple of Bayon, which is just now visible to our right.
Before we explore the imposing ruins, I run to pay a visit a huge Buddha statue nearby while Tara waits with the bikes. There, several radiant nuns with shaved heads, clad all in white, are lighting candles and incense, smoke drifting into the air.
They graciously consent to a photo, and welcome me with broken English to sit with them for what I assume is their morning meditation. After some time quietly watching and resting, I return to where Tara is eagerly waiting to begin our day.
A photo from our very first journal entry:
Oh my god. IT IS THE SAME LADY!
Bayon's behemoth towering stone heads greet us as we walk through a small door and into the multi-level, labyrinth-like structure. All is quiet here; only a few like-minded explorers are quietly wandering the ruins with us. As we set foot in the first of many Angkorian temples, the sun is just beginning to come up.
As we explore the ruins, we meet a total of three people, a trio of friendly, German tourists. We talk to them for awhile, sharing travel stories and photography tips.
While I am busy chatting, Tara captures a fleeting moment when the statues glow in golden sunlight. Moments later, the sunrise is consumed by a host of grey, cloudy skies. We're glad we didn't spend the morning standing in crowd at Angkor Wat.
We're just about done exploring, when a huge train of tour buses arrive en masse in front of the temple. As swarms of people pile out of the air conditioned coaches, we take our cue and dash to our bikes to cycle onwards. Time to move out!
For the purchase of our tickets to the temples of Angkor, we'd like to thank longtime reader from the UK, Chris Nichols, and friends Libby, Jesse, Mark and Sara at the Austin, Texas PBS station for their generous donations!
Thank you so much for giving us three full days of temple fun; we hope you enjoy our stories!