Call it a personality trait- I am most definitely a morning person. But what I am most definitely not is a ‘sunrise junkie’. I certainly don’t go around the world crossing off a list of monuments or natural features that I have seen at sunrise. So it wasn’t until after I had actually decided to travel to Siem Reap, Cambodia and booked my tickets that I came across travel suggestions that listed Sunrise at Angkor Wat as an absolute ‘must-do’ for any visitor. Once the idea got into my head, however, I was certainly going to pay an early morning visit to the famous temple.
The Angkor Wat temple complex certainly needs no introduction and I decided that it merited not just one but two visits- one late in the afternoon and the other early in the morning for the sunrise. Although I had known about the Indian influences in the Southeast Asian region I was quite surprised to come across the Sanskrit names of rulers of the Ancient Khmer Empire. Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century AD by a ruler called Suryavarman II. The complex stands on an artificial island- surrounded by a vast moat that looks more like a lake.
The primary entrance to the temple is on the West and the causeway over the moat was once decorated by a Naga balustrade. Over the first gate I enter into the area where there is an open space two massive reflecting pools of water. At once I recognised the place where most of the ‘Sunrise at Angkor Wat’ pictures on the internet had been taken from and make a mental note. Ancient Angkorians certainly didn’t have cameras so I wonder how and why they built such strategically placed water bodies that were a photographer’s dream. Further inside the walls the covered galleries of the temple are covered with scenes from mythology and history. On one side the epic battle of Ramayana- on the other, the battle of Kurukshetra.
More than the scenes from mythic tales, I found the carvings of Apsaras, especially on the second level, to be breath-taking. Angkor Wat alone hosts hundreds of such carvings. What made them even more striking was that no two Apsaras were ever alike- each one had a different costume or hair dress. I was later told that there were 37 different Apsara prototyes in the Angkor Wat complex. I climbed higher inside the temple to view the five central towers that are synonymous with the temple. The original steps were so steep and narrow that the authorities have put in new stairs with hand rails- but even these stairs are quite a challenge to a normal person. After taking in the views from the highest level, I leave for my hotel for the evening.
I returned to the West entrance of the temple the day after next but this time with a guide as it was just 5am. It was quite dark and we had to use the flashlight on our phones to make our way across the causeway. As we got closer to the reflecting pool I noticed that there were already about 30 tourists camped across all the vantage spots. I instinctively hurried up when Darith, my guide suggested that it would actually be better to take photographs from outside the moat wall. But I had done my research, scoured google images and decided that I would take my sunrise photographs from the pool so politely refused Darith’s suggestion.
“There will be lots more people in a few minutes, and the crowds will be pushing you when the sun comes up, so it won’t be a good experience. Better to take photos from the moat” said Darith. I was not to be scared off “I come from India. Don’t worry I am not afraid of crowds” I tell him as I position myself at the edge of the water in one corner. Soon enough people start pouring in and enclosing us in a tight circle. Darith was not about to give up. “Actually the sun will rise quite far away from the temple towers so it is better to be outside on the moat to get a better perspective” he said. I had come all the way from India to capture this, so I was not about to pushed about either. “No I have seen a lot of photos and I have a wide angled lens so I can definitely capture this sunrise”.
It was still quite dark and it was only possible to dimly make out the silhouette of the towers. As it brightened the cameras started going off- sure enough a lot of my photographs captured a lot of arms and cameras besides the temple towers. It was literally a silent battle that we were all engaging in- all pushing and prodding each other- loudly cursing how people were being uncooperative- never directly complaining to the person next to oneself. Adding to the misery there was a thick cloud cover which meant that it was possible that we would not even see the sun.
I put up with the battle for another 20 minutes. By this time a lot of the tourists had already started walking away disappointed because of the cloud cover. Some of us moved into the more strategic points vacated by these people. But the light quality was still poor and so eventually after another 10 minutes I also decided to leave.
Just as I was at the enclosure wall about to walk over the causeway I noticed the sky turning a bright pink at one corner. Apparently the sun was going to break through at one point after all. I cursed myself for my stupidity and was quite angry. I had come all the way and was going to miss something spectacular because I hadn’t waited long enough- typical tourist disease. It was too late to turn back to the reflecting pool as the remaining photographers would have all closed ranks by this time and there was no getting to the frontline for an unobstructed view.
Darith moved in at this point and said “The moat is better- we might just be able to make it if we run”. I don’t think I have ever moved faster before. I didn’t want to turn around because of fear of seeing what I was missing. I just kept praying that the sun would just wait for a few more minutes, just enough time for me to make it past the few hundred metres of the causeway and then around the moat. We ran all the way and finally out of breath I turned around and started clicking.
The Gods had decided to be kind to me so the sun was still lazily poking out a few rays from behind the clouds when I started. I don’t think I stopped clicking until about 5 minutes later when the sunlight became too bright to be captured and hordes of tourists started spewing out from the monument- mission accomplished.
I was expecting Darith to gloat but I think he was just genuinely happy that we had managed to capture a spectacular sunrise after all. I guess in a way life was teaching me a lesson for lifer- that it was important to have patience. “It is never really over until it is really over”.