Cambodia’s Angkor Wat: The Race to a Khmer Temple

Visitors come to see the intricate carvings and sculptures.
The temples’ mysterious stone walls are decorated with intricate carvings.


At 4 a.m. on a humid November morning, my alarm goes off. I wake with excitement brewing inside me. Today, I will visit the magnificent temples of Angkor.

At this hour, I would expect to wake to tranquility and serenity, maybe even hear insects buzzing in the distance and surrounding leaves rustling under the whisper of a small breeze. This, however, is not the case in Siem Reap.

The weather is dry and the temperature cool, which means Siem Reap’s tourism population is at its high. Like me, it seems every other tourist looking for their next adventure has also risen early in hopes of discovering Angkor Wat before the onrush of other travelers.

Located in northern Cambodia, approximately a 45-minute drive north of Siem Reap, Angkor is home to the remains of the famous temples that served several Khmer Empires from the 9th to 15th centuries.

Known for their architectural style, the temples’ mysterious stone walls are decorated with intricate carvings and sculptures of mythical figures and stories that scholars and researchers still work to unravel.

I want to see the famous temples for myself, so traveling to Angkor is a must.

Angkor Wat, the pride of many Khmers, is the only building to be displayed on any national flag. Built in the early 12th century, the Wat (the Khmer word for temple) shares over 160 mi² (414 km²) of land with many other glorious ancient temples, such as the Bayon and Baphuon temple, as well as the famous Ta Prohm.

I would soon realize that no professional photograph, no exchange in conversation and no detailed piece of writing could ever do these temples justice.

The sky of the early morning is pitch-black. The paucity of lamp posts would have made it difficult to make out the street if it weren’t for the slew of headlights from motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars and tour buses.

My tuk-tuk driver, whom I had booked the day before, frantically waves me over as he stands to the side waiting.

I can hear sounds of engines roaring and the hum of people chit-chatting. My adrenaline is going and the race toward Angkor is on! Other vehicles are already passing as I hop in the back of the tuk-tuk. My driver kick-starts his bike, throws it into gear, and we are off.

Dust flies into my face as we whiz past competing vehicles. The dirt road puts up a valiant fight against the onslaught of tourists who are determined to make it to Angkor before sunrise. The sounds of motors running and horns honking add to the already chaotic morning.

I hold my breath to avoid inhaling the thick dust. I can feel tiny dirt particles building up in my formerly clean head of hair. Nevertheless, I am excited and more awake than I could ever have thought possible so early in the morning.

Suddenly, my tuk-tuk driver stops in the middle of what seems to be a large dirt field. He points to my right where I can make out a large dark shadow in the distance. It is still dark outside, but I can see other tourists hurrying in that direction. I thank my driver for waiting and head off.

Along with hundreds of other tourists, I rush up the stone walkway toward the magnificent shadow ahead of me. I am on the grounds of Angkor Wat where local monks from hundreds of years ago  once prayed.

The sculptures are intricately carved.
An imposing stone sculpture guards the main causeway.

I feel a sense of intimidation washing over me, as I walk past large shadows of unknown shapes. I can vaguely make out the temple’s silhouette, as the sky above lethargically turns blue.

People from all over the world scurry about the temple grounds, calling to fellow travelers to join them once the perfect viewpoint is claimed. I find my spot on a cool stone banister, and wait for what is to come.

As the sun begins to rise, the intimidating shadows around us slowly disappear. The sun’s rays introduce us to one of the most beautiful masterpieces in southeast Asia – Angkor Wat. The temple is overwhelming in size, and even from a distance I can make out the unfathomable detail on the five towers, or gopuras, rising above the entryways.
The chaotic buzz begins to drift off and I am suddenly surrounded by silence. We have all finished the race, and our prize is right in front of us.

I sit, admiring the monumental buildings in tranquility and calmness. I look around in awe of what the light of dawn reveals. In the distance, I can finally hear those insects buzzing.

The canopy of leaves lightly rustles under a small breeze. As I gaze at the scenery around me, I think, “This is exactly what I wanted to wake up to.”

If You Go

Angkor Wat

Asia WebDirect

Ellen Wong recently graduated from Ryerson University with a degree specializing in Television and English. She believes traveling is a special experience that allows her to discover different cultures first-hand and to become globally aware. Her traveling adventures have only just begun and she can’t wait to see where she will end up next.


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