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Cambodia (Day 30) Sunrise Alternative, Angkor Thom, and Angkor Wat

WOW ๐Ÿ’ฏ Angkor Wat!! Bucket List!! Pinch me, I must be dreaming!! Omg!! Angkor Wat!!!!!

Our first day templing and we went all in. Our plan was to begin with sunrise at Phnom Bakheng, the Hindu and Buddhist hill temple built at the end of the 9th century, dedicated to Shiva around the year 907. 

Phnom Bakheng

Our first Angkor temple in Cambodia. Instead of joining the crowd at Angkor Wat, we headed to Phnom Bakheng for sunrise. We met our driver at 4:45am, yes that's right 4:45am. The kids were great and we had no problems getting them to the hotel lobby on time with just a few grumblings about breakfast (I swear, they wake and their single all-consuming thought is "what's for breakfast?"). Ha - we were on it! We picked up complimentary breakfast boxes from the front desk which we had requested the previous night. Wow - those are some hefty boxes. We probably could have all 4 shared one - hahahaha, talk about a nice set-up. 

I was keen to use a tuk-tuk for our first day templing. I wanted that magical experience for the kids especially for these closer temples. It was a trade-off though as we did not have room for a guide to accompany us.  All loaded up, our tuk-tuk driver drove us out of town in what felt like the middle of the night. He eventually came to a stop on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere darkness. Here? Where is here? He just kind of pointed off to the side across the dirt road and said "up" and "bye". Ooookay, all I see is dark jungle where hungry beasts lurk. The kids meanwhile shrugged and just started walking like the little troopers that they are - sometimes I love them so much. It was raining so we put on ponchos that we had packed. We then put on our headlamps (don't tell me I don't come prepared) and switched on our carry flashlights.

We walked up the mountain in complete darkness. We were the ONLY people here and it was a little daunting since we had no idea how far to go nor what to expect, but we felt increasing anticipation along this incredible trek uphill. I was a little bewildered as all I kept hearing pre-travel was crowds, crowds, crowds - we couldn't be the only ones with this sunrise goal. I told Rob and the kids that thousands of people are awake and doing the same thing, except they are all headed to Angkor Wat. We eventually rounded on the path and came upon the temple entrance where a lone guard pointed us up the temple steps. It had stopped raining by this time and we gladly removed the stifling ponchos.  

Here, we welcomed the new day feeling our spirits lift at the majestic view opening up before us. We embraced the wonder revealing before us in the brightening sky.  Apparently, this is a very popular spot for sunset, not sunrise. I'd say we are starting things off just right.

It was incredible watching the day break over the temple mountain. We watched in awe as the shades of stone changed colors with each passing minute. I felt overcome with emotions. Such a big adventure for us to end up here - Vietnam, Laos, and now on a mountain in Cambodia witnessing the dawn of a new day rise over these temple ruins. 

The day brightened quickly revealing incredible temple treasures. We spent a long time exploring. You only get one FIRST temple! And, this one was a doozy. The sights to see are much more than just the hilltop. Around the base are ruins of times past.

Back at the bottom near the road, now we could see where we had entered. Wow, didn't even noticed those guardian statues before in the dark. Our driver was waiting for us across the street in the same spot where he had dropped us off.

Angkor Thom

Next, we headed to the stunning South Gate (there are 5 gates) of Angkor Thom, "Great City", the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer Empire, built in late 12th century. 

My heart skipped a beat when we arrived here at South Gate. We had our tuk-tuk driver stop and we walked the rest of the way into the ancient walled city in complete awe of our surroundings. 

Now THIS is an entrance! The impressive South Gate. Each gopura (entrance) to Angkor Thom is adorned with a tower of faces, each facing a cardinal point. Bayon Temple inside Angkor Thom is famous for a plethora of these giant stone faces. This is the most trafficked gate and even becomes one-way during peak time with a line of traffic. Enjoy it like this by arriving in the early morning.

Once inside the walls, we first went to Bayon to be there at opening as it is one of the most popular temples. Our tuk-tuk driver parked in a large lot and pointed us in the direction to walk to get to the front entrance. We passed Wat Preah Ngok and stopped to admire the Buddha image. 

Sitting in front was a Buddhist nun who invited us to partake in a Buddhist blessing. I'm still wearing my string bracelets! 


Behold Bayon Temple! The last state temple built in Angkor. This spectacular temple is found in the center of the ancient city of Angkor Thom. Its most distinctive feature is the multitude of stone "face towers". The temple is also known for impressive bas-reliefs along the walls which depict historical events and scenes of ancient Khmer life. Bayon Temple is one of the most popular sites in Angkor, 2nd to Angkor Wat, but we had it all to ourselves. In fact, we had to wait for the security guard to open it to us after watching us wander the entire perimeter. Ready to go inside?

Rob and Caitlin were still wandering the perimeter when the guard "opened" the temple. Needless to say, Molly and I didn't wait for them. Oops. It's okay, they were the 3rd and 4th persons to enter.

How many faces do you see? Little explorer attempting to blend in at Bayon Temple! This temple is covered in towers of serene stone faces that appear to be smiling. Extraordinary calming effect when you stand among the faces. I've seen various reported numbers but it seems there were at least 54 towers. The preservation is poor for much of the ruins, so it is difficult to count the 216 faces. 1,2,3... 

Ruins of Bayon Temple. Slowly succumbing to the forces of time and nature. Incredible experience to be walking through here. If the 216 stone faces could talk, what tales would they tell? That would be over 800 years of stories. Wrap your head around that!

We exited Bayon Temple full of BIG feels and regrouped with our tuk-tuk driver in the lot facing the side (back?) of Bayon. I'd say this is a pretty good spot to refuel our energy levels. Time to enjoy those complimentary breakfast boxes. Take a moment. Reflect. The unstoppable forces of time and nature reclaiming these ruins and yet, unable to wholly overtake them.

That's a wrap for our successful Angkor without crowds adventure in Bayon Temple! Now, let's go see more of this ancient city of Angkor Thom. 

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom is HUGE and spread out making it great fun to see via tuk-tuk. We made our way all around, hopping in/out of the tuk-tuk and walking quite a bit enjoying all the sights. This is not a place to rush. 

A few other sites that we enjoyed inside the ancient city of Angkor Thom were the Elephant Terrace, Leper King Terrance, North and South Khleang, and Prasat Suor Prat (series of 12 towers). 

These kids really enjoyed the Royal Terraces. I think it was because the carvings are so well-preserved and easy to distinguish. Terrace of Elephants ๐Ÿ˜ and Terrace of the Leper King ๐Ÿ‘‘ face the parade grounds where processions, parades, and other events were held. The king would view his victorious returning army from the Elephant Terrace.

Lining Victory Avenue is Prasat Suor Prat - 12 Towers - "Temple of the Rope Dancers" which span north to south on the east side of the royal square. The towers are made from rugged laterite and sandstone. These can't miss towers can be seen from in front of Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King. The name is thought to refer the belief that they were used to support a high wire stretched between them for acrobatics purpose during royal festivals. The most popular belief comes from the writing of Zhou Daguan who described in his records that the towers were used to settle disputes among Angkorian people.

"In front of the palace there are twelve small stone towers. When two men dispute over some unknown matter, each of the contestants is forced to sit in one of them while the relatives stand watch at the base. After three or four days, he who is wrong shows it by suffering some illness - ulcers, or catarrh, or malignant fever - while the other remains in perfect health. Thus right or wrong is determined by what is called 'divine judgement'...
— "The Customs of Cambodia", Zhou Daguan.

The towers are in various stages of disrepair, but I thought it great fun seeing each one and exploring North Khleang and South Khleang, which could have been royal palaces, but are thought to be too small to have been so.

Spot my little explorer ๐Ÿ‘€ True to her nature, she must explore every path, looking into every corner. Pull up a seat, this could take awhile. Or better yet, join her journey at South Khleang.

Every doorway, every intersection has a story. ~Katherine Dunn๐ŸšชThe stories that this incredible doorway could tell, if only... ๐Ÿ”ธListening to the whispers of the walls, my little explorers sit still and let their imagination run wild.

Guess how many towers we made it to? ALL 12 of them! Well, we lost the little explorers around tower 8 or 9 - hahahaha. They sat in the tuk-tuk with the driver while Rob and I made our way to each of the remaining ones. It felt like an inner Amazing Race challenge that I must complete. I feel like a champ!

That's a wrap for the INCREDIBLE ancient city of Angkor Thom. Here we are exiting at the Victory Gate. It's not as well preserved as South Gate, but just as impressive. Again, we had our tuk-tuk driver stop and we walked through it marveling at the stone architecture.

Finally, we went to see the crown jewel - Angkor Wat!! Angkor Wat, "City Temple", is the symbol of Cambodia appearing on its flag. Built in early 12th century, it was first Hindu, but later turned to Buddhism at the end of the 12th century. Angkor Wat became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 and is the LARGEST religious structure in the WORLD!! We were completely blown away by its size. Now, we can go home.

Angkor Wat

We hired a guide at the entrance and it was the BEST decision of our entire trip to this once in a lifetime destination (he took all our family pics). There is so much to learn and appreciate as you wander this mighty masterpiece. Even the kids listened with rapt attention to the fascinating history and details of symbolism in architecture. The heart & soul of Cambodia, Angkor Wat appears on its national flag. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would see it in real life. To see it with my crew, I am complete. 

The OG of swimming pool goals is the king's pool at Angkor Wat! Shall we fill it and bring it back to its glory days? Angkor Wat took over 30 years to build and involved 300,000 workers and 6000 elephants. The 5 million to 10 million sandstone blocks used in its construction weighed up to 1.5 tons each and were moved from the quarry of Phnom Kulen (holy mountain) more than 25 miles away. When you stand before this magnificent temple and then stroll through its inner walls, you wonder how this impossible feat was accomplished almost 1000 years ago.

We are such tourists, but, standing in the CENTER of the UNIVERSE is pretty cool. This is the center of Angkor Wat, a temple that symbolizes the universe in stone with an earthly model of the cosmic world. We put the phone down on the stone floor to take the pic. But first, we saw with our own eyes ๐Ÿ‘€ the compass went still - pointing at zero degrees (not N, E, S, nor W)!! We experienced a 2nd incredible interaction in the Echo Chamber. Standing with our back to the wall, we thumped our chest and felt it resonate through our body with an answering echo. A clap (or any other noise you make) will not do it. I'll spare you the video and just leave you with this cheesy pic. But seriously, I'll never forget these feelings experiencing Angkor Wat. All my senses touched. I am changed. The architecture of this place is sheer genius.

This is what two sweaty girls look like after 4:30am wake-up and 8+ hours of templing. They do us proud :) 

๐ŸŽถ Cel-e-bra-tion time, Come on ๐ŸŽถ Join us at the pool? It's so very refreshing! It's reward time :)

We felt so good with our first day exploring the temples. We decided to simply relax the rest of the day and had a delicious poolside dinner at the hotel. We emailed Sam to confirm our plans for the next day to travel by car with a guide. 

Angkor Day 1 Itinerary: Phnom Bakheng (sunrise), Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat. Cost: $20 for tuk-tuk (includes $5 surcharge for sunrise). Patting ourselves on the back for successfully bypassing those infamous crowds, we are absolutely awestruck by Angkor. Wait until you see the itinerary for Day 2! 

Up Next: Tomb Raider Ta Prohm PLUS Without Crowds


  1. Great write up.
    We too did Ankor Wat, Bayon & Ta Prohm (in 1 day) starting at 0430 like you, the heat certainly saps it out of you!

    1. Thanks! It was a perfect 1st day for us. It's funny because you think you will go from sun up until sun down, but when you start out that early you soon realize after lunch that you have been going for 8+ hours. It's a full day that ends early with many hours cooling at the pool. Except, we went to bed early - that was the only drawback.

  2. Interesting post and great photos, seems you enjoyed enough. Happiness is my wish to you guys.

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