Today was the day we started visiting some of the most celebrated religious monuments in the world - the fabled Temples of Angkor. After being neglected on longhaul trains and taxis, we had decided to give our legs some of the glory this time and hired a couple of mountain bikes to get us about. We had no idea how well our bodies would react to this sudden request for exertion, so we decided on the Petit Circuit for the first day.
Factoring in crowds, riding distance, and of course the time of sunrise, we decided on a 4:30am departure for 6am sunrise at Bayon. It was a doomed event from the start. Firstly, we struggled to get out of bed and into gear, costing us a few precious minutes. Then we mounted our bicycles, only to realise the tripod wasn't going to cooperate easily and do the same. Out came a length of rope to bind it to our will, which was just short enough to require lots of fiddling, copious minutes and plenty of muttered curses in order to work. But work it did, and we finally started rolling. We pedalled north, faithfully following the map, our legs pumping and sweating profusely with the humidity. There wasn't a huge amount of traffic, but enough occasional tuk-tuks and tour buses to make us feel like we were on the right track, and our trusty GPS confirmed our heading. First light appeared and we were almost at the gates of Angkor Wat when we were stopped for a ticket check at a guardhouse. Ticket check? But, that meant we needed tickets, which we were soon told could only be purchased from the ticket office, way back towards the way we came, down another road. Argh! Frustrated we tore back down the road, and found the ticket office, almost halfway back to town. By now the sun had risen; our heart rates slowed down as our grim, sweaty faces were photographed and printed onto 3-day tickets.
It was still early morning light, so we headed to the big kahuna - Angkor Wat. For me, it was huge and impressive, beautiful and serene, an inspiring and blatantly egotistical piece of history that took my breath away as soon as I realised what I was looking at. Dodging several tour buses departing for other temples after the sunrise, we parked our bikes under a tree. We were immediately pressed by several young women to buy drinks, followed by several young men offering to be our tour guides, but we turned them down as politely as possible, walking the stone approach to this world wonder.
Wandering slowly through the grounds, we were amazed at the quality of the carved bas-reliefs decorating the 1000 year old temple. The corridors were filled with hundreds of busty apsaras and smiling rishi; the walls were stunning tributes to ancient Hinduism, politics, architecture and art.
The restoration work scaffolding and tarp took little away from the experience, since we knew that some of these were necessary for the structures to survive, but it did sometimes get in the way of photography. However, there was still plenty to capture in the early diffused light, much to Ben's delight. There were always people about, but the size of the place meant that there were lengths of time when it was just us and the majestic sandstone towers.
Continuing anti-clockwise on the circuit after a light breakfast, we stopped at the five brick towers of Prasat Kravan, one of the few temples not commissioned by a monarch. This was a much smaller affair, but it's inscriptions had survived, providing insight into its builders and purpose. Continuing on to Banteay Kdei, the sun was now well and truly beating down on us, and we rested in the shade. We observed a few visitors come and go among the quiet, crumbling ruins, where some towers curiously appeared to be held together by ropes and straps.
We started heading to Ta Prohm, before Ben noticed that his front tyre was going flat. What is with our luck today?! We asked around for assistance, and one gentleman gestured towards a tuk-tuk on the other side of the road. Sighing, we approached the driver, wondering what bargaining power we had with a flat tyre. Instead, he reached into a compartment and produced a bicycle pump. Beauty! Ben pumped away as Mr tuk-tuk driver held the needle in place, the tyre quickly swelling and thankfully holding pressure, much to our relief and to the cheers of a small crowd of curious onlookers who had gathered to watch the commotion. Ta Prohm itself was full of sweaty tour groups, so Ben noted some spots for another day's shooting before we pedalled away.
We came across Ta Keo, its quintet of towers lacking the usual elaborate carvings. This was because it was never finished, making it a somewhat modern minimalist version of an Angkor mountain temple. Climbing to the top was rewarding though, as we discovered that the smooth, flat surfaces made excellent places to lie down and read a book, especially the ones in the shade where the breeze washed over.
A few chapters into the late afternoon, we decided to save Bayon for another day and rode back to Angkor Wat for an atmospheric sunset shoot. We waited on the banks of the outer moat watching tour bus groups steadily pouring out of the temple grounds, departing for the day. A group of young children wandering about caught our eye. They were a bit scruffier than the kids we usually saw, and they were splashing each other with water from plastic bottles. They noticed us watching and approached us. We thought, uh oh, what do we do if they start begging. But they didn't say anything, just eyed our drink bottles and plastic bags. It was then we realised they were simply collecting plastic bottles and plastic bags, mostly likely to sell for recycling. Humbled by their poverty, we drank the rest of our water and traded our plastic goods for some shy smiles.
Sunset was a subdued event, and few people stuck around for blue hour; Ben captured a short but magical moment of colour for this glorious landscape of Angkor Wat (in restoration mode), before all faded for the night.