The sun rises to the snap and click of camera shutters. I can hear someone breathing in my ear and there's a bump on my elbow as we jostle for position. I’m at Angkor Wat trying to capture sunrise over this ancient monument but right now it feels more manic than magical.
We left our guesthouse at 5am and joined a convoy of mini-buses, tuk tuks, motorcycles and cyclists heading out to the temples of Angkor Wat. Our tuk tuk turns out to be the slowest in Siem Reap. Laughing and pointing, tourists overtake us one by one. At one point I’m sure I see a cyclist go by.
By the time we arrive at the temple, the sound of revving engines and guides directing groups in several languages almost drowns out the birdsong. Then the sky turns from grey to orange and pink and the famous curved pine cone-like shapes of the temples emerge from the gloom.
We walk away from the crowds, deeper into the complex and the mysticism of the space starts to come alive. Angkor Wat is the main temple of what was once the city of Angkor. Built in the 12th century, its symmetry rivals that of the Taj Mahal and in terms of majesty and scale Angkor Wat is the more impressive. Surrounded by greenery and almost deserted once the sunrise crowd has departed, it is peaceful and spiritual.
But it’s also only the beginning of a nine hour exploration of this amazing area. After a breakfast of pancakes and sweet coffee by the side of the Wat, our driver Lim takes us deeper into the reserve and we pass abandoned temples at every turn, the jungle encroaching, their walls tilting and toppling.
We motor up a long avenue alongside cars, buses and a lumbering elephant and an intricate gate rises out of the jungle, a line of Buddha heads leading us in. We’ve arrived at the south gate of Angkor Thom and just one turn away is the awesome Bayon temple.
Created as a monument to a king (whose face adorns every side of this multifaceted ruin) Bayon soothes the heart and mind. When I emerge among the stones and effigies, I feel as if I’m in a Raiders of the Lost Ark movie; Hannah says it reminds her of a Tintin story.
A tiny old woman, almost toothless, beckons me into a small stone shrine. Incense hangs heavy in the hot air. A stone Buddha is wrapped in an orange shawl, bright in the gloom. She smiles at me, prays for long life and happiness, wraps a red twine bracelet around my wrist, all the while murmuring a Buddhist chant and finishes by gently stroking her fingers down my hand.
It’s only 9.30 and already the temperature is at full blast. Sweat is running down my face and between my breasts and heat radiates from the stones. Click, click, click, click; all around me is the sound of a thousand photos being taken.
We carry on exploring, finding carved elephants, beautiful dancing girls in stone relief and everywhere the jungle encroaching on ruins. When the heat overwhelms us we sit in the sultry shade and drink cold, fresh coconut juice.
Much later Lim drives us to Ta Prohm, the scene of the Tomb Raider film and perhaps the most atmospheric site of the day. Maze like, it entices you in. High above us trees grow, seemingly out of stone; stone pieces block our way; toppling walls are covered in pale pink and green lichen.
By 1pm the heat is unbearable. In one dark corridor two men collide and there’s a moment of temple rage – muted shouting, rumbling disagreement dulled as they emerge again into the flaming, baking light of the day.
We decide we’re all templed out. Slow, laboured steps take us back to the tuk tuk. We ride into town with the hot air, like a blast from an oven, chafing at our faces and lips. My skin is sticky with dust and sunscreen and sweat but my mind is entranced: Angkor Wat is one of the most amazing places in the world and I feel privileged to have seen it.