Many of us who live in cities tend to forget what night really looks like. But far from the glow of streetlights and buildings, I found nighttime truly was pitch-black on the outskirts of Siem Reap, Cambodia.
At least, that’s my excuse for how I came to be standing in front of one of the most famous sights in the world, the fabled Angkor Wat, without even knowing it.
I had always wanted to explore Angkor. When I saw that registrations for the December 8 race were open, it was a carpe diem moment for me — why not finally go, and for a worthy cause, too? So I booked my flight to Cambodia and signed up for the 5k run.
The race starts around sunrise — and that’s a good thing
It was 5:30 a.m., about an hour before sunrise, and night still shrouded the distance over the enormous moat that lay between me and Angkor Wat. The ancient edifice was silent and invisible in the darkness.
But I was not alone. Behind me were thousands of people. Floodlights illuminated the surreal scene and speakers thumped the latest chart hits. A DJ was warming up the crowd. From all corners of the world, runners had come to take part in the event.
Flag-off for my event was 6:30 a.m. I had arranged for a tuk-tuk to take me to Angkor from my hotel in Siem Reap. The 4.3-mile trip, which usually costs about $5 (USD), cost me $10 that morning.
“Very early,” was all my driver had to say about that, with a shrug.
Getting around by bicycle is one of the best ways to explore Angkor. They are cheap to rent in town, costing about $1 to $3 a day. I had rented a mountain bike the previous day and wrangled it onto the back of the tuk-tuk with me so I could explore Angkor after finishing my run.
The start of the race, just outside the western facade of Angkor Wat, was packed with runners. I moved to the edge of the crowd and stood on a stone ledge, taking in the sights and sounds. Behind me, the sky was just starting to lighten. I turned around to look at the sunrise and a silhouette began to appear against the sky in the distance.
At that point, it quite literally dawned on me what I was looking at. It was Angkor Wat, revealing itself as it has every sunrise for over 800 years.
Unfortunately, I had no time to stand and gape, because I could hear the announcements for the start of my race. I turned away but managed to capture a quick photo to remember the moment.
As it turned out, it was an enjoyable run, and I finished it in a respectable time (for my age!) of 39 minutes, which meant that it was still early.
An early morning in Angkor Thom
After the race, I went to find my rented bicycle, which I had chained to a post. To escape from the throng milling around the finish line, I rode a couple of kilometers away — against the stream of determined stragglers from the 21-kilometer half-marathon, still laboring by — to Angkor Thom. A little less famous than Angkor Wat, it is about four times as large, and just as profoundly beautiful.
As I cycled into the grounds of Bayon temple in Angkor Thom, the morning mists were clearing.
I found myself alone in the temple complex. In the cool morning air, far from the crowds, an uncommon silence prevailed. It was easy to contemplate what it must have been like on mornings just like this, centuries ago.
I traversed the Terrace of the Elephants, where Khmer noblemen once watched parades of royal war elephants. I climbed the three-tiered “temple mountain” called the Baphuon, with its gopura, or tower, soaring 100 feet toward the heavens. On almost every wall, there were intricate carvings in the sandstone, vivid in their portrayals of the people who lived and events that once took place here.
To enjoy Angkor Wat, get there early — very early
Except for one or two other people, who looked like temple caretakers, I had the place almost all to myself. I wondered why such a marvelous place would have so few visitors — and an hour later, when the first giant tourist coach came rumbling up the road, I realized why. Within minutes, more than 20 buses had arrived, disgorging hundreds of excited daytrippers. Angkor Thom began to teem with tourists exclaiming in many different languages and swarming over the ruins.
Because I had arrived so early, I had been afforded, however unwittingly, a glimpse of Angkor’s elemental purpose, as a place of quiet contemplation and worship. It was now overrun by sightseers, many of whom had their backs turned to the monuments, arms outstretched, cell phones held out. Aim, click, and peer at the screen to check that the shot was good. In the 21st century, it seemed Angkor had a new function: as an Instagrammable backdrop for selfies.
The atmosphere had become that of a crowded theme park. The serenity of only an hour ago had evanesced. I got on my bicycle to ride back into Siem Reap. I cast one last look toward Angkor, and resolved to return another time — as early as possible.