I’ve seen sunsets at Angkor before, but never so many, and never a sunrise. I’ve always avoided Angkor Wat’s intense 6am crowds and Phnom Bahkeng’s similar 6pm crowds, but at some point you simply have to go with the flow and see what all the fuss is about.
Both were really soothing breaks in what has been a stressful couple of weeks. As of today, both China Southern and Korean Air have declared my bag lost – mainly because Korean Air can’t be bothered to deal with China Southern’s apathy and China Southern doesn’t have the cahones to tell Beijing “you’re wrong”, I think – so nearly a decade’s worth of clothing is now gone. I have a really strong sense of sentimental value towards a lot of my older things, and have kept some of them around way too long. Case and point, the toiletries bag I had in my check-in was the one I’d used since the first time I went to summer camp at ten years old, and my New Balance “Victory” shirt was the one I’ve worn to every exam, under every shirt at every job interview, and on every trip since I went to Ethiopia.
That, and I really liked my rain-jacket and dig-pants.
But I forgot about all that momentarily, as a bit of optimism still remained, staring out at the sun turning yellow to orange to bright red to red and yellow at the same time. The sun is stunning in Southeast Asia, and there’s nothing quite like standing on the edge of an ancient wall or atop of an ancient temple and soaking it all in. The sunset sky turns bright red, the sunrise turns bright purple, and colours you didn’t even think were possible suddenly appear. Sitting somewhere silent you hear the crickets begin to chirp, sitting somewhere loud you hear the oohs and ahs of your fellow tourists (and researchers) transfixed and anxiously awaiting what is about to happen. It’s truly a highlight of any trip to Angkor, or even Southeast Asia, so it’s important to do it right.
I’ll divide this entry into two parts: sunset and sunrise. Sunset is a little more variable, and there are more places to do it. Sunrise…well…you know where to go.
The two keys to experiencing a good Angkorian sunset are location and crowd control. Being one of the hottest spots on both the Chinese Package Vacation Trail and the backpacker Banana Pancake Trail, you will not find a solitary nook anywhere on the well-trodden path through Angkor. You have to find it yourself.
But, if you’ve only got a day or two to spend here, the best and most well-known spot is Phnom Bahkeng, approximately 5 minutes north of Angkor Wat by tuk-tuk. The Angkor region’s first state temple when Yasovarman (889 – 910 CE) moved the Khmer capital from the Roulos Group to the southwest, it now forms the ultimate vista over Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and the West Baray (above), a 7.8 x 2.1km man-made reservoir which is still half-full.
I went up here to catch the sunset back in 2015 and found a line around the entire temple with people saying the authorities kick you off after 15 minutes on top, sunset or not. And this is after hiking up a pretty lengthy hill.
When Phnom Bahkeng was refurbished to preserve it from the hordes of tourists and locals alike who came to catch the sunset, APSARA and the World Monuments Fund created a series of porches along the new path (you had to scramble up the steps before 2011) that would give the same view but lighten the burden on the temple. And, it gives arguably an even more epic view of the West Baray:
Another spot that sees a number of tourists, although way less than Phnom Bahkeng, is Pre Rup, the Shaivaite state temple of King Rajendravarman dedicated in 961-62 CE. I’ve actually never been there for the sunset, but considering there’s no water to bounce sunset beams off of, I’m tempted to just try to convince you to go there for its sheer awesomeness. It’s also the temple I show people before going to Angkor Wat because a) it’s truly underrated and b) I find warming people up to Angkor Wat and the Bayon with a few temples beforehand is a nice way to get them to appreciate Angkor more for the sum of its parts than temple-by-temple.
But if you want some peace and quiet, some water, and some impassable jungle, head to the southwest corner of Angkor Thom’s immense walls. The tuk-tuk drivers all know where you’re going if you point at the gopura, or gatehouse, and there’s a nice path that’ll take you up to the wall. Walk 1.5km west, and you reach the corner of the moat that surrounds the ancient city. Have a seat, and let the sun do all the work.
Phnom Bahkeng and Pre Rup are both open until about 6:30, but Angkor Thom closes at 5:30 so you have to make sure you’re either being supervised by an APSARA tourguide, are not in the vicinity of one, or have a bike to ride away really fast in case one arrives. No one I know has ever had a problem, but our tuk-tuk driver nearly drove away because he thought we got lost…thanks, man.
One last cool place to watch the sunset is on the Tonle Sap, but I’ll be doing an entry on Floating Villages south of Siem Reap next week, so more sunset photos to follow!
I lied, there’s more than one place to see the sunset, and I have seen one before, so I’ll leave the big obvious one for last.
The less-obvious one is the West Baray’s small fountain-temple. It’s unclear when the West Baray or the lake-temple was first constructed, but scholars point to the 11th century based on the artistic styles of the statuary alone. A huge bronze Vishnu was found there in the 20th century, and when I was there French architects from the EFEO were putting it back together through anastylosis (dismantling the structure, keeping track of the bricks by numbering them, then putting it back together and replacing bricks that are broken or rotten).
Which means it’s a bit tough to get there right now, but the intrepid always make it – there was a small Chinese tour group in two 4x4s making the journey on the way back.
But, of course, the real sunrise spot at Angkor is the temple of Angkor Wat. Constructed by Suryavarman II during the first half of the 12th century, we have him to thank for worshipping Vishnu: temples to Vishnu face west, making the sunrise over Angkor Wat that much prettier because you’re actually staring at the front of the temple! Since most temples face east (for Shiva or various Buddhas and bodhisattvas), Angkor Wat is ideal for the sunrise, and was constructed to cosmically align with it too!
Just a warning: the crowds can get both big and a little violent as folks jockey for a spot in front of the reflecting pool, so hold your ground!
But don’t let everyone else there, all 1000+ of them, dissuade you -Angkor Wat hosts one of the most incredible sunrises seen anywhere in the world! (see below)
Some other temples on your Angkor Pass that are best visited at specific times during the day:
Preah Khan – 7:30 – 9am to catch a really cool layer of humid fog over the entire temple complex.
Bayon: late afternoon – the stones change colour as the sun sinks lower.
Roulos Group (15km out of town): mid-morning – the sun on the rice paddies made for one of the most incredible travel days of my life back in 2012. Best done on a bicycle.
Preah Palilay/Phimeneakas: 12pm-4pm – the humidity starts to rise out of the forest around noon and turns a very muggy morning into the beginning of a hot afternoon devoid of tour groups but also devoid of humidity (aka my kryptonite).
Even if you only have a couple of days at Angkor on your way to and from somewhere else, do catch a solar event while you’re there. Even if you only have the time to brave the crowds at Phnom Bahkeng, you’ll be glad you went.
Next entry: ….not sure, I actually have to go do some fieldwork now. Maybe something about braving giant spiders, thorns, and a GPS error of 8m under the canopy at the back of Angkor Thom?