Or also known as the day I was supposed to run in the Angkor Wat Half-Marathon.
For all the planning in the world, sometimes the world has a plan of its own. I had to have a medical procedure done a little more than a week before we left for Vietnam and Cambodia and my doctor was not exactly too keen on me even running a 10k until we knew the result. It was something I wanted more than running in the race so even with our race kit ready to be picked up in Siem Reap and my running gear in my backpack, the day before the race, I finally decided not to run.
The day of the race though was not wanting of physical exertion (but not of a half marathon variety). Aside from having to walk around more temples, the day involved climbing up a hill and some of the steepest stairs known to man. I didn’t get a chance to cross a finish line that day, but did manage to find a speck of fulfillment in the day for not rolling down some steep temple steps.
Our first temple for the day was almost an hour away from town via tuk-tuk. Banteay Srei is around 38 kilometers from Siem Reap but many tourists still go out of their way to see it; it has been dubbed one of the most beautiful temples in Angkor for its very elaborate carvings and red sandstone walls.
Travel guides will tell you that it is best seen before 10 a.m. and after 2 p.m. We wanted to start our temple hopping a bit late: left town by 11 a.m. after going around the Old Market area and got there in the Banteay Srei right smack at noon. But even with the harsh high noon sun, you can’t miss the temple’s predominantly striking shade–different from most of the other temples’ walls.
We stopped at Pre Rup on the way back from Banteay Srei. The moment I saw it–its lofty towers, high stairways and people making their way to the summit–I knew I wanted to see it up close.
We just had a filling lunch of fish amok, spring rolls and rice and it was time to burn them calories. Similar to other Angkor temples, the stairways are pretty steep (higher than 45-degrees in angle) and the steps are narrow. I have small feet, but even I found each step quite small and ended up making most of the climb (and descent) sideways like the rest of the handful of folks going up and down the temple (a far cry from the number of people in our next stop, Phnom Bakheng).
Go to the very top and when you get there, take in the view of the surrounding countryside and have a much-deserved breather. Particularly since walking down those steep steps later on seem more precarious–with a view of the ground below. A tourist slipped and fell a few steps when I was going down. Fortunately, her guide who was in front of her caught her.
Pre Rup ended up being one of my favorite temples in Angkor. Beyond the beautiful carvings, the reddish sandstone walls, and the view, I surprisingly enjoyed the climb and got to breathe a sigh of relief that I also managed to get down without stumbling over the teeny steps. It’s good to appreciate the small things.
If Angkor Wat is the most visited temple during sunrise, Phnom Bakheng is the most popular temple during sunset. To get there, you have to briefly walk up a hill for around 10 to 15 minutes, then climb some more steep steps to get to the top of the temple. Travel guides and bloggers will warn you about the crowd. Sure, Angkor Wat during sunrise attracts a lot of people, but it also covers a whole lot more area. Phnom Bakheng is a small temple and there’s only one part of it where you can view the sunrise, at the top.
We got there more than an hour before sunrise, which was apparently a good decision since the walk up the hill was pretty quiet and there was no line to get up the temple…not like this:
When you get to the top, (from the stairway) people walk over to the leftmost corner on the other side where the sun will be setting to get some good seats. But if you want to see Angkor Wat, just turn left when you reach the top, look past all those trees and you’ll see in the distance Angkor Wat’s recognizable towers. And no, you won’t see the sun setting with a view of Angkor Wat or any other temple. You’ll see the sun setting over the Angkor’s jungle. It was a bit underwhelming, but I ended up doing the next best thing: watching fellow tourists, waiting and watching.
If you’re the type who can’t stand hordes of tourists, you’re better off not going to Phnom Bakheng during sunset. But it is a chance to exercise some people watching: exhausted tourists taking the time to catch some Zzzs, some fellow Asians reaching the temple with their high heels (I don’t know how they did it?!), a big group of sprightly Japanese seniors talking animatedly, an Australian family of five with a very fashionable mum giving her kids biscuits to munch on, a TV crew of a travel show, and just a continuous flow of tourists determined to see an Angkor sunset.
It was a cloudy day that day though so it was no surprise that some people were no longer waiting for the sun to set. It’s a good thing since more tourists were still going up on the other side. I can only imagine how more crowded the temple can be if everyone waited for that famous sunset. If you’re going down past sunset, you might want a little flashlight with you. The steps of the stairway down Phnom Bakheng are the most narrow compared to some of the temples I got a chance to see in the past two days. One step was just two inches in width so make sure you’re ready to get intimate with a side of the stairway like you’ve never been before. At least there’s the sunset to help set the mood.