Angkor Temples: Angkor Wat & Banteay Kdei

By Jane | April 12, 2014

Angkor Wat for sunrise is a bucket list classic. Everyone who’s done it says it’s monumental; everyone who hasn’t done it wants to.

My desire to get there for sunrise today was purely photographic. I wanted to be on the Angkor grounds, at some secondary temple, or roaming the roads, during the first golden light of the day. We’re hardly ever outside at magic hour, and this was my big opportunity to shoot the most impressive stuff in the most impressive light.

However, the forecast was not encouraging.

Thunder, lighting, and rain.

With that forecast, there would be no magic hour, there would be no golden light. Getting up in the dark and riding our bikes to Angkor in the rain, only to not see the sun rise behind a bank of dark clouds was not in the least appealing.

So instead, we set our alarms for the late late hour of 5am.

Tomorrow Comes Today

As it turns out, the Cambodians are almost as bad at weather forecasts as Italians. It wasn’t exactly a beautiful sunny morning, but the light was pretty as we left the hotel. Riding towards Angkor, I could see my golden light fading as the sun soared quickly into the sky, becoming a harsh round disk of white heat.

We arrived at the east gate (which is the back door) of Angkor Wat just before 7am.

Golden light at the east gate, Angkor Wat.

Golden light at the east gate, Angkor Wat.

The guidebooks had recommended this as the perfect time to see the main attraction without all the crowds. For once, the guidebooks were right. It was pleasantly empty. The sunrise crowds had moved on, and the late risers hadn’t arrived yet.

The size of the Angkor Wat crowds seems to be outrageously exaggerated. It is totally possible to avoid them, without too much effort.

We spent an hour or two poking around all the nooks and crannies in the wat, and we came across maybe a dozen other people at most.

When you line this up against physically smaller sites – like the Mona Lisa, or The Sistine Chapel, or Plitvice National Park – it was more or less deserted.

Wat-ever

Angkor Wat itself is too tidy and restored for my taste. It didn’t excite my imagination the way the Royal Palace or Ta Prohm had done yesterday.

Yes, the building is impressive.

And yes, the carvings are magnificent.

But it didn’t change my life.

It makes me feel jaded to not be blown away by the temples of Angkor, but for some reason, I couldn’t get fired up about the people who built these vast structures.

Stephen’s note: I fear my cynicism about the temples may have rubbed off on Jane.

"I wish I was in bed right now." Stephen at Angkor Wat.

“I wish I was in bed right now.” Stephen at Angkor Wat.

Maybe it’s because we’ve been doing the ancient wat trail since we entered Thailand at Chiang Saen. Like the cathedrals of Europe, once you’ve seen a few dozen, you never need to go inside another one ever again. Maybe it’s traveller’s ennui. Maybe it’s because we missed sunrise.

Probably, it’s because there is so much fascinating modern life going on all around, that in comparison, the ancient stone monuments seem lifeless and cold.

If I could do it over, I’d have spent an extra day trundling through the countryside on my bike, and skipped day two at Angkor.

Then again, if we’d done that, we would have missed out on Banteay Kdei, which ended up being my favourite temple.

Kdei Mate

For a start, there was a mother cow nursing her baby in the forecourt. And not a statue, two actual cows. How cute is that?

Approach to Banteay Kdei.

Approach to Banteay Kdei.

The temple looks like it will fall over at any minute. Two of the towers are held together with nothing more than a bit of strapping and sheer will.

Held together with spit 'n' glue, Banteay Kdei.

Held together with spit ‘n’ glue, Banteay Kdei.

The walls are all askew and there are mounds of heavy, displaced stones everywhere.

Tourist group in Kdei.

Tourist group in Kdei.

I don’t know what it is about these untouched sites that are more appealing, but there is a mystique to them that doesn’t exist in the more touristy temples.

Walking through, I found I was far more interested in discovering the little carvings and special corners than I was at Angkor Wat, where everything you are supposed to see is pre-ordained and sign-posted.

There was even the element of danger at Banteay Kdei. When we first entered one of the side halls, we spotted a huge spider hanging about 8 feet off the ground.

Ready to drop onto unsuspecting tourists, at Banteay Kdei.

Ready to drop onto unsuspecting tourists, at Banteay Kdei.

Not only did it send chills through my body (spiders are not my favourite), it also made me feel as though I was not the 10,000th person walking around this temple today.

A little later, I almost walked right into this guy:

Hand-sized spider at Banteay Kdei.

Hand-sized spider at Banteay Kdei.

Now, I’m not sure you understand how horrified I would have been if I had actually made physical contact with this hand-sized monster. The idea of it crawling on me is… shudder. But since I only almost walked into it, it lent some thrill to the experience.

As we were leaving the grounds a little later, we rode past Angkor Wat one last time. Without really thinking about it, I said to Stephen:

We’ll probably never see Angkor Wat again.

Despite our lack of wonder at these monuments, a little sadness crept in as we rode through the heat and the dust, back into present day.  

Want to see the route map? View it on Ride With GPS.

7 comments

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  4. Comment by Michael Moldofsky

    Michael Moldofsky Reply April 20, 2014 at 8:13 am

    The weather must be awful with the heat. Come June July will be even worse and even less travelers. You’re there at a good time!

    You’ve gotten GREAT at photo taking.

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane April 21, 2014 at 1:53 am

      Thanks for the comment about the photos Michael. I still have a long way to go, but I am getting better!

      The heat isn’t so bad, as long as we have a pool or a river to jump into every now and then. The only time it’s really terrible is when we stop for a break during our rides – then we become disgusting sweat-slicked creatures. Good for the pores I guess.

  5. Comment by Fiona

    Fiona Reply April 20, 2014 at 6:55 am

    Amazing photos and interesting insights! I have to admit, though it was an incredible thing to do, two days of temples felt enough for me and my favourite thing I did there was a cycle tour of the countryside and local villages.

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane April 21, 2014 at 1:54 am

      Thanks Fiona. I thought those cycling tours looked like they’d be fantastic – it would be great if more people would leave the sanctity of the Angkor grounds and check out the surrounding area.

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