Walking amongst a growing crowd on uneven ground at 5.30am in absolute darkness, I remind everyone that there’s water on their right-hand side – no-one can see it, there’s no current so you can’t hear it, but trust me it’s best not to veer too far over to the right.
We’re all looking down at our feet, there’s little else to see but when we do glance up and around we catch a few bright beams from various torches, mobile phones and even iPads being used to light the way. As we pass other people in the shadows, we hear languages from all over the world – Chinese, French, Korean, Japanese, some familiar English words…. And we can all feel the excitement and slight apprehension in the air. But we still don’t see anything at all.
“Where exactly is Angkor Wat?” someone asks our local guide and he directs us to stop and look ahead, “Can you see the five towers?”, he asks and a few reply“yes…”, with a hesitation that means not really, but once we’ve stopped walking and our eyes start to adjust to the black, one by one we start to make out the towers he’s described. Or at least, we all nod enthusiastically and give the impression that we can see something there. There’s definitely a big shadow, that’s maybe a bit taller in the middle?
We’ve stopped at the edge of some water just a couple of feet in front; some sit on the dusty square stones, others stand and peer over their heads, everyone straining to get their first glimpse. Although we can’t yet see it, we know we’re looking at the biggest temple in the world, and somewhere nearby are the walls of an ancient city that once numbered a million people – that’s right, the guide did say a million people lived here. As we look on expectantly, the occasional aroma of strong Cambodian coffee floats by, while we hear the vendors offering a cup in all the languages we heard en route. We hear camera shutters all around, and see a lot of blank screens – the light hasn’t come yet… but both the crowd and the anticipation is growing.
At first the sky seems to get just a little bit lighter all around and we giggle as someone says – “Oh, I see the towers now! I thought they were trees!” and then the colours start to appear. First it goes reddish, and as the intensity builds it also gets brighter with oranges and yellows starting to filter through. The black turns to blue and the reflection on the pool in front of us grows stronger. Cameras click in every direction, iPads are held higher, tripods placed firmly on the ground. The water gets lighter reflecting the sky above, and as the reds shine through stronger the colours seem to be changing every minute. People start to move around to get a different angle, and compare pictures, and camera settings. And as the sky becomes bright blue, some of the details on the temple become clear.
When we eventually turn to look behind us, we see that a lot of the crowd has started to move away – and we see the 200m causeway over the moat that we walked in on for the first time – but we hold still and keep our attention firmly on Angkor Wat. “Wait, just a little bit longer…” our guide suggests. But by now it’s daylight, and some are wondering what exactly we’re waiting for – it was beautiful, it surpassed everyone’s expectations and there are definitely no regrets about such an early start. And then just as we’re thinking maybe it really is time to move on – the crowd is mostly gone – the sun peaks over the top, and slightly to right of the central tower… and it’s breath-taking. As the bright yellow sphere rises, the temple becomes a silhouette in the foreground once again, and everyone stops in their tracks to capture this majestic sight.
The day has barely begun, it’s not even 7am, but the beams on the faces all around are as bright as the sun itself, and we all know this is a very special day, one we’ll surely remember for a very long time to come.