Built as a Hindu temple, Angkor Wat became a Buddhist temple. Then it was a Hindu temple again and afterwards a Buddhist temple. In the 13th century it was abandoned and rediscovered in 1860.
Today it’s an archeological museum – a Unesco World Heritage Site. I thought I’d gone there to see the sun rise over this ancient city. What I realised was that I was there to hear its story…
“WHAT time is sunrise?”
“About 5.30,” someone tells me in a whisper.
It’s almost 5am and I’ve just arrived in a tuk tuk at Angkor Wat from Siem Reap. The day is not too far off so I join the small crowd and take a seat on the steps around the edge of the moat which runs around this ancient temple.
Others arrive: Tourists with cameras, monks in saffron robes and local children who sell food.
“It’s just a matter of waiting,” says the voice.
I tell him that most places you can visit during the day but Angkor Wat needs to be seen at dawn. He says that he sees it almost everyday. It turns out he’s Cambodian and a guide here.
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He tells me that Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century by the Khmer Empire that ruled across Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. At the time, it was built for the Hindu gods but then it became a Buddhist temple, later a Hindu temple again and finally a Buddhist temple.
He said Angkor means Hindu temple while Wat means a Buddhist temple. When it was discovered by Frenchman Henri Mouhot in the 19th century, he’d asked the locals what it was called. They told him Angkor and Wat but Mouhot misunderstood.
I ask him why he comes for sunrise. He says he has early morning tour groups and that his mother has moved to Phnom Penh with her new husband.
The sunlight illuminates the temple’s five towers from behind. “Here it comes,” he says.
Minute by minute the complex is revealed. The moat water is silver white filled with lotus flowers. The people around us stand up and start taking thousands of photographs. The scene looks like a press pack – expecting Beyonce to rock up.
Built using sandstone this was once the largest city in the world: a metropolis of 1 million people, 1,000 years ago.
As we watch, he tells me this story: “Have you heard of the Khmer Rouge? They killed the clever ones – the professors, the doctors, and engineers.
“The ones still alive had no education – no reading, no writing, no nothing at all. My mum is one of them – she cannot read or write. My grandparents as well.
“My grandmum had 12 children. Five got killed because of the Killing Field and the ruling party.
“My father was arrested by Vietnamese family to go to jungle to chop up trees. The Killing Field army had put mines underground and when they go there they step on mine. Boom, boom, boom. So my uncle – boom – he step on mine. He still alive. His body is not right because of mine. My father didn’t step on mine but died when I was a baby. So we lost father, grandfather, uncle. Everybody has same story.
“Now after 40 years we calm down. We speak nice way to each other. Before we had guns on our shoulder, or stick, and we hit each other.”
He then points out the Rainbow Bridge that everyone will cross to enter the site when the sun comes up. He says that in Cambodia they consider this side of the bridge as being on earth and the other is inside heaven.
As he gets up to leave, he says: “Now I grow up and I can speak English and I tell people my story.”
And just like that, the night sky too was behind us.