If you are wondering where tourists in Cambodia go during sunset, you’ll probably find half of them at Phnom Bakheng (Bakheng Hill). The hike uphill is challenging but manageable. Once you reach the base of the temple, you still need to climb up some steps before reaching all the way to the top. At the summit, you have to fight with 300+ other people for a small space to sit while waiting for the sun to set. After sunset, you need to quickly make your way down the path while there’s still some daylight left to see where you are going.
That’s if you want to catch the sunset at Phnom Bakheng.
In order to beat the crowd, we decided to catch the sunrise instead! Not taking any chances, we left the hotel 1.5 hours before dawn. Our tuk-tuks took us down the road along the glistening Angkor moat and pulled up beside a forested area. At 5:00 in the morning, there was no one else around except a security guard. Looks like the six of us are the first ones to arrive! Yippee! A few feet behind the guard, I could see the faint outline of the entrance leading up to Bakheng Hill.
We are told to wait while our tour guide speaks to the security guard. They are talking in Cambodian and in hushed tones. What’s going on? Our Tour Guide walks towards us. Bad news! The guard will not allow us to go up. It’s way too dark and unsafe to be walking up the deserted pathway. We will have to wait until 6:00am for daylight before being allowed entry.
Some more discussions. Another 3 minutes go by. We are asked to show our Angkor Passes. The guard gestures us to go past. Bribery is too strong a word. We should just say “coffee money” instead.
It took us about 18 minutes to hike from the base of the hill to the base of Bakheng Temple. The entire path was in darkness. We had to use flashlights to make our way through a winding trail along the hill. Except for the sound of our footsteps and noises from the jungle, the pilgrimage up was eerily silent.
The trail opened up to a plateau. To my left were huge stone walls and beyond them, the quiet silhouette of a huge structure under the night sky. We made out way around the walls and in front of us, standing on raised ground, was Bakheng Temple! Then, it was undertaking the steep climb up the narrow flight of wooden steps that leads straight to the temple’s summit.
If you would like to experience how the kings of ancient times went from one place to another, you might want to go up Bakheng Hill on the back of an elephant. Elephants were key to the construction of the Angkor temples as they provided the main mode of transport in view of their strength and obedience. The rides are only available from about 5:00pm till sunset. It’s about $20 for a ride up and $15 for a ride down. Each elephant can carry two persons. The uphill climb takes about 20 to 30 minutes whether walking or sitting on an elephant.
Phnom Bakheng (Bakheng Hill), was the first major temple constructed in the late 9th and early 10th century. This is the most solitary place in all of Angkor. Today, only ruins remain but what is left behind is enough to give an idea of the glorious days it enjoyed many centuries ago.
At the summit it is very still. The air is crisp, smelling of an early morning. We are isolated from the world. We position our tripods and wait.
A few minutes go by.
The darkness begins to lose its intensity. The dawn breaks so unobtrusively that you are not aware of it…until you look up and realise that the world is no longer dark.
A new Angkor day has begun!