The temples of Angkor
Our tuk tuk driver, Mr Chun, was waiting as we emerged from our hotel at 4:30am, remarkably cheery considering the uncivilised hour and rain that had forced him into a plastic poncho. We headed out of town towards Angkor Archaeological Park, an area of 400 sq km containing the remains of over 200 temples from the Khmer Empire, the most famous of which is Angkor Wat.
Visitors had already begun to gather in their hundreds at the large lily pond in front of the temple, eager to watch the sun rise over this magnificent ancient monument, but we somehow managed to squeeze our way to the very front. Finally, the skies cleared, dawn broke and the silhouette of those colossal stone towers slowly emerged against the blue-grey sky. She was a beauty.
The sheer vastness of Angkor Wat meant that even with thousands of visitors sharing the space it never felt overwhelmingly crowded. We took our time exploring the shady colonnades and Gallery of Bas-Reliefs, containing 12,917 square feet of stunningly preserved sandstone carvings.
Over the next three days, Mr Chun ferried us back and forth in his trusty tuk tuk to more than 20 temple ruins (we requested to see some of them twice), all of which were magnificent in their own way. The maze-like 12th century Bayon, with its 200 gigantic smiling Buddha faces carved into the rock was a firm favourite.
Atmospheric and astonishingly beautiful, the mysterious Ta Prohm (of Tomb Raider fame) was a stark reminder of the awesome power of nature. It had been left almost exactly as it was when discovered in the 1800s (unlike most others restored to appear as they would when built) and over the years, massive tree roots had split through the ancient stone ruins.
We made two inspired purchases during our temple tour. First was splashing £5 on a guide book detailing the history and symbolism of all the Angkor temples. Second was a massive bag of lollypops to distract the dozens of local kids who would surround our tuk tuk at every stop and beg for a dollar. They were capable of chatting away in a least five different languages while looking unbelievably gorgeous at the same time.
Apart from lollies, our only defence against this onslaught of cuteness was to ask them why they weren’t in school today, to which would first scowl, then giggle (claiming it was holiday time), then skip away to harass another unsuspecting foreigner.