Advantages The atmosphere, the view towards Angkor Wat
Disadvantages Can be crowded at some times of the day
A Step in the Dark
Digi-photos taken*, passes issued, we are ushered back into the car and driven off into the woods where it is still pitch dark. (* If you don't look good at that time of day, think about going the night before, passes issued after 5pm give you that evening as a bonus & the clock starts ticking the following morning.)
Walking up the hill in the pre-dawn gloom with an occasional bird-call and little else to hear. Clamber the steep steps of the temple itself to sit and wait, watching for the sun to come up just to the south of Angkor Wat, shrouded in the distant mist.
Fewer than a dozen people have chosen this spot to greet this day. It isn't the traditional view that you will find in all the travel brochures. For Piroum, our guide, and as it turns out for me too, that is the point.
Me? I'll settle for being contrary. For that walk in the dark up a winding track, not knowing what was waiting at the summit. For wishing I'd had the sense to bring my torch and wear boots rather than sandals. For the silence among the grey towers. For first seeing the lions from above, and for watching Angkor Wat's towers appear as just so many more trees in the forest and that first sight of the sun, well above the horizon, clearing the murk, a very solid, round balloon of yellow and red.
Phnom Bakheng was built round about the turn of the 9th/10th centuries. Dedicated during the reign of Yasovarman I. It is the earliest of the temples in the area, being the first one constructed when Yasovarman moved the capital to Angkor from Roulos
It's believed that the hill is natural but that it was originally enclosed by a moat and outer walls. Foundations of the four gopuras at cardinal compass points have been traced, and stairways still lead up from three of them. It is possible that the fourth, to the south, was never completed.
The Eastern staircase is the main entrance, but in the darkness we took the winding "elephant path" on the southern flanks, missing the close up view of the (much later) Buddha footprint shrine that graces the paved way between the stairs. The name is probably apocryphal but with ever an eye on the tourist dollar it is now possible during the middle of the day to ascend this route by pachyderm. Not something I'd personally recommend.
In terms of scale and detail of the remains Phnom Bakheng might fall into the also-rans in the league of Angkorian riches, but if you can catch it at first light, it provides an experience that is just a little bit special and worth the pre-breakfast excursion.
For those who have not accessed the info in earlier reviews: the Angkorian temples are located a couple of miles north Siem Reap. Admission is by way of a pass valid for a day, three consecutive days, or a week (currently costing $20, $40 and $60 respectively). Passes are purchased at the large official entrance on the road to Angkor Wat and include a digital photograph taken on the spot. They cover all of the temples in the area and must be worn at all times. You will find officials in all the popular and remote areas of the complex and will get used to them subtly checking your picture as you pass. If your pass is not visible you will be asked to produce it.
As with the entire Angkorian area, access for those of limited mobility is limited by the nature of the sites.
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