Sun & splendour

Sun & splendour

Watching the monuments of Angkor Wat in the first rays of dawn makes for a spellbinding experience for Bhanu Ramaswami, who takes in the beauty of the ancient land of Cambodia

Setting the alarm for a 4.45 am wake-up call was the easy part. Grabbing a quick cup of coffee, getting dressed and stepping out in the next 15 minutes was the hard one. But just the anticipation of the celebrated viewing of Angkor Wat by sunrise is enough to get the groggiest of us bright eyed and bushy tailed. Within minutes, our Cambodian driver and guide Aung Rang was speeding us away on the quiet smooth road to the temple complex on the outskirts of Seim Reap town.

Ten minutes was all it took to get there, and in that inky predawn darkness with a few twinkling stars, there was nothing to indicate that we were at the site of one of the world’s great wonders. We warily groped our way out of the parking lot. Sharp, darting beams of light greeted us and high pitched voices in the dark cajoled us to buy a flashlight each. “It vely vely dark madam, if no light, you trip and fall. Just 5 dollaah! Take one please.” When one can’t see beyond one’s nose in dark, it just seems a good idea to not haggle over the price, but grab one of those overpriced pencil torches and be on your way.

Before sunrise

All we could see were several other shadowy figures, all herded in a general direction, voices cautioning us to be careful as we negotiated wooden steps and uneven ground with the wee beam of light ahead. Something like a temple dome loomed on the horizon, or could they be tops of trees? Against the still dark sky, the trees and a few arched shapes made an eerie silhouette on the horizon. A shot of excitement ran through. A general mass of humanity was making its way towards a clearly discernible water body and we found ourselves taking vantage positions on straw mats placed along its banks.

There was palpable excitement in the air, like some earth shattering event was about to explode. Looks like we were not the only enthusiastic eager beavers. I turned around to find that in minutes, dozens of men and women had quietly gathered, and judging by the diversity of people and the babble of tongues, a mini United Nations is out there.

Avid photographers set up tripods, while the less professional amongst us got ready with our simpler gadgets for that Kodak moment. The darting torch beams picked out groups of lotus pads on the water surface. Here and there, I saw small pretty little lotus buds waiting to bloom, while the invisible cicadas kept up a steady background chorus. Shrill local voices weaved among the crowd offering tea and coffee. In the mild chill of a dark night, most welcome! A slip of a girl, calling herself Lady Gaga, gently admonished those who turned her down. “This my mat, mister. If you sit on my mat, you buy my tea, not free!” Hot cherry tea to sip, we settled down more comfortably, trying not to let the buzzing mosquitoes bother us.

Experience of a lifetime

The hush is now a gentle murmur, as the sky turns just a little paler by very early light. While I wait, I ponder. Would I ever be sitting at this place and time, but for that curious Frenchman who chanced upon this magnificent monument, completely swallowed by dense jungle foliage, hidden from the world for centuries? A faint tinge of pink heightens the forms further.

Yes, it’s now easier to tell the tops of trees from the temple domes. Over the next few minutes, more pink and orange streaks and thrusting out majestically into the gradually lightening sky is the taller central dome, like a lotus bud before bloom. Or a giant hand pressed together in salutation to the divine almighty. A tribute to Lord Vishnu perhaps, as it all began centuries ago? Beside it, I counted shorter domes, one, two, three in all, a fourth seemed partly camouflaged. The outline of each dome is defined by a characteristic serrated edging, set against a sky that is showing its first tinge of pale blue. The pinks and oranges soon deepen their hues and we pray that those pesky clouds will not play spoilsport. It’s anyone’s guess just where the sun will spring up. Between the first and second domes? Or, dramatically behind the main gopura?

The lotus pond shows up a clear inverted mirror image of the gopuras, and the first of the cameras clicked all around me. Some of the lotus blooms had partially opened up and a swift flight of a water bird disturbed the tranquility. Cameras are still being adjusted and vantage positions shifted as the sun is about to make its debut. The quiet murmur is back again on hush mode. Then there he was — the Sun God himself. Against a magical canvas of sky, clouds and light rays, wreathed with scarlet, pink, orange and yellow streaks, he blazed forth in glorious splendour. The ancient ruins saw yet another dawn.

The golden orb peeped out from a little beyond the last dome. Stunning, overwhelming, awe-inspiring, Angkor Wat stepped out in full regalia.

More etched design details were now evident in the towering gopuras, arising out of a base of long pillared corridors. The shining rays darted playfully between the structures, creating a stunning mirror reflection of it in the still clear waters of the lotus lake. It made for a most dramatic photo opportunity, and flashlights popped all around us in a frenzy of click click click. The murmurs moved octaves higher into a babble of loud discussions. The sighting was over! A flurry of activity and movement as cameras and tripods were wound and put back. Some hurry towards the main temple complex, already impatient to begin their explorations. Others like me wanted a hearty breakfast at the hotel first, before we were back later.

There is lots of time yet to discover the magic of Angkor and the mystical temples at Bayon, Baphuon, Banteay Shrei, Ta Phrom and beyond. To hear of its legendary Khmer kings, to revel in the glory of great  Khmer empires of the Suryavarman and the Jayavarmans between the 9th and 12th centuries, of  the flipflop between the faiths as the original Hindu temple became Buddhist and Hindu in turns, as each whimsical ruler professed his chosen faith. I may not have done the Taj by moonlight yet. But The Angkor Wat by sunrise — I ticked it off on my bucket list.  In my own time, at my own pace, I shall delve deep, explore, discover and marvel, at this awe-inspiring monument in the Kingdom of Wonder.

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