I took one last look at the mass of tourists painstakingly trying to bargain with their tuk-tuk drivers before I got on my worn-out bike and rode away from them.
It was 3:30 in the morning when the alarm rang in my tiny hostel room and I couldn’t believe I, an infamous lazy bun, could actually find some motivation to get on my feet at the time I usually got to bed.
But this day was not like any other. It was different because I was in Siem Reap, only a couple miles away from a place everyone dreamed of but not everyone had the chance to see: the ancient Khmer city of Angkor.
At 4am, I was riding the bike I had rent the previous day for a mere dollar, ready to explore the temples I had only seen on paper glass so far.
The streets of Siem Reap were completely empty, apart from one or two late nighters going out of a convenience store, and the whole city looked completely different from its usual self, packed with overcrowded tour buses and roaming tuk-tuk carelessly driven, its chauffeurs oblivious to the anxious look on their clients’ faces.
The closer I got to the gate to Angkor though, the more nervous I became, as tuk-tuk full of smug tourists that weren’t there before started to overtake me and my already tired legs cycling furiously not to be left in the distance.
I had to stop at the entrance to show the US$40 3-day pass I had purchased late the day before to buy some time before I finally was allowed into the straight road that would lead me up to the indescribable sight of Angkor Wat emerging from the dark under a rising sun.
Tourists had come en masse to witness the sunrise all their travel agencies had warmly recommended they should see and I must admit I and my friends stopped alongside them to enjoy this miracle of a shadowy world wonder coming to life under the dimly pink light of an early morning’s sky.
But I had not cycled all the way from Siem Reap to do what every tourist on their comfy seats could do so I got back on my saddle and turned left of Angkor Wat towards Angkor Thom and its infamous Bayon.
I crossed the south gate bridge to Angkor Thom with its range of ancient figures carved in stone, guardian gods pulling the head of a snake on the left and demon gods pulling its tail on the right.
There wasn’t anyone in sight, prompting me to pause in awe at the surreal beauty of the place.
It was almost 5am. A local fisherman was spreading its net onto the basin and me and my travel foes were alone in Angkor contemplating the architectural wonders of an ancient civilization subtly lit by a pale and still a bit shy orange sun. Five minutes ago, we were stormed by a thousand ecstatic voices and the pollution coming out of an army of buses.
We woke up of our epiphany to ride across a stone tower whose carved faces were watching our every move and headed towards the Bayon Temple, one of the sights we were longing to see the most.
After a short ride, we arrived at a roundabout, attempting not to run over the families of monkeys sitting not so quietly on the road, and parked our bicycles.
Not one of us uttered a sound, as if speaking out would have disrupted the peacefulness of the place or simply disturbed the thousand smiling faces of Buddha waking up after hundreds of nights of sleep.
We entered the monumental structure through one of the side gates, only followed by a local guide trying to find a way not to fall back into the arms of Morpheus.
There was raw beauty everywhere we looked, even though the heads were missing on the neck of most statues after being savagely cut and traded on the black market by art plunders. But the bas-reliefs were splendid enough in their intricate details to bring back memories of the prosperous civilization that had reached such degrees of artistic perfection.
I then climbed to the top of the temple before anyone else and eerily wandered among towers adorned with a face of Buddha on each of their four sides, occasionally visited by an adventurous monkey paying tribute to some unique craft underlining sheer human genius.
By the time the sun was up higher in the sky, we had been joined by a dozen more tourists, highly expectant of the same overwhelming feeling of pure astonishment and genuine bliss.
Our bikes were still waiting for us by the side of the road so we kept riding towards the Baphuon Temple and the nearby Terrace of the Elephants and Prasat Preah Ensemble.
For a little while in this early morning, me and my travel partners were ahead of all the other tourists who were taken from one site to another by the will of their bus driver and we were entering one almost empty temple after another, as if Angkor belonged to us for at least one tiny amount of time.
At the end of the day, after waking up from a much-deserved nap with the chant of the muezzin of a mosque close by, I felt like I had actually gotten intimate with Angkor. It had shared its story with me and I had gladly received it, now hoping to wake in the middle of the night every day that would follow and hop on my bike just to get one more taste of the true Angkor.
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