Everyday, at around half past four, a pilgrimage of sorts – comprising tuk tuks (a local motorcycle taxi), mini-vans, and tour coaches – descend in droves to a sandstone causeway. Here, the pilgrims (a veritable mixed bag of nationalities) disembark.
Armed with torches on one hand, and swapping away bugs with the other, this multi-national army of devotees grope their way in the near pitch-darkness, up the stairs of the sandstone causeway, across a 200 metre-wide moat, up another several flight of stairs into a gopura, past a gigantic statue of the eight-armed Vishnu (not that they can see in the blackness). A multitude of languages can be heard, each coming from a tour guide barking instructions to their respective group of pilgrims “Stay close! Watch your step! Be careful!”
I joined these pilgrims on 15 March. And became one of them.
Another 200 metres, and the tottering troupe came to a halt, in front of a partially dried up pool. There, some of the pilgrims set up their camera tripods. Others inched themselves between gaps in hopes of a better view. A few local hawkers paddled coffee and tea to the swelling mass of devotees.
Everyday, hundreds make this pilgrimage to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat.
An hour passed.
The five corncob towers – the distinctive symbol of Angkor Wat and the national flag – peeked into view as the dark receded.
No sign of the sun.
Tired of waiting, some of the early arrivals started to make their way into the main temple. Some took out their picnic mats and lay them on the parched grass, and unpacked their sandwiches. A hawker approached them with promises of hot coffee or tea.
Another half-hour passed, and the full majesty of Angkor Wat quietly unveiled itself in the breaking dawn.
Still no sign of the sun.
I excused myself from the now thinning throng of pilgrims and made my way to one of the naga (multi-headed serpent) balustrades that line either side of a 475m-long avenue that leads from the main entrance to the central temple complex.
There, I dropped my backpack on the sidewalk and flicked open my Styrofoam-boxed breakfast that my hotel had packed for me. A couple of Indian bananas, five rambutans and a flaccid croissant with a small slab of butter.
Just then, the remnants of pilgrims that had gathered at the pool stirred to life. Cameras flashed. Fingers pointed.
I turned in the direction of the corncobs, and saw a luminescent coral pearl amongst them.
At 6.45 a.m., the sun finally rose on Angkor Wat. LS