They say Angkor Wat is the eighth wonder of the world, with the intricacy and symbolism of the Taj Mahal and the scale and symmetry of the Egyptian pyramids. It had been on my travel wish list since I was a teenager and our two-week trip through Vietnam and Cambodia was designed around seeing this one building - albeit the largest religious building in the world.
The launchpad for Angkor is Siem Reap. Friends who visited ten years ago described it as 'dusty little streets with artisan crafts'. Getting there was supposed to be an exclusive expedition. Today, however, giant neon signs point to 'Pub Street' and Western cover bands blast from the bars. Cheap flights connect Siem Reap to the rest of Asia and tourists come in their thousands, every day. However, our sweltering seven-hour bumpy bus from the capital, Phnom Penh, meant we were at least earning our wonder. And we hoped that a dawn start at Angkor the next day might allow some privacy.
Arriving outside the temple, the moonlight caught a huge body of water, a moat over a mile long. I hadn't been ready for such scale and ambition in architecture. My girlfriend and I picked our way across the bridge and through the outer wall into the inner complex. And there it was, appearing in the half-light as the sun rose behind it, the towers of Angkor Wat. It was reassuringly breathtaking. But we weren't alone - the soft light revealed thousands of others, almost clambering over each other, all sold the 'dawn package'. As the temple moved out of its cloak of silhouette, we stood as a saluting army of raised arms and our cameras clicked, echoing the surrounding jungle of crickets.
Of course, there are dozens of temples at the Angkor complex. We persisted through the heat and humidity to giant Buddhist carvings and fig trees growing entwined in ancient bricks as if building sets for Indiana Jones. All the while the others were there, and I persistently and carefully angled my camera to avoid them, as I tried to convince myself we had the place to ourselves. But it was an illusion. It was like taking photos at the zoo and pretending you were on safari.
We made it through to sunset on the top of view-giving Pre Rup temple, with 150 others vying for space. The selfie sticks were clashing against each other as the excited crowd posed by pretending to catch the sun or even swallow it. As our illuminating companion for the day was finally consumed by the trees, the others descended, ushered by an officious guard. But we loitered, still trying to catch our private moment and here it was. The guard, thinking the temple top was cleared, paused and softened. He sat down and looked out to the distant red sky and he smiled. The secret pleasure he'd been waiting for all day was the exclusive experience we'd come to find.Suggest a correction