Angkor Wat at Night

My day exploring the Angkor temples on the Grand Circuit was long and tiring, but very eventful and overall satisfying. I was done with every temple I wanted to visit and still had my bike with me, despite an attempt to steal it. It only further affirmed the notion I gained after my first day at AngkorCambodians are not nice people and one needs to always watch out while in the country. Nevertheless, I survived another day and since the sun was getting low, it was time to start making my way to Angkor Wat for one more coconut before heading home.

Finding Prasat Tonle Sngout Temple

I made an attempt to find the ruins of Prasat Tonle Sngout – a temple that’s off the main road, but according to the map, just by the side road that branches off the Grand Circuit at the bend north of Angkor Thom North Gate, across the road from Krol Romeas. I took that road and followed it for a few kilometers but found nothing. Locals in the areas – there were beyond plenty of them – were not only not helpful, but showed undeniable signs of hostility as this road clearly lead to a highly populated area but no foreigners ever go that way so I was seen as an invader of space beyond my limits. I tried never the less, but gave up after a while, returning to the relative safety of the paved road on the Grand Circle. Without wasting any more time getting off the road, I headed straight down south to meet with my coconut friends again.

Photo: Rain Cloud Rolling Over Angkor Wat at Dawn
Photo: Rain Cloud Rolling Over Angkor Wat at Dawn

By that time, both weather and daylight started to change rapidly. Dark clouds rolled in out of nowhere and covered the sky, giving me just enough time to make it to the concession area in front of main temple of Angkor Wat before the first drops of rain started to fall. Since 6pm – the official closing time at Angkor Archaeological Park – was only minutes away, not only were there hardly any tourists still in the temple when I arrived, the looming rainfall also rushed the touts and concession stalls owners to quickly start packing and prepare to leave. I was pretty darn tired after a whole day of riding in the sun and wanted to take a breather before the last leg of my journey so the imminence of rain was of no concern to me. I just wanted say “Hi” to the girls and have my coconut before leaving the area entirely.

Photo: Heavy Rain at Angkor Wat Just Before the Night
Photo: Heavy Rain at Angkor Wat Just Before the Night

Angkor Wat at Night

Being already a loyal and regular customer, the girls still served me my coconut but said their good byes soon after. By the time I was finished with this delicious fruit, not only were they gone, but so was virtually everyone else. Only myself, who couldn’t be distraught by the rain and wanted his minute of rest while recharging with a coconut and other two people stayed to hang around. The other two – a mother and her daughter – took advantage of the fact that rain scared everyone away and dusk fell on Angkor Wat and used it to collect Lotus flowers from the pond in the temple – the one which makes for the most photogenic pictures of Angkor Wat. It is otherwise illegal to pick up the Lotus flowers from the pond, as it is an essential tourist attraction in Angkor Wat, but the APSARA people who have the authority to enforce the rule were not around and I clearly showed that I didn’t care, so the mother went into the pool (it was raining so much, she would be drenched wet anyway) to pluck up the stems of the edible plant, while her daughter crouched at the edge to take what her mother collected. APSARA rips locals off enough as it is – I found it only fair that the locals take some of what is theirs for themselves too. This family needed food to eat and this was their opportunity.

Photo: Cambodian Woman Stealing Lotus Petals from the Pool Before Angkor Wat
Photo: Cambodian Woman Stealing Lotus Petals from the Pool Before Angkor Wat

Being so close to the equator, the day changes into the night very quickly in Cambodia. In a manner of minutes, everything went from hot day and bright daylight, into overcast sky and pitch darkness. Still hot as all hell, but now also extra moist due to heavy rainfall. My camera bag is rainproof so the camera was safe. I was feeling content having had a fairly successful day so I didn’t let the rain get the best of me. On the contrary, I thought this was a great opportunity for me to experience what most people who visit Angkor don’t get to experience – see and photograph Angkor Wat at Night. Everybody was gone. The two ladies who were still there were on a mission of their own. I didn’t mess with their business, so they didn’t mess with mine. So as the rain kept pouring down and night engulfed the temple, I had an opportunity to become the king of Angkor Wat. I explored it all over again, enjoying the environment without hassle of touts and obstruction of thousands of tourists. Without planning it, or even considering it in any way, I happen upon an experience which I haven’t even thought of taking on.

Photo: Trio of Palm Trees at Angkor Wat Photographed Against the Night Sky
Photo: Trio of Palm Trees at Angkor Wat Photographed Against the Night Sky

There isn’t much to Angkor Wat at night, though the fact that you can stand in the middle of the causeway and take a picture with not a single person on it was remarkable. This is nigh impossible these days as thousands visit Angkor Wat every day. What I found interesting was that none of the vendors locked any of their merchandise up. It would be highly impractical to take all the merchandise with them every evening, only to haul it back every morning so they leave it all there. The stalls are sheltered by thatched roofs and before leaving, the vendors cover them up with large sheets of fabric but somehow the understanding that this stuff is not to be touched when the owner is not around remains deeply embedded in people’s minds and they don’t take it lightly. It could be because unlike with most other temples, these stalls were within the walls of Angkor Wat and Cambodians seem to become different people when they walk on a holy ground (except from the rapists, who use it to their advantage and there are more than too many of them in Cambodia). I noticed that when I first visited the Preah Prom Rath Pagoda in Siem Reap. Tuk Tuk drivers would be harassing me relentlessly no matter where in Siem Reap I was, but as soon as I walked within the pagoda, even though Tuk Tuk drivers were there, they all left me alone. Hypocrisy of the highest caliber as they’re nothing like what they are in a temple, when they are outside, but there was nothing I could do about it.

Photo: Causeway Before Angkor Wat Can Only Be Seen This Free From Tourists At Night
Photo: Causeway Before Angkor Wat Can Only Be Seen This Free From Tourists At Night

Photos of Angkor Wat Illuminated at Night

Even though I did stay at Angkor Wat at night, I didn’t get a chance to take any photos of the temple illuminated with external lights. I’ve seen such pictures on the internet, but I don’t understand how and when they were taken. Angkor Wat was not illuminated when I stayed there at night but most of all – I have not seen any light fixture anywhere around it and this area has (purposefully) no electricity. I simply don’t have an answer as to how these pictures could have been taken. Perhaps portable lights and power generators are used on some occasions (New Year?) to illuminate the temple, but at the time of my visit, it didn’t seem like any form of illumination existed. Besides – all visitors are expected to be the hell out of Angkor by 6pm anyway, which is when it starts getting dark – so installation of light fixture would make no sense as there would be no tourists to see the temples illuminated against the nightly skies. And since I never enquired with anyone who might know how and when the pictures of Angkor Wat illuminated at night were taken, I still don’t have an answer to that.

Photo: Not Illuminated, But Nicely Showing Silhouette of Angkor Wat Reflecting in the Pool at Night
Photo: Not Illuminated, But Nicely Showing Silhouette of Angkor Wat Reflecting in the Pool at Night

After getting properly drenched with rain (it actually felt better than being drenched with sweat, which was the case of most of the day prior to coming to Angkor Wat) and snapping a few pictures of Angkor Wat at Night, I walked out of the temple, mounted my bike and rode through the rain to Siem Reap. I could not wait to meet with Ha again and tell her all about some kids trying to steal my bike earlier. Needless to say, my decision to stay at Angkor Wat for the night meant that I missed the English language lecture at Preah Prom Rath temple, but that was OK for a day. And what a day it was.

Angkor Wat in Good Lighting Photo Gallery

Unaware of the issues with lighting, I made the same mistake most of the people visiting Angkor Archaeological Park make and started my small circuit tour with Angkor Wat. Because Angkor Wat faces west (very unusual for a temple), the face of it is shaded in the morning light with the sun acting as strong backlight making for pictures that are not very visually flattering. That’s why it’s best to change the itinerary and start the small circuit tour with Banteay Kdei so by the time you get to Angkor Wat, it will be late afternoon with sun illuminating the face of the temple, allowing for all the details to stand out and gain three dimensional depth. Unlike my morning photo gallery of Angkor Wat which features the temple in bad lighting, this late afternoon gallery features it in good lighting and lets its magnificence take flight.

Because outdoor lighting has little effect on areas inside the temple, I only focused on taking pictures of the temple’s exterior which gets affected by bad lighting the most (as far as the photography is involved). The basin on the north side of the central causeway, right by the shops full of touts and pestering kids is the best spot to take pictures of Angkor Wat. By standing by the basin you will get a slightly angled view of the central temple so all of its five towers can be seen while basin will reflect that view for a stunning mirror image with the sky getting an extra vivid hue densed by the water.

I backtracked directly to Angkor Wat after cutting my small circuit tour short. Upon reaching the Chau Say Tevoda Temple I decided to be done exploring any new temples due to unbearable heat and relentless and hostile con artists. The Angkor experience is greatly bastardized by pushy locals and fighting them off is an extremely tiring struggle which you are bound to lose. You can’t truly appreciate something you are not allowed to enjoy. By the time an afternoon comes, you can read the same message from the face of every foreigner – enough already, please! It takes a great deal of effort to shake off any one of those Angkor touts yet there is never any end to them. As if struggling with intense heat was not bad enough, you will constantly have someone breathing down your neck, pressuring you from every side to trick you into buying worthless junk from them. No matter how impressive the temples of Angkor may in fact be, if you can’t even take a picture without someone bothering you, the entire experience gets bastardized.

Angkor Wat Bas Reliefs

I got back down from to the first level of Angkor Wat Central Temple to explore the bas reliefs covering most of the wall’s exterior. 600 meters of the surrounding wall is covered with 2 meters high bas reliefs. In addition, the interiors of south-west and north-west corner pavilions are also covered in bas reliefs. South-east and north-east corner pavilions were left uncarved as the construction of Angkor Wat was halted after death of god-king Suryavarman II.

Since there is no artificial lighting anywhere in Angkor Wat, as a photographer you are left with available light. When it comes to bas reliefs, the light comes in from the opposite side of the walkway which contains pillars supporting the upper floor. Because of that you are gonna end up with inconsistently illuminated photographs. It gets even worse with vertical light. Two meters high bas reliefs are much darker on top, near the ceiling than they are towards the bottom. Yet they are visually spectacular and a sight to behold. It is my understanding that these bas reliefs are considered the pinnacle of Angkorian-era artform.

Photo: Bas Reliefs Surround Central Angkor Wat - This One Depicts Battle of Kuru
Photo: Bas Reliefs Surround Central Angkor Wat - This One Depicts Battle of Kurukshetra

The most famous and most important bas relief and their locations are listed below:

  • Battle of Kurukshetra – along the south wing of the west gallery and the interior of the south-west corner pavillion
  • Procession of Suryavarman II – along the west wing of the south gallery
  • Judgement of Yama and Heaven and Hell – along the east wing of the south gallery
  • Churning of the Sea of Milk – along the south wing of the east gallery
  • Battle of Lanka – along the north wing of the west gallery and the interior of the north-west pavillion

Other bas-reliefs on the walls and their locations are:

  • Battle of Devas and Asuras – along the west wing of the north gallery
  • Victory of Krishna over Bana – along the east wing of the north gallery
  • Victory of Vishnu over the Asuras – along the north wing of the east gallery

Interior of the south-west corner pavilion contains following bas reliefs:

  • Churning of the Sea of Milk
  • Shiva and the Hermits
  • Life of Krishna
  • Ravana shakes M. Kailasa
  • Shiva kills Kama
  • Rama kills Valin
  • Shiva in Meditation
  • Vishnu receives offerings
  • Water festival at Dvaravati
  • Lifting Mt Govardhana
  • Rama chases the golden deer Maricha

Interior of the north-west corner pavilion contains following bas reliefs:

  • Sita’s trial by fire
  • Rama’s return to Ayodhya
  • Rama, Lakshmana and Vibhisana
  • Hanuman gives Sita Rama’s ring
  • Rama and Lakshmana battle Kabandha
  • Rama wins Sita in an archery competition
  • Krishna brings back Mt. Mahaparvata
  • Rama and Lakshmana form alliance with Sugriva
  • Vishnu reclining is petitions by gods
  • Rama and Lakshmana slay Viradha
Photo: Bas Relief Depicts the Battle of Kuru Against Armies of Cham Lead by Angkor Wat Founder Suryavarman II
Photo: Bas Relief Depicts the Battle of Kuru Against Armies of Champa Lead by Angkor Wat Founder Suryavarman II

Angkor Wat Central Temple

I walked through the entrance gopura of the Angkor Wat central temple and continued walking upwards to reach the five-peaked summit of what represents Mount Meru. The first level wall contains extensive bas-reliefs but I left those for later. I really wanted to see the central temple first.

Photo: Steps Leading to the Central Gopura of Angkor Wat Temple
Photo: Steps Leading to the Central Gopura of Angkor Wat Temple

Gallery of the first level consists of a cruciform cloister with four rectangular stone basins. There were several statues of Buddha within the passages of these semi dark galleries. When Angkor Wat turned from being a Hindu into being a Theravada Buddhist temple, this area was named “Preah Poan” or “Hall of the Thousand Buddhas”. While there certainly are dozens of Buddhas in the halls, you won’t find anywhere near thousands of them there. It is possible that in the 16th century when Angkor Wat temple was a site of pilgrimage for Buddhists, there were as many as thousand statues there, but they were either removed to prevent them from damage or destroyed by the Khmer Rogue regime in the 1970’s.

Photo: Hall of the Thousand Buddhas
Photo: Hall of the Thousand Buddhas

I climbed further up to reach the second level from where you can already see the towers of the Angkor Wat central temple unobstructed, in all their glory. Similar to the causeway through Angkor Wat city, central temple has two small libraries on both sides of the footbridge leading to the courtyard. I walked around the courtyard to the north-east corner to get a photo of the temple with the sunlight but that was not easy even after I stuck myself all the way back into the corner. The temple is set slightly towards the east so I could get much better a picture from either north-west and south-west corners but because of morning light, from there I would get the dark side of the temple and have strong backlight. Yet another reason why it is absolutely essential to visit Angkor Wat in the afternoon, not in the morning hours.

Photo: Because of Nearby Wall, Pictures of Central Angkor Wat Temple Are Tough Even With a Wide Angle Lens
Photo: Because of Nearby Wall, Pictures of Central Angkor Wat Temple Are Tough Even With a Wide Angle Lens

Third level of the Angkor Wat central temple carries all five towers and the uppermost gallery, but at the time of my visit it was off limit. There was ongoing construction and restoration work in progress so I never got to reach Bakan – the summit of Angkor Wat. It looked like part of the restoration process was the construction of wooden stairs that would lead to the third level. That sort of made sense because the temple is built very steep with original, stone stairs under insanely difficult angle.

Climbing up the stairs that are only a few degrees off being completely vertical is excessively strenuous and dangerous – much like climbing a mountain. This perhaps was the thinking of the engineers and architects who designed Angkor Wat – if it’s meant to represent Mount Meru, let’s make the climb to its top as challenging as climbing a mountain. I can’t otherwise imagine why they would build the stairs this steep.

Photo: Steep Stairs on the Eastern Side of the Angkor Wat Temple
Photo: Steep Stairs on the Eastern Side of the Angkor Wat Temple

It is speculated that third level gallery once housed the statue of Vishnu which is now at the entrance gapura within the exterior wall. I never got to go up there, but I understand that the gallery presently houses four statues of Buddha, each facing the different direction signifying the fact that the temple is now dedicated to Buddhism, not Hinduism as when it was originally built.