Run to see the world: it’s a mantra I’ve lived by for some years now. Marathons in cities, across deserts, over mountain ranges and along coastlines have been some of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. So upon hearing about a “temple run” through the famous ruins at Angkor, in Cambodia – exploring the 1,000‑ year‑old capital of the Khmer empire not by tuk-tuk, but on foot, at speed – I was instantly intrigued.
My weekend challenge: a shortish but rough trail run of 15km in a remote area of “lost” temples on Saturday afternoon, followed on Sunday by a near-full-length dawn marathon run of 40km through the temples of one the world’s largest religious monuments: Angkor Wat – occupying over 400 acres, and so deeply woven into Cambodia’s national identity that it’s depicted on the national flag. Some 2.5 million people visit these temples each year; but only a very few see them from this lung-killing, leg-pumping perspective. Which is just how I like it.
A cheeky day off to make my Saturday start time. The double-decker Airbus lifts off and London fades into the clouds.
Seven time zones and an 11-hour flight later, Bangkok offers a welcome stretch of the legs before I step aboard a smaller aircraft for the hour-long flight to Siem Reap, around 400km due east.
I skip through security with just a small duffel over my shoulder. Then a 10-minute transfer takes me to the Anantara Angkor Resort, where I’m welcomed by impeccably turned-out staff and whisked to the spa for a traditional foot bath. I hope there’s one of these awaiting me on Sunday afternoon.
After a quick shower and breakfast – local fruits, pâtisserie, fresh juice, coffee – I’m feeling human again. A tall, athletic man strides over; “You must be Fergus!” This is Jay, the hotel’s running guide, who’ll be my shadow for the next 40 hours.Saturday 10:00
I’m not giving jetlag a chance to kick in, so without further delay we jump in a 4x4 and head for the “lost” temples of Koh Ker, roughly 120km north of Siem Reap. Left to nature for almost a millennium, these seldom-visited, jungle-engulfed monuments were once the capital of the ancient Khmer empire. They promise to be spectacular.
It’s full sun and blazingly hot – at least 35°C – and the second I jump out of the airconditioned van I begin sweating. Jay hands me some sun cream (“You’ll be needing this”) and a few minutes later we’re off.
After running about 5km it hits me why I’ve travelled all this way. We arrive at the first temple, Prasat Bram, a fairytale amassment of five partially collapsed brick towers, the roots of strangler figs obscuring two of them almost totally. I’ve never seen anything like it. I stop in my tracks to wonder at it, trying to steady my breathing. There is no one else around for miles; leaves are fluttering to the ground in a quiet, constant shower; the singing of birds fills the air. I’m totally spellbound.
We’ve been on the go for 90 minutes, covered around 10km and woven in and out of seven temples. It’s a slower pace than I’d keep back home but, given the temperature and what’s on the schedule for tomorrow, the goal today is to hit on something that’s sustainable and allows us to explore these unique ruins. Heat fatigue is setting in, though, and I’m monstrously thirsty; I zigzag along the sun-baked sand track road, seeking one shady stretch after another.
We reach Prasat Thom, an enchanting 36m-high tiered pyramid temple peeking above the tree canopy – and the end of the day’s run. I slurp down the water from two fresh coconuts, have a wander around the silent temple, and hop into the 4x4 back to the hotel for a relaxing afternoon.
With the serious calorie burning I’ll be doing tomorrow, I don’t mess around at dinner and tuck into Anantara’s Wild Menu – all five courses of it, including locally sourced fish, meat and vegetables with elegant treatments of dense wild rice and edible flowers. Then it’s straight to bed.
The alarm shrieks; I wake disoriented and fuzzy from a profound jetlag sleep. But sunrise at Angkor Wat is the stuff of bucket lists, so I shake the sleep out of my head, quickly gear up and meet Jay in the hotel foyer. We find our tuk-tuk driver waiting in the drive. He’s our support vehicle and will trail us with provisions all morning – a nice luxury-concierge perk from Anantara. As we hop aboard and head for the temples in the pitch dark, the last of my drowsiness leaves me: this is so cool.
I have just minutes to be hypnotised by the silhouette of the Angkor Wat temples against the orange glow of a perfect sunrise. Then: “Shall we crack on?” booms Jay. We break into an easy jog, starting gently, knowing the heat will catch up with us all too soon.
After 7km we’ve already taken in two temples; we enter Angkor Thom, the complex’s second most important city. After a lovely dead-straight kilometre of road, Bayon temple, its impressive centrepiece, comes into view. The massive distance I still need to cover is front of mind, but I can’t resist a clamber around the mighty central tower, the maze of small doorways, the many passages. Climbing steep steps at speed, I can feel my thighs searing, and lactic acid building – a painfully prickly reminder that this is a serious physical undertaking as well as a cultural experience. We pause at the tuk-tuk for a quick cooling drink, and then press on. The terrain is almost totally flat, much to my relief, and in dense jungle: incredibly tall trees soar high above either side, with smaller, lush ones filling the space below the canopy.
Around 14km in, we arrive at Preah Khan, one of the most outlying and remote temples I’ll experience today. Centuries ago it was home to around 100,000 people: a staggering thought. Today it’s largely unrestored, firmly off the beaten tourist loop, and all but surrounded by tropical forest.
We’ve been on a ruler-straight dusty track for nearly an hour and the heat is punishing. Glancing at my watch, I see we’re at 21km – half-marathon distance. “Let’s grab a drink,” I shout to Jay; the humidity is soaring and fatigue is kicking in in earnest. I’m literally dripping with sweat and replacing lost salts is crucial to completing the day’s goal. We signal to our tuk-tuk, and grab energy drinks and fistfuls of dried mango from the cool box.
“Did you know Tomb Raider was filmed here?” Jay pants. We’re at Ta Prohm – the 30km mark. It’s no wonder Hollywood producers picked it for the film; its crumbling towers are spectacularly engulfed by vast exposed root systems of trees, some of them towering hundreds of feet tall. We’ve been disciplined with ourselves at the past four temples and only slowed for a few minutes at each, but a longer look is totally justified here.
It’s tipping towards 33 degrees and the sun is pounding down like a white-hot weight; so it’s with immense relief that at around 38km I see Angkor Wat’s huge moat – my finish line – come hazily into view. It has never felt more like the end of a long, hard day, although it’s not even lunchtime. I’m perilously low on energy and seriously dehydrated, and our pace is more a plod than a jog. But I’m on the home stretch now, just a few more kilometres; I can hold on.
Tourists and locals alike look on bemused as I move past them, bedraggled and dripping, towards the temple entrance. Finally, I reach out and touch its stones; just over 40km – I’ve done it. Traversing the history and beauty of more than 20 ancient temples, on foot, in near-total solitude – it will take the evening to process the journey I’ve been on today.
Fresh coconut in hand, I kick off my trainers with huge relief and slide down against the tuk-tuk seat. The sense of satisfaction is unbeatable.
Back at the hotel, I indulge for two in a late lunch: crab cakes, braised lamb shank curry and the most deliciously sinful crispy banana with salted caramel ice cream. Then it’s a blissful 90-minute recovery massage. There’s just time for a quick swim before packing and heading to the airport for the early-evening jump to Bangkok, and onwards to Heathrow.
“Morning mate. Good weekend?” a colleague asks as he brushes by the back of my office chair. I feel a grin spread across my face: where to start? “Yeah, pretty good, thanks.” Φ