Paris, London, Berlin, Mumbai, Istanbul are all impressive cities to run a race in. But none have offered the spellbinding magic of running around the 12th century ruins of Angkor Wat, the former centre of the Khmer Empire
I arrived in Siem Reap, the town on the outskirts of the Angkor Archeological Park a few days before the race to acclimatize to the humidity and heat. Although it is held in Cambodia’s cool season, temperatures can still reach 87 F with over 80% humidity. On the plus side, it meant I wasn’t shivering on the start line.
By the time I arrived at 5am, following a 15 minute moto ride, a covered cart with cushioned bench seats pulled by a motorcycle, the start was buzzing with runners from all over the world some running the half marathon and others the 10 km. Now in it’s 20th year, the Angkor Wat International half Marathon attracts up to 10,000 runners from all over the world with its start and finish in front of Angkor Wat.
Checking in my bag, I made my way to the starting pen and watched as the rising sun etched the iconic silhouette of Angkor Wat against a reddening sky. Milling around were expats from Europe and US who had flown in for a short visit from jobs elsewhere in Asia, along with holiday makers like myself, who had included the race as part of their travel itinerary with the country now opening up to tourism beyond just the capital, Phnom Penh and the temples.
Once the sun had risen everyone was keen to get going but if there’s one thing that you have to remain sanguine about in Cambodia, it is that time is a fluid concept. Thirty minutes later than the advertised 6am, I crossed the start line.
The first 8km followed an out and back route along the approach road to the archeological park, tracing the 190m wide moat that surrounds Angkor Wat. At 10km, I began to pass the Cambodian wheelchair racers who had begun the race earlier, which served as a stark reminder about more recent history. Torn apart by the rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, Cambodia was also heavily land-mined and has over 25,000 amputees, the highest ratio per capita in the world. A proportion of the race profits go to help those affected.
With the sun overhead, everyone was grateful for the shade cast by trees and for the supporters. Some were tourists cheering friends and family but there were just as many Cambodian children all eager to high five the runners. Water stations were plentiful and I poured as much over my head as I drank.
The Angkor Archeological Park is over 400 square kilometres and contains much more than Angkor Wat. The race passed the magnificent entrance to Ta Prohm, four enigmatic faces believed to be of King Jayavarman VII who built the temple. It is a particularly popular site as it was used in the filming of Tomb Raider. I was torn between wanting to explore while it was quiet and the desire to finish the run before it got hotter.
Although the route does not take you into any of the temples, you do get the chance to run under Victory Gate, one of the gateways to the ancient town of Angkor Thom. Not that I felt victorious with 7kms to go as I ran towards it down the approach road flanked on either side by carved figurines, thousands of years old and some exhibiting bullet holes as a result of fighting between the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge.
Running out of the shade into the open at The Terrace of the Elephants was like running into an oven. The 350 m long stone platform features carved elephants and was originally used to view victorious returning armies by the King. It was hard not to feel overwhelmed at the echoes of the many people who had trodden these same roads thousands of years before my own feet had pounded past.
The final stretch was more difficult as our race merged with the 10km (which had started 30 minutes later) as many participants were walking four or five abreast. Thankfully, the finish was not far off and when I heard the cheering supporters and Angkor Wat came into view, I managed a final sprint to finish in a sweaty heap.
After collecting my medal and a banana, I walked out of the finish area to be offered a beer and fresh coconuts by the many industrious hawkers but I declined both in favour of returning to my hotel and a cool swimming pool.
Most of the runners at the Angkor Wat Half Marathon are expats and tourists and so this race doesn’t offer the same experience of meeting runners from different countries like those I’ve done in India and Turkey. But it more than makes up for this in the extraordinary opportunity you get to run through ancient Khmer ruins. Combine this with a country that is fast becoming one of the hottest new travel destinations and it’s a holiday race that is well worth putting on your bucket list.
For details of the next Angkor International Half Marathon visit http://www.angkormarathon.org
Seeing the sun rise over Angkor Wat on the start line of the race is going to take some beating.
Lots of water and marshals.
Very useful race bag contents (see below).
Poor race bag pick up at registration. The bags had to be assembled as you registered slowing up the volunteers and leading to big queues.
Thirty minute delay in the start time.
It was hot, hot, hot! And humid. That’s not anyone’s fault but you may want to consider this if you’re not a fan of the heat. I am, and I still wilted.
The Race Bag: Hoard or Haul?
Good race t-shirt, very useful sun visor and a traditional Khmer scarf were great. The race bling was a bit of a disappointment though.
Race Info Essentials
How to get there: Fly via Bangkok to Siem Reap with airlines such as Singapore Airways.
Stay: Siem Reap is 7km away and offers affordable boutique guesthouses. Avoid the busy Pub Street and opt for places by the river or the boutique http://sokkhak-boutique resort.com.
Recover: You can get foot massages for as little as one dollar but try a reputable hotel for a good quality sports massage.
Celebrate: Re-cover with lemongrass chicken or Cambodian Amok curry and a celebratory cocktail at the Chanrey Tree, a favourite of David Beckham when he was in Cambodia. http://chanreytree.com
(This review is from December 2015).