For our first trip in the region we decided to go to Angkor Wat which is probably one of the most famous tourist destinations in Southeast Asia; and for good reason. I’m actually a little nervous that we peaked too early here and might be disappointed with our trip to Myanmar’s version of Angkor Wat which is a similar site called Bagan. We left Yangon on Sunday morning and flew via Bangkok which is the pretty standard starting point of most trips out of Myanmar. After a short layover we took the very short flight to Siem Reap which is the town nearest to the site. I was there 12 years ago and the town itself has seen a lot of change from what I remember back then. There was a small town there originally but what now exists has almost entirely been built (and continues to be built) solely for the tourists. There is a street called ‘Pub Street’ for instance which is a row of bars and tat shops lit up like a Christmas tree! However, with Lindsey’s powers of research we soon found a number of nice bars and restaurants away from the main horde. On arrival we had two jobs which were to get our ticket for the week and rent electric bikes. The ‘e-bike’ place sorted us out a nice tuk tuk driver who drove us to the ticket place which was the kind of place I imagine Disney World has to buy tickets. We bought a 7 day ticket which was $72 USD. This was a bargain considering a 1 day ticket was 30 something USD. Cambodia has a completely dual currency. You can pay in USD or the local currency, reals. In general you get change in the currency you paid except in the case where it’s less than a dollar which is when you always get reals. I wrongly assumed that the ticket ‘palace’ was close to the site itself. As it turned out these were in completely different places but we eventually managed to figure that out and our driver duly drove us to Angkor Wat in time for sunset.
A note on the history. The Khmer empire (which is nothing to do with the Khmer Rouge) lasted from around the beginning of the 9th century to its fall in the 15th century. By the time Columbus was ‘discovering’ America, the Khmer empire had run a course lasting 600 years with a city that was apparently one of the largest pre-industrial cities in the world. The empire at times covered most of Southeast Asia including parts of Southern China but was eventually conquered by the Thais in the 15th century. In about 802 King Jayavarman II declared himself a god king and duly built a massive temple. The last major king and temple builder was handily also called Jayavarman (VII) and he built some of the lasting temples that can be visited today. In between these two was a virtual frenzy of temple building. Considering what is left to see today and the time that has passed since then, what it must have been like in its heyday can only be imagined.
Generally, people talk about visiting Angkor Wat but really this is only one temple. ‘Wat’ means temple. Really what you are visiting are the temples at Angkor which was the name of the city. Angkor Wat, is the first temple you come to after you enter the site and it is truly one of the most impressive. When I was there 12 years ago you could pretty much clamber over any part of it you could get to. Apparently, between now and then, they had stopped people climbing on the very top part for long periods but now it is open again but to a limited number of people at a time. We briefly visited it on the first day but went again two days later initially for sunrise. As it turned out the sunrise wasn’t great and there were maybe 1,000 or more other people with the same idea. In the photo above I am holding my phone high enough to get above the people three deep in front of me all trying to get the same shot. The odd thing was that after the mayhem of the sunrise photo you could queue up for entry to the top of the temple and for some reason there weren’t that many people doing this even though it seemed like the obvious thing to do. This meant that when it opened we were two of the first people up there and for about 20 minutes you could walk around in a fairly serene atmosphere. There must be something about the group tour schedule that doesn’t allow them to come to the temples at the opening time because we experienced the same phenomenon several times during the trip. If anyone reading this wants to go, I would say that this is our main tip. Show up a little before opening time and you might have half an hour of peace before the first tour buses start showing up.
The views and sculpted walls of Ankor Wat are lovely at the top of the temple and I definitely took some of the same photos 12 years ago as I took last week. However, there are also these bas reliefs that wrap around the entire temple and are fantastically preserved. My favourite part is this wall depicting the churning of the ocean of milk where gods and demons are basically in a tug of war with a massive snake wrapped around a mountain which turns, churning up the sea and releasing the elixir of immortality! This image of gods and demons holding a snake is everywhere in Angkor and lines the gateways to the next biggest site in Angkor which is Angkor Thom.
This is a series of temples within a 10 sq km walled city with the crowning temple being Bayon. This temple has 54 towers with 216 massive smiling faces, looking down at you or sideways at you or staring you full in the face. When we first visited it, it wasn’t the 216 smiling faces that were disconcerting, more the 2,000 odd shouting faces of the Chinese tour groups that were packed in like sardines. We left pretty quickly but fortunately, as time was on our side, visited the temple two more times during the week when it was relatively quiet. There are three really big attractions in Angkor, which are Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm is the temple that has several trees growing out of the walls and had several scenes from the movie version of Tomb Raider filmed there starring Angelina Jolie. I heard several people refer to it as the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple while we were there. The Tomb Raider movie had been made when I visited Angkor the first time, but there were were no smart phones or selfie sticks and despite that fact that I was visiting in high season, there weren’t nearly so many tourists.
The three main sites were all fantastic but what we equally liked was just pootling around on our electric mini-mopeds and stumbling across some of the less visited or more remote temples and having them practically to ourselves. If you are on a tour of Southeast Asia you probably want to spend at least three days in Angkor if you can spare it. You’ll see all the main sites although you may share some of those visits with a large number of other tourists. What’s great about living so close is that we could spend 5 days there and go at a slow pace trying to avoid the large crowds where possible. While there we even got to spend a day birding among another temple complex a couple of hours drive away. All this with no jet lag, short flights and so affordable prices. When we chose to move with Lindsey’s job, travelling locally was one of the main attractions and it was great to finally put that into action.