We take a lot of advice on where to go next.
Guidebooks. Tripadvisor. Instagram. Facebook. Youtube. Forums. Reviews. People telling you about places “you just have to go to maaaan.”
Long lists of places to visit. Tickboxes that prove you’ve been there. Queueing up for the same photo as everyone else. The photo you have seen a thousand times before as your laptop screensaver.
Travelling isn’t the final frontier it once was. Sometimes it can feel like you are on the “Privileged Westerner Conveyor Belt” around South-East Asia.
People follow the same paths, visit the same places. It’s all been done before. Some wise travel sages (usually from Croydon) insist that you must get off the beaten track, see the real country for what it is. Whilst others will point out that these places are popular for a reason, they are worth visiting.
The truth of course lies somewhere in the middle. You find amazing experiences in lesser known places, but a lot of it is mundane and just not as good as the main tourist trail. At the same time lifetime memories at world famous destinations will be forever shat-on by busloads of Chinese tourists getting in the way.
Angkor Wat is firmly on the tourist trail. It’s on everyone’s lists and in everyone’s tips. And it is for a for a reason.
We had to go and we were glad we did.
A vanishing act.
Angkor is in the northern part of Cambodia, about 6 and a half hours from Phnom Penh. The temple complex that covers a vast area is the largest religious monument in the world. It was built in the 12th century and, according to National Geographic, was once the site of the world’s largest city with over 750,000 inhabitants stretching across an area larger than New York City.
Its decline was rapid, when 300 years later, amid the 15th century all but Angkor Wat was abandoned. A true vanishing act that remained in place until the jungle covered site was discovered by French colonialists in 1861.
A few kilometres south of the complex, is the city of Siem Reap where all the infrastructure that’s needed to support one of the world’s most important archaeological sites can be found.
5* hotels, cheap backpacker hostels, Pub Street with whiskey buckets, high-end spas, low-end seedy massage parlours. Museums, restaurants and casinos. This is a city built for tourism. Built to support the huge influx of people that visit all year round.
It does it well. We liked Siem Reap a lot. It has charm and is a lot of fun. It feels and looks like an Asian beach town. All baggy traveller pants and Bintang vests.
Best laid plans.
Until we got here, we didn’t really know what we would be doing.
We knew we would visit the temples but the how, whats and whys of the whole thing was a mystery. It reminded me of when we went on safari. We knew we’d see animals but the whole experience was totally alien. Safari was not just about lions and elephants but red faced westerners hanging out of mini vans, with 3ft zoom lenses, all wearing shit khaki hats, talking about the “Big Five” and getting excited about getting up at 5am.
Soon enough we were one of them.
It was the same in Angkor Wat.
Once we sat down in the hotel we thought we’d better decide what to do. Out came the Lonely Planet, Julie got bang onto Tripadvisor. This would put us right, draw us into the new subculture of visiting Angkor Wat and make sure we visited better than anyone else.
Apparently you want to visit at sunrise or sunset (but which one? I’m not doing both). You can follow 1,2 or 3 day itineraries (yeah OK but how many do I really need?), you want to make sure you get a good tuk-tuk driver who can provide you with information (how the hell can I tell who’s a goodun and who’s a wrongun?).
Comparing notes and checking our lists we knew all we needed to know. We were going to dominate this like no other tourist before us. We knew where to go and what to see. We’d go for three days, two of which we’d get up at 4:30 am so we can see sunrise. The final day we’d drive 60 km, get off the beaten track and see the real temples. Yeeeahhh.
We hired our Tuk-Tuk from the hotel. Moody bastard he was. Not one of the gooduns, but he knew how to drive and where the sites were.
He was late to pick us up and this put us behind for our sunrise viewpoint. Set your alarm mate. So we raced to the ticket station to find hundreds of people queueing up to get their tickets. Luckily for us most people weren’t as committed as us, queueing to buy a 1 day pass rather than the 3 day pass we opted for. Our 3 day ticket queue was empty and we got in and out of there sharpish.
Our first day’s plan was to follow the grand tour route, ignoring Angkor Wat and starting at Bayon, the temple of the faces. This would be our sunrise spot. From here we would head north, then east visiting Banteay Prei, Pre Rup, East Mebon amongst others before completing a circle and heading back to our hotel.
On the second day, we would head to Angkor Wat for sunrise then onto Ta Prohm, the temple from Tomb Raider. Julie fancies herself as a bit of a Lara Croft and I Indiana Jones. Kinky…
Our first morning was the best. It was truly amazing. We arrived at Bayon to find a temple ruin straight out of Indiana Jones. Parts were crumbling, but it was still accessible enough for you to be able to climb inside and explore. What was really special was that we were alone.
It was dark, just before sunrise (he put his foot down) with just us and the temple. It was eerie, scary in places and utterly beautiful. We climbed and explored as the sun rose, and lit up the carved faces that makes this place so famous. As the sun rose higher, shadows were removed to expose areas we hadn’t seen before.
I mean, we lost our shit in this place and were like a couple of kids pretending to explore ruined temples. Except we actually were. I think we were basically alone for 2 hours until around 8:30 am when many of the Angkor Wat sunrise tourists turned up and it was our cue to leave.
That’s the thing here. They key is to do everything you can to avoid the tourists. The experience you can have when you are alone, or at least in the relative quiet is so different to when you are surrounded by everyone else.
For the rest of the first day we did some serious ‘templing’. A solid 8 hours and around 7 temples, walking 6 miles in 35 degrees. Our highlights were definitely the quiet spots, where we could get away from the crowds and enjoying being in even the smallest of temples.
By the end of the day we were knackered but on a high. We met up with our friends, Kate & Dan excited to tell them how amazing it was and despite their recent Cambodian traumas, this would be certain to bring a smile to their little Kiwi faces.
The second day was different, we went to the main attraction Angkor Wat. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s nice. But the people. I mean wow. There are thousands. All hustling for the best camera angle to get their photo. Guys are comparing the lengths of their lenses (I’ve got a small one) and girls have their selfie sticks at such an angle I’d thought they’d snap.
We had one particular photo-dick who came to stand straight in line of our (hard fought) spot. She proceeded to take hundreds of photos, of herself, with as many cameras as she could lay her hands on. I’m telling you she was out of her tiny little mind.
Despite our new mate, we were able to get some nice shots of the sunrise over the iconic top of Angkor Wat. It’s a lovely image, just not a real reflection of the moment I suppose.
Anyway, after Angkor Wat we headed onto some more temples, most notably Ta Som, where a tree has basically swallowed part of the temple and Ta Prohm, where Julie wanted to play Lara Croft.
Ta Som was small but very beautiful. Julie was in awe and took some amazing photos that she later posted to Instagram. Unfortunately they haven’t been as popular on as we thought so I encourage anyone reading this. Go and like her Ta Som photo. It’ll make her happy.
Ta Prohm, was mental. not the temple but the amount of Chinese tourists there. There can’t be many people left in China as they were all getting in my way taking the piss. The temple is beautiful, but since the film its popularity is such that the visitors numbers are huge. This has meant the creation of a one way system that definitely feels like you’re on that conveyor belt I mention earlier. It’s a real shame as it took a lot away from what would have been an amazing experience. But, with some crafty cropping, we got some nice photos.
So by the end of the day our excitement had dwindled somewhat. Kate and Dan couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. And they were right. it was hot, busy and not very pleasant. So different from our first experience. We were knackered and totally templed out. Neither of us wanted to do the final day of our 3 day plan, so we sacked it off.
We had a great time despite the challenges and if you haven’t been you definitely should go.
The place is amazing but the one thing we learnt is that you have to avoid the huge crowds. If you go, plan your day so you avoid peak times at the big temples and make the most of the smaller ones that are no less impressive.
Definitely do Bayon at sunrise, whilst everyone else is at Angkor Wat. Get your elbows out if you do the opposite.
Don’t do two sunrises, it’s knackering and two days is plenty.
And finally, bring some sort of stick that you can hit photo-dick with as I’m sure she is still there pouting. Hit her from me.