Coming to see the Angkor temples was my primary objective in visiting Siem Reap and doing it during the cooler months from November – March sounded like a bloody good idea. Unfortunately, it seemed as though the whole world thought the same thing.
Still, the best thing you can do is to plan…and plan well, just to avoid jostling shoulders with the huge crowds of Chinese tourists as much as possible. There are several ways to go about it: hire a tuk-tuk for a day or go with a tour operator, though choosing which one is probably imperative. A good guide makes all the difference and the stories he tells will probably make you look good if you’re a travel bragger.
Our day tour
TC and I booked our day tour with Vespa Adventures and it turned out to be a shrewder move than we’d initially expected. The manoeuvrability of the scooter meant that we could take worn footpaths and smaller forested roads where larger tour buses and tuk-tuks couldn’t go, so we zipped in and out quicker than would have been able to.
Sathya and Heang (our riders) picked us up at 8 a.m., and we then went to buy our tickets at Angkor Enterprise. A day pass costs USD $37 and you get a typically bad photo is taken there and then at the counter. A shell-shocked image is what you have permanently imprinted onto the pass that you’ll need to flash each time you get to a different temple in the Angkor complex.
The Angkor Archaeological complex is massive, so a day is definitely sacrilege to cover it, because it’s basically impossible to do so. TC and I wanted just a small taste of it however, so a day pass sufficed.
Back briefly at Vespa Adventures office, we met our guide Sov Sothick, whom we later learned, had spent 12 years as a temple boy learning the Pali text as well as English from the monks before civil war broke out.
A Brief History
The Khmer empire, as does modern-day Cambodia, has a turbulent history that spanned roughly 600 years. At its height, Angkor Thom was a vibrant complex of temples, palaces, and houses as kings declared themselves gods and built structures that mirrored the universe in Hindu cosmology…that was later switched to Mahayana Buddhist by Jayavarman VII (reigned:1181–1219) and then erased in a period of iconoclasm after his death.
Our even shorter Itinerary
Bayon, our first stop, was a temple mountain of faces where we struggled just to get a free square metre. Ta Prohm – the temple that’s getting gradually reclaimed by the jungle as the trees’ massive roots wrap around these structures – or better known as the Tomb Raider movie set, was next.
Angkor Wat, the biggest of the three we were going to visit, was left for last, because, according to Sov, the hordes of Chinese tourists take their siesta from about noon to 2 p.m., leaving the queue for the uppermost levels of Angkor relatively free.
Lichen still coats many structures; the difference between the restored stones and the stones in their original state is stark after the ongoing restoration projects by joint teams from Japan, Cambodia, India and France. In the sweltering heat, we watched selfie after selfie getting taken and increasingly bushed tourists just stopping for a breather. Few stopped to admire the intricate detail of the carvings that told convoluted stories of good vs. evil in the Ramayana or the tales of Khmer victory over the Cham people.
Things to Remember
Cover up. Cover up. Cover up. Hydrate. Take loads of photos. Try not to get irritated with the jostling crowds. Hire a guide – the insider knowledge will bring you a long way. Up the sense of adventure by humming the Indiana Jones theme song.