Exploring Angkor - Temples of Delight
Angkor Archaeological Park is one of the most famous archaeological sites in Asia. Filled with fellow travelers, it can be overwhelming at times. Annabel Venn gives her advice on how to beat the crowds and experience this fabulous site in (relative) peace
Angkor Wat reflected in surrounding pool. Photo © Annabel Venn
The small light flickers on the front of my bicycle, barely illuminating the dark road ahead. A minibus full of snoozing passengers passes me, rather too close for comfort, offering me a brief glimpse of where I am pedaling. With a free hand, I wrap my Cambodian krama up around my neck; it is already warm but the cool breeze is chilling at this time of the morning. Not often am I persuaded to get up before the sun does, but today I am guided by a sense of exploration. Ahead of me lies the ancient city of Angkor.
The site of Angkor
Angkor Archaeological Park is vast, overwhelming perhaps. Four hundred square kilometres of crumbling temples scattered amidst thick jungle, and at the heart of it lays Angkor Wat, a sight that epitomises South East Asia. Situated 6 km to the south is Siem Reap, once no more than a small village, now described as the gateway to Angkor. Falling to the hands of the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian genocide, it has rebuilt itself into a hugely popular tourist destination, of which the temples of Angkor are undeniably the main draw. Planning a visit generally relies on two factors; time and budget. Many recommend a minimum of three days, allowing time to take in the temples further afield, and it would certainly be easy to plan a week-long itinerary. Tickets to the site are available as a one-day, three-day or one-week long pass. A one-day ticket gives you access to the site from 5 pm on the previous evening, making it feasible to hire transport for the evening and watch the sun going down – a welcome introduction to the majesty of Angkor.
Getting around is simple; you only need to spend a short time in Siem Reap to realise the plethora of transport options available, ranging from the comfortable seats of a private car to atop the noble elephant. For independent travellers the remork-moto (often called a tuk tuk in neighbouring countries) is a popular option. Negotiate with one of the many drivers you will find in Siem Reap (although it is likely they will find you first!) – most follow a set route but it can be adapted to suit a personal itinerary. While most speak a good level of English, hiring a guide or purchasing a comprehensive guidebook can be fundamental to the enjoyment and understanding of a visit around a site with relatively little information. I found a second-hand copy of acclaimed Ancient Angkor by Michael Freeman which became my font of knowledge.
For me, transport was a simple choice – a bicycle. Being a regular cyclist at home, I was confident I could cope with a long day in the saddle. However, as I handed over the princely sum of $2 for a whole day’s rent, I was immediately reminded that rather than my beloved road bike, I was being paired with the humble Asian bicycle. Still, at least its features were memorable; a saddle that produced a noise not too dissimilar to a honking goose every time I shifted my weight, wonky handlebars that required me to steer slightly to the left in order to remain heading in a straight line, and brakes that demanded every ounce of my strength in order to be remotely effective. I had also overlooked the heat of the Cambodian sun. At night it was warm; when the sun came up it was hot; by mid-morning it was stifling; by midday, positively unbearable. At the very least it encouraged some faster pedalling to benefit from the breeze!
As someone who is keen to stay off the main tourists trails, I was somewhat apprehensive about visiting a site which boasts over 2 million visitors a year. It is not uncommon to see queues of tourists waiting to have their photo taken in front of a particular doorway or viewpoint. Not unsurprisingly, Angkor Wat is one of the most popular places to view the sunrise, the warm glow of the sun rising up from behind the impressive towers. The experience is breath-taking, but you will need to be prepared to share the moment with hundreds, if not thousands, of chattering tourists, firing camera shutters and ‘selfie sticks’ raised high above heads. Without difficulty I made the decision to find my own space for sunrise, choosing instead to visit Angkor Wat late in the afternoon.
I left Siem Reap at around 4.20 am, stopping en route to purchase my entry pass. By the time I reached Angkor Wat around 45 minutes later, the hoards arriving in motorised transport had already arrived. Tour groups piled out of their air-conditioned coaches, clutching an array of bottles, cameras and umbrellas. I passed the entrance and turned left, positive that I would not regret missing out on their experience.
This article was first published in the Spring 2015 issue of Timeless Travels Magazine.
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