Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Angkor Wat

I have wanted to go to Angkor Wat for many years. I think just about everyone who loves to travel wants to go there at some point. It always struck my imagination as a place of mystery and solitude. I imagined it to be a huge, crumbling temple nestled into the jungle, with monks still praying and living there. I imagined you could spend all day just wandering amongst the ruins, finding yourself in unexpected quiet little nooks, marveling at the beauty of what man and nature can create.

The reality is not quite so romantic. Instead, you go first to a drive-up ticket window, much like at Disneyland, to buy your pass. Then you go to the big parking lot. There is nothing ancient and mystical about this parking lot. It is filled with big buses, vendors’ carts, and tuk-tuks, the ubiquitous motorcycle taxis. And children trying to sell you junk you don’t need.

Then you walk up to the bridge leading to Angkor Wat, and finally get a sense of how amazing this place is. The towers, so far in the distance, loom ahead of you, and you have to cross a long bridge, over a wide, massive moat to get there. Then you enter a large gate – big enough for an elephant to pass through – and you’re inside. Normally with about 5,000 other people.

We were pretty lucky in our timing though. It turns out that most people follow a pretty standard schedule at Angkor Wat, as the large majority are on packaged tours. For example, they start the day with sunrise at Angkor Wat, then go back to their hotels for breakfast, before moving on to Angkor Thom, which was the administrative capital of the area. (Angkor Wat is actually just one of many temples in the area). So we skipped the sunrise, and spent the morning at Angkor Wat, almost completely on our own. Magical.

We hired a guide for our first day, and really took in as much as we could. The guide wasn’t too happy about it, which I thought funny. Here I was, a white-skinned, out-of-shape foreigner, and I was clambering around happily in the heat, while our guide, a Cambodian who does this 5 days a week, was sweating and tired, and kept having to take breaks to rest!

The town near Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, has grown incredible in the last 10 years, and everywhere you look there are new hotels popping up. Every night after we returned from the temples, we went for dinner then had an hour-long foot massage to prepare for the next day. The center of town has a lot of great little restaurants and, surprisingly, a pretty happening bar scene. My favorite meal was at a little French bistro, where I had a terrific Croque Monsieur, and a cheese plate with some hard-to-find cheeses imported from France.

It was hard to whittle down the photos, but here are some of my favorites:

On our first day we went straight to Angkor Wat. This is the second causeway, after you get over the moat and into the huge compound.

One of the central towers in Angkor Wat.

A photo from Bayon, my favorite temple. It has over 200 enormous, smiling carved faces which look down on you as if in benediction.

And a silly shot.

Ta Prohm, my next favorite. It has been so overrun by big fig trees that they can't be removed, as the trees are now what's holding the temple together. We went early in the morning and had the place to ourselves. We felt like discoverers and adventurers.

Jorge, the Explorer.

We climbed up to a temple that is very popular for sunsets. Unfortunately, it was crowded and hot, and the sunset was disappointing. I should learn to stick to African sunsets - there are none better.

And finally, our transport - a tuk tuk. Personally, I'd recommend hiring a car. The experience is fun for about 15 minutes, until you can't see anymore because of all the dust and petrol fumes.


Jesse said...

Great photos, Gwyn! I always love how down to Earth you are about things that others would get all romantic and swoony for out of all sort of proportion to the actual experience itself.

Dad said...

Lovely trip reports Gwyneth. I'm impressed by how much you manage to do when you travel and how much you get out of it.
Your tuk-tuk looks much nicer than any I have travelled in. I like them for short hops, but it's a shame they aren't more environmentally friendly.
Will there be more?