Captivating, Alluring Angkor Wat

Charming yet confounding. This is how Lonely Planet describes the Kingdom of Cambodia in their guide books. But from touch down in Siem Reap’s picturesque International Airport through the short 7-kilometer taxi ride to a fantastic yet inexpensive hotel, my family and I (yes, this was a family trip) met with much of the charming, and none of the confounding. So far so good. Perhaps the confounding part was relegated to the nation’s bigger and busier capital Phnom Penh, of which we had no intention of visiting this time. For now it was just Siem Reap, and the Angkor Archeological Park.

Covering an area of over 400 sq kilometers (including forested areas), the Angkor Archeological Park contains the magnificent remains of several Khmer empire temples, the most famous of which are Angkor Wat and the Bayon temple. Within its grounds too, stands majestic Ta Promh, where part of Angelina Jolie’s movie ‘Tomb Raider’ was filmed.

Angkor Wat will leave you breathless (figuratively and literally) as the walk from the your drop off point to the main temple complex is long and hot. But once inside the sheer magnificence of your surroundings will, once again, take your breath away. From Bas-relief carvings in its stone walls to soaring tower peaks, Angkor Wat stands as a mute testament to the skill and determination of the people who built it. A testament to a people’s love for things that are beautiful, that are enduring. Angkor Wat. It is all it is touted to be.

And then there is the Bayon temple. She of the hundred stone faces. For me, this was even more awe-inspiring. Just how an ancient population, now long gone, managed to pile up huge stones in the absence of modern equipment and put exquisite carvings into them still amazes me to this day. You will just have to see it to believe it.

And of course, Ta Promh. Picture centuries old strangler fig trees, with massive roots winning in a death match against a crumbling stone structure and you have the perfect backdrop for the Tomb Raider. Angelina Jolie and all! This place is beautiful in its eeriness. And the sentiments they evoke, whether good or bad, will stay stay with you for a very long time. That I can guarantee.

This park is huge. One day will not be enough to cover everything except the most popular sites. Which is exactly what we did. But by the end of the day, we were pretty much tuckered out. My wife and two daughters had seen “enough stones to last them a lifetime”. Being outvoted 3 to 1 against further exploration, we decided to cap the day with a sumptuous dinner in a popular restaurant that featured a cultural dance presentation. And as the story of the gods unfolded through the motions of exquisite Apsara dancers we took our fill of Cambodian cuisine and let the night melt away in the charm of Siem Reap, Cambodia.

My personal tips for a hassle-free Angkor Wat experience:

  1. Best time to visit would be after the rainy season, between October and December.
  2. Go on a Package Tour. While it is possible to get around on your own, why go through the trouble? A ready vehicle,an English speaking tour guide and a prepared lunch will save you a lot of time especially if your are traveling in a group or with family.
  3. Start early! But this should not be a problem as your tour guide will INSIST you start as soon as the park opens. And believe me the sun and the humidity will be all the motivation you will need for an early start.
  4. Be prepared for some serious legwork and fancy footwork. Clambering over piles of fallen stones and steep inclines and even steeper steps will take the best you can give. So dress for the occasion. Remember this is the tropics, where near 40 deg C temperatures and 98+ percent humidity are the norm. A dri-fit shirt (the one that wickers away moisture from the body) over a pair of sturdy walking shorts and hiking boots should do the trick. A small towel to wipe away the deluge of sweat that is sure to follow is desirable. Oh, and don’t forget headgear. Hat, cap, sun-visor, anything to keep the sun from off your face.
  5. My personal best. Ask your tour guide for a REVERSE tour. Simply stated: start with the last item on your published itinerary. This way you avoid the crush of dozens of other eager bodies and have more time for yourselves to enjoy the sights in relative calm and peace.
  6. Water, Water, Water. As much as you can carry. The next pit stop could be miles away.
  7. I would avoid the sunset viewing atop Phnom Bakheng. The 30+ mins of sweaty, uphill trudging was not worth it. And did I mention that you will have to elbow your way to get a good view once at the top? But that’s just me.
  8. REMEMBER TO TIP YOUR TOUR GUIDE. There is no fixed amount but be generous. They do this for a LIVING so be generous.
  9. I’m sure you won’t but let me say it again. DON’T FORGET YOUR CAMERA! Photo ops like these may not present themselves again.