27 Jun 2012
There's one thing very difficult to find around Cambodia's Angkor Wat - solitude. The world's largest religious site attracts around 1.6 million visitors a year.
The symbol of Cambodia, Angkor Wat appears on the national flag and currency - even a beer - and is the nation's top tourism destination. It is sometimes known as the Eighth Wonder of the World. (Angkor means `capital' and Wat means `temple'.)
Lines of mostly Chinese, Korean and Thai tourists - and an increasing number of Australians and New Zealanders - swarm over the amazing 1000-year-old site and the 100 or so other temples spread across many sq km.
It is the heartland of the ancient Khmer empire which reigned from the ninth to 13th centuries. Abandoned in the 16th century, the Angkor temples were buried in thick jungle until the 1800s when their heritage - and tourist - value was recognised. More recently the area was surrounded by landmines from the infamous Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s. (Signs warn visitors not to wander off established roads and tracks.)
The story of the Angkor temples is really the story of a long-running battle between Thai invaders and the local Khmer people, and a complex mingling of Hindu and Buddhist religions. In fact, in the Khmer language 'Siem Reap' means 'Siam defeated'. The Thais were finally driven out in the 16th century.
The temple ruins are the rich and remarkable remnants of successive Angkorian capitals which stood for half a millennium and reflected the pinnacle of ancient Khmer architecture, art and civilisation. They are the products not only of kingly egos keen to leave their heritage but a tribute to the tens of thousands of skilled workers who cut and dragged many thousands of tonnes of sandstone from afar and carved the stories and images into them.
If you take a guided tour, you'll soon be reeling under the weight of unpronounceable kingly names. Unless you are a student of the period, best to let names and dates wash over you and, instead, admire the stone artwork and the stories it tells.
Since the temples are spread over a large area - often kilometres apart and too far for most to make foot travel a good option - you'll need transport. You can't see all the temples. So, choose the ones you really must see and plan your visit. You can ride a bicycle, an elephant or the popular tuk-tuk, a motorcycle with a two-seater trailer attached.
The one sq km temple of Angkor Wat is, of course, what most people want to see. It is visually breathtaking. An enormous, three-tiered pyramid is crowned by five lotus-like towers. It is especially popular at dawn when hundreds gather around the lily pond, cameras at the ready, to watch the rising sun play light games with the temple.
Built between 1113 and 1150, Angkor Wat is a massive marvel of carved stone blackened with lichen and age. Its colonnaded lower gallery is carved with extensive bas-reliefs showing stories and characters from Hindu mythology, as well as the wars of King Suryavarman. Beyond are steep stairs leading to elaborate towers and flanking rooms which served as libraries.
The other must-see temple is Banyon. This temple is an archaeological wonder of symmetry and grandeur, 500 metres from Angkor Wat. Its giant, moss-covered stone faces on each of its 37 towers have become the most-recognised images of the temples.
Angkor Thom is a 3km walled and moated royal city. It is notable for being one of the best of Angkor's temples and for its five gates, each crowned with four giant faces.
One of my favourite temples, however, is Ta Prohm because of the way it has been overgrown by surrounding jungle, only some of which has been cleared. It has deliberately been left untouched, except for the clearing of pathways.
You get a real feel for what other temples must have been like before they were partly restored. Massive fig and silk-cotton trees have enveloped the temple. Root systems grow from towers and corridors. Fallen pillars and piles of huge sandstone blocks litter the temple grounds. (Scenes from the Angelina Jolie movie Tomb Raider were shot here.)
It is virtually standing with the help of massive jungle growth, its sandstone structure locked in the muscular embrace of giant vines. Attempts to remove anything would probably mean Ta Prohm would crumble.
Best time to visit the temples, masses of tourists notwithstanding, is in the cool, dry season from November to March. However, many like to visit in the wet season when vegetation is green, moats and pools are full and the wet temple stone looks spectacular.
Wear practical shoes for climbing narrow, and sometimes quite steep, steps and walking on uneven surfaces. Our guide always had a hand available to help us.
For serious temple exploring, take a torch. And a compass can be handy in some of the less-visited temples.
Cambodia's nearby great lake, Tonle Sap, is worth a half day visit to one of the richest sources of freshwater fish in the world.
Head for Kampong Khleang, one of a number of fishing villages around the lake for a unique insight into a lakeside fishing community. The village comprises a forest of stilted houses built 10 metres above ground to escape the lake when it rises in the wet season. We're taken by boat out onto the lake to see a floating community where everything needed for a waterborne life - including farm animals - floats.
The town of Siem Reap is 5km from Angkor Wat. With its French-style buildings from colonial days, it is a mix of ancient and modern. The present-day Cambodian capital Phnom Penh is a further 314km to the south.
Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap is also well worth a visit, especially before you make it to the temple sites. In eight chronologically ordered galleries, the museum presents Angkorian history and culture.
In the evening take in a performance of Apsara traditional dancing at one of several venues around Siem Reap. The Apsaras are legendary characters from the Khmer Ramayana.
You'll want to eat out. The Red Piano is a good place in the market to eat and to people-watch from the first floor. Angelina Jolie is said to have favoured this restaurant and you can enjoy a 'Tomb Raider' cocktail.
For fine dining, Viroth's on Wat Bo Road is a great place. Enjoy Khmer cuisine in a stylish terrace garden setting. The Foreign Correspondents Club, sister restaurant to the famed Phnom Penh restaurant of the same name, serves good food. (We went back a second time.)
For a snack and good coffee The Blue Pumpkin cafes are good value.
The Old Market can be a sensory assault with a wonderful array of brightly coloured silk and woven wares, silver-plated jewellery, art and handicrafts and cheap clothing as well as boot-legged DVDs. Its most famous street is called Pub Street, for obvious reasons.
Packed end-to-end with restaurants, pubs, boutiques and shops, it is the drinking, dining and nightlife centre of town.
The Night Market (4pm to midnight) is much less interesting but does have more contemporary goods.
IF YOU GO:
Helen Wong's Tours has a 13-day tour departing Siem Reap with accommodation for 12 nights in 3-4-star hotels, daily breakfast, 11 lunches and 8 dinners. Sightseeing and entry fees. English-speaking guide starting at AUD$2869. More information: www.helenwongstours.com
You'll need to buy a pass for the park. They are sold in one-day ($US20), three-day ($US40) and seven-day ($US60) tickets. Three days are needed to comfortably see the most famous temples.
Although the Riel is the country's currency, the US dollar is widely accepted.
A two-person motorcycle trailer, a tuk-tuk, can be had for around $US15 a day. (A guide will cost another $US25 a day.)
For an aerial view of Angkor Wat, you can take a 200-metre high ride in a tethered hot air balloon, about 500 metres from the temple.