Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Written by Mikey

So, the big one: Angkor Wat! Travis, Mike and Tracey have all been telling me it’s an incredible sight and that Siem Reap is incredible too. I must say, I was pretty sceptical. I’m the kind of person who will visit the Eiffel Tower, look at it for about 2 minutes, then turn around and watch people watching it instead!

But I must say, for the first time since my first trip to Ha Long Bay, I’ve had a tourist attraction live up to the hype. It’s absolutely incredible, and I want to a) let you know exactly what to expect, and b) why it is as incredible as people say it is.

Angkor Wat Temple
First of all when people refer to ‘Angkor Wat’, they are not normally referring to the Angkor Wat temple (the famous one, above); they are normally referring to the whole area of hundreds of temples, of which the temple is undoubtedly the most visited and most famous. The area lies just outside the town of Siem Reap, which acts as a launchpad for your visit and is full of hotels of all standards, and restaurants of all types of cuisine.

To visit the temples, you will normally get picked up from your hotel by a tuk-tuk driver (cycling is possible, but the distances are quite large). There are two main ‘routes’ around the main temples in the central region, but ultimately if you have done the research and wish to deviate from these paths, it is totally possible; your driver will take you where you want to go and when you do. Having said this, they know the area intimately, including the normal path of the crowds, so it can pay to heed their advice.


Angkor Wat Temple
I’ll deal with the main temple itself in a minute, but first I want to list some highlights that should not be missed. First is the temple of Bayon, in the centre of Angkor Thom (very close to Angkor Wat, much more spread out and less of one impressive structure). This temple, built in the 12th or 13th century is famous, for its multitude of mysterious faces looking out at you from every pillar. The size and number of them, along with the enigmatic smiles leave you feeling like it was built by some mysterious other worldly power. The picture below goes some way of showing what I mean, but it’s nothing compared to being literally surrounded by them.

The next temple of note is Ta Phrom, often referred to by the drivers as the ‘Tomb Raider Temple’. Yes, it features in the Lara Croft film ‘Tomb Raider, but it’s so much more. This was probably my favourite of them all. More so than any of the other ‘main temples’, it has a sense of being reclaimed by nature. Some of it is in ruins, but none of the sense of scale is lost, and many of the ornate carvings still remain. There are parts that are more tree than temple, and if the tree was to be removed the temple almost certainly collapse. It can get quite busy, but it’s not too hard to slip away from the crowds to find a place to sit alone and contemplate this really unique and special place.

Ta Phrom

Now seems a good time to mention the maintenance work throughout the complex. In many parts of the temples you will see maintenance work being done – machinery, scaffolding, bricks with identification numbers etc. Some people I spoke to expressed disappointment at this, but I think if you look at the information boards regarding restoration it is worth it. (I even thought seeing the ancient stone work, and the jungle both juxtaposed against the moden equipment looked kind of cool in its own way!) It is in itself a wonder in itself that in the early 20th century, archaeologists were able to reconstruct from ruins in the centre of the jungle with very little equipment and no computers. Finally, some of the carvings have been restored and are not original. At first this can be off putting as you don’t know exactly how old what you are looking at is, but after a while it becomes easy to tell. It is a difficult debate, because restoration allows you to see otherwise ruined temples in their former glory, but it loses some authenticity. All I can say to this is they seem to have struck a nice balance between leaving some temples as they were found, and some restored.

This brings me on to the last of the other temples I want to focus on – Banteay Srei. You’ll have to make a special request of your driver to get to here, as it a 30km drive through countryside to get there, but it is so worth it. If you go, go early and you may even get the place to yourself if you’re lucky. Hidden away in the middle of dense jungle, you begin to imagine being one of the original explorers who were told by the locals there were temples in the jungle ‘built by the gods’. This is one of the best temples to visit if you like the ornate carvings on the walls, as these are mostly in very good condition. Visit the museum there to learn about the restoration works.

Monks
So with my highlights out of the way – the big temple itself, Angkor Wat. Yes, it’s crowded. Yes, it’s not the most ornate. What it is, is the most stunning example of what an early 12th Century civilization could do. With the central tower standing 65 metres tall, a grand walkway leading up to the central area, and a 190 metre wide moat surrounding the whole thing, it is hard to even begin to picture the amount of man-power needed to complete this wonder. It’s hard to say whether to see this first, or save it for last – we went for sunset of day 1 and it was reasonably quiet, but by then the carvings on the wall were not as jawdropping as the first ones we saw. Having said that the sheer scale, and it standing there in front of you, free from any overgrowth or collapsed wall eclipses anything you’ve seen before it. I think the best thing is to speak to your driver and see what he thinks it will be like on that day, but make sure you go at some point in your itinerary. The steps to the viewing platform close at around 5 though, so be careful (we missed it!).


Cycling Angkor Wat Temple
So to summarise; no trip to Asia can do without seeing these amazing sites. In fact, if you miss it on your first trip, it tends to mean you are not finished with South East Asia – you’ll be back! Nowhere else is the incredible history of this region as obvious, as magical, and as intriguing as here, made all the more unique by the collapse of the Khmer Empire and other tragic events in more recent Cambodian history. And in Siem Reap you have the perfect place to relax after a hard days exploring. Sure, it’s getting more developed and touristy by the day, but it is still so far off the situation at the pyramids you can still enjoy it without feeling like you’re on a conveyor belt, surrounded by McDonalds and tour buses. If you have not been here yet, add it to your list of future trips right now – you won’t regret it.

Recommend Cycling Angkor Temples and Kayaking Halong Bay by ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA:

Highlights :

  • Beautiful cycling roads
  • Impressive Angkor temples
  • Boat trip on Tonle Sap
  • Hanoi tour
  • Halong Bay kayaking
  • Overnight on junk


Thursday, August 8, 2013

BIKING TO BENG MEALEA: HOW TO SEE MORE OF RURAL CAMBODIA

Written by Backpacker Becki

It took me over six hours to cycle to the jungle ravaged temple of Beng Mealea – a journey that would normally take an hour by public transport. Call me crazy, but there is something so wonderful about biking through the Cambodian countryside and avoiding the main, paved high-way routes.

Cycling Cambodia
My new-found love of cycling evolved once I had moved to Siem Reap, where I bought a bike as a means to ferry myself to and from work. But then I soon realised… in Cambodia a bike is your ticket to endless exploration.

This is when I started craving more of an adventure.My 20 minute bouts of exercise to and from work presented me with the same scenery and my random bike rides were becoming limited.

Countryside Cambodia

From simple countryside outings and the Angkor Wat temple circuit to tours that last days and which get you out of the city, there is something to suit everyone, whether solo or as a family. They seem a little pricey but the cost includes the bike hire, water, some food and temple entry. Sometimes paying a small price is worth not losing your head when you are lost in the middle of nowhere with limited or no Khmer language skills!
Out of all the day trips, I booked the one which looked most challenging and which would take me to a temple I had not yet visited – the 75km ride to Beng Mealea. Crazy is fun, right?

I was informed that the tour would be last approximately nine hours (from 7am – 4am). I assumed this to be a few hours of bike riding, a break for lunch and the temple visit, and then a few hours to get back. Instead we set out on a ride that would take us directly to Beng Mealea around 2pm where we would later get a tuk tuk home. It was MUCH further than I thought, but with a brand new mountain bike in my possession for the day, I was ready for the challenge.

Countryside Combodia
With a mixture of awe and agony, it was an awesome day. When using public transport to get to Beng Mealea you use a lot of main roads and pass through a village area on the approach to the temple. But when biking, you quickly turn off the first main road and begin a six hour off-the-beaten-track journey that takes you through some of the most stunning Cambodian countryside; where fisherman and ox cart farmers line the green, watery flatlands and where orange dirt tracks and luscious palm trees guide the way.

I’ve seen a whole heap of Cambodian countryside, and I spent a lot of time at work out in a local village, but this remains one of my best and most beautiful experiences yet of rural life. So much so I had to constantly stop just to take it all in and take some photos. My guide was patient and provided good insight, and for the entire journey (bar five minutes near the start) not one other tourist was in sight. Just me, my Khmer guide and the beautiful local people who waved and high-fived us throughout the journey.

I won’t lie, at times it was tough. I got tired and felt irritable. I had to pull over near the end just to down a bottle of water and a packet of crisps just to regain a little energy! I wondered why I put myself up for a Tour De Siem Reap after spending no more than an hour on my shitty Mary Poppins style bike!
But I did it. With a bike, you are the master of your own journey. You can choose when to slow down. You can choose when to stop and take hold of the scene in front of you. A tuk tuk or a car wouldn’t afford you with such an opportunity.

And the temple? Well, that was truly magnificent. It’s only been open to the public in the last few years so it’s not too ’touristy’ and ruined. Yet.

Not content with his awesome biking skills, my guide took me through a route of the temple where no one else could be found, where we climbed over toppled stones, wandered through lost corridors and swung on the branches that have weaved their way through and taken over the temple structure. We found peace at the end of a long and arduous day.

Even if you are not a regular bike rider, try a long haul biking adventure. See a different side of Cambodia. Go see a temple you might have thought was too far out of reach. And my one piece of advice apart from drinking lots of water and taking things at your own pace? Don’t wear a white top for your mountain bike outing. It will only come back orange.

Recommend Cycling Angkor Temples by ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA:
Highlights: 

  • Beautiful cycling roads
  • Impressive Angkor temples
  • Boat trip on Tonle Sap