After nearly a year of travelling, I’d managed to visit some of the world’s most spectacular historic sights – Teotihuacan in Mexico, Copan in Honduras, the Lost City in Colombia, Machu Picchu in Peru, the Moai of Easter Island, Borobodur & Prambanan in Indonesia, and finally Bagan in Burma. But after all that there was still one major sight left to see. I’d deliberately planned my final couple of weeks to save the best to last – and so my final new country before heading home was to be Cambodia, and for one main reason: Angkor Wat.
The prospect of visiting Angkor is if anything even more daunting than Bagan in Burma – while Bagan has around 4,000 temples to Angkor’s 1,000, in Angkor they are spread out over 1,000 square kilometres (making Bagan’s 50 seem relatively compact). Factor in the two million plus annual visitors and trying to work out where to start to see the best bits and avoid the crowds was pretty daunting.
One of the gates to Angkor Thom
So I basically took the easy way out and let someone else decide for me. I hired a moped driver, met up with him bright and early, and soon found myself whizzing out of Siem Reap across the huge, flat, forested plain that makes up the site. I’d briefed my driver to avoid the highlights of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom (partly to save the best til last, but also because they’re the closest to Siem Reap, making it easier to visit by bicycle the following day).
So we started off at Banteay Srei, at 32km away from Siem Reap the furthest of the main temples. The temple is small but beautiful, particularly with its fine, intricate carving. However there was one thing that got in the way – I was instantly disappointed by the crowds. I knew it would be busy, but coming just 6 days after leaving Bagan behind, to be confronted with quite that many people all in one place was a real shock to the system.
I was worried that the rest of the day would follow a similar pattern, but was very pleasantly surprised – it seems that everyone starts out at Banteay Srei, but then heads off in different directions after that, meaning most places never felt too crowded.
I visited so many temples that first day it’s hard to pick out the highlights but I’ll have a go…
Everyone has seen pictures of Ta Phrom (or at least seen it on film in Tomb Raider). It’s famous for the fact that it’s one of the few that hasn’t been completely restored, meaning that in several places trees are still growing out of the stonework. Despite having seen it in a million photos, it’s even cooler up close. Having said that though, it’s one of the busier temples, which is why I much preferred Ta Som.
Ta Som is a tiny little temple – but its eastern Gate has been entirely devoured by a tree, possibly even more impressively than at Ta Phrom. And with way fewer visitors.
Near to Ta Phrom is the massive Ta Keo – which is certainly worth skipping if you have a fear of heights, for the staircases are ridiculously steep. It’s all worth it though, for the views from the top are spectacular. Meanwhile Preah Khan was the final highlight of my first day, its enormous ruins are like a massive crumbling maze I wandered around getting lost for ages.
After a long day on the motorbike I arrived back in Siem Reap amazed at the wonders I’d seen and even more excited about the following day. And that of course, was when it started to go wrong. I really should have learnt from my mistakes in Bagan, and spent day two with a driver. But oh no, with nice paved roads meaning no danger of punctures, I headed out bright and early on my bicycle for another day of exploring.
Yet again of course, this would turn out to be a mistake. First of all, I’d underestimated the distances involved (funnily enough the kilometres fly by when you’re on a moped…but no so quick under your own steam). The area is flat enough, but I’d completely failed to factor in the fact I’d be cycling long distances in a steamy, humid, tropical climate. I was soon soaked to the skin in sweat, and getting through water at a ridiculous rate of knots.
Being on my own, without a local moped driver, also exposed to me to another danger I’d entirely missed the day before – the millions of hawkers who patrol every single temple. As soon as I’d stopped my bike and started to lock up, I’d find myself surrounded by kids trying to sell me drinks, postcards and nick-nacks. Alongside them would be yet another group intent on dragging me off in different directions to get me to eat at their restaurant. With me being on my own, and a bit hot and bothered, there was no escape, no laughing it off with a mate, and instead it soon became deeply annoying.
Angkor Wat (plus scaffolding)
Further disappointments were in store – I pulled up outside the star attraction, Angkor Wat….only to find the main face covered in scaffolding for a refurb. Marvellous. It was also, of course, the most crowded I’d seen so far. The day wasn’t all bad – the temple of Bayon, crowned with dozens of faces carved into its towers, was probably my favourite of all – but overall, the combination of heat, hawkers, and crowds meant my patience was beginning to wear thin.
The massive stone faces of Bayon
The final straw was seeing sunset from Phnom Bakheng. I’d been warned that the premier sunset viewing spot would be crowded – but nothing could have quite compared me for the entire tourist population of Siem Reap converging simultaneously at the top of a temple. There was barely room to move, and to cap it all, the sunset really wasn’t all that spectacular (especially as the position of this temple doesn’t let you see temples framed against the setting sun).
Waiting for the sunset
In the end I headed back down before the sun had even slipped below the horizon, to get away from the crowds, and I began to reflect that the real problem was that I was simply templed out. A year of sightseeing had been amazing, but I realised that I was starting to get blase about it. The more spectacular historic sights, beautiful sunsets and amazing landscapes you see, the more everyday they become and the fussier you get. After months of thinking I’d never be ready to go home, the slight feeling of disappointment I got on my second day at Angkor finally made me realise it was time to go home. Strangely enough, knowing there was no more sightseeing to be done almost felt like a weight off my shoulders. All that was left now was a week on the beach topping up my tan, a weekend of partying in Bangkok, and then home.
You can see all of my photos of Cambodia here