Tag Archives: Temples

Realising it’s time to go home

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.

Angkor Thom Gate Cambodia

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.

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

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…

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm


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

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

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.

Bayon

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

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

Bagan: Nearly as many punctures as temples

With over 4,400 temples in a space the size of Manhattan, the biggest problem you face is deciding where to start. Especially when you’re still recovering from a dreadful bus journey.Bagan Temple

Our bus from Inle Lake was ‘only’ supposed to take 12 hours, but it started to go wrong from the start. Our taxi dropped us off at the road junction at 4am, only for us to sit there shivering for an hour by the side of the road while we waited for the bus to turn up. If it wasn’t for the nearby hot donut stand I think I may have cried. Eventually, though, it turned up, and we began the long, slow winding journey down through the mountains. Progress was glacially slow, as we seemed to stop EVERYWHERE to pick people up – and this on a bus so small that each seat only sat one and a half people, meaning we had to take in turns to be the one with one bum cheek balancing on the seat and the other hanging off into the aisle. Although at least this was balanced out by the ability to stretch one leg out – for the leg room was minute, and not helped by the fact that the area under the seats was stuffed with luggage.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, we then ended up stranded in Kalaw for about three hours with a damaged axle. It all got a bit much for Sam who decided to run down the road to try to by a plane ticket to Bagan instead. I was on the verge of cracking as well, when eventually they fixed it and we were back on our way. And in the end we were only 5 hours late – that’s 17 hours stuck on a bus, and without doubt the worst journey in over 11 months of travelling.Bagan Temple

With such a nightmare behind us, it was an easy decision to spend the next day on a tour rather than under our own steam, so we hired a couple of horse & carts, and spent the day being driven around the major temples.

As we drove down the main road from Nyaung U towards Old Bagan, it soon began to become apparent quite how many temples there are in the area – they are literally everywhere. The site is on a wide, flat plan in the bend of a river. It’s a very dry region, so it has an almost desert like feel, with smaller bushes and trees rather than being thickly forested – and one of the benefits of this is that its easy to appreciate quite how big the site is and quite how many temples there are stretching away as far as the eye can see in every direction.

They were built over a period of hundreds of years, with each successive ruler wanting to leave his mark in a different way, meaning that the temples are in a variety of styles, shapes, and sizes, from tiny to gobsmackingly large. Some of the them have fantastic beautifully painted interiors. Others have huge stone buddhas in varying positions. Many have massively thick walls and are dark and mysterious inside. Others allow streams of natural light pouring in from different doorways. Here and there you come across ones that are still being repaired after a devastating earthquake in 1975. Bagan Temple

Best of all are the ones that allow you up onto the roof, from where you can really appreciate the scale of Bagan. Our cart driver clearly knew what he was doing though – for he saved the best til last. Just before taking us home, he took us to a small temple just outside the city walls. From there we climbed to the roof – and were rewarded with the best view we’d had to date, with all the biggest temples lined up around us. I’ve been lucky enough to see some of the biggest and best ruins in the world in the past – Teotihuacan, Machu Picchu, Borobodur, Tikal, Ephesus – and none of them even come close to matching the scale of Bagan. Utterly breathtaking.Bagan Temples

Feeling refreshed after an easy day being driven around, and a good night’s sleep, we decided that for the next day we’d take a more strenuous option, and hire some bikes to get a bit more off the beaten track.

This turned out to be the worst decision of the trip so far (yes, even worse than eating in bus station in Yangon). For getting off the beaten track meant getting off the roads, to see the temples of the central plain. It started to go wrong almost immediately as we soon found ourselves cycling into thick sand that made peddling impossible, so our progress was slowed as we kept having to stop, then push the bikes for a bit, then get back on, and then off again….Bagan Temple

As if that wasn’t bad enough, things soon started to get worse. One by one, we all succumbed to punctures. First one wheel, then the other, until all five of us had two flat tires. The culprit? The whole area was growing with thorny bushes, leaving vicious, 2cm long thorns everywhere. The combination of flat tyres and thick sand made riding impossible, so we were forced to push on, getting more and more dehydrated. Things soon got even worse, when am cycled over a branch and had some thorns whipped across his leg – producing quite a lot of blood. Consulting the map we realised we were still quite some distance from roads in every direction, and with steadily dipping morale we pressed on, abandoning plans to see certain temples in favour of the most direct route back.

Just as we were about to collapse, we turned a corner…and found the first people we’d come across all day, at a remote temple in the middle of nowhere. We were delighted to find they had a little shack selling cold drinks. And even more so to find they could actually repair our punctures – it turned out that each bike had dozens, and in the end it took five of them a good hour to fix, while we cooled off.

Refreshed and revived, with working bikes again, we were delighted to find from there on in, that the dirt road was wide, smooth, and clear of thorns – and the rest of the day passed by like a dream, stopping every hundred metres or so for yet another stunning temple. There really is nowhere quite like it in the world.

Bagan Temple Gang

The Burma Gang: Sam, Frankie, Andrew & Tony

Two days was enough however – as after that we were truly templed out, and I was beginning to worry whether or not visiting Angkor at in a week’s time would really be a good idea….

You can see all my photos of Bagan here.