Cambodia

Weighing up Angkor: Temple travel advice

 

David Whitley hits Cambodia’s famous temples with a guide – and is mighty glad he spent the extra money doing so.

 

Bunchay pulls us over to a relatively unpromising temple wall. A series of engravings run down the sandstone like a comic strip, but Bunchay points to one in particular. “Take a look – what do you think it is?” It looks like a stegosaurus. In fact, despite trying to reimagine it as anything but a stegosaurus, it still looks like a stegosaurus. On the walls of a newly built place of worship, this would be rather odd, but Ta Prohm was built under the orders of the great Angkorian god-king Jayavarman VII in the 12th century.

 

“No-one can explain it,” says Bunchay. “Some people think they must have found a fossil, but it seems unlikely.” Essentially, people who didn’t know dinosaurs ever existed have drawn what appears to be a dinosaur on a temple wall. And that’s quite an intriguing puzzle.

 

The temples of Angkor are justifiably Cambodia’s biggest draw card. To think of them as just a bunch of temples would be a major mistake – the sprawl takes in a large chunk of the country, and most of them are were cities in themselves. Angkor Thom, for example, covers nine square kilometres and contemporary Chinese scribes (albeit ones clearly prone to massive exaggeration) claimed one million people lived inside.

 

The three must sees are Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom, and all have very different qualities. Angkor Wat is the giant one on all the postcards, Ta Prohm is the one that the jungle is atmospherically entwining itself with and Angkor Thom is a complex full of ruins, with the fabulously weird Bayon temple in the middle. Frankly, enough words have been spilled across the web about all three without me having to needlessly throw a few adjectives on the mountain.

 

What I can offer is a bit of advice. If you’re visiting Angkor, it pays not to be cheap about it. By and large, Cambodia is a really cheap country to travel in. Food, drink, transport and accommodation are gloriously inexpensive by international standards, and there can be a tendency to see the country as a place for spending as little as possible in.

 

For one day, at least, an exception should be made for visiting the big hitters at Angkor. You have to pay US$20 to get in anyway (although three day passes are available for $40). Whilst it’s tempting to hop on the back of the cheapest motorbike you can find and make your own way round, a good, well-trained guide can make a phenomenal difference to your day (or two). And not just in pointing out anachronistic dino-pics.

 

Part of what makes the temples so extraordinary is the artwork on them. Sculptures, engravings and bas-reliefs on a Bayeux Tapestry scale are all over the place. Wander around by yourself, and you’ll probably not have a clue what’s going on. A good guide brings them to life, and gives context to the ancient building spree.

 

Bunchay is also something of a marvel when it comes to picking out good photo spots. He leads us away from the route ploughed by the tour group herds (it’s a little known fact that half the Korean population can be found at Angkor at any one time) through jungle paths and back entrances. We end up seeing the temples from very different perspectives. And, once inside them, he points out the best spots for framing the temples’ distinctive features – such as the heads on the towers at Bayon and the trees growing through the stone at Ta Prohm.

 

More to the point, the company Bunchay works for, About Asia Travel, has conducted impressive surveys on footfall at the temples. They know which places are heaving at which time of day, and plan the route accordingly. We end up at Ta Prohm early in the morning with nary a soul in sight. By the time we drive past later at 10am, it looks like a bus factory outside. I do feel sorry, as well, for the poor sods traipsing around Angkor Wat behind the herds in the middle of the inevitable 3.30pm

 

Disclosure: David was a guest of About Asia Travel (aboutasiatravel.com) 

roundtheworldflights.com offer a 3 day Treasures of Angkor tour from £169 More details here