Angkor crowds



Beating the crowds at Angkor, Cambodia David Whitley takes expert advice on getting away from the hordes around Angkor’s temples

Explosion in popularity

The temples at Angkor in Cambodia are unquestionably one of the great wonders of the world. Unfortunately, the world has now worked this out – the small bands of intrepid backpackers that made their way to Angkor in the 1990s have turned into over a million visitors per year. In the last five years, visitor numbers have ballooned. Mass tourism from other Asian countries – South Korea in particular – has seen tour groups swarm to the major sites for much of the day. To get the best out of the major sites, some cunning herd avoidance strategies are needed.  


Going about it tactically

The key tactic for anyone with a few days in which to explore the temples is to forget any ideas about saving the best until last. There are scores of temples spread over a wide area, but three are generally regarded as must sees. Most famous is Angkor Wat, the largest religious building on earth, but Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom would be the tourist board mainstays anywhere else. Ta Prohm is the temple from the Tomb Raider movies that the jungle has somewhat reclaimed - trees wrap themselves around the walls. 


Angkor Thom is more a walled city with numerous temples inside, but the hundreds of stone faces carved out of the towers of Bayon – Angkor Thom’s centerpiece – are the highlights. The earlier you get to the big three, the better – both in terms of light for photography and avoiding the hordes. A three day park pass costs US$40, and if you can bring yourself to get up at 6am every morning, then one of the most popular temples should be the first stop each day. Angkor Wat is the possible exception here as many come for sunrise – hanging back for between 7am and 9am will usually prove more judicious.   


Knowing The Route

If you don’t have the luxury of three days, it starts to get trickier, and it pays to know The Route. Andy Booth, who runs upmarket tour operator About Asia Travel, says: “Responding to demand, many local girls and boys have studied for guiding qualifications and taken up a profession which is one of the best remunerated jobs around. “Most of them begin guiding straight away and rarely find time for reflection on the itineraries they have been taught, based closely on the work of Maurice Glaize in his 1944 book Angkor,” he explains.


“Unsurprisingly the result is a concentration of visitors into a few key sites at certain prescribed times of day. It’s like a pig passing through a python.” The book was written at a time when only poor tracks connected the temples, and those following it aren’t taking into account vastly improved roads or alternative walking tracks that have been cleared since. Booth and his team have monitored footfall around various temples at different times of the day, and try to optimise their itineraries accordingly. The general theory of The Route is that Angkor Wat is best tackled in the afternoon as it faces west. Bayon faces east, so it’s usually done first, and Ta Prohm fits in somewhere in between.   


Follow the light?

Dawn Rooney, author of the Odyssey guide to Angkor, says this is mainly about the light. “Most tour guides at Angkor do follow the same route, whether it is the one set out by Glaize or the one in my guidebook,” she said. “There is, though, a very logical reason for following a particular route -- it's the light on the temples. Certain ones must be seen at certain times. This is particularly true of the reliefs at Angkor Wat, Terrace of the Elephants, and Banteay Srei.” Not everyone – particularly those who are happy enough with holiday snaps rather than professional photos – would agree. If you’re time pressed, therefore, it’s best to go with Ta Prohm first. The difference between a 7am visit and a 10am visit is phenomenal. Go early, and you’ll share with a couple of other people. Turn up later, and it looks like a bus factory.   


Ground control at Angkor Thom

At Angkor Thom, the temptation to just visit Bayon should be avoided. A walk along the outer walls is tremendously atmospheric. For photographers, it’s best tackled before 4pm – and preferably between noon and 2pm when most of the tour groups have gone back to Siem Reap for lunch. For the same reasons, the noon to 2pm window is also good for Angkor Wat, but if you can’t make it then damage limitation is possible by going in through the back. Go in through the east gate as the umbrella-following flood passes through the western entrance. That way, you can slot into the tour group gaps to get a closer look at the bas reliefs and statues, without being swept along by the waves. The end of the day is when the guide books really get it wrong. The often recommended sunset spot – on top of the Phnom Bakheng temple – is now a complete circus. 


“Last year on one footfall survey we counted 1,981 people up there,” says Andy Booth. “And it’s not even an especially good vantage point.” It’s best to avoid the elbows and rugby scrum-esque scramble down in the dark altogether, and plump for a spot where the exiting sun will be reflected in Angkor Wat’s moat. There’s more than enough water to go round, so you shouldn’t struggle for relative peace. The smart move, of course, is to head back to Siem Reap for a couple of hours of freshening up, then return with a picnic and wine for a less sweaty sunset.   


Disclosure: David Whitley was a guest of About Asia Travel



Eating out in Luang Prabang: $1 plates to fine dining


First night in Luang Prabang, I ended up following a throng of people into a side alley off the night market. I stopped following them when I spotted the coconut waffle seller, the juice stall and the duo cooking dumplings, all of which I wolfed down. I’d only spent a couple of dollars and I was full. Then I saw it. The throng’s holy grail.


Several long tables crammed with heaped plates of noodles, fried vegetables, spring rolls, skewered meat and fish. It’s a simple set-up. Pay a dollar, take a plate, pile it high and enjoy. The food is flavoured to keep the majority happy (translation, not spicy enough) but it’s not half-bad.


Luang Prabang attracts backpackers, the affluent and everyone in between and no budget is uncatered to. At the Korean BBQ on the Mekong riverfront, a Beer Lao and plate of food costs around $5 per person. Further along is the very reasonably priced Luang Prabang Food, its extensive menu including laap (minced, usually cooled, meat cooked with garlic, chillies, lime juice, spring onion, mint and coriander) and the eponymous Luang Prabang salad with eggs, peanuts, coriander, watercress and fried garlic. Next door, DaRa’s pork steak in rum, sticky rice and fried bananas with honey lured me back twice as did the Korean food at Big Tree Cafe.


On the other side of Luang Prabang is the Nam Khan River. A top pick is Rosella Fusion, set up by young locals and serving dishes such as fried beef with lemongrass and basil with black sticky rice. Towards the backpacker area, S-Bar serves fine burgers, the Aussie Sports Bar does a brisk trade in comfort food while LaoLao Garden and riverview Utopia do decent food in very atmospheric surroundings. Best for ambience is Dyen Sabai, across the river via the bamboo bridge and brilliantly priced serving Lao fondue, desserts and cocktails on its riverview deck.


At the higher end, Apsara is a frontrunner. We dined on Lao dried beef salad with herbs, local buffalo sausage with chilli jam, pan-fried fish with tamarind sauce and Asian pears poached in wine with homemade vanilla ice cream. Other options include French restaurant L'Elephant (tip: the $10 lunch special is a winner), 3 Nagas and Tamarind, well-known for its cooking classes.


Former French rule has left a tasty legacy of excellent coffee, bread and pastries. The cafe scene is thriving with places such as Cafe Ban Vat Sene, Books & Tea (their Indian chai masala is made from scratch), ethically minded Saffron Cafe and Coconut Garden.


And this is just a taster - three weeks clearly isn’t just long enough to savour it all.


By Meera Dattani


You can get Laos included as a stopover on your RTW here

Published by Stuart Lodge

Bolaven Plateau




On the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos, David Whitley learns to have a greater appreciation for health and safety regulations


Pon is keen to tell me how lucky I am. “In the wet season, you cannot walk on this track,” he says. “But now, it is safe – we can go to the waterfall.”


This is the grand finale, the cherry-on-top reward at the end of a day’s trek. It’s a reward that feels greedy, however. The walk across the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos begins with purposeful striding through the Arabica coffee plantations that mean relative prosperity for the local bean-growing co-operatives. This leads to the rocky, semi-barren landscape of the Dan Sin Say plateau, where cows mooch around with a flabby lack of menace, over stepping stones and down to the banana-fringed pool at the bottom of the Tad Cham Pi falls.


In a sweaty, sticky heat, this feels just about right. But we must press on. Tad Cham Pi is just a baby. If I want something truly impressive, then forging ahead to Tad Fane is imperative.


We get to the lookout; the twin falls daintily tumbling through the forest into a deep chasm are indeed impressive. But we can get closer.


The track that is closed in the wet season quickly becomes enveloped by the trees.


The unseen falling water sounds like a thunderstorm, the cicadas seem intent on screeching out the music from the shower scene in Psycho.


But what’s dirt on the flat quickly turns to mud on the descent. Pon saunters along ahead, possibly overestimating the abilities of the knackered lump he’s supposed to be guiding.


He glides down what is essentially a treacherous muddy bank, judiciously grabbing trees and grass for support.


I attempt to copy him, but only end up pulling roots out of the ground. My feet fly into the air, as if I’ve gone over on a banana skin, and my backside plunges into the mud. I career into spiky branches with uncontrolled momentum, I tear my shorts on gnarled logs and I end up with red ants all over my skin after falling in the path of their march.


It’s amazing how quickly your tune changes on health and safety regulations once you get stuck in a situation that’s rather more dangerous than you’d like. Had the track been closed, I’d have been complaining about nanny state overprotection. Now I wish nanny hadn’t abandoned me.


The miserable pratfalling plunge down the slope continues for about 45 minutes until we reach the river. I take one look at it, and realise that the stepping stones are so far apart and wobbly that they’re nigh on useless. My filthy legs need a wash anyway, so I roll my shorts up as far as I can manage and start to wade across in an angry stomp.


I’ve not counted on an uneven riverbed, though. Stepping into a gap that’s much deeper than I think, I lose my footing and take an unwelcome swim. The stagger to the opposite shore is one of flustered panic as I desperately try to fish valuables out of my pockets, hoping I’ve not killed them. My phone! My camera! My wallet!


Back on dry land, I look back across the river. Pon is stood with a puzzled look on his face. “What are you doing?” he says. He unfurls his arm to point to a track back up the hill on his side of the bank. “We don’t have to cross the river. It’s this way.”


by David Whitley



You can get Laos included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW


Is Vientiane worth a stopover?




Tell people you’re heading to Laos’ capital, the most common assumption seems to be you need to sort out your visa. When you say it’s not that, you just want to spend three or, dare I say, four nights there, they’re puzzled. ‘But there’s nothing to see in Vientiane, is there?’


Admittedly, when you’ve been in Luang Prabang for any amount of time, leaving it for anywhere seems ludicrous. I almost burned my passport the day I arrived, hypnotised by this impossibly picturesque town on the Mekong River. But all good things...


And Vientiane is an intriguing place. It has none of the swagger of a capital city and is supposedly Southeast Asia’s smallest, paling in size (and noise) compared to the likes of Hanoi, Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Kuala Lampur. Like Luang Prabang, it’s on the Mekong and does a booming trade in riverfront bars, but the big difference is most locals aren’t working in tourism and most people on the streets aren’t tourists.


There are sights, just not that many. Best visited at sunset is That Luang, Laos’ most important religious site, its golden stupa the national symbol. There’s an excellent museum of Lao art, a less impressive Lao National Museum and Wat Sisaket, the city’s oldest temples. Xieng Khuan (‘Buddha Park’) is a quirky day trip with over 200 statues including a 40-metre reclining Buddha and there’s also Phou Kao Kway national park.



The truth, it’s the lack of must-do sight which makes Vientiane refreshing. Have breakfast at the Scandinavian Bakery or Le Croissant d’Or then cycle or walk to the Morning Market (behind the newer Talat Sal Mall) for textiles, bamboo crafts and clothes. Stop at the tourist office for onward travel ideas then carry on to Patouxai, Vientiane’s Arc de Triomphe which is just 1.5 kilometres from That Luang.


Later, pop into Carole Cassidy Laos Textiles even if just to see the colonial house it occupies then head down to the river where in the dry season, you can watch the locals play football and volleyball on the riverbed. Shop and eat at the night markets or in one of Vientiane’s excellent restaurants. Favourites include Daofa Bistro, Taj Mahal to take care of Indian food cravings and Makphet – book in advance at this popular, not-for-profit restaurant run by former street children.


Vientiane at sunset is the showstealer. Take a late afternoon stroll along the riverfront to The Spirit House bar, order a G&T and let the evening wash over you in truly classy surroundings. For a late-night drink, the open-fronted Bor Pen Gnang bar often buzzes with locals, ex-pats and tourists. It’s laidback, unfussy and friendly. Just like Vientiane.


By Meera Dattani


You can get Cambodia included as a stopover on your RTW here

Published by Stuart Lodge

Luang Prabang

In Luang Prabang, David Whitley finds himself intrigued by the wrong market 

As night falls on Luang Prabang, the main street is shut to traffic. To be honest, a driver wouldn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of getting down there anyway. The street is taken over by temporary stalls, some selling fruit juices and those Lao baguette sandwiches that are so welcome after time spent hunting a decent sarnie in Thailand.

But most of the stalls are selling handicrafts. Suspiciously similar handicrafts too. One stall selling beautiful, colourful woven fabrics looks much the same as the other 438. The jewellery – all fairly heavy-looking, slightly mucky metal – is practically identical as you wander along too. As for carved wooden elephants, if that’s your sort of thing, then you’ve struck gold.

It’s as if an entire city has been told that the way out of poverty is filling middle class western living rooms with ethnic-chic junk. And there’s plenty of that on the Luang Prabang night market. There’s some good stuff too, but everything is so depressingly samey. It’s as if people have seen what works and are content to churn out multiple imitations of it. The entire strip of canopied stalls seems bereft of original ideas and experimentation.

Something always disturbs me about this – the same applies to Aboriginal art too. There’s a difference between enabling the genuinely creative and talented to make a living from what they do and promoting the idea that cod-creativity and half-arsed art is the only way to find work.

Luang Prabang’s morning market, running on a parallel street, is a completely different kettle of fish however. This is partly because any middle-aged tourists wandering through are incidental extras, but mainly because it provides the sort of surprises that calculating bottom-line thinking has torn away from the night market.

These include packets of weed from the Mekong River – a seaweed substitute often used in Lao cuisine, apparently. There are also packets of buffalo skin, which I can’t imagine being too tasty, but at least it’s better than the fried rats for sale. They’re sold whole – they still have their teeth in, should you wish to tuck into one as a morning snack.

There seems to be a waste-nothing culture. One stall just sells the bones left over from the meat. Another has dead beetles available for your delectation.

There are big bowls of brightly-coloured spices and peppers, chunks of fried bamboo, wondrous exotic fruits such as the always spectacular-looking dragon fruit. And there a huge bags of rice, in all its different varieties.

I’ve no interest in buying any of it and taking it back home. But it’s always fascinating to see what’s considered normal elsewhere. There’s more variety and intrigue in the market that’s not pretending to be special than the one that’s a supposed highlight of the city.

Disclosure: David is travelling in Laos as a guest of Peregrine Adventures

You can get Luang Prabang included as a stopover in the Navigator RTW