21 March 2012

What's in a tour guide?

I have to admit that I usually do all my tours without a guide. 40+ trips to Thailand and dozens of trips to other countries - all by myself, my own prep work. (if i get into the mood I will list the books I studied before coming to Angkor on this blog)

However, the way Angkor works is that you have to get transportation and a guide separately. The APSARA Authorities (the government body who manages Angkor's Historical Park) does not allow those two functions to be combined. So, if you try to combine the two you might end up with a bad guide or with a bad driver. Usually your driver will bring you to the monument and then leave you alone to wonder around. That applies to buses, cars and tuk-tuk's. If you have your own transportation like a motorbike or a bicycle you will be more independent but basically still start from the same point of entry after parking your vehicle.

And from that point on, the trouble starts! There will be dozens of people who try to sell you things and guide you. Some are good and official guides, some are self proclaimed guides and some are no guides at all. We had done it this way back in 2000 and it was a horrible experience, though things were still much easier back then. If I wanted to explore Angkor again, it was only going to be with an excellent tour guide!

Secret sunset location suggested by my guide - all alone :-)
And I searched the web for one. Found an excellent, professional site, with offered just what I wanted. Independent, personal, no group tours, off the beaten track, good pricing, flexible, knowledgeable. I booked it 4 months ahead of my trip!

Those were the guide(s) I met upon checking into my hotel, waiting for me in the lobby. So, that part of it worked. What did not work, was the part where my booked guide was in reality an agent, who did not really want to guide but to make money by connecting me with other guides! I will not "out him" here, but it was rather disappointing to learn that I had to go with another guy for most days and him for some days.

My first tour started with an uneasy feeling about that fact, but turned into a really great experience after the first day and it kept getting better as we went. Lucky me! I might have ended up with one of the guides I saw daily in the monuments. Some spoke almost no English, or bad English (same for German and other languages). Some just trotted next to their clients and did not speak much, some spoke all the time and lost their audience after a few minutes. It was very obvious that they did not connect at all. If you spend 8 to 10 hours with a person there better be some energy between the two.

Standing in line for the inner sanctuary of Angkor Wat
So, to make a long story come to an end, I ended up being a really lucky guy with an expert tour guide who was well educated and who speaks really good English. Funnily American English and I cracked up when I heard him say "AWESOME, MAN!!!" for the first time. Being a well prepared traveller myself bringing a lot of knowledge with me but wanting to learn even more, my guide did beat my expectations on knowledge about Khmer architecture. But he also beat my expectations on the fact that I wanted to see the monuments by myself, with no tour groups, no bus load of people who follow a Russian flag, a yellow umbrella, or a white handkerchief. My guide was so flexible and knew the places so well, that he was able to guide me around the masses, used the back entrance or walked me against the flow of tourists. To be realistic though, you cannot avoid the crowd when going up the inner sanctuary of Angkor Wat!

He picked the best restaurants for me (since I am a vegetarian), helped me to shop for high quality items vs. cheap tourist crap, showed me things he thought I might be interested in after learning what I want and best of all - he was an "awesome" photographer himself! So, I handed him my second camera and got over 2000+ wonderful photos of myself exploring Angkorean sites.

"Best places for sunrise" with the masses
So, if you go to Angkor, get a great tour guide and to not attempt to walk around with your book, following the paths listed under "best places for sunsets" or "best choices for sunrise" because EVERYONE else will do the same. There is an unbelievable 3000 !!! tour guides listed for the area but try to go with the best one, which is mine :-) and make your visit to Angkor an unforgettable experience.

I booked him for all 14 days on my trip and just booked him again for another trip in a few months. By the way, the more you give, the more you get! I do invite my tour guides when I have lunch. Most guides will bring their client to the restaurant and then walk off until the tourist is finished. Lunch in Cambodia is cheap! Eating with good company is more fun and you are doing a good thing! These people do not earn a lot and are really poor. Good for your own karma too ;-)

Contact me through this blog if you need his contact details or visit his facebook page "Angkor Wat Tours by Sarun"

P.S. The original guy I had booked turned out to be a nice guy but a very disappointing tour guide.

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