31 March 2012

Angkor Wat - a replica of the universe in stone

Angkor Wat's serene moat
If you think a sunrise (or sunset) at Angkor Wat is impressive, a daytime visit will blow your mind away! The sheer statistics of Angkor Wat are impressive! Built in approximately 1113-1150 AD and occupying about 210 hectares (500 acres) with a moat 200 meters (600 feet) wide, a perimeter of 5,5 kilometers and a height to the top level of the central tower of 65 meters (213 feet), Angkor Wat is a colossal mass of stone and art. Of course I did not measure this myself, but my excellent guide mentioned it. Unfortunately the number of tourists is as great (in a negative sense). But this is where a good tour guide comes into play again!

One of the Gates to Angkor Wat
I will not give instructions here on this blog on how to avoid the crowds. That would be really unfair to my tour guide, but he did manage to get me into Angkor Wat in a way that made me feel alone with only myself and the huge temple. The exception being of course the inner sanctuary, where you cannot avoid  tourists. But an expert guide can still time your visit at a "quiet" moment of the day. 

A replica of the universe set in stone
My first impression of Angkor Wat on this second visit was almost in a serene setting, as if I had the whole monument for myself. The soft morning light added a lot of atmosphere while my guide explained a bit of the history and we entered the gates to walk around the inner walls and into the galleries.

The huge relief of The Churning Of The Sea Of Milk 
I loved the galleries, which I had missed on my first visit to Angkor Wat because I walked with my book in a self-guided tour.  So, I wanted to spent quite a bit of time looking at the amazing details of the galleries of Bas-reliefs. And there is more detail than we can comprehend on a quick one day visit. We did pay attention to the "Victory of Vishnu over the Asuras" and  "Churning Of The Sea of Milk" and my guide really provided a lot of details, which I enjoyed, given that I had read a lot about it before.
"Heaven And Hell" relief was pretty graphic and we continued to study the "Procession Of Suryavarman II And His Troops" relief, which was also very impressive. Impressive it is, if you are interested in this kind of thing. Well, I am. By the time we reached the reliefs we did run into groups of tourists who all followed their guides with a clueless impression on their face! 

"Libraries" on the third level
The upper levels of Angkor Wat started to fill up with tourists and we did brief visits to the Hall of Echoes, which was a horrible experience with everyone thinking they had to scream in order to do their own version of an echo. At this point, both my guide and I got bit frustrated with the behaviour of tourists. Angkor Wat is after all a temple and not Disney World. Some people forgot their manners and others seemed to have forgotten (or never had) a good taste in their clothing.  As my friends from Malaysia will attest, I am a big fan of shorts, but here I will wear long pants out of respect. Tank tops and shoulder free blouses are a NO NO and it will just be a matter of time before the APSARA AUTHORISATION, the organizing body for Angkor Wat, will follow temples like the Borobudur on Java, where everyone will have to wear a long sarong. No matter how short or long the pants or skirts are.

Monks wondering around in the cloisters became "an object" to many camera lenses and it was impossible to get away from the stream of tourists. But I knew that was the case, so I focused my attention to the galleries, the Buddha statues or the nearly 1850 Apsaras, the celestial nymphs, which adorn the walls. 

View from the top over the rainforest
The inner courtyard of Angkor Wat was a zoo as you can see from the photos of my former blog . No way to avoid it, other than the good timing of my guide, which enabled me to get up and down the central sanctuary before the waiting line was as long as the entire wall of the third level. I almost took a pass at the option to go up but my guide said that I had to because the view from the top is still awesome. And it was awesome! You just have to block out all the other people who are here with you, but I did have a few serene moments where I enjoyed the spot and the view all by myself. The tours seem to come and leave as a group, so I just had to wait a bit. 
Steep stairway to the upper level

On my first visit in the year 2000 we were still alone on the top and the steep staircases were still accessible. They are blocked off now and all visitors climb up and down by using the wooden staircase and the handles provided on the south side. 

Mass tourism set aside, this is a very special place on earth and I would not have missed visiting it. And I will in fact visit it a third time soon! It is after all symbolizing the mythical Mount Meru, at the center of the universe and mentally cutting out the other tourists can be seen as a form of meditation.

Angkor Wat from the air
Besides actually walking through the halls of Angkor Wat and it's galleries, I found it as rewarding to see the temple from far, from the air or from a nearby mountain. 

29 March 2012

A sunrise over Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat, "the city that is a temple", is by far the most visited and most photographed Angkorean monuments. Unfortunately this also means it is the most touristy site.

Masses of tourists arrive for the sunrise when it is still dark outside. No wonder because it is mentioned in every guidebook and website as a "must do". I put it off at first and said I do not want to be with so many people when "enjoying" a beautiful sunrise, but after having seen all the photos, posters and paintings I decided to ask my tour guide about sunrise and he said "have fun!!", indicating that he would not be part of it :-)  

I got up at 4am in order to get to the temple in time and was surprised how many local people are on the streets on their way to work by bicycle. The ride on the tuk tuk was surprisingly cold.  When arriving at the parking lot, there were already vendors selling books and tour guides ready to be hired. This is at 5am!! 

When crossing the long stone causeway over the huge moat and into the first Gopura (gateway) it was pitch dark. I could not see where I was stepping and I hated the fact that I did not have a flashlight with me. Once through the Gopura I heard voices coming towards me, but could not see anyone until my sleepy eyes got hit with the bright beam of a flashlight and there they were - vendors - selling coffee, breakfast or mats to sit on! The best spots for sunrise are actually blocked by the local vendors who want to make a living too. Mind you, we are only talking about a dollar or two!

Still in the dark arrive hundreds of people from China, Korea, Japan and other countries. All looking for a good spot to stand and to put up their tripods. And then you wait a long time until you can see the first silver lining along the horizon which brings out the black silhouette of Angkor Wat. 

Slowly there are reflections visible in the ponds just west of the temple but it seems to take forever until the the sun itself becomes visible through the spikes of Angkor Wat's towers. That is the moment when the entire mass of tourists with their camera's seems to leap forward with those people closest to the water scrambling not to be pushed right into the pond. The backpack of a nice guy from Seville in Spain sitting next to me actually plunged into the water as he struggled to hold on to his tripod and cameras to prevent them from falling in as well. 

And this is when the whole spectaculum angkorium is over. People leave as soon as the sun is up. Some wait a little longer and enjoy the pretty sight. My Spanish friend there said that he was happy that people didn't applaud when the sun was up, as they do in other countries for the setting sun. Oh, and this is the moment for the "jumping" scene - those people who think they need a photo of every point in the world with them  jumping up, arms and legs in the air and a screaming expression on their face. Mr. Spain did not believe me when I told him this would happen soon and he could not trust his eyes as a bunch of girls did "the jump" right in the middle of a group of Buddhist nuns. 

Sunrise at Angkor Wat is awesome! No question about that!  But the presence of so many people, their voices, shouting and jumping, clicking of cameras and people stepping on you, pushing their way through did not leave a nice imprint on my memory.

We actually visited Angkor Wat again on a separate trip for a daytime visit, because I headed back to town with everyone else for breakfast. 


23 March 2012

Déjà-vu moment with Kevin Costner

Traditional stilt houses
My first day trip in Siem Reap was not to the Khmer temples but to the traditional village of Kompong Pluk. I had made it very clear to my two tour guides that I did not want to do any "touristy" things, so I thought to myself this is gonna be an interesting one! Walking the fine line between touristy excursions on one side and experiencing local people and culture on the other side is very difficult in an area which sees as many tourists as Angkor Wat and Siem Reap does. 

Also I do not mind to support Eco Tourism activities and Kompong Pluk is such a place where you have to pay an entrance fee and the money goes to a large degree to the local community. 

Water levels were getting low during my trip to Angkor, so we chose to move this visit to the beginning of my time to ensure we can still travel by boat. My tour guide did surprisingly well in avoiding other tourists and we had the place almost to ourselves. 

A huge village on stilts
A short boat ride did soon reveal the first stilt houses along the river and I immediately thought of "Waterworld" the 1995 post-apocalyptic science fiction movie starring Kevin Costner.  However, this here was much better than the movie! I was really surprised because I did not expect the stilt houses to be sitting on 6 to 7 meters high poles. With the water level being so low it looked even more surreal. Only the children playing in the water and the fishermen trying their luck in the muddy river made the situation real. Immediately I decided that I had to come back here and see this place during the rainy season when the water flooded the entire area. Everything here was built on stilts, even the pig stalls.

Donating books and pencils to pupils in the village
My guide arranged for me to meet with people in the village, which was an awesome experience. I went to the local school and donated class room utensils, books and pencils, to the children. I handed them out one by one, because I usually want to see where my donations go to. Too much money ends up in the hands of people who merely administer, organize or simply with people who are corrupt. So, meeting each child in the classrooms gave me a much better feeling. 

Charging time!!
Walking through the village, we met a lot of children who were not in school because they simply lacked the funds to pay for an education. Living conditions were very poor, without electricity and running drinking water. One of the most stunning image for me was about 20 kids and adults standing together in a group watching something I could not make out. I just heard laughter and when I got closer I noticed they were holding a small phone on which they were showing a movie. The  device was run by a car battery!  Car batteries,  which have to be charged regularly are the only form of electricity in the village and there are "shops" where people bring their batteries to every few days to be charged against a fee. 

We did another stop at the local temple to make donations and talked with one of the monks about the village and the temple. My first temple in Cambodia, I thought to myself! What a great start!

Mangrove forests
There was plenty of nature, mangrove forests and a slow change from stilt houses to floating houses. We came closer to the lake Tonle Sap. Soon our small boat was dancing up and down on the water with no land in sight and I realized how large this sweet-water lake is. The water comes up from the mighty Mekong river during the rainy season and thus "flows backwards" while it runs with the flow of nature "downstream" during the dry season. Interesting!  The guy who drove our boat switched off the motor and started to fill a half dozen water containers with water from the lake. "Drinking water", I was told, for the village, because the muddy water from the river is not drinkable. 

Traditional market in the village
We started to go back the same way we came. Our option would have been to go out further on the lake and see the Vietnamese floating settlements, but I decided that would be on another trip.  Instead we went to a nearby village on land and strolled through their market. That was how I had remembered Siem Reap 12 years ago. Unspoiled and traditional. No tourists. Just what I wanted to see. 

My tour guide knew exactly what I wanted to do and experience and he presented it to me in just the right way. My initial doubts about him as being a "second choice" guide were all gone by the time we reached the Hotel!

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.

20 March 2012

Siem Reap - Gateway to Angkor

Hotel City Angkor
The trip from the airport to town was longer than I remembered. Partly because of the immense traffic. Imagine that: traffic jam in Siem Reap!!! 12 years ago you might have passed a bicycle or an ox cart but now there were buses, cars, motorcycles and a lot of tuk-tuks. An a lot of tourists. There were more western people to see on the streets than Cambodians!

Angkor Star Hotel
The other big change is Hotels. Hotels everywhere. Huge Hotels. I had a deja-vu moment, thinking I just entered Las Vegas. That was unexpected and in that moment I was happy to know that my hotel was located outside of the town's center. Closer to the local monasteries and to the entrance of Angkor Wat, which after all was my main reason to re-visit this place.

I briefly met with my reserved tour guide(s) to go over the plan for the next 2 weeks. They were waiting for me in the lobby already. When finished I checked into my suite and had the second "wow" effect of the day. I had never expected such modern rooms with flat screen TVs, free WiFi, fitness center and all. Last time we stayed at a wooden hut, designed in the way the monks quarters in a temple are designed. Nice, but dark, full of mosquitoes. Beautiful yet unpractical with no space to store your belongings. This was much better now and surprisingly cheaper than 12 years ago.

The town was next. A tuk-tuk costs 2$ everywhere, though they will ask for more. 5$, 10$ anything is fine but locals pay 2$ so that is all i handed the driver and got no complaints. That is a trip inside the town! Visiting the monuments or going outside will cost more and is subject to good negotiation skills, where I excel!

Relaxing at Blue Pumpkin
Siem Reap now has a pub street!!!! Restaurants, Bars, Dance clubs, fancy Internet cafes, travel offices and lots of tourist shops. It was an immediate turn-off for me. I was looking forward to the quiet and traditional village/town that I had experienced before. All gone now! And tourists, mostly Russians. Everywhere! It felt a bit like Phuket or Pattaya in Thailand, Seminyak in Bali or any other place where many western tourists go to.

Close to Old Market
Fancy restaurants with "please wait to be seated" signs with a multitude of long drinks and designer food. Internet cafes with a lounge style, where you half sit and half lay on your couch. Some good, some bad. I did enjoy relaxing at the Blue Pumpkin though the Internet connection sucked! And I did enjoy the food and atmosphere at the Sugar Palm Restaurant, but the latter one especially because I knew the Manager there.

Children's Hospital
A bit of a shock was also to drive by several of the most expensive Hotels, Le Méridien, Sofitel Royal Angkor and other places tucked away behind high whitewashed walls and see the huge lines of Cambodian families sitting on the floor outside the Children's Hospital waiting for a doctor's appointment for up to 5 days. That is 5 days on the street, waiting in line, sleeping on the street on mats!

An interesting experience to re-visit Siem Reap, but I was more looking forward to re-visit the temples and the surrounding land, villages and people. Kampong Pluk trip was scheduled for the next morning!

19 March 2012

Angkor Wat back then

It's been a long time since we first visited Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. Back in 2000 we took a small plane from Bangkok, leaving our luggage in the Hotel in Bangkok and traveling only with our small day packs. Siem Reap was a small and undeveloped town with very few Hotels. The Cambodians we met were shy and most of them did not speak any English.

When we landed in the small Airport of Siem Reap, we felt like landing in the middle of the jungle. There was no sign of a town. Just trees. Very green and lush forest below us. Immigration was a real experience with several official sitting along a long line of desks. You handed the first one your passport and visa application forms and it was handed along from official to official until you had to hand over your U.S. Dollars. Stamps were done by another person and the last one in the line held up 3 to 4 passports and we tourists, who all looked the same for them, had to pick ours!

Since we had no luggage we were out of the building in no time and anxiously looked around to find our reserved driver. We spotted my name on a large sign of a guy standing all the way in the back. Funnily they ran out of space as they wrote my long name onto the paper with the last three or 4 letters getting smaller and smaller.

Angkor Wat in 2000 - No tourists!
We had 3 days back then, visiting a lot of temples. Though I thought we were relatively well prepared, we really had not much of an idea what we saw. We also wanted to save money and did not hire a guide. We only had a driver who picked us up in the morning, drove us to the temples I had on my list and we wandered around alone. Only equipped with the excellent Angkor Guide by Dawn Rooney, we kept reading, holding the book up to see what direction we might be facing and then turned and walked to the described monuments and sites.

Of course we missed a lot, misinterpreted a lot and walked right by hidden gems, while fending of hordes of kids who wanted to sell things like postcards. Many of them started to walk around with us, turning themselves into our tour guide without us really noticing that change until it was too late. The kids also spoke no English and just pointed to "things" they deemed important for us to see. "Elephant", "Buddha", "Monkey" where things we heard and then tried to make it out somewhere on a wall. All interrupted by the occasional "only one dollar" comment from vendors who sold soft drinks and post cards.

This way we saw a lot, however didn't really have a chance to go deep on the wonderful world of Angkor. After three days of morning and afternoon trips, wonderful dinners in our Hotel and a rather short run through the local market, it was time to go back to Bangkok. So for 12 years I was dreaming to go back for another visit. A longer visit with more time to explore Angkor. And I finally did do it in 2012.