Before doing a bit of research on the temples of Angkor, I had thought that all I would need to do is get out there and wander around. Not so. The Angkor Archeological Park is 400 square kilometers, and there are at least forty different temples listed on my tour map. You have a few choices: Hire a car and driver, go on the back of a motorbike, rent a bicycle, or hire a tuk-tuk. I chose the last option.
A tuk-tuk is a covered cart/carriage, attached by a trailer hitch to a motorcycle. The bench seat accommodates two and a half people comfortably, and there is a place to sit directly opposite the bench, with your back to the driver. I would say three people should be the maximum, but I did see a tuk-tuk with at least five, saffron-robed monks, cruising along the road. On my first day out I also decided to get a guide. Generally, I like to explore on my own, but I simply didn’t know enough and Angkor is too big to just ramble through with no real idea of where you are headed.
Another reason for having a guide is to know when to go to which temple to avoid the onslaught of tour buses. Even though I was there at the height of tourist season, I was able to visit most of the sites when there were very few other tourists.
Not having a clue as to where to go/what to see, I left it up to the pros. At 7:15, we jumped in the tuk-tuk, and took off on a rather bumpity, cold, fifteen minute jaunt through the streets of Siem Reap and out to the park. Stopping at the massive entrance facility, I handed over my cash and a photo to my guide who took care of purchasing my three day pass. (One side note about the cost: A one day pass is $20, a three day, $40. That is not cheap, but it supports the preservation of the park. Or so I thought. It turns out that almost all the money goes to a private company that “administers” the site.) My guide returned in a few minutes with a laminated, photo ID, pass.
Our first stop was to be Angkor Thom, a walled, moated city with lots of temples inside. My guide said that it would be better to drive past Angkor Wat, and go straight to Angkor Thom, so as to avoid the morning crowds at the former. As I think I have already said, I had only known the very basics about Angkor before going there. (and that still is fairly true). I am just not good at reading about a place and retaining any of the information prior to actually seeing it. The fact that I did know that Angkor Wat was surrounded by a moat did not prepare me for the majestic sight of it in the early morning, sitting smack dab in the middle of a lake.
You can call it a moat, but at 570 feet wide, and four miles long, I’m calling it a lake.
But back to Angkor Thom. Five causeways lead into the city that is laid out in a square, each side being about three kilometers long. I think we entered by the south gate, and went straight to Bayon, which turned out to be my favorite of all the temples I was to explore. It is the one with 216 faces carved into 54 towers.
As I walked up onto the various levels, I got closer and closer to the faces, until some of them were right in front of me. Each giant face was much taller then me, maybe around eight feet high. Every which way I turned, there was another smiling face. Totally mesmerizing.
From there, we went to several other temples within Angkor Thom. My guide was very knowledgeable and helpful, but if you asked which sites we visited, and in which order, I couldn’t tell you with certainty. Day one was fantastic, but it did become a blur in my mind. Not only was it sensory overload, but a real physical workout, that one doesn’t notice until the early afternoon.
Inside, the temples are constructed with long corridors that are broken about every two or three meters, by a foot high ledge, breaking the halls into separate, yet connected, vaults. They are too high and too wide to step over. So as you walk along it is a repetitious up, down, step, step, step, up, down, and so forth in a seemingly never ending trek around the temple.
As far as going up the 85 degree angle of five inch wide steps to reach some of the top towers, I opted out. And it has nothing to do with the physicality of the task. I simply do not like heights, and once up there would never again make it back down.
Finishing the rounds of Angkor Thom, we jumped in the tuk-tuk and headed back to Angkor Wat. It was a good time to visit, being around noon and all the tour buses had taken their flocks back to the hotels for lunch. By then, the chill had been replaced by hot sun, for which I was grateful. It was kind of tough walking through areas without any cover from the sun, but once inside a temple, it was pleasantly cool.
We did a quick tour of Angkor Wat, then decided to break for lunch. Next to, or across from all of the sites, there are dozens of souvenir shops and food stalls and open-air restaurants. There are also hundreds of kids hawking their wares. They have learned all the usual English sentences: “Are you thirsty, do you want water?” Or, in the morning when it is chilly: “It’s cold today. Do you want coffee?” “Buy some postcards; buy some bracelets; how about a t-shirt?” And if you engage them with anything more than a pleasant “No, thank you”, you will be immediately swamped by ten other kids with items for sale. My favorite was “Where are you from?” to which I answered, California, to which the little girl said, “I’m from Sacramento.” Talking to the folks back at the Banana, it turns out that most of them have memorized the capitals of all the fifty states and all major countries. Jeeze, I don’t even know all the capitols!
My driver and guide took me to one of the very large restaurants. It stood under a grove of trees and was built of a concrete floor with a thatched roof and a bamboo wall on one side, the other wall was open, making it cool and breezy. There must have been a hundred tables in neat rows, but only a few patrons, being past the lunch hour. Even though I told the guys that I would buy their lunch, they chose to eat with some of the other drivers at the back of the restaurant. I got a sort of curried vegetable dish that was quite good.
After we ate, we drove out to Ta Prohm, the temple I have always envisioned when Angkor is mentioned. It’s the one that the jungle got to. The trees are on a quest to take back their territory, and grow in and out, over and around, the stone walls and rooms and everything in its way. I was surprised at the size. It was smaller than I had thought but nonetheless fascinating and beautiful.
There were still more hours of daylight, but my brain was on temple overload and just wouldn’t take in any more, so we headed home in our lovely tuk-tuk, the warm air blowing over me, the dust blowing up my nose and into my mouth. As we drove on the small road past fields and trees and open spaces, I tired to recall the day’s events, but everything was jumbled up in my head. I knew I hadn’t spent enough time at Angkor Wat. I decided that I would go out the next day with just my driver. I was really glad for the guide, but also knew I preferred to walk alone amongst the ancient spirits.
Back at the Banana, I showered off the sweat and dust, then went out to the courtyard. I sat at a table, ordered a drink, and talked to some of the staff about my day. Soon other explorers returned, or new guests arrived. We exchanged stories, I asked for more Temple Touring Tips, as well as info on where to shop. We talked about where we were from, what we did, where we’d traveled. One conversation with one person would end when they left for the shower or a rest, and another would begin. I couldn’t believe it was already after 7pm, and people were making plans to go into town for dinner. Not being a big dinner person, and being tired, and noticing that my throat was starting to hurt, I declined their offers. This really was the best place I had ever stayed. The temples were spectacular, but to come home to the camaraderie of fun, interesting people, made it so much more worth while.
When I had first looked up the Banana on the web, I knew immediately that I wanted to stay there just because it was so cute. (also right price, right location). I am used to reading websites produced in countries where English is not their first language, and always get a giggle out of the cute mistakes. When describing the hotel, I had thought they had meant to say “A happy and friendly place”, but because of that language thing, had inadvertently written, “A gay friendly place”. I laughed and wondered if anyone had pointed out their error in language usage. But then I kept reading and noticed that there were absolutely no errors in the rest of the text. (hey, don’t blame me, I do this for a living) I looked again at the first line, and then down to the “Guest Comments” and, whoops, I was the one who had made the language error.
Having stayed there, I can attest to the fact that it is a happy and friendly place that also happens to be gay friendly. And if this is the norm for such travelers, in my future journeys I will definitely be logging onto gay travel sites to search for accommodation.
More to follow,