Siem Reap and Temples of Angkor, April 30 - May 4

The ancient ruins of Angkor Wat (photo 1), from the heyday of the Khmer Empire, are often mentioned in the same breath as places like Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal. The comparison is deserved. Angkor Wat itself is but one of hundreds of ruins in the vicinity, known collectively as the temples of Angkor (photos 1-9). A common way to visit the area is to buzz from one ruin to another in a hired tuk-tuk, with plenty of refreshment breaks to ward off what's locally known as "temple burnout." For those in a hurry, or seriously allergic to temples, one day is enough. Devoted enthusiasts spend a full week and complain it's too short. Like us, most visitors spend 2-3 days exploring the ruins.

Our tuk-tuk driver was "Mr. Manh" who, as best we understood it, is Mr. Ra's friend's friend's cousin. (Recall Mr. Ra was our driver in Phnom Penh, with connections everywhere.) Mr. Manh was quiet and studious, translating English books while he waited for us to tromp around the temples. Most other tuk-tuk drivers just napped.

Thanks to relative stability in Cambodia, tourism to the temples of Angkor has been exploding in recent years. Everything we'd read and heard suggested that the crowds at the main sites would be crushing, quite possibly ruining the experience. We were hopeful that visiting in the off-season, together with some careful planning to avoid the usual tour itineraries, would separate us from the worst of the crowds. (We still shudder to remember the crowds at the Acropolis on the very first day of our year of travels.) Our strategy worked. There was a steady stream of Asian and French tour groups, and plenty of independent travelers like us, but even at the main sites we had moments of solitude. At the lesser sites, fairly often we found ourselves in the company of at most a few other people.

One nice aspect of the Angkor temples, compared to other popular ruins we've visited, is that there are few restrictions -- we could walk, clamber, and explore almost anywhere we pleased. How long this freedom will last is hard to tell, but so far there's no obvious impact on the ruins themselves. (The leniency isn't due to disorganization or neglect. Entrance to the temples is expensive by Cambodian standards -- $40 for a 3-day pass -- and highly controlled, with a photo card that's checked frequently.) Many of the temples have ridiculously steep stairs to the top. We've seen extremely steep stairs before, at Mayan ruins for example, but these stairs push the limit. (Photo 5 tries to convey the extreme angle, with only moderate success.) Nevertheless there are no restrictions on climbing up and down, except for one's nerves.

All of the popular stops are teeming with sellers, anxious to extract a few tourist dollars by peddling cold drinks, guidebooks, postcards, and small souvenirs. Many are children or teenagers, and their English is quite good. The thronging on disembarking one's tuk-tuk can be overwhelming to say the least, but the sellers are generally good-natured and can -- eventually -- take "no" for an answer. One time we actually did want to buy cold water, and we'd accumulated a few teenage girls who enjoyed chatting with Tim and Emily. Jennifer tried to spread the wealth by buying one water from each of them. Immediately, additional sellers started materializing from nowhere; one water from each would have filled a swimming pool. It was a tough moment. Another time, we succumbed to two very young children (photo 6), who demonstrated their ability to count in several languages and recite the capitals of the different U.S. States. It's a ploy of course, but when we conversed with these kids they really did understand English. Soon we were the proud owners of a ten-pack of Angkor postcards and a fistful of origami fish.

Siem Reap is the town where everyone stays, just a few miles from the main temples. Accommodations run the gamut from $5/night dives to seriously luxurious resorts. We found an incredibly low off-season web special at a recently-opened 4-star hotel, Tara Angkor. We never imagined 4-star properties playing any role in our year of travels, but the price wasn't that much higher than a 2-star guesthouse. As in Bangkok, we certainly enjoyed the luxury, and the kids proclaimed the expansive breakfast buffet to be even better than the one in Bangkok. Everyone was very excited when we were singled out during breakfast one morning to appear in a promotional video for the hotel. We were surrounded by lights and cameras, and our messy table was reset with fresh food and beverages. Imagine Jennifer's dismay when the kids later noticed that her shirt was on inside-out. We'll see how it all looks when our five seconds of fame appear on a British travel web site in a few months.

We ended up with one more day in Siem Reap than we'd planned for originally. We decided to spend our extra time in the temple area, riding bicycles (conveniently provided by our hotel and missing only a few parts), just enjoying the scenery. We ended up having quite a little adventure. The ride included the out and back to the temples, a "warm up" circumnavigation of Angkor Wat, and then the main event: riding the 8-mile perimeter of Angkor Thom atop the ancient city wall. Sometimes the path was smooth going (e.g., photo 7) while other times we had to scramble up and down where the wall had collapsed or when we passed one of the five impressive gates (photo 8). Despite being very close to the most visited ruins, we didn't see even one other tourist during our perimeter ride, we had nice views over some rural areas, and we came upon some interesting small temples (photo 9). We also waited out one brief but intense downpour. In general the weather has been quite tolerable considering we're at the juncture of the hottest (April) and the rainiest (June) seasons. We do get sticky, but it's quickly rectified with a dip in the hotel pool.

There's one standard non-Angkor activity for tourists in Siem Reap: a boat ride on the enormous Tonle Sap lake to admire a floating village. The excursion has become so popular that long-tail boats from the lakeshore to the village form a virtual parade, and stopping at a (floating) souvenir shop is a central part of every tour. We wanted to see the lake, but also wanted to avoid the tourist trail, so we hired a boat to take us through the floating village (photo 10) and then considerably further down the lake to a far less visited village
built on high stilts (photo 11). The lake rises and falls a whopping 30 feet each year, explaining the floating village and the stilts. Since it's the end of the dry season, the lake was so low that we went aground numerous times during our boat ride (photo 12). Adding to the excitement, the wind whipped up a considerable chop for the return trip.

Siem Reap has a buzzing restaurant and nightlife scene -- people seem to recover quickly from their temple burnout. We didn't partake in the nightlife, but we did enjoy several excellent dinners out, as always.

Next: We'll fly from Siem Reap directly to Luang Prabang in the north of Laos. Luang Prabang is one of the most popular towns for tourists to visit in Laos, although that's not saying a huge amount. After Luang Prabang we haven't a clue where we'll go next, which is exciting in its own right.

Flash news item: Several of you pointed out Tropical Cyclone Nargis, which passed the Andaman Islands before making landfall in Myanmar with major devastation. The cyclone didn't actually come all that close to our cruising grounds, but we would have seen high winds, rough seas, and scary weather reports. It does seem we finished the sailing part of our trip just in time.

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