SE Asia Trip Dispatch: Part Four (Angkor Wat)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

To say that the temples at Angkor are spectacular is like saying that France has good food: no need to state the obvious. After a 12-hour bus ride through the paddy fields and flood plains along the Tonle Sap lake in central Cambodia, I arrived late in Siem Reap. Expecting nothing more than a sleepy village used as a jumping-off point for visitors to the massive temple complex, I was amazed to wake up in a lively, thriving, albeit slightly touristy town, with an excellent market, scores of restaurants catering to wealthy visitors, and hotels ranging from budget (read: my hostel) to extravagant (places where Bill Clinton slept and Brad and Angelina stayed when 1/2 of the duo was filming “Tomb Raider.”)

I began the day by a trip to the local market for a steaming hot bowl of soup, a somewhat incongruous choice for breakfast in a country where the relenting heat starts strong and stays that way throughout the day. Ka Tieu is usually served with a small bowl of bean sprouts on the side to mix in with the noodles, pork broth and cilantro. I then made my way to a local cafe for a glass of iced coffee, a thick, sweet concoction served brimming with crushed ice and condensed milk on the side.

Most visitors to Angkor end up hiring tuk-tuk drivers to drive them around the temples during the day for $10-$15. However, for almost the same price, you can join one of the tour groups that include knowledgeable guides, air-conditioned buses and water. Given the history and massive amount of detail about each temple, I was extremely glad I ended up with a guide who, as a result of the recent turn-down in tourism as of late, was more than happy to have the business.

What’s really fascinating about the complex is its accessibility (probably to the overall detriment to the temples). Beginning in the 12-century temple of Bayon, known for its carved faces, we climbed up, into, onto, and throughout the temple, then worked our way north from there, making a loop through some of the better-known temples, and finally ending up at iconic Angkor Wat. By this time we had been trekking through the complex in a dense wall of humidity and soaring temperatures, so when our guide pointed to a nearby hill where hundreds, if not a thousand other visitors and locals were climbing to get a seat for the 6 p.m. sunset, we declined his offer to do the same and headed back into town, anxious to get off our feet and soak in the amazing sights we’d seen during the day.

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