Walking through Angkor is surreal. You feel like you’ve somehow stepped into the brittle-with-age pages of an ink-illustrated, hardbound Rudyard Kipling novel. Except they’ve suddenly been painted to life with vivid color – oh, and there are tourists, cars, and touts. In abundance.
Despite that somewhat jarring fact, Angkor is jaw-dropping, no matter how many pictures you’ve seen, how many books or guidebooks you’ve read, or how often you’ve dreamed of visiting. The sheer scale of it will have you gasping – a sound you’ll hear escaping involuntarily from your mouth with increasing frequency once you start trudging over every inch of it in the blazing 32°C heat. At 11am. In the “cool” season.
I won’t bore you by repeating well-known and easily available facts about Angkor, the Khmer empire, and their history. I would like to tell you how to get there from Bangalore though – this is something I have been asked by many people. I found that most time- and cost-effective (note that I’m not saying “cheapest”) way to do this is to combine it with a trip to Thailand. From Bangkok, you can fly to Siem Reap in Cambodia in 45 minutes flat for anything between Rs. 10,000 and Rs. 20,000 per head, depending on the time of year and the whims of Bangkok Airways, the monopoly airline. Book your ticket online or over the phone. Visas to Cambodia are either available on arrival, or you could do what we did and obtain the amazingly efficient and easy e-visa. It allows you to sail through immigration before anyone else. The alternative to flying – an overland trip from Bangkok to Cambodia – although cheaper, is both time-consuming and tiresome. In other words, a pain in the ass.
Research the various Angkor temples thoroughly; you need to figure out your own fitness:time ratio in order to decide how much of the 400 sq.km. UNESCO heritage site you can realistically cover. Ours was unfit:limited. We settled on two days to cover the most important and well-known sites. On the plus side, this meant that we got to see what all the fuss was about; we didn’t get temple overdose; and we immersed ourselves in that particular era of Khmer history without room for confusion. On the downside, we didn’t get to see the less-visited, quieter monuments; didn’t have time to explore the Cambodian countryside or do anything other than focus on Angkor; and we had to really, really push ourselves to even accomplish the basic itinerary we’d planned.
A three-day pass cost us $40 per head. Kids under the age of 12 enter free of charge.
If I had to do it again, I’d probably slow down a bit, but not give it more than an additional two days. The danger is eyeball overload… despite the truly stunning beauty of the monuments, you get to a point where you are disoriented and cannot tell one ancient temple from another. We were able to take in Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat, the Bayon, Banteay Srei, and Ta Prohm. It took us two whole days of walking; the first day was more intense than the second.
Be prepared to climb. A lot. The ancient stone steps are at least a foot high, and there are many of them to negotiate. Although less-steep wooden steps have been erected alongside at certain points, ostensibly to make things easier on your knees, their gradient makes them more akin to ladders than stairs.
Advice from having been there, done that:
- Get a tour guide, definitely. It’s impossible to appreciate the finer detail of this place, to put what you’re seeing in context, or to plan your time efficiently without one, no matter how much you read or what printed material you carry with you. Visit the TripAdvisor forums for recommendations.
- The Cambodian currency – the Riel – is so badly devalued that it is not accepted in Cambodia. No, I’m not joking. You will need to carry U.S. dollars or Thai Baht.
- You do need sunscreen, sunglasses, and a cap – even if you are from India.
- Ditch the gorgeous, summery sandals. Sneakers are best, however pleb they look.
- Starting your day early has several advantages – you get to see sunrise over Angkor, a beautiful sight; you get at least some respite from the monstrous heat; and you get a head start on the crowds.
- Carry as much water as you can heft in a backpack – it’s worth carrying the extra weight, and your load lightens as you move along. A couple of sachets of Electral won’t hurt either. You dehydrate very quickly, and there’s no access to snacks or beverages once you’re inside the monuments.
- It’s tempting to rest in the afternoons, but if you choose to keep going, as we did, the number of other tourists drops, and you cover more ground than you otherwise could.
- Take a break from temples with a drive out through rural Cambodia, a visit to the Angkor National Museum, a wander through the lively but touristy Angkor night market, or a traditional massage from the blind. You could even visit one of the many floating villages on the Tonle Sap lake (in my opinion, this is just a Dharavi-like slum-on-the-water that wide-eyed Western tourists might find “quaint”, but that I found depressing. The lake itself is worth seeing – South East Asia’s largest freshwater lake).
- To understand and absorb what you are seeing and sensing in terms of abject poverty, the daily struggle to make ends meet, and (at least to my my mind) the general air of bleak hopelessness, pick up a book or two. If you’re interested in the Pol Pot era and how it tore apart lives, I recommend this one.
Food is a whole different blog post 🙂