Over the Chinese spring festival in February we had almost two months off from work and, having been told that we should avoid travelling in China during the festival, decided to go abroad. We spent a week on an island in Thailand before heading to Cambodia for two weeks.
Our first stop in Cambodia was Siem Reap: home of Angkor, the capital city of the Khmer Empire. I’m guessing that quite a few people would have Angkor Wat on their list of places they would wish to visit most in the world: a once in a lifetime experience.
Having visited, I’m not certain I would agree! I understand that I’m probably in the minority here. Lots of people have exceptional experiences whilst visiting Angkor Wat and will travel to Cambodia purely just to go there.
I’m going to talk about how I found Angkor, but if you’d rather just see beautiful views of the temples you can watch our vlog on YouTube.
Getting to Angkor
At Hak’s House (the hostel we stayed in) the lovely Tuk Tuk driver suggested taking us to Angkor Wat early in the morning to see the sunrise. We left the hostel at 5am and travelled the 7km there. We passed (literally) hundreds of other tourists in tuk tuks on the way there, all heading to the same place. Watching everyone head in the same direction was exciting and I was looking forward to going.
Once we’d bought our tickets and got to the car park our driver dropped us off and told us to find him later. It was pitch black and we couldn’t see a thing (if you do go, bring a torch or download a flash-light app onto your phone!) but we were able to follow one particularly confident young man with a torch through the mass of people up a gateway. The crowd gathered around a lake facing the Angkor Wat temple.
For nearly two hours we stood with hundreds of tourists watching the sun come up. I was given hope when a Cambodian cafe owner showed me a beautiful photo on his phone of the sun hitting the towers of Angkor Wat to create a bright yellow shine. This never happened. It was far too cloudy, and the particular effect his photo showed only happens once a year at the summer equinox.
Was it pretty? Yes. Was it worth getting up at 5am for? Not really. It was just as worthwhile viewing it at 7.30am when the sun was up as it was at 6am.
We decided to go around the temple but the mass of tourists saddened me. I saw so many tourists wearing shorts, littering, touching the temple walls with their hands – all things that tourists are asked NOT to do. The place was packed so we decided to go in search of food.
I am not good with hunger. I get very tetchy. We wandered around looking for a decent place to eat and I was just about to give up and suggest we get a tuk tuk home when our driver appeared out of nowhere and took us to a really quiet restaurant where we got something to eat. I am so grateful to him for appearing at excatly the moment we needed him most!
Other parts of the park
My mood gratefully improved, we headed off to explore more of Angkor. We went to Bayon temple, which was far too packed but the rooftop statues were impressive. On the way there we went across a bridge and saw multiple tourists riding elephants. I found this both quite depressing and irritating. Even a quick Google search will tell you that as you can never be sure of the treatment of the elephants, it is not ethical to ride them. The poor poor elephants looked miserable.
After that we headed to Ta Prohm, where we tried to get photos of the beautiful trees before the next tourist went to stand in front of it to get their picture taken. I can’t quite understand why people need to stand in front of something so beautiful to have their picture taken – especially when you can see that a million other people are trying to get a photo of the thing itself.
I’m sorry to all the people that dream of going to Angkor that this day was wasted on me. Whilst I’m glad I went there were several other places we visited in Cambodia that I enjoyed more (and haven’t been “ruined” by tourists) – the beautiful Kampot, the Free the Bears sanctuary outside of Phnom Penh – experiences I hope to blog about soon.
So, here are some of my tips, which I think would have made the trip more meaningful:
- Don’t go at sunrise. Sunset and sunrise are probably the busiest times of the day. If you want to go when it’s least crowded go at lunch time (but be aware that this is also the hottest part of the day)
- Read up on the history of the place before going there. Don’t expect to find much information about Angkor once you’re there. You can either do some background reading before going (free!) or hire a tour guide (expensive)
- Take food with you. Food sold at Angkor is expensive for Cambodian prices. And most of it isn’t gluten free