June 20, 2011

Cambodia: Ten tips on visiting Angkor's temples


Michelle Jana Chan reports on how to see the Cambodian temples at Angkor at their best, in spite of the crowds.

Angkor Archaeological Park is home to hundreds of temples as well as villages, schools and farmland. Just as a millennium ago, Angkor is a vast area where people live and work. Glimpses of rural Cambodian life – immaculately uniformed children walking to school and their parents working the fields – offer humble interludes between temple visits.

Its centrepiece is Angkor Wat, Cambodia's best-preserved and beloved temple. Originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, it has remained a place of worship since its foundation. Thought to be a miniature replica of the universe, its towers, moats and concentric walls reveal an architectural sophistication, and the bas-relief with their plump figures and triumphal battle scenes reflect a healthy, wealthy period of history.

Elsewhere, in the park, some of the most elegant carvings can be found at Banteay Srei temple, decorated with sensuous celestial dancers. Ta Phrom is one of the most photographed temples, deliberately left mostly unrestored, and tangled and strangled by undergrowth, branches and roots.

The perennial favourite is the Bayon temple at Angkor Thom whose towers – like at Banteay Chhmar – are etched with enlightened bodhisattva faces. The Bayon is also decorated with enchanting bas-relief depicting ordinary Khmer life rather than the Hindu mythology seen at most other temples.

Aside from these landmark temples, there are smaller but equally moving sites like Ta Nei (resembling a diminutive Ta Phrom), Ta Som (with a four-faced tower like at the Bayon) and Banteay Samre (like a petite Angkor Wat). Built on a more human scale, they can offer some respite from their grander cousins.

Here are 10 tips on how to visit Angkor well:

1. High season runs from November to March, when the weather is usually fair. Late October and November, the country is still lush after the rains and there are fewer tourists.

2. Wear comfortable shoes with good soles; the paving at the temples is uneven and slippery when wet. Take an umbrella against the rain/sun. A torch is useful for windowless rooms.

3. Have a basic understanding of Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism. Most guidebooks have a section on this subject. A good map is available at local bookshops in Siem Reap (they do not have one at the ticket office).

4. Most tourists follow a well-trodden route: sunrise at the west gate of Angkor Wat before returning to the hotel for breakfast; late morning, Angkor Thom, Ta Phrom and Banteay Srei; after lunch, exploring more fully Angkor Wat; sunset atop Phnom Bakheng hill. Avoid this itinerary to beat the crowds.

5. This is the way I would do it. Early to bed, early to rise. Angkor opens at 5.30am and this is the best time to start exploring. After sunrise, most tourists head swiftly back to their hotels for breakfast. Instead, stay out until 9am when the temples are remarkably peaceful. Plan on a late lunch, or ask the hotel to pack a picnic. Between noon and 2.30pm, many temples are empty. The afternoons are best spent at the smaller temples. I love sunset at the fiery-red Pre Rup or East Mebon temples.

6. Ask your tour operator to assign you their best private guide. Touring temples can be wearying unless you have someone bringing the history to life.

7. At some temples children sell souvenirs and employ emotive language about how they need money for school. Buying from them will encourage them to work in this way. Most tour operators and hotels have links to NGOs, and visits can often be arranged to schools and orphanages; donating to these organisations might be a wiser way to support the local community.

8. Try to visit the National Palace Museum in Phnom Penh. This stopover works best after visiting the temples. The newly opened Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap is poorly curated but is worth an hour with a good guide.

9. A visit to the British Museum is worthwhile; it is currently hosting Images and Sacred Texts: Buddhism Across Asia, which includes artefacts from Cambodia (until April). The world's most comprehensive collection of Khmer artefacts is in Paris's Musée Guimet.

10. It is not uncommon to hear tourists say they are "templed out". Pace yourself, take breaks and visit smaller, less busy temples.


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