October 2012 – I suspect that many of you are familiar with the various superlatives that are often bandied about when Angkor Wat arises as a topic of discussion. Perhaps those of you who have visited have even bandied a “mind-blowing” or “awe-inspiring” of your own thereby contributing to the sky high level of hype that surrounds these very old temples. Now the temples certainly didn’t ask for the hype and we can be certain of that since ancient blocks of stone don’t talk.
But they are stuck with it and in my experience, it’s hard for any sight to deliver when forced to contend with that type of hype… although I must say that Macchu Picchu managed to do so for me several years ago. As did Iguazu Falls. So did Angkor Wat and company?
But there were a handful of factors working against making a visit to the temples mind-blowing and awe-inspiring as the temples themselves were indeed amazing and exploring them probably would have made for a much more enjoyable experience for me were it not for the following…
Factor 1 – The Crowds
In a word… brutal. It’s a big time attraction and thus I naturally expected some big time logjammin’ and not of the Karl Hungus variety. But I didn’t expect it to be so bad and so exasperating. It was the big tour groups that were most problematic as they rumbled about en masse in their sensible shoes and synthetic activewear instantly turning uncrowded areas into crowded areas and already crowded areas into veritable goat ropes. Any hope for a few moments of quiet contemplation of the architectural marvels before you was mostly just that… a hope.
And yet I did manage to find a bit of solitude at one of the minor outlying temples towards the end of my first day and it was probably the most enjoyable time I spent among the ruins.
It was late afternoon, the sunlight was perfect, it was a bit misty after a light rain and there were only one or two other visitors at the temple.
There was an old man managing a small altar in the innermost chamber. His smile and demeanor were so charming and exuded such contentment that I couldn’t resist allowing him to perform what he claimed was a short good luck ceremony for me for a small tip.
For all I know the bit of chanting in Khmer might have been nothing more than him thanking the gods for having found a tourist dumb enough to give him some money for a meaningless chant and even more meaningless red and fluorescent yellow bracelet. But I’d like to think that he truly believed that whatever he did would in fact bring me luck. Perhaps it did. Perhaps it didn’t. One thing I can be sure of is that it did nothing to lessen the number of tour groups on parade.
Factor 2 – The Crowds Again… Even at 5:30 AM
My tuk tuk driver picked me up at 5 am on the second of my two very long days of temple exploration so that I might see the sun rise over Angkor Wat. I’d read countless posts and comments on the cyberwebs about how amazing the experience is and how you’d really be doing yourself a disservice by missing it. But I still had serious doubts about dragging myself out of bed that early and they turned out to have been warranted. It simply wasn’t all that impressive particularly because my experience was shared with what appeared to be one to two thousand other tourists like myself who were littered about the approach to the temple. The early wake up call apparently isn’t much of a deterrent judging by the number of people in attendance. In fact, the photo hounds arrive even earlier to begin jockeying for prime position over a small pond to take the exact same photo that is taken thousands of times per day by others. I wish I had snapped a shot of the pit during prime time as it was a madhouse. Here it is a good 20 minutes after sunrise when many of the shutterbugs had already drifted off to attack other facets of the temple…
That’s not to say that the sunrise over Angkor Wat wasn’t beautiful. It was.
But I would hardly call it a can’t miss and it was not so beautiful or moving as to merit a 5 am departure for a man who enjoys his sleep. I would imagine that watching the sunrise from another temple with far less company would make for a more satisfying experience even if the sun doesn’t line up over the temple as it does at Angkor Wat. So if sunrises are your thing, or sleeping in isn’t, and you’re stoked on a sunrise during your visit, and you’re not much for huge crowds like me, then I’d recommend looking into catching it from another temple. Perhaps Bayon?
Or maybe from atop this one the name of which I’ve forgotten?
On the other hand, the one major plus to the early wake up call is that you have an hour or two to explore Angkor Wat in relative calm before the daily storm of visitors blows in from Siem Reap.
Those two hours were certainly the highlight of Day 2 for me. If I were to do it again, I would sleep until around 6 and then head over as the sunrise crowd begins to dissipate.
Or you could hit a different temple altogether which would probably leave you even more blissfully free of excessive of company as there would be fewer leftovers from sunrise. Maybe Ta Prohm?
Factor 3 – I Don’t Like Feeling Really Touristy
And Siem Reap and the temples made me feel like I was a sweaty sunburned holiday-maker working on a case of heat stroke and wearing sport sandals with dark socks, a camera with a size XXXXL lens around my neck, an Angkor Wat T-shirt, shorts that were zippered off from some action pants, a fanny pack and a conical bamboo rice field worker hat.
Factor 4 – Most Tourist Attractions or Sights Tend to Underwhelm Me
I don’t like them in the States so why do I feel compelled to visit them when abroad? Generally speaking, what I have enjoyed most on this trip is watching people go about their daily lives and trying to get a sense of what it is like to live in the places I visit. I like eating and drinking what and where the locals eat and drink. I like seeing people play unfamiliar games and hearing people play unfamiliar music. I like wandering around looking at strange homes and buildings and weird motorcycles and bicycles. I like local markets with questionable food safety standards and strange things for sale. I like drinking coffee or beer while watching life in an unfamiliar place go on around me. A stroll through the city streets or a motorbike ride along the backroads or chair at a street corner or sidewalk cafe, all tend to be far more interesting to me than a visit to the types places typically promoted as attractions. Case in point: The second best part of Day 1 (after the aforementioned late afternoon visit to a random temple whose name I’ve forgotten and haven’t the inclination to figure out) was probably the tuk tuk ride through a couple of villages en route to the outermost temple I visited. There is nothing all that unique about them and they certainly aren’t thought of as stops on the tourist circuit. And maybe that’s exactly why they’re so interesting. I found the people at work and kids at play to be far more intriguing than most of the sights I was supposedly out there to see.
So I’m pretty much done with all but the most spectacular temples, waterfalls, scenic vistas, monuments, Buddha statues, pagodas, rocks vaguely resembling animals and other tour group hot spots and I was already feeling that way prior to arriving in Siem Reap. And while there is no doubt that Angkor Wat and some of the surrounding temples qualify as spectacular and are definitely worth the visit, I cannot help but think that my lack of enthusiasm for the sightseeing process in general had a hand in my underwhelming experience here.
Factor 5 – The Mid Day Heat is Stifling
As a native Floridian, I pride myself on my ability to deal relatively well with tropical heat and humidity although 13 years in California has admittedly softened me up a bit in that regard. But the combo in this part of Cambodia was completely draining between the hours of 9 am and 3 pm and further tempered my enthusiasm for trudging around the temple grounds.
Ideally, you should visit a site or two in the early morning and then return to your hotel, lounge by the pool, eat lunch, watch Cambodian TV (which means Thai TV which is great because that in turn often means Muay Thai and Asian Food Network), take a siesta, jump in the pool again (cannonball!) and then return to another site or two in the late afternoon. Unfortunately it’s far enough from town that you might be done for the day if you head back to your hotel unless you’re super stoked on it all. You’re also going to be stuck paying your tuk tuk driver more for running you back and forth. But if you do head back for sunset, or if you last until sunset as I did on Day 1, I’d advise taking it in from atop one of the taller temples and with a cold one of these at the ready…
I should add that the midday sun is also problematic in that it tends to wash out photos… or at least my photos. And thus those hoping for nice snapshots would be advised to avoid the midday hours for that reason as well.
Factor 6 – It’s a Bummer Saying “No Thanks” 900 Times Per Day
This certainly isn’t unique to Angkor Wat but it’s the first place where it really started to get to me. The vendors, touts and tuk tuk drivers are relentless around the temples and in Siem Reap. In their defense, the vendors do seem to refrain from badgering you once you enter the actual temple complexes. But be prepared to run a gauntlet of women and children hawking a variety of useless junk (and a few useful things like water) along the perimeter of each temple and in the parking lots. And be prepared to fend off an endless volley of offers from tuk tuk drivers in Siem Reap should you wish to stroll about the main drag. Hello! Hello! You! Hello! Where you go?
What bums me out most about this situation is the fact that as annoying as it is, I then get even further annoyed with myself for getting annoyed with it. I understand how poor most of them are and I fully understand how wealthy I am by comparison, and that I represent a potential payday for them. And in some ways, I admire the spirit of the hustle if not the actual methods employed. But it still becomes tough to take after a while. Would this be the definition of a first world problem? Whatever sort of problem it is I seem to have found a far more compassionate and improved means of handling it since leaving Siem Reap. My method? A very big smile and a gentle “no”. OK… sometimes it requires two or three “no’s” but it’s still effective and seems to ease my first world guilt.
Factor 6 – No Guide or Guidebook
I decided not to hire a guide and relied solely upon the Angkor Wat section of my Lonely Planet Cambodia as a guidebook. I suspect I would have gotten more out of the experience with a good guide (although it sounds like finding one isn’t the easiest of things) or one of the more detailed guidebooks on the temples (which are easy to find provided that you have no respect for copyright law as pirated copies are offered in abundance). While much of what you see is beautiful in its present form and without any sort of backstory, I imagine that a little more context would have contributed to my wonderment and understanding at some of the sights.
No More Factors – Conclusion
So there you have my attempt to explain why my mind wasn’t blown and my awe wasn’t inspired in the way that the minds and awes of most visitors are. That’s not to say that the temples themselves aren’t magnificent and beautiful. They are. It’s just that much of what comes with a visit to them is anything but beautiful or magnificent.