Traveller Lowdown - ANGKOR WAT

Nicholas Chrisostomou stylishly tackles the world’s largest, busiest and most famous temple complex: ANGKOR WAT

Our world is brimming with incredible sights, some of them veritable wonders. But no one enjoys being one of thousands vying to get into an archaeological site or view a monument on any given day.

Queuing is often a necessity, especially when visiting somewhere like the Taj Mahal for instance, but there are ways, with a bit of forward planning, to tackle a tourist attraction slightly differently and turn what would otherwise have been a memorable trip into a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Such was my visit to Angkor Wat – the prized 12th century Buddhist temple complex which draws two million tourists every year and is the main attraction of Angkor Archaeological Park, if not Cambodia.

30 minutes’ drive from Angkor, the resort town of Siem Riep is the Southeast Asian gateway through which every Angkor pilgrim passes or more likely stays. Located in the northwest of the country, as a result of its proximity to the park, a thriving, year-round tourist industry has developed over the years. Everything that a modern-day traveller could possibly wish for is available in Siem Riep, including a wide variety of accommodation ranging from hostels and budget B&Bs to deluxe resorts, five-star hotels and, at the top end of the scale, luxe private villas surrounded by rice paddies.

More than 90 percent of Cambodians practice Theravada Buddhism and hence they are a kind, industrious, hospitable and open-minded people. This makes for a positive visitor experience in Siem Riep. The archaeological park is also well organised. But, since visiting Angkor can be terribly exhausting (especially if you’re determined to get the “sunrise shot”), booking a full-service hotel with an experienced concierge team is a must, and getting the right guide is imperative.

One of Siem Reap’s major heritage landmarks and located roughly halfway between downtown and the park, Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor opened in 1932, is coming-up for ninety years old and is very much the region’s hospitality grand dame. Everyone from Charlie Chaplin to the Clintons have stayed here and following a very recent top-to-toe refurb, this truly grand colonial property is now amply equipped to handle the next generation of discerning international travellers. It was here that The Cultured Traveller checked-in for three days and we couldn’t have wished for a better base camp.

Most people don’t take advantage of a hotel concierge. This is probably because they simply don’t know all that these hospitality professionals can do to help. Concierges have years of experience, tons of insider knowledge and an extensive network of contacts that can make or break a stay, particularly in a resort town such as Siem Riep which is entirely driven by tourists. One instinctively knows whether a hotel experience is going to be good based on the first communications, be it email or telephone calls. The Raffles concierge team was on the ball from day one which was just the start of what transpired to be a superb stay.

Three days is the perfect amount of time to be in Siem Riep. Whilst you would have to be superhuman (and mega patient) not to tire of the temple crowds after a day, 72 hours is just enough to get a good taste of Siem Reap and see enough of the park to get that photo and tick Angkor off your bucket list.

On your first day in Siem Reap, take a load off, get some rest and eat well. Really well. For you will need to be fully-fuelled for the next day, when you’ll be getting-up at 4am and heading to Angkor while it’s still dark. As one would expect, you can feast like a king at Raffles at a variety of F&B venues.

Cambodia has a rich artistic legacy that stretches back thousands of years to the pre-Angkor era. While much of it came close to being wiped out during the reign of the Khmer Rouge (1975‑1979), huge efforts have been made during the past few decades to particularly rekindle Apsara. Dating back to the 7th century, Aspara is the most popular form of classical Cambodian dance and formed an essential part of Khmer culture. Back then, these goddess-like women only danced for the royal family. Indeed, Apsara dancers can be seen carved into the walls at Angkor Wat. So, while you’re in Siem Reap, do try and take in a show. Raffles stages one of the most majestic Aspara shows in Siem Reap, which is held in the hotel’s tropical gardens. Literally a few minutes’ walk from my suite and combining traditional Cambodian dance and Khmer martial arts, the show’s sumptuous setting was the perfect first night Angkor experience, complete with an excellent pan‑Asian barbecue.

Unless you’re partial to loud music, neon signs, bars touting drink specials and rowdy groups of backpackers everywhere you turn, whatever you do, don’t be persuaded to visit Pub Street in the middle of Siem Reap, which is filled with late night watering holes and budget hostels. Steer well clear. Sipping an Airavata cocktail (rum, lime juice, crème de banana, pineapple and coconut juice) in Elephant Bar at Raffles is where you want to be the night before you visit Angkor Wat.

For a once-in-a-lifetime insider Angkor experience, book the services of Vespa Adventures vespaadventures.com. Passionate about what they do, the Vespa Adventures team pre-arranged a tailor-made day at Angkor Archaeological Park to suit my needs. This included an affable, hugely knowledgeable and dedicated guide (David) and a second Vespa with an experienced driver tasked with whizzing me around. Together these guys provided an unforgettable adventure, the like of which, quite honestly, I was not expecting. It all began with a 4.30am hotel pick-up. Armed with a Raffles breakfast packed in a chic canvas rucksack, we set off for Angkor Wat’s little-known back entrance.

Cambodians have free entry to the Angkor complex and it transpired that David often visited on his days off, to find hidden spots and look for small details that others may not notice. When the site opened at 5am, we arrived at the east gate to the rear of Angkor Wat, which is much smaller than the main west gate. The only other people I saw were a few fruit and water vendors setting-up their stands. I was literally the only tourist.

Armed with flashlights, David ushered us through the pitch-black temple compound, all the while talking about the history and culture of Angkor Wat. After perhaps 10-15 minutes of walking (with no one else around us) he trained a light on the back of Angkor Wat. I was flabbergasted. Here I was at the back of one of the most famous temples in the world, essentially alone. My questions flowed uncontrollably as David guided me, in the dark, around the back and side of Angkor Wat. This remarkable morning was to set the tone for the entire day Vespa Adventures had carefully planned for me.

It’s impossible not to join the crowd if you want to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat. It was an astonishing sight. But soon after I was happy to move on. I spent an hour or so walking round the iconic temple and its towers with David chatting to me throughout. He was a marvel. Then we headed away from Angkor Wat and the fast-growing throngs to have breakfast.

After a 15-minute Vespa ride, I was nibbling on croissant in the shadow of a beautiful 12th century gatehouse on the south east corner of Angkor Thom, the last capital city of the Khmer empire. It was implausible to be completely alone in such a historic site, but there I was. So, fuelled by my first fix of caffeine that day, I took the opportunity to explore the gatehouse before we moved-on. That morning we visited a number of other temples which were virtually deserted since the bulk were at Angkor Wat.

Located on the left when entering Angkor Thom at the southern gate, the small, ancient Hindu temple of Baksei Chamkrong is well over 1,000 years old and one of the most ancient in Angkor.

At the heart of Angkor Thom, mesmerising 12th century Bayon temple – with its 54 towers decorated with 216 gargantuan smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara – was easy to see and get around. Timing is everything when visiting Angkor and David clearly had it sussed.

Just after noon I was deposited back at Raffles to rest and regroup in readiness for the second part of my Angkor experience – an explorer-like tour – which was to commence after lunch. But rather than take the opportunity to have a cat nap, I ventured to local Wat Preak Prom Rath monastery (10 mins from Raffles) to be blessed by a Cambodian monk in a private ceremony. Travelling as much as I do, I didn’t think it could hurt to be imparted with some more positive vibes!

My afternoon’s adventures had a distinctly Indiana Jones flavour, as we followed lost paths and hidden trails to visit hidden, off-the-beaten-track temples and monuments in all corners of the vast Angkor complex. With my trusty Vespa and driver acting like a time travelling machine, we whizzed from temple to temple, through the jungle, past hidden ancient cities, across bridges, under crumbling gates and around moats.

Still largely unrestored yet one of the larger complexes within the park, majestic 12th century Preah Khan temple was built for King Jayavarman VII to honour his father and was originally the centre of a substantial organisation of 100,000 officials and servants, surrounded by a moat. Words literally failed me.

To reach the late 12th century temple of Ta Nei, we had to take narrow (sometimes treacherous) dirt tracks through dense terrain – me on the back of one Vespa and my guide David on another – for a good few kilometres before we arrived at our destination. But it was so worth it. Built during the reign of King Jayavarman VII and dedicated to Buddha, small semi-ruined Ta Nei is located near the northwest corner of the East Baray, a large holy reservoir. We were literally the only people at this remarkable temple. Again, I was virtually rendered speechless.

My day in Angkor Archaeological park ended on the magnificent entrance bridge leading to the south gate of Angkor Thom. As the setting sun cast mellow light on the statues of gods and demons lining each side of the bridge, I reflected on the unique experience personally curated for me with such attention to detail by Vespa Adventures, and felt nothing but gratitude. Angkor is a humbling place and memories were made that day which will undoubtedly be with me for years.

After conquering Angkor Archaeological Park, the third day of any stay in Siem Reap should be stress-free, relaxing and slightly indulgent. Have a long lie-in, breakfast in bed and schedule an hour-long massage. Finally have that refreshing dip in the hotel pool and soak-up some sun. Raffles has a great spa and a stunning pool. I spent some time on the terrace of my hotel suite, posted temple photos on social media and did a lit bit of sunbathing. Then I grabbed a tuk-tuk (which are plentiful in Siem Reap) and headed to Sister Srey.

A fun and funky café on the riverfront near Psar Chaa, Sister Srey is a social enterprise which supports young Khmer students as well as APOPO Humanitarian Demining. (www.apopo.org) I sat at a large table on the sidewalk and watched Cambodia fly by as I lunched on western comfort food with a creative twist. (www.sistersreycafe.com)

Charming Asana Old Wooden House is the only original house still standing in the old market district. (www.asana-cambodia.com) Now a unique bar, have an early evening Khmer cocktail class before heading back to Raffles for some room service. Sihanoukville soft shell crabs and a glass of chilled Australian Clare Hill’s Riesling nicely closed off the perfect post-Angkor day and restored my equilibrium ready to deal with a chaotic Cambodian airport! 

With thanks to Vespa Adventures and Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor for kindly hosting The Cultured Traveller.