Sunset at Angkor Wat

People are like sheep. Tell them that this particular temple on this particular hill is THE place to view the sunset, and they’ll go there (or their tour buses will take them). As a result, come 5pm the normally overrun temples are nearly empty for the rest of us, and there is a great stillness (in theory, this is true for sunrise at 5am as well, but despite our intentions, we never tested it out).

The sunset view from Angkor Wat, the largest and most grand of the many Angkor temples, is nothing great. The sun falls behind a parking lot filled with vendors and waiting tuk tuk drivers and in the distance a tethered hot air balloon takes tourists up for an aerial view of the complex (like a ‘white diamond’, it floats over the jungles). But inside the temple the light of the magic hour casts a rosy glow onto the sandstone pedestals and bas reliefs of the 900 year old structure.

We were warned ahead of time Angkor Wat would be over touristed but it’s one of those places you just have to see anyway. It is true, there were busloads and busloads of packaged tour groups, predominately South Korean and some Japanese, but there is something magical about these stone monuments that are testament to a deep faith (and the power of the monarchy).

In the grandeur of Angkor Wat, or the enigmatic faces of the Bayon, or the intricate carvings of Banteay Srei, there is a reminder of the beauty and majesty that man is able to create. At Ta Prohm, the trees have so encroached on the temple that they couldn’t be removed without damaging the structure. Huge ancient trees strangle the stone walls to poetic effect (watch the end of Wong Kar Wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love’ and you will see why we wanted to come here). It’s a good reminder that as powerful and awe-inspiring as the works of man can be, nature is always stronger.

Cambodia by bicycle

It is a truth universally acknowledged in Siem Reap that a foreigner on the street must be in need of a tuk tuk (technically, these are not tuk tuks, they are moto-remorques, a trailer hitched to a scooter, but that’s a rather big French mouthful). It could be 9 o’clock at night, you could even be on a bicycle, but you will invariably be asked if you need a ride by every driver you pass.

We did take a moto one day to visit a few of the more remote sites, otherwise we mostly biked. Pretty much all of the bicycles are single speed steel women’s bikes. Kids will ride them to school, two to a bike, even children so small that their heads are the level of the seat and they have to stand the whole time, peering out under the handlebars. Rear racks support hanging bundles of coconuts or large woven baskets carrying who knows what.

Riding a bicycle around Siem Reap means being one with the traffic. You never stop before making a turn, you just kind of flow. The roads are shared use, and as a result of the constant passing vehicles seem much more aware of their surroundings. Slower vehicles stay right, so we’d pass food vendors pushing their carts, just about any Cambodian on a bike, and occasionally a slow moto. Passing us, in the middle of the road which is basically two way, are tuk tuks, faster motos, cars, minivans and tour buses, all of which constantly honk to let you know they’re coming, which is somewhat considerate, if loud.

The main temples are between 6 and 15k north of Siem Reap but our nicest ride was to a village about 10k to the south of the city, where a hilltop temple (both an Angkor ruin and a modern working one) affords a panoramic view of giant Tonle Sap lake in the distance and bright green rice paddies all around. The road there is raised, with the rice paddies below and simple houses rising up on rickety wooden stilts to the level of the road. Little children play in the dirt on the edge of the road as women tended shop in traditional skirts and checked cotton headwraps, and through the open doors of the immaculately swept houses we got a glimpse of rural Cambodian life.