Now that the sun had come out, the rest of my first day at Angkor was nothing short of exceptional. I rode my little granny bike 65 kilometers in all, pedaling, hiking, climbing, and exploring from sunrise clear through till sunset.
Here are my findings of the day:
• Although the “main” Angkor temples are (needless to say) mindblowing, I found the lesser-known stops to be even more memorable. I think my personal favorite was Preah Khan.
Far less maintained than Angkor Wat, Preah Khan is overgrown with jungle and seemingly untouched – exploring it truly feels like discovering a long-lost ruin buried deep in an uninhabited jungle.
The whole place is like a scene straight out of Tomb Raider:* headless statues stand guard against an army of encroaching vines, overturned columns crawl with giant colorful insects, and enormous trees half a millennium old sway and creak in the wind. Simply surreal.
(*Not surprising, because Tomb Raider was filmed a temple just next door.)
• The wild monkeys that live in and around Angkor are hilarious – and not nearly as aggressive as I’d expect. No biting or poo-throwing at all.
…They are however happy to climb on your bike and go for a ride, should you be kind enough to let them.
• The best time to sightsee is, counter-intuitively, during the hottest hours of the day (11am-1pm). That’s when all the big tourgroups stampede back onto their buses and leave the sites more or less in peace. Just don’t forget your sunblock.
• Although I haven’t found Cambodian hawkers to be much of a problem at all (locals are in general very kind and respectful), around the temples is quite a different story. The drink sellers would literally run after me – even as I rode by with clearly no intention to stop – always screaming “cold drink!!! cold drink!!!”
…And if I did stop – just to peek at my map – they simply wouldn’t take no for an answer. Sometimes they’d thrust a drink into my unwanting hand and immediately start thanking me for my purchase. As if that would actually work
• On a similar note, the prices for everything around the temples are triple or more what you might expect. For example, a fried rice that might go for $1.50 in town here sells for $5-6. Pay the menu no mind. The first time I saw one I visibly reacted, and the saleswoman immediately cut her prices in half. Same thing with water: they’ll try to charge you $1 for a big bottle. 0.50c is the real price.
• Angkor as a whole really is unbelievable. I know I’ve already mentioned how vast and sprawling the ruins are, but now that I’m actually out here seeing them for myself…it’s even harder to take in. Even the no-name ruins that the guidebook barely mentions are easily world-class “wow.” I thought My Son in Vietnam was cool, but Angkor is on a whole different level from anything I’ve ever seen.
For example, after thoroughly exploring Angkor Thom and making a quick detour to Preah Khan, my next stop was supposed to be Ta Prom, the temple most known for being “consumed by the jungle.” But just getting to it took five times longer than expected, because every “little” temple along the road – many of which weren’t mentioned in Lonely Planet at all – was just too incredible to skip.
• You might think that so many ruins would start to get repetitive. Well, yes and no. Ruins are ruins, but many of them are very different and unique. Some are like tall mountains with fantastic views; others are flat and spread out. Some are pristine, others are like piles of haphazard artifacts. Some are in the open sun and others are hidden beneath a canopy of jungle. Time after time I thought “I’ll skip this on the way to that,” but as I passed by I realized, “this is still better than the best I’ve ever seen outside of Cambodia…”
So, that’s a quick peek at some of my first-impressions of Angkor. Overall, my day did end up more or less following the standard tourist loop – except that I did it by bike rather than the typical “hire-a-tuktuk.” This afforded the opportunity to branch off here or there, to keep myself ahead or behind the big groups, and to push myself for much longer than most guides would be willing.
And with most of the “must-sees” behind me, I still had two full days to explore farther afield… 🙂
Note: These posts are behind realtime; the above took place in March, 2012.