NICK RAY'S TOUR OF ANGKOR
The Sunday Times : April 11, 2004
Angkor: The tour
It's Asia's finest. Nick Ray starts our series of smart guides on seeing the wonders of the world but skipping the crowds. We start with Angkor the greatest architectural site in Asia, and Cambodias top draw, with visitor numbers approaching 1m a year. Its an enormous, sprawling place: made famous, for good or ill, as the location for the Tomb Raider films, the 12th-century complex includes Angkor Wat, the worlds largest religious building, as well as hundreds of other temples. The inspiration for Angkor was divine, and the experience can be too so long as you have a little inside knowledge. And here it is.
FORGET TRYING to do a one-day hit and run the temples will simply morph into a muddle and youll be left feeling unfulfilled. Some people take a week, but given that you may have pressing engagements on the blissful beaches of Sihanoukville or Samui, weve served up the consummate three-day Angkor experience.
Wakey-wakey! Most modern pilgrims make for Phnom Bakheng at sunset, so you need to get there at sunrise. The fleet of foot can make a frontal assault on the hill, or theres a less taxing trail to the right. At the temple, negotiate the cliffs that pass for stairs and check out the views. Stick to the southeast side and youll see the sun inch its way above Angkor Wat, the shadow of the sacred stone shifting by the second.
Next up is Preah Khan (Sacred Sword), the colossal creation of Jayavarman VII, Angkors mightiest devaraja (god-king). He reigned from 1181 to 1219 and built temples like there was no tomorrow. The sightseeing masses arrive from the west. Instead, go with history and enter from the east the original approach. Inside, veer to the right to discover a Grecian exile, a two- storey sanctuary that seems to owe more to the Acropolis than anything Angkorian. And dont miss the southern corridor, right at the centre of the giant cruciform shrine and blanketed in lichen its a serene spot to catch your breath.
Next, poke among the elegant curves of Neak Pean. This petite temple is the ultimate ornamental fountain, its series of elaborate spouts including the heads of lions and elephants. Avoiding the crowds here is pot luck, but Neak Pean is a must. If they ever open an Encore Angkor casino in Las Vegas, it seems certain to provide the blueprint for the swimming pool and bar.
At Ta Som, your next stop, the gate groans under a sprawling ficus tree that has wrapped itself around every stone. Look out for the small Shiva poking out among the tangle, in a feeble attempt to remind visitors that this temple is his domain.
YOU SHOULD now be ready for lunch so detour back in time to the first Angkor capital at Roluos, 12km southeast of Siem Reap. Chronological purists might wonder why we didnt start here, with the 9th-century temples of Preah Ko and Bakong, but youll understand once you roll into Roluos. Its the perfect spot for a local lunch. Tourists are few and far between and even those are usually just lost. Only 10 minutes from Angkor youve discovered the real Cambodia a bustling community that carries on oblivious to the tourist tide sweeping Siem Reap. Preah Ko is named in honour of Shivas mount, Nandin, the sacred bull. Sadly, though, his statue has had a few steaks sliced off it down the years. The temple owes more to the pre-Angkorian brick sanctu- aries of Cambodias earlier Chenla empire than the sandstone behemoths that came later. Nearby Bakong is the earliest of the temple mountains, which later became the signature of Khmer kings. It is a giant pyramid, its cardinal points marked by earnest elephants. The decoration is spartan, but Bakong was, nonetheless, the blueprint for its more celebrated cousins such as Baphuon and Bayon.
Aim to clear out by 2pm, before the coaches disgorge their crowds. Head back to Angkor and take in Ta Nei, where huge trees cloak the crumbling stones. This is a jungle trek for beginners lightweight stuff, but it still deters most visitors. Make the most of the tranquillity: its in short supply at your next stop, romantic Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm is a reminder that while empires rise and fall, riotous nature marches on. It is preserved exactly as when first discovered by the French explorer Henri Mouhot with serpent- like tree roots strangling the stonework. Dont miss the Tomb Raider tree, northeast of the main sanctuary, where Angelina Jolie picked some jasmine, the earth opened up, and she found herself fighting for her life inside Pinewood Studios. ITS TIME to think about sunset and a trip to the hilltop temple of Phnom Krom. Scale the steps to the summit and soak up panoramic views of the sun dissolving into the Tonlé Sap lake.
Its another early start today, because youre heading off to discover some outposts of empire. By 7am you should be coasting down Highway 6 to Dam Dek, on the road to Beng Mealea. This was built by King Suryavarman II as a prototype for Angkor Wat itself: it has just the same floor plan. But its been abandoned for centuries, allowing nature to run amok. Clambering about in this titanic temple is the ultimate Indiana Jones experience. And if youre not much of a clamberer, a new walkway leads straight to the middle, constructed for the filming of Jean-Jacques Annauds Two Brothers.
Next, were off to visit the River of a Thousand Lingas, deep in the jungle at Kbal Spean. Getting to it involves a climb, so boost your energy beforehand with a leisurely lunch at the stalls round about. Rediscovered by French researcher Jean Boulbet in 1969, Kbal Spean was only opened to visitors after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge in 1998, and few foreigners make the journey here. The river flows down to the Tonlé Sap lake, and in ancient times its holy waters breathed life into the rice fields of the empire via the most complex irrigation system the world had ever seen. The Khmers venerated its limestone bed with a riot of carvings, including the delicate deities Vishnu and Shiva with their consorts some coquettishly concealed beneath a veneer of sand or weed. And there is a small waterfall below the carved riverbed, perfect for cooling off after the hot climb.
WITH THE sun lower in the sky now, its time to hit the delicate pink temple of Banteay Srei, Angkors ultimate art gallery. Its name translates as Fortress of the Women, and Cambodians believe its sublime sculptures must have been fashioned by women the artistry is too refined for the hand of a man. The temple is so petite that even a handful of visitors can unbalance the equilibrium, but by late afternoon most have drifted back to town.
Weve saved the best for last. Kick off at sunrise with the mother of all temples, Angkor Wat itself, the most popular of the citys masterpieces and well worth an entire morning. Steer clear of the western causeway, busier than a Tube station at rush hour, and stroll in through the neglected eastern entrance. Approaching through a wooded glade, youll see dawns first light reveal the temples intricate carvings layer by layer, myth by myth. Check out the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, an epic bas-relief depicting gods and devils battling it out to obtain the elixir of immortality. Its 1.2km of carvings may qualify as the worlds longest piece of art. By now, the sunrise-snappers should have swarmed off, leaving Angkor Wat in peace. Climb the monumental staircase from the western causeway to Preah Poan, the Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas. Only 20 or so survive here today. The stairs get steeper towards the summit, forcing the pilgrims of old to stoop in the presence of their gods. Exit on the (now quieter) western causeway, and seek out lunch. Steer clear of the Khmer restaurants opposite Angkor Wat and instead make for the cultured Angkor Café, or dig into the fresh barbecues and salad at nearby Chez Sophea.
FINALLY, explore the last capital of the empire, the imposing walled city of Angkor Thom. The South Gate is an unmissable photo opportunity, but dont linger too long before making for the East Gate. Known as the Gate of the Dead, this is where the bodies of the kings left the palace for their final journey. On most days it is eerily silent. An about turn takes you to the West Gate, where the causeway has collapsed to leave a jumble of gods and devils sticking out of the soil like victims of a horrific historic pile-up.
Time to tuck into Angkor Thoms temples, starting with a walk through the woods to Preah Palilay. This late-13th-century Buddhist temple was one of the last constructed at Angkor. Breathe in the buzz of the forest, then swing back to the road for a closer look at the Terrace of the Leper King, with its magnificently carved devatas (angels). Stretching to the south is the ceremonial Terrace of the Elephants once a viewing gallery for the Khmer kings. To the left, the towers of Prasat Suor Prat were once connected by rope bridges upon which acrobats performed. If Cambodias international rehabilitation continues, it is easy to imagine the likes of U2 or the Rolling Stones playing here.
The Bayon epitomises the creative genius and huge ego of Jayavarman VII. Its 216 faces of the Buddha of Compassion bear more than a passing resemblance to the king himself, exuding power, control and just a hint of humanity precisely the mix needed to hold sway over such a vast empire.
Nick Ray is the author of Lonely Planets Cambodia guide, and was the location scout and manager for Tomb Raider
Knowledge is power: Angkor facts
Angkor A to Z: everything you need to know to set up the perfect Cambodian adventure.
Getting there: there are no direct flights from the UK or Ireland to Cambodia; the best bet is to change in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. Travel Select (0871 222 3213, www.travelselect.co.uk) has fares to Siem Reap from Heathrow or Manchester via Singapore for £676, with Singapore Airlines. Or try Bridge the World (0870 444 6878) or Trailfinders (020 7937 3939). In Ireland, Gohop (01 241 2389, www.gohop.com) has fares from 1,439 via Heathrow and Bangkok. From Siem Reap airport, the taxi to town costs £3.50; or take a moto (motorbike taxi) for £1.
Tour operators: Audley Travel (01869 276200), www.audleytravel.com) offers tailor-made holidays to Cambodia. A 10-night trip (five nights in Siem Reap) starts at £1,295pp, with flights from Heathrow or Manchester, four-star hotels with breakfast, and transfers. Or try Symbiosis (0845 123 2844, www.symbiosis-travel.com); CTS Horizons (020 7836 9911), www.ctshorizons.com); or Wild Frontiers (020 7736 3968), www.wildfrontiers.co.uk).
The site: Angkor passes are available for a day (£13), three days (£26), or a week (£38).Those with a keen interest in history will want an official guide (from £15 per day); more leisurely visitors can manage with an enthusiastic amateur (£5) theyll find you. Tuon Sopheaktra, who trained at the Royal University of Fine Arts, is spot-on for culture vultures: book him through Hanuman Tourism Voyages (00 855-23 218356), www.hanumantourism.com).
Getting around: the popular option is to hook up with a taxi (£13 per day) or moto (£5), available outside guesthouses, bars and restaurants. But a 4WD (from £40) is better for remote locations such as Beng Mealea. Romantics will prefer a remorque a motorbike hitched to a canopied trailer which costs about £10. In search of the ultimate aerial shot? Choose between Angkor Wats tethered hot-air balloon (£7) and a helicopter ride over the temples (from £40pp; 12 814500).
Where to stay: Amansara (63 760333), www.amanresorts.com) is the latest Aman boutique resort. The staff treat you royally but for £420 per room youd expect nothing less. The Pansea Angkor (63 963390), www.pansea-angkor.com) is an elegant resort with open-plan rooms and pool-sized bathtubs; doubles from £90, B&B. The Borann Auberge des Temples (63 964740), www.borann.com) is a cluster of elegant villas in tropical gardens, set around a small pool. Air-conditioned doubles with breakfast are £35. The Shadow of Angkor guesthouse (12 968881), firstname.lastname@example.org) has an unbeatable riverside location in old Siem Reap and smart air-conditioned rooms (£9).
Where to eat: for a good feed, hop on a moto and ask for any of the following: The Bopha Angkor restaurant, draped in Khmer silks, is the place to sample the flavours of old Cambodia. The Banteay Srei restaurant is something of a secret among the Khmers. Its authentic Cambodian cuisine includes plenty of prahok (fermented fish paste), for those who can stomach the cheese of Asia. The Foreign Correspondents Club has long been an institution in Phnom Penh, and the opening of FCC Angkor brings the same refined recipe to Siem Reap.
When to go: any time, even the wet season (May to October), when strong morning showers bring out lush vegetation. March and April are the hottest months.
Further reading: the best general guides are the Cambodia books from Lonely Planet and Rough Guides (both £11.99). For specifics, take Dawn Rooneys Angkor: An Introduction to the Temples (Odyssey £14.95).
A Londoner of sorts, Nick Ray comes from Watford, the sort of town that makes you want to travel. He studied history and politics at the University of Warwick and emerged a few years later with a certificate that said he knew stuff about things, or was that things about stuff? After a stint as a journalist in London, he headed overseas, leading people astray on adventure tours from Morocco to Vietnam. He then linked up with Lonely Planet, and has authored two editions of their Cambodia guidebook and contributed to a dozen other titles, including: Britain, Cycling Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia, and East Africa. He currently lives in Siem Reap with his wife Kulikar and their young son Julian, and when not writing, he works as a location manager and scout for television, commercials and major films, including Tomb Raider in 2000 and Two Brothers (2003).
Here's an article Nick wrote for the University of Warwick magazine a year ago: "Rising early has always been an ordeal, so I meticulously avoid it where possible. Working on a new guidebook, I won't surface much before 8am, as it is likely I will have been delving into the nightlife to see what the restaurant, bars and clubs have to offer readers. Certain destinations - the one-horse towns of remote Asia and Africa spring to mind - don't have a whole lot to investigate so if there's nothing to keep me up, I might just make an early start. Working on a feature film, it's a different story, as I am beholden to the whims of the director. On a scout, directors like to get out early to catch the best light, so the days can be long, but that's nothing compared to the shoot when a location manager is usually up and running by 4.30am and is the last to leave the set around 8pm or so.
Mirroring the director's vision
Film scouts are immensely rewarding, as you have to absorb the script and seek out a physical reality to mirror the director's vision. For Jean-Jacques Annaud's latest film Two Brothers, a story of tigers in colonial Cambodia, we spent two weeks exploring by 4WD, motorbike and helicopter. He is often viewed as the director's director within Hollywood circles and where he shoots today, other film-makers will follow tomorrow. He showed his stamina as we journeyed to the lost jungle temples of Preah Vihear province where even the GPS was lost for coordinates. The monsoon rains rolled in, the trails turned to streams and before we knew it we were knee deep in mud. He simply stood there laughing, snapping away on his Leica as we tried to pull the bikes out of the treacle-like mud.
Back to the books, much depends on the size of the town or the city I wake up in that day. Delving into a capital city or a major tourist centre is a daunting challenge, with several hundred places to stay, to visit and at least as many restaurants and bars. Add to this the airline offices, foreign embassies, museums and other attractions and it's best to touch base with locals and expats who know the city well before venturing out, as they have the latest low-down if you've been out of town a while. Then it's time to hit the road. The worst part of the job is visiting all those hotels and guesthouses, the 'toilet inspection' as we call it. Many of the guesthouses are small, family-run places and if they are quiet, they are over-the-moon to see a potential guest. It is one of the more soul-destroying aspects of the job to keep walking out on these fine people after a cursory glance at their rooms.
By contrast, the best part of the job is eating and drinking your way through a country by night, sampling a slice of restaurants and then a basic bar crawl to touch base with the pulse of a place. This is the dangerous part of the day, as it has a huge impact on what you might want to achieve the next morning. However, this social side is extremely important, as solo travellers in strange corners of the world need to know in which bars or eateries they can find some friends. But the real beauty is getting out of the big smoke, taking some road trips on really bad roads to the national parks of Africa or the remote regions of Asia. Hanging over the hairpins high above Lake Kivu in Rwanda in a wheezing, squealing, ageing bus may sound like hell to some, but the views are stunning. Sometimes public transport is just too tedious for a tight schedule, so it's time to take to two wheels for some rapid research. In remote Cambodia, it is often the only way to make it down the sandy ox-cart trails that masquerade as roads.
On location again, a location manager takes care of the site during filming, so once the cameras roll, the walkie talkie channels are buzzing with requests ranging from the obvious to the absurd. During a typical day on Tomb Raider, the obvious included clearing crowds and securing consent from the relevant authorities for the changes the director incorporated as he went along, while the absurd included tracking down snakes for Angelina Jolie and fishing out a fire engine that had fallen off a causeway in Angkor Thom while on its way to water our set. Yes, you guessed it, the real Cambodian jungle just didn't cut it for Hollywood, so they dressed it with totally tropical plants. But when the day is done, no matter what the job, I sleep in seconds. In a busy year, there could be 100 different beds, ranging from a $5 fleapit to Raffles and I am still comfortable with either. In the remote regions, there is no choice in the matter, while on a film scout it is typically the 5-star incubators that keep the high-flyers safe from the real Asia or Africa beyond. When it comes down to personal choice, I prefer something in between, a bit of comfort and a lot of character, usually run by a local family with an eye for flair. Lights out anywhere between midnight and 3am, it all begins again the next day."
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