Generally speaking, our idea of the perfect day definitely does not start before sunrise. But having relinquished responsibility for navigating the 300-plus temples of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat complex to an innovative Siem Reap-based tour operator, we don’t have much of a say in the matter. The subtle light that greets most days in these parts has barely started to seep and, already, ABOUTAsia’s representative – scarily cheerful for this early in the morning – is waiting to lead us on their signature one-day best-of-Angkor tour.
ABOUTAsia is committed to showing guests around Cambodia’s top attraction without the crowds. But that’s not their only USP. ABOUTAsia is also one of Cambodia’s key innovators in the field of philanthropic travel, donating 100 percent of its net profits to an education company that currently supports 51,000 Khmer kids.
Our already animated guide, Bunchay, gives a historical overview of Angkor, dating its birth to 802AD. He explains, in flawless English, how the capital of the Khmer Empire became the largest urban centre in history prior to the Industrial Revolution, extending beyond Cambodia into present day Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.
The sheer number of temples and syllables comprising ancient Khmer names will fill you with a sense of awe. The last great Khmer king, Jayavarman VII (1181-1220), who undertook the empire’s largest construction projects, built hundreds of temples, including Preah Khan, Bayon and Ta Prohm. And before we head to the latter (in ABOUTAsia’s swanky Mercedes van), Bunchay tells us that after Jayavarman VII’s death, the Angkorian empire began to decline until the 1431 final siege, where Thai invaders finally brought about the end of the Angkor civilisation.
Ours is the only car to stop in front of Ta Prohm, one of Angkor’s ‘greatest hits’ for its dramatic silk cotton tree roots wrapped around 12th century stones. Bunchay says that, although we’re approaching the hour when tour buses descend upon the temples, he’s brought us in before the crowds, allowing eager tourists time to snap the interplay between nature and the manmade, as well as the temple’s carvings of dancing deities and meditating monks.
ABOUTAsia studied other travel companies’ itineraries to deliver as private an experience as possible to their guests. They use Google Earth and NASA photographs to identify alternative travel routes, like a narrow forest pathway we later access by tuk tuk to Ta Nei, a less visited but charming temple. While we roam around the ruins, Bunchay and an invisible team of helpers set up a breakfast of hot coffee, fresh
fruit and flaky croissants from the bakery at our hotel, Shinta Mani. While all guides must complete a three-month nationally-approved training course to lead visitors around these temples, ABOUTAsia’s receive incentives to dedicate time to further research on Khmer history, culture, environment and other areas of interest to visitors.
Back in the van, we count the buses heading towards us. When the figure quickly exceeds our fingers, we feel grateful for our early start. We stop at the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom to gawk at its colossal heads of gods and demons and then walk along the 8m-high laterite wall to the East Gate. Fluttering butterflies in white, blue and black hues surround us as Bunchay tells us this is sometimes called the Gate of Death because, during Angkorian times, executions took place here and the bodies were cremated nearby. As the day progresses, his wealth of knowledge seems almost as vast as the temple complex.
After lunch, we pass the Terrace of the Elephants, a 300m-long succession of elephants carved in battle alongside lion-headed warriors, garudas and seven-headed horses, where you can photograph saffron-robed monks strolling past. We continue to Jayavarman VII’s state temple of Bayon at the centre of the ancient city of Angkor Thom and explore its 37 towers carved with enigmatic smiles.
As the sun goes down, we climb aboard one of the elaborately painted boats that have recently started cruising the Angkor Thom moat. Ours is the only pleasure vessel among a handful of fishing boats. A lone fisherman waist deep in water sings hauntingly as our charming boatman rows us past.
Bunchay, it turns out, mixes a mean beverage and hands around sunset-coloured sweet potato chips as the real orb sinks into the surrounding coconut foliage. It just confirms our thoughts from the day: 152 years after French naturalist and explorer Henri Mouhot happened upon Angkor’s crumbling remains, this is the way to see the temple city.
Need to know
Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies from Dubai direct to Siem Reap for Dhs5,580 return. Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) flies from Abu Dhabi to Phnom Penh for Dhs4,250. You can then transfer to Siem Reap by taxi, coach or boat.
Where to stay
Recently redesigned by ‘starchitect’ Bill Bensley, Shinta Mani (doubles from Dhs920 per night; +855 63 761 998; www.shintamani.com) balances creature comforts with support for the hotel’s in-house hospitality school, where young Cambodians learn how to bake mouthwatering croissants. For those who prefer something more intimate, the five-suite Maison Polanka (suites from Dhs440 per night; +855 12 499 810; www.maisonpolanka.com) in two traditional Khmer stilted houses among tropical foliage doubles as Siem Reap’s first villa rental.
Where to Eat & drink
Le Jardin des Délices (www.ecolepauldubrule.org) offers fine French cuisine and Khmer specialties. Take an afternoon TWG tea break with tasty chocolate cake at Upstairs Café (Wat Bo Rpad;+855 97 304 3600)
but save room for authentic curries at Snappy (+855 977 179 790; www.facebook.com/snappy.siemreap) behind the Angkor Riviera Hotel (828 Porkombor Street, Mondul1, Svaydangkom, www.angkorriviera.com).
Seeing Angkor Wat
If you’re interested in a philanthropic way to travel, contact ABOUTAsia Travel (www.aboutasiatravel.com; +855 6376 0190).
Dubai to cambodia
Flight time: About seven and a half hours, depending on connections.
Time difference: Three hours ahead of Dubai.
Dhs1 = 1,087 Cambodian riel