Far from the Instagramming crowds, Cynthia Rosenfield discovers the Southeast Asian temple city of Angkor Wat in a whole new light. And makes a philanthropic contribution along the way.
Generally speaking, my idea of the perfect day definitely does not start before sunrise. But today, having relinquished responsibility for navigating the 300-plus temples of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat complex to an innovative Siem Reap-based tour operator, I 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 time of the morning – is waiting downstairs to lead me on its signature one-day best of Angkor tour.
Despite my aversion to such early mornings, I’ve convinced myself this will be worth it. ABOUTAsia is committed to showing guests around Cambodia’s top attraction without crowds, but that’s not its only USP. It is also one of the country’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. one hundred and fifty two years after Henri Mouhot happened upon Angkor’s crumbling remains, I wondered whether it was possible to experience something of the French explorer’s sense of discovery.
So, off into the darkness we go, with my already animated guide, Bunchay, offering a historical overview of Angkor. My eyes adjust to the creeping daylight as my guide dates the birth of Angkor civilization 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 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, Bunchay, as informative as ever, 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 civilization.
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 explains that although we’re approaching the hour when tour buses descend upon the temples, he’s brought us in before the crowds, allowing us time to appreciate the interplay between nature and the man-made, as well as the temple’s carvings of dancing deities and meditating monks. ABOUTAsia has used Google Earth and Nasa photographs to identify alternative paths, such as the narrow forest pathway we later access by tuk-tuk to Ta Nei, a less visited but charming temple.
Back in the van, I count buses heading towards us. When the figure quickly exceeds my fingers, I feel grateful for our early start. We stop at the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom to gawk at its colossal heads of demons before walking along the eight-metre-high laterite wall to the east gate. Butterflies in white, blue and black hues flutter by 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. Using the tip of a fallen stick to draw a detailed map of it, he tells us about how historians are investigating whether the alignment among early Angkorian temples (like Phnom Bakheng and the tenth-century Phimeanakas, with its hidden bathing pools) suggest an even earlier sprawling city on these grounds. The idea of ancient, yet-to-be revealed secrets is a great distraction from the searing, Cambodian midday heat. After lunch, we pass the Terrace of the Elephants, a 300-metre-long succession of elephants carved in battle alongside lion-headed warriors, garudas and seven-headed horses, where saffron-robed monks stroll 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. And then we climb aboard one of the elaborately painted (and thankfully air-conditioned) 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. The sun sinks into the surrounding coconut foliage. It just confirms my thoughts from the day: 152 years after Henri Mouhot happened upon Angkor’s crumbling remains, this is the way to see the temple city.
Need to know
Malaysia Airlines flies to Siem Reap via Kuala Lumpur from Dhs2,482 return.