Having been to Angkor Wat three years previously I wanted to try a different approach this time, so decided on a guided day tour with Beyond Unique Escapes, who have a reputation for running good excursions with a community feel aimed at smaller groups. I chose their Angkor Uncovered tour costing $28 per person, including lunch.

It was the off-season so our group was even smaller than usual – myself, a Frenchwoman, a German and American. On the temple itinerary was Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat.

Hotel pick-up was included – in this case a minivan (driven and owned by a local who, as he explained it, had previously worked de-activating Cambodia’s many land mines, funded by the Australian government. That gave him the money to start his own business).

On the way to the ticket booths our guide, Maray, gave us a brief run down on Siem Reap’s rapid progress from sleepy village with no running water or sanitation in the mid 1990’s to a famous resort town now regularly ranking high on tourists’ ‘best city to visit’ list.

Angkor Wat ticket

 

A Vietnamese company has the ticketing rights to the temples of Angkor and this echoed a common refrain by locals that ‘Cambodia owns nothing’.

 

 

 

We entered the temple zone and skirted part of Angkor’s great moat, though Ta Prohm was the first temple on our tour. Built in the late 12th to early 13th Century by King Jayavarman 7th as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery, it was intentionally left unrestored. It is considered a flat temple (as opposed to those with a high central tower).

Ta Phrom

Ta Phrom

The giant Spung trees are of no use, apparently – they provide no food and the timber is good for nothing – but as far as tourists are concerned these strangler figs are the highlight of Ta Prohm as they straddle stone walls, embrace shrines and help set a scene that epitomises a lost temple.

Ta Phrom

Variations of these trees can be found in many tropical areas, including in Australia. They grow from the top down extending their vine-like roots from the tree foliage, where their seed had been deposited, to the ground, eventually strangling the host tree, using its bulk as a skeleton.

Ta Phrom

We walked through the temple site and the driver met us on the other side. Having a guide provided some different perspectives to my first visit.

Ta Phrom

Can you see a face in the picture below?

Ta Phrom

The next temple stop on the tour was Angkor Thom (Great City). It was also built by Jayavarman 7th in the late 12th Century to become the (last) capital city. It covered an area of nine square kilometres and, according to Maray, had a supporting population of one million people.

Angkor Thom

There are four entry gates each having its own purpose: for military victories etc.

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom

Among the archeological highlights inside its perimeter are the Baphuon, the Terrace of Elephants and, at its centre, the magnificent Bayon, looking more natural feature than man-made wonder (though replicating nature is part of the design intention).

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom, Bayon

Apparently the serene smile often seen on Buddha images is a trend that began in Cambodia.

Angkor Thom, Bayon

The Bayon statues are also thought to incorporate the image of King Jayavarman.

Angkor Thom, Bayon

Angkor Thom, BayonThe carvings on these Bayon walls depict images ranging from the routine to the glorious. It’s like an encyclopaedia of their times.

Angkor Thom, Bayon

This one (below) shows a woman giving birth.

Angkor Thom, Bayon

Exploring these temple complexes also reveals the religious to-ing and fro-ing that occurred during the Khmer dynasty, as one King embraced Hindu gods and another preferred Buddhism. Even within Hindu worship there was vacillation – some idolised Shiva, others Brahma. According to Maray, to sort out one worshipping dispute it was decided that every statue should carry the image of both gods.

We had a lunch break at a picnic table nearby – ample servings of meat or vegetable curry accompanied by assorted fruit.

Angkor Thom

Following lunch, we drove to the main feature on the bill – Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat

The moats serve a dual purpose of water supply and structural support – the temples were built on sandy soil and the water prevents them sinking into it.

Angkor Wat

Initially a Hindu temple, Angkor Wat was built in the early 12th Century by King Suryavarman the 2nd. Unusually, it was dedicated to Vishnu and orientated west (others are to the east). In the surrounding region there are several precursors to Angkor Wat built by Suryavarman that presumably advised this construction, the largest and most famous temple of all.

Angkor Wat

Most people think Angkor Wat is a restored temple, but it’s been in continuous use since completion. Its religious allegiance shifted to the Buddha in the 13th Century and it remains a Buddhist shrine today.

Angkor Wat

Of all the many female figurines (Devatas) this is the only one with a grin.

Angkor Wat

The central tower in these temples represent Mt Meru, an important peak in Hindu and Buddhist mythology.

Angkor Wat

The tour finished about 4pm. We were dropped off at the Beyond agency and made our own way back to our guesthouses.

GENERAL OBSERVATIONS:

Even though it was the wet season and humidity expected it was much more noticeable out among the temples – more energy sapping than anticipated. Though, it seemed we were going through a particularly bad stretch because when the weather cleared a few days later it became more bearable.

There was also less harassment by hawkers outside the temples compared to my previous visit, but whether that was due to the off-season or because we were in a group, or because of a crackdown I’m not sure. Possibly a combination of all three factors. I had noticed there were also a lot less hawkers (tuk-tuk drivers aside) and beggars in Siem Reap.

Another noticeable difference was the number of Chinese tourists, which probably reflects their increasing affluence and ability to travel.

My overall feeling is that if you only have one day to spare, this tour will give you a good gist, or an idea of what to do should you return to explore further. And if you’re on your own and wanting company a tour like this is also a good option. It was well run, but possibly not as informative as I’d hoped (an individual guide may suit better for that). Though, the oppressive conditions made it harder to  make the most of it and there’s a limit to how much information you can digest anyway. With tours like this generally you have to move at someone else’s pace, so I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re the type that likes to dwell and wait for the crowd to clear before taking a photo. The French girl gave it a good recommendation and said it suited her purposes. I had the impression the other two enjoyed it as well.

On my first trip here, I explored the temples over three days (plus a sunset) by motorbike, tuk-tuk and bicycle. A third option would be to take a tuk-tuk, but hire an individual guide.

See the gallery for more pics of this tour.

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