The Temples of Angkor
Siem Reap, Cambodia
More photographs than you can shake a stick at…
What I really wanted was to hire a driver for the day, and worry about the destinations later. What the driver wanted was to know exactly what temples Tatiana and I wanted to visit, so that he could charge us accordingly. I could see his point of view, but knew that meant having to actually spend an hour or two reading about the temples, so that we could make educated decisions.
Tatiana had only one request: That we visit the Ta Prohm, the temple where one of the Tomb Raider movies was filmed. All I really wanted to do was avoid going back to Angkor Wat for sunrise, and get my money's worth out of the driver.
After hearing some temple suggestions from the tuk tuk driver, we instructed him to return a few hours later; we'd be figuring things out over dinner. Ultimately, I think I came up with a pretty decent route to take:
Sunrise at Pre Rup, followed by Ta Prohm, and finishing with the complex of Angkor Thom (where several temples and monuments are contained within). Although three sites didn't sound like much, I knew it would take at least a half-day—and nine-something hours would be about the breaking point for a five-month pregnant Tatiana.
We negotiated a rate of US$10 for the day, with three temples. If we added a fourth, he'd ask for another $2.
The drive out to the first temple site would take a bit via tuk tuk, and as a result, had to leave our hotel in Siem Reap at 4:30 in the morning. I was amazed with how well Tatiana did getting herself up and out the door.
I thought for sure we'd have the Pre Rup site to ourselves this morning, but it turned out that a small group of Asian tourists—armed with tripods and expensive digital-SLR cameras—were already setup in the dark, atop the highest point of the impressive temple ruins.
There would be no brilliant sunrise for folks to capture at any of the Angkor temples, as skies were overcast this morning. But regardless of the poor photo op, Tatiana and I absolutely loved watching the light grow from near complete darkness, to blue, to white. Seeing the ruins of Pre Rup in the pre-dawn hours was one of the highlights of the day.
Tatiana and I both couldn't get over how much we enjoyed this temple over Angkor Wat, the previous day. I think tourists and crowds really turn us off, and this temple was infinitely more rewarding than 'Wat because of the privacy, and quality of workmanship.
After the fall of the Khmer empire in the 15th century, the temple of Ta Prohm was abandoned and neglected for centuries. When the effort to conserve and restore the temples of Angkor began in the early 20th century, it was decided that Ta Prohm would be left largely as it had been found, as a "concession to the general taste for the picturesque." Ta Prohm was singled out because it was "one of the most imposing temples and the one which had best merged with the jungle, but not yet to the point of becoming a part of it." Much work has been done to stabilize the ruins, to permit access, and to maintain the condition of apparent neglect.
The trees growing out of the ruins are perhaps the most distinctive feature of Ta Prohm, and have prompted more writers to descriptive excess than any other feature of Angkor. Two species predominate the area: The larger is the silk-cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra), and the smaller is the strangler fig (Ficus gibbosa).
The temple was by far and away the best of the day. I'd trade a dozen Angkor Wats for one Ta Prohm. We arrived from the eastern entrance and explored the grounds with wide eyes and repeated gasps of delight, long before other tourists started showing up. A wonderful experience.
When you look at a map of Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor, one can't help but marvel at the size of Angkor Thom's footprint, compared with that of the nearby tourist-laden city. The walls of 'Thom are eight meters high, with each side flanked by a three km long moat—enclosing an area of nine sq km.
Tatiana and I continued to be rewarded by moving against the flow of tourists. By the time tour groups started leaving Angkor Wat and 'Thom (and filing into Ta Prohm), we were doing the opposite.
By about 1:30 in the afternoon, both of us had pretty much run out of steam. The mid-day sauna was brewing, and with onset of interment rain showers from above, we felt like we'd had more than enough temple exploration for the day.
What an excellent feeling it is to look back at a day and say that you'd change absolutely nothing about it, if given the opportunity to so. The path taken avoided excessive hoards of tourists, allowed for rampant curiosity to take hold, and consistently found smiles across our faces.
I know my attention span for such things, and yesterday and today have reached my personal saturation point for Angkor temples. This was just the right amount of history for the both of us—any more, and our eyes would start to glaze over. Multi-day passes? Pass.
Odds 'n Ends
I recently came across an artist's rendering of what the Angkor area looked like back at its peak—what an interesting sight without all that jungle. I've no doubt the place was as interesting maintained, as it is overgrown by green today.
I found an article on frommers.com that indicated upwards of 5,000 people visit the temples of Angkor—Angkor Wat, to be specific—each day. Just to play with some numbers, lets say that the 5,000 tourists per day figure is reached 80% of the time. This would be 1,462,000 people per year.
Assuming each of these people actually pay for a ticket—probably a stretch, but humor me for a moment—I might speculate that 80% of visitors buy single-day passes, 15% purchase three-day passes, and 5% spring for a week of access to the temples. As these passes cost US$20, $40, and $60, respectively, I can paint a crude picture as to how much these people are pulling in on ticket sales each year.
Ready? $36.55 million dollars per year—in a rural, developing, Second World country. That's a lot of cash.