Monday, November 13, 2006

From the banks of the Mekong

Location update –

I’m now in Kratie, Cambodia, typing away on the balcony of the You Hong Guest House, which overlooks the central marketplace. Below, bored women squat behind piles of mangos, naked children wander about with fingers in their mouths and a blind man sits cross-legged on the pavement, playing a bamboo flute. The smells of grilled fish, rotten fruit and moto-bike exhaust hang heavy in the humid air. One block away, the sun is sinking low over the far bank of the wide, muddy Mekong River. I’ll be here for the next few days, then plan to head East into the remote Cambodian hill country.

Below is an article I just finished about how to get around the Angkor temples. Hopefully I’ll find a place to publish it before leaving for the sticks.

To Tuk or Not to Tuk?

Angkor Wat will blow your mind. The sheer size of the temple is impressive, but scale alone can’t explain the overwhelming spiritual impact that confronts those who approach the central sanctuary. Pillaged by invading armies, abandoned to the elements for generations and now overrun by tourists, the temple still retains enough pure power to send shivers straight to the core of your soul.

But it’s also just one temple, and for all its potent enormity, Angkor Wat is just the tip of the iceberg. The ancient Khmer God-Kings were amazingly prolific, devoting the treasure of an empire to preserving their divinity for the ages. There are literally hundreds of temples scattered about the jungle near the town of Siem Reap, so making the most of your Angkor experience requires covering some serious ground.

Transportation isn’t hard to arrange locally, but there are a lot of options to consider. It can be confusing and intimidating to figure everything out on the spot, so in this article I’ll give you the heads up on how to get around the Angkor complex.

The easiest way to explore Angkor is to hire a driver for the duration of your stay. Indeed, from the first moment you step foot in Siem Reap, drivers will start offering to show you around the temples, hoping to score an extended stretch of steady work. Most drivers are professional, reliable and hard-working, but it’s worthwhile to choose one who speaks decent English and is relatively experienced. If the fellow who gives you that very first ride to your guesthouse seems to fit the bill, and you already know when you want to set out for the temples, by all means make arrangements to have him pick you up the next day. If you’re not sure, just say “No plans yet,” get his phone number, and decide later.

All guesthouses have a few ‘resident’ drivers who hang out in the courtyard and get most of their business from guests of that establishment. It can be very convenient to hire one of them, because they will be easy to get a hold of if you need to change plans or suddenly want to go somewhere. Plus, all guesthouses appreciate when you spend money within their ‘sphere of influence’. After you get settled into your room, ask someone to introduce you to a good driver.

Choosing a driver is important, but you also need to decide what kind of vehicle to use. The most popular choice is a remorque-moto, or tuk-tuk, a neat little carriage pulled by a moto bike. Riding around in one of these can be almost as much fun as exploring the actual temples. Tuk-tuks are quite comfortable, with well-padded seats and a canopy to keep the sun off. With no windows, a nice breeze cools you off while moving. There is enough space for four people in one carriage, but they are most ideal for couples, who can sit side by side, talk, and watch the countryside roll by.

Hiring a tuk-tuk and driver for the day costs between $8 and $20, depending on which temples you want to see and how many hours your idea of “a day” encompasses. If you want to sleep in, eat a leisurely breakfast, see a few of the most accessible temples and be back home in time to shower before dinner, $8 is probably plenty, but if you want to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat, head out to a distant temple like Banteay Srei and then watch the sun go back down, think $15 or $20. It’s usually a good idea to agree on a price before leaving, especially when dealing with a driver for the first time. Be clear about your plans or, better yet, ask the driver for his opinion. These guys have been touring Angkor for a long time, and probably know what you want better than you do.

Your other transportation options include bicycles, electric-bikes, moto-bikes and cars. Most guest-houses rent pedal bikes for between $1 and $3 per day. It can be a lot of fun to explore Angkor on your own wheels, but bear in mind that the climate is tropical and it’s an 8 km ride between town and the closest temples. If you want to enjoy the hour before sunset at a temple, count on a long ride home in the dark.

Electric bikes are an interesting new option. You can rent them from a shop a few hundred yards before the ticket booth for $4 a day. To read my full review of these bikes, scroll down past the Bhutan guide.

Moto-bikes are marginally cheaper than tuk-tuks and a decent option for solo travelers, but are better suited to quick rides around town than a full day exploring the temples. As for cars, they’re obviously comfortable and air-conditioned, but you miss out on the breeze. Hiring a car is also expensive, with a going rate of about $25 per day.

While you explore the temples, your driver will wait in the parking area. At some of the more spread-out temples, like Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, he will drop you off at one entrance and pick you up at another, which saves time backtracking. To avoid confusion, be sure to confirm where exactly your driver will be waiting. Most tuk-tuk drivers will have a map with them, which helps with orientations and arranging pick-up spots.

No matter how you get around Angkor, a visit to these ancient monuments is truly awe-inspiring. However, contemporary Cambodia is also a fascinating place. If you only have a few days in Siam Reap, a trip to one of the more distant Angkor attractions is a good way to experience the Cambodian countryside, but an even better option is to extend your holiday and head for one of the blissfully deserted beaches of the Cambodian coast.

For more information on Siem Reap, Angkor and the rest of Cambodia, you can’t do better than

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Blogger HARUNA said...

I haven't updated blog for more than an year:(
So sorry...
But I made new blog again.
Visit it:)

6:46 AM  
Blogger ryan libre said...

hey tim, something in this blog is really good. the words arnt forced.

9:31 AM  

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