South by Southeast: 5 tips for Angkor Wat

I was alone, deep in the Cambodian jungle, flanked by the scattered ruins of ancient Khmer temples. My ears tickled with the cackle distant bird calls and buzzing cicadas. My shirt clung to my skin with a thick layer of sweat and ocher-hued dust. Suddenly, I heard movement to my right behind a wall. What was it? An ancient spirit of temples? A fearsome jungle cat waiting to pounce? My muscles tensed and I stood waiting for the apparition to appear – until a flag-waving tour group emerged from around the corner. It turns out I wasn’t as alone in the jungle as I previously thought.

Angkor Wat is less a place than an idea burned in our subconscious. These famous ruins float in our dreams like Indiana Jones fantasy, cloaked in thick layers of vines and overgrown jungle trees. Yet the reality of this ancient wonder of the world doesn’t always align with our visions. Angkor Wat today is among the most popular tourist destinations in Southeast Asia, with nearly two million visitors annually. The abandoned ruins of your dreams are positively overrun with tour groups, brandishing their gigantic SLR’s like a camera-toting guerilla army. Yet despite its enduring popularity, a visit through Angkor can still be thoroughly enjoyable – you just need to know the right way to do it.

To truly enjoy the wonders of Angkor, you need to come armed with a few simple strategies. Ready to make your own adventure through Angkor Wat? Keep reading below for our five tips.Tip #1 – Do Your Research
Before arriving in Angkor, I had assumed the site was just one big temple – it’s not. In reality it’s a series of massive complexes including Angkor Thom and the Roluos Temples, covering more than 3000 square kilometers and 72 major temples, many of which were built during different eras of the Khmer Empire. It pays to come to Angkor with at least some idea of what you want to see. Otherwise it’s easy to get lost and overwhelmed.

There’s some easy ways to arm yourself with the right information. Consider grabbing an Angkor-specific guide like this book by Dawn Rooney, which will provide historical background, itinerary plans and descriptions of key architectural features. The tech-savvy should also check out the Angkor iPhone app by the Asia travel experts at Travelfish. Need even more? Consider hiring a guide.

Tip #2 – Leave Enough Time
Tip two falls right in line with tip one. Considering the immense size of Angkor, you want to leave enough time to explore the site’s many ruins. Though individual interest in the ruins varies, many travelers recommend at least three days for a proper visit. This ensures you can check out all the main sights while also leaving time for some of the lesser-known gems, many of which are far less crowded than the “biggies” like Angkor Wat. Any less than this and you’re likely to spend a lot of time queuing behind other tourists at the big ruins. And if you’re really into archeology, consider grabbing a week-long pass.

Tip #3 – Beat the Heat
Even during the cooler winter months, Cambodia is positively sweltering. Daytime temperatures hover anywhere from the 80’s to over 100 degrees. Spending all day walking around in the baking heat is a bad idea. Plan a mid-day break for lunch into your itinerary if you’re doing it on your own.

Another great way to escape the crazy temperatures is a side trip out to Kbal Spean, a series of riverbed carvings with a refreshing waterfall pool at the end. And wherever you go, make sure to bring lots of water. Enterprising kids sell bottles outside most temples for next to nothing.

Tip #4 – Explore the Lesser-Known
No matter when you visit, expect Angkor Wat to be busy. But despite all the moaning about the crowds, there are still plenty of places you can find yourself all alone. Temples like Preah Kahn, the Banteay Srei/Kbal Spean combo and the Roluos Group, especially when visited early/late in the day, can make for delightfully deserted experiences. For the ultimate do-it-yourself experience, consider renting a bike to explore. You’ll find you can linger more easily at sites once the tour buses have departed.

Tip #5 – Choose Your Sun Carefully
Before my trip to Angkor, people kept raving about the sunsets. With considerable anticipation, I climbed to the top of Phnom Bakheng on my first day, ready to be wowed by the awesome sight of the sun setting over the temple complexes. Except it wasn’t that great. It was wildly crowded and gave very little view of the surrounding temples. Every “sunset spot” I visited during my three day tour was similarly poor. I’m sure there are good sunsets/sunrise to be had in Angkor, but they don’t come easy. If you’re dead-set on seeing the sunset or sunrise, don’t expect to be alone and make sure to get there early.

Yes, there are lots of visitors at Angkor. But with a little preparation and planning, there’s still plenty of adventure to be had. You just have to look a little harder to find it.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

Travelfish sets a new benchmark in iPhone travel guides with their guide to Angkor

Travelfish has long been one of the most respected resources for travel in Asia. Their site covers Backpacker information for Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Of course, information provided on a web site is great for preparing a trip, but once you are actually on the road, you’ll need to find Internet access to get to it.

This is where the new Travelfish iPhone app can help. Their first app covers Angkor in Cambodia, and my oh my what an impressive app it is. In fact, as the title describes, I’m so impressed, that I’m calling it “a new benchmark in iPhone travel content”.

The application only runs in landscape mode, but it takes perfect advantage of this by presenting plenty of wide screen content. The app covers everything (and I really do mean everything) you need to know about the region For beginners, there is a huge background section, with history of the country and the region itself. It also offers 8 entire sections on how to plan your trip, with everything from visa information to the local weather and what to pack.

The sleep section shows all local hotels on a map, describing the different areas in the city. The application lists the 40 best hotels, hostels and guesthouses, along with a full review, online booking link, phone number and of course, its location on the map. Similar comprehensive guides are offered for restaurants, sightseeing attractions, local transportation.

The walking tours portion takes you on an iPhone guided tour, complete with when to start and exactly how to reach each highlight of the self-guided tour.

The maps support your location, and can be customized to show more (or less) locations.

Final thoughts

Of all the iPhone tour guides I’ve seen, this one really is the most comprehensive. I love the design and ease of use. Best of all, the application stores all its data on your phone, so there is no need for an (expensive) data plan when roaming abroad.

The program is perfect for pre-planning, as well as acting as a live guide when you are actually in Angkor. Each portion of the application offers handy features like bookmarks and “show on map”, and the designers make fantastic use of the touch friendliness of the iPhone and iPod Touch letting you swipe to browse articles.

You’ll find the Travelfish Angkor app in the iTunes store, where it sells for just $7.99.


Nine wonders in 26 days

Planning ahead has never paid off quite so much. If you’re thinking about a big trip for the fall, kick around Abercrombie & Kent‘s “Nine Wonders of the World” excursion. A private jet will cart you to the most impressive destinations our planet has to offer over 26 days, and you just won’t want to come back to reality.

The experience kicks off on October 19 at the Four Seasons Hotel Miami, where you enjoy a welcome dinner with your fellow travelers. The next day, you dash off to Lima, Peru, which is your gateway to the former world of the Incas. Explore Machu Picchu, and roam around this part of the world for a few days.

Your next stop is Easter Island, which includes a walk through the caves of Ana Kai and a horseback archeological excursion. The lava tunnels will be particularly interesting. After Samoa, it’s off to Sydney and the Blue Mountains. Other stops on this trip include the Angkor complex of temples in Cambodia and the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities (home to relics from Tutankhamun). The full list, it feels, is endless.

Of course, this sort of life-changing experience isn’t cheap. You’ll spend close to $90,000 to enjoy the luxury that A&K puts together, but you’ll never doubt your decision.

To get a sense of the trip’s full scope, take a closer look at the itinerary.

Angkor Wat: Welcome To The World’s First Super City…

If you’ve ever been to the Khmer architectural wonders at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, you’ll know that you need to be super-organised to see the different sites arrayed near the Tonle Sap lake.

You’ll be up early for sunrise at Angkor Wat, and after the journey to the Bayon at Angkor Thom, it’s onto temples further afield by bicycle or tuk tuk. New research by the Greater Angkor Project at the University of Sydney in Australia has now revealed that the size of the urban sprawl surrounding the temple at Angkor Wat is actually ten times larger than previously thought. The combination of aerial photography, on the ground research, and radar has revealed that the ancient conurbation covered nearly 3000 sq km. Almost 100 new temple sites have been discovered, and it’s now estimated the overall population of the area may have topped one million between the 9th and 16th centuries.

Mind you, if you’ve visited the rapidly expanding town of Siem Reap recently, you may think that a similar number is sometimes approached during the tourist season.

Thanks to dragon caiman on Flickr for the great shot of monks at Angkor Wat.