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.

Off-beat travel experiences people actually pay for: 6 worst vacation ideas

When it comes to yard sales, there’s an adage “One person’s junk is another person’s treasure.” When it comes to vacation experiences, you might say the same thing.

Some folks can’t seem to get enough of a Disney theme park, while others wouldn’t step a foot in one. Being willing to fork out cash for Disney–or not—is a run of the mill vacation choice. Here are other options that fit the unusual to the downright weird.

Tom Barlow, my pal over at Blogging Stocks and Wallet Pop sent me this link to the “6 Worst Vacations People Actually Pay for” at Jason Moore’s round-up includes one experience we’ve written about here at Gadling.

Jason lists a stay at the Ice Hotel in Sweden as his number two worst vacation idea option. Frankly, I’m with Jason on this one. I’m sure it’s fascinating and beautiful, but too cold for a relaxing night of slumber. Ruben Laguna, who snapped this pic has several others which gives me the impression I could be wrong. Still, it does look too cold for my taste.

Jason’s number one choice of bad ideas is the one where people shoot farm animals with rocket launchers. WHAT!!! Isn’t there a grim film called, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? In this case, horses aren’t on the menu, but you can shoot chickens and cows. The place is near Siem Reap, Cambodia. Here’s a link to that weirdness.

Moore’s other bad idea choices are:

  • Tour the sewers of Paris
  • Illegal Border Crossing Experience
  • Ghetto Tours
  • Crossword Puzzle Cruise

The Paris sewer tour does sound interesting to me. The crossword puzzle cruise? Not so much. Check out Jason’s post for more details on each option. You can find decide for yourself what’s trash and what’s treasure.

Click the images to learn about the most unusual museums in the world — from funeral customs, to penises, to velvet paintings, to stripping.

Amazing Race, Season 13: Cambodia, boats, breakdowns and beauty is only skin deep

After episode 4’s rest stop at Summerhill, that gorgeous sheep farm homestay in New Zealand, the teams barreling through the world in the Amazing Race were off to Cambodia.

This episode did a tidy drop of highlighting aspects of Cambodia’s culture and showcased its historical magnificence.

I’m still not sure which team I want to win. I do know which team I don’t.

Travel Tips from this episode:

  • If a travel agent says a flight is booked or closed, head to directly to the airline in case there might be room after all.
  • Don’t speed while driving in New Zealand. You could be stopped by the police.
  • If your boat breaks down in Siem Reap Harbor, if you use a stick for a row, you’ll eventually get somewhere.
  • Holding hands with your traveling companion can reduce stress.
  • Stay focused and calm, otherwise you’ll walk in circles and pass by the very place you’re trying to find.

Recap and Cultural Highlights

When Tina & Ken ripped open their destination details at 6:03 a.m., they were off lickety-split to Siem Reap, Cambodia, a place that evidently is not the easiest to get to from Auckland. There were only two flights left, both through Singapore. This separated couple, who seem to be getting along better by the hour, particularly as they won the last three legs, made it onto the first flight.

When Terrence & Sarah joined them, even after being slowed down by the who stopped Terrence for speeding 17 kilometers per hour above the speed limit, Tina & Ken took their presence in stride.

The rest of the gang, except for Ty and Aja who can’t seem to catch up, were close behind in plane two. Dan & Andrew squeaked onto this flight by heading to Emirates Airline’s ticket counter after they were told at the travel agent that the flight was closed. The ticket counter person, looking at their desperate, pleading faces, called down to the gate for the go-ahead.Their polite, but determined demeanor probably helped them score the ride. Ty and Aja weren’t so lucky and had to take a later flight. Which one? The next day perhaps? I have no idea.

Even though the flight to Cambodia went through Singapore, there wasn’t any mention of the slick polish of Changi Airport. I assume the teams had some time here because, according to Travelocity when I looked up possible schedules, flights from Auckland to New Zealand, average 34 hours or so. If you have any length of time to spend in an airport, Changi would not be the worst place.

Picking Cambodia as a backdrop for a leg of the Amazing Race, was a brilliant idea. It’s one of those countries where life is so different from the U.S., that senses pick up.

Whoever came up with the tasks the teams had to complete to get to the Pit Stop did a wonderful job using aspects of normal Cambodian life to create drama and provide interest. There didn’t seem to be the need to rely on gimmicks because the country is filled with unusual details, evident from the first task.

The first task was to take a taxi to a gas station in order to fill a truck’s gas tank with 25 liters of gas–five liters at a time. The only team to have trouble with hand-cranking gas, the typical method in Cambodia, were Dan & Andrew because they didn’t crank hard enough.

Once the tanks were filled, in a neck and neck pace, the teams climbed into their trucks to have the drivers take them to Siem Reap Harbor where they were to take traditional-style boats to the middle of the largest lake in S.E Asia to the floating Kho Andeth restaurant.

The truck ride was a mad dash as the teams at the front of the pack kept passing each other with whoops, hollers and High Fives. I enjoy watching this show the most when the teams seem to be enjoying each other and their surroundings. Tina & Ken, Terrence & Sarah, Andrew & Dan, and Dallas & Toni are those type of teams.

Sarah & Terrence certainly weren’t enjoying the process, though, when their boat broke down. The boats, similar to what you’d find in Vietnam or Thailand, were rickety, mostly wooden and equipped with buzzy motors. Each boat was big enough to carry a small group–although in this case carried passengers of two.

When their boat conked out, Terrence gamely started rowing, pushing on the lake’s bottom with a big pole. Sarah cheered him on as one by one, teams passed them. Neither of them took their misfortune out on the other which helped keep their moods from getting them down. Can do attitudes can work. At the restaurant, the driver was able to fix their boat quickly so off they went once more.

I would have liked to see a meal at this restaurant for future dining info in case I’m ever in Siem Reap, but there’s not time to dine on the Amazing Race. Have you noticed? What and when do teams eat?

From Kho Andeth Restaurant, it was off to do one of two tasks. “Village Life” or “Village Work” This was a fascinating segment since it focused on the life of a village that is totally set on water in a series of floating buildings, only accessible by boat. As Dallas said, “It’s like Waterworld.”

As Christy & Kelly made their way by boat, they kept noticing the poverty and wondered about children swimming on their own. As one of them said, “It breaks my heart.”

There isn’t a bigger eye opener when you travel than seeing the lifestyles of the world’s children. If one travels enough, so much of what might seem dangerous or poor seems normal. The vibrancy of life is what shines through.

Once the teams got busy with their tasks there wasn’t any more time to ponder.

For Village Life, teams went to three different locations to pick up three objects: a doll from the tailor; a pair of chattering false teeth from the dentist; and a basketball from a floating basketball court. To acquire the basketball, each team member had to shoot a basket first.

The funniest part here was when Christy & Kelly stepped into the dentist’s office, saw a woman with her mouth wide open and getting her teeth worked on by the dentist. At first, they thought, horrified, that the women’s teeth were the ones they were supposed to get.

For “Village Work,” the teams were to retrieve baskets filled with fish out of the lake, one basket for each team member. What a hard, totally not fun job. If I had picked this task, I’d have had hard time not whining and would want to change clothes afterwards double quick.

From the lake, the teams were off to Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s former capital city and temple that was built in the 12th century during the reign of King Suryavarman II. One person from each team was to find a specific room in the massive complex where, if you beat your chest, the sound echoes.

This task, although not phyically hard, required a sense of direction, or the ability to entice a Cambodian to take you to where you want to go. Up and down stairs and through hallways upon hallways, the team members doing the task scurried looking for the right spot. The task was a great way to highlight the intricacies of Angkor Wat’s architicture and details without anyone directly talking about its magnificence.

Nick found the room first, hit his chest, picked up the tablet with the next clue and and hid it under his shirt so he wouldn’t tip off the other teams. I’m not too fond of Nick really. He’s one of those people who appears to be used to winning. Of course, he is one of those people who is on the winning end, so he has a point.

Tina had a heck of a time figuring out her way around the temple and even walked through the room she was to find, not once, but twice. On one pass through, she wondered out loud what she was missing. Ken, to his credit didn’t take her lack of direction out on her when she finally appeared after several teams passed them.

The next stop was Bayon Temple, another 12th century beauty. Here was the Pit Stop location.

Who won this round: Nick and Starr

Nick and Starr also won round one and now feel like they are back in fine from. They are not my favorite team. I was hoping another team would have a shot at a prize.

What they won: A trip to St. John, Virgin Islands where they will snorkel in Trunk Bay and have a catamaran ride.

Eliminated: Ty and Aja

Words of wisdom: Think that the person you’re traveling with is utterly amazing and hold hands often.

At the end of this episode they walked away holding hands after Ty vowed he would move to California where Aja lives.

Aja thinks he’s the most beautiful person she has ever seen and that when she’s near him she gets butterflies. I’d say she won’t mind having him closer.

Who I don’t want to win: Christy and Kelly. They made a snide comment about Dallas’ hair. They said it makie him look like Teen Wolf. What snots.

What’s wrong with Teen Wolf anyway?

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.