The key to getting a full day out of the temples is getting up early in the morning. This isn’t just to make the most of the day, but more to beat the heat and to beat the crowds too.
[Angkor Wat Guide Part 1 : Part 3] Cambodia’s humid, tropical climate means that the temperature is usually in the mid-30s celcius mark by 10am – it’s pretty savage for Westerners. You’ll need a hat, water and high factor suncream even in the shade. After we saw the Bayon, we returned to our hotel. We’d arrived at Angkor at 7am and by 10.30am the heat was becoming oppressive.
Moreover, by 9am the tourist buses start to arrive at the sites – and the best way to enjoy the temples is when there are few other people around. It’s very hard to get a sense of Angkor’s enigma when there’s a hundred other people tromping around you taking photos and generally getting in the way. Therefore, getting up early is well worth the extra effort, both because it’s blissfully cool and also the temples are deserted. Angkor Wat itself was virtually empty on the morning we visited, except for some young monks who had come to visit from the east of Cambodia and were also keen to practice their English. After a couple of hours of wandering its seemingly endless stone hallways and admiring the spectacular frescoes that are carved into the surrounding walls of the inner courtyard, we headed out, to be greeted by a stream of tourists coming in. We left feeling suitably smug.
The heat in Cambodia gets more and more intense until about 3.30 in the afternoon. This makes it a great time to kick back at your hotel, have a long lunch and take a nap before heading out again. We went back out midafternoon to see the temple of Ta Prohm. This is one of the temples that has been left to be reclaimed by nature, rather than being restored like the others with the foliage and trees chopped away. Ta Prohm is intensely atmospheric, with garguantuan strangler fig trees bursting through the dark grey masonry and their roots snaking in amongst the intricate designs and decorations of the stonework. On my previous visit, I saw it directly after rainfall, which made the stone glisten and the foliage even greener. It gives a sense of what the first Western explorers who rediscovered Angkor must have seen when they first stumbled over these temples which had been almost forgotten even by the local people. (You can find amazing black and white photos from the early 1900s of Angkor Wat and the Bayon almost completely covered in foliage before they were restored by the French in some photobooks).
For the historically challenged, it’s also the place where they filmed Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
Ta Prohm is also the home to another famous person – here you can meet the venerable monk who appeared on the front cover of Lonely Planet’s previous Cambodia edition. The first time I came here 2 years ago he was happy to pose for photos, even re-enacting his photo in front of the same doorway; this time around he was more interested in teaching Lindy to play what I think was a Tror So Tauch, a sort of two-stringed fiddle.
Ta Prohm is a huge temple, and it’s worth letting one of the very friendly guides show you around – the temple is a permanent state of near collapse too, so it’s worth having someone who knows what they’re doing lead you through the fallen masonry and heaped rubble. Most importantly, they’ll point out details you’ll miss yourself, like the acoustics of the one of the towers in the courtyard – thump your chest standing inside it and it sounds as loud as a drum – and also the small carving on one wall of what is unmistakeably a stegosaurus-like dinosaur. Quite where that came from I’ve yet to find out. There are several other temples near Ta Prohm, but we decided to forego them in order to return home and rest up for another early start. [More]