1. Wake with the paper boy.
When sunrise hits the shadows of Angkor Wat, it’s curtain rise on opening night.
An early start is your ticket to the light show, and also your first defense against an equatorial climate. If you start midday, you will sweat through two outfits in under two hours. Fact.
2. Get in with the out crowd.
Cambodian government surveys estimate that 57% of all visitors to the country tour Anchor Wat during their stay. Its neighbor, Ta Prohm, has seen similar crowds ever since Angelina Jolie staged a showdown there in Tomb Raider in 2001.
Though those two sanctuaries are highlights, there are over thirty other temples that welcome visitors. These less-frequently others are more likely to provide adventure. Off the beaten track, we stumbled upon deserted temples that looked like they had not been touched for centuries:
Mossy, crumbling temples tower as high as the centuries-old trees that shroud them. Peaceful faces of Hindu and Buddhist deities, carved from stone panels the size of a Wal-Mart, watch overhead. Sculpted elephant tusks jab from walls. It’s easy to imagine how explorers must have felt when happening upon the temples for the first time. I pretended I was Indiana Jones all day.
3. Ditch your guide.
Spend at least one day to explore sans guidance. Climb refrigerator-sized blocks that have fallen from temple walls. Sniff the fig trees. Lick up the sugary candy that the local children convince you to buy.
4. Enjoy a day off.
The wats are large. Even with a tuk tuk to convey you from one to the next, trekking within the buildings is literally breathtaking. Take a day in Siem Reap city to leisurely explore the artisan markets and silk-making factories and enjoy $3 massages.
The more famous wats have seen enough action to inspire many a Hollywood mega series. Let a personal guide tell you about it. Angkor’s certified tour guides attend 3 months of preparatory schooling and pass a series of rigorous exams, yet they charge only about $20/day.
Traveling in a small group (2-3 people) makes a huge difference. While large tours stick to wide passageways, our pack of three was able poke into munchkin-size rooms and sidle down shoulder-width alleys.
Our guide Munny (that’s Cambodian for “smart”) stood my height at 5’2” and smiled more than Mr. Rogers. He sported a starched yellow shirt and trim black visor and slacks. He reminded me of the Cheerio’s bee.
Within 5 minutes with Munny, we learned that he was in the midst of reading a book on the history of rice patties, just for fun. He’s the type of guy you wish you hadn’t asked about rice patties. But he’s also the type of guy you want to take you to Angkor Wat.
Scores female sculptures throughout the temples stand in perfectly in tact – except for the fact that their breasts have gone missing. Gaping holes and indentations indicate that the mounds have been carefully removed.
…Are statue boobs good luck?