One of the earliest things I learned when I left to live as a recluse in the Canadian wilderness was that nights out there are extremely cold even in Summer. I did my hermit experience over the warmest months of the year – June, July and August, but while it was nice and warm during the day, night time temperatures dropped below zero. And since I didn’t anticipate freezing temperatures, I neither had clothes, nor other equipment (sleeping bag, tent or stove) to keep me warm at night.
The lake I chose for my stay away from civilization was very remote, but – to a point – accessible by car. The nearest paved road to the lake was more than 100km away but invasive logging industry left a passage through the forest which I was able to use to get myself closer. Needless to say, this forestry equipment road was full of obstacles and rough terrain that’s normally only negotiable by heavy machinery with continuous tracks, but being a skilled driver and having been blessed with dry weather, I was able to safely traverse this incredibly challenging stretch of the road all the way to the lake.
The entire journey took me about 5 hours to complete, but I was only about 300 km north of Edmonton as the raven fly. I don’t know whether it was these extra 300 km north or the fact that there is no civilization anywhere near the lake, but as someone who spent countless Summer nights outside while living in Edmonton, I can tell you for sure that while it does get cold at night even in Summer, it doesn’t get below freezing. Not in Summer. But as I learned after my first night out in the wilderness (and each night thereafter), despite daytime temperatures reaching pleasant 29 °C, they were followed by night time drops to -3 °C.
5 hour long drive north of Edmonton and you’ll experience brief Winter every night even during Summer months. I personally think this had more to do with complete remoteness of the wilderness than its placement along the longitude. I have not done any scientific research on it, but high concentration of warm bloodied mammals who radiate body heat into the environment surely contributes to keeping the temperature in urban centers warmer than in the wilderness. And it’s not only body heat – you have heat generating car engines, thousands of computers, stoves used for cooking, machines used in factories, people bathing in hot water – so many things to keep the environment warmer… And on top of it all, you have pollution that keeps the heat trapped.
During my first month in the wilderness, it rained almost every afternoon. July was a little better and come August, there was hardly any rain. Sky was cloudless most of the days with sun baking down on me from wee morning hours until late night. Yet even in August, when daytime temperatures were in their 30’s, as soon as the sun was gone, the gauge started dropping rapidly and got to freezing just before the dawn.
Luckily, I had everything I needed to keep the fire going and there was plenty of dry firewood around, plus night only lasts a few hours a day this time of year so even though ill equipped, I kept myself warm-ish by utilizing natural resources. Regardless, it was a lesson I learned the hard way – remote Canadian wilderness can be very cold even in Summer months. Especially at night.
In order to survive, I had to swap night with the day. I got most of my sleep during the day when it was warm and I didn’t have to spend time feeding the fire and when the sun went down, I kept myself entertained by staring at the stars. It’s mind boggling how many of them there are and how clearly they can be seen when you’re away from city lights and pollution.
First night was hands down the worst but I got right down to building a primitive shelter that would tightly wrap around the bed of dry leaves the following day. I kept improving on my natural tent every day, but night time temperature drops were just so severe, I quickly realized that the only way to stay warm at night would be by building a shelter big enough to have a fire inside. If such shelter was well isolated, the fire would keep the interior warm even during freezing nights. One would still need to feed the fire, but pay back in feeling warm over night would be well worth it.
If you do like I did and take the Grand Circuit of Angkor in the counter-clockwise direction, you’ll get to Prasat Ta Som after visiting Pre Rup and East Mebon temples respectively. And if you start roughly at the same time as I did and do a thorough exploration of each ruin you pay a visit to, by the time you get to Ta Som the noon hour will be upon you and you’ll be sweating out of every pore on your body, including those you didn’t think contained any sweat glands. I provided myself with self propelled transportation, so when I reached Ta Som, I was ready to throw the clothes I was wearing in a garbage bin. Even my underwear was drenched in sweat to a point of drip marking my every step.
Ta Som Temple was built at the end of the 12th century by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII (the great builder king who also built Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei and Bayon, among others), which makes it one of the younger temples on the Grand Circuit. Because of its location (it is the most distant temple on the Grand Circuit, meaning that it is furthest away from other temples than any other ancient temple in the main area of Angkor) and great state of ruin, it doesn’t attract very many visitors. Being a single tier temple, Ta Som doesn’t have any stairways to climb making for a less challenging exploration however because of almost completely collapsed rooftops, the temple offers no real places to hide so a visitor gets pretty heavy beating by the merciless Cambodian sun rays.
There are three sets of walls surrounding the central sanctuary which in itself doesn’t look like much due to lacking restoration funds, however there are some well preserved carvings to be seen. Ta Som was one of the last bigger temples in Angkor Archaeological Park to be added to the World Monuments Fund (WMF) restoration program but the work so far has mostly only consisted of securing the structures to remove an immediate threat of collapse while visitors are around.
As is the case with many other Angkorian temples, centuries of neglect resulted in jungle overgrowth with huge fig and silk trees growing on top of the collapsing stone walls. The presence of the trees as well as an architectonic style of the temple which is similar to that of her more famous sibling has earned the temple a name of Mini Ta Prohm. Entrance gopuras in the outer enclosure are crowned with four faces similar to those found in Bayon. The main entrance gate used by everyone who visits Ta Som looked much like the South Gate of Angkor Thom, only smaller and more crumbled up. The state of Ta Som’s collapse seems to get worse with each enclosure you step within. Since outer gate still stands in a pretty decent shape, it is patrolled by aggressive child touts who wait in its shade for a sun beat tourist to walk right into their arms like a fly into a jar of honey.
Stone causeway which once served as a bridge over a moat is located inside the outer enclosure, rather than outside of it which implies that the outer wall was a later date addition to the temple. The causeway is decorated on both sides with serpents and Garudas, however they are broken into pieces and miss large parts which is the price the temples paid after greedy locals discovered that they could loot the temples and sell their ancient art for personal profit. What’s truly amazing is that despite looting and decay through neglect and time, many carvings and reliefs throughout Ta Som are in a remarkably good shape and are remarkably well carved for a late 12th century temple. These fine carvings of Apsaras and Devatas more than make up for a disappointing sight offered by a largely collapsed central sanctuary.
That Pre Rup gets no attention from visitors to Angkor Archaeological Park was evident right away from the fact that there were no actively operating touts. I found it strangely intriguing since Pre Rup is much larger and offers much more to see than many other temple ruins along the Grand Circuit, yet many of those other temples had stalls with souvenirs sold by the locals set up at their entrance gates – signifying that there must be traffic worthy of the effort going through this gate – but not at Pre Rup – again, signifying that the hassle of setting up the stalls and spending whole day there would not pay for itself as the temple simply did not attract any visitors. Worked for me – the less “competition” I have in form of other tourists getting in the view of my camera and the more peace I get in lack of pestering kids who aggressively follow you around and talk till your head explodes, the happier I am. Handling the breezeless heat of the sun at Angkor is difficult enough on its own so any chance to battle it without extra difficulties is an uplifting bonus…
The Only Pre Rup Tout
Still, when I reached Pre Rup, I was not alone. Little boy looking after his family’s water buffalo feeding off of a grassy plane surrounding Pre Rup became my company and even though all he could speak in English were two words, he instantly put them to use as soon as I made myself reachable: “One Dolla!” said the boy as his beaming big eyes twinkled with joy staring once at his stretched out palm and once at me. Since I took pictures of his water buffalo, he made me feel obliged to give him that dollar and kept following me around with his hand beg-stretched until I shelled out. That wasn’t necessarily a good idea as he felt encouraged and kept insisting on more. Giving a Cambodian a finger is a sure fire way to entice them into going after whole hand.
It was early morning yet and I had just started the day with Pre Rup as my first temple ahead of a whole slew of them scheduled to visit that day, but as was shown to me again – there is no supply of energy that can stand up to the power of the sun in Cambodia. I was dripping with sweat, whatever layer of sun block I had applied had long been washed away, my fabric hat looked like a rug pulled out of a sewage drain yet the day has just begun. Midday heat was still hours away so when I realized that the insanity I’m experiencing right now is in fact a mild morning, I instantly knew I was gonna have to grab at every opportunity to buy a coconut and a fresh bottle of water I would come across, if I were to make it. Plus of course there was this realization that I’m heat beat already and I didn’t even have to waste energy on battles with the touts. I did not look forward to what it was going to be like when the heat of the day reaches its peak and hoards of them vultures descend upon me to suck out every bit of life juice I may still have within. And with that, my money – of course.
Why Is Pre Rup So Rarely Visited?
While I was walking among the walls of Pre Rup, absorbing the heat these giant piles of stone radiate, I noticed several foreigners passing by in tuk tuks. Perhaps the demise of Pre Rup lays in the fact that the Grand Circuit road goes right by it and you only spot it in the last moment – especially if you’re in a tuk tuk or a taxi. Riding a bicycle comes with a major disadvantage of not being able to catch any breeze between the temples to have the sweat washed away, but since you move around slowly and don’t have to ask anyone to stop when you see something – not knowing yet whether it’s worth a stop or not – you get to see things people in tuk tuks don’t get to see. Pre Rup temple is one of them.
I can imagine the vast majority of tourists who passed by Pre Rup on a tuk tuk didn’t even notice it was there. They were too worn out from previous temples and were glad they were moving at a decent speed to catch some breeze to pay attention to some random pile of rocks alongside the road. And those who did notice the ruins were just too exhausted from the heat to even ask the tuk tuk driver what the heck it was they just passed by so they simply assumed it was nothing worthwhile and continued on until the tuk tuk driver stopped again. Don’t forget that Cambodia runs vastly on a commission based trade system. Tuk tuk drivers will not take you anywhere out of their own initiative unless there is a kick back in it for them. Regardless of how they present themselves to you, Cambodians never act helpful to help YOU – they are only interested in helping themselves. If what it takes is for them to paint with honey over your face, they will do it. If you can’t read between the lines (most people can’t), you will think Cambodians are the nicest, the most helpful people in the whole wild universe, even though behind your back, without you realizing, they are screwing you right in the arse with no lube.
Pre Rup Temple Mountain
Pre Rup is believed to be the last temple-mountain constructed by the Angkorian civilization. Nearby East Mebon was constructed following the same temple-mountain style but was built a few years prior. The construction works on Pre Rup temple commenced during the rule of Khmer king Rajendravarman II in 961 – after the capital city returned back to Angkor following its temporary move to Koh Ker between 921 and 944.
Scientists are still trying to figure out why Cambodians refer to Pre Rup as being a funerary temple given that none of the historical records suggest it being the case. The temple is known by its current name because that’s what modern day Cambodians call it as in their language it means “to turn the body”, which was a rite used during cremation.
Pre Rup is in a great state of ruin. Gopuras (entrance gates) can be found on each side of the outer enclosure, but it’s the best to take the one which has a dirt road leading to it from the main road. There isn’t much left of the gopura, however a guardian lion similar to those found at Bayon still stands at the crumbling stairway.
It took me two days to thoroughly complete the exploration of temples on the Petit Circuit of Angkor Archaeological Park. I bought a 7 day pass to have enough time to take on every single ruin within the park and even though I had originally wished I would have only spent one day on the Petit Circuit, it proved to be an impossible to task to carry out on the bicycle. The riding itself wasn’t an issue. Riding and exploring in this extreme heat was. And on top of this, a visitor to Angkor spends all of their energy fighting off ever so pushy touts.
Ways to Explore Angkor
There are no air-conditioned spaces at Angkor Archeological Park. But what’s worse – there is never any breeze there. Whether you’re out in the open, hiding under a tree or within the walls of an ancient ruins, there is no escaping the heat. It’s extreme, squeezes every bit of sweat out of you and you won’t get a break from it for a second. It’s like being in a sauna, except that you are also crisped by the sun and need to move. Granted, visitors have an option to hire the services of a driver with an air conditioned car, or join an organized tour that drives around in an air conditioned bus, but these are for people who have deep pockets and no sense of adventure.
A good middle ground is to go in a tuk tuk. Compared to taxis and organized tours, tuk tuks are cheaper and more typical of Cambodia affording a visitor an experience unique to this part of the world. Tuk tuks are not air conditioned, as a matter of fact they are not even enclosed, but they are roofed offering blockage from the intense sun and when on the move, they provide the feeling of breeze to wash away the sweat and cool down the skin. One of the biggest advantages of taking on Angkor temples in a tuk tuk or a taxi is the possibility to have the driver drop you off at one entrance of a temple and pick you up at the one on the opposite side.
Some Angkor temples are fairly large and take quite a bit to fully explore. You would normally enter using one of the main entrances and as you get across, you turn up at the exit on the opposite side of the exterior enclosure. If you hired a tuk tuk or a taxi, the driver would know that and would drive to the exit on the opposite side to wait for you there after dropping you off at the entrance. However if you go exploring Angkor on a bicycle – like me – once you have covered whole temple and turn up at the exit on the opposite side of it, then you have several hundred meters to go back through the maze of scorching hot fallen rocks and extremely aggressive child touts.
The latter makes an already exhausting task an unbearable one. And they know it. They count on the fact that you will be so exhausted by the exposure to the sun, you will not have any power left to fight their endless pressure off. They will be in your face start to finish and there seems to be an eternal supply of them throughout Angkor. Even if you go through unseemly hustle of explaining that you cannot buy their postcard, their bracelet, their t-shirt or whatever it is they want you to buy, and put your whole self into making it your final word, as soon as you’ve exhausted yourself physically and mentally dealing with this one tout, you’ll have a whole new gang of them running towards you and jumping down your throat cause now you’re at the end with your life-juices and for them it’s the opportunity to force you into buying their junk simply because you can no longer fight them off.
As a bicyclist, I got the worst of it. I got no escape from the heat because unlike people riding a tuk tuk, I was unable to go as fast as they do to catch any real breeze that would help wash away the sweat, plus in order to move at all I had to spend my own energy all the while being fully exposed to the sun. Furthermore, exploring each temple meant locking the bicycle at the entrance, battling the touts operating outside of the temple, then touts operating inside, having them bother me on each and every step while slowly progressing towards the far end which once reached, I had to turn around and do the same distance all the way back, all the while battling the same touts again, only in reverse order because if they were unable to trick me into getting my money the first time, now they have a second chance and be more aggressive than the first time since now I’d be increasingly more tired than I was before.
Touts of Angkor
It is common for Angkor touts to use verbal traps as their last resort. Usually, if despite your exhaustion you manage to beat them off and they have no option but to leave you alone (because you’re entering other tout’s territory), they do it by saying something like: “OK, on the way back then. ” Then when they see you going back, they will take their verbal trap and use it against you by stating that “you promised” to buy from them later. It matters not that you didn’t promise a damn thing. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t say a word to begin with. They will make you feel obliged and if that fails, they will resort to their favorite part – calling you names. Even if their total English vocabulary consists of mere 5 words, “stingy” is guaranteed to be one of them. And once they’ve exhausted all English words they know will offend you, then they will proceed with mockery in Cambodian, ensuring you can hear that they are talking about you as they laugh and point fingers knowing you can’t respond. It definitely is exhausting to spend a day in an environment as hostile as this.
Grand Circle Touts
But it wasn’t until I started off my third day at Angkor and set out to cover the Grand Circuit when I realized that it does in fact get worse. See, vast majority of foreigners who visit Angkor Archaeological Park will only get a daily pass. Whatever they get covered within a day will be enough for them. It truly is way too hot even if you get to escape into an air-conditioned bus between the temples. As a result, 80% or more visitors to Angkor never make it to any temple outside of the Petit Circuit, with the exception of Banteay Srei which is a popular citadel some 25 kilometers north of the main temple complex.
Dealing with touts along the Petit Circuit was brutal, yet they get a pile of foreigners served to them every day. Unlike them, touts operating at temples on the Grand Circuit only get a sporadic foreigner every here and there. Virtually every temple on the Grand Circuit I visited on my third day at Angkor was without any other foreigners at the time of my visit. I was the first and only foreigner of the day so you can bet on it that when I showed up, they weren’t gonna let me go easily. The Petit Circuit touts were beyond unbearable, but compared to the ones on the Grand Circuit, they were a bunch of relaxed, easy going peeps.
It was also on the Grand Circuit where I had fake orphanage kids attempt to steal my bicycle. While riding around the Petit Circuit, I only used the lock I had to lock the wheel against the bicycle’s frame, because there was always so much traffic at any given minute, it would be difficult to steal a bicycle without someone noticing. Plus there are no racks or poles or anything of sorts you could possibly lock your bike against anyway so I did all I could.
But on the Grand Circuit it was different. These temples were quiet, only touts who operate at each of these every day were around and they work together as a gang so when a foreigner comes, they will support each other to make their purpose of separating foreigners from their valuables successful. Luckily for me, my guardian angel was around that day so after locking my bike against itself at one of the temples and walking inside, I got this strange feeling in the gut and instead of continuing with the temple, I returned back to look for a tree even if it required me to walk an extra distance back to the temple, but to have the bike locked against something stationary rather than leaving it loose just like that. And I just got back in a nick of time to catch the kids who gave me a real hard time demanding money for their “orphanage” running away carrying my bike. Their theft attempt was successfully foiled thanks to the hint from the guardian angel.
Temples on the Grand Circuit of Angkor
The reason why so few people take on Grand Circuit is that all of the most famous and most interesting temples are on the Petit Circle. Each other temple is less impressive and usually in greater state of despair so for most, once you have seen the temples on the Petit Circuit, you have seen them all. From that point on it’s just another pile of old rocks that looks the same way a pile of rocked they had seen before did. It worked for me because roads were quiet so I didn’t have to ride in ditches to avoid being run over by speeding buses and it was possible to take pictures without swarms of weirdly dressed foreigners getting in my view. The following is the list of temples from the Grand Circuit I had on my radar for the day:
Prasat Neak Leang
Angkor Thom North Gate
I started my Grand Circle tour properly – in a counter-clockwise direction after learning it the hard way with the Petit Circuit. I also made an emergency stop at Banteay Kdei to meet with my new friends and have a coconut for energy before a long and tiring day. If all was to go well, I would also get a chance to make an emergency stop at Angkor Wat for one more coconut – the last one of the day – with my also new friends who operate there on my way back home. And here I was, taking on the Grand Circuit of Angkor.
Ta Prohm Temple is an eye candy for a photographer. To King Jayavarman VII, Ta Prohm was a centerpiece of his masterplan to restore Khmer empire to a never before seen splendour after it was reclaimed from Cham invaders; to me, Ta Prohm was a centerpiece of my photography adventures at Angkor Archaeological Park. Even though Ta Prohm was my favourite Angkorian era temple, I have only visited it once and all I could capture in rather tricky lighting conditions I had available during my visit is in this photo gallery.
Just as any other day in Cambodia, it was extremely hot and humid on the day I got to Ta Prohm so excessive sweating and subsequent heat exhaustion were inevitable. I was looking forward to taking pictures of Ta Prohm but much of the time spent at the temple was spent hiding in a shade of large trees in an effort to escape the frying power of the intense Cambodian sun. There is no such thing as catching a cooling breeze anywhere at Angkor so all you are left with is inescapable heat. High on natural energy from uplifting coconut water I got from the girls at the Banteay Kdei temple, but unceasingly dripping sweat out of every single pore on my skin, I crisscrossed the temple grounds back and forth to not miss a single opportunity for a perfect picture.
It was early afternoon when I got to Ta Prohm so the sun was right above our heads not causing any backlight no matter which way I turned to take a picture (unlike when I first got to Angkor Wat), however because the sun was super intense and because there’s a pretty elaborate maze of tree branches above Ta Prohm, many cool spots of the temple were subjected to severe contrasts caused by parts being in the sun, while other parts were in the shade. It was rather difficult trying to balance it out so neither highlights are too bright nor shadows too dark but I tried my best.
My first visit to Cambodia was in September – in the middle of rainy season. I wasn’t sure what to expect and thought that when it starts raining in the beginning of June, it doesn’t stop until the end of October. Luckily, this was not the case and as it turned out, there was advantage to visiting Angkor in rainy season. I wasn’t able to make that comparison until I made my follow up visit in April and spent a couple of weeks in the country during dry season, but it was pretty obvious.
From strictly photographer’s point of view, the temples of Angkor gain rich hue during rainy season because the stones are frequently bombarded by heavy torrential downpours. This makes the temples look more saturated (richer in density – if you will) than when the stones are parched dry by the intense sun rays of dry season. To put it bluntly – thanks to super high humidity which gives ancient stones richer shades, temples of Angkor look better in rainy season than they do in dry season. Plus all of the trees that grow along the temple walls look greener and livelier too.
Besides, it doesn’t rain nowhere near as much as you would think it does in rainy season. After 3 months spent in Cambodia during rainy season, I noticed that rain patterns are not frequent enough to severely disrupt your plans. It hardly ever rained for more than one day straight. One rainy day is usually followed by four or five sunny days when sky is cloudless and roads are dry. Then you would get some rain, which would typically be restricted to an afternoon downpour, but that would again be followed by a sequence of several rainless days. Make no mistake, though – the afternoon downpours are so heavy, they can fill up all ditches and bury the streets in a foot deep pool of water within a couple of hours.
Sometime it would rain whole night and the following day would be rather gloomy and overcast, but seeing continuous rain for an extended period of time is unusual. As a matter of fact, the number of sunny days you’ll get in rainy season will be about 4 times as high as the number of rainy days. Super high humidity with insanely intense sun will make for a sweaty stay, but the pictures will look awesome. There’s no reason to feel sketchy about visiting Angkor in rainy season. It really doesn’t rain all that much but you will catch the temple at their best. And that in my eyes gives visits to Angkor in rainy season an advantage.
My first day at Angkor by bicycle taught me some valuable lessons and showed me what real Angkor is really like. It is not in my nature to sugar coat anything so I’ll say it how it really is. First of all, if you are into ancient architecture and find fascination with ancient Khmer civilization that was on top of the game in its time but then mysteriously vanished, then Angkor will blow your mind. However if you are not, every temple you visit after the first one will look the same.
I’m am used to riding long distances every day in all types of weather, facing the harshest of elements, but Cambodian heat is far more intense than heat of any other country I have previously visited. I spent 6 months on various islands of the Caribbean using bicycle as my sole means of transportation yet even though I was in the tropical climates with intense heat, it was nothing compared to Cambodia.
I met a guy from Vancouver, Canada who came to Cambodia from Indonesia and even though Indonesia is directly on the equator while Cambodia is much further north, he said Indonesia was just as hot, but Cambodian sun was way more intense.
An English fellow I met purchased a three day pass to Angkor and rented an air conditioned car to drive him from one temple to another so he got regular breaks from the sun and the heat yet he said he couldn’t do any more of it after one day. The heat was just way too intense to handle after he got out of the air-conned car space.
Cambodian sun will suck all energy right out of you within minutes, but there are far bigger dangers in and around Angkor that are far more difficult to deal with. Cambodian touts rely heavily on the sun which as I had mentioned sucks life right out of people leaving them completely burnt out after just a few minutes of exposure to it. The touts know that anyone who’s this exhausted can’t be 100% alert 100% of the time so they keep attacking all tourists with relentless intensity. All tourists are subjected to constant pressure from the locals so it’s only a question of time before one of them succeeds in taking advantage. If you’re lucky, it will only be money you will lose.
Combination of an extremely intense sun with inescapable heat wears everyone down way too much but constant pressure from the touts will force you to waste that little bit of energy you still have left on keeping them away. There is an endless supply of them. Once you shook one of them off, another three dozen will jump down your neck and won’t leave you alone no matter what you do. After they have pushed you to a point at which you believe it couldn’t get any worse, you will get a fresh score of them who will be twice as aggressive as the ones before. There is absolutely no escaping them and to constantly fight them off is extremely exhausting.
On top of touts and scam artists whose life purpose is to rip people off, Angkor is also full of extremely dangerous, violent criminals. Thousands of them possess weapons and explosive they’ve owned since the days of Khmer Rouge. The owners are for the most part former Khmer Rouge killing machines recruited as young teenagers to kill people on daily basis. They are used to drawing blood and seeing people die by their hand. They’ve been doing that since they were 14 and always got away with it. Little has changed since Khmer Rouge was suppressed. New, more dangerous form of it rules Cambodia today but for you as a foreigner, the most disconcerting part are the killing recruits who are nowadays in their forties and fifties and are as blood thirsty as they were when they were enlisted to kill.
The dangers of roaming through Angkor don’t end with former Khmer Rouge killing machines. Every Cambodian knows darn well that no crime against foreigners is ever investigated so all it would take it to butcher one with a machete and let them rot in the middle of the jungle where they will never ever be found. After one of those Cambodians got you, that will be the last time anyone has ever heard of you. Stray dogs will appreciate your maggoty flesh as they get treated like shit and are never fed by their masters so a little feast of this sort will surely do them good. BTW, Mahatma Gandhi once said that “you can judge a society by the way it treats its animals”. If that is true, than Cambodians are some of the most horrible people in the world. If you ever come to Cambodia, just take notice of how locals treat their animals and you still can breathe after it, remember the quote and draw your own conclusions.
Despite obvious dangers, most visitors to Angkor will not experience problems as Angkor sees thousands of foreign visitors every day making violent crime in most areas difficult. That being said, wandering off populated areas or exploring temples solo is a very risky business. Yet it gets far worse if you are a girl. Cambodia is a rape capital of the world. Many, many and then some girls were raped in less frequented temples and none of it was investigated. Rape itself is the worst experience a girl could ask for during her travels, but getting raped in Cambodia also comes with additional, complimentary present – HIV!
None of the local girls dare to wander around after dark. They all lock up in their homes and always make sure a male they can trust, such as their brother is nearby because rape hungry Cambodians won’t stop at closed doors. Just about every Cambodian girl you ever get a chance to talk to has either already been raped or came this close to it. Shockingly, true Cambodian won’t shy away from any girl, regardless how young. Sexual abuse of children by Cambodian males is an every day thing and that also involves children who can’t even speak or talk yet.
When you are in Cambodia, it’s not about whether you will be a victim of crime, it’s about when. If you are lucky, you will come and leave before someone pulls it on you. That by no means that you only met nice people. That simply means that you didn’t give them a chance to attack you. If you keep your eyes open, you will see how just about every Cambodian will check you out closely, carefully estimating what the content of your pocket could be and how difficult it would be to gain control of it. They are extremely skilled in thievery and anyone whose observant enough will notice how they always check you thoroughly out for what could be stolen, even if it will not always lead to an attempt to steal. Intentions are undeniable, though.
Because Angkor is so overrun with tourists, you will be a difficult target for most fishy Cambodians even though they will relentlessly wait for their moment. This is the reason why most tourists get out of Cambodia unharmed. Many of them lack the ability to read people or are simply too dumbed down to see the obvious but to their credit, they will come back from Cambodia with naught but happy memories. Ignorance truly is a bliss. Perhaps the key to enjoying your stay in otherwise truly dangerous Cambodia is to party it out completely oblivious to dangers as unless you try to be an explorer, the likelihood of something bad happening to you is reasonably low.
However – and that’s a BIG however… even though you may avoid being a victim of violent crime Cambodia is so riddled with, there is one thing you will not avoid not matter what – getting killed in a traffic accident.
Cambodians are the worst drivers in the world with virtually no traffic rules in place (or enforced) whatsoever. Their desire to compensate for their hurting egos takes flight when they sit behind the wheel of a motorcycle or a car. It makes them feel empowered so they honk horns all the time to let everyone know that their macho ego is coming through and force themselves in with no respect for bicyclists or pedestrians. Yes, Cambodia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, yet despite of all that, their drivers are so awful you are in even greater danger from being killed by a vehicle each time you step outside the room than by a blood thirsty Khmer Rouge killing machine. Just imagine how horrible the road situation must be if it’s more dangerous than their uncontrolled guns and explosives possessed by the killing machines who have been killing since their early teens. This is what real Angkor is really like. Being a photographer and a journalist makes me to walk around with my eyes open. Sometimes I wish I was different so I could live with blissful ignorance, completely oblivious to all the dangers a countries like Cambodia represents. I’d come and leave and would just write about warm locals who were extremely nice to me, because I didn’t see that they were faking it to get money off of me. I’d write about helpful locals who showed me hidden treasures because I didn’t see they were setting me up but their plan was busted last minute by a group of Japanese guided tourists who showed up at what could have been the crime scene had they not been there.
Right across the road from Thommanon is a small temple known as Chau Say Thevoda. Similar in construction and floor plan to Thommanon, Chau Say Thevoda appears to be a neglected sister of her well preserved sibling to the north but fact of a matter is, Thommanon was built much earlier than Chau Say Thevoda.
When Thommanon and Chau Say Thevoda were initially discovered, it was believed that they were built to be a pair. Their location on each side of the road just outside of the Victory Gate made it seem as though they were planned to line the Victory Way, but neither is true. Victory Gate as well as much of Angkor Thom were built much later.
Compared to Thommanon, Chau Say Thevoda is in desolate state but restoration works are in progress so the temple is slowly regaining its original shape. As is the case with most other temples, Chau Say Thevoda faces east with east gopura (entrance gate) being the biggest and most elaborate. Even though Chau Say Thevoda is basically identical to Thommanon, it’s slightly smaller and has gopuras on each of the walls (Thommanon only has east and west gopuras, south and north walls have holes as though gateways were intended, but were never finalized). Unlike Thommanon, Chau Say Thevoda has two (not one) libraries – one in the south-east and one in the north-east corner.
The most obvious difference between Thommanon and Chau Say Thevoda is the “stone bridge” – a causeway on pillars which may have once served as the means of access to the temple from the Siem Reap River. This causeway stretches on for quite a bit and if it weren’t for money hungry Cambodians who were flocking around to harass the crap out of me until I have eventually given in and gave them all my money, I would have probably climbed on it to see how far it leads.
Mentally and physically exhausted, I have made Chau Say Thevoda my last temple on the small circuit and rode back through Angkor Thom to buy one more coconut from my new friends at Angkor Wat. Every thread on every bit of garment I was wearing was sogged in sweat. My skin was on fire from exposure to an insanely intense Cambodian sun and I simply had no more strength left to resist the relentless touts and other scam artists who prey on exhausted tourists as they become easy targets. I wanted to finish the small circuit in one day, but this was much tougher a task than it seemed. I was physically fit and in good shape to cover the distance on a bicycle but the sun of Cambodia is a force that’s not to be taken lightly. Riding though Angkor is easy – roads are flat with virtually no hills to scale, but the heat is more than devastating.
Thommanon is a small, but nicely preserved temple from early 12th century. Built during the reign of king Suryavarman II (founder of Angkor Wat), Thommanon is just outside of Victory Gate on the north side of the Victory causeway but it stood there long before both Victory Gate and the causeway through it were built.
Thommanon is a rather small, but very elegant temple covered with admirable, fine carvings. Much of the outer enclosure is gone, but the temple was clearly built to face the east, even though as I was coming from the south it seemed as if the main entrance was facing this way. Lacking outer wall also gave an impression that individual parts of the temple were standalone, isolated buildings. They are not.
Central sanctuary of Thommanon has a lotus shaped tower similar to that of Angkor Wat (built by the same king – Suryavarman II). Short corridor connects the central tower with mandapa, an antechamber. West and east gopuras (entrance gates) are still standing, but north and south do not exist. It is possible that even though they were intended, they were never built. The gap in the base of the wall suggests that the empty space was left to put the gopura there, but the plan was probably never carried out. The moat that once surrounded Thommanon is now dry and virtually non existent.
Thommanon has a rather high base with main floor being 2.5 meters above ground. Main entrance is obviously on the east, however each cardinal point has a staircase with porch and fake entrance of its own. Even though risky, it is possible to get inside through any of those fake entrance but expect lazy locals who don’t go to work and just kill time sitting around on the stairs and porches staring at you and making fun if you attempt to get in through anywhere but the main entrance.
Even though by the time I got to visit Angkor Wat I had already been in Cambodia for over a week, it was at Thommanon where I made a rookie mistake of thinking that there is such a thing as friendly local in Cambodia who is simply nice to you because they want you to have nice memory of their country. Unfortunately, such people don’t exist in Cambodia or are an extremely rare breed trampled and pushed aside by thousands of greedy scam artists.
Frustrated real good by having been harassed by extremely aggressive touts whole day, I kept ignoring every local who came to talk to me. I knew that they all want money and nothing but money. They are too lazy to go to work and abusing tourists doesn’t require manual work so why would they even bother working? Yet in spite of all that, when a local guy approached me and told me about a nice carving on the opposite side I may have missed, I still ignored, but listened with one ear opened.
He retained this very friendly tone of voice and talked to me as if he would like to be friends. I continued suspecting something fishy so I followed my own path and ignored him for the most part but he stuck by me telling me more about the Thommanon temple and asking questions about where I was from and when I came to Cambodia so eventually it seemed as though he was a nice guy who was just excited to meet a foreigner to get a chance to exercise some of his English.
What a foolish thing of me to think it was the case. Even though I vastly ignored everything he told me about the temple and only responded politely to questions, as I was leaving the temple he insisted that I pay him for his guiding services. I told him I didn’t have any money on me so if he said up front that this is what he wanted, I could have saved him from hassle but he used sneaky tactics to stick with me and since I didn’t tell him off right away, to him it meant I needed to pay him money.
Needless to say, confrontation was imminent as Cambodians are extremely pugnacious but luckily I had my bicycle with me so I mounted it and quickly rode off. Another temple called Chau Say Thevoda is just on the opposite side of the road from Thommanon and it looked as though this was the reign of a completely different set of touts so he didn’t follow. Apparently, even Cambodians have rules. It’s shocking, but rules among themselves dictate which zone you don’t stick your nose into because that’s where other touts operate and they don’t stick their nose into your zone.
I was physically and mentally exhausted. The heat from the non compromising sun was taking its tall. I needed another coconut and I really needed a break from the touts who knew very well how exhausting the sun was and how easy it could be used against weary tourists. I went through the stalls by Thommanon when tout who demanding money got off sight to find one that will not try to overcharge me for a coconut and took 30 minutes break from the sun sipping on this refreshing beverage.
I was only meters away from Chau Say Thevoda and it looked like just a small ruin, but I couldn’t do it anymore. I have severely underestimated the aggressive nature of Cambodian touts and devastating heat of Cambodian sun. I wanted to finish the small circuit, but I had no physical nor mental energy left. Physical energy was sucked out by the merciless sun, mental by the merciless scam artists and touts that followed me along on every step not giving me a minute of peace.
Phimeanakas was the state temple of king Suryavarman I. It was built in late 10th to early 11th centuries which means it was at its location long before the royal city of Angkor Thom was built around it. When king Jayavarman VII had the plan for Angkor Thom laid out, he made Phimeanakas part of his Royal Palace area. Because none of the carvings on Phimeanakas survived, this temple is artistically characterless, however it’s easily scalable and provides interesting views from the top. Perhaps when Baphuon is restored and made accessible by public, the views from up there will be even better, but for now the top of Phimeanakas is the highest you can get at Angkor Thom.
Yes I did climb on top of Phimeanakas and yes it was not particularly easy. The climb itself is not too bad, the western side of the temple (the back of it) has a wooden stairway built alongside the original stone stairway to make for an easier ascend but as is the case of everywhere in Cambodia, it’s not the climb that’ll destroy you, it’s the heat. A few minutes climb up the steep staircase directly exposed to the dilapidating sun will wear you down like a marathon run. The sun will suck out the last drop of energy you had in your body by the time you made it through the initial few steps. Each time you take a breather, it will only get worse. And as if the extreme heat from the sun was not enough, the temple blocks radiate it back at you from below giving you absolutely no way to escape the destructive heat.
Reaching the summit doesn’t make it any better. There is nowhere to escape the heat, only the rays of the sun within the blocks of stone where it seems to be hotter than in direct sunshine. The feeling of reaching the top is satisfying even though you will be entirely out of juice. The sanctuary on top is currently empty but was likely used to house a divinity while the temple was in use. According to the Khmer legend, Phimeanakas was crowned with the golden tower within which dwelt a nine-headed naga serpent which transformed into a woman every night. The king was obliged to make love with the serpent every night or else the kingdom would fall into ruin. I guess one of the kings failed in the task as once powerful Angkorian kingdom did eventually fall into ruin.