Sunday, May 31, 2009

Angkor Wat: The Tourist Escape Plan

Me at Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat: The Temple of Temples

My tour guide was rattling off more boring statistics about temples when I stole a glance at my watch. 11:00 A.M. Maybe . . .

"So we go on to Angkor Wat?" Samnang asked.

"No, take me to lunch," I said.

"Eh?" He checked his watch. "But it is only eleven o' clock!"

"I know, it's okay."

Samnang turned to the tuk-tuk driver and translated my request into Khmer. The driver nodded and steered the tuk-tuk toward restaurant row.

My day in the ancient city of Angkor had not started well. My guide took me to several lesser temples first, saving Angkor Wat for last. Those temples had been clogged with tourists. I couldn't avoid shuffling along slowly behind everyone else, struggling to frame the other people out of my photos. Angkor Wat was the main temple, and it probably was going to be the worst for crowds. How could I get out of this?

Then I had a brainstorm: take an early lunch.

Our tuk-tuk pulled up in front of a restaurant. The guide said he'd wait for me outside with the driver. As I rolled into the restaurant, I took a look around. Empty of people. I found a waitress and ordered some food. She said it might take a little longer to cook. I was the first customer and they hadn't warmed up the oven yet. No problem.

By the time I finished my meal, shortly after twelve o' clock, the restaurant was packed with travelers. Time to move.

I ran out to the tuk-tuk. "Angkor Wat. Now!" The driver fumbled on his helmet and the guide and I jumped in. He revved up and we roared off in the direction of the famous temple.

"It is lunchtime, so there will be very few tourists at Angkor Wat," Samnang remarked.

"That's the plan!" I said.

"Ah!" he said, understanding. "You should have the temple all to yourself until 2:30 p.m."


Sampang aided my effort by having the driver drop us off near the back entrance of Angkor Wat. As we walked up, I was struck by the serenity and silence. The place really was deserted, except for the forest we passed through. Glimpses of Angkor teased us. The feeling of discovery was exciting.

Back entrance of Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat through the back door

We stopped by a flimsy wooden fence and chatted a bit. It was unreal, having a casual conversation with one of the great wonders of the world just beyond us.

Finally, I started exploring inside. Turns out Angkor Wat wasn't empty after all. Cambodians were celebrating their Khmer New Year by burning joss sticks and praying to Buddha. Their holiday occured in April at the same time as the water-splashing festival (songkran) in Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. Vietnamese New Year (Tet) is different in that it followed China's, usually happening in January or February.

Cambodians praying

I couldn't believe my luck: not only was I dodging tourists, I was also getting to see locals carrying out their traditions too.


All this came at a high cost ot my health. Sampang warned me that I was visiting Angkor Wat during the hottest month of the year (April) and at the hottest time of the day. I sweated my water weight several times over. It got really bad when the metal on my camera burned my fingers, because it absorbed the sun's heat. I thought my camera would overheat and break down.

Although Angkor Wat was certainly massive and spectacular, I wasn't as awed as I should have been. Probably because I wasn't a temple virgin anymore, having been to both Bagan and Sukhothai. Does that make me a temple slut?

One reason I was disillusioned was that Angkor Wat had more visible damage than other temple complexes I'd seen. Bagan and Sukhothai were relatively well-preserved. Angkor Wat, on the other hand, showed the scars of generations of looting and vandalism.

Vandalized Buddha statues
Buddhas get no respect

Samnang explained that wars with Siam (old name of Thailand), French colonization, Japanese occupation, and Vietnamese invasion all had an impact on Angkor Wat. Buddha heads were cut off, whole statues carted away, embedded jewels dug out of walls, etc. Most treasures went on the black market in Thailand and ended up in the homes of wealthy private collectors.

I became fascinated by the behind-the-scenes facts Samnang told me. A Korean hotel company operated Angkor Wat (Sokha Hotel Co. Ltd.), ran the ticket booths and other administration. A veritable United Nations of archeological groups handled restoration for the temples. Teams from Japan, China, India, and France had all sent experts to aid the effort. For more information, see this Los Angeles Times article, Spirit Reset in Stone.

Sadly, the freedom from tourists didn't last. I had to see the obligatory sunset from a hill. Seemed like every famous temple demanded you stay until sunset. This was what I saw.

Crowds waiting to see sunset
Sunset at Angkor Wat: tourist hell

Even worse, Angkor Wat was a tiny speck far away in the distance! At first, I couldn't even find it. I walked around the hill in a circle, looking out, and saw nothing. Then a local pointed out Angkor Wat to me. (This shot was taken with maximum zoom)

Hilltop view of Angkor Wat

I was like, "That's it?! That's so bullshit!" Totally not as impressive as the vast landscape of temple ruins in Bagan:

Bagan, now that's a real sunset. (No zoom necessary)

Overall, Angkor Wat is definitely a must-see. But I couldn't help feeling disappointed. I did still have high hopes for the last two temple complexes on my list, but they were in another country.

Lake to the side of Angkor Wat

Inside Information

Visas: Most Westerners can get 30-day visas on arrival. Bring US$20 and one passport-sized photo.


Flights arrive at the startlingly modern Angkor International Airport. For a third-world country, the airport is amazingly luxurious, tastefully decorated with Khmer sculptures. It looks more like a nice museum than an airport.

Many hotels will arrange to pick you up if you book in advance. Just make sure to include your flight number and arrival time with your online reservation. Otherwise, you can negotiate with a tuk-tuk driver.


Cambodia almost universally uses U.S. dollars for any transactions with tourists. Even the ATMs dispense U.S. dollars, so it's a good place to get some if you're running low on hard cash.

Don't bother exchanging money for Khmer riels. You'll get what you need when you receive change. Spend all your riel before you leave Cambodia. Just like other former Indochina countries like Laos and Vietnam, you can't exchange that money outside of the country.

Vietnam and Myanmar also have dual-currency systems. This is where they use U.S. dollars for big travel expenses like hotels and air tickets, and local currency for restaurants and markets. But in Cambodia, everything is paid with U.S. dollars.

Where to stay

I stayed at Mandalay Inn. My room was nice and the service was friendly. For dorms, go to Siem Reap Hostel.

What to do

The main attraction are the temples of Angkor. Angkor is the name of the complex of temples, Angkor Wat is the main temple. You can do them as a tour, rent a bicycle or hire a tuk-tuk for the day. For seeing temples, I've always hired a driver, it's the most convenient way to get around.

Where to party

Pub Street is my favorite backpacker ghetto in Southeast Asia (I can't stand Khao San Road in Bangkok). Restaurants are spacious, 2-story French-style shophouses, stylishly designed and serve good food at reasonable prices. As a bonus, there are street food stalls at one end of the road if you want something cheaper and local. Best of both worlds in one place.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Chiang Mai: Choose Your Own Adventure

Riding at the Mae Taeng Elephant Farm
On the move at Mae Taeng Elephant Park

"The complete backpacker package" is how my Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget describes the northern Thai city. Couldn't be more apt. Chiang Mai has temples for culture vultures, markets for bargain hunters and nightlife for partiers.

But Chiang Mai is more of a place to do stuff, not see stuff. This became
apparent when I saw the stacks of brochures all over the place. Travel
agencies and guesthouses have binders as thick as phone books about
the tours they offer.

They describe every kind of activity you could imagine: jungle trekking, elephant riding, river rafting, even more shockingly modern pursuits, like go-cart racing and paintball! Looking around at all the travel agencies, guesthouses and tour companies, I could see what Luang Prabang in Laos was trying to become.

Chiang Mai is a fun factory that could keep a traveler busy for months. As much stuff as I did, it was only a fraction of what was available. Browsing through those binders reminded me of the Choose Your Own Adventure books I read as a kid. Except for real.

Here are some of my adventures:

Maria and Manuel from Spain
Bamboo river rafting with Maria and Manuel (Spain)

Ox cart riding

Doi Suthep temple

I've softened my stance on tours. I used to be militantly against any and all tours. But now I just hate package tours, where a company controls your entire trip. Day-long tours to visit attractions are fine. Convenient in that they arrange transportation and pick you up at your hotel.

Make sure you're ready to go 15-20 minutes before the tour is scheduled to start. Every time I've done a tour, the guide came to my hotel early. If they say the tour starts at 10:00 A.M., expect them to come around 9:45 A.M. The tour company has to collect guests from different hotels so they can depart from the city on time.

There were a few close calls when I was caught with my pants down--hurrying to finish up my business with the toilet before rushing out to the tour van!

Tours are also good for meeting people. Accommodation in Southeast Asia is so cheap that I often stay in hotels. Great for privacy, but harder to meet people than if I stayed in a hostel. So tours are a good way to socialize.

In places that have so many tour companies, it can be hard to choose one. I think if you like your hotel, it's pretty safe to book tours through them. If you're staying in a backpacker-style place, their tours will probably have younger travelers as well.

Chiang Mai felt like backpacker central. The city's main draw is tourism, it doesn't have a variety of industries like Bangkok. This will sound blasphemous, but I think of Bangkok as being more Thai than Chiang Mai. Yes, Bangkok's more modern, but it didn't seem completely devoted to chasing tourist dollars like Chiang Mai. I've heard if you want to sample traditional Thai life, check out Isaan.

Being a university town, there's a great youthful energy to the place. Cultural classes are as popular as outdoor activities. You can study the language, Thai cooking and many other things.

I found this out when I was having a drink at Rooftop Bar. I met a group of Japanese girls at the table next to mine. After exchanging introductions, we got to talking. Turned out they were all in Chiang Mai to study.

Miho, Keiko and Mayumi from Japan
Miho, Keiko and Mayumi (Japan)

"What are you studying?" I asked.

"We study Thai massage," Keiko said. She explained they were training to be physical therapists, and wanted to learn some foreign techniques.

Later, we talked about mistaken identity. Everywhere I went, I got mistaken for a local person. One of my tour guides was surprised to see me when she picked me up at a hotel. Why would a Thai person want to take a tour?

"Sometimes people think I'm Thai," I said. "How about you guys? Do people ever think you're Thai?"

Keiko translated my questions for the others. They answered. She said sadly, "No, people always know we are Japanese."

Inside Information

Getting there

By train: Most travelers go to Chiang Mai via overnight train from Bangkok.
It's a really long ride if you go by bus.

Buy the train tickets at Bangkok's Hualamphong Railway Station. Avoid the
smiling "information officials" who will try to get you to buy train tickets
from the travel agencies. They'll charge you unnecessary commission fees.

The official ticket clerks in the glass booths will speak enough English to
handle a transaction. If you want a sleeper berth, buy your ticket a couple
of days in advance. They sell out quickly.

If you're really keen on getting to Chiang Mai as soon as you land from overseas, you can take airport bus AE4 straight from Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport to Hualamphong station.

You might find yourself stuck in Bangkok overnight if all the sleeper tickets are sold out. In that case, you can go to The Train Inn, which is very close to the station. Signs outside the train station will you guide you there.

Here's the rough timetable for the two most convenient trains from Bangkok
to Chiang Mai. Double-check with the ticket clerk before you buy, or with
the State Railway of Thailand. Chiang Mai is on the Northern Line.

No. 13 Special Express Train
Depart: 7:35 P.M.
Arrive: 9:45 A.M. next day
Duration: 14 hours
air-conditioning, no fans
Cost upper/lower bunk: 791 baht / 881 baht

No. 110 Rapid Train
Depart 10:00 P.M.
Arrive 12:45 P.M. next day
fan-cooled, no air-conditioning
Duration: 14 hours 45 minutes
Cost upper/lower bunk: 531 baht / 581 baht

Where to stay

CM Blue House
has nice rooms at reasonable prices. It's where I stayed. Julie Guesthouse and Daret's House are popular backpacker places. Beware of guesthouses that have really cheap rooms. They're more likely to pressure you to book tours through them.

What to do

Any guesthouse should have reams of tour-company brochures in the reception area. The company I used through CM Blue House was Sompong Tours. Good prices, air-conditioned vans and cheerful tour guides.


Chiang Mai has the most secondhand bookstores I've seen in Southeast Asia. Gecko Books is the most famous, but Backstreet Books is also big. There are about a half-dozen bookstores around Chang Moi Kao Road, opposite Tha Pae Gate.

The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is also fun for buying local crafts. Relaxed and charming, great for wandering around.

Getting out

As great as Chiang Mai was, I heard from backpackers that it gets better the more north you go. Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son and Pai came highly recommended, especially for trekking. Pai is supposed to be a hippie town with lots of art cafes and live-music clubs, and fun for hanging out.

Buses leave from Chiang Mai's Arcade Bus Station. Since Chiang Mai is that last stop on the northern train line, any onward travel has to be done by bus.