Our dear assistant art director Stefan Caiafa is currently on an overland trip throughout Southeast Asia. But his travels were put on hold in Cambodia for several days as the recent political unrest swirled in Bangkok, where protesters have just ended their week-long blockade of the area airports. Fortunately, Stefan made the most of his ample time there by providing us with an outline of how to find sustainable ways to travel in the environmentally precarious region. We got word from him that he’s already on the move, and we were glad to hear that the standoff is over, meaning more than 300,000 stranded travelers will be able to fly home.
Five Sustainable Travel Tips to Angkor, Siem Reap, & Environs
Tip 1. Don’t Go!!! Well, not now at least. This is serious advice, as there are a few reasons why travels to Angkor and Siem Reap should be postponed, not the least being the sheer volume of tourism taking its toll on the sites:
Angkor Complex – Several foreign governments (including those of France, Italy, South Korea, India) are contributing funds and personnel towards restoration and conservation efforts within this World Heritage site.
This does mean that several important temples, including Angkor Wat, have light scaffolding and closed-off sections. Some of these initiatives are due for completion in 2010 at the earliest. While the temples are still utterly impressive, a visit might be more so once several of these projects have been completed. The upside for those traveling now involves viewing first-hand as workers repair parts of the important temples, and scientists document the bas-reliefs for assessment (a plus for conservation enthusiasts like IT readers). The downside for visiting Angkor Wat currently: the central section, which includes the five iconic towers, remains closed to visitors and has scaffolding on one side. Also, the main draw, “Churning of the Sea of Milk” bas-relief, has parts of it undergoing restoration, which are closed off to the public.
Siem Reap – This is Cambodia’s hub town for visiting the Angkor complex, which lies only a few miles north. Siem Reap is a rather sleepy town, though future development is palpable: Several large-scale hotels and resorts are currently being built, making the streets a tangle of tourist buses, motorbikes, and construction crews. Unfortunately, these new, mostly self-contained resorts verge on the generic, offering few opportunities for exploring authentic Cambodia. Siem Reap is, in effect, on path towards becoming a town of Club Meds. Visitors might at the very least wish to wait for the dust to settle before venturing here.
Tip 2. Which Wat? The Angkor complex is composed of several wats (temple complexes), many with their own histories, peculiarities, and astonishing architectural achievements. Angkor Wat is the most famous, followed closely by Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. Most tourists prefer the “mini tour” which includes these three sites. Opt for the longer, full-day “grand tour” which includes complexes north and east of Angkor Wat: Preah Khan (vast and labyrinthine, believed to be a university, wonderful to get lost in for an hour or two), East Mebon (formerly on an island, though the surrounding water basin has long-since dried up, there are elephant statues guarding the corners), and Pre Rup (a “mountain” temple affording magnificent views from the top, especially atmospheric at sunrise or sunset. Angkor Wat can be seen in the distance). These sites are each impressive in their own right but, best of all, they have far fewer tourists snapping pictures from every angle. If time is on your side, consider a stretch to Banteay Srei, 24 miles northeast of Siem Reap. It is known as the Citadel of Women, and is unique in that it uses pink sandstone for most of its fine carvings.
Good to know:
The one-day ticket to Angkor costs USD 20. If purchased after 4:30 p.m., it is issued for entrance to the next day, while still allowing entrance that same evening (site closes around 6:30 p.m.). This allows for a little introductory exploration. Note that admission to all sites, including Banteay Srei, is included, but the entrance ticket (which is personalized, bearing your picture) must be shown at each of the temples. There are heavy fines for those found without their tickets within the complex, so don’t lose it!
Tip 3. Stick to well-trodden paths. While certain sections of the temples are closed off, most areas are accessible and invite curious minds to wander around. This does mean that one can traipse through unsafe sections of the ruins, though also through fragile parts awaiting restoration. One should be mindful of potential damages that can be caused by stepping on the stone blocks, sitting on the balustrades and carvings, and climbing atop the ruins. As parts are in precarious state, any of these activities also pose risks. By sticking to areas most commonly accessed, you not only keep the monuments intact but also ensure your safety. It is worth nothing that the area was once infested with mines from years of conflict. Authorities state that all have since been removed, but it might be best not to test the claim by wandering far off the tourist circuit.
Tip 4. Hire a guide for touring the sprawling Angkor complex. Locals love and revere Angkor more than tourists do (remember, these sites are still religious buildings and are actively visited by monks and pilgrims. Angkor Wat even features on the Cambodian flag!). Many Cambodians have educated themselves in their own history, and are happy to share their knowledge. Upon arrival at the airport, if your hotel has not yet provided a transfer, approach the official taxi stand and ask the drivers about tour options. Your taxi driver may well end up becoming your dedicated driver throughout your stay, likely for less money than you’d pay booking tours through your hotel (I paid USD 40 for the “grand tour”, while the hotel started its tours at USD 55). Be advised that a hired driver may push certain trips upon you (Tonle Sap lake, for example), in hopes to drive you further afield and therefore charge a little extra. Feel free to decline their suggestions, though they are often interesting options worth looking into, with prices matching or cheaper than advertised by your hotel.
Good to know: You may choose to hire a bike for an environmentally friendly transportation option. There are a few companies which offer this, and it is becoming increasingly popular. Note that stretches between temples can be long, though, and if time is of essence you may have to forfeit certain parts of the site.
Tip 5. Authentic Siem Reap. Seek out the little bits of authenticity still available here in town. The old centre has a popular tourist souvenir market bursting with silk shirts and scarves, Buddha statuettes, and other trinkets. Some good deals, but each stand seems to be an immediate clone of the next. Nevertheless, the souvenir market is adjoined by a fresh food market frequented by locals. Wander over (follow the smells!) and interact with the local Cambodians who are out grocery shopping. Ask for dragon fruit, a common favourite. Another must-see is the Angkor National Museum. This newly opened building has an extensive and well-thought-out exhibit explaining the history and religious significance behind Angkor’s temples. There is an abundance of statues and artifacts from several sites in Cambodia, shedding light on how vast and important the Khmer empire was back then. The tour ends at an adjoining “mall,” which can be skipped (unless you feel too knee-deep in local culture and want to eat at the KFC, coming soon).
Photo of Banteay Srei temple, by lorytravel4ever via Intelligent Travel Flickr pool