I've been meaning to write this one for some time, especially after reading about Pam from Nerd's Eye View's recent visit to Angkor Wat and discussing various Cambodian charities with her. But, the final straw was reading a recent Intelligent Travel article about how the tourism boom to Angkor Wat may be causing the temples to sink into the ground. Prior to reading this piece, my biggest fear was that the serene experience of visiting the Angkor Wat temples was being hurt by overcrowding and over-development (unfortunately, still a big problem). But, now it looks like these 900 year-old temples are going to struggle to make it to their 1000th anniversary (which one is that? paper? silver? platinum-encrusted diamond?). And, even if they do survive, the Guardian advises that you'll be visiting those temples in a very different environment that existed even nine years ago, never mind 900:
Meanwhile, the site's serenity is being overwhelmed by crass commercialisation, from the Las Vegas-style shopping malls in the mushrooming town, Siem Reap, to a gaudy Angkor theme park just outside the complex. In May a Nick Faldo-designed golf course opens, the second water-guzzling 18-holer to be built in two years within four miles of the park. And the area's water supplies are being polluted by hotels flushing untreated sewage into the flood-prone Siem Reap river.
I know nothing relaxes me more after a hard day of temple-viewing than a nice 18 holes, followed by a ride on the Angkor Coaster.
Anyway, this long background is my way of saying you might want to hit Angkor Wat ASAP. Now, as with the other Take Your Kids Now entry, I must admit that we took this trip pre-TJ. That said, if your children are a little older (10?) and can handle the flight, there's no reason not to visit. As you might guess from the influx of commercialization, Angkor Wat is no longer the dangerous place it was in the early 90s.
It's also a common mistake to think of Angkor Wat as just one specific temple. While the main temple we all think of as Angkor Wat is indeed called Angkor Wat (handy), Angkor Wat is actually a 60-square mile complex of temples, several of which also qualify as "must-sees," from the four faces guarding the entrance to Angkor Thom to the amazing face carvings of Bayon Temple, to the jungle fantasy-land (and Tomb-Raider filming site) of Ta Prohm.
Since I'm already long-winded in describing Angkor Wat, I'll offer some quick tips about planning a visit there:
- Probably the easiest way to visit Cambodia and Angkor Wat is as part of a general Southeast Asia tour. Southeast Asia isn't the easiest place to get around, and when traveling with kids, the luxury of a tour group goes a long way. You can fly to Siem Reap (the town that serves as the gateway to Angkor) from several major cities, including Bangkok, Hanoi, and Ho-Chi Minh.
- That said, since Travelin' Mom and I were a travel-experienced twosome, we did Southeast Asia on our own (not always to fabulous results). Nonetheless, the one place we hired a guide was in Siem Reap (the town that serves as the gateway to Angkor). We hired a guide and driver for two days at $40 a day total, and it was the best money we ever spent. We got all the knowledge of an excellent guide (Ponheary Ly, who was recommended on several message boards-- the best way to hire a local guide) and were able to tailor our own itinerary, with huge input from our guide, of course.
- If you are doing Angkor on your own, remember that you need to purchase an admission pass your first day. A one day ticket should cost $20, 3 days $40, and one week costs $60. You'll also need a passport-size photo to use as part of your "admission ticket."
- If you're planning your own itinerary, you should also remember not to be over-ambitious. Most temples are easily worth a half-day visit, if not more. You'll also want to build-in time to enjoy those unexpected experiences that make travel so great. For example, one of our favorite temple viewing memories is of the half-hour we sat down with an extended Cambodian family from a nearby village who were visiting the temples for the first time. Thanks to our guide/translator, we fielded each other's questions and curiosities about our everyday lives. The family's matriarch, who had 11 children, could not believe that Travelin' Mom (just past 30 at the time) did not have any children!
- Two words to remember: "monsoon season." Although that might sound scary, it's actually a pretty good time to visit. Crowds (and prices) are down, giving you a little feel of the "Old Angkor." Plus, the monsoon rains usually only last an hour or two each day, and then the sun comes back out. So, as long as your guide plans around the rain, you can have a fantastic Angkor experience with a fraction of the crowds and a lower price tag. As an added benefit, you get to use the joke "It's like a monsoon out there," every time it rains.
- Speaking of prices, lodging in Angkor runs the gamut from extremely budget (but passable) to unbelievably high end (like the Raffles Hotel Angkor- wow). If this kind of thing matters to you, one thing to keep in mind is that a night at one of these luxury hotels can exceed a local's annual income. We chose a moderately-priced hotel (the wonderful Shinta Mani) and thought we got incredible value for the price.
Lastly, whether on your own or part of a tour, don't forget to leave some time to do some non-temple touring of Siem Reap and its surroundings. We were forutnate enough to have our guide take us to visit a Cambodian primary school outside of Siem Reap. Our experience with those Cambodian school children was easily as memorable, if not more so, than any temple visit.