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A temple of your own

May 30, 2011 Leave a comment


An eye for detail ... Angkor Wat.

An eye for detail … Angkor Wat. Photo: Getty Images

More than a million people visit Angkor every year, so how can one escape the crowds? David Whitley finds out.

The temples at Angkor in Cambodia are among the great wonders of the world. Unfortunately, the world has worked this out – the small bands of intrepid backpackers who made their way to Angkor in the 1990s have turned into more than a million visitors every year.

In the past five years, visitor numbers have ballooned. Mass tourism from other Asian countries – South Korea in particular – has seen tour groups swarm to the major sites for much of the day. To get the best out of the major sites, some cunning herd-avoidance strategies are needed.

Spiritual exposure ... Bayon temple.

Spiritual exposure … Bayon temple.Photo: Getty Images
The key tactic for anyone with a few days in which to explore the temples is to forget any ideas about saving the best for last. There are scores of temples spread over a wide area but three are generally regarded as must-sees. Most famous is Angkor Wat, the largest religious building on Earth, but Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom would be the tourist board mainstays anywhere else. Ta Prohm is the temple from the Tomb Raider movies that the jungle has semi-reclaimed trees wrapping themselves around the walls.
Angkor Thom is more a walled city with numerous temples inside, but the hundreds of stone faces carved out of the towers of Bayon – Angkor Thom’s centrepiece – are the highlights.
The earlier you get to the big three, the better – both in terms of light for photography and avoiding the hordes. A three-day park pass costs $US40 ($38) and if you can bring yourself to get up at 6 o’clock every morning, then one of the most popular temples should be the first stop each day. Angkor Wat is the possible exception here as many come for sunrise, so hanging back for between 7am and 9am will usually prove more judicious.
Angkor Thom; Bayon monument.

Angkor Thom; Bayon monument. Photo: Getty Images
If you don’t have the luxury of three days, it starts to get trickier and it pays to know The Route.
Andy Booth, who runs the upmarket tour operator About Asia Travel, says: “Responding to demand, many local girls and boys have studied for guiding qualifications and taken up a profession which is one of the best remunerated jobs around.
“Most of them begin guiding straight away and rarely find time for reflection on the itineraries they have been taught, based closely on the work of Maurice Glaize in his 1944 book Angkor.
“Unsurprisingly, the result is a concentration of visitors into a few key sites at certain prescribed times of day. It’s like a pig passing through a python.”
The book was written at a time when only poor tracks connected the temples and those following it aren’t taking into account vastly improved roads or alternative walking tracks that have been cleared since.
Booth and his team have monitored footfall around various temples at different times of the day and try to optimise their itineraries accordingly. The general theory is that Angkor Wat is best tackled in the afternoon as it faces west. Bayon faces east, so it’s usually done first, with Ta Prohm in between.
The author of the Odyssey guide to Angkor, Dawn Rooney, says this is mainly about the light.
“Most tour guides at Angkor do follow the same route, whether it is the one set out by Glaize or the one in my guidebook,” she says.
“There is, though, a very logical reason for following a particular route – it’s the light on the temples. Certain ones must be seen at certain times. This is particularly true of the reliefs at Angkor Wat, Terrace of the Elephants and Banteay Srei.”
Not everyone – particularly those who are happy enough with holiday snaps rather than professional photos – would agree. If you’re time pressed, it’s best to go with Ta Prohm first. The difference between a 7am and a 10am visit is phenomenal. Go early and you’ll share with a couple of other people. Turn up later and it looks like a bus factory.
At Angkor Thom, the temptation to just visit Bayon should be avoided. A walk along the outer walls is tremendously atmospheric. For photographers, it’s best tackled before 4pm – and preferably between noon and 2pm when most of the tour groups have gone back to Siem Reap for lunch.
For the same reasons, the noon to 2pm window is also good for Angkor Wat but if you can’t make it then, damage limitation is possible by going in through the back.
Go in through the east gate as the umbrella-following flood passes through the western entrance. That way, you can slot into the tour group gaps to get a closer look at the bas reliefs and statues, without being swept along by the waves.
The end of the day is when the guidebooks really get it wrong.
The often-recommended sunset spot – on top of the Phnom Bakheng temple – is now a complete circus. “Last year on one footfall survey we counted 1981 people up there,” Andy Booth says. “And it’s not even an especially good vantage point.”
It’s best to avoid the elbows and rugby scrum-esque scramble down in the dark and plump for a spot where the exiting sun will be reflected in Angkor Wat’s moat. There’s more than enough water to go round, so you shouldn’t struggle for relative peace. The smart move, of course, is to head back to Siem Reap to freshen up, then return with a picnic and a bottle of wine for a less sweaty sunset.

The writer was a guest of About Asia Travel.


Trip notes


Getting there

Singapore Airlines flies to Siem Reap via Singapore from $1129 a person, singaporeair.com.


Touring there

About Asia Travel (aboutasiatravel.com) tailors tour programs for customers depending on their preferences. A three-day, two-night package including transfers, park entry fees and accommodation at the four-star Tara Angkor Hotel (taraangkorhotel.com) costs from $US265 ($250) a person.


The Sydney Herold

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Categories: Angkor Wat, Travel

Feature: Focus on….Cambodia

May 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Enclosed between two countries and sat on a tiny section of the South China Sea, Cambodia has to be one of the most fascinating destinations on earth. Dreadfully poor in places, but always ready to treat you with a smile, the South-East Asian country is currently undergoing a tourist boom, and luxury resorts and boutique hotels are springing up all over. Enjoying a humid and hot climate all year round, it makes a safe romantic holiday destination where you can stroll along the banks of the Mekong or stare in wonder at the fabled Angkor Wat complex.

With some of the most pristine and unspoilt beaches anywhere in the world, charming cultural towns, a frenetic and fascinating capital city, historic sites to take your breath away, and unrivalled opportunities for adventure travel, the country is fast becoming an up-and-coming destination. The civil war is long over, and business and commerce is once again flourishing as the capital gets back to its cosmopolitan roots. So sit back and read our guide to this fascinating destination where the sun never stops shining!

Riverside life

A city-lovers delight, the frenetic capital Phnom Penh is a fascinating place. At times chaotic and mad, the locals are unbelievably friendly, and the weather is always hot! First of all take in the Khmer Rouge horrors of S21 and Cheung Ek. In 1975 the whole capital was evacuated in three days – the population taken to rural locations to live out the communist government’s regime. S21 is a prison where interrogations took place, while Cheung Ek is a large burial ground. Although harrowing, they are a must to understand Cambodian culture. Get a blind massage at Seeing Hands, followed by a jacuzzi treatment in Bodia Spa. Rent a tuk tuk and let the driver take you to the grand Victory Monument as well as other unique Buddhist statues. Do not miss out on the majestic Royal Palace – with its detailed handiwork on numerous gold and white pagodas, it’s very beautiful. With the turquoise Mekong River flowing through the city centre, it’s only natural that numerous restaurants have sprung up along the riviera. A good mid-price option is The Riverside Bistro, which serves local delicacies such as Fish Amok curry. And this can all be washed down with a tasty Angkor Beer (or two!).

Temple Land

No trip to Cambodia can even be considered without a visit to Angkor Wat. This huge temple complex built in the 12th century was forgotten for years until being rediscovered in the 19th century by French explorers. Hire a tuk-tuk or explore on a bicycle, there are wonders to be had here! Get up early to witness the sun rise over Angkor Wat itself, then visit Bayon with its multitude of faces staring at you in all directions. Ta Prohm is the most unique: left as how the French explorers first found it. Huge trees have wound their roots through the stones, and have risen 200 feet up into the air. And culture lovers can rejoice! The town of Siem Reap holds the temple complex together. With its happening bar scene down Pub Street, markets, and unique boutique shops selling art and clothes, it is the place to be at the moment. Heritage Suites Hotel boasts spacious rooms, beautifully decorated around a salt-water pool. Get yourself some souvenirs in Phsar Chas market, and enjoy some European wine at the chic Arts Lounge. The adventurous can feast on a do-it-yourself Khmer barbeque of snake, crocodile, and kangaroo. While the even more adventurous can try a deep fried tarantula!

The coast

Beach-bums rejoice, the south coast of Cambodia offers an unspoilt coastline of inky blue water, with limestone hills jutting out in the distance. Sihanoukville is the most touristy, and so the easiest place to bag a sun-bed! Independence Hotel offers deluxe rooms overlooking a private beach. The almost haunted town of Kep is a two-hour’s drive away. Great for a romantic holiday, the unique statues of the town can be experienced on the back of a moto. The fish market is a brilliant place to feast on the region’s speciality – crabs. Ask how to peel them, and dip the fresh meat in a sweet chilli sauce as fishermen chug by on junk boats.  Knai Bang Chatt is a luxury beach retreat in pleasant surroundings, offering hammock lounging, sailing, yoga, and snorkelling. 

Kampot is a cultural treat, with crumbling French colonial architecture and a pristine river front. About two miles inland, fantastic evening cruises can be taken out to sea, while the falling sun drops below temple-clad mountains. Watch locals exercise communally, and sip a beer in the waterfront setting. Rikitikitavi boasts boutique rooms on the riverside, while most hotels in the area can organise a hike up Bokor. The French hill station now stands 3500 feet above sea level, with unbelievable views of the sea, while the abandoned and lichen-filled casino and hotel of the French colonists stand eerily atop the hill station.

Cambodia is a fascinating destination, truly inspiring. So get here first before every-one else cottons on!
iWant Sun .co.uk

Categories: Angkor Wat, Travel

Siem Reap Angkor Wat and beyond…..

May 19, 2011 Leave a comment
Image by Petrusloo
I DIDN’T realize that visiting the temples would be a major workout for a sedentary person like me. My mother was grateful for her twice weekly two sets of tennis that prepared her for the long walks and numerous ascents and descents in the summer heat.
The centerpiece of any trip to Cambodia is of course a tour of Angkor
Wat. The word “angkor” literally means capital city, while a “wat” is a
temple. Still, this is just one of a series of temples dotting the
entire Siem Reap province. The Angkorian period in Cambodian history
actually spans about 700 years, from the 9th to the 15th centuries.

Angkor Wat itself was built in the early 12th century, by Suryavarman II.

The entire Angkor area has been well preserved, thanks to government’s
prudence over the years (this must originate from the French colonial
period). There are no new buildings in the area, and nobody from
outside is allowed to resettle there. Only the original inhabitants may
reside there.

The drive from Siem Reap town to the area is a pleasant one, on a road
lined by tall shady trees planted by the French more than 50 years ago.

A few minutes later you catch a glimpse of an imposing stone wall
surrounded by a moat. This is the perimeter fence of Angkor Wat,
measuring 1.3 by 1.5 kilometers in length. From the entrance it is a
200-meter walk on an uneven stone path to the inner wall, and then
another 300-meter walk to the temple. The temple itself is 1 square
kilometer in size. So you are now getting an idea about the workout I
mentioned earlier.

A good time to see Angkor Wat for the first time is after 2 p.m. The sun
is slowly coming down on the westward facing temple, and the lines come
out sharply. On the north reflecting pool, a pretty reflection of the
five towers offers a good photo opportunity.

Upon reaching the main building, it is the elaborate bas relief on the
walls that takes your breath away. On the first level walls, one section
depicts stories and characters from Hindu mythology including the
Ramayana, and the intriguing representation of the “Churning of the Sea
of Milk” on the east wall. It is important to note that religion in
Cambodia swung from Hinduism to Buddhism and back many times in its long
history. Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple, but became a Buddhist
place of worship when that faith came into mode.

Going back to the bas relief, the victorious march of Suryavarman II and
his army against the Cham people are portrayed on the south wall.

A guide will be most helpful in explaining the transforming scenery. At
any given time, there is always cacophony of languages that can be
heard, with guides speaking in English, French, Japanese, Russian and
Chinese.

In the upper levels, both the inner and outer walls depict nearly 2,000
distinct carvings of Apsara or celestial dancers. This classical dance
was developed for the kings of the Angkorian era, and was performed only
for the royal household. Predictably, it suffered near demise during
the Khmer Rouge era. Fortunately, the royal family, particularly
Princess Devi who is a dancer, worked hard to revive this cultural
heritage. The UNESCO eventually declared it as intangible heritage and
earmarked it for protection. Today tourists can enjoy an evening
performance in some of the larger restaurants and hotels.

Further up is the way to the towers. There are five towers in all, four
corner towers, and the center and tallest towers. Visitors can walk
along the wall and pass under the four corner towers, but the center
tower is closed.

Angkor Wat should take up the entire afternoon for one to properly
appreciate its grandeur. Most likely, you will be too tired after your
visit for anything else anyway.

The next morning would be a good time to go see Angkor Thom, or Big
Angkor. This is a walled city three square kilometers in size, or four
times the area occupied by Angkor Wat. It was built in the later 12th
century, just after Angkor Wat. This time, a Buddhist king named
Jayavarman VII reigned. He built the Bayon temple (famous for the
hundreds of Bayon heads) within, as well as his royal palace and
structures for the royal household and his high officials.
Unfortunately, the palace and other households were made of wood and did
not survive the passing of time. Only the ruins of Bayon, the Terrace
of the Elephants and the Terrace of Leper King remain.

Angkor Thom is likewise protected by a stone wall with five entrances or
gates. There is one facing each direction, with two facing east. One of
the eastern gates is the Victory Gate leading to the Royal Palace, for
the exclusive use of the king. Most visitors enter through the South
Gate, which brings them directly to Bayon temple. Each gate is capped by
a Bayon-style tower with four giant faces. Our guide said the faces are
the likeness of Jayavarman VII, but this is actually a matter of
debate, with some quarters claiming they are of one Bodhisattva. Who
cares? In the end, what matters is that these structures have been
preserved to an astonishing degree for the benefit of all humanity.

Bayon temple itself has 37 standing towers. The lower level walls
contain bas relief as well, this time depicting real life scenes from
the battle between the Khmer and the Cham. One portrays soldiers in a
boat rowing toward the enemy. After their decisive victory, the Khmer
decided to hold a barbecue, much like one we would have today. This is
charmingly depicted in another wall carving.

If you still have an hour left in the morning, head on to Ta Phrom. This
is the temple of Lara Croft, Tombraider fame. The walls and walkways
are overgrown with centuries old trees, and have been deliberately left
that way to retain the jungle temple feel. Although I have never seen
the movie, I have now put it on my “must see” list, for obvious reasons.

For people with more days to spend in Angkor, there are sites to visit
further afield. 40 kilometers away is Banteay Srey (pronounced ban tey
sry), more popularly known as the women’s temple. It precedes Angkor Wat
by more than a hundred years, is much smaller, yet more intricate in
its carvings and has an almost surreal pinkish hue.

Wat comes next?

After a respectable temple run of the three major stops, wat else is there to do?

The pulse of any city can be gleaned from their market, so after
catching your breath from the temple workouts, visit the central market.
If your hotel is nearby, a leisurely stroll along the Siem Reap River
toward the market is highly recommended, giving you a wider view of
daily life here. Among the different stalls you will find everything
you’ve heard about on the grapevine: sapphires and rubies, silver, wood
carvings, silk, scarves, clothing, and food. It is mainly geared toward
the local population, therefore serving up fresh vegetables and meats as
well.

Two most interesting visits we made were to the Senteurs D’ Angkor workshop and the Silk Farm.

The Senteurs tour takes only 30 minutes, demonstrating how plants and
flowers like frangipiani, lemon grass, coconut, etc. can be infused into
other material resulting in the most wonderfully fragrant candles,
soaps, and oils. At the end of the tour, one is treated to a free drink
of lemon grass coffee or cardamom tea, among other such choices.

The Silk Farm is 16 km out of town, and a free trip is available from
the Artisans d’Angkor store in town. This is a delightful and
educational tour, showing the silk making process from start to finish.
From my own firsthand account, I swear the process is so tedious you
cannot challenge any ridiculous amount they charge for their products.
For example, an intricately designed silk scarf takes three days to
finish.

Three days! And when you see the price, it’s actually very reasonable.

And don’t think twice about buying that raw silk shawl that is as warm
as pashmina they say. My mother said with authority that “you will never
find it anywhere else.” And she is right, of course.

Filipinos are devout Catholics in general, and if one finds himself here
on a weekend, there are masses on Saturday evening in English, and
Sunday morning in Khmer.

At night, the focus shifts firmly east of the central market, to nearby
Pub Street. This uber popular street evolved slowly. Before 1998, it was
a quiet street with no particular night appeal, until the first pub
opened, named in jest as “Angkor What?” From then, one pub, restaurant
or shop opened after another, until it became Siem Reap’s center of
gravity come nighttime. They have wisely closed it to vehicular traffic
starting at six, making it a most relaxing place for everybody, and
removed from the noise and air pollution brought on by tuktuks and the
like.

If only the mayor of Baguio would be brave enough to do the same, I
believe our beloved Session Road will take on a much renewed spirit, and
attract many more locals and tourists alike.

A most famous watering hole on Pub Street is the Red Piano, where in
2001, during the filming of Lara Croft, Angelina Jolie herself started
the drink called Tombraider.

Pub Street is also a good place to sample the local fare. Have a fish in
Amok (local curry concoction), try the beef lok lak, sautéed in
delicate and aromatic Kampot pepper, or dine in a group and feast on
what is locally known as “Volcano,” a variation of shabu-shabu.

In the end, we also visited Tonle Sap Lake, to see the floating villages
and witness a traditional way of life. Now I do not highly recommend
this trip, it wasn’t a pretty sight. However, if you are in for some
adventure and seeing how people who permanently reside in boats live,
why not give it a try?

If you plan to visit, avoid April and May though, when the heat is
oppressive. The best time to come is from November to February, when the
weather is both cool and dry. However, there is a certain charm in
coming during the wet season (June to October) as our guide boasts of
verdant lawns surrounding the temples, and the Tonle Sap Lake swells to
its full level.

Siem Reap is a gentle town, a balm to one’s frayed nerves. It can be the
pleasant long weekend you’ve been pining for, on top of the chance to
see live what you’ve only seen in books before: the grandeur that was
Angkor. 

Categories: Angkor Wat, Travel

Angkor Wat was a city ahead of its time

May 14, 2011 Leave a comment
The technology for harvesting water that enabled the Khmer to thrive also led to their fall, researchers say.
The ancient Khmer
city of Angkor in Cambodia was the largest preindustrial metropolis in
the world, with a population near 1 million and an urban sprawl that
stretched over an area similar to modern-day Los Angeles, researchers
reported Monday.

The city’s spread over an area of more than 115 square miles was made
possible by a sophisticated technology for managing and harvesting water
for use during the dry season — including diverting a major river
through the heart of the city.

But that reliance on water led to the city’s collapse in the 1500s as
overpopulation and deforestation filled the canals with sediment,
overwhelming the city’s ability to maintain the system, according to the
report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The hydraulic system became “not manageable, no matter how many
resources were thrown at it,” said archeologist Damian Evans of the
University of Sydney in Australia, the lead author of the paper.

But during the six centuries that the city thrived, it was unparalleled,
particularly because it was one of the very few civilizations that
sprang up in a tropical setting, said archeologist Vernon L. Scarborough
of the University of Cincinnati, who was not involved in the research.

Just one section of the city, called West Baray, was many times “larger
than the entire 9-square-kilometer hillock on which sat Tikal, the
largest city in Central America,” he said.

“The scale is truly unparalleled,” added archeologist William A. Saturno of Boston University, who also was not involved.

“Forest environments are not good ones for civilizations . . . because
they require intensively manipulating the environment,” he said. “Angkor
is the epitome of this, and it is going to be the model for how
tropical civilizations are interpreted.”

Old and new technologies

The new data come from
an unusual agglomeration of both old and new technologies. The core data
came from a synthetic aperture radar unit flown on the space shuttle in
2000 and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.

The radar pierced low-lying clouds and vegetation to give an accurate
picture of soil density, local structures and moisture in soil, which
reflects growing conditions.

The images revealed, for example, the characteristic moat-enclosed
local temples and artificial ponds used for water storage and
irrigation.

This information was supplemented with photographs taken from ultralight
aircraft flown over the city at low speeds and altitudes.

Finally, the researchers used motor scooters to traverse the city and
closely examine sites revealed on the radar images. But so many sites
have been revealed, Evans said, that the researchers are only partway
through this process.

The group, collectively called the Greater Angkor Project, released a
partial map three years ago. The new one released Monday contains, among
other things, an additional 386 square miles of urban area, at least 74
long-lost temples and more than 1,000 newly recognized artificial
ponds.

Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire, which got its start in AD
802 when the god-king Jayavarman II declared the region’s independence
from Java. At its height, the empire covered not only Cambodia but also
parts of modern-day Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

It is perhaps best known for Angkor Wat, the magnificent temple built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century.

Angkor has been studied for more than a century, but early scholars were
so overwhelmed by the artworks and architecture, as well as the
political successions, that they ignored the archeology, said coauthor
Roland Fletcher of the University of Sydney.

In the late 1960s, French archeologist Bernard-Philippe Groslier began a
more formal study of the ruins, but that work was halted for more than
20 years by the war that broke out in 1970.

After the war, archeologist Christophe Pottier of the Ecole Francaise
d’Extreme-Orient in Siem Reap, another coauthor, renewed the work,
beginning what eventually grew into the current project.

Disputes over history

In the process, the researchers have begun solving many of the disputes that have arisen over the city’s history, Evans said.

“The debate has always been . . . was it large enough, was the
manipulation of the landscape intensive enough to cause environmental
problems?” Evans said. “The answer is definitively yes.”

Other arguments have been based on the assumption that Khmer hydraulic
engineering technology was rather rudimentary, he said. “What our
research has shown is that it was extremely sophisticated and highly
complex,” he said.

Many of the reservoirs and walls of canals were constructed of compacted
earth, he said, but junctions and other crucial points in the system
were “quite sophisticated stone structures.”

The Khmer built, for example, a massive stone structure to divert the
Siem Reap River from its old bed through the center of the city. Other
sites have stone structures built into the walls to manage the inflow
and outflow of water, he said.

The system was complex enough that the Khmer could have grown rice
throughout the year and not just during the rainy season, Evans said. It
is not yet clear if they did so, however.

“The intentional movement of earth to create the whole water system is
just really mind-boggling,” Saturno said. “It was an enormous
undertaking” that required not just administrative skills, but also
engineering know-how and massive amounts of physical labor.

But in the end, maintenance became too labor-intensive, Evans said. As
trees were removed from the landscape, sediment began accumulating in
the canals at a rate more rapid than it could be removed. Many dike
walls collapsed, although it is not yet known when that occurred.

“We’re going now and excavating [the sites] on the ground, and trying to
get a grip on when they happened — whether they were a precursor of
the decline, a symptom or the system gradually falling into ruin after
they left,” he said.
Los Angeles Times
Categories: Angkor Wat, Travel

Eight journeys every backpacker should take

April 28, 2011 Leave a comment
Welcome sight … a trip through Africa to Cape Town is something every backpacker should do. Photo: iStock
You want the short answer? Okay, here it is: the only journey every backpacker should take is to the airport.
Where you go after that doesn’t really matter – you’re
travelling, you’re seeing the world, and life doesn’t get much better.
Plenty of would-be backpackers don’t even make it that far.
But it’s not always as simple as that. When you’re
spending your savings on what could be the one great adventure of your
life, you want it to be as amazing as possible, the ultimate that the
budget travel world has to offer.

If you’re in the planning stages of that big journey right now, or
even if you’re a seasoned traveller looking for the next great
experience, you could do worse than head out on one of these eight
trips.

They’re affordable, most don’t require so much time that
you’ll have to chuck in your job to achieve them, and they can be done
as hardcore as you choose – everything from with a tour group to winging
it on public transport.

Regardless, you’ll have the time of your life.

Koh Pha-Ngan, Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia
You’ll
probably start this trip in Bangkok, first heading down to the Thai
islands to party it up, then back up and across to Cambodia to check out
Phnom Penh and the temples of Angkor. Both countries are cheap, the
people are friendly, the food is great, and you can mix up your
transport to keep things interesting (train down south, bus across to
Cambodia, ferry up to Siem Reap).

Hanoi to Saigon, Vietnam
A classic backpackers’
trip that can be done in a few weeks, and for next to nothing. Head out
to Halong Bay, then down the coast to Da Nang, have some clothes made in
Hoi An, laze on the beach in Nha Trang, jump on a motorbike and head in to Da Lat, and finish off in Saigon. Great food, decent accommodation, and an easy place to travel around.

La Paz, Bolivia to Lima, Peru
This is
another well-worn tourist trail, but for good reason: it has
everything. There are incredible historical sites (Machu Picchu, the Nazca Lines),
backpacker party towns (Cusco), one of South America’s most interesting
cities (La Paz), and some things that are just plain strange (the floating reed islands of Lake Titicaca). Plus, you get to feast on ceviche.

Western Europe in a bus/van/train/car/bike
How
you do it is completely up to you. Whether it’s a first-ever OS trip
heading around on a boozy bus tour, buying a van and spending a whole
summer trundling around, or even just more traditional public transport,
Western Europe is the ultimate backpacker destination – fun,
interesting and relatively safe.

Kerala to Delhi, India
I’ve written it before,
and it remains true: everyone should go to India at least once. On this
trip you get the relative calm of Kerala, the hippy hang-out of Goa,
the Bollywood madness of Mumbai, a quick spin past the Taj Mahal, before
finishing up in relaxed, sedate Delhi (kidding). Trains are the only way to go.

Nairobi, Kenya to Cape Town, South Africa
Safest way to do this is with an overland truck tour,
but the more adventurous can definitely get by with public transport.
On this trip you’ll see the best East Africa has to offer: the Masai
Mara, Serengeti, Lake Malawi, the Okavango Delta, Swakopmund,
and the beauty of Cape Town. It’s an amazing journey, but the sight of
Table Mountain is a welcome one after a few months of roughing it.

Mexico City to San Cristobal, Mexico
You’ve
got to love travelling in Mexico. Awesome food costs a few dollars from
street vendors. Buses are cheap, comfortable and reliable.
Accommodation is affordable. Plus on this trip you get the best of the
big city, then maybe a stop in historical Oaxaca City, a few weeks’
beach hopping around Puerto Escondido, and then finish up in the beautiful Mayan city of San Cristobal de las Casas.

Istanbul, Turkey to Cairo, Egypt
Again,
you can do this one with an organised tour, or the more experienced can
strike out alone. Regardless, you’ll get to travel through a relatively
misunderstood part of the world, taking in Turkish beaches, Syrian
markets, Lebanese nightclubs, Jordanian ruins, Israeli holy sites and
Egyptian history. That should keep you occupied for a while.

Have you made any of these journeys? Where do you think every backpacker should visit?

Hope you’re enjoying the Backpacker blog – there will
be a new one published every Tuesday and Wednesday on the Fairfax Media
websites. To contact me with any topic suggestions or personal abuse, visit my website, follow me on Twitter, or email me at bengroundwater@gmail.com.


The Sydney Morning Herald
Categories: Angkor Wat, Travel

10 Lost Cities Of The World

April 27, 2011 Leave a comment

These ancient wonders are well worth a visit, even in troubled times.

Gazing at the Andean peaks soaring above the Lost City of the Incas
and the lush valley below, it’s easy see why it was voted one of the New
Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. The 15th century A.D. Peruvian site
was abandoned shortly after Spanish conquistadors invaded the
neighboring areas, falling to ruin until 1911, when an American scholar
stumbled across the remains.

History’s once glorious metropolises have become ever more
sought-after destinations as Americans get back into travel mode. Machu
Picchu welcomes as many as 1 million tourists annually, and that number
is said to be growing as much as 6% per year.
The Americas offer travelers dozens of lost cities to explore. Mexico
has the Mayan city of Chichen Itza, with Mesoamerica’s largest ball
court and the hulking pyramidal remains of Teotihuacan, with its
well-preserved, color-splashed murals. There’s Tical in Guatemala and
Copan in Honduras. Even the the Western U.S. boasts the
tumbleweed-strewn ghost towns of two centuries ago. 
Petra, Jordan

Photo: Ed Freeman/Getty Images

1. Petra, Jordan

Country: Jordan

Civilization: the Nabataeans

Inhabited: sixth century B.C.

This rose-colored city carved from cliffs garnered fame in the West
thanks to the 1980s blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. 

2. Chichen Itza, Mexico

Chichen Itza, Mexico

Photo: John Elk III/Getty Images

Country: Mexico

Civilization: the Mayans

Inhabited: 600 to 1000 A.D.

Site of one of Mesoamerica’s largest ball courts, this royal city is
located near a massive underground cenote, or sinkhole, where the bodies
of human sacrifices were dropped. 

3. Derinkuyu Underground City, Turkey

Derinkuyu Underground City

Photo: Thinkstock

Country: Turkey

Civilization: possibly the Phrygians

Inhabited: Approximately eighth century B.C.to 10th century A.D.

This underground network has more than 10 floors and room for up to
50,000 people, plus livestock. It is rumored to have been a hideout for
early Christians escaping Roman persecution.

4. Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, Peru

Photo: Glowimages/Getty Images

Country: Peru

Civilization: the Incas

Inhabited: 15th and 16th centuries A.D.

Conquistadors carrying small pox wiped out the inhabitants of this
royal mountaintop fortress, but the Lost City of the Incas was never
actually discovered by the Spanish–in fact, it wasn’t discovered until
1911.

5. Angkor, Cambodia

Angkor, Cambodia

Photo: Otto Stadler /Getty Images

Country: Cambodia

Civilization: the Khmer Empire

Inhabited: ninth century to 15th century A.D.

More than a thousand temples, including Angkor Wat, populate this
long-time Khmer capital. It declined after a successful attack by
invaders from what is now Thailand. 

6. Pre-Roman Carthage, Tunisia

Pre-Roman Carthage, Tunisia

Photo: iStockphoto

Country: Tunisia

Civilization: the Phoenicians

Inhabited: 650 to 146 B.C.

Carthage was home to the Roman Empire’s arch-nemesis, Hannibal. It was burned and the earth salted during the final Punic War. 

7. Pompeii, Italy

Pompeii, Italy

Photo: Dhuss/iStockphoto

Country: Italy

Civilization: the Roman Empire

Inhabited: seventh/sixth century B.C. to 79 A.D.

Pompeii was a cultural center and vacation destination for Roman high
society until it was destroyed in 79 A.D. by the eruption of Mount
Vesuvius. Left behind are naturally ash-encased mummies. 

8. Memphis, Egypt

Memphis, Egypt

Photo: DEA /A. VERGANI/Getty Images

Country: Egypt

Civilization: the Ancient Egyptians

Inhabited: third millennium B.C. to seventh century A.D.

Located at the mouth of the Nile delta, Memphis thrived for centures
as a center of trade, commerce, religion and royalty. Foreign invasions,
including one by Alexander the Great, let to its demise. 

9. Teotihuacan, Mexico

Teotihuacan, Mexico

Photo: Dmitry Rukhlenko/iStockphoto

Country: Mexico

Civilization: possibly the Totonac people

Inhabited: 100 B.C. to 250 A.D.

This city, the founders of which remain a mystery, is home to some of
the largest pyramids in pre-Columbian America. It inspired several
major empires, those of the Zapotec and Mayans.

10. Mosque City of Bagerhat, Bangladesh

Mosque City of Bagerhat, Bangladesh

Photo: Lonely Planet Images/Alamy

Country: Bangladesh

Civilization: Khan Jahan Ali

Inhabited: 15th century A.D.

The city formerly known as Khalifatabad was founded by a Turkish
general. It boasts more than 50 Islamic monuments and the Sixty Pillar
Mosque, constructed with 60 pillars and 80 domes.
Categories: Angkor Wat, Travel

Cambodia and the kids agree

April 23, 2011 Leave a comment
Old ruins, rugged roads, pelting rain and a very Third World
setting may make Cambodia sound like a place to skip if you’re
travelling with kids but, in fact, the kids love it.
Charlie is sprawled languorously in the armchair, his eyes half-closed
in blissful stupor as the reflexologist kneads and prods his feet.
I
know just how he feels. We’ve spent the morning clambering around the
ancient temples of Angkor, and a massage at the self-explanatory Dr
Feet is proving the perfect counterbalance. But Charlie is still a week
off his third birthday, you see, and not known for peaceful repose, so
I’m amazed to see him so compliant.
Still, I am getting used to
surprises. Siem Reap, Cambodia’s leaping-off point for countless
atmospheric and breathtaking temples, has been high on our holiday
wish-list for some time. Yet when we planned a short break with friends
and booked our flights, I had a nagging certainty that the trip would
be hard work with children (ours are seven, four and two, and our
friends’ kids are seven and five).
A sight to behold: Angkor Wat at dawn.
As it turns out, the hardest part is leaving.
In
varying states of grandeur or decay, the World Heritage-listed temples
nestle amongst the rice paddies or loom out of the jungle. These
architectural marvels dating back to the Khmer empire both dominate the
landscape and also somehow blend effortlessly into the local way of
life.
The most famous is the iconic Angkor Wat, best viewed at
sunset when its five beehive-shaped towers are bathed in a honeyed
glow. The world’s largest religious building, Angkor Wat is a massive
complex of three levels, surrounded by a moat over 5km in length and
featuring bas-reliefs of incredible detail depicting everything from
religious and battle scenes to everyday life in the 12th century.
It
is a truly awesome sight, but as we approach across the causeway for
the first time, I wonder if it will be possible to get the children,
whose definition of “old” is their parents, to appreciate the temple’s
800-year-old splendour. I needn’t have worried.
 
Women carrying baskets to sell in Siem Reap.
While
we marvel at the scale, symmetry and symbolism within Angkor Wat, the
kids hunt for shells and unlikely forms of treasure. Or they explore
the seemingly endless steps, passageways, rooms and courtyards of this
vast and beguiling building, described by Frenchman Henri Mahout, who
stumbled on it in 1860, as “grander than anything left to us by Greece
or Rome.”
In all, there are more than 1,000 ruins dotted around
Siem Reap province, covering an area of roughly 300 sq km, so only the
most dedicated scholar would attempt to see them all. Built by kings
and wealthy landowners, each attempting to outdo their predecessors,
the buildings showcase magnificent sculpture, intricate carving and, in
their heyday, were decorated with jewels and gold.
We manage to
see half a dozen temples in our four-day stay. At Ta Prohm, which is
literally being swallowed by the jungle, huge tree roots wrap
viper-like around the masonry while piles of moss-covered stones lie
abandoned alongside.
For many visitors, this sprawling temple is a point-and-click Tomb Raider
moment (parts of the movie were filmed here amidst the dramatic
strangler figs and crumbling walls). But take a few steps away from the
main thoroughfare of wooden walkways, and it is possible to gain a far
greater sense of the other-worldly atmosphere of this place.
 
Children playing in the grounds of the Bayon Temple.
It
is at Ta Prohm that the kids discover the joys of incense, lighting a
half-dozen wafting sticks between them until we tire of putting riel in
the offerings box. It is also here that we pass a band of busking
landmine victims, and are reminded that for all the ancient glory of
this country, it is the more recent tragic history — the Khmer Rouge
rule and subsequent decades of civil war — that shapes the lives of
ordinary Cambodians.
The ruin that remains etched in my memory
is the Bayon, its 54 towers topped by more than 200 enigmatic carved
faces, enormous visages that eerily watch over us as we progress to the
temple’s heart. Built by Jayavarman VII, renowned as the greatest
monument builder of all, the Bayon lies at the heart of the walled city
of Angkor Thom.
If you tire of temples, there is plenty more to
see. We tour a tiny corner of the huge Tonle Sap Lake, where villagers
have had to adapt to a constantly changing environment. For six months
every year, the Tonle Sap River, a tributary of the Mekong, reverses
its flow and runs uphill, swelling the lake to around 10,000 sq km,
more than triple its dry-season size.
To cope, surrounding
houses are on stilts up to 10m high, while at Chong Kneas, residents
live on houseboats and floating platforms. We pass a floating school,
police station, church and even a (well-fenced) basketball court before
the clouds open and pelting rain produces a deafening percussion on our
boat’s tin roof.
 
We
take respite at a floating crocodile farm, but for the locals a bit of
water is clearly just part of life. Alongside us, children delight in
the downpour, splashing each other joyously from their bowl-like
vessels. A picture of childish innocence, they are still savvy enough
to know that providing a photo opportunity to tourists could be worth a
dollar or two.
Siem Reap itself is a lively town with an
attractive centre featuring colonial shophouses and pavement cafes. The
main restaurant and bar strip is found along Pub Street, while there
are plenty of upmarket jewellery and clothing boutiques in the
alleyways around the Old Market.
The busy market is crammed with
silkwares, handbags, clothing and basketry. It is a great place for
souvenirs, but the best purchases we make in Siem Reap can be found at
the Blue Pumpkin bakery and ice-creamery, where we fill our cones with
flavours like green lemons and kaffir lime, caramel and cashew, and
dark chocolate.
A doorway engulfed by tree roots at Bayon Temple.
We eat incredibly well in Siem Reap. The FCC
(Foreign Correspondents Club), next to the Royal Residence, looks
dauntingly funky as we draw up in our tuk-tuk full of
chattering children, but proves an ideal dining venue with a huge lawn
where the kids can run while we savour our cocktails and fusion
cuisine. At Viroth’s, on Wat Bo Road, we sample delicious local dishes
like fish amok and fried eggplant with minced pork.
On
our final morning, we transcend skyward in the Sokha Yellow Balloon, a
tethered hot air balloon that reaches a height of around 200m. The rice
paddies stretch beneath us, a carpet of impossible green reaching to
Angkor Wat, which is simultaneously imposing and serene.
Perhaps
it is the silence away from the tour groups, but the temple is somehow
even more majestic from above — it is a shame the thousands who
laboured to create it never enjoyed this perspective.
At the
children’s request, though with little resistance from us, we manage a
last visit to Dr Feet before cramming into a pair of tuk-tuk,
our feet resting on suitcases and hair tousled in the breeze as we make
our way to the airport. It is a memorable way to leave.
And, we all agree, it has been a truly memorable holiday. 
Categories: Angkor Wat, Travel