Tomb-Raiding Angkor


“Soaring skywards and surrounded by a moat that would make its European Castle counterparts blush, Angkor Wat is one of the most inspired and spectacular monuments ever conceived by the human mind.” ~Lonely Planet

You can look at all the pictures of what is often called the 8th Wonder of the World you want. But NOTHING compares to visiting Cambodia and seeing the expansively moving temples in person. Even Lara Croft can’t resist their charms.

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, rear entry of Angkor Wat WM

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, admiring the gallery of carvings WMCambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, Buddha in the central tower WMAngkor (អង្គរ or នគរ, “Capital City”), as a preserve and park, is more than one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia; it’s one of the most important in the world. Stretching over a massive region just outside of the city of Siem Reap, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent ruins of many different ancient capitals of the Khmer Empire from the 9th through the 15th centuries. As such, Angkor has been designated as a UNESCO world heritage site since 1992, and many programs have been emplaced to help safeguard this symbolic place along with much of its surroundings. While, yes, of course Angkor Wat is the most famous and perhaps best known, there are many, many more temple ruins that, in many ways, are even more fascinating than the prime tourist draw.

Lara Croft's door at the Tomb Raider Temple.  Ugh.

Lara Croft’s door at the Tomb Raider Temple. Ugh.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm, ruined tree 2 WMBut please, for the love of god, don’t bring up Tomb Raider or what has become to be known as the “Angelina Jolie Temple.” Oh, right: too late. Our guide was only too happy to refer to the 12th century temple of Ta Prohm in just that way. I’ll admit, not being either a Tomb Raider or Angelina Jolie fan, I was almost completely unaware that filming had occurred there in 2000. But locals don’t suffer from such a lapse; they’ve renamed the temple from the scene above after her.

The Majesty of Ta Prohm

The Majesty of Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm, along with the more familiar Angkor Wat both served as the setting for a long sequence of scenes in Tomb Raider. Okay, okay, I admit that we did rent and watch Tomb Raider when we got home from our trip, and although I kept falling asleep during most of the flick (not a fan, ‘member?), the scenes involving Angkor were curious and noteworthy.

lara-croft-ta-prohm1

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

For the movie, sets were built around Angkor Wat, providing more of a nondescript Oriental feel than that of Khmer. An exotically bucolic village was built around the and on stilts in the waters of the reflecting pond in front of the iconic temple. The scenes of Lara Croft paddling a canoe through the village are idyllic, but it’s the scenes of Lara following a sassy child and magical butterflies through Ta Prohm that have stolen the imagination for modern-day visitors to that site.

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, tower through the trees WM

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, admiring the galleries WMCambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, carved corridors WMThe ruins of Angkor are located amid dense rain forests and fertile farmland to the north of Tonlé Sap lake near modern-day Siem Reap city. The temples found there number over a thousand, although many are barely recognizable piles of rubble or as yet unearthed mounds still relatively lost in the jungle. Angkor Wat, the centerpiece and pride of the capacious complex, is described as the world’s largest religious monument. The place can be so spiritually moving to experience that almost two million visit annually, a unstainable number given the soft sandstone that those four million feet are trampling upon.

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, arriving at Angkor Wat! 2 WM

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, restful doorjam WMCambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, shooting in a corridor WMOur guide was crafty about visiting the various temple sites. Saving Angkor Wat for almost last (that last visit will be featured in its own blog!), we entered from the rear of the temple, almost entirely alone, with blue skies beaming over the steep ruins with the sun in our faces. Having been there previously in 2007 (see Power in Poverty for more on that particular Far East Fling), I had expected the “usual” entrance, walking the long King’s causeway to the main temple entrance. However, that route is what everyone else takes, and can be quite chaotic. We literally had the temple much to ourselves for the first half of our tour there.

Cambodia 2015,  Angkor Wat, candlesticks 2 WM

Ruins at Angkor

Ruins at Angkor

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, carved ceremonial headdress WMIn the last decade international team of scientists and archeologists concluded that Angkor had been the largest pre-industrial city in the world approaching an area of 390 square miles of ancient urban sprawl, a figure of which any modern metropolis would be infamously proud. Angkor is perhaps best characterized as a “hydraulic city” due to its extensive water management construction and engineering which systematically stabilized, stored, and dispersed water throughout the area, key to sustaining such a large population by using irrigated agriculture. It is believed by some that the complex supported up to one million people, although the actual number is hotly debated and most likely will never be known with any degree of certainty.

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, carved hands WM

Visiting Restrictions

Visiting Restrictions

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, carved hands WMThe temple was much as I remembered, except there were many more visitors to Angkor than I experience eight years previous. The biggest change was the control exercised by park officials in controlling not only the number of guests allowed at any time in the highest central tower, but the enforcement of a respectable dress code, which required women to have skirts/dresses below their knees and their shoulders covered.

Library at Angkor Wat

Library at Angkor Wat

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, khmer female carved in stone WMCambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, temple tower 2 WMAngkor Wat was originally founded as a Hindu temple (Wat is Khmer for “temple grounds” or literally “enclosure”), but gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple toward the end of the 12th century, a not uncommon occurrence in ancient Khmer as different rulers declared different national approaches to religion. It was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in the then capital of the Khmer Empire as his state temple and eventual mausoleum. It is, at once and without doubt, the best-preserved temple of Angkor, and is believed to be the only site to have remained a significant religious center since its foundation. It is so an indivisible part of Cambodia’s culture that it is the national symbol appearing on Cambodia’s flag.

Cambodia 2015,  Angkor Wat, reflecting WM

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, carved woman WMCambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, Kevin resting at the top levelThe temple is at once a study in grandeur of architecture and harmony of purpose, and is known for its extensive bas-reliefs along the ground-floor galleries and for almost innumerable stone devata adorning its upper reaches. Angkor Wat combines two basic plans of Khmer temple architecture: the temple-mountain and the galleried temple. The center of the wat is meant to represent the quincunx of peaks of Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology (devas are also a feature of Buddhism). Surrounding the temples central towers are three long rectangular galleries, each raised above the next. This layered approach elevates the already tall towers, resulting in a primeval yet enduring skyline well above the surrounding jungle. The sheer size of the structure is stunning; I continue to attempt to fathom how a people living on the edge of existence could build such massive stone structures without tools or machinery. Constructing Angkor Wat today would be tough, even using our modern approaches and equipment.

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, corner tower from the courtyard WM

It seems that Tomb Raider has really not done any favors for Angkor. Tourists come and perhaps role play the part of Lara as an adventurer and explorer, often climbing over and otherwise treating Ta Prohm more as a movie set than a profoundly sacred site that which it is. In fact, you can find the temple actually called “Tomb Raider Temple” in some guide books, and every tuk-tuk driver knows exactly where to take you when the movie or Ms. Croft is referenced. Back in town in and around Siem Reap, tourists can easily find the “Tomb Raider cocktail,” nothing more than a mixture of Cointreau, soda and lime, but which is claimed to be one of the favored adult beverages of Angelina. These modern facets of visiting Angkor Wat blurs the boundaries of what is real and authentic, with that which is purely fiction. The result is that Angkor for some (or even many) is slowly being cheated of its culturally and historically importance known to the few, and becoming more of a disemboweled Hollywood visual spectacle to the masses.

Cambodia 2015,  Angkor Wat, in love with Angkor Wat WM

 

Getting There: A 5-6 hour bus, taxi or boat ride gets you from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. However, it’s the close and convenient airport in Siem Reap that offers the best option, providing regular service to Phnom Penh and abroad to international destinations such as Bangkok, Singapore, and Seoul.

Visiting: The bustling tourist town of Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor. There one can find lodging, dining, and tour-packages to match any budget or taste. Those interested in exploring more remote and off-the-beaten-path areas can hire cars with guides, tuk-tuks for a day for about $20, or, as the cheapest option, motorbikes which provide perhaps the fastest if not most dangerously adventuresome way to tailor an itinerary. The yellow tethered Angkor balloon ride is a great way to get a unique aerial perspective of Angkor Wat, but only go in the afternoon when the sun favors the view from above. See Monkeying Around in Cambodia for a truly terrific zip-line experience that can be had within the archeological park..

When to Go: Peak tourist season runs late November through early February, during Cambodia’s dry season where temperatures and humidity are not so oppressive. “Feels-like” heat starts to soar in spring, peaking in April and holding steady through the monsoon season of May and June. Rains continue, albeit reduced, through the summer until October, becoming more sporadic the longer a traveler waits. In my opinion, avoiding the crushing crowds is worth risking a rain shower (or two). Plus, the surrounding fields turn green and rice paddies flood with the rains, although some of the more remote sites can be washed out due to poor roads and limited access.

Cambodia 2015,  Angkor Wat, Kevin and Jody enjoying the wat 2 WM

For More Information, See:

http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/668/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor_Wat

http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/world-heritage/angkor/

Monkeying around in Cambodia: Flight of the Gibbon


 

The only gibbons we saw were caged in a wildlife rescue center.

The gibbons we saw were in a wildlife rescue center.

flight-of-the-gibbon-logoIn 2007, a group of friends were enjoying one of their frequent rainforest walks in the mountains surrounding Chiang Mai, Thailand, when they came across a pair of Gibbons (a type of lessor ape – no monkey – found in the tropical rain forests of Southeast and South Asia) locked in a roadside cage. They had been abandoned to die a horrible death from starvation and dehydration. Shocked and outraged, the nature lovers immediately rescued these rare, officially endangered animals. While slowly nursing the pair back to health, this group of activists started to develop a plan to create positive ecological change in our world…and Flight of the Gibbon was born.

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Now one of the leading global eco-adventure tour operators in Southeast Asia, Flight of the Gibbon offers franchises in Cambodia and Thailand, all which offer truly phenomenal zip-lines, some of the highest, fastest and longest found anywhere in the world. But it’s not all about thrilling adventures; the organization invests 10% of their profits in primate re-habilitation, re-forestation projects and ecological education programs.

Cambodia 2015, Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, backscratch for a hairy friend WM

We were not surprised to see that the site in Siem Reap was operated by an Aussie. We arrived very early, hoping to get our morning adventure complete before the oppressive heat and humidity of the Cambodia day set upon us. We arrived so early that we were able to witness just how rigorous their safety checks and “sky ranger” morning brief actually were. As our rangers (guides) told us during our tour, since the jobs created by Flight of the Gibbon pay so well and are considered skilled and “fun,” they are highly sought after. Thus, there is no issue getting the locals to follow the strict protocols for safety, operations and maintenance demanded of such activities.

Cambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, Kevin and Jody

Likewise, it’s no surprise that the courses were designed and engineered to exacting standards by a world-class international team of experts in Europe. Structurally speaking, Flight of the Gibbon uses the safest zip-line engineering methods used anywhere in the world. At the same time, however, the zip-lines are constructed in such a way to avoid harm to the trees which physically support the course.

Cambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, smiles

Cambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, zipping through the jungle 2 WMCambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, Kevin hooked upThe group of like-minded thrill-seekers we were supposed to fly with were running very late, and after chit-chatting with our new Aussie friend, he decided that we would go as our own group as soon as morning checks were complete on the course. Not ten minutes later we were gearing up with our own private “sky rangers,” two young men in their very early 20s who spoke fairly decent English. The Sky Rangers are not just there to help ensure everyone’s safety. They also act as eco-tour guides, explaining various aspects and elements of the jungle as you move through the upper reaches of its canopy.

Cambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, Jody on the way down WM

Cambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, Kevin zipping through the Angkor jungleCambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, kiss on the honeymoon lines 2Flight of the Gibbon in Siem Reap is unique in another aspect: it is located within the UNESCO World Heritage Site Angkor Archeological Park. Located minutes away from the majestic Khmer temple of Angkor Wat and massive complex of Angkor Thom, it easy to combine a couple of hours swinging in the jungle with an afternoon of touring the local pagodas. Your reservation comes with roundtrip transfer, park entrance (if you don’t already have a pass), bottled water, and a rustic Cambodia meal, and is currently $109/pp. That price also includes a full $20 credit to be used in the on-site store, a fantastic marketing ploy. We walked away with two rather high-quality tee-shirts and a couple of drink koozies.

Rest Break high up in the Treehouse!

Rest Break high up in the Treehouse!

Cambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, Jody on a long-line WMI have been ziplining around the world, from sites in the American Rockies, to mountain tops in Costa Rica, to Japan (see Zip-a-dee-doo-dah for the experience available on Okinawa). I have more than a few experiences under my belt. The course at Angkor is mid-sized, consisting of ten ziplines crisscrossing over and through the jungle canopy. There are also four hanging bridges, a rest break at a treehouse perched high above the surrounding jungle, and an 150 feet rappel descent at the very end. But what makes this adventure so spectacular is the shear height of the course, most of which occurs well above 125 feet. The view from and cool breeze found at the treehouse is exceptional, and is exceptionally located at what we were told was a full 70 meters off the ground!!

Course Map

Course Map

Cambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, zipping through the jungle WMCambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, high treehouseAlthough new to Cambodia, Flight of the Gibbon was quick to introduce their first reforestation project in Cambodia by planting 5,000 new trees within the Angkor Park in 2015. And they have even bigger plans when it comes to apes: the white-handed gibbon has been lost to the forests of Angkor for decades now. But in 2013, Flight of the Gibbon helped fund the reintroduction of a pair of mating gibbons within the jungles of the Angkor Archeological Park. Their first babies have already been born, the first live, free births in those forests in almost a century. Although the website talks about a chance to see the wild gibbons, don’t count on it. Those apes have no need for ziplines, and no doubt stay well clear of most of humanity.

Off on the Double "Honeymoon" Zipline!

Off on the Double “Honeymoon” Zipline!

Cambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, Jody bridged WMCambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, kevin bridged WMBut what about those abandoned Gibbons found roadside in Thailand? After their rescue, Tong Lorde (“Golden Straw”) and Tong Dee (”Good Gold”) were rehabilitated and re-released in Thailand, but only after having been taught how to look after themselves in the wild. They too have had their own babies, born free in the wild. And maybe one day soon, we all will be able to hear their calls and even catch a glimpse of them swinging through the rainforests of Angkor.

Cambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, Kevin on the way down

For now, Flight of the Gibbon is as close as we can get. The eco-adventure is well worth the cost and a visit!

Cambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, peaceful break in the course's treehouse

Contact for Cambodia:

Int’l. Phone: +66 53 010 660

Cambodia Phone: 096 9999101

Email: info@treetopasia.com

http://www.treetopasia.com