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Angkor Wat: Compelling In Cambodia

SIEM REAP, Cambodia — We’d only walked a few hundred yards into Angkor Wat, the city of temples that everybody visiting Cambodia makes a point of seeing, when we were approached by a young man who wanted to sell us a book. There aren’t many street vendors in this city, but there are some, so this was our lucky day.

“Only twenty dollars,” he said.

We negotiated, because that’s what you do in countries like Cambodia. It’s a game, we’re Angkor Wat-3told. We bought the book for ten bucks. As he walked away in pursuit of his next client, we looked inside the front cover and discovered the book was 12 years old.

Oh well, if nothing about Angkor Wat had changed in 900 years, what could have changed in the last 12?

While it’s all so old, it’s new to first-time tourists. It’s also intimidating. There’s no place like it, although in India the government is building a quasi-replica after seeing how many tourists this one attracts. Only the devout students of architecture and/or history would Angkor Wat-7make the trek to Cambodia just to see Angkor Wat but anybody who happens to be here would feel compelled to see what the fuss was about, since it’s the country’s No. 1 tourist attraction.

We happen to be here because we’re en route to taking our first river cruise, on the AmaDara, the new AmaWaterways ship making its first trip south on the Mekong River from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Because we’re here, Angkor Wat becomes a must.

What is it?

We’ve visited old temples in many places and even to our uneducated eyes, this is unique. It’s Templeland, which means — like Disneyland — you have to consider a three-day pass Angkor Wat-8that costs $40. Since we only have two days, we opt for the one-day pass of $20. For that, you get a taste of Angkor Wat, a 200-square tract of land in the Cambodian countryside that has more temples than even a marathoner could see in 72 hours.

It opens at 5:30 every morning, 365 days a year, and many people go that early to catch the sunrise behind the signature temple, called (surprise, surprise) Angkor Wat. Estimating Angkor Wat-2the size of crowds is impossible but it’s safe to say there are many, many thousands of visitors every day. Many of those are first-timers, like us.

The main temple is a healthy walk from the entrance, made healthier if you climb its 47 steps to the third (top) level. But since most of us only go this way once, who’s going to stay at the bottom?

You will see paths leading off to the surrounding forest…the one we took introduced us to young monks that we playfully called Little Monkees, plus some interesting buildings that Angkor Wat-6couldn’t rival the temples, plus some peace and quiet. You will also likely see elephants at work, giving tourists rides. And, unfortunately, you will see fellow tourists who don’t respect the “rules” of solitude, of removing hats in the temples, of covering shoulders and knees, and of leaving their luggage at home.

Cambodian officials tolerate the offenders.

“If you don’t come,” said one, “I don’t have a job.”

The photos of this and other temples tell you more about them than our words can. What we can tell you is that the preferred mode of travel, in our opinion, is by tuk-tuk. The Angkor Wat-4Cambodian version of the taxi will take you to the park (or city) from Siem Reap (about seven miles away), and from one temple to the next, in some cases a mile or more apart.

Our tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Nary, spoke passable English but not enough to be a tour guide. Each temple has people who do that, for a fee of course, but we didn’t feel inclined, since we were there for more of an overview than for specific facts about temples.

Besides, for that, we had our book.

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