Consequently, visiting the sites can be frustrating due to the crowds of other travelers. Fortunately, Tom and I stayed at Amansara which enabled us to tour the temples without the madness of jostling amongst the crowds.
A stay at Amansara includes two daily tours with a highly knowledgeable and experienced English-speaking guide. Guests are also provided a personal remork (moped-powered trishaw) to travel in comfort from site to site. To maintain consistency and personal relationships, guests retain the same guide and driver throughout their residence at Amansara. Tom and I were lucky to have Mean as our guide and Ponleou to transport us to the various historical sites.
Tours conducted by Amansara guides are thoughtfully planned and executed. Typically, tours are held in the early morning and again at 3 PM. This is to prevent sightseeing at the hottest time of day and to visit temples when there are fewer tourists about. Although tours are conducted during a “cooler” time of day, Siem Reap is still stifling hot and humid. As a guest at Amansara, when we return sweaty and dusty to our remork after touring a temple, Ponleou greeted us with cool, lemongrass scented washcloths and a cold bottle of water. This touching refresher always invigorated us as Mean escorted us in our discovery of the next temple.
Although we toured temples during “non-peak” times, there are still other visitors exploring the temples. Luckily Mean, with his ten years of experience, takes us to “secret” entrances and places on the grounds that are off the beaten track. Because of this remarkable insight, often Tom and I were the only explorers around.
Our first tour included the exploration of two temples in addition to Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer empire. The first stop was the Temple of Ta Nei. If you want to find an “undiscovered” temple, this is it! The majority of guides and drivers don’t know about its’ existence. Luckily, we were in Mean’s knowledgeable hands. Ta Nei is set deep within the jungle and is dedicated to the principles of Buddhism. This ruin is untouched by preservation efforts, allowing us to see accurately what nearly 900 years of jungle growth and trees can do to the stone construction.
Our next stop was Ta Keo. What stood out in our minds was the sheer magnitude of the Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. While most of the temples are highly decorated with carvings, construction of Ta Keo appeared to have stopped mid-carving. Perhaps it was due to a change of leadership at the time? One exciting thing we did was scale to the top of the pyramid-like temple. It’s fascinating to see how massive the temple is from the top!
Finally, we ended the first day’s tour at Angkor Thom. The area is secured with a wall and five gates. Directly in the center of this development is the Bayon Temple, which is the symbolic link between heaven and earth. Bayon Temple is Buddhist. It is a complicated construction consisting of 3 levels of towers and galleries. What stood out for Tom and I were all of the carved faces on each of the 54 towers. It was also fascinating to see the bas-reliefs still well preserved on the gallery walls.
The next day we visited the famed Angkor Wat at sunrise. Rather than elbowing our way through the swarms of tourists at the Western entrance, Mean escorted us to the Eastern approach. With only a few other families taking this approach, we felt like the temple was putting on a spectacular sunrise show for a private audience. Just before sunrise, Mean led us upstairs to the top of the temple and showed us a fantastic spot to watch the night turn to day. He then left us along to enjoy the moment. Typically, this area doesn’t open until 7:30 am, however, Mean worked his magic, and we got to enjoy the temple with only a handful of other tourists. From our vantage point, we could see the masses gathered at the Western entrance. After sunrise, once again we moved in the opposite direction of the crowds. We walked to the Western entrance while everyone else moved to inside the temple.
Our final tour occurred later that afternoon. We visited the famed “Jungle” Temple, Ta Prohm, famous for being the location where Lara Croft was filmed. When we approached the temple, we noticed a huge swarm of tourists at the entrance. Sensing our hesitation, Mean assured us that we were going to a “secret” entrance. True to his word, Mean took us to a gate where we were the only visitors around. The stark silence of the opening made Ta Prohm feel even more majestic. Once we entered the heart of the temple, we met the crowds again. However, Mean steered us to unexplored galleries and pointed out some magnificent stone reliefs partially obscured from the dense foliage that we would have easily missed. Naturally, the uniqueness of Ta Prohm is due to the web of tree roots and vines were covering much of (and becoming integrated with) the ruins.
Had we not stayed at Amansara, we still would have visited the magnificent Temples of Angkor. However, the tours would have been the same as any other tourist’s. Mean was fantastic about sharing the uniqueness of each temple. He continually surprised both Tom and me with breadth and depth of information. And Mean found continuously ways for us to enjoy the temples without being inundated with the masses. Tom and I had a fantastic time discovering the magnificent temples and cannot imagine a better touring experience than that provided by Amansara.