The smell is terrible. It’s 5:30 am.
I’m digging through my clothes in the dark for something to wear on our morning adventure: microlight flying over the Angkor Wat temples and Tonle Sap lake of Cambodia.
Adventure Travel’s Holy Grail
The ripe stench is my clothes, which at the four week point, have reached the toxic waste stage. We brought Woolite but Trish somehow used all 3 ounces to clean a small sink full of her underwear back in Dunhuang.
With a futile shake, as if I can whip out the smell, I put on the pants and shirt that seem least offensive and go wake up the girls.
Our Tuk Tuk driver is out front and he speaks good english. “What’s your name? Good morning.” I say. “Wandar” he replies, pronouncing the W mixed with a V sound. How appropriate. The little Tuk Tuk goes broom broom and lurches into the dark alley and onto the main road.
We pass a little sign on the side of the road a few houses up “LAUNDRY 1KG = 1$” Oh thank god. Just down the street from hour hotel is the holy grail of adventure travel: cheap laundry service.
Lily is too small again
The dirt airstrip is red clay, like everything in the lower half of Cambodia, flat and red. Two guys hurry over to out tuk tuk, a young guy and an older one, both ex-pats from England and America respectively.
They are in a hurry. The morning is the only time to fly a microlilght aircraft, by 10am or so, the earth heats up and creates thermals. It doesn’t affect a plane, but it makes it too uncomfortable for the tourists. We’re late, too.
“She can’t go, there’s no way I can get a helmet on her that would be safe’ Eddie, the American tells me. Lily starts to cry. Months ago when I made the reservation, she told me that she didn’t want to do this. But we took a short flight in China in Dunhuang, and she liked it enough that I added her to our reservation.
It brings tears to her eyes that she can’t go, but I promise her she’ll get some kind of present as compensation. Eddie takes her over to the aircraft to try out the helmet anyway, just in case it fits and I go sign the release papers.
Microlight aircraft at Angkor
Trip Advisor says this is an expensive but great thing to do in Angkor. You fly a few thousand feet over the ancient temples in a hang glider with a small motor attached. It sounds dangerous and might be. They are somewhat new to the tourist trade.
Angkor Wat is frequently the name given to the entire area, not just the main temple that also bears it’s name. But it’s properly just ‘Angkor’ because wat means temple.
There are over a thousand temples here in various states of disrepair (including completely gone – right) and it would still take days to see them by air, and weeks by road. Trish and I are getting an hour and Emma 30 minutes.
We flew microlights for 5minutes each in China at Dunhuang over the desert and the little aircraft were a little smaller and lacked voice communications between the pilot and passenger.
“Well, I”m as surprised as you, but she fits in that helmet. She can fly.” Eddie says. Lily looks relieved and Emma and I hug her. She’s been sadly moping at the airstrip ‘office’ which consists of a thatched roof, a tile floor, a table and chairs and two small motorbikes.
Eddie points at me and yells ‘Let’s go, we gotta get moving.’ Once strapped in, we smoothly take off and the air is damp and cool in the stiff breeze, almost chilly but I can’t complain about being cold in Southeast Asia in July.
Eddie stays close to the ground, only about 1500 feet. Farmers with water buffalo in the rice fields wave to us, and Eddie waves back to them. He points out a group of 4 water buffalo running through the rice paddies making V-waves like boats. We got up early so the sun would be close to the horizon.
He points out a temple on a hillside called Phnom Khrom (right) that I want to visit later for a sunset. The above view this close to the ground is amazing. I feel like superman.
The ancient sea bed.
What we now call Cambodia was once (mostly) all ocean, then a huge inland lake, and is now cultivatable low-lying plain. Rice fields are everywhere. Eddie points out a farmer tilling paddies, which have turned white. The clay soil has a lot of salt, still buried from the time it was ocean, and it comes up when tilled.
The main lake is called Tonle Sap and is about 1000 sq miles at it’s low point, but expands 10 times that size during the rainy season. There are famous villages, some floating (above), and some stilted in the flood plain (left). We might go visit them, but apparently the best time is when it’s flooded and you can row through the forest, much like our experience in the Amazon this spring.
The main attraction
Eddie points out the oldest (major) temple in Angkor Bakong as we fly overhead at about 2000 feet. He can get as low as 1500 on a less windy day. His only competition for airspace are the helicopters, for which you would pay almost $1600 to get a view similar to ours (with the helicopter door open.)
The temples are beautiful against the rice fields. Most of them were originally for Hindu worship and symbolically represent Mt. Meru, which were 5 sacred mountains that sat in the cosmic ocean. Many, many angkor temples have a moat and five spires in analogy to the sacred peak where life began.
Uninteresting from ground level, there are dozens of ancient temple sites clearly identifiable by air, that no longer have structures. The Angkor area has over a thousand identified temple sites, and many more that are yet to be uncovered.
Underneath us now is Pre Rup (right above), one of the sites I hope to get to. It’s in the main area of Angkor and has beautiful spires that are still in decent shape.
The Big Momma Temple
We’ve been flying north now for a while since we left the lake, but we take a turn to the West toward the big momma of all temples, Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious building. Angkor Wat is the cornerstone of the region’s art and influence with massive scale and size, but incredible bas-relief detail of history and religion inside.
It has the famous outer moat and walls, but it’s the five pillars that symbolize Cambodia. Angkor Wat has been on the Cambodian flag in one way or another since the 1800’s. Even the Khmer Rouge adopted it. I can’t wait to get there later today for sunset.
As we land on the red clay air strip, Eddie says he will have to reschedule his later clients because the winds are picking up and people will get airsick. But he can do the rest of the family if we hurry.
Lily, however, has decided not to go now, despite everyone’s efforts earlier to do it safely. I’m not surprised, and given the possibility of turbulence, it’s not a poor decision.
Emma and Trish go next, and love it. Trish has to fly a little higher because of winds, but seeing Angkokr from the air is really a great experience.
It’s not as dramatic as I expected, though and I don’t think I’d do it again especially for the cost, which was $340 for 2.5 hours of flying time. (Not that that’s expensive for what it is, but it’s still an expensive activity for SE Asia.)
Naps at the Kool Hotel
Our hotel is called Kool Hotel and is a little bit away from the city center, although not so far that it matters practically because we are only going to be at the hotel and at the temples.
Kool was another trip advisor pick, somewhere in the top ten. It’s surprisingly empty. Trip advisor highly-recommended hotels often are jammed. We go to breakfast after the flights because it’s only 9:30. They serve good eggs but lousy coffee. Emma really likes the bananna shake made with condensed milk. On the road, any way to get more calories and protein into Emma is a great thing.
The pool is cute, and the garden area is quiet. Ironically the ‘Kool’ hotel restaurant doesn’t have air conditioning, but as we discovered at dinner last night, they blow lots of fans and it gets comfortable enough.
The dinner food was good too. Khmer items on the menu were $3.50 each and two dishes made a big dinner. One would be a solid snack. They had ‘quesadillas’ and tuna sandwiches that kept the girls happy.
Kool wouldn’t put us together in a single rooms, but I splurged on two rooms because a) they were cheap – about $75 a night and b) Trish and I needed a break. It’s still fantastic that we can save money by all staying in the same room. This is probably the last year we can do this because the ‘adult’ cut-off is often 12 years old, which Emma will be by the next time we travel.
But damn, it can be hard living on top of one another. Trish, the primary introvert of the family, finds it particularly difficult. She needs her own private space every day, and repeated weeks of communal living can make her grumpy.
(Plus with kids, mommy and daddy can’t snuggle. Right Trish? Right? We’ve been on the road so long that this is how Trish appears to me (right) in my naughty dreams now – with her travel bag in an ancient temple – Preah Kahn)
Even though I’ve just had two cups of coffee I pass out asleep at 10:30 am. The red eye from Pakistan yesterday and then getting up at 5am today is too much for even me. The girls don’t get enough sleep in general when we travel. They doze off too.
A few hours later, I’m ordering coffee again at the hotel pool, and trying ot remember what day it is. I have that dream-like travel feeling where I don’t know exactly where I am and not sure exactly what day it is. After a snack of grilled beef on skewers in fish sauce with a spicy carrot slaw salad on the side, we find tuk-tuk driver Wandar outside.
Apparently he is our ‘assigned’ Tuk Tuk driver from the hotel. Often hotel consigned drivers are expensive, but he charges about $10 bucks for 4-5 hours, which seems fine for 4 people. And we pay him directly, but then he pays the hotel some kind of commission. This is all part of the complex hidden tourist economy we don’t see.
I’m dropping off the laundry and Wandar argues with me a little. I’m not following the ‘typical’ tourist itinerary. He’s only trying to be helpful. Leaving at 2pm is heresy because you pay for a full day and only get an hour or two. (But I know that 3 days cost the same as 2, and we only have 2 more daysafter this.) And starting with a lesser temple Preah Kahn is unheard of – you always go to Angkor Wat first. What? We are ending with sunrise at Angkor Wat? That is just wrong he explains – because everyone goes to Phenom Bakheng for the sunset.
But I have my reasons. I have a strategy for dealing with crowds at Angkor Wat.
Our first temple will be Preah Kahn, one of the 10 or so that I hope to hit while we are there. It’s mid-afternoon and the sun is beginning to get a little lower in the sky. We buy our 3-day tickets for $40 each – Emma and Lily are free.
40 minutes later we are at the entrance. It’s no ordinary drive through to a site. There are temples everywhere, big ones and little ones.
It looks like a video game
Preah Kahn is a major temple, but not the most popular by far. Angkor is overwhelming in scale. This would be a must-see site anywhere else in the world, but here it’s maybe #9 or #10. Awesome.
It’s roughly in the shape of a cross and we make our way toward the center. The rooms are alternatively dark and light depending on the angle of the sun and the position of the room. There are fields of rubble and boulders in the little courtyards and on the walkways. Some collapsed ceiling block the open doorways making it look like a video game.
The kids are in awe. They climb around on the ancient stone temple and explore the huge complex. We pass Buddhas that were gradually added as Cambodia changed from a Hindu to Buddhist nation. Lily gushes ‘ This is amazing! I can’t wait to bring my friend Lena here!’ (Lily talks the whole trip about travel she will do in High School with our neighbor Lena. Her plan nearly perfectly matches our current adventure.)
Toward the back are some interesting Greek inspired architecture, which looks out of place but also contrastingly beautiful. (all the way bottom) The sun is lower now, just an hour before sunset and we are completely inspired to be here in Angkor. I can’t wait for the next few days of exploration.
Sunset at Angkor Wat
Sunrise is the traditional time to see Angkor Wat, but it is also a zoo of tour groups trying to get the backlit shot of Angkor Wat’s temples. It’s a beautiful photo, but we will try a quieter place for sunrise tomorrow morning. Instead I opt for Angkor Wat at sunset, which I hope will offer the same from the other side.
We explore a bit and it’s remarkable for it’s size. But I’ve miscalculated and they close at 5pm, about 45 minutes before the sunset. It’s still an enjoyable visit, and we’ll be back in a few days to explore longer.
Market and Massage
The day ends with a quick trip to the night market, where Emma buys a very nice pair of bamboo flip-flops for about $6 and Trish tries on a lot of silk and cotton dresses but none fit well. We are tired.
But the day ends with a royal treatment. All four of us get massages in our rooms. They aren’t the best, but damn, how can you hate a $15, one- hour massage? I groggily set the alarm for 4:30am. Tomorrow we will see the sunrise.