A Grumpy Old Man Revisits Angkor
For a start, the place is more crowded now. Much more crowded.
The senior traveller, now in his early 70s, first visited Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor more than 11 years earlier, in 2007. He enjoyed it so much that he returned a year later.
Now he’s here again, on his third visit, after a gap of more than a decade.
The larger crowds don’t surprise him. He’s here over the new year period, one of the busiest times at Angkor. It’s Cambodia’s dry season and the temperatures, though still high – it’s always hot and muggy here – are at their least oppressive. Tourists have arrived in large numbers for their end-of-year holidays. Visitor arrivals from China are particularly high this year.
He doesn’t have as much energy as he once did, though, and crowds exhaust him. He decides to visit the temples in comfort. Back in 2007, he hired a tuk-tuk to take him from Siem Reap to nearby Angkor and from one temple to another. This time, through his hotel, he arranges an air-conditioned car. The young driver is friendly and seems helpful.
He sets out on a half-day visit to the ‘big three’ temples: Angkor Wat, the largest and most famous of them all; the Bayon temple with its huge stone faces; and Ta Prohm, partially devoured over the centuries by large fig trees whose roots are intertwined with the temple walls.
His one-day pass costs US$37. The cost of a pass almost doubled from $20 in 2017. This didn’t deter visitors. Nearly 2.5 million people visited Angkor Wat in 2017, 12 percent more than in 2016.
His tour begins at Angkor Wat. It’s as immense and stunning as he remembered, one of Earth’s great places. Everywhere he notices details he’d overlooked before. The bas-relief carvings of apsaras, dancing girls, and devatas, female temple guardians, shine with centuries-old beauty and grace.
But some of the groups of visitors are using audio guides without headphones, with the volume turned up loud so everyone in the group can hear. The sound is invasive. And the temple’s central areas are too crowded for his liking; strangers intrude into almost every photo he takes. But the sheer size of the complex helps compensate for the crowds.
Many of the walkways are uneven and he needs to tread cautiously. He begins watching his steps even more carefully after a middle-aged Japanese woman nearby slips and twists her ankle.
When he returns to his car a little earlier than agreed, it is locked and the driver is nowhere to be found. After searching irritably for a while he finds the driver some distance away, chatting to a girl.
The next stop, the Bayon temple, is even more impressive than he remembers, with its towers and serene stone faces. But it’s more compact than Angkor Wat and the crowds are more intense.
It’s hard to take a photo without other visitors getting in the way. And when he stops to look at one of the massive faces or admire some intricate carving, other visitors ask him to move away so they can take their own photos.
When he leaves the temple and returns to the car park, his car is nowhere to be found. Why has the driver moved it, and where is he? His irritation rising, he walks back and forth in the blazing heat, and back and forth again, searching in vain for the car.
Eventually it dawns on him that he may have left the temple by a different exit. The four exits look a little similar: a path leading from the temple through trees to the road, where cars and buses are parked and vendors sell souvenirs, food and drinks. It’s easy to confuse one exit with another, especially if you’re not paying enough attention.
He pays a tuk-tuk driver to take him slowly to the other exits, while he keeps a look out for the car. Sure enough, he finds the car at the first exit they come to. He is glad he had earlier photographed the driver and made a note of the registration number. The driver is waiting near the car and greets him with a friendly wave.
Back in the car, with a bottle of ice-cold water and a jasmine-infused wet face towel in hand, his mood lightens at once. It was his fault, not the driver’s, and no one is taking advantage of him. This makes him feel much better.
He thoroughly enjoys the drive through the jungle from here to Ta Prohm. They pass other, smaller temples on the way. If these were stand-alone temples anywhere else in the world, they would be huge attractions in their own right; here they play second fiddle and attract mainly visitors with more time at their disposal.
At Ta Prohm, he marvels at how nature has had its revenge on humans, reclaiming areas carved out of the jungle 800 years earlier.
The crowds no longer bother him. He treats them as part of the experience and engages in people watching: younger visitors jumping about like gazelles, noisy tour groups following guides carrying flags, older people like himself struggling with some of the higher steps but pressing on determinedly.
He deliberately incorporates his fellow visitors into his photos rather than wishing he could exclude them. He remembers that when he looks at old photos he took as a backpacker in Asia 45 years earlier, by far the most interesting shots are those with people in them.
He recalls reading that one reason for the larger crowds is that the number of Chinese tourists to Cambodia is soaring. They increased by more than 75 per cent to nearly one million in the first six months of 2018, and their numbers are expected to keep growing dramatically. In 2020 they could reach 2.5 million, Cambodian officials believe.
The thriving Chinese economy is enabling many more people to take foreign holidays. Many are older travellers like himself, some of whom are perhaps on the first foreign holiday of their lives; no one can begrudge them this, he feels, despite the challenges the larger crowds bring.
At one of the most famous trees growing through the temple walls, people now have to queue to have their photo taken. He is pleased to see this; it keeps the crowds moving relatively quickly. When he was last here, visitors had uncontrolled access to the tree, and some groups would sit there for long periods, making it difficult for others to have their turn.
On the return journey to Siem Reap, his driver suggests visiting a particular gift shop, disarmingly explaining that both their names will go into a lucky draw if they stop there; the main prize is a smartphone. But he is tired now and demurs. Instead, he gives the driver a larger tip than he might perhaps have expected.
Back at his hotel, he takes an afternoon nap to recover from the temple hopping. In the evening, he sits on his balcony and reflects on the day, as scores of dragonflies buzz about like tiny helicopters and a spectacular sunset unveils itself. It has been a day to savour. He is grumpy no more.