Never Again: Places like Angkor Wat

October 12, 2016

Immediately after stepping off the tuk tuk, a particularly aggressive Cambodian man approached me, brandishing a book encased in plastic like I’d have to be an idiot not to buy a copy. Ordinarily, I’m one to not even make eye contact with vendors across the entirety of Southeast Asia, but I had heard about the book he was selling: Ancient Angkor, considered the best introduction to the ruins for those without tour guides. After a bit of haggling, we settled on $7 – the true price was $5, but I’m not one to argue for another five minutes over a few bucks.

He wasn’t the last to try and get my attention, however, as a wide variety of sellers congregate at the entrance, boasting of freshly squeezed juice and “the best coffee for you, sir!” My attention was directed straight ahead, as for the first time in my life, I was seeing the famous outline of those three central spires.

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Angkor Wat. A 900-year-old city temple. Home to the Khmer Rouge decades ago, and featuring Buddhist and Hindu iconology.

My timing with the weather in Siem Reap couldn’t have been better. Rather than rushing to the temples when I first arrived on Sunday night, I took Monday off to catch up on some writing and watch the 2nd Presidential Debate. Fortuitously, Tuesday proved to be sunnier and bluer than Monday, and Wednesday had rain pouring down in buckets in the afternoon of my last full day in Cambodia.

These ruins had been at the top of my list for some time. Like my mini-obsession with the Nazca Lines, my focus on Angkor Wat came from a childhood video game. The irony is, I probably would have enjoyed visiting the area more as a 12-year-old than as I am now.

I’ll come straight to the point: Angkor Wat might as well have been Disneyland. The same people sell the same food, drinks, and merchandise at every stop, spouting the same lines – “Hello, sir! You want T-shirt??” – and targeting tourists indiscriminately. However, I could overlook this; Cambodian temples are rather scenic and offer incredible access where the Acropolis or Mayan ruins might not. What I can’t escape, and what will keep me from EVER going to such a popular tourist attraction again are the groups.

This is not about Chinese tourists. Nor Japanese. Nor Korean. There were plenty of all three, and I can say they annoyed me equally to no end. I’d feel the same way if a group of Aussies clogged the only path through Ta Prohm, oblivious to others behind them.

I don’t expect that I’ll be alone no matter where I choose to travel. But I do hope for the slimmest chance of taking a picture of an attraction without any tourists in the shot. I hope to be able to have a moment of silence to myself to reflect on the history of the site. I hope to enjoy a destination without massive crowds pouring out of buses, being hassled to buy cheap trinkets, and, above all, lines.

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Angkor Wat, like the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and Statue of Liberty, has all these characteristics in spades. And that’s ok; it started out as a beautiful city of ruins, and became so popular people from around the world wanted to visit. But, never will I ever visit an attraction like this again, at least not alone.

If I could offer one bit of advice to newbies, it would be to rent a tuk tuk for the day rather than planning on cycling. The temples aren’t too far away, but I was exhausted after climbing all the steps and hiking around. They do tend to blend together after so much time in the heat, but the spots that stand out the most to me are those with minimal tourists and well maintained grounds, like Pre Rup.

Are there any places you shy away from when you travel? Why?

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