“People come to Angkor Wat and they never even see this. But it’s right here.” My guide Stephane de Greef gestures to the surrounding paddy fields, forests and rural villages — an unchanging scene repeated countless times across the Cambodian interior. Yet we’re inside the UNESCO-protected Angkor Archaeological Park and Siem Reap is just a few miles away.
We’ve been hiking for about four miles in the morning sun, beginning at Pre Rup temple, northeast of Angkor Wat, stopping to catch our breath by the dams of the once-brimming Eastern Baray reservoir. Now beside dry scrubland and a handful of rice paddies, we watch a family of rice farmers, ankle-deep in water and bodies bent at back-breaking 90-degree angles. The hike feels easy in comparison, although their labours are challenged by a mischievous young son innocently delighting in digging up the protective banks his father has laid.
The hike is one of the ‘without crowds’ experiences from ABOUTAsia, brainchild of Andrew Booth, an Oxford University atomic physics graduate turned financier turned philanthropist. It was during a holiday to Cambodia where he saw its potential for socially responsible travel. One of the world’s poorest countries, few locals see anything of the tourist dollar. Booth set up ABOUTAsia to offer holidaymakers a unique experience but 100% of the profits go to supporting 53,000 schoolchildren in 108 schools in the Siem Reap province by way of English teachers and supplies.
Training local guides by sharing newly discovered temple facts (a vast amount of knowledge was lost during the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s) and finding experts from abroad is another forte. Belgium-born Stephane isn’t their Nature and Adventure expert without good reason. Also a landmine specialist, cartographer and photographer, he spots a barely visible leaf ant, shares his views on the cashew nut tree (‘a cash crop for middlemen and wiping out native trees’) before flipping back to history at the rarely visited Banteay Samre temple, with its Angkor Wat-esque tower and restored deep reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu mythology.
This unique hike’s holy grail is Phnom Bok, a remote temple on the hill of the same name. It manages to appear both irresistibly close and terrifyingly far as the heat intensifies. At its base, only 600-plus steep steps or a longer winding path stand between us and the summit, the midday sun baiting us to give up.
It is, of course, worth every last drop of sweat. Miles of farmland and forest unfold in front of us while the ivy-clad temple is an Indiana Jones affair, trees growing into and around the huge sandstone blocks. This hill was also occupied by the Khmer Rouge and old Russian artillery remains as a reminder.
Having seen no other tourists all day, Siem Reap city feels like something of an aberration. Thriving chiefly on travellers who want to ‘do Angkor’, its pathways are packed with some heading to Pub Street while those seeking something a little less ‘Costa del Cambodia’ nip into the smaller alleys by the old market.
Over dinner, I meet Andy Booth, ABOUTAsia’s driving force. “When I first travelled to Angkor Wat, I learned most of the benefits of tourism ended up with foreign companies,” says Andy. “So the communities through which the tourists pass benefit only marginally from this international interest. We’re about generating sustainable funding for educational programmes in rural Cambodia and effectively turning tourist dollars into education.”
In a country of high corruption, low literacy and some questionable NGOs, ABOUTAsia’s simple, transparent set-up seems refreshing.
Its cycle tour is as rewarding as the hike. I start at the West Baray reservoir, west of the main temples, and head along its southern edge with my guide Buntheon. With its waterfront hammocks, the Baray is a popular local picnic spot, but seldom visited by tourists. It’s perfect for cycling, although the thick sandy section proves something of a challenge for a fairweather biker.
Buntheon explains how the Baray was the largest reservoir made by the ancient Khmer. Its irrigation system is credited with both the rise and fall of the Angkor Empire, and while the abundance of water at first allowed the civilisation to prosper, the accumulation of silt and burgeoning population later led to water shortages. This lesson was not heeded by later generations. When the Khmer Rouge forced city dwellers to work in the countryside, it was in part to restore this Angkorian time of plenty, although their ill-fated plans turned many fields into something quite different.
We pedal our way into rural Cambodia down a trail that appears to go unnoticed by other travellers. Villagers sift rice under stilted homes, battery packs are lined up at the local ‘charging station’ where for 25 cents to a dollar, they are powered up for that evening’s light and television viewing. Next door, a makeshift hairdresser’s – a swivel chair and a mirror – awaits its next customer.
We end up at the West Gate of the walled temple complex of Angkor Thom where we make fresh tracks northwards on a shaded forest path along the 26ft-high wall. Suddenly we’re in open scrubland, the blazing sun making its presence felt. It’s a slow, sandy trail to our final stop, the atmospheric temple of Banteay Thom. I can barely hear a sound other than the dry season’s leaves crunching under my feet, and a lizard scurrying into the undergrowth.
At the waterside
With the Angkor site spread over more than 150 sq miles, there is little doubt ABOUTAsia will find more untrodden paths – it excels at unearthing new ways to experience a destination. For example, it is the only company to offer kayaking expeditions along the waterways of Kompong Khleang floating village, about two hour’s drive from Siem Reap.
Local children watch my guide Naran inflate the kayaks, mesmerised by its transformation from flabby rubber into a sturdy, sailable vessel, then wave frantically from the banks as we launch the boats. It’s a world away from the voyeuristic touristy floating village of Chong Khneas. These floodplains are home to some 2,000 families of mainly ethnic Vietnamese and Cham communities. Also a fertile breeding ground for fish, around 280 species have been recorded.
We peer into a fisherman’s boat to see his abundant catch and a fisherwoman gestures for us to come closer as she cleans fish to make prahok fish paste, widely used in Khmer cuisine. Upstream, it’s moving day for several families. A longtail boat pulls a ‘super-raft’ piled high with palm-leaf roofs, gas stoves and clothes, which in turns drags a chain of smaller boats where at least four generations are sitting.
Fully convinced by the crowd-free approach, it’s still difficult to imagine how traditional temple-viewing could be as gratifying. It turns out ABOUTAsia doesn’t call it ‘Single Magical Day’ for nothing. In fact, it has had teams of people at the temples doing footfall surveys to form a pitch-perfect itinerary. Put simply, it’s about doing what everyone else isn’t.
On a previous visit to Ta Prohm, otherwise known as the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple, coachloads of tourists queued by the stone doorway for their ‘Angelina Jolie moment’. Not today. Buntheon and I arrive early so while the masses congregate for sunrise at Angkor Wat, I really do get to be Angelina, scrambling around the rocks and the twisted vines snaking around huge silk-cotton trees growing in and around the ruins.
Then, as Ta Prohm begins to fill up, we walk away, like ghosts gliding effortlessly through the throng. We move eastwards to Ta Nei temple. A solitary cyclist is leaving as we arrive.
“I didn’t think I’d see anyone else here,” he says, smiling. “Enjoy your breakfast,” he adds. I turn around to see a tuk-tuk, its seats laid out with coffee and croissants. Even my coffee is crowd-free. Later that morning the star attraction, 12th-century masterpiece Angkor Wat, possesses an air of tranquillity. At one point, we’re the only people standing in a usually-busy section of pristine Hindu carvings.
It’s a similar tale inside the vast walled city of Angkor Thom, the former capital of the Khmer Empire. We visit in the afternoon starting at the Victory Gate and walk along the wall to the Death Gate, where it is believed the king would enter if he’d lost in battle. On the contrary, I feel victorious.
We stroll through shaded parks to the atmospheric ruins of Preah Palilay, the lakes around Phimeanakas and the recently restored Bauphon temple. At Bayon, the crowning glory of Angkor Thom, built in the late-12th and early-13th centuries by the empire’s most prolific temple-builder, King Jayavarman VII, the giant serene stone faces jutting out from the upper terraces catch the late afternoon light. On the lower levels, the carvings of Apsara dancers or celestial nymphs seem ethereal. By now, people are jostling for elbow space in preparation for the sunset ritual on the hill of Phnom Bakheng or at Pre Rup temple.
Of course, we don’t join them. Instead, I meet Andy for sunset drinks on a boat ride around Angkor Thom’s moat. For much of it, we’re the only ones on the water, birdsong and the swish of the boatman’s oar often the only sounds. If there was ever a case for choosing the road less travelled, this is it.
When to go
October to March is best as humidity levels are low with average temperatures of around 27C. The rainy season runs from June to October when the scenery is deep green.
Need to know
Visas: A 30-day tourist visa is available on arrival from $20 (£13). Remember to bring a passport photo. E-visas can be arranged online and are valid for entry and exit at Siem Reap and Phnom Penh airports and some land borders. www.mfaic.gov.kh/evisa
Time difference: GMT +7.
Currency: US dollars ($). Change may be given in Cambodian riel. $1 = 4,000 riel; £1 = 6,000 riel.
International dial code: 00 855.
How to do it
Cambodia specialist ABOUTAsia offers a five-night stay in Siem Reap from £560 per person (two sharing) including adventure touring (biking, kayaking, hiking), private touring of Angkor Archaeological Park (including sunrise at Angkor Wat and sundowners), private transfers and B&B at the four-star, boutique Shinta Mani hotel. A longer, 10-night trip including Phnom Penh and seaside town Kep costs from £1,415 per person (two sharing) including transfers. Flights and visa are not included. www.aboutasiatravel.com
Published in the Southeast Asia supplement, distributed with the May/June 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)