Monday, March 8, 2010

My First Glimpse of Angkor... from a hot air balloon!!!

After anticipating this moment for the last 6 years, I finally got my first glimpse of Angkor Wat.



Neil and Claire only had 2 days with us in Siem Reap, so we needed to take full advantage of their one-day pass. To do this, we planned to buy our passes at 5pm on Wednesday. This allowed us to see Wednesday’s sunset plus a full day of exploration on Thursday.


As we had the entire day to burn on Wednesday, we spent the good part of the afternoon lounging at our hotel’s swimming pool. At about 3:00 we hopped into a tuk-tuk and headed out for our first glimpse of the temples – from a hot air balloon.
For $15/each we got to spend 10 minutes hanging out above Angkor Wat in this huge hot air balloon. In my mind’s eye, our trip up into the air was a magical experience with a breathtaking view of the biggest religious complex in the world – the ancient Angkor Wat.
In reality, the view was somewhat disappointing…. We were probably about a mile and a half from Angkor and we were tethered to the ground (not floating freely through the open sky) which made for a rather uneventful hot air balloon ride – kind of like being in an expensive open-air elevator. I guess this is pretty cool in and of itself, but not exactly what I had envisioned when I heard that we could see Angkor Wat from a hot air balloon.
a zoomed-in view of Angkor from our balloon


Regardless of the distance at which it is viewed though, Angkor is an impressive structure (even with the massive green tarp that is hanging over the front of it at the moment.) The balloon ride only whetted my appetite for getting a close-up view of the temple.


After our ten minute ride in the sky, we were off to check out the sunset.
Well, not really. First, we sat around killing time for 2 hours, sipping on coke-lights and checking out Angkor’s resident monkeys and THEN we were able to head up to check out the infamous Angkor sunset.
The most famous sunset spot in the Angkor area is from Phnom Bakheng – a temple set atop a small hill overlooking Angkor. According to the Lonely Planet this is “the definitive location from which to photograph the distant Angkor Wat in the glow of the late afternoon sun.” In addition, the Siem Reap city guide lists it as a Must See temple and the most popular location in Siem Reap from which to watch the sunset.

Once we arrived I just could not understand why. Like many things in life, the relationship between popularity and actual value is not always proportional.


First of all, the temple itself is nothing too special, especially when compared with all of the other amazing temples in the surrounding area. But that’s ok, we were expecting a great view, not necessarily an amazing temple. And we had been warned that the place would be a complete circus around sunset, which it was.  
Virtually every tourist in the park was clamoring up the hill for a view of the vanishing sun. But that would be OK if it came with a great view of Angkor Wat OR of the sunset (like the books lead you to believe it will) but the truth is, it just doesn’t!
I don’t even have a picture of Angkor from that evening because I could hardly see ANY of it from the hilltop. Not only was it pretty far off in the distance, but our view of it was completely obstructed by the surrounding trees. AND the sun was setting in the complete opposite direction. Yes, I do understand that a mountain is a good viewing spot for a setting sun, but I absolutely could not comprehend what all the fuss was about.
the “legendary” Phnom Bakheng sunset


It is really beyond me why people go up to this spot in such huge masses and even more mind-boggling is all of the rave-reviews I’ve read of the sunset from Phnom Bakheng and its “magical” view of Angkor Wat. I just kept thinking to myself “WHAT VIEW!!!???”


Just because you can almost kind of see something in the distance does not mean that it’s a great view! What are all of these people talking about!??? After all of the hype, I have to say I was exasperated. I left with a sense that it was my fault that I didn’t enjoy or appreciate the view… were my expectations just too high? Maybe they were, but I still have to say that going to Phnom Bakheng tops my list as one of the most over-hyped tourist attraction in Southeast Asia.
My one nice picture from the Phnom Bakheng sunset …


And so I am off again, to search for the elusive magic that encompasses Angkor Wat, hopefully tomorrow will bring better luck!

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