By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • November 4, 2007
Photos by Stephen BrookesRain was lashing against the side of the plane as we broke through the clouds. Below us, Cambodia stretched out like a perfect disaster: fields flooded to the horizon, palm trees whipped by the wind, a sky so dark and heavy it seemed about to collapse. As we dropped closer, we caught a glimpse of two people pushing a truck through knee-deep water, struggling to keep from being washed away.
"It's fantastic!" I said to my wife, whose hand was clamped on mine in a vise-like grip. "It looks like we timed this perfectly!"
We'd come to Cambodia to see the famous temples of Angkor, those magnificent ruins that make up one of the most extraordinary landscapes in Asia, if not the world. And we'd come in July -- in the heart of the monsoon, which sensible people had told us was pure madness. Wait until the dry season, they said, when the skies are clear and you're guaranteed as much sunshine as you can handle. Go during the long, wet summer -- when more than 50 inches of rain falls -- and you're certain to get stranded in your hotel, swatting at mosquitoes and hoping you don't come down with malaria.
But we were here to test the contrarian idea that the monsoon might, in fact, be the best time to see Cambodia. Because the truth is, even though it rains almost every day -- sometimes in torrents so thick you can barely see -- it rarely lasts more than an hour or two. And the effect is usually refreshing. The rain clears the air, washes away the dust and cools down everything. The landscape turns lush and fragrant, colors take on richer hues and, instead of scorching tropical sun, you get constantly changing light and spectacular sunsets. For photographers in particular, it's the only time to go.
Besides, prices for everything drop dramatically -- hotels typically charge half of their high-season rates -- and there's never a problem getting into a restaurant or booking a last-minute flight.
And best of all: The tourists stay away in droves.
"It's empty," groaned general manager Didier Lamoot, gesturing at the deserted lobby of the Sofitel Royal Angkor, one of the new hotels in Siem Reap, the town where all visitors to Angkor stay. "People are afraid of the monsoon," he said. "Germans, if they think there will be one second of rain, they don't come. And the French, if they hear about heat but no sea, then, non." He shrugged his shoulders in Gallic resignation.
Angkor Wat, after the rain Stephen BrookesBut in fact, "empty" was the reason we were there. Lost for centuries, the ruins of Angkor were rediscovered in the 19th century and until a few years ago were still well off the itineraries of most travelers. Decades of war and civil strife had kept the crowds away, and when I'd first visited in 1999 for a rushed, two-day trip, I had the place almost to myself. You could climb to the top of Angkor Wat (the most famous of the many temples at Angkor) and contemplate eternity, or lose yourself in the enigmatic stone faces of the Bayon, or privately indulge your Indiana Jones fantasies in the overgrown ruins of Ta Prohm.
But all that has changed -- with a vengeance. The political stability of the past decade has reassured travelers, and Angkor is now suffering a flood of tourists -- more than 1.7 million last year, up from 200,000 only three years before. And with a new airport open and roads being built to connect Angkor more easily with Thailand and Vietnam, officials expect that number to rise to more than 3 million by the end of the decade.
Not surprisingly, Angkor is a madhouse during the November-to-April high season. Buses cram the parking lots, spitting out diesel fumes and tour groups. Thousands of people clamber over the temples, turning them into human anthills, and at the peak viewing times, gridlock sets in; so many people are trying to climb the hilltop temple of Phnom Bakheng, famous for its view of the sunset over Angkor Wat, that officials are even thinking of installing an escalator. Forget trying to contemplate the timeless mystery of the place. The only mystery is how to avoid being trampled.
Horse at Angkor Stephen BrookesSo when we got up the next morning and set out for Angkor Wat, it was with crossed fingers, hoping our theory about the rainy season would, um, hold water. But we needn't have worried. The rains of the night before had given way to scattered clouds, the air was fresh, and as we walked out the long stone causeway to the temple, the biggest crowd we saw was a Cambodian wedding party having its picture taken.
We weren't completely alone, of course. Two elderly monks in saffron robes passed us, and a few Korean families peered intently at each other through digital cameras. But it was easy enough to avoid the tour groups as we made our way through the temple. We climbed higher and higher up the narrow stairways, over the wide stone terraces, past the churning friezes and delicately carved celestial dancers. It was eerily quiet -- the loudest sound was the cry of birds in the jungle -- and the huge temple spread out below us, infinitely ancient, evocative and remote. We sat in silence, letting the sweep of the centuries roll over us.
And for the rest of our six-day stay, things stayed virtually perfect. It rained now and then, and the weather was often steamy. But there were three full days of pure, glorious, uninterrupted sun (which we suffered through by the hotel pool), and when the rains finally returned, they came as a welcome break. We'd go out in the early morning, explore a temple or two, and then retreat for the day.
And as we soon discovered, that was the best way to take in Angkor: not in the standard two-day gulp, but one small bite at a time.
"Templing can be exhausting," John McDermott, an American photographer who has settled near Angkor, told me one afternoon over lunch. "You're climbing up and down stone steps in the sun and trying to absorb hundreds of years of history. It's best to stretch it out over a week; spend a morning in the temples, skip a day, then go back the next afternoon. Otherwise you just get burnt out."
Fortunately, there's a lot to balance out trips to the ruins. Siem Reap is no longer the scruffy, can-we-leave-now backwater of a decade ago. It has turned into a vibrant town with a slew of five-star hotels, lively new bars and restaurants, high-end art galleries and any number of chic boutiques. For the energetic, there's golf, mountain biking or flying around in ultra-light airplanes. For the sybaritic, there are massages and exotic spa treatments. There are restaurants for the epicures, museums for the studious, orphanage tours for the empathetic, and even a classical cello concert every Saturday night.
So once we'd notched a couple of temples on our belt, we hired a tuk-tuk -- one of those motorcycle rickshaws you find all over Southeast Asia -- and set out to explore the town.
And that's when we discovered the other benefit of the rainy season. Siem Reap may be changing fast, but it still has a small-town feel, and with only a few other tourists around it was possible to take it in at a relaxed, small-town pace.
Reservations for restaurants and spas (critical during the high season) were never necessary, and the lazy, off-season ambiance made it easy to meet Cambodians, an extraordinarily friendly and open people.
At the Butterfly Garden Stephen BrookesWe would spend our evenings exploring the lively streets of the French Quarter, where surprises awaited us at every turn: huge, black deep-fried spiders (a Cambodian delicacy) from street stalls, delicately hand-tinted photographs at art galleries, elegant silks from tiny boutiques, massages from blind masseuses at the Seeing Hands Spa, even a net-covered garden bistro where thousands of butterflies fluttered around us as we ate. And it all felt as if we were nearly the first people to discover it.
Frankly, though, it was sometimes hard just to leave the hotel, and not only because of our innate laziness. Dozens of new luxe hotels have been built, varying from the blandly elegant Sofitel (with its own golf course outside town) to the sleek, sexy Amansara, built in 1962 as a guesthouse of then-Prince Sihanouk. Recently renovated, it's one of the most striking examples of modernist architecture in Asia.
With off-season prices so ridiculously low, we tried several; our favorites were La Residence d'Angkor, an atmospheric place set on a quiet, leafy street near the river, and the amazing Hotel de la Paix, a cheerfully over-the-top art deco palace in the heart of town. With flaming sconces on the roof, hanging beds in the courtyard restaurant and Stolichnaya at the breakfast buffet, it's not for every taste. But we found it decadently luxurious, and my wife cried when we left. We both cried, a little.
In short, Angkor has grown up: It's no longer the gritty, suffer-for-culture experience it once was. In fact, it has become a luxury destination.
But if you've been putting off seeing it, don't wait too long. The Cambodian government seems determined to push tourism to the breaking point and is busily cooking up a marathon, a golf tournament, a huge light show extravaganza at Angkor Wat and even an international tourism expo in the next few months. By December, the place will be inundated once again with visitors -- until the rains return in May and scare them away, making it safe once again to visit.
But the secret may be starting to get out.
"We have guests who come in the dry season and say that they wouldn't recommend Angkor to their friends. There are just too many people at the temples. You can't see anything, and sometimes you can't even move," the manager of one luxury hotel told me. "So I tell them to come back in the rainy season, when everything is beautiful and you can drink it in. That's when you see Angkor at its best."
GETTING THERE: The quickest way to Siem Reap is the 22-hour fight from Dulles on Korean Air (connecting via Seoul); the round-trip fare is about $1,500, with restrictions. An alternate route is to fly to the capital of Phnom Penh (various airlines, from about $2,250), spend a day or two exploring the city, then catch a short domestic flight (about $80 one way) to Siem Reap on Phnom Penh Airways.
Or to see a bit of the countryside, hire a taxi for the four-hour drive from Phnom Penh; the road is good, the views are interesting and the price (about $70) is hard to beat. There are also daily flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap (about $195 each way) on Bangkok Airways.
Cambodia requires visas, which can be obtained on arrival or online for $25.
WHEN TO GO: Most tourists visit during the peak season of November to February, when skies are clear; avoid the brutally hot and dusty months of March and April. Start planning now if you want to visit in the rainy season (May-October), which is an excellent option to consider, especially if you don't plan to visit remote parts of the country.
WHERE TO STAY: All the hotels serving Angkor are in Siem Reap, just a few miles from the temples. It's easy to get a clean, comfortable room in a friendly guesthouse for less than $25 -- try the Villa Siem Reap (153 Taphul Rd., 011-855-63-761-036) -- but luxury rooms are so cheap in the rainy season that it's hard not to splurge.
The sleek, chic Amansara, in Siem Reap Stephen BrookesAt the very top end is the Amansara, where many of the private suites have their own pools. It's an architectural tour de force, and has the Amanresorts' trademark sophistication and attention to detail, but at $850 and up per night (no discount for off-season), you'd expect nothing less.
Five-stars geared toward mere mortals include the historic Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor (Vithei Charles de Gaulle, 800-768-9009; about $200 per night double in the off-season) and the Sofitel Royal Angkor (Vithei Charles de Gaulle, 011-855-63-964-600, about $130), set in a vast tropical garden.
But the best deals in town may be the airy, Asian-styled La Residence d'Angkor (River Road, 011-855-63-963-390,about $150), and the jazzy Hotel de la Paix (Sivutha Blvd., 011-855-63-966-000, about $190); the former is more subdued than the latter, but neither will disappoint. The hip-and-we-know-it Foreign Correspondents Club (Pokambor Avenue; 011-855-23-992-284) has contemporary-style rooms at about $120 per night but is well below the others in terms of comfort and privacy.
Note: Prices at most hotels will be at least twice as high in the dry season.
WHERE TO EAT: Khmer cuisine, which is similar to Thai but not as spicy, is coming back to life after decades of neglect. The best place to try it may be Meric, in the Hotel de la Paix, where chef Joannes Riviere is leading the revival. Try his theatrical seven-course Khmer sampler, served on pieces of slate, antique serving spoons, artfully broken pots -- everything except plates. At $30, it's pricey by Cambodian standards, but it was one of the most memorable meals we've ever had.
Khmer House Restaurant, Siem Reap Stephen BrookesDozens of great restaurants and open-air bistros are in the French Quarter; start at the main thoroughfare, nicknamed Pub Street, and explore the surrounding streets. Good bets include Khmer House (traditional Cambodian dishes for less than $5, in the alley behind Pub Street), kamasutra for Indian food and the charming Le Tigre du Papier (on Pub Street), with its free book exchange, (slow) Internet access, cooking classes in the upstairs kitchen and a grill offering everything from alligator to kangaroo ($4-$12).
If you're in the mood for "2001"-style futurism, head around the corner from Pub Street to the Blue Pumpkin, where you can lounge on bulbous white furniture and cool off with snacks and organic teas ($2-$12). And definitely try the Dead Fish Tower on Sivutha Boulevard, which has delicious Khmer and Chinese food ($2-$8), an eclectic art collection and six alligators in a tank.
WHAT TO DO: Well, temples, obviously. But skip the trip out to the "floating village" at the huge lake called Tonle Sap; it's cheesy, touristy and depressing. There are several museums; one of the most unusual is the Land Mine Museum (admission$1), on the road to the temple of Bantey Srei.
It's impossible to get out of Siem Reap without seeing some traditional Apsara dancing. This is exotic and beautiful stuff, as is the Khmer music that accompanies it. Many of the hotels host dinnertime performances, so call around to see what's available. And if you have a chance to see a traditional shadow puppet show, grab it.
For shopping, most people head to the tourist-oriented Artisans d'Angkor (Stung Thmey Street) or the huge Old Market in the heart of the French Quarter. Unless you're really into vegetables or cheap Cambodian underwear, though, skip the market and head into the warren of nameless streets and alleys that surround it. You'll find an amazing range of boutiques and art galleries; some of the best include kokoon for silks and Hagar Design for hip, fashionable stuff made of recycled rice bags. Siem Reap has started to attract a small international artist community, and there are sophisticated, affordable works at the McDermott Gallery (on the passageway behind Pub Street) and hand-tinted photographs at the Klick Gallery next door.
And when you're worn out from climbing temples all day, check into one of Siem Reap's ubiquitous spas. There are dozens of them, from Seeing Hands, whose masseurs are all blind (about $10), to our favorite, Bodia (in the French Quarter), where the organically Space Age architecture will unwind you even before the massage (about $26) begins.
To view these and other Angkor photos on The Washington Post website, please click here.