When my father and I found ourselves in Bangkok with a few days to spare, we simply could not pass up the opportunity to hop over to Cambodia to visit one of the most impressive UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the world’s largest religious monument, Angkor Wat.
Seeking a Sustainable and Authentic Angkor Wat Experience
The massive temples of Angkor Wat were left to the mercy of the forest for decades while the Cambodian government restructured and its people recovered from years of tragic genocide and conflict under the Khmer Rouge regime of the 70s. You can also play mobile casino no deposit at the UK’s leading themobilecasino.co.uk site. Since it became a World Heritage site in 1992 and international development funds have supported its restoration, Angkor Wat quickly flourished as a major tourism attraction in the region. Last year alone, it attracted an estimated 2 million tourists.
I asked myself, how do we experience the highlights of this amazing place without having the mass of visitors steal its authenticity. One sure bet is to find a sustainable tour operator. In Cambodia, we got in touch with Andrea Ross, who runs Journeys Within, an acclaimed operator in Southeast Asia that offers customized tours. Andrea’s reputation and expertise has been recognized internationally; for the past 5 years she has been listed in Wendy Perrin Travel Specialist List, published by Condé Nast Traveler.
Angkor Wat, meaning “Temple City” or “City of Temples” is the name given to the main temple complex, recognizable on the Cambodian flag. However, more than 200 temples, originally built between 800 and 1200 AD, are now restored and accessible to visitors. Living up to its namesake, the city of temples has more sites than you will likely get a chance to explore. If you stick to the guided group tours, you are surely going to miss the tomb-raider feeling of exploring unique corners of the hidden ruins within the forest. If you set out alone with a mere simple tourist map, you are sure to miss out on some of the cool features that guides can point out.
Thankfully, Journeys Within set us up with a great guide and driver that knew how to get us around the crowds and have unique experience exploring the temples.
We were happy to wake up early – 5am – every morning to catch the 12th century Hindu temples with the first rays of sun.
It was truly magical, climbing through ancient stone archways engulfed by the roots of massive trees.
By 1pm there was no point in fighting the heat of the sun or its affects on our pictures. We leave crowds at their peak and head for a retreat at the Journeys Within boutique hotel. Just outside of Siem Reap, this little oasis of 10 rooms was set up by Andrea and her husband Brandon in 2004.
We are greeted by Narla Phay, Journeys Within’s Cambodia Director, who invites us to have lunch by the pool. I order a brilliantly cold pilsner, also named Angkor, and savor a refreshing green papaya salad with mangos, while Narla tells me a little more about the Journeys Within Story.
Journeys Within Our Community (JWOC)
Narla explains that in 2005, Andrea and Brandon – founders of Journeys Within – established a local NGO called Journeys Within Our Community (JWOC) with the intention improving living conditions of local communities through health, education, economic, and emergency relief projects. Narla states he was among the first to receive a scholarship from JWOC to complete his university studies in tourism and that today is one of the directors of the company.
Intrigued by the project, we are invited to go next door and visit JWOC headquarters which houses several beautiful classrooms, a library, computer lap and offices. Nicola Ball, the JWOC managing director tells me, “Today we have over 70 scholarship recipients, like Narla, who donate 5 hours a week to support all our other JWOC programs that include: free extracurricular classes for over 700 students, microfinance loans, and projects to support access to clean water and emergency relief.” Narla adds, “JWOC is based on the premise of See a problem, Solve a Problem.”
We meet up with a group of students leaving their computing class, who are thrilled and honored to be part of JWOC.
Inspired by the JWOC’s contribution to the community, we head back to catch the sun set on the Angkor temples. We climb up Phnom Bakheng, a popular site to witness the last sunrays of the day. Our guide makes sure we get there early, to get a good view, given that now the authorities of the Angkor Archeological Park carefully regulate the number of visitors allowed on top of the temple at once. As we climb up the wooden steps placed to protect the original sandstone structure of the temple, I reflect on my footprint as a tourist.
It feels good to know I made the right travel choice!