Only the dip of the wooden paddle breaks the serene stillness of the glassy water out on Baray Reach Dak, also known as the North Baray. With over a million tourists a year visiting the temples of Angkor, great swathes descend on the key temple sites daily seemingly oblivious to the fact the Angkor Archaeological Park in fact stretches over 400 square kilometres.
While bus loads on package tours can end up elbowing each other for space as they swarm the ‘must see’ sites, Baray Reach Dak community tours offers a wholly different perspective on the ancient wonders via three guided routes that are notably – refreshingly – absent of foreign travellers.
The northern baray (reservoir) is still somewhat of a secret to tourists. What was once part of the complex Angkorian hydraulic system until recently it lay dry, having allowed the forest to creep in and place down its roots. Local villagers used the land for rice farming. However, partly as a flood preventative measure to help protect Siem Reap town, the baray has been slowly filling up with the taps turned on deliberately to enable it to return to its former brimming state.
The tourist dollar is also still pouring in quickly to Siem Reap; the three tour routes are part of a social enterprise project to provide alternative livelihoods for Phlong and Leang Dai villages and to spread the benefits of tourism, set up with the support of the APSARA National Authority and Australian Government. So that’s responsible travel: check.
The first tour, lasting around one and a half hours (US $12 per person), takes you through the forest where you will learn about traditional medicinal uses of various flora and visit a garden nursery, leading on to a purpose built look out pavilion to soak up the views of the baray.
The second tour, lasting approximately two and half hours (US $18 per person) allows you to navigate the waters by traditional wooden boat to reach Neak Poan island temple using the transport method as would have been done in the Angkor era.
The third tour is 20-minute sunset boat cruise (US $7 per person).
Currently the Baray Reach Dak is particularly attractive thanks to the partially submerged treetops that peek out to perforate the water’s surface, where birds perch and flutter around this scenic panorama. These trees, however, are not a permanent, long-term feature of the landscape, as unlike locations such as Prek Toal or the flooded forest of Kompong Khleang they are simply not designed to live in water. As such, the smooth sheen of the much more frequented West Baray reservoir is the likely future vista.
Home to many rural villages and little-frequented historic sites, this community-based tourism initiative helps prove there’s more to Angkor than the iconic postcard images suggest. However, given that you require a temple pass for any of the tour options, the second – longest – tour option with the boat ride to Neak Poan is not an especially cheap experience and the level of the English skills of the guides does not yet make communication perspicuous – but you are helping to sustainably support local communities, so bring along a little patience along with your sun cream for the tour.
The short 20-minute sunset boat ride is an ideal way to round of your day’s temple touring, with the welcome centre well located right by Preah Khan on the grand circuit – which is worth a visit in its own right as part of your temple touring itinerary. Buy a coconut or an Angkor beer from a stall by the temple, time it right and enjoy a spectacular sunset where you are likely to have the baray completely to yourself – the opposite experience to heavily crowded Phnom Bakeng where guide books often recommend as a good vantage point. You will have more fun on the baray capturing the sunrays bounce off the water.
Alternative waterborne options for sunset worth considering – which incidentally also help with crowd dispersal from overloaded sites –are the West Baray by boat or Angkor Thom moat by gondola, at not dissimilar prices to Baray Reach Dak’s community tours.
How to get there
All tours commence from the Tour Welcome Centres located at Preah Khan or Krang Kroch (Ta Som).