Angkor Wat-bashing seems to have become the pastime du jour for many of the more sniffy travel writers, largely due to the ever-increasing volume of visitors at the justifiably popular temple sites. Of course we would all prefer to enjoy our very own private view rather than share our Angkorian sunrise with thousands of the great unwashed. But unless you are prepared to indulge in a spot of door-opening palm-greasing that’s probably never going to happen. So you can either grin and bear it, give the temples a miss altogether, or much better still, mix your temple touring up a bit and include some of the lesser known and consequently quieter temples on the Angkor circuit, like the delightful and much underrated Pre Rup.
Pre Rup was built in 961 AD as a temple to the Hindu deity Shiva. Its five towers rise over a pyramidal structure representing Shiva’s home, the sacred Mount Mehru. The name, meaning “turning the body” — part of an ancient funeral ritual — was only applied relatively recently due to the unproven belief that Pre Rup was originally a burial site. With its ancient plasterwork now eroded away to reveal the bare brick of the towers, they bear more than passing resemblance to giant brick kilns and the overall impression is ironically — given its name — of an elaborate Angkorian crematorium.
At 12 metres in height the upper platform of the temple affords a 360 degree panorama of the forested countryside surrounding the site. As well as great views, a small Buddhist shrine sits at the summit which is a handy place to say a few prayers and make an offering before you start your descent. While the upper platform is mostly level, the steps leading up to it are very steep, making climbing up a feat of fitness and descending a combination of both patience and bravery. It is certainly not recommended for vertigo sufferers.
Early morning or late afternoon light is best for admiring the view and temperatures are better suited to the climb, but do bear in mind that from May to November there is a much higher risk of cloud and rain in the afternoon which can spoil the view and render the laterite steps treacherous.
The upper platform is a popular place to watch sunset and it can get rather crowded, although a photographer friend assures me that you get much better shots of the temple with a warm sunset glow from ground level, as all you can see from the summit are shadowy trees and sky. Each to his own, but descending in crepuscular light would definitely be a challenge and a flashlight is advised.
Located less than half an hour by tuk tuk from central Siem Reap, Pre Rup is an easy add-on to a visit to Ta Prohm (aka The Tomb Raider Temple), or Banteay Kdei, as well as being particularly photogenic when viewed at sunrise across the royal bathing pool of Srah Srang. It’s also a good stopping point on the way to or from the pretty temple of Banteay Srei, the excellent Butterfly Museum (not to be confused with The Butterfly Garden) or the Landmine Museum.
If you do decide to visit any of the smaller temples without going to “the big ones” and you don’t have a multi-day pass, you will need to visit the Apsara Authority ticket booths on the main Angkor Wat Road first as tickets cannot be purchased at the smaller temples. And if the appeal of visiting a temple simply because it is not overrun by tour groups is not enough, you would also be doing your bit to preserve the more famous sites by reducing the pairs of feet tramping all over them by one.
By Simon Hare.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.