It’s an almost mystical experience to go through the lost city of Angkor in northern Cambodia, site of the 9th to 15th century capitals of the vast Khmer Empire EMLAF +%. Epic in size–154 square miles–with over 100 intricately carved temples and shrines centered around Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world, it is truly one of world’s great sights. But as that, it’s one of the most popular. Go in the primary times of the morning or afternoon and you face a bumper to bumper lineup of the tuk-tuks that ferry passengers around and from the nearby city of Siem Reap unleashing hordes of tourists to clamber around the platforms and risk their lives crawling up the steepest steps. (No joke; some of those narrow, steep steps aren’t for climbing and have claimed a few victims who tried.)
To see this complex without fighting your way through a mob scene, you need an expert—and luckily I had one. Andy Booth, a former London trader whose immense success in that field allowed him an early retirement and a move to Cambodia, created the company AboutAsia Travel to offer creative custom itineraries to the Angkor complex, as well as other destinations within Cambodia. And that success in London allows him to funnel all profits back to the philanthropic side of the company, which supports 53,000 students in 108 local schools, education being one of the many areas of daily life still recovering from the genocidal rule in the 1970′s of the Khmer Rouge. Cambodia is known as NGO Central due to all of the agencies now there helping to support the gentle population in this compelling country’s recovering communities. In About Asia’s case, just by indulging in a thrilling, enriching trip, you can help out as well.
To figure out how best and when to navigate the temples, Booth and his staff conduct surveillance walks to see where the crowds are clustering due to the standard routes generally followed by guides—and then they do the opposite. And that’s how I found myself leaving at 6:30 AM most mornings, entering through gates on the opposite sides of the park from where the others were gathering and walking through silent forests, sometimes stopping at small temples such as the 12th century Ta Nei- unrestored, tranquil and off the beaten track–and the major sights such as Ta Prohm, a temple with a massive skein of ficus and silk tree roots wrapped around it (and cinematic fame as the setting for a scene in which Angelina Jolie battles statues in “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.”)