Saturday, March 20, 2010

Nat Geo highlights

Guidebooks. Love them or hate them, they are here to stay. Separate sections of some guidebooks can now be bought on the internet to save you having to carry around the whole book on your holiday. You can buy the Temples of Angkor section of the Lonely Planet guide to Cambodia for example. Or if you are gadget savvy, which I definitely am not, then you can travel with your guidebook at your fingertips inside your iPod or iPhone.
The number of guidebooks that focus on Cambodia is increasing year on year and I'm still leafing through the new Nat Geo Traveler Cambodia edition which the publishers sent to me last week. The more I read, the more I like it. At the start of each of the geographical chapters, they offer their 'not to be missed' suggestions and in the book's opening introduction, they also offer their countrywide suggestions. These are:
  • A moving visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and killing fields, Phnom Penh
  • Experiencing floating village life on the Tonle Sap
  • Sunrise at Angkor Wat
  • Watching the Phare Ponleu Selpak circus perform
  • Seeing authentic apsara dance
  • A day trip to Banteay Srei temple, Kbal Spean, and surrounding attractions
  • Touring French colonial ruins and relaxing by the river in Kampot
They've split the chapters geographically and I've chosen one at random, Eastern Cambodia, to give you a flavour of their 'not to be missed' choices, which are as follows:
  • A Mission Aviation Fellowship flight over the Mekong*
  • Eating tarantulas in Skuon
  • Seeing Irrawaddy dolphins near Kratie
  • Swimming and tubing in Ratanakiri's Yak Laom Lake
  • Experiencing hill-tribe life in Ratanakiri or Mondulkiri
  • Mahout training with the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri
One of the ever-present problems with guidebooks is that information changes and can quickly become out of date. Take the *Mission Aviation Fellowship flight over the Mekong for example. MAF had been operating a small aircraft to northern and northeastern provinces in Cambodia since 1995 but because of the improved road conditions, this service ceased at the beginning of this year.

I was also pleased to see mention of my pal Eddie Smith and his microlite adventures. His company Dragonfly Cambodia gets a box with the following info:
Looking to get some serious air? With Dragonfly Cambodia (tel 855(0)92-533-269), you can take a microlight flight with one of the most experienced pilots in Cambodia. Eddie Smith has flown over all but two of Cambodia's provinces, shooting film and assisting with surveying and research projects. With a few weeks to spare and a serious commitment, he can even train you to fly an ultralight on your own, although there is no licensing procedure in the country to certify your accomplishment. Day trips are available at $200 per hour.
I can speak from personal experience of Eddie's flying skill and the amazing adrenalin rush to be had by flying with him and his microlite. For further evidence, click here.

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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

View from above

A bird's eye view of Banteay Chhmar
I said I would bring you some pictures from my recent trip to Banteay Chhmar, though this photo of the main temple complex is courtesy of Eddie and his microlite. You may recall that Eddie took me up in his 2-man 'flying moto' back in February for a whizz around the edges of the Angkor Park for an hour. However, he has flown his microlite all over Cambodia and as you can imagine, and see, has some amazing aerial photos from just about everywhere. This is Banteay Chhmar from the west, with its Mebon at the top of the picture and the houses of the village on the right hand side. Though you can see the moat surrounding the temple, the rest of the structures within are almost completely obscurred by the tree cover. The photo was taken in March of this year. Read about my microlite fun here.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Airborne moto

The Edge X microlite in all its glory
Thanks for all the feedback on my photos from my incredible flying experience last week with Eddie and his microlite. Amongst the emails was a request for a couple of close-up photos of the two-seater microlite (or ultralight or trike as it's also known). Built in Australia, the Airborne Edge X trike is so adaptable that it's been used across the globe for tracking migratory birds, elephant conservation in Africa and of course, archaeology studies in Cambodia. I found the seats to be very comfortable with plenty of leg room and if you have the right camera equipment (I didn't) then the trike is simply fantastic for ariel photography. It's made of aluminum and weighs under 200kg. If I recall correctly, Eddie can fly for at least a couple of hours before refuelling, at heights of over 1,000 feet and at a steady 40 miles per hour. A wind-free day is the perfect time to fly. We had a little bit of wind during our flight but in Eddie's secure hands I hardly noticed. And if you want to buy your own 'flying moto', you are looking at around $25,000 per trike.
The microlite up close and personal
The propeller was just behind my passenger seat, which was behind Eddie's pilot seat
The man himself, Mr Eddie Smith, pilot supreme
A look at the control panel during the flight, with its dials for altimeter, speed, temperature and tachometer, and room for Eddie's feet!
This was the take-off and landing runway, not exactly Heathrow, but the trike is tough and can handle rough terrain


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Temple mountains

Lets take a closer look at two of the temples I flew over on Tuesday morning in the two-seater microlite. The top one is Pre Rup, built in 961 and one of the most important temple mountains as it marks the transition from the pre-classic to the classic period of Angkor. It consists of two terraces, on the second of which is a three-tier pyramid. At the top, the central tower is flanked by four corner towers, all in brick. The central shrine would've housed a linga dedicated to Shiva. Below the upper tier are twelve smaller towers and on the ground floor, are another five larger brick towers, opening to the east and catching the rising sun as can be seen in the picture. One unusual feature of Pre Rup, where a sunset view across the surrounding ricefields is worth considering, is the presence of a sarcophagus, though some scholars debate this feature.
Also dedicated to Shiva, East Mebon was constructed in 952, so is older than Pre Rup and used to be in the centre of a huge, now dry, baray. Known for its elephant statues, East Mebon has three terraces with the five brick towers of the upper tier, open to the east with remains of stucco and some particularly fine lintels. Both temples are pre-cursors to the intricacies of the Banteay Srei style and the great temple constructions of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.

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Seen from the air

Banteay Samre seen from the air
To round off the photos taken on my microlite flight on Tuesday morning - well those where my finger isn't blocking the view, as I held my camera tightly and the reflection from the sun on my viewfinder made it almost impossible to see what I was photographing - here's a few more temples as well as some general shots from our cruising height of around 500 feet up. The flight over Phnom Bok was both exciting and scary all at the same time. The mountain is 770 feet high and we were well above the summit, where I had been only a couple of weeks before. On that occasion I had to climb the 600+ steps to reach the top. I much preferred the ariel view - far less tiring. If you wish to enjoy seeing part of Angkor and the surrounding countryside, let me know and I'll put you in touch with the pilot Eddie. It's an experience you won't forget.
I've yet to visit this temple on the ground as it was flooded on my last attempt. It's Phnom Tor at the corner of the eastern baray.
Looking over Eddie's shoulder as we head for the summit of Phnom Bok
The temple on the top of Phnom Bok, some 770 feet up. The shrine housing the giant linga is at the top right of picture.
This small temple, Prasat Leak Neang, sits in the shadow of Phnom Bok and I've yet to visit it on the ground
A small trapeang or pond, one of many that dot the landscape
A small village surrounded by trees
A look at the brand new road to Anlong Veng, that begins at Roluos
Water buffalo in a swamp near Banteay Samre
The moment of truth, just before we take off on our hour-long adventure

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Temple topping

A birds-eye view of East Mebon temple

So how would I describe my microlite experience? I was remarkably calm as Eddie did a five-minute test flight to check everything was in wording order. I didn’t dwell on what could go awry, focusing instead on what I would see and wondering whether my point and shoot camera would do justice to the views. Eddie landed, I climbed into the rear seat and he strapped me in and checked the microphone was on. Within two minutes we were airborne, so there was no time for last minute panic, as we bounced along the narrow track before lift-off. If I say the first few minutes or so took my breath away it would be a gross understatement. Buffeted a little by the wind, don’t forget we are open to the elements not in a helicopter for cissies, we quickly rose to a high altitude – the highest we reached was 1,100 feet – and I found it difficult to focus as the nerves and adrenalin kicked-in. I had no choice but to put my trust in Eddie’s flying skills and he kept me expertly occupied with a running commentary.

Ta Som is almost obscured by the trees enveloping the site
A great view of East Mebon with the morning sun highlighting the temple
Pre Rup stands out way above the treeline
An almost perfect picture of Pre Rup considering I couldn't see what I was doing!

With a blanket of smoke obscuring the bottom half of Phnom Bok and beyond, we quickly arrived above the first of the eleven temples, Ta Som, that we’d fly over on our 1-hour flight. I was pleased to still see a good amount of tree cover at this edge of the Angkor Park as we soon encountered East Mebon and Pre Rup in quick succession. Despite the haze in the distance, I could make out Srah Srang lake and the Angkor balloon, as we dropped a little lower and headed out over a patchwork of rice fields, small trapeangs (ponds) and villages with Eddie waving constantly whilst I gripped my camera tightly to take some photos. Battling with the wind – we were cruising at about 40 miles per hour – the sun’s reflection on my camera view finder meant I couldn’t see what I was taking pictures of, so it was really a case of point, shoot and pray. Eddie meanwhile was flying with one hand and snapping away with the other like a true pro.

A view of the fields leading to Srah Srang in the distance
The solitary tower of Prasat Trapeang Phong at Roluos
In what seemed like no time at all we were above the area of Roluos and circling the tower of Prasat Trapeang Phong before an incredible approach to the temple pyramid of Bakong. Even I couldn’t fail to get a good picture of this. Preah Ko and Lolei were next as we headed out for Banteay Samre and the tiny Prasat Tor, passing the brand new golf course that has been plonked in the middle of this rural landscape. My first real feelings of trepidation – Eddie had kept our tiny machine so steady and level throughout the flight – was when he announced we would fly over the top of Phnom Bok. I immediately thought of updrafts, downdrafts and stuff I had no idea about though Eddie said it would be fine, and of course it was. In my mind, flying over level ground is one thing, flying over a hill is altogether different but it was a thrill to look down on the summit, where I had been on foot two weeks earlier. Just behind the hill was a small brick prasat, Leak Neang, that I’d never seen before and it felt weird to discover a temple from the air rather than on the ground. We tracked the new road that leads to Anlong Veng for a couple of minutes before beginning our approach to landing, on the same narrow track we’d left exactly an hour before. We landed with the merest of bumps and I thanked Eddie over the intercom for a fantastic trip as we came to a stop in the field behind the police station, a few kilometres south of Banteay Srei. My birds-eye view of a part of Angkor and the Cambodian countryside was a privilege and I can’t thank Eddie enough for taking me up and looking after me so well. It was a thrill of the highest order and as ‘safe as houses’. If you fancy getting the same buzz, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with rocky-steady Eddie The Eagle. It's no exaggeration to call it the trip of a lifetime.
The majestic pyramid temple of Bakong surrounded by water
The microlite is in competition with Preah Ko in this photo
The temple of Lolei is almost hidden in the grounds of the pagoda

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

In the skies above Angkor

This is Bakong temple in the Roluos Group, from about 600 feet up - breahtaking!
I count myself incredibly lucky to be enjoying my life so much here in Cambodia and it just gets better and better. This morning I joined microlite pilot Eddie Smith in the skies above some of the temples of Angkor and beyond for a new and exhilarating experience. Seeing Cambodia from the air is what Eddie does for a living, and what a living it is! When he's not taking scholars into the air for a birds-eye view of the landscape to spot ancient settlements or water canals and suchlike, he's helping landmine NGOs, film crews and a handful of tourists to experience Cambodia from above. He also trains the potential microlite fliers of the future. We headed out to a field on the way to Banteay Srei at 7.30am this morning and whilst Eddie took the 'flying moto,' as the locals call it, for a quick test-run, I mentally prepared myself for one of the most amazing trips of my life, and I wasn't disappointed. More later as I catch my breath and my legs stop shaking, but believe me when I say the hour I spent in the skies above Cambodia is something I will never forget.
Eddie takes her up for a test-run before my big moment. I sat in the seat behind Eddie for my 1-hour flight

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