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See Angkor Wat like a bird - from a microlight aircraft

Rachel Lees on 03 Jun 2018

The Straits Times


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Avoid the hordes of tourists at Angkor Wat at sunrise and see the temples with nothing but birds for company - from a microlight aircraft


A desire for a more tranquil experience of Siem Reap's famed temples, without the masses, is how I end up strapped into a microlight aircraft shortly after sunrise one morning.


I had given little thought to warnings offered by family and friends. "Don't they have a reputation for crashing?" asked my usually encouraging mother.


But all I could think about was the uninterrupted view of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Last year, 2.5 million people visited the ruins that make up the world's largest religious monument and the seat of the Khmer kingdom from around the 9th to 15th centuries.


The idea of jostling for position along the edge of the reflecting pool at sunrise, with thousands of camera-wielding tourists, was enough to make me want to rip up my passport. No, I thought, there must be another way. And, indeed, there is - if you dare.


For the uninitiated, a microlight is a small, one-or two-seat ultralight aircraft. In this case, a trike - with three wheels, a 1.2-litre 80-horsepower engine and a hang glider-style canopy.


"When you go to the countryside, it's like Elvis landing in a spaceship," says American pilot Eddie Smith. "You'll draw a crowd real quick." Mr Smith should know, he has been flying the pint-size aircraft since 1995.


The one-hour flight has been organised by the recently renovated, all-suite Anantara Angkor Resort (www.anantara.com/en/angkor-siem-reap), which offers the activity as part of its new Experience Butler service.


In addition to the regular duties of a butler, such as packing and unpacking and making spa and restaurant bookings, Anantara's expert team puts together bespoke itineraries and experiences.


And for guests with a daredevil streak, who want a bird's eye view of Siem Reap, there is no one they trust more than Mr Smith.


He began flying - Cessnas, to be specific - in his home town of Richmond, Virginia, in 1984. More than a decade later, he was attracted to the "low and slow" microlights, which allow you to "wave at people, see the expression on their faces, and smell the cut grass", he says.


Since moving to Cambodia 16 years ago, he has flown about 7,000 customers from 80 different countries. Facts and figures like these put his passengers at ease.


And yet as we rattle along the dirt airstrip at Jayavarman Airfield at 80kmh, clouds of rust-coloured dust billowing behind us, I have second thoughts. I am, after all, strapped into a contraption that feels rather like a lawnmower with wings. But within seconds, we leave the ground behind and slowly start our ascent to a maximum height of almost 460m.


The air is cooler than I had expected and I regret not wearing a light jacket. But then I see the sprawling view to the horizon and forget everything.


Below us, corrugated iron roofs fold across the top of houses, which are dotted over the landscape; and dirt roads run like brown ribbons through a patchwork of vivid green rice paddies.


Twelve kilometres south of Siem Reap, we catch sight of the first temple. Phnom Krom, which means "lower hill", was built circa the late 9th or early 10th century, during the reign of Angkorian king Yasovarman I. "It's a great place to watch the sunrise," says Mr Smith.


Stretching over some 400 sq km, Angkor Archaeological Park is home to countless temple ruins that extend beyond Angkor Wat.


However, most visitors arrive at the popular site between 5 and 6am to stake out their territory by one of the reflection pools, where they stand to watch the sunrise.


Anyone who has visited will tell you it is an impressive if overcrowded experience - and one that is, unfortunately, marred by hundreds of noisy tourists with selfie sticks and large iPads.


During the next hour, we view the elaborate 9th-century Banteay Samre, which is dedicated to Siva; Pre Rup, the 10th-century structure that served as a royal crematorium; and the Roluos Group, a cluster of three 9th-century temples, which include Bakong, one of the more impressive ruins.


"It's surprising how many people, even Khmers, ask me if Bakong is Angkor Wat," says Mr Smith. "It looks different from the sky."


Though we do not fly over the top of any temples due to flight restrictions set by Apsara Authority - the Cambodian management authority responsible for protecting Angkor Archaeological Park - and Unesco, the view remains uninterrupted and breathtaking.


As we circle above Chong Kneas floating village, a mother and her child smile and wave at us from the front porch of their ramshackle house. "I reckon I've waved at a million people," says Mr Smith.


Throughout the flight, his arm is frequently outstretched as his hand oscillates enthusiastically. More than once, he takes both hands off the control bar that steers the plane. "It flies smoother when you don't touch it," he assures me. And he is right, we glide bird-like over the changing scenery below us.


We soar over Tonle Sap as sunlight glistens on the surface of South-east Asia's largest freshwater lake, which is home to about three million people.


We buzz a narrow canal, mere metres above the murky yellow-brown water, which runs just below road level. A bemused local on a motorbike does a double-take as we make a speedy ascent to avoid a potentially hazardous flock of birds ahead.


I endure moments of fear, only fleetingly, throughout the flight.


"If you're not a little frightened, there's something wrong with you," says Mr Smith. But any panic subsides as quickly as it rises, as yet another landmark looms on the horizon.


Ever the professional, he saves the best for last.


The closest we are allowed to fly to Angkor Wat is 1.7km, but even from a distance, the sheer scale of the archaeological wonder is impressive. And there is not another tourist or selfie stick in sight.


• Rachel Lees is an Australian travel writer based in Singapore.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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