If you get the timings wrong and end up amidst the armies of camera-clutching tourists, imagining discovering your own piece of Angkor could seem, well, unimaginable.
ABOUTAsia strives to avoid the stock tourist trails by conducting footfall counts at key temple sites to know exactly when they’re at their quietest and scouting out secluded crumbling ruins and leafy forested paths for a totally different experience to the masses. Which is why we’re very pleased to have tested out a new hidden gem that totally ticks our box for our “avoiding the crowds” approach to touring: The Baray Reach Dak Community Tours, a social enterprise run by villagers in the heart of the Angkor Archaeological Park which will lead you along the uncommon path as well as giving back to communities based here.
The three new tours on offer are centered on the Baray (ancient man-made Angkorian reservoir), an expansive body of water that had dried up and was only recently deliberately flooded, as it would have once been, both to assist with flood preventative measures of Siem Reap town and to resurrect the beauty of the Baray. Whilst the Baray in the Angkor era would’ve been likely designed to hold water for rice irrigation, ironically the deliberate flooding has meant that rice paddies locals previously used are now below the water so the community-based tourism initiative is core to providing alternative livelihoods here – and so those that live in the Angkor area are able to benefit directly from the tourist dollar.
Arriving at the welcome centre by Preah Khan temple, Senior Travel Advisor Anna and I were greeted by smiling faces despite the early morning rain. We set off with our guide for a forest walk which provided the opportunity to learn about the medicinal uses of various plants and trees, and included a stop at a nursery. We reached the observation platform and a local fast asleep on one of the benches had got the right idea – this is stunning spot for a rest and to soak up the flooded forest and sparkling reflections in the water, with the occasional soar of a bird as an interlude to the serene stillness.
We then hopped into a traditional wooden boat – no motors here – and were gently rowed out onto the Baray. Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve is well known for excellent birding opportunities (ABOUTAsia arranges one day & overnight tours, with optional kayaking, or as part of our Siem Reap Adventure Tour ), but this location is not prominent on the tourist map (yet) though still provides interesting viewings for the novice twitcher.
Slowly we meandered past the towering trees to reach Neak Pean. An artificial island-temple in the middle of the Baray, today tourists access it by a wooden built walking platform. But originally Neak Pean could only be reached by boat. This was an experience we were able to savour as most people are totally unaware of this exciting new possibility to approach in traditional style, made possible by the Baray Reach Dak Community Tours – we were the only ones out on the water.
As we navigated back across the Baray we kept remarking what a contrast it was to certain congested areas; it epitomized the allure of visiting Angkor and how there is so much more on offer than people first hear about when visiting this region. Furthermore the money goes back to the two villages – Phlong & Leang Dai – working on this new tourism initiative. We love to see travel changing lives.
Baray Reach Dak Communty Tours offers half day tours and short (20 min) sunset boat cruises on the Baray (ABOUTAsia can optionally arrange drinks and canapes).
Tours operate between 06.00 – 17.30, 7 days a week.
Tours begin from $10 pp (based on 2 sharing)
Combine a half day tour with visiting key temple sites of the Grand Circuit – the start point is right by the wonderful Preah Khan temple.