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5 Days Exploring Angkor Wat

Impressions of Angkor Wat

There is more to the Angkor Wat archaeological park than just the famous Angkor Wat Temple, a lot more!

What exactly is Angkor Wat?

Angkor is a spectacular archaeological site located roughly 5 kilometers North of Siem Reap, in Cambodia’s Northern Province that bears the same name. Siem Reap is an hour’s flight from Phnom Penh or a 6 to 8 hour drive.

To clear up any confusion you first need to differentiate between the Angkor Wat archaeological park and the Angkor Wat Temple.

The Angkor Wat archaeological park (or complex) is a massive site covering over 400 square kilometers. (154 square miles). The complex is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

There are over 70 major temples within the park, and hundreds of minor sites outside of the park boundaries.


Then there is the iconic Angkor Wat Temple itself which is the archaeological park’s center piece and main attraction. It is also the largest religious monument ever built.

Archeologists, using remote sensing technology, have come to the conclusion that the Angkor Complex was the largest pre-industrial city in the world, sprawling 1,000 square kilometers’ (390 square miles). For several centuries, Angkor was the center of the Khmer Kingdom.

In addition to the impressive monuments and temples there are large hydraulic structures including basins, dykes, reservoirs, and canals. This infrastructure helped to support a population of between 700,000 to 900,000,,,which peaked in the 13th century.

For comparison by the end of the 13th century, London England had a population of roughly 80,000 people.

Boom town again

Recently there has been a tourism boom at Angkor Wat. In 1993 the first year after the site was designated a UNESCO world heritage site, there were an estimated 7,650 visitors to Angkor Wat. In 2018 that number was closer to 2.6 million, an average of over 7,000 visitors a day.

The park is currently inhabited, there are many villages located within the park boundaries.

The tourist boom has meant the number of people living within the boundaries of the park who make a living from tourism has also ballooned.

While we were in Cambodia in February 2023, the government was in the process of evicting some 10,000 people who were living illegally near the Angkor Wat Temple itself. The government says there is insufficient infrastructure for the inhabitants.

The Cambodian government is also keenly aware that their cash cow UNESCO status could be jeopardized if the site is not adequately protected.


Angkor Wat can be very touristy

‘Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.’

Paul Theroux

There are several types of sightseers;

Those who want the all the comforts of home –  The Tourists

Those who want non-touristy, novel destinations – The Travellers

And those somewhere in between.

Yvonne and I are somewhere in between, we enjoy authentic, novel travel experiences and at the same time enjoy good food and a certain level of comfort.

Angkor Wat is the type of place that attracts a lot of tourists who demand the comforts of home. They do not want the inconvenience’s of travelling in a different country, nor do they wish to suffer the indignities of dealing with a different language, or foreign food.

Locals we spoke to complained about foreign tourists who stay in foreign owned hotels, and are led around by foreign guides, effectively cutting many Cambodians out of the economy benefits of Angkor Wat.

Over tourism results in congestion and overcrowding, which can be a real turn off for visitors, my self included.

Beat up temples

Some of the temples in Angkor Wat are a little bashed up!

Spoils of war

Cambodia has experienced many political upheavals and wars during the second half of the 20th century. The Angkor temples have suffered some war damage and plundering.

The Khmer Rouge looted heritage sites and temples, prevented their protection and desecrated Buddhist religious symbols. Literally tons of stolen artifacts were recovered from the homes of Khmer Rouge leaders when they were arrested in the 1990s.

Welcome to the jungle

Over the years, the biggest problem for Angkor Wat has been simple neglect. The jungle was allowed to take over. 

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Today the site has several threats, the first is its popularity.

Conservancy agencies have warned that the Angkor Wat temple complex is under threat due to heavy traffic and inefficient conservation techniques.

Unlike other sites around the world where the ruins are roped off and monitored closely, there are no controls here, hundreds of thousands of visitors scramble over the structures like ants every year.

Luckily we did not witness the tourist hoards, and we were surprised at how accessible many of the temple structures were with no real barriers.

Other threats to Angkor’s Temples and structures:


Bat shit,


Bat shit combined with a moist tropical environment causes the sandstone to erode chemically. There are also forms of bacteria that find the stone used at Angkor wat quite yummy.

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In addition to water promoting biological degradation, the absence of water is potentially damaging as well.

Factoring in soil mechanics

The environment in the Angkor region is really dry and dusty in the dry season and really soggy during the monsoon.

It is important to understand, that a foundation that oscillates between extreme dry and wet is prone to soil subsidence. Especially when loaded with over 5 million tons of rock.

The massive moats around the main archeological features in Angkor Wat served several functions, some for fortification, while other functions were more symbolic. From an engineering perspective, the moats help stabilize the structures foundation, by moderating the soils moisture content. 

As the human demand for water in the region surges, the shallow water table is in danger of dropping. If this happens there is a real threat of soil subsidence meaning Angkor’s heavy structures could shift and settle – not good.

This begs the question. Did the Khmer builders have a detailed understanding of soil mechanics or did they just get lucky?

They were obviously master waterworks engineers as evidenced by the extensive system of hydraulic structures they used to store and manage water.

Maybe these systems need to be put back to work?

Our strategy for exploring the Angkor Wat complex.

They say Rome was not built in a day. Well, you can’t see Angkor in a day either.

Exploring Angkor Wat is a bit of an undertaking, it requires some proper planning and preparation.

We were told by others, that a minimum of 3 days was required to view just the main temples.

Keeping our cool

Another factor to take into consideration is the weather. Angkor Wat is hot; it is smack dab in the middle of the tropics at 13.41° North of the equator.

We were in Angkor in February (the dry season) and were expecting temperatures in the 33 to 35 degree C range during the day, with minimum overnight temperatures of 20C.

Our main objective was to visit the sites as early as possible to avoid heat related issues. We have spent over 4 years living in the Caribbean and know that heat exhaustion is no joke.

The dry season in Cambodia is also very dusty and the air can be very hazy.

Water, sunglasses, and a hat are a must. Sturdy shoes are helpful as well, Angkor is not a place for high heels.

The plan of attack

We pre-planned the temples we wanted to see by talking to others who have been there and gathering information on the internet.

We wanted to save Angkor Wat Temple till the end of our visit. We thought leaving the crown jewel till the last would not spoil it for the rest of the temples – that’s what we were thinking.

We then consulted our tuk tuk driver whom we had arranged through the hotel. We asked for the best way to see the temples on our list and listened to his suggestions, as we pondered over his large laminated maps.

Doing our homework

Before arriving in Cambodia, we had watched a series of documentaries on Angkor Wat to get a basic understanding of what we were going to be looking at. This also helped to get some of the background information a guide would impart on you (hopefully).

Going it alone

We decided not to employ a guide, for several reasons:

  1. Wanted to get there first thing in the morning
  2. We like to determine our own flexible schedule
  3. I find some guides are full of shit and make stuff up – it can be a crap shoot whether you get a good one or a dud
  4. My hearing has been a challenge so I can’t always hear what is being said, and
  5. I like to focus on photography, I find guides can sometimes be distracting and I often feel resentful when tied down by a guide.

Getting there as early as possible

The plan was to get to each site as soon as the park opened for the following reasons:

  1. Coolest time of the day – want to beat the heat
  2. Best light for photography for most of the sites
  3. Fewest number of people (except Angkor Wat at sun rise)

We wanted to be done by noon each day so we could head back to Siem Reap for lunch, a siesta, or for some time in the pool, not to mention….. 

Avoiding the dreaded temple burnout

We know from exploring other archeological sites such as Luxor in Egypt, Teotihuacan and Monte Alban in Mexico, Machu Pichu and wandering around Athens. One can get “templed out”. There are only so many piles of rock you can stare at, and only so much you can absorb before you start going crossed eyed and your head stars to hurt.  This is especially true if you are planning on exploring for multiple days in a row.

Our plan was to spend 5 to 7 days exploring Angkor Wat.

Our itinerary as executed

With links to Photo Galleries

Day 1 Thursday February 2nd 2023
Angkor Thom which included:

Bayon Temple
Baphuon Temple
Terrace of the Elephants
Terrace of the Leper King

Day 2 Friday February 3rd
Ta Prohm Temple aka the Tomb Raider Temple
Banteay Kdei
Across the road form Banteay Kdei  the Srah Srang reservoir

Day 3 Saturday February 4th
Banteay Srei. Outside the park
Pre Rup Temple on way back in the park

Day 4 Sunday February 5th
Preah Khan Temple
Neak Pean
Ta Som Temple
East Mebon Temple

Day 5 Monday February 6th
Angkor Wat Temple starting at sunrise

Our extremely lucky timing

February 2023, as it turned out, was an exceptionally good time to see Angkor Wat. At that time the Chinese borders were still closed to tourism due to Covid 19. The Chinese normally represent about 40% of all tourists coming into Cambodia.

Speaking to local guides and business operators, tourism was limping along at 20 to 25% of pre-covid levels.

This meant hotels rooms were offering good deals to get bums in beds, but more importantly, the sites in the Angkor Archeological Park were not crawling with the tourist hoards that often swarm there.

In fact, some mornings we were the only people there – that was a real treat. 

We were very lucky to see Angkor Wat when we did. There were very few tourists, with the exception of last day at Angkor Wat Temple it self.

The park

There are 3 types of park passes available:

1-day pass – US$ 37; valid for 5 days

3-day pass – US$ 62; valid for 10 days

7-day pass – US$ 72; valid for a month

Tickets are purchased at the visitor center outside of Siem Reap.

Getting around

The park is a big place and the sites are spread out. You need wheels to get around.

Some people get around by bicycle or motor cycle, but most independent visitors hire a driver with or without a guide.

We decided to hire a tuk tuk who we arranged through the hotel. Our driver, Leang was one smiley dude. He took us to the ticket office the first morning before we started our explorations. Leang also made sure we had our tickets with us every morning before we left the hotel.

First impressions

The first impression of the Angkor Wat Archeological Park was how parklike the place is. Once you get out of town the drive becomes quite scenic. It is beautifully treed, clean and manicured.

There are multiple check points for getting your park pass validated. No valid park pass, no entry.

On the sides of the road are food and drink vendors, souvenir sellers, artists selling images of Angkor, tourist trinket shops, plus costume rentals for tourists who want to play the part.

The vendors sort of blend into the scenery and don’t really diminish the aesthetics.

The first site you get a glimpse of after entering the park is the Angkor Wat Temple itself. First the massive moat, then teasing, fleeting glimpses of the iconic beehive towers through the trees.

We kept on going because our first stop was a little further on.

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom is not a singular temple dedicated to the gods like Angkor Wat, but rather an ancient royal city built by a Khmer King.

The square city was enclosed by high fortified walls, which in turn is surrounded by a moat.

There are five causeways leading to the city gates. The gates or pavilions are called Gopuras, and are very decked out and ornate.

We entered Angkor Thom for the first time through the South Gate.

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The bridge has carved stone balustrades with over 100 larger than life figures pulling on a hooded Naga with seven heads. One side of the bridge has fifty or so friendly looking figures, on the other side an equal number sporting a rather more menacing look.

The figures were are obviously a combination of older works and reconstructions.

The Naga is a snake from Buddhist and Hindu mythology. Bayon Temple definitely has a Buddhist theme going on – it’s interesting to see how the two mythologies are intermingled.

The South Gopura into Angkor Thom is massive and is crowned by three towers featuring carved faces. There are also carvings of elephants that flank the gate.

Angkor Thom Photo Album 

Makes you wonder

Imagining what the city actually looked like 1000 years ago is thought provoking. How was it painted? Was it gilded? What type of materials other than stone were used? Who were the people living there? What was their outlook on life and the world around them?

In Angkor Thom almost all roads lead to Bayon temple, the state temple located in the center of the royal city. The Victory gate leads to the Royal Palace.

Bayon the temple of many faces

There are several iconic images associated with the Angkor Archeological Park. The five beehive-shaped domes of the Angkor Wat Temple, the root covered structures of Ta Phrom temple, and the tranquil stone faces of Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom.

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There are 37 towers in Bayon Temple. They all feature 3 or 4 uniform stone faces smiling down from every direction.

Faces with broad smiles and open eyes.

Whose face is featured at Bayon? That is a question of debate.

In addition to the giant stone faces with mysterious smiles, the temple has inner and outer galleries that feature an impressive collection of detailed bas relief carvings.

They depict historical scenes, Hindu mythology, and scenes from everyday life such as grocery shopping.

Ta Prohm Temple

Nothing lasts for ever – not even stone.

Ta Phrom Temple was at one point swallowed by the jungle. Muscular tree roots have slowly broken apart some of the temple’s towers and walls.

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Humans tend to conquer nature with alacrity, and nature will insidiously subdue human occupations when given the opportunity. A lot can change in just a few years, let alone over centuries.

This temple is an interesting illustration of competing interests and time scales.

The Ta Prohm Temple is comprised of a series of towers, courtyards, and maze-like corridors and a central sanctuary. There are jumbles of collapsed stone, walls that are covered in moss, vines, and blooms of lichen. There are massive stones precariously perched ready to collapse.

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The site is surrounded by towering trees offering dappled shade. A welcome cooling reprieve from the fierce tropical sun.

There are trees inside the temple walls as well. The Temple has distinctive tree roots, and strangler figs that weave and flow around and through the structures. All of the structures appear to be built without a trace of mortar. The temple is an amazing interplay between inspired human creation and the organic force of nature.

Photo Gallery of Ta Prohm Temple

Banteay Srei Temple

Banteay Srei is a temple known by many names. Translated into English it is called the Citadel (or Fortress) of Women (or Beauty).

It is also referred to as the Lady Temple, The Pink Temple, or the art gallery of Angkor.

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The site is located a fair way North of Siem Reap , outside of the main Angkor Archeological Park. It takes 45 minutes by car or about an hour by tuk tuk.

The road is in good nick and is a good way to see some of the Cambodian country side and small towns along the way.

The Hindu Temple is dedicated to Shiva and was constructed almost 1,000 years ago.

It is not a large site, however the fine carving cut into the reddish pink sandstone is breathtaking. The hard stone has allowed the creators to sculpt the rock in amazingly fine detail. It looks like an intricate 3D wood carving rather than sculpted rock.

Every exposed surface is lavishly decorated.

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This temple also has its own tourist trap attached. You have to run the gauntlet of shops and book sellers to get back to your ride. If shopping is your deal, this is your place. There are also places to grab a bit to eat – good luck!

Photo gallery of Banteay Srei Temple

Preah Khan Temple Complex

Visiting the Preah Khan Temple offered up one of those magical moments every traveler cherishes.

We entered the park in the morning as soon as it opened. We approached the Temple Complex from the North Gate, and were the only people there.

Like the other major sites in the park, Preah Khan Temple is surrounded by a wide moat and the gates are connected by bridges.

The morning light was magic. The surrounding jungle reflected off of the surface of the misty green water.

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The balustraded bridge has the same figures  as Angkor Thom with the exception that most of them have missing heads.

The fortified walls that surround the temple had carved stone Gaurdas at regular intervals. Gaurada is the mythical Hindu bird with the arms and torso of a man and the wings, head, and talons of an eagle, The King of Birds.

The gates to Preah Khan, like Angkor Thom, featured three ornate towers.

After entering through the gate, we walked down a wide dusty path to the Temple. The path was covered by the jungle canopy and a Cambodian woman was sweeping away the fallen leaves with a straw broom.

The place was huge!

The Preah Khan temple complex is massive! The moat encloses 56 hectares (140 acres).

The temple of Preah Khan is one of the largest complexes at Angkor. It is a maze of entryways, vaulted corridors, towers, ceremonial spaces, courtyards, shrines, and piles of jumbled stonework.

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There is a staggering amount of stone carvings throughout the temple and the level of detail is absolutely mind boggling.

It would probably take a lifetime of study to understand the significance of what was on visual display in this complex.

The outer walls, like Ta Prohm, have massive trees growing over and through the stone walls. In one place a tree had seeded inside the temple and exited through an opening in the vaulted corridor.

Preah Khan was one of the most impressive temples we have seen in Angkor.

Once we were done exploring the temple’s maze, we exited through the East gate and walked towards the Baray of Preah Khan (a large man-made reservoir).

Photo gallery of Preah Khan

Angkor Wat

Glad we left Angkor Wat to the end. It is spectacular, and really beyond words.

We decided to watch the sun rise over the temple. Us and hundreds of other people. It is an iconic site and therefore crowded, but it was nothing compared to what it can be. We got spoiled.

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We left the Hotel around 5 am were dropped off with instructions from our driver Luang as to where our meeting place was to be.

Yes it was shoulder to shoulder, but we found a spot to sit and hang out and eat our hotel supplied picnic breakfast and waited for sunrise at the reflecting ponds.

Worlds largest religious monument

Originally dedicated to Hindu gods, Angkor Wat is spread across more than 400 acres; Angkor Wat is said to be the largest religious monument in the world. Its name translates to the rather generic “temple city”.

What was the real name of this place? Nobody seams to have bothered to write it down. You would think that those who created this amazing place would have come up with a punchier name? 

Angkor Wat is surrounded by a 15-foot high outer wall measuring 1,024 m (3,360 ft) by 802 m (2,631 ft). The wall is surrounded by a massive 190 meter (620 foot) wide moat or the equivalent width of 2-football fields stacked end to end. The moat has a perimeter of 5.5 km – the same distance back to Siem Reap.

A sandstone causeway is the main access point for the temple.

Time to explore

After watching the sun rise, almost most everybody rushed into the temple to get to the top.

We decided to first walk around the outside of temple then work our way from the outside inwards.

Walking around the structure gives you a real feel for how massive the temple is.

The outer wall encloses more than 200 acres. Compare that to the Vatican City which covers 49 hectares (121 acres) in its entirety.

Other than the central temple, these 200 acres were occupied by the temple city and the Royal Palace. They were constructed from perishable materials and nothing of them remains today. 

The Angkor Wat Temple is made of three rectangular galleries rising to a central tower, each level higher than the previous.

Mind boggling sculptures

The inner walls of the outer gallery are fitted with detailed bas relief sandstone carvings. There is more than a half mile of these carvings that stand 2 meters (seven feet) from floor to ceiling. The amount of time and effort that was invested in these details alone is utterly mind boggling!

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That’s a a lot of rock!

We then worked our way to the top of the monumental structure.

We were standing on top of five million tons of sandstone. This material came from a quarry 50 kilometers / 31 miles away. This is similar to the mass of materials used to build the Egyptian Great Pyramid of Giza. Kind of makes you ponder.


The logistics to build this structure are astounding, possibly hundreds of thousands of people, legions of beasts, and a multi decade timeline, in an age prior to mechanization. There was also a King with a lot of clout.

No wonder people often cite alien intervention when visiting places like the great pyramid’s, Machu Pichu or Angkor Wat. These places are in stark contrast to our current world view.

Photo Gallery of Angkor Wat Temple

Is that all there is?

In some ways the Angkor Wat temple was also bit of a let down. At least that is how we felt the morning we were there. What does that say about us when we visit the largest religious building on the planet and say ‘it was okay’?

Sounds like the Peggy Lee song “Is that all there is”?

Well actually no, it is not that we were disillusioned with the Angkor wat temple.

Angkor Wat is one of the most amazing places on earth. The rest of the temples in the park are just that awesome.

I also think we were suffering from overload and Temple Burn out by day five.

However we also have friends who have said the exact same thing about Angkor Wat.

  • It is a bit overhyped
  • It can be overrun with tourists
  • Found it to be a bit sterile compared to the other major sites.
  • It did not have the same magical vibe that some of the other temples had, especially considering that we were able to explore some of them with very few other visitors.

If you only had the opportunity to see one site it would have to be Angkor Wat Temple. You will be blown away by its scope and magnificence.

The entirety of the Angkor Wat Park has a great deal to offer!

Stupid human things that stood out

Beside the grandeur of the archeological remains, there were some actions of our fellow humans that were not so wonderful.

Some we witnessed firsthand; some have left a mark. Takes all kinds they say.

The headless Buddhas

The Khmer Rouge declared Buddhism to be a “cult ” and images of the Buddha were often decapitated, desecrated, or buried.

In other parts of Cambodia, those with a sense of humor have reattached new heads with silly faces on the decapitated originals. In Angkor Wat the Buddhas remain headless.

At least the Khmer Rouge did not go full Taliban and try to destroy the place.

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Graffiti carved into the temple stones.

Some people have a lot of time and not much respect. There are places in the temple where graffiti has been carved into the limestone. There are messages carved in Japanese, Chinese, Burmese, French and Vietnamese.

It is assumed that some of the graffiti artists were active before the UNSECO designation and possibly as long as several hundred years ago. 

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Apsaras with shiny boobs.

There are Apsaras (celestial dancers) carved into the limestone walls at the Angkor Wat Temple bearing shiny boobs. The shine is from thousands of greasy hands (belonging to adolescents of all ages) pawing at the figures. Can’t really blame them, they really are nice features.

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Look at me!

We did see tourists who were more concerned with clambering over the artifacts to get the perfect glamour shot, rather than respecting what they were mauling. At least we did not witness anybody falling to their deaths in the process.

Sites we did not see.

By day five and after seeing Angkor Wat – we were done! Burnt out!

No more temples for me sir!

There were a few more sites on the list I wanted to see but did not get around to:

Beng Mealea

A mostly unrestored temple located 40 km east of the main group. The towers and courtyards are covered with trees and brush, many of its stones lie in great heaps

Prasat Kravan

One of the smaller Angkor temples has an impressive façade of red-brick symmetrical towers. The stone has a bright orange hue adding to its beauty.

Ta Keo

Construction of this temple was abandoned at one point. The unique green sandstone temple is an imposing yet undecorated structure.

I am sure there are lots of other really cool places to explore if we ever go back for a second visit.

Over all impressions

The shear scope, vastness and detail of Angkor Wat is incredible. You could easily spend months, if not years exploring these sites.

The intermingling of both Hindu and Buddhist influences are fascinating. I am sure this was not only a reflection of the historical timeline, but possibly a result of some interesting social–possibly even political–dynamics.

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As with other great sites around the globe, being in the presence of such history sets the mind spinning. Questions about how and why these great places came into existence, and ultimately into ruins. How did the forces of human endeavor and forces of nature compete and interact over the centuries.

Were the people living in Angkor Wat having the same conversations we have today about climate change, overcrowding, and geopolitics?

As for the remnants of Angkor, we were taken back by the varying degrees of shambles that some of temples were in. The forces of the jungle and a history of neglect show, some of the sites are very ramshackle.

We felt like explorers

We were also surprised at just how accessible the sites are. In a way this makes for a more intimate experience. Exploring Angkor Wat provides a feeling of discovery as opposed to strolling through a museum.

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It is fine if everyone shows respect, but sadly not everyone does. In a way Angkor has a “free for all” feel to it.

I compare this to the ancient sites we saw in Egypt where there are more barriers and crowd control. We also found the sites in Egypt to be a bit more polished and in comparison somewhat inert.

Again, I am really glad we got to explore the site when it was relatively quite and not very crowded. A whole bunch more people would have drastically diminished the experience.

Overall, our time in Angkor Wat was extremely favorable. It is a place worthy of a spot on anyone’s bucket list.







About the author: Michael was born under a wanderin’ star. He is an Engineer who became an explorer, a photography bug, and hack traveller writer with the propensity to be snarky. “Retired” in 2012 at the age of 44, he and his wife Yvonne travel and house sit around the globe on a full time basis. Michael’s goal is to share the process of escaping the rat race, exploring the globe, and some of the experiences along the way.

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