Sunday, March 7, 2010

Vacation: Cambodia!

Doo dododoooo. (That is a heralding trumpet playing, in case you were wondering.)

I know, I know. Its been damn near a month since I last updated and over a week since I returned from my trip, so here we go. I am going to split this trip into 3 journal entries for each of the three countries that I visited during my little jaunt around SE Asia.

I headed out and caught the airport bus soon after posting my last entry. I was running a few minutes late and got stuck at the light, so of COURSE Erich was on time and I just missed a bus so we had to wait the full 20 minutes for another one to come around. Oops. When we stopped in Jamsil, another SMOE teacher named Alix got on the bus, heading home to Canada for a couple of weeks. Our flight left at 6:30pm and her's didn't leave until like 9:30pm! I guess getting there early is better than missing your flight!

We got to the airport, checked in at Korean Air and went upstairs to eat a really delicious dinner before clearing security and boarding our plane. The flight was right around 6 hours directly into Siem Reap. We were a little delayed, but other than that it was pretty par for the course. They showed a CRAZY Korean movie about a guy who predicts (correctly) that a mega tsunami is going to hit Korea. There were a lot of stories going on at once but at the end nearly everyone died and it was super depressing. So random. It was like a Korean drama meets The Day After Tomorrow. (With how crazy the earth's crust is going- first Haiti, then Chile and now Taiwan- I just hope it doesn't come true!) Erich made friends with the Korean couple sitting next to him (we had aisle seats next to each other) and he helped them fill out all their customs forms, etc, which took a lot of patience.

We landed in the small Siem Reap airport which was quite nice. The woman who sat behind us was from the UK and said when she came to Siem Reap 10 years ago it was really just a shack! Glad they've upgraded. As soon as you step off the plane the humidity hits you like a wall to the face. And Cambodia definitely has its own smell (I love the smell of travel!). It is not as spicy as India and not as motorbike exhaust-y as Vietnam, but kind of a mixture of the two. I think its just a profusion of burning incense and trash. When we got outside, our driver was there to meet us. He looked like he was 12, but promised he was 20. On the ride to Mom's Guest House we got a crash course in the most necessary Khmer phrases: Hello (sue-ee-see-day) and Thank You (ahg-kuhn). We didn't arrive at the hotel until almost midnight, but a herd of shirtless Cambodian guys was there and ready to carry our bags up to our room. We checked in and confirmed our tour of Angkor leaving at 8:30am the next morning before heading upstairs. The room was quite nice (esp since it only cost $13 a night for each of us and included a delicious breakfast each day) and once the air conditioning finally kicked in it cooled of a lot. We each had our own (very comfortable) queen sized bed and there was a balcony off our room with very pretty French doors.

We got up Saturday morning and went downstairs to check e-mail and have breakfast before meeting up with our driver from the night before and our tour guide. He asked if we had any specific things we wanted to see and we told him that we figured he knew best when to go to different sites and that it was up to him. We just wanted to see as much as possible in two days.  We started at the South Gate of Angkor Thom. The huge temple complexes built near Siem Reap have endured since they were first built between the 900s and the 1200s AD. That is a LONG TIME. The temples were lost to the jungle for many years after being abandoned, and were only relatively recently rediscovered (mid 1800s) by French explorer Henri Mauhot. I can only imagine riding your elephant through the jungle and stumbling upon one of these amazing structures. I am certain he had a hard time finding people who would believe him the first time he spoke of it. The south gate of Angkor Thom has a causeway leading to it, across the moat that surrounds the complex. Along the sides of the bridge are large sculptures of asuras (demons) on one side and warriors for good on the other side. They used to all be connected, holding on to a large naga snake, but years of disrepair have lead to some statues without heads, large pieces of the snake missing, and various other breaks, wear and tear. On top of the gate are the quintessential stone faces that many people can immediately recognize as Cambodian. They are huge! Our tour guide took us up this hill and had us pose up close with the faces on the top of the gate. After snapping a few pictures, we walked down the walkway and picked up our car again to head over to Bayon Temple.

Erich and I perched atop the South gate of Angkor Thom.  That part that looks like a cave is actually like a 20 foot drop.  Terrifying.

Bayon is located at the center of the former capital city of Angkor Wat. It is very famous for its carvings that really seem to cover every square inch of exposed sandstone. The outer gallery has carvings about daily life and historical events taking place during the rule of the Angkor empire. So much detail! This was the first of many times I was really glad we had a guide because he was able to point out specific carvings and tell us the stories behind them. There is one random carving where a turtle is biting a soldier's butt that I totally would have missed were it not pointed out to me, haha. After walking around the outer gallery we went inside and took a few pictures before climbing up to the upper terrace. Bayon has probably the most famous face carvings in Angkor Wat and they were really awesome to look at. Apparently there are more than 200 faces carved! Some are really huge and it definitely puts into perspective all the work that was done to complete these temples. Without modern tools or transportation devices they were able to not only build these imposing structures, but decorate them flawlessly. The stone has withstood the tests of time and is now many different colors, adding depth to the carvings and reliefs. In various places throughout the temples there are large piles of sandstone waiting to be returned to their proper place by the restoration crews. After exploring Bayon for a little while and having a photo shoot where about 200 pictures were taken (our tour guide knew all the random spots to stand to get the best shot...he'd literally say things like "Ok, stand on this root on your tippy toes and lean forward and you can get a shot of the whole temple at once"), we headed on towards our next destination.

Bas reliefs at Bayon Temple.

Face to face with Bayon Temple

One of the many faces of Bayon.

Hands down, one of my fav pictures of the trip.

On the way, we stopped to look at some absolutely fantastic paintings that these two guys were doing. Most of them were of the temples and/or elephants at sunset and they were gorgeous. Such vibrant colors and beautiful lines. After browsing them for a while I decided to buy a HUGE painting (roughly 3.5 feet tall by 6 feet long) of elephants emerging from a jungle with the faces carved in stones and Angkor Wat in the background. They rolled it up for me a put it in a bamboo case. Thus the beginning of the painting adventure...look forward to more later!

Fantastic paintings.

The painting I bought (with the man who painted it).

We continued on to the Terrace of the Elephants. it was a performance ground where the King could view his returning armies, watch performances, etc. Its basically just a huge platform with intricate carvings (surprise!) around the edges. At the one end there is a huge sculpture of three elephant heads (hence the name of the terrace) and along the one wall there are gigantic carvings of elephants (complete with Khmer mahouts, or elephant trainers/riders) and lions holding up the top of the terrace. Its pretty sweet. Then right beside it is the Leper King Terrace. Now there is no historical evidence to support the fact that Cambodia ever had a king with leprosy, but the sculptures faces on this terrace were unfinished, giving them a rough and uneven complexion. The tour guide said this is probably where it got its name from. This was kind of a cool terrace because it had these little hallways full of carvings you could walk down, which was pretty sweet.

Erich and I amongst the elephant carvings at the Terrace of the Elephants.
Unfinished faces on the Leper King Terrace.

After the terraces we headed over to Ta Keo Temple which Erich climbed but I did not. In case you didn't know this about me, I have a huge fear of falling. I don't fear heights (I kind of love heights), I fear falling from heights. One thing that really makes this fear rear its ugly head is uneven, steep, stone steps. HATE THEM. (And, of course, Asia is filled with them.) I hated the steps at Bayon Temple, and when I saw the steps at Ta Keo I was like no freaking way. I sat down on the ground level with our guide, happy as a clam, and took pictures of Erich struggling up the stairs. Not a single regret. After Ta Keo we went and had lunch at a local Khmer restaurant (quite tasty) before heading out for our afternoon of temple viewings.

Look at those steps!  And this was one of like...8 flights to the top.

As you can see, Erich made it to the top.  Steps be damned.

The afternoon began at Ta Prohm, the temple made famous by Angelina Jolie in her movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. This temple is definitely closest to its "natural state" and the trees are slowly trying to reclaim the stone. At this point they are such an integral part of the temple that if they were removed/cut down the temple would surely collapse. Huge trees spring out of the side of buildings, their roots holding together walls and towers. It is pretty crazy. This temple also had fewer tourists, so it felt like we were original explorers. Mike says it has become a lot more restricted since he first visited, but you are still able to touch/climb on almost everything. In some ways that's cool because you can get great pictures, but in other ways its sad because I wonder how much longer these structures can take abuse and I'd like them to be around for my kids and grandkids. When we were at Tah Prohm Erich and I were blessed by a Buddhist nun, took pictures in a variety of ridiculous poses, and did various things that our tour guide told us were "good luck" (ie- banging our chests to get a crazy echo in one room of the temple...).
Posing in front of one of the most famous trees at Ta Prohm.

The trees really hold this whole temple together.  I left that woman on the left there so you could get some idea of the scale of these things.  HUGE!

Emerging from one of the many temple doorways.

Tourist mode: Banging our chests to make an echo that banishes bad luck.  Or so our tour guide says.

On our way from Ta Prohm to Angkor Wat, we stopped to do the balloon lift.  I had seen this on an epsiode of 1000 Places To See Before You Die and it was on my list of things I really wanted to do.  Basically its a giant balloon with a net around it that attaches it to a HUGE basket shaped like a donut.  The balloon is not powered by hot air, but rather it is filled and constantly tethered to the ground.  You pay your $15 and board the basket.  It takes about 10 minutes for the balloon to reach its height off the ground, you spend about 5 minutes up there, and then begin your descent.  Thanks to the placement of the balloon you have a great aerial view of Angkor Wat.  I loved it.  Erich was not so thrilled with the heights, but I thought it was totally cool.
Big balloon.

View from the balloon towards Angkor Wat.

Close up of the Angkor Wat temple complex.

While we were at Ta Prohm the sun started to come out (thankfully it had been cloudy all morning which kept it a tiiiiny bit cooler at a balmy 95*F) and by the time we got to Angkor Wat it was full on SUNSHINE. I have the pictures of Erich squinting creepily to prove it. We walked around and explored for a while with our guide in the late afternoon sun. It was QUITE warm. We got to battle groups of Chinese tourists to see the stunning carvings all over the temple.  The stone takes on a very warm tone as the sun sets, so it was nice to be able to see it at that time of day.  We basically spent our time looking at the bas reliefs along the front of the temple and walking around in the upper terrace.  Then we headed back to our hotel for the evening around 6:00pm.
I was glad I had my sunglasses!  Angkor Wat in the afternoon.

That night Erich and I were (justifiably) exhausted so we napped/showered, ate a delicious meal at the Thai restaurant across the street before watching some FOXcrime (best network ever...constant loops of CSI, NCIS, Bones, JAG, etc) and crashing early.

4:15am on Sunday morning rolled around entirely too quickly, which was when we had to get up to go see the sunrise at Angkor.  The guest house packed us up a little breakfast (so sweet) and we met up with our driver/guide.  We arrived at Angkor when it was still dark (obviously) and there weren't a whole ton of people there yet.  We got two chairs for a dollar and parked ourselves on the side of the lake where we basically just chilled for a while (listening to the totally obnoxious French people behind us talking up a storm) waiting for the sun to rise.  It was really beautiful.  The sun was totally awash in pinks, oranges, and purples.  We didn't stick around for the actual sun to rise (it was cloudy and really the prettiest part of the sunrise is often before the sun comes up anyway) but headed into the temple instead.  We covered all the carvings on the back half of the temple as the sun came up fully.  Then we made our way back up to the upper terrace to wait for the tower to open at 8:00am.  When it opened we jumped in line and climbed the ridiculous stairs that seemed to go straight up.  Since the top of the temple is technically a religious site, you had to meet certain dress code requirements (no sleeveless shirts, no short skirts/shorts, etc) and Erich and I made a little game out of guessing who would be pulled over by the wardrobe police.  Walking around the top tower was pretty sweet.  You could see out in all directions and they only let a certain number of people up at a time, so it wasn't crowded.  We probably spent about a half hour up there before making our way back down (haaaaaaaaate the steps) and relaxing for a little bit.  We told our guide that since we were exhausted (waking up at 4am kind of wrecked us, haha) and that we had decided we'd rather go out to Banteay Srei (a temple further out of town) and to the Landmine Museum rather than seeing a bunch more temples within Angkor.  That would also let us go back to the guest house earlier so we could rest up before our 4x4 tour the next morning. He said that was fine and off we went to meet up with our driver.

Angkor at sunrise.
View from inside the top tower (note the balloon lift in the distance).
Erich being a nerd at the top of Angkor Wat.

While walking around the parking lot, trying to find our car, we were ambushed by a group of small Cambodian children selling things like postcards, bracelets, toys, etc.  The kids raised to sell things to tourists are usually able to make their pitch in more than three foreign languages.  Our guide was telling us that they could look at a tourist and tell immediately where they were from/what language they should address them in.  He was even saying they could isolate the country/language for European tourists. Its crazy!  (Mike later confirmed and said that last time he was at Angkor he was with a Chinese American girl and a Vietnamese American girl that were a part of their group.  The kids spoke to the girls in Chinese and Vietnamese to the girls, and to Mike in English.)  I ended up buying a set of bracelets (they were persistent!) and Erich got some postcards.  Then another kid started crying because Erich wouldn't buy the same set of postcards from her.  It was sad, but there was really not a whole lot we could do.  Eventually we found our car/driver and headed out.  While the sun was rising, the driver had left the doors of the car open to "cool off" the car.  What it actually did was invite in (literally) hundreds of mosquitoes.  It was ABSURD.  They were everywhere.  Thankfully we were both wearing my strong bug repellent so we didn't get bit, but we spent the whole half hour ride killing them (and never seeming to make a dent in the swarms circling around us).  It was bad.

After the Great Mosquito Ride of 2010, we arrived at Banteay Srei.  This temple is a 10th century structure built of this really gorgeous red sandstone.  Its all reds and pinks and oranges.  Because of this, the fact that the scale of this temple is much smaller and the attention to female deities in the various carvings, this is often considered a temple for women.  It was definitely my favorite.  The stone was such a beautiful color and the carvings were deep and absolutely magnificent.  Every surface was totally elaborate.  It looked like it could have been carved last year, not 1000+ years ago.  So cool.

Posing in front of Banteay Srei.

Beautiful gate to Banteay Srei.

Look at those intricate carvings!

On our way back to Angkor from Banteay Srei we stopped at the Landmine Museum.  This museum and the fund that supports it were created by a Cambodian man named Aki Ra.  He became a Khmer Rouge soldier when he was a child and helped the Khmer Rouge plant thousands of landmines in the soil of Cambodia.  When he got older (and got out of the army) he realized what a terrible thing this was.  Landmines continue to kill thousands of Cambodians each year.  Cambodia is the most heavily mined country in the world.  Aki Ra has now devoted much of his life and his time to find and disarm landmines.  He built the museum in order to help people learn about the dangers of landmines and the history of their use in Cambodia.  Then he took it a step further and started a school and orphanage to support children who were victims of landmines, either by being physically handicapped or losing parents to landmine explosions.  The museum was a powerful reminder of how much good a single person can do when fighting for a cause that is important to them.  It was also a place where you felt good spending your money because you knew that it was going to an excellent cause.

Memorial created from various landmines.

The story of one of the many children Aki Ra has helped.

After the museum we headed back to Siem Reap and our guest house and said our goodbyes to our awesome tour guide and driver.  We took some time to rest and then went out to a buffet the guest house had found for us that offered a traditional Khmer apsara dancing performance along with dinner.  The buffet was huge and had a ton of delicious foods (and desserts to die for!) and the dancing was quite beautiful.  Our original seats sucked, so after we ate we moved to a place where we could see better and after a tour group left we actually moved down to a table right in front of the dancers.  So that was nice.  It was definitely packed with Chinese and Korean tour groups.  We were the only white people was like being home in Korea!  One of the strangest parts of the trip for me was all the white people speaking foreign languages.  When you're in Korea, you ONLY hear Korean and English.  But in Siem Reap there was German, Dutch, French, Russian, and a host of unidentifiable languages, haha.  It was so strange. When the show was over we went back to the hotel and packed up our stuff so we would be ready to check out in the morning and went to bed.
Posing with our tour guide and driver.

Apsara dancer.

Dancers at the end of the show.

Monday morning was another early departure as we were picked up at 6:30am by our 4x4 tour people.  We ate a quick breakfast before heading out and then got ready to ride our quads into the Cambodian countryside.  We got to meet the owner Quad Adventure Cambodia and our guide for the day, Phi.  Then we got our safety gear, signed our liability releases, had a quick crash course in how to drive a quad, and headed out.  The next four hours were AWESOME.  We rode on roads, and paths, through fields and villages.  There were a few times we went down such steep embankments I was afraid I was going to flip for a second or two.  But I didn't, thank god!  Tons of little kids would hear the quads coming and run out to the street to smile and wave and yell "Hellooo!" to us as we roared by.  It was a total blast.  About an hour into the trip we stopped at the Chres Village School and Orphanage where we were given a tour by a teacher and a student/orphan named Hoon.  It was really nice.  The school works with limited supplies, but is doing a great service for the kids who live there and in the surrounding villages.  Students learn math, reading, writing, and at least one foreign language (they teach English, Japanese and Chinese).  The classrooms are basically wooden lean-tos with reed roofs and walls.  They have a small cafeteria, one room dorms for the 49 kids who live there and a little play ground.  I donated some supplies while we were there, like markers, stickers and pencils.  I only wish I had more.  The tour company donates a portion of their earnings to the school/orphanage so that's just one more reason you should take a Quad Adventure tour!  When we were done we boarded our 4x4s again and headed out.  It was about a 2 hour ride this time, complete with slaloming through road construction crews and a terrifying drive through very tight spaces between people at a roadside market.  But we made it!  We stopped for a bit in a little village crossroads to get some drinks and soak up the local flavor.  Then we headed over to Prasat Pre Monti, a temple way off the beaten path.  Erich had (for some reason) thrown out his Angkor Wat pass, so he couldn't go in, but I spent a little while walking around the temple and checking it out (also regaining the feeling in my ass after that long ride!) before we got back on our quads.  The last hour we basically just wound through little villages and rice paddies, making our way back to Siem Reap.  It was such a great ride.

Following Erich and our guide.

It was super dusty so I was very glad to have the mask.
Kids in one of the primary classes at Chres Village.

Another class at the school/orphanage.

Erich and I posing with Hoon and the teacher who took us around the school.

My quad parked at the crossroads where we had drinks.  There was a tiny market across the street that was pretty bustling.

Sandy path through a jungle-y area.

We got back to our guest house and had to head out fairly soon to catch our plane.  We basically had time to bring our bags down, settle our bill, and hop in the tuk tuk that would take us to the Siem Reap airport.  Upon arriving at the airport it became clear that I had read our reservations wrong and accidentally got us to the airport 2 hours earlier than we needed to be there.  Oops.  We spent some time hanging out in the DQ and it flew by.  Then we got in line and quickly found out that my mistake in reading the reservations was not nearly as bad as the woman in front of us who had misread her reservations and missed her flight by an entire DAY.  Oops x 100.  We had a little time to kill inside the gate which Erich spent online and I spent reading and then we peaced out of Cambodia on our way to Thailand!

1 comment:

  1. Yes, Cambodia has many beautiful places for vacation as well as for study. I love the places.