I’ve been slowing down on travel writing in order to get photos posted. The last of my Cambodia photos are up:
Saigon, Cholon (Saigon’s Chinatown), and the Mekong delta are next.
(All photos for this entry can be found here)
May 2nd, 2006
We got up early to brave the crowds at the Angkor Wat sunrise. It was pretty amazing, even if it was a bit hard to move. After the sun came up it was off to Angkor Thom to wander around. Our first stop was Baphuon. It is quite large, and looked interesting, but was closed for construction work. No matter, we wandered north through the roaming chickens to the next set of ruins. It was nice to walk around this early in the morning. The temperature was lovely, and it was interesting to see people starting their day. No need to put your vendor armor on yet.
We reached Phimeanakas just as the sun was coming over the tops of the trees. It was only Anna, myself, and a skinny rooster that enjoyed the sight. I couldn’t resist the steep climb up the back of the temple, and was rewarded with a slightly hazy view of the ground below. Shop keepers were starting to sweep the dirt in front of their stalls, and breakfast fires were going.
We walked passed the royal pools on our way north to the Terrace of the Elephants. There was around twenty locals relaxing around the water. A popular morning spot I suppose. The elephants (and other things) are carved into a long stretch of wall. Parts of the wall are showing their age, but other spots are still very impressive. Definitely need to visit this area in the morning.
We headed east across the road to explore around Prasats Suor Prat and the Kleangs. Wandering around the buildings, we were followed by two boys who told us various things about the buildings. Sort of uninvited tour guides. They were friendly enough, so we didn’t mind them hanging around. When we were done with that area five minutes later though, things changed. Considering we were only there for five minutes, and we hadn’t asked them to follow us, I gave them a dollar. They raised a big stink and demanded five dollars each. I laughed pretty hard. Our tuk-tuk driver only makes $10 a day, and he has to pay for his motorcycle, trailer, fuel, and put in long hours. These guys wanted $120/hour for inviting themselves to follow us around and deliver suspect information. I was surprised to see such boldness from kids, but I guess it was a tactic that had worked in the past.
Next it was off to Preah Khan, a huge complex that used to be part city, part Buddhist monastery. I really enjoyed this site. It was huge, and a lot of fun to explore. There were plenty of little hallways and hidden rooms, but also a lot of large buildings and open spaces. They have cleared and restored much of the complex, but a significant portion of the site was left in its natural state, complete with huge trees growing out of the ruins.
The famous Ta Prohm was our next temple to visit, and it felt similar to Preah Khan. Everyone seems to know the temple for its appearance in Tomb Raider, and it is obvious why it was chosen as a set. Much of the temple has been left in a bit of disrepair, and many large silk cotton and fig trees have been allowed to continue their strangle-hold on the stone. It was another fun temple to explore, but you had to navigate the crowds a bit more here.
To finish up the day we drove over to Pre Rup to enjoy the late afternoon sun and a bit of a sunset. Pre Rup doesn’t seem to be touristed much compared to other sunset spots. It isn’t as tall as Phnom Bakheng, but it is considered a “temple mountain”, and offers a great view over the jungle. The temple is in various states of decomposition. The brick towers are crumbling, but the stone carved false doorways are still amazing.
As we sat enjoying the view we were asked if we wanted to buy cold beer, by a policeman, and then his badge. I’m pretty sure the badge part was a joke, but it was still pretty uncomfortable. A bit wary, we asked him if it was OK to be consuming alcohol on a temple site. His reply was, “Everyone likes to sit and have cold beer. Is good”. I couldn’t argue much with that. We shared a rapidly warming beer and watched the sunset.
(All photos for this entry can be found here)
(Monday May 1st, 2006)
After dropping $40 each on three-day passes to the temples, we headed to the biggest, Angkor Wat. Since we started late we were assuming most of the tour groups would be gone by that time. It turned out to be a good bet. We even managed to stumble on the start of a wedding at the entrance.
When we visited Peru, we learned that the costs for Machu Picchu meant that many would never be able to visit their own history. I was happy to see that there are no entry fees to Angkor for Cambodians, and there seemed to be a good number of them visiting the temples. Angkor Wat was built to honor Vishnu, a Hindu god. Since then, Cambodia has become mostly Buddhist, and the temple is now filled with images of Buddha and altars. Though not active, the temples still seem to be considered holy sites by many.
The bad part about visiting Angkor later in the morning is that the sun is quite strong. Without the morning or afternoon light, a lot of the detail of the dark complex is lost. However, I think it was more than worth it to enjoy it all at our own speed. It takes a good bit of time to wander around before you get a sense of scale of the temple and the detail of the carvings. Though almost every surface of the temple is decoratively carved, the inner walls are pretty amazing. Theses long halls have extremely detailed reliefs carved into them. The carvings are almost too much for the eye to take in – one could spend hours exploring the details of a single wall.
Before we headed into the inner-most part of the temple, we decided to wander over to an active pagoda just outside the Angkor Wat walls. The traditional Buddhist shapes and imagery was pretty familiar to me, except for some of the outside paintings. Most were of the standard scenes, but a few focused on some pretty graphic depictions of what I can only assume was the Buddhist version of hell. It was a little odd to see the half-closed eyes of Buddha in one painting compared to the torture, blood, and strange creatures in the painting next to it. It reminded me a little of some of the Catholic art you see in Latin America. After exploring the new, it was back to the old.
Near the center of the temple is an almost vertical climb up roughly forty steps to the top level. They are tall steps, and there is only a handrail on the south side of the temple, so the other sides can be a bit of a hairy climb. Much like other culture’s temple steps, they force your head down as you ascend. I followed the locals up the west side steps to the top. Near the top I helped an older Cambodian woman (I’m assuming) who had sort of got stuck in limbo on part of the steps. I offered my hand for stability, as a slip wasn’t an option. After a bit of a look, she took my hand and I helped her up. She smiled, I smiled, she laughed, and then slapped me on the arm and said something in Khmer. I have no clue what that part of the exchange was about. Probably some sort of cultural faux pas on my part.
The view from the top of Angkor Wat was pretty amazing. The land is quite flat, so you could see jungle, buildings and dry rice paddies for a ways off. I’m sure the view in the wet season is spectacular.
After some amok (steamed coconut) fish curry for lunch near the temples, and some exchanges with the young sales force in training (ask Anna about “SIDER BOY”), it was off to the south gate of Angkor Thom. The south gate is a bit of a traffic jam, but the battling stone gods and giants lining tall carved entrance is worth any wait. On the short drive to our next destination, we got distracted along the way. The monkeys along the road seem to know exactly what tourists are for – buying fruit from the locals to feed them. While cautious, they knew they were going to be safe and well-fed whenever there is a crowd. We stopped to watch them play and get fed by the locals for a bit. After that, it was off to what is probably the second most famous temple in Cambodia – Bayon.
Though it is fairly large, Bayon isn’t known for its size. It has some nice carvings, but they are not the best in the area. Bayon is known for it’s large stone towers, with a slightly smiling face carved into each side. Bayon is a favorite for obvious reasons. It is really fun to explore, and the towers and giant faces are completely unique. We arrived here in the mid-late afternoon, which turned out to be a great time. The temple was relatively empty, and the light was nice. If the sun was directly over-head, I don’t think you could see the details in the faces or the rest of the temple as clearly.
It was getting close to sunset, and we decided to brave the crowds. It was off to Phnom Bakheng, a large temple on the top of a hill. The elephant ride was tempting, but also $15, so we passed. The stairs straight up looked a bit dodgy, and we were dragging pretty badly at this point in the day. So, it was the winding wimpy path to the top for us. It was a nice choice, and a peaceful walk through the woods to the top.
Phnom Bakheng was larger than I expected, and blistering hot at the top. The stone had been baking in the sun all day, so you were punished if you tried to sit down. The shady spot behind the top tower was prime real estate. Around twenty of us relaxed there, waiting for the sun to loose some power. We tried to ask a Cambodian kid how he found his Rey Mysterio (Mexican/American wrestler) t-shirt, but for some reason the hand signals just weren’t working. It was funny to travel a world away and find part of your own neighborhood. The wrestler is from San Diego/TJ, one of his “moves” is called the “619”. I saw three different Mexican wrestling t-shirts on locals at different times while here, so there must be some sort of clothing exchange going on with Mexico. I guess the second hand clothes I saw at the market had to come from somewhere.
After relaxing for half an hour, it started to get very busy. Soon half of the large platform was filled with tourists posing with the monks and crowding west half for the sunset. We saw some strange rainbow-like patterns in the clouds, but the sunset was thwarted by thick clouds. It was still another great view from the top though – you could even look down on Angkor Wat, where we had been a few hours before.
After enjoying the tuk-tuk breeze back to town, we headed out to dinner. I had read about a restaurant in Siem Reap that was supposed to be great international food, but relatively cheap compared to back home. We decided to give Abacus a try. All of the food was fantastic, and the patio was just what we needed. Open air with some fans for cooling, it was nice to relax and watch the geckos go to work.
I’ll be posting some more writing and photos from our trip to Cambodia and Vietnam. Expect my slacker work ethic to dictate a slow speed.
(Sunday, April 30th)
Thanks to Paul performing cabbie duties, we left for LAX on Amtrak at 6PM on Friday. We arrived at Siem Reap, Cambodia at 4 PM on Sunday, tired. It wasn’t just the date line screwing with us, we had been traveling for over 24 hours. I was a bit fearful of doing LAX to Taipei (14 hours) with China Airlines, images of smashed knees in my head. But they were really great. Foam slippers, great tea, and personal entertainment with a decent selection of movies. I’ll have no hesitation to fly with them again.
Once off the plane the moist heat forces your body into an instant sweat. Outside of the mornings and A/C rooms, I was pretty much sweating all the time. A consequence of traveling in the (relatively) dry, hot season. The bonus is that it is also the low season. Though I’m not sure it means as much when attendance rises steadily each year.
Customs might as well have been performed on an assembly line. No smiles here. These guys looked like they had the most boring job in history. Twenty dollars for a visa, stamp-stamp. Let’s see your visa application, stamp-stamp. You seem to match your passport photo, stamp-stamp. Staple the visa to the passport, stamp-stamp. Hand the customs form over, stamp-stamp. On your way now.
After that it was time to find our driver, Mr. Han, and his tuk-tuk, a sort of open air carriage pulled by a motorcycle. As I said before, Siem Reap reminds me a lot of the town below Machu Picchu in Peru. Once just a regular place, it now exists almost solely to provide infrastructure for the tourist masses heading to Angkor. On the way from the airport we passed huge hotel after hotel, with plenty more under construction.
Compared to these places, our accommodation was a lot more low key. Down a dirt road on the east edge of town, the Two Dragons Guesthouse was a nice little spot. Relatively easy to get to, friendly, decent rooms (ours was $15 with AC), and no hassles or hard sells. Bring your own towel though, ours had a bit of a funk to them – seems to be a reoccurring theme on our travels.
After dropping our stuff off we had enough energy to explore “downtown” Siem Reap a bit and have some dinner. After working out temple travel with our tuk-tuk driver for the next day, we crashed hard and slept in.
This morning’s trip to Tonle Sap lake was a bit of a mixed bag, but interesting. It was a long and bumpy ride out to the lake this time of year, as the water will soon consume the pitted road we traveled on. Houses/huts/shelters will be moved or towed when the rain comes in a few weeks.
I have to admit, it was interesting to see how these people live on the water. Their ingenuity, reuse, and adaptation was amazing to see. However, the tour was a pretty uncomfortable way to learn about it all. One could write any number of different thesis papers on the effects of tourisim by studing this small ecosystem.
There were a number of TV antennae on the floating houses, and a good portion of the people seemed to be better off with the tourist boats. But at the same time, tourists had sponsored a lot of unencouraging behavior. The moment a tour boat stops, kids in little tubs and mom’s in boats quickly surround it. Our driver killed the engine and let us drift. As we sat there, he looked at us, and the small mob forming around the boat. We waited for a few minutes… curious to see why we were stopped. Finally we figured it out. It was supposed to be a photo opp, but it felt wrong. Our boat driver knew about as much english as we did kmer, so the only way out of the situation seemed to be to give money to one of the ten hands around our boat. In retrospect, I’m still not sure how to handle that.
A part of me says, “who cares, the money is nothing to you”. But everything we have been told is that these are not the people that need help. The little girl in the tub-boat certainly has less than me, but she is also chewing gum and has painted finger nails. She probably makes more than the average 6-6 laborer. What kind of culture am I creating?
The whole morning was a bit of an emotional roller coaster ride. One moment it seemed people would smile and wave, the next moment you were left with cold stares. Perhaps it was just me being self conscious. Ultimately a worth-while experience, but one that leaves me stuck in my head for a while.
We are going to try to do our good deed for the day and donate some blood at the childrens hostpital in an hour. They apparently have trouble getting donations from the local population because of buddhist beliefs – something along the lines of never getting your blood back. I have a feeling I will still be thinking about this morning for a while.
(Photos for this entry can be found here)
We finished up our temple tour with a long ride out to Banteay Srei, and a stop at Banteay Samre on the way back. Banteay Srei was worth the long drive. The temple complex was fantasticaly detailed and they had done a great job restoring it. It was also worth the drive just for a chance to get out of the city and into the country side. A bit voueristic, but a rewarding ride, and a welcome change from the booming growth of Siem Reap.
Note to astmatics, tuk-tuk travel here can be a challenge. Exhaust combined with burning garbage and smoke from cooking fires is about the worst thing for lungs. But, you get a chance to enjoy the country side, the people, the smells (good and bad), and a much needed breeze.
Tomorrow morning we head out to Tonle Sap, a huge freshwater lake south of Siem Reap. Should have an interesting time exploring some of the river culture of Cambodia.
Chris did most of the planning for this trip, and now that I’m here I feel like I’m taking an anthropology test that I didn’t study for. This test is open book, but the book is written in sanscrit and I’m guessing the answers based on the pictures. I always was one to wing it for the essay exams.
Today’s trip through villages was fantastic. I’m always looking to see how people live at their homes — not just what happens in the city. The dress, the cooking, the children playing, the cows, chickens, goats and such lounging under the stilted houses, the school children on bicycles maneuvering the most chaotic traffic I’ve ever seen, that is what I travel for. I saw a tiny motorcycle with two giant black pigs (at least 400 lbs a piece) strapped on the back heading for town (I think we ordered some for dinner), a family of four on a scooter, with the one-year-old balancing at the front, a four-year old riding a huge adult bike, an engine on wheels pulling a flatbed full of lumber with ropes for steering. Roadside cooking this morning included waffles being made over habachi, and last night it was roasted corn cobs and large bugs, cane juice, baguettes and fruit. Today we stopped for some sugar palm juice (the spear the palm fruit it and let it drain through bamboo all night).
I think I could easily adapt to life in a palm-thatch room on stilts with outdoor living room and kitchen — but not sure I could ever learn to drive here. It works, but I think it requires a sixth sense that I don’t have.
Man, it’s hot. It is only 97F/36C, but the humidity means my body can’t cool down. Add in some tropical sun, and you have to pack around a lot of water to stay upright.
Siem Reap is an interesting place. In many ways, similar to Aguas Calientes – the tourist town below Machu Picchu. It is almost completely tourist driven. Large and sprawling, with new hotels under construction. The disparity is huge. It can cost more for high tea than hiring a driver for an entire day. A whole pineapple, cut and prepared for you for 50 cents. A baguette and jam, 25 cents. Across the street, some one is paying $300/night for their hotel room. Crazy.
The temples at Angkor are amazing. We have been doing the anti-tour circuit, trying to stay away from the busloads. It worked pretty well. But we wanted to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat this morning. A complete circus. There were more tourists packed in there at sunrise than I had seen all of yesterday. Ultimately worth doing, it was pretty fantastic.
We have one more day on our Angkor passes tomorrow, then a spare day, and then flight to Saigon/HCMC. Loving it so far, I could ride in the back of a tuktuk with a wedge of pineapple for a very long time. Until the exhaust kicks in anyway. Not too many catylitic converters over here.
It looks like Anna and I will be visiting Siem Reap (Angkor, Cambodia) and Vietnam in early May. Initially we were going to do a tour to Angkor, then just travel on our own through Vietnam. However the cost of the tour + flights to Saigon, Hanoi, and back to Siem Reap were about $400 more than flights going from LAX->Siem Reap->Saigon->Hanoi->LAX. The relatively low travel cost in these countries made that extra money seem like a lot to spend. Doing it from the tour would have also meant more travel time overall. So.. Flight package it is.
It looks like our itinerary will be something like this: 4 days in Siem Reap (Angkor), 4 days in Saigon, 3 days in Hanoi, 2 in Halong Bay. Anyone who has traveled in these countries is probably screaming “not enough time!” I know, but there never is. I have two weeks to spend. I’d like to spend them here. There are many other places in the world to visit, but I feel a sense of urgency about these countries.
Much like Peru, I see Cambodia and Vietnam as very changed by tourism in the last decade, but posed for even greater infrastructure and cultural changes as they become tourist destinations. It is already too late in some respects – 4 star resorts and all that jazz. I know from my experience at Machu Picchu that my enjoyment of ruins in particular is directly related to how much free space I have to roam. Selfish? Of course. I hope we can avoid some of the rush by going in a lower season – its going to be hot, and it will be just before the summer break. Angkor is also a very large area, so I hope there will still be many opportunities to explore away from the crowds. Time will tell.