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Published: February 22nd 2007
Casey and Jeff take on Angkor Wat
At last! Jeff and I had reached the apex of our journey, Siem Reap, home to the famous Angkor Wat. Among all the places to go in Southeast Asia, visiting Angkor Wat was at the top of my to-see list. Angkor Wat lived up to all my expectations with its beauty and grandeur. Others may disagree with my opinion, in fact I am sure many do, due to the influx of tourists and expectations too high. I guess Jeff and I timed it right, meeting little crowds and felt as if we were the few lucky people to wander in and around these temples. Angkor Wat was spectacular. Definitely ranks up there, if not surpassing the temples of Ayutthaya, the Vatican, and the temples of Kyoto.
Our journey began early on New Year’s day. We zipped over to the famous Russian Market in search of knock-off Manolo Blahniks and the famous scarves called "krama" worn by all the locals. The actual name of the market is Psar Tuol Tom Pong. Now that’s a mouthful- probably why it got nicknamed the Russian Market instead. No Blahniks were found, yet plenty of scarves, dvds, purses, and more fake sunglasses were added my
the crew enjoying a scrumptious meal
collection. Due to our shopping spree we almost missed our bus! The headache I was incurring was making me regret the bottle of champagne we ordred at 2 am the night before. We met back up with the Aussies and Kiwis and were headed on our way up to Siem Reap- the Mekong Family was extending the travel adventure together into Cambodia. This 5-and-a-half hour bus ride was similar to all of our bus rides in Asia- speeding, swerving to miss pedestrians and other vehicles, and the horn going off every few seconds to prevent any real slumber. Definitely the equivalent to ‘Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride’ found at Disneyland. Yet, this time, to my dismay/fortune (depends on how you look at it) I had the hot seat. I was in the last row in the middle seat, allowing me to see everything that the driver was looking at. It was not a pretty picture. Every few minutes I found myself cringing and thinking we were going to crash. I would let out an ‘omigod,’ clutch Jeff's arm, and everyone would ask ‘what did you just see?’ I would reply 'Better you didn't see that.' The other seats were not able
to see out the front, only the beautiful scenery along the side of the road. I decided that with Southeast Asian bus rides, ignorance is bliss and not sitting in the driver seat is a wise decision! The only thing that caused the bus to stop, let alone break, was when a cow meandered onto the road.
We somehow arrived safely in Siem Reap and were on our next mission: finding accommodation. Many places that we were interested in staying in were full. We thought about splurging, but decided we wanted to stay in budget. We ended up staying at the ‘Angkor Green’ in the side addition of the hostel- aka the dungeon. But for $7 a night (which for Siem Reap hostels is a little expensive!) who could beat the price? It was originally 8, yet I talked the guy down to 7 since it was one bed instead of two- I am quite the bargainer if I say so myself. We met up with our friends for a delicious Cambodia BBQ meal where we got to cook our meat on a grill in front of us.
I had heard from friends and read online horror stories
of Siem Reap and how the charming little town was being inundated with massive western hotels, enticing European travelers to come see the temples of Angkor. Heaven forbid they stay in anything of lesser quality in a poor third-world country. Upon arriving we did see some large hotels, but nothing that measured up to what we were told. The town had definitely been transformed to cater to travelers- cute little alleyways with open-air cafes and restaurants spilling into the streets. It was much cleaner than Phnom Penh (I have decided it is the dirtiest city I have ever been in). Prices were much higher due to the tourism, and there were some very expensive hotels. In extreme contrast, along the streets there were many people with missing limbs- victims of the landmines that had been planted throughout the Cambodian countryside. Remnants of the brutal history of Cambodia under the rule of the Khmer Rouge still remain. Overall I had a very good first impression of Siem Reap. I could see why my friend Ben enjoyed living there for 8 months working in the hospital. That night Jeff and I headed back early. I could hardly sleep I was so excited
to see Angkor Wat. I felt like it was going to be Christmas the next morning!
Day 1 of templing was incredible. The many temples of Angkor were created between the 9-13th centuries to honor past and current kings, and various religious gods. In an attempt to glorify these ruling bodies, Angkor Wat was built- a good way to be remembered if you ask me! All the books say to save Angkor for sunrise, yet Jeff and I realized that if we waited any longer we might burst. We decided to save the tuk-tuk tour for day 2, and the first day navigate ourselves around the temples. Our original plan was to rent bicycles which we thought we could do in the temple complex, but ended up not being able to. If I did it again, I would definitely get bikes one day to ride around to all the temples- hired from numerous companies in Siem Reap. Instead we took tuk-tuks, motos, and walked. First we had to purchase our passes at the steep price of $40 for a 3 day pass! I only hope that the entrance fee goes into preserving the temples, not the hands of the
government. Our first stop was Angkor- the largest religious complex in the world. What a sight. Even among all the tourists there at 10 am, it was absolutely amazing, breath-taking, incredible. Yes, you can just buy a postcard of it and it will look similar, but nothing like meandering through the hallways, seeing the architecture and art up close. As soon as we entered the main building I lost Jeff- we have a tendency to do this, and always somehow manage to meet up. I wandered the outer hallway mesmerized by the intricate carvings in the wall. Not a single wall, floor, nor column went without some design etched into it. Lots of people go along with guides to explain the stories of the carvings. In hindsight this would have been a smart idea- instead I wandered and listened to the others. I also enjoy guessing what the etchings mean and make up my own stories! Next I ventured into the main complex and climbed the steep stairs. I felt like Spiderman using all fours to get to the top. It was worth the scale because at the top were incredible views and more ruins. The trip down was a
little scary- the same steepness as the way up, fortunately accompanied by a rail for us to hold onto. By this time of the morning Angkor was deserted. We learned that going to these temples is all about timing. Angkor is a zoo in the early morning for sunrise, yet from late morning until sunset it is basically empty. While wandering the temple I ran across some Japanese kanji. It took me by surprise! It turns out they were from a Japanese explorer 60 years ago who examined Angkor excessively. The Kanji was his name, marking his appearance and at the temple. I don’t think they would like it so much if I wanted to tag my name. I bothered not to ask ;-).
Next Jeff and I headed into Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom is a a large walled complex containing some of the most famous temples, including the Bayon. This is the area of Angkor Wat most densely filled with all sorts of temples. I could give you a laundry list of names from a book, yet better to just see my photos. Scattered throughout the temples are vendors, especially kids trying to sell you anything, possibly even
their younger sibling if you so desired. We found out that the kids go to school in the morning, and spend their afternoons selling goods to tourists- rather sad. When talking to us these kids had an incredible ability to list off countries and their capitols, yet one set of kids was determined that Ottawa was the capitol of America. Clearly they are all taught this in school, as they ALL were able to spout off the same geography facts that we had trouble remembering. In attempt to beat these kids at their own game without being rude, avoid purchases and to stop them from pestering us, Jeff and I started to ask them questions. Instead of talking to us, we were the ones asking them questions about their families and hobbies. Once out of the ‘buy our stuff or die’ mentality, these kids were pretty darn cute. They ended up getting tired of our questions! Haha-mission accomplished! I did end up buying a bracelet from a girl, succumbing to her desperation to sell, and I must admit I absolutely love it, and is probably my favorite souvenir- I am even wearing it right now as I type this. Definitely
much cooler wearing it in Cambodia (kind of like how hemp and lanyards are cool at summer camp but no where else). Still find myself wearing it to remember the good times in Cambodia. We finished off our leisurely day at the Bayon. We ran into a group of monks who were more excited to take our photo than we were to take theirs. The Bayon was my favorite stop of the day. This temple has the huge iconic faces everywhere, majestically adorning the numerous towers of the Bayon. Absolutely amazing. We reached the Bayon just before sunset, catching some incredible lighting that lit up the faces. We limited the number of temples we visited to prevent being templed-out. We had a three-day pass and intended to make good use of it. That night we went to a Khmer Dinner with the Aussie/Kiwi/American AND Canadian crew- we met up with our fellow JETs, Jane and Evania! It was incredible to see them and caught up on all our crazy travel adventures so far.
Day 2 of templing started at 4:30 am. Our tuk-tuk picked us up and we were headed to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. I don’t
know where there were more people at 4:30 in the morning- Angkor Wat or hiking Mt. Fuji. Ridiculous crowds! Jeff and I were able to stake out our little area right in front of the lake, with a great view for that sun to rise behind Angkor. It was beautiful. Jeff and I managed to each take 100 photos of the same exact thing- Angkor Wat. After sunrise and breakfast, we ventured further a field to the temple our Aussie friend Lois recommended. Getting there took about 45 minutes. The ride out there was an added bonus to the adventure. We got to ride through the countryside and see the villages and people living there. Their houses were stilted and made of reeds. It was such a contrast to bustling Siem Reap. Unlike the countryside of Vietnam, industrialization and modernism has not touched the Cambodia countryside. They still very much live a simple lifestyle. Looking out into the barren countryside all I could think about was landmines and how many were still hidden below the surface. Cambodia’s history is very tragic, still very prevalent today.
Banteay Srei differed from any of the other temples we visited because of the
red pigment of the stones used to make it. The etching inside of the temple were phenomenal, probably the best of any of the temples. After that we headed to Preah Khanand Ta Prom, my favorite temples in all of Angkor. We somehow timed these temples right and avoided all the Korean and Japanese tour groups. It amazed me how freely we were allowed to wander in and around the temples. Entering the temples was an experience in itself because we had to walk down long pathways with the Cambodian jungle creeping in. At the temple large trees have grown over parts, making it even more breathtaking. Sitting her typing, I don’t know how to describe it- it was that incredible to me. With so few visitors in the area and our ability to roam freely I felt like we were explorers and the very few and lucky to be there. Like Angkor Wat, not a wall nor column was left un-etched. My advice is to go see the temples now. In all honesty, we should not have been able to do the things we were if they intend to preserve these temples. If they do not start preserving them
Jeff's a badass
more properly and the number of tourists that come continues to increase each year, then there won’t be much left to see in the coming years. We finished early today since we had gotten up so early. By this time, we were a little templed-out. That afternoon we visited Jane and Evania at their very expensive hotel and swam in their very nice pool- good to have friends in high places.
That night was our last in Siem Reap. We met up with the Kiwis (aussies were sick), the Canadians, and some more Hiroshima JETs, Tiffany, Dave, and their new friend Bob. Tonight we congregated at the Happy Pizza Restaurant. The ‘happy’ referring to the nice ‘herbs’ they add to their pizza which makes it taste oh soooo good. At first we thought it was a dud, and then a half an hour later found ourselves happier than ever. No trip is complete to Siem Reap without visiting the bar Angkor What? Jane and Evania started the dance party and we all slurped down ‘death buckets’ of whiskey, Redbull, and coke. That definitely put some hair on our chests. I found myself stumbling home at 3 AM- a very
long and very enjoyable day.
On the last day Jeff and I decided we had enough temples. We woke up late, turned on the TV and the Rose Bowl was on!!! The dungeon may have not been the cleanest place we had ever stayed, but they had cable- $7 well spent. Other travelers would think nothing of this, yet for Jeff and I this was almost as exciting as the temples (well maaaybe not…). After that Jeff and I snuck into Jane and Evania’s hotel and used their pool. Brought me back to my days sneaking into Tenaya Lodge in Yosemite. It was great to lie out next to the pool. I must admit, there was an element of guilt while at their hotel. In Siem Reap there is money. Yet you go ten kilometers outside of the city it is poor poor poor. So many visitors (partially including ourselves) come to Cambodia and see Angkor, and take no notice of the people or real culture outside of Siem Reap. One night in one of the expensive hotels is more money than some families see in 3 months. That honestly disgusts me, and makes me think of our dungeon
as a palace- it did have concrete walls which in my opinion is a step up from the reeds. Although very charming, Siem Reap is a city of extreme and slightly disturbing contrast between wealth and poverty.
After perusing the town market and getting massages, it was time to head out to the airport. Earlier I mentioned we did not think the influx of hotels was too bad in Siem Reap. Headed out to the airport we finally understood the horror stories of the five star hotels. It was absolutely disgusting. It felt like the strip in Vegas, Cambodia-style: one large hotel after the other. I was saddened to see this, as tourism is at the cusp of taking over Siem Reap. Too look at the brightside- along with the tourists and western influence, these hotels were bringing money and jobs into Cambodia- something it desperately needs. Second, these hotels were in the outskirts of the city- therefore preserving the charm of the center and miles from the heart of Angkor Wat.
A short, much more relaxed one-hour flight later (in comparison to Mr. Toad's Wild Bus Ride), we arrived in Phnom Penh with the Aussies. Like on
New Years, this was only a short layover before heading out early to Sihanoukville to take in some much needed beach time.
All I can say is: Angkor Wat- WOW!
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