Saturday, April 26, 2014

Bayon Temple and Preah Khan

After exploring the majestic Angkor Wat temple, our tuk tuk driver picked us up at the entrance to take us to another famous site, the Bayon Temple. Driving through the park, we came across a bridge with these big guys lined up along the edges. They don't look very happy! 

The temples are quite far from each other so it makes sense to hire a tuk tuk driver for the day and have him take you around. Upon arriving at Bayon Temple we noticed that a lot of it is still in ruins and disrepair. In a way, these imperfections made everything feel more authentic. It wasn't like a museum, where cosmetic touches will sometimes be added to exhibits. I'm not sure if sites are left this way out of authenticity or simply funding and time issues.

Again, there were so many interesting carvings into the stones. I wish I knew more and could understand what the significance of these depictions are.

The temple is famous for the huge faces carved in the big pillars. Do you see them? Lots of tourists were trying to take photos at angles where it would seem like they were kissing the faces.

Then we were ready to eat lunch at the early hour of 10AM! There are lots of little restaurant stands dotting the archaeological park, catering solely to tourists. Our tuk tuk driver took us to his friend's eatery. It's quite interesting to think about the informal networks that exist within those in the tourism industry. It makes sense to create these connections - hotels, restaurants, even massage parlors have relationships with specific drivers. This creates efficiency and trust in an otherwise unregulated and chaotic system.

A big bowl of chicken cabbage soup, cooked to order, was perfect for the drizzling weather.

Even though it was before noon, we were exhausted from the hours of walking around. We went to one final temple on the recommendation of our tuk tuk driver, called Preah Khan. It is a low-lying building, an extensive maze of walls, stones, and pathways. The two major pathways running through the temple crisscross, creating four main entrances at the cardinal directions.

The stones were such a unique blend of colors, melding slowly from aqua green to light pink and orange. They seemed tumbled about, lying haphazardly on the floor of the temple.

Sadly the temple has fallen victim to thieves throughout the years. There are a lot of statues looking like the below, missing everything except the feet. I imagine that all the heads and torsos are hidden away in private galleries all over the world.

There was a lot more to see, but we were so wiped out from almost eight hours of touring. It's recommended that you give Angkor Wat a few days at the very least if you want to see most of it. You can get a 3-day pass for $40USD. Unfortunately, we only had a short while in Cambodia, but what we did see was amazing!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the most popular tourist destination in Cambodia - it is the largest religious complex in the world! Almost all tourists who go to Siem Reap go there because of Angkor. It's beautiful at sunrise and at sunset, and we decided to get up very early one morning to experience the sunrise - along with a few hundred other tourists!

The drive from the town took about fifteen minutes by tuk tuk. Our tuk tuk driver agreed to take us around the whole day and give us a tour for a total of $15 USD, which is the standard rate, and quite worth it! The entire area, called the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park, is actually enormous, and there are several different temples which are not walking distance from each other. It probably would take a few days to explore the all the sites, but since we were short on time we opted for a one-day pass for $20 USD.

We arrived around 5AM, just as the sky was lightening up, and walked down a large promenade across a moat toward the main temple. 

People spread out onto the lawn and the ruins out by the front to settle down and watch the sun slowing rising. On either side of the main promenade were gorgeous temples, treasures in their own right!

There was a horse on the grounds, just calmly tearing up some grass from the lawn to eat.

Unfortunately the day was pretty cloudy, which meant that we did not get to see a spectacular sunrise. On the plus side, it meant that the weather was breezy and cool, which made for a much more pleasurable experience while exploring the temples! I was initially worried about the heat, because it is necessary to wear long sleeves and pants or a skirt while visiting the temple, but the temperature was absolutely perfect.

There are many amazing and intricate carvings around every corner of the structure. I was surprised to see how lax the security was around the temple. Even though there are rules about where visitors can't enter or climb, I saw some tourists blatantly breaking the regulations, climbing up blocked off and steep stairwells. Sometimes there would be signs stating "Do Not Enter" even though the pathway was an obvious entrance. It was quite strange!

I'm sure one could spend hours upon hours wandering around the massive structure and all its hallways, looking at the different statues and carvings. Everything told a story or was a symbol and had some religious or cultural importance. However, we only had one day to see everything, and there were several more temples to see. Therefore, overall we did a rather cursory walk through of Angkor Wat.

Can you imagine how many hours it took to carve these depictions of mythical and religious scenes? Some parts are shinier than others; this effect is due to visitors touching or rubbing certain parts for luck. 

At around 9AM we departed from Angkor Wat Temple to move on to other interesting sites in the archaeological park. It had already been such a long morning, almost 4 hours since we arrived, yet it was still so early in the day! We had some strong coffee to replenish our energy in a little row of restaurants beside the temple, before finding our tuk tuk driver and moving on. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Gateway to a World Wonder

Siem Reap is a small but lively tourist hub, located about a twenty minutes drive away from the famous Angkor Wat Temple Complex. The local economy thrives on the business brought in by visitors from all around the world, and the small and dense town center is filled with restaurants, massage parlors, guesthouses, and pubs. The nightlife buzzes with young backpackers looking to have fun, especially around the Pub Street area.  

Tuk tuk drivers crowd around the entrances to the Pub Street area, knowing there is much business to be had at this time of night. Be prepared to face a lot of touting - every five feet a driver would ask me if I needed a ride somewhere. They are friendly but insistent, and I found that a firm "No thank you" would work. Since there is such a large supply of drivers, the fares are extremely cheap, and it's easy to travel from one end of town to the other for 1 US dollar if you bargain with the driver ahead of time.

During the day the town is slightly quieter due to the intense, all-consuming heat that drives people indoors, but it is still quite interesting to walk around and look at the shops. The alleyways in particular house quaint boutiques and more high-end types of specialty stores, many of them supporting local artisans or causes.

Popular buys include airy printed pants, chunky necklaces and leather bracelets, paintings and postcards. Bargaining is not as intense a process as I have found it to be in Vietnam - it's fairly easy to cut prices down 50% or more, and shopkeepers seem very eager to engage in the process. They are mostly friendly and will call out after you if you walk away from a price that you feel is too high.

Personally, I tried to bargain down a bit, but I do not mind paying a price a bit higher than the seller's bottom line. In the end, a dollar here and there from me does not make much of a difference, but to the seller that same amount may mean a lot more.

There were also some nice art galleries featuring art and photographs of Cambodia.

Food options are plentiful in the Pub Street area. We walked past Italian, Vietnamese, western, and Cambodian options, finally deciding to stop by a small shop down a nice alleyway. As in Phnom Penh, you can get a fairly nice meal and a drink for less than $10.

Some examples of the things we ate in Siem Reap - a type of traditional savory Cambodian fish stew, mixed vegetables, and rice...

Mexican! We actually found a pretty authentic Mexican restaurant, where I got shrimp fajitas.

A nice and refreshing cucumber salad, with chicken, peanuts, and a tangy fish paste dressing.

On our last night we went to the New Leaf Book Cafe. I enjoyed the ambiance in the restaurant - it is partially a used bookstore, with shelves of books lining the exposed brick walls. I ordered a dish of egg tofu in a chili tomato sauce on top of bok choy, which came with a side of nutty brown rice. The entire meal was only $3.50.

There's lots of cheap and good eating to be had in Siem Reap! All of this food helped fuel us on our visit to Angkor Wat, which started at 4:30AM in the morning...

Cambodia Take Two

This past week I went back to Cambodia, flying from Singapore to our first stop in the capital Phnom Penh. April is the hottest month of the year, right before the arrival of the rainy season, so we were greeted with scorching temperatures. 

Though air-conditioned taxis are plentiful and affordable, we decided most of the time to brave the heat and bumpiness and take tuk tuks instead. The trips are just as fast, sometimes faster as the smaller vehicle can squeeze through traffic. Additionally, you can see much more from the back of the open air tuk tuk, and feel as if you are experiencing more of the sounds and scents of the street. 

In the afternoon when it was cooling we took a stroll along the riverside. This area is populated with hotels, restaurants, and shops for tourists, yet there were plenty of locals hanging out in the wide plaza walkway, from couples sitting by the water to boisterous kids kicking around a ball.

There is a lot of construction happening on the strip of land across the water. I think it the new development will be some sort of resort or hotel. It was interesting to see the modern concrete building rising up above the river still populated with traditional boats.

For dinner we went to the Foreign Correspondents' Club, a nice, classy though touristy institution by the riverside. It was quite a fancy meal with great service, but very cheap compared to Singapore prices. The menu has a combination of eastern and western tastes - I ordered a spiced chicken salad with roasted pumpkin and a yogurt dressing, and it was quite delicious!

We were only in Phnom Penh for a day - our bus left late the next morning for Siem Reap. It's actually dangerous to take a night bus, not because of violence but due to the frequency of drunk driving that occurs in Cambodia. Additionally, most roads are not well lit at night.

We traveled with the bus company Giant Ibis. The ride to Siem Reap was about seven hours long, with two short rest breaks in between. The road between the two major destinations cut through the countryside, passing by small farm houses and fields of crops that stretched to the horizon. The few businesses that popped up here and there were mostly geared towards bus travelers like ourselves.

There was some construction happening along the roads. Generally everything was dry, hot, and dusty in the fading afternoon light. The bus ride was mostly uneventful and surprisingly smooth. A word of warning - there is no bathroom onboard! There is a large screen TV at the front, though, and we were entertained by Avatar and X-Men. 

Soon it became dark and we were rolling into a slightly more populated area, with roads decorated with colorful lights celebrating the upcoming Khymer New Year. We had finally arrived in Siem Reap!