Category Archives: Cambodia

The Grand Tour Continued!

Cambodia, Post 5, the finale. Previous posts, in chronological order: Arriving in Cambodia, Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Angkor Wat: The Small Tour, The Grand Tour. I had the best intentions of not writing a lot about this trip and instead having lots of pictures. Apparently “not writing a lot” is a very difficult proposition for me.  But I do think I have delivered on the “lots of pictures”!

Towards the end of our second day of temple hopping, we were running close on time for sunset with two temples left. The temple our driver had picked out for sunset only allows about 300 people in, and you have to get there around 4pm to make sure you can get your spot. Sunset happens just before 7pm, so there is a fair amount of waiting to be done once you are there.  We decided to skip a formal lunch and just eat the trail mix and snacks we had packed, and we even decided to skip the smaller of the two temples. This left us an hour for Preah Khan. Preah Khan was a temple we had heard of, and we decided we wanted to see it more than we wanted to eat!

Preah Khan was massive. We practically jogged through it and I wish we had more time. This is why it would have been good to have moved the first two “extra” temples to a different day. Skipping one temple and not having enough time at another were not ideal. Not eating lunch was also not ideal, but it was much worse to not have time to take in the temple.  Most of the temples in the Angkor era were originally built to honor Hindu deities; over time, as the state religion switched to Buddhism, the temples were simply repurposed. Preah Khan is interesting because it was originally built to honor both Hinduism and Buddhism.

After our relatively quick walk through of Preah Khan, we were on our way to Phnom Bakheng for sunset. This temple is on top of a very large hill, requiring you to hike up a good ways to visit it. It makes for stunning views though and it’s easy to see why it’s a favorite for sunset. By the time we arrived, there were quite a few people already there. Since I am much slower at going up hills or inclines these days, we agreed that Micah would just hike up as quickly as he could and hold a spot in line while I took my time and would meet him at my own pace. (As it turns out, when he got in line, he only had to wait about 5 minutes for me to catch up.  So I’m not that slow yet!)

When it was our turn to go into the temple and up to the top, we quickly claimed a spot at the edge of the temple. I stayed put and Micah did a quick scan to see if there was a better vantage point. Then we swapped and I did a quick scan to see if there was a better view. We both agreed there wasn’t, so Micah began to set up the tripod and I went to walk around and enjoy the views from the other sides. When I came back, Micah was taking down the tripod. Apparently tripods are not allowed. We clearly had no idea about this rule, so we were just thrilled to have carried it around all day for absolutely no reason. (We brought it on the trip specifically for sunrise and sunset photos.  Actually, we bought it specifically for this trip for those reasons!) But while I was checking out the view, I spotted a familiar sight in the middle of the jungle. You could see Angkor Wat quite clearly! As frustrated as we both were about the tripod issue, it was thrilling to see it through the afternoon haze and calming to spend a few minutes on the opposite side of the temple from where the sunset viewing was best, and away from the majority of the people.

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Watching sunset was tremendous. You have an impressive view of rice fields and Western Baray lake. I had envisioned being able to see the sun drop down into the lake and take some stunning sunset-over-water pictures. The haze that hangs over the jungle, however, put a damper on those plans. The sun dropped into the haze about 15-20 minutes before it would reach the horizon, and at that point the sunset was over for our intents and purposes. The temple guards started herding us towards the exits and we descended the hill in the twilight.

Our driver had told us specifically which tree he would be parked underneath, so it wasn’t difficult to find him among the crowd. The way back to our hotel was crazy with a lot of traffic. Seeing sunset is a popular activity for tourists, in fact, it’s listed as one of the “must do” events. It was even popular with a lot of the locals as we saw families with picnic blankets spread out across the moat from Angkor Wat.

On the way back through the city, we noticed that there were no street lights, or traffic lights, or really any lights anywhere. We got back to the hotel and commented on this to the driver. He didn’t seem too concerned about it, apparently sometimes the entire city loses power. At the hotel, they said that there was an accident- that a car hit a transformer and the entire city was out of power. But the hotel had a generator, so they could still run normally. This was good news! It would be a long night with no AC!  (Though they did have to turn off the generator for a few hours in the middle of the night, so there were a few uncomfortable hours around midnight.)  We went swimming to cool off and then had dinner at the hotel restaurant. We were the only guests eating there, so it was actually very romantic to have a private, candle light dinner, in the beautiful garden setting to end our trip.

We had planned an afternoon flight on Monday so that we could have one last adventure on Monday morning. We thought about visiting one of the museums, or maybe going back to Angkor Wat for a few hours, but my joints were really aching from the whirlwind tours we had done the previous few days. That, coupled with the fact that the power was still out in the whole city, helped us decide to just relax and soak in the pool. We had twinges of “we should be doing something,” but sometimes it’s important to listen to what your body needs and just take a break! (That’s true for all travelers, by the way, not just the knocked up ones!)

Overall, we loved our time in Cambodia and will probably return at some point in our lives.  We saw a lot, but not nearly everything that we wanted to.  It’s worth spending a good chunk of time, a week or so, so that you can take everything in without having to rush.

I’ve updated our Flickr site with a few extra pictures and captions.  Please Enjoy!

Coming Soon:  Lessons from traveling

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The Grand Tour: More temples, plus an extra temple

Post 4 in the Cambodia series. Get caught up with these posts, in chronological order: Arriving in Cambodia, Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Angkor Wat: The Small Tour

After a good night’s rest, we were ready to go at 7:30am on Sunday when our driver came to collect us for the Grand Tour. When he introduced himself, he said that he knew a little about the temples and we could ask him questions if we wanted to. This turned out to be good because in my effort to make sure our packs were as light as possible, I inadvertently left the guidebook at the hotel. As it turns out, most of the temples we would see were more in ruins and didn’t have as many detailed carvings as Angkor Wat, so it wasn’t as crucial to have a guidebook. With the brief info from our driver, we did OK.  (Of course, there is a lot to learn about each temple, but from a strictly “what are we looking at?” point of view, it was fine.)

According to Lonely Planet, one of the temples with the most intricate and beautiful carvings is Banteay Srei- about an hour or so outside of Siem Reap. We had decided this was not to be missed, so this was the extra temple we tacked on. We settled into our tuk tuk for the ride out there and enjoyed a much different picture of Cambodia than we had seen so far. While I wouldn’t call Siem Reap a bustling metropolis, it definitely had small city qualities. Driving outside of Siem Reap, we drove through some rural areas. It was actually really nice to get this picture of life outside a tourist zone. Another interesting thing is that the Communist party still participates in government. We saw a lot of their offices scattered in neighborhoods, we assume as some kind of community center that also disseminates propaganda. In fact, they had loud speakers on posts, broadcasting something. It could have been a weather report or the latest football scores for all we know, but it’s more fun (in a Cold War sense) to think of it as propaganda.

Another reason we love our GoPro! Here’s video from driving through the countryside on our way to (and from) Banteay Srei.  Also available on our YouTube channel.

When we arrived at Banteay Srei, there was almost no one there. It was idyllic. About 5 minutes later, a tour bus pulled up. Great. I try to take a cultural relativist view (this other culture that I do not fully understand is not weird/good/bad, just different from mine), and overall I think I mostly do a good job. As with most cultural rules, some of the “how to act in tourist settings” rules are very different depending on your home culture. And it can be infuriating when those rules collide, no matter how entrenched in cultural relativist ideology you are! There were two big examples of this at the temple. Before the bus unloaded, the half dozen or so tourists who were already there were nicely taking turns taking pictures in front of the temple while the rest of us stepped out of the way. There was even some camera sharing so couples could have their picture taken together, rather than each person by themselves. As soon as the bus-full got to where we were, all of this nice turn taking stopped. People were standing where ever, without any regard for whose pictures they might be in or whether they had walked in front of a camera. Micah and I patiently waited a few minutes, but it was clear that nothing was going to get better. After a few minutes, Micah just hopped up to the place he wanted to stand, which happened to be a few feet from a woman who had been having her picture taken for 5 minutes in different poses…the same woman who had originally deposed Micah from that spot. She said, “Hey!” and glared at him, but we both just glared back and said something to the effect of “We have been waiting since before you got here.” We took our pictures and went on our way. I’m sure she thinks we are incredibly rude. I’ve decided I don’t care.

The other “tourist behavior” clash that I had a hard time with was the noise level. At the entrance to each temple, where you show your pass to the guard, there is a big sign about the rules. One of them is to speak quietly to honor the reverence of the temple environment. This makes sense; ancient temples are not the appropriate venue for a dance party. Many of the tourists coming off the bus, however, had music playing through iPod speakers, quite loudly! First, the temples don’t need a pop music sound track. Second, why would you assume that the rest of us want to hear your music?! It was very frustrating. Fortunately for us, these first few minutes at this temple were the only major “tourist behavior” clashes for the weekend and the rest of the day was just fine.

Lonely Planet describes Banteay Srei as “one of the smallest sites at Angkor, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in stature.” We definitely found this to be true. The carvings were so detailed; the amount of work that went into them was phenomenal.

When we were done at this temple, we thought we would be on our way to do the Grand Tour of the Angkor complex. Turns out, our driver had another plan. He took us to Banteay Samre. Banteay Samre is from the same period as Angkor Wat, while Banteay Srei was earlier. Sweet, bonus temple!

The next two temples, Pre Rup and Eastern Mabon, were both built as crematoria. They were both relatively small & not a lot of details remaining. Pre Rup had a lot of stairs going to the top level, where there were amazing views and a nice breeze. The stair treads were narrow and uneven, and at 19 weeks pregnant I had my first “I need help” moment. (I hate admitting I can’t do something, so actually asking for help was a big step for me.) I didn’t trust my balance on the way down and made Micah walk in front of me and hold my hand. Totally worth the “indignity” for the view and experience though!

Many of the temples had lions for guardians. Eastern Mabon also had elephants! This really tickled me, for some reason. I really loved the elephants. Maybe because it was something different, but also elephants are just really neat.

Next we went to Ta Som, which was another jungle temple. It also had the huge heads that Bayon had. It was (temperature) cool thanks to the trees. Our driver had told us to walk all the way through because there is a tree that grows over the door. We didn’t really understand what he meant, but we followed his instructions. Sure enough, on the back side of the temple there was a tree growing on top of the door while the roots came around the sides of it! It was neat to see!

All of the temples have “vendors” outside. Many of them are selling fresh fruit or other snacks and water, and we patronized quite a few of them. But there are also “vendors” that we might call peddlers in the States. Often times they are kids, some of them quite young. Tourists are advised not to buy anything because it encourages them to not go to school. And they all have the same postcard packet and key chains anyway. At Ta Som, I was standing to the side while Micah was taking pictures. I had Ranger Duck in my hand so he would be ready for his close up, as it were, and a little girl approached me with her tray of junk. I would guess she was about 7. After I told her no thank you, she stood by me and kept asking questions: “Where are you from?” and she showed off her impressive knowledge that the capitol of the U.S. is Washington D.C. A fact that she had likely memorized by rote instead of learning in any kind of context. I complimented her and told her she was very smart. She pulled the biggest puppy dog pout I had ever seen because I still didn’t want to buy her postcards. (It almost worked.) Then she saw Ranger Duck in my hand and her face totally changed, “What’s that?” I explained how we take pictures of him in funny places and she giggled a little. I walked away at this point, because I was pretty sure I would have bought all of her postcards and/or given away Ranger Duck if she had asked. Both of which were unacceptable outcomes.

Close up at Ta Som.

Close up at Ta Som.

Coming Up:  The Grand Tour Continued!  The finale of the Cambodia series.

Angkor Wat: The Small Tour

Third in the Cambodia series.  Chronologically speaking, this one follows Arriving in Cambodia and Sunrise at Angkor Wat.

For the first day of temple hopping, we left the hotel at 4:30am for sunrise at Angkor Wat, which was brutal.  Especially after I didn’t sleep well the night before. But it was beautiful. Seeing sunrise was such an experience that it got it’s own post, so I’ll pick up the story from there. After the sun was up, it was time for breakfast and exploring.  The hotel had given us a box breakfast of fruit and assorted bread items (croissants and rolls and such), so we pulled up a rock wall and finished our breakfast and coffee. Where’d we get the coffee? One really smart business move: the small vendors in the area sold coffee. As we were setting up in the pitch black, they came around asking if we wanted coffee. Yes please! For $1 USD, they would bring you a cup of coffee, directly to where you were standing. At 5am, waiting for sunrise, that was the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.

Exploring Angkor Wat was an amazing experience. In the Blue Mountains in Australia, we felt physically very small in the world.  At Angkor Wat, we spent a lot of time marveling and feeling really small in history and time. The temple is really big, much bigger than I could have imagined. We spent about 3 hours walking around and I’m pretty sure we didn’t see all of it. Most of the carvings and structures were really well preserved, and incredibly detailed. The Lonely Planet book had some pretty good explanations, but I wish we had hired a guide. I think we missed out on a lot of the details and significance of the structure as well as the reliefs.

Strangely enough, for as many people as were there taking pictures at sunrise, not that many people stayed to look at the temple. It never felt too crowded, we felt like we had space and time to appreciate what we were looking at. The guidebook said that many people go back to their hotels for breakfast, which seemed silly to me, but I guess it’s true! As we finished exploring, more buses were pulling up so I think we timed everything well.

Before sunrise, we had asked our driver when we should come back. “Whenever you’re finished, no rush.” Well that’s very nice! But we should have asked where to find him when we were finished. All tuk tuks look the same to an inexperienced eye, and most people arrive at the temples via tuk tuk. At the next temple we made sure to ask where to meet him!

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Bayon

We were off to the next temple, Bayon, and I lost my cell phone en route. This temple was much busier as we were starting to get into the main part of the day with the other tourists. The extra people, coupled with the fact that Bayon was just a smaller temple, made it a little more difficult to appreciate the carvings and details.  This temple was more in ruins, which was what I was expecting, and you could see a lot of the archeological process, which I thought was pretty interesting. Another interesting fact is that the archeology and preservation efforts were jointly sponsored by another country. I’m not sure if this is the result of Angkor’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site or what. But that was an interesting fact to see German flags on one sign and Japanese flags on another.

Bayon was my favorite temple, because of all the heads. The heads supposedly portray the king that built the temple, but it wasn’t common to glorify yourself all over your temple in this era. So no one really knows why he decided to do that. I’m really intrigued by this: for all that we do know about the various reliefs, carvings, and structures, there’s still a lot that we don’t know.

After Bayon, we had a delicious lunch at one of the road side vendors.  Unfortunately, we didn’t take pictures of it.  We made a point to eat traditional Cambodian dishes, and liked everything we tried.  The flavors were great, not too spicy or covered in sauce, and most dishes had a lot of vegetables too.  (We did take pictures of some of the other food we tried!  Available on the Food Postcards page.)  The next temple was Ta Prohm, which was Micah’s favorite. This one is also known as the Jungle Temple, for reasons which should be obvious when you see the pictures. Parts of the movie Tomb Raider were filmed here. Or, more likely, filmed on a sound stage recreation of it. Because of looting and other factors, there weren’t a lot of detailed carvings to appreciate here. But it was fascinating to see how the trees and the temple are coexisting structurally at this point.  It made a nice contrast with the two other temples we had seen so far, especially because all of the trees provided some welcome shade.

The last temple for the day was tiny Prasat Kravan. After the grand temples we had seen that day, we walked up and thought “This is it? This isn’t some outer temple on the way to the main temple?” It felt like going into a regular church immediately after you’ve been in St. Peter’s Basilica. This temple stands out from the others because it was built by a regular guy, instead of being built by a king.  (That’s probably why it was so much smaller.)  But, it was really nice because no one was there. It had some beautiful reliefs on the inside, and it was nice to have a quiet moment to wrap up the day.

Throughout the day, we had driven around Angkor Thom as we traveled from temple to temple, which is the ancient city where most of these temples are located. We didn’t really have any understanding of what we were seeing at the time, other than more ruins of more temples. We read about it later in Lonely Planet and had a much better appreciation the next day. I think it really helped seeing it first, then reading about it so we had a mental picture to put with the description, and then seeing it again. As we drove around, enjoying the scenery the next day, we were able to identify various structures, which was exciting.  For me, it was really difficult to picture these ancient ruins as a living, breathing, working, city but also stunning to think about the fact that it has endured in fairly good condition for so many centuries.

Here’s a video of driving around Angkor Thom, taken from the back of our tuk tuk. It is a little bumpy, but that’s what the ride felt like! (Also available on our YouTube channel.)

The pool was like an oasis after a hot day!

The pool was like an oasis after a hot day!

After we were finished with the temples for the day, we changed into swim suits and lounged in the pool for a while. This was one of the best suggestions we saw on Trip Advisor: make sure your hotel has a pool. I thought we’d be so busy seeing and doing things that we wouldn’t want to hang out at the hotel. But it was a really worthwhile amenity. It was really nice to be able to relax and soak, and for me to take the pressure of my knees, hips, and ankles!  We swam and relaxed for an hour or so, got cleaned up, and went back to the night market for dinner and more people watching.  Our next day would start at the very reasonable hour of 7:30, so it was another early night for us!  (Thankfully with no insomnia.)

I had a lot of requests for “lots” of pictures on this trip.  We “only” managed to take 1500 photos all weekend, so choosing which ones to post here was very difficult.  The idea is that these photos “set the scene” a little bit, and photos that show more detail or require more explanation are on our Flickr site (or see the link on the sidebar on the right).  I promise, I won’t post all 1500!  (There are an additional 27 that go with this post, a lot of them from Angkor Wat.)

Coming Soon: The Grand Tour of Angkor, plus an extra temple.