Tag Archives: Cambodia

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.

Arriving in Cambodia

The second post in a brief series about our amazing Cambodia trip.  Post 1, Sunrise at Angkor Wat, fits chronologically at the end of this post.

The flight from KL to Siem Reap is about 2 hours, with a 1-hour time difference. It was a really easy trip and with flexible dates you can find good deals on air travel. We spent a 4-day weekend, but could have easily spent a week.  Angkor Wat was Micah’s choice of a “must do” trip and it didn’t disappoint! I think it’s a place we will go back to at some point.  We did pack in a lot, but there was also a lot that we didn’t get to do.  For example, we “only” did the main temples, there are several others in outlying areas that are historically older, but due to time and distance we didn’t make it.  Another thing we would have liked to have done in Cambodia is visit Phnom Penh; we both felt guilty about going to Cambodia to see the temples without acknowledging the country’s more recent and troubled history.

When we landed in Siem Reap, we deplaned on the tarmac and had to walk to the immigration and customs building. There were some official looking people to make sure we were headed in the right direction, but otherwise we were on our own. We needed visas to enter Cambodia, and we chose to apply online and get e-visas, rather than fill out the paperwork and pay for them at the airport. It just seemed easier to have them in hand, and I think it made our processing time a little faster since we’d already been approved to enter the country. We had other customs declarations and things that we’d filled out on the plane as well. One of them went to the immigration official as we passed through but we still had the others as we collected our bags and exited customs. On the way out the door, quite literally about 20 feet away from the door to the outside, there was a box where we very officially dropped the rest of our paperwork. No one was even checking to make sure we complied. But of course we did. Goal #1 of our entire expat year: avoid causing international incidents. No point in testing the limits at this point, so close to the end.

Tuk tuk selfie!

Tuk tuk selfie!

Our hotel had sent a driver to pick us up and we found him really easily and trotted off to his tuk tuk. Our first time in a tuk tuk! The Cambodian version of this form of transportation is a motorcycle with a cart in tow. The cart has a roof, but open sides, and seating for 4 adults on cushioned benches that face each other. It was reasonably comfortable, but we learned several things about being tuk tuk passengers on the quick ride back to the hotel: Wearing eye protection was crucial and it was helpful to have a bandana or something over your nose and mouth as the streets were very dusty. Micah and I also felt more comfortable if one or the other of us put an arm across the back of the bench to make a little more shoulder room, too.

It was late afternoon, and very hot. We thought the temperature would be similar to KL since the two cities aren’t that far apart geographically. But the heat in Siem Reap felt more brutal. It was the kind of heat where the particular quality of the air and the light just look hot. It even smelled hot. KL is more humid, and while the humidity here is oppressive, the moisture in the air makes the temperature feel different. Not more bearable, just different. I guess it depends what you’re used to!

Our villa

Our villa

When we arrived at the hotel, we were offered a “welcome drink” of chilled apple juice as well as cool wash cloths. After the plane and the dusty tuk tuk ride, both of these things were a nice touch. We were then shown to our room, which turned out to be a really nice, freestanding villa, and quite large! We planned out our weekend based on Lonely Planet’s typically excellent recommendations, and went to the front desk to ask about hiring a driver for the next day to do the tour we had just mapped out. Through some combination of language barrier and the fact that the hotel offered set tour packages, it turned out to be quite difficult to just a hire a driver for the day. The prices for the tour packages were very reasonable, and it was clear that it would just be easier to book their pre-packaged tours. So we booked “the small tour” for the next day and tacked on sunrise at Angkor Wat, for both of us this was $23 USD.  At a total cost of $48 USD for both of us, we booked “the grand tour” for the day after, plus sunset, and we also tacked on an extra temple in an outlying area. In retrospect we should have saved the extra temple for Monday morning when we didn’t have anything else planned. The extra temples, plus the grand tour, plus sunset made for a really long day.

Lily pad pond at the reception desk

Lily pad pond at the reception desk

With our tours booked, we went in to town and walked around a little. We walked through the night market, because walking through night markets is always good entertainment in Southeast Asia, and shopped a little bit. We knew we wanted to buy kramas, the traditional Cambodian scarf, and it looked like all of the stalls had approximately the same selection. So we picked a stall more or less at random and picked out two that we liked. We’re a little better about negotiating than we were in Thailand, but I didn’t bargain very hard for the kramas. I have a soft spot for female shop keepers, I always assume they are entrepreneurs and therefore I don’t mind paying an extra $1 or $2.  We did successfully bargain for the other souvenirs we picked up though!  (Sidebar:  Cambodia uses U.S. currency.  It was simultaneously weird and comforting to have American money in our wallets again.  Especially when the prices ran on par with Southeast Asian prices, instead of U.S. prices.)

After shopping and a little bit of people watching, it was time to call it a night. It wasn’t very late, maybe 9:30pm or so, but our driver was picking us up at 4:30 the next morning. Early to bed for us! Micah had no problem going to sleep right away, however I had one of my periodic bouts of insomnia and ended up being awake until after 1am. There was loud music playing somewhere near by, and then some dogs started the midnight edition of the twilight bark, plus being in an unfamiliar bed and room…I was just awake. One strange thing that kept me awake was how utterly and completely dark it was in the room. No ambient light at all. Normally this would be a good thing, but ambient light filters into our hotel all night in KL. There’s a gap between the curtains and the wall, so at best it’s dark grey in our room. I guess I’ve gotten used to it and had a hard time sleeping in a dark room! Another instance of “it depends what you are used to” as the ambient light used to keep me awake in KL and now apparently completely dark rooms keep me awake, too.

Next up, chronologically speaking, is Sunrise at Angkor Wat, which is already published.  Followed by Angkor Wat: The Small Tour

Public Service Announcement: Enable “Find My iPhone”

I would like to claim that I don’t read BuzzFeed, but sometimes they post good recipes and interesting essays. One essay this week was about a guy from New York getting his phone stolen (in New York) and becoming a minor celebrity in China when he meets the man who ended up with his phone. It’s actually an amazing read and an uplifting story. You should read it. It resonated with me, this week especially, because I lost my phone a few weeks ago and had the opportunity to “meet” a stranger as well. Though as far as I know I am not a celebrity, minor or otherwise, anywhere outside of my own blog.

Before we knew we were coming to Kuala Lumpur for this expat year, we knew we would be in Southeast Asia somewhere. We talked about side trips and made lists of where we wanted to travel. Angkor Wat was Micah’s top destination. (Mine was Thailand.) We did the Angkor trip recently, and it was great. We loved almost every minute of it.

This is not the full account of that trip. This is a lost and found story. On our first day, we watched sunrise at Angkor Wat and then spent about 3 hours exploring the temple. It was really, truly amazing. It was the kind of experience that you worry won’t live up to your expectations because it’s been so built up in your mind. The reality was that it was just as incredible as we hoped it would be, though 4 days was not close to long enough. We’d like to go back at some point in our lives. Micah took amazing pictures on our regular camera and I took some panoramas on my iPhone. I also took some Ranger Duck photos (spoiler alert: he doesn’t really take all his own photos), some “establishing shots” of all the people waiting for sunrise, and a few selfies of us, too. I probably took about 15-20 pictures on my phone in the several hours that we were there. This is the basic pattern we have used on all of our adventures: real camera for the main photos, phone camera for panoramas and selfies. It’s worked really well for us!

When we were ready to leave Angkor Wat and go to the next temple, I put my phone in my pocket, and we got in our tuk tuk and went on our way. We arrived at the next temple a few minutes later and started to explore. I reached in my pocket to take a panorama of the whole scene … no cell phone. We checked all the pockets of our packs and Micah went back to the tuk tuk to check there. We even asked the security guard about it and gave him the name of our hotel in case someone happened to turn it in. It seemed pretty clear that the jostling of the tuk tuk had jostled my phone out of my pocket. It was probably in the middle of the road somewhere, and if it wasn’t in a million pieces, no doubt someone had picked it up already. It was pretty stupid of me to not have it somewhere more secure. I was really upset about losing the phone and the pictures. But there was quite literally nothing I could do, and I was determined to not let it spoil the trip. We kept on with our tour and I did enjoy the rest of the day and the rest of the trip, even though I was bummed.

I had set up Find My iPhone just in case I did ever lose it or it was stolen, so when we got back to our hotel, I logged on to iCloud and reported the phone lost. When you do this, you can enter another contact number in case it does turn up, so we used Micah’s phone number (what else could we do?). I didn’t set the data to wipe yet, because I was hopeful my phone would be found and returned before we left. Two days later when we were leaving Cambodia, there was still no sign of the phone. Once we got back to KL I was sure I would never see it again. Even if someone did return it to the hotel, the prospect of getting it back to KL just seemed really slim. So I requested that the data be wiped. If someone did find the phone and tried to log on to a network, Apple would wipe the data remotely.

Two weeks later, Micah got a text from someone in Cambodia: “Dear Sir/Madam, I found your lost phone and the message said to contact you.” The text went on to ask for my Apple ID so he could log in to the phone and gave his email address. So I emailed the guy, thanked him for contacting us and asked him to mail it to me, offering to pay shipping up front and send a reward when I received the phone. We went back and forth for a few days. Long story short, the guy bought the phone, probably on a “secondary market” – which is really common here and not as shady or stigmatized as it is in the U.S. – and it was broken. The front and back were both broken and he had paid to have them replaced, he offered to send me money to buy the phone.

By this point, I had replaced the phone with Micah’s older model and so didn’t “need” my old one back. As much as I wanted to try to save the photos, I really just didn’t want someone else to have my phone on principle. We finally agreed that I would pay for the repairs plus the cost of shipping up front and he would send the phone when he received the money. We used Western Union so he had a guarantee that it would be actual money; I had a guarantee that he would pick it up and not be able to claim he didn’t get it. I still felt really nervous about this; I was sending a lot of cash to a stranger in another country, but less than 24 hours after I sent the money he sent me shipping confirmation for the phone. The Cambodian Post claimed it would take 3-5 days for it to reach Kuala Lumpur, and sure enough on the afternoon of the 5th day I was notified that there was a parcel at the concierge desk waiting for me to pick it up!

I was thrilled to get the phone back, but equally happy that a stranger was kind and returned it. From his perspective, he had a legitimate claim to the phone since he purchased it and fixed it. But, since I was not going to authorize him to use the phone, he was really in possession of a brick. He was a really nice guy and very easy to communicate and negotiate with. I really appreciate his honesty and good faith in the negotiations. I didn’t get to learn about his life like the guy in the BuzzFeed article got to know his Chinese phone buddy, but I did learn something essential about my counterpart. He’s a good human being.

Unfortunately for Ranger Duck’s sunrise photo shoot, the pictures did not survive despite several hours of my best efforts. The phone did in fact get wiped when someone tried to use it the first time. So, my PSA for Apple and Find My iPhone: the service works exactly as advertised. No one was able to get into my phone and all of my data and information remained safe. Yes, it was disappointing to lose a few photos, but nothing like the problems that could have come up if someone had been able to get into my email or any other accounts that sync to the phone. Smart phones are incredibly convenient, but that convenience comes at an incredible price should you find yourself no longer in possession of your phone. If you are an iPhone user and have not enabled Find My iPhone, you really should.