Travel Time: Siem Reap

Travel Time: Siem Reap

Okay, let’s talk Siem Reap! I still cannot get over the bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, in 2016 it took about seven hours and maybe 10% of the way was paved. Now, according to my friend still living in Phnom Penh, the roads are all paved and it takes about four hours.

That bus was like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. We hit bumps in the road that got us all airborne, we had to wait for cows, we barreled through construction zones, zipped by school kids walking home. The driver always laid on the horn any time we approached a small town, like a train announcing its arrival, and only used the brakes sporadically. Like, if there was a cow in the road. I did post about our weekend trip to Siem Reap back in 2016, here and here and here. Those posts give a more thorough play-by-play of our trip, this one is more for pictures.

Now that I’m a little more travel experienced, I can’t believe I thought the Sunrise Tour would be a quiet affair. I go back and read those posts sometimes and laugh at the expectations I had for things. I’ve learned to travel without expectations, or as close as I can get to none, so I don’t get boxed in with what I think should happen versus enjoying all the detours and side trips that make travel so much fun. I still enjoy things off the beaten path, but the tourist traps have their place as well. Not the over priced food, but the things they offer that can make your experience all the more interesting.

I will admit I’d like to shake past me for being above getting a picture with Bon May, he was such a sweet horse and that was the coolest thing ever. If you have a chance to get to Angkor Wat and ride a horse around a temple, pay the man and get a cool goddamn picture of yourself on a horse in front of said 1100 year old temple.

Anyway.

Gods, I had so much fun scurrying through these temples. The art and the sheer age of these places is still awe-inspiring. That little temple in the center courtyard of Angkor Wat where I took a nap I can now say reminds me a lot of the serenity the Shinto shrines instilled in me while I was in Japan. Something about that little place was special. Couldn’t put into words exactly what it was, but it was like that one courtyard was in a bubble, set apart from the tour groups and pictures and everything else happening in Angkor Wat.

And Bayon Wat, what a gorgeous place. I don’t think I mentioned the bats that lived in the entry way. I don’t know how they got any sleep with all the people passing under them. The stone work at Bayon, I think, was more ornate than even Angkor Wat. In hindsight, Bayon is my favorite of the temples. That was a place where it was easy to imagine busy streets and vendors and people going about their lives while the jungle rose up in the distance. Even crowded with people it didn’t feel rushed like Angkor Wat. We were only there for an hour or two, but it felt like we had all the time in the world to look around.

The walk to the jungle temple, Banety Kdei, is where I learned a fascinating bit of trivia. Do you know why Westerners shake hands? To show you’re not holding a weapon. Most people are right handed, that’s why we shake with the right. In most Asian countries, greetings are with a bow or clasped hands to show honor and respect. I don’t remember why Hour (pronounced Ohh-ray, he was our tour guide) told us that, but I still think about it a lot. Banety Kdei, aesthetically, was the most pleasing of the four we went to, but I really liked how the trees were growing through the stone. I did like that it wasn’t as crowded, but it didn’t seem to carry that same sort of peace as Bayon. Banety Kdei felt more…impatient. Like it was mad it could rip up its foundations and go see how the world has changed since they laid its stones. I did feel like Lara Croft ducking through the passages and skipping over roots and I’m pretty sure at some point I was humming the Indiana Jones song. The jungle temple is probably my second favorite, just for that weird adventurous spirit it seems to carry.

The second and last day of our adventure to Siem Reap we went to Beng Melea, a temple set half an hour to forty minutes off the main track and buried in the jungle. It’s in the most disrepair of all the temples we saw, even Banety Kdei had more standing walls, and that’s the one they let the trees grow in. Albeit, more tourists visit Banety Kdei, so it could be a safety thing. Beng Melea felt…maybe not haunted but, disquiet. There was something almost feral about this temple, I don’t know if its just not socialized enough with tourists or if it would rather the jungle take it, but there was an air of caution around this ancient place. I still ran all over, but took more care than I might’ve if it had been Banety Kdei. Ducking through doorways, hopping over stones, venturing too far off the groomed path, it all felt riskier and I can’t explain why. They place was for sure falling apart, but again, I climbed walls in Banety Kdei that had only saplings holding them up and thought nothing of it. Beng Melea was…it was something. I wish we’d had more time there, maybe I could’ve sorted out the why.

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Adventures Abroad: Cambodia, Bayon & Banety Kdei

Adventures Abroad: Cambodia, Bayon & Banety Kdei

After we got breakfast and collected the rest of the group we went to another temple to start the day. Our tour guide, Hour (Ohh-ray), was awesome. The first temple we went to was Bayon in Angkor Thom, which, 1100 years ago would have been the dead center of the capital city. The temple is exactly 1.5 kilometers from each of the four entrances that would have led to the city.

Hour told us on the way in; we had to cross a long causeway, that the statues on either side of us were divided as gods and demons. They were holding the long body of the Naga and looked like they were playing tug-o-war.

Except almost all of them were missing their heads.

During the Khmer Rouge and toward the end of the Rouge’s reign, higher ups would go to these ancient temples and lop the heads off the statues. The statues themselves were too old, too heavy to be moved, so they just took their heads and sold them to the highest Western bidder. Hour told us a lot of stories of the Khmer Rouge. He was probably around ten or twelve when they came in to power and he can clearly remember them executing his 8 month old brother. They tossed the baby up in the air and caught him on bayonets. Hour’s grandfather was killed by having his throat slit with a palm spike. It took him seven hours to bleed out and die. He told us that for the really small babies they would swing them against trees and crush their skulls. He said it was rare anyone was executed with a bullet since bullets cost money. The Khmer Rouge killed people with water. They’d let water drip on their foreheads until the water wore through their skulls and drilled a hole through their brains. Any skulls you find on the killing fields that have a hole in the forehead are people who were killed with water.

He told us that before we visited this temple.

Originally Bayon had 37 towers, each tour has four faces that point in the cardinal directions. They stand for Compassion, Peace, Serenity, and Mercy. Now, only about half the towers remain standing, a lot of them fell from a thousand years of wear and tear and others were struck by lightning. The irony of this temple with its faces of love being looted by people who spent years soaked in blood and violence is painful.

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Again, lots of restoration has been done but you can still climb all over it. The relief sculptures on the first floor of the temple are incredible. Hour told us they depict a great sea battle between the Khmer and Cham who were Vietnamese. There are also depictions of just everyday life and dangers such as the man being mauled by a tiger and his buddy running like hell. There’re pictures of people going to market loaded with goods or with meat from hunting. I could’ve stared at them for hours, but it was hot as hell, crowded as fuck, and only about two people were really paying attention to what he was saying so we breezed through there pretty quick. We went up to the second level and Hour cut us loose to explore on our own.

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It was amazing, the small rooms where statues of Buddha had once stood were all over the place and there were tiny rooms that I’m certain belonged to monks also tucked away. It was so amazing to stand in those windows and look out at the jungle knowing that a thousand years ago monks would have looked out on a bustling city, crowded and dusty, loud with people selling their wares, loud with the sound of carts and livestock. I loved it. I love that you can clamber over these stones the way people a thousand years ago did. If something like this was in the US every part of it would be roped off, you wouldn’t be able to touch anything. But here? You wanna go up to the top tower and look out over the jungle? Just watch your step the stairs are steep.

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We didn’t spend enough time there. This temple easily could have taken half a day just wandering around it, around the grounds. Hell, there was even and elephant riding thing you could do. I wouldn’t. You can’t ride elephants. Their spines are made to carry heavy weight on their underside, not on top. You can cause them a lot of pain riding them. That’s why you so often see people riding elephants up on their necks and not on their humps.

Anyway. I really loved this temple.

 

oOo

The next temple we went to is called Banety Kdei and don’t ask me to pronounce it because I for the life of me cannot remember how. This is better known as the Jungle Temple. This is the temple the set of Tomb Raider was based on. We walked through the jungle to get to it passing trees that could give Redwoods a run for their money. We saw monkeys and heard some strange bird calls. If not for the occasional passing cyclist and motorbike it was easy to believe we were explorers about to stumble on an incredible archeological find.

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While we were walking, Hour told us that landmines were often left around temples particularly by the entrance to not only kill anyone coming in but to also damage these ancient wonders.

People really, really, fucking suck.

But we got to the temple and Ohhhhh Myyyyy Goddds! I loved it. I could spend an entire day at this temple. It wasn’t that crowded, not like Bayon, it seems it’s a kind of out of the way temple so we really had a free run of the place. This temple has only limited restoration, just enough to keep it standing. And it’s being left like that so that others, like us, can see what All of these temples looked like when they were rediscovered. Places like Bayon and Angkor, they’ve been painstakingly cleared of the jungle and you don’t really think about four hundred year old trees growing out of the roof. But here you can see the tree roots wrapped around stone slowly pulling them apart. It’s a really magical place. And since there was hardly anyone else there it was easy to flit off down one corridor and not see anyone for ten minutes.

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The weathering of the stone is remarkable, but what’s amazing is that you can still see the details. These stones have been covered in trees, rained on, been whipped by wind and dust, for 900 years and still you can see individual leaves on vines, you can see the faces of Buddhas.

I was late getting back to the bus from this one. I spent so much time roaming the grounds the forty-five minutes just wasn’t enough. I could spend from sun up to sun down at this temple, it was amazing.

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oOo

We stopped for lunch at a really expensive tourist trap. So, since we didn’t want to pay five dollars for a plate of fries, several of us got up and started to walk back to the small market we passed. We found a little family run place not far down the road and settled in to eat noodle soup for a dollar. I got a coconut. I know coconut milk is a huge thing in the States, but here, they give you a whole coconut that they lop the top off of and stick a straw in. So the coconut milk here is super fresh. I’ve gotta say, though. I didn’t really like the coconut milk. It looks like water but it’s a lot thicker than water. It’s weird.

But after our lunch we finally got to return to Angkor Wat for the rest of the day, which was like two hours.

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I pity the people who didn’t come to the Sunrise Tour and get to spend an extra hour and a half at this temple. There’s no way they saw even half of the temple. I didn’t see that much. I went in and walked down that long causeway again thinking of the kings and monks that had trod there and off to the right spotted a horse. Because nothing gets my attention like an animal, I skipped down the steps and went over to see what this was about.

The horse was a lovely buckskin named Bon May, his mane was cut short but his tail was long and black that faded to grey and white at the tips. He had a really decorative red halter that he didn’t seem to enjoy but he was a sweetie. The man standing with him asked if I wanted a picture, one dollar, but nah, I don’t need a picture with a horse. So I thanked him for letting me pet Bon May and before I could walk away the guy asked if I wanted to go around the small temple once.

Dude, I was on that horse so fast I almost fell off the other side. English saddle. That was an experience in and of itself. I don’t ride horses often, hardly ever, and when I do I have a sturdy western saddle with a horn to hold. Not this time! So as I’m taking a stroll around the temple—the guy leading Bon May, thank the gods—I got a crash course on how to ride an English saddle and I freaking got to ride a horse around one of the small temples.

That was the best five dollars I’ve spent in a very long time.

So I went back to exploring and decided I would start on the left side and work my way to the right. I had no idea how far back the temple went. It goes on for a couple acres. I got into the inner temple and started running around darting in and out of corridors, dodging tourists and snapping pictures of pretty much everything.

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Then, I found this small courtyard in the back. It had a small temple in the middle of it that rose probably two stories off the ground. One of my fellow teachers had already climbed to the top of the shady side and was sitting watching the birds and tourists. There seemed to be an invisible line separating this temple from the rest of Angkor Wat. No one wanted to pass the threshold and go out.

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I did.

I clambered up those stairs, a little nerve wracking since they weren’t the tourist friendly wooden stairs that were built in other parts of the temple, but the original four inch ledges that are crumbling and loose and broken down to nothing but a tiny lip in some places.

I made it to the top and just sat there for a couple minutes. It was so nice. No other tourists came out to follow me and the heavy stone walls of the rest of the temple blocked most of the noise. There were thousands of people there but I couldn’t hear any of them. All I could hear were birds and wind. It was wonderful and it was probably the truest experience of any of the temple. Just the quiet and the peace. I slept for about ten minutes, just a quick little nap in the sun. It felt amazing and I probably would have stayed a little groggy for the rest of the time had I not had to climb down those eighty degree stairs again. Seriously, these things were built at a near ninety degree angle I wouldn’t be surprised if more than one person broke their necks back in Angkor’s heyday.

I made it all the way inside to the inner temple and found the Stairs to Eternity. They’re stairs that lead to the highest point of the temple and I really wanted to climb them. There was kind of a line so I figured I’d do a lap around the top and see what else was up there before jumping in and climbing up. I only had like fifteen minutes before I was supposed to meet the group so I wouldn’t be able to linger once I reached the top.

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I circled around to the backside of the tower and was on my way to the stairs when another tour guide says to his group, “Line is very long, we can’t do this today.” And he pointed at these clumps of people sitting and standing around and I realized I was at the end of the line for the Stairs to Eternity.

Much like the Eiffel Tower, I’m a little put out I didn’t get to go to the top and see what there is too see, but I had to get back. I was already past the time I was supposed to meet them and I didn’t really have a clear idea of how I was supposed to get to our meeting spot since I had been in and out of courtyards and temples for two hours.

I made it out of the temple proper and started my way back to the causeway. Along the way I stopped to love on a little temple kitten that was wobbling its way across the stones. Adorable little Tuxedo kitty with little white paws. Really considered putting him in my bag but since he’d have to stay in quarantine in China for six months that’s not really a fair thing to put the little guy through.

So I was half an hour late getting to the bus and didn’t care one little bit. I really wish the trip could have been two full days instead of one. I would have loved to spend a full day at Angkor and a half day at Bayon and Kdei each. I think, after my contract in China, I might come back to Cambodia for a few days and explore the temples on my own time. They have three day passes that give you access to all the temples—there’s like a dozen—and that would very much be worth the trip back.

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Adventures Abroad: Cambodia, Angkor Wat

Adventures Abroad: Cambodia, Angkor Wat

This last weekend we took our first trip out of Phnom Penh. We went to Siam Reap which was a really eventful seven hour bus ride. I stayed awake for the entire trip. It was amazing seeing the countryside. Cambodia doesn’t have the long stretches of landscape like the US. It has places where the landscape stretches out flat with long golden grasses and a smattering of palm trees but I doubt we went more than twenty minutes without driving past a home.

I thought it was really neat to drive past and see these quick glimpses into life. A couple times we got to linger and look because there were cows in the road. Cambodian houses have very similar architectural style. I would say they all look alike but there were a couple houses with slight differences. Generally, and I would say at least 90%, of homes were on stilts. The open ground floor looked to be like the kitchen/work room. That’s where I saw the most people cooking, doing laundry, and where the cows were tied up at night. The second level, what I consider the main level, has a staircase leading up to it, either simple or ornate, and that’s where I saw beds and TVs.

I know the drive was long and hot for a lot of people but like I said, I really loved looking out the window and thinking, wow this is Cambodia. We stopped about two hours into the trip in a place called Spider Village. It’s famous because the local delicacy is roasted tarantula and scorpion. I didn’t eat anything, but I think everyone else tried at least the scorpion. I might have tried something but they were really pushy about getting money. It was definitely a tourist trap and as far as Cambodia goes, kind of expensive.

So we get back on the bus and one of the girls gets on with a spider.

A live spider.

She bought a living, breathing, tarantula.

And brought it on the bus.

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What.

Oh no. Oh no, no. No, no, no.

Thankfully, the thing was pretty much dead from the manhandling it’d had at the village so it wasn’t scurrying about or unmanageable. She and several others took turns keeping it on their shoulders like the most terrifying brooch ever made. I don’t remember much about the next two hours except that every couple of minutes someone would shout, “Where the fuck’s that fucking spider?” and whoever had it would point to it.

At our next stop, we stopped at a rest stop and the spider was “set free” and by that we left it on a rock next to a tree to be eaten or survive.

And then she didn’t tell anyone, but she went back and picked the spider up again. So, unbeknownst to the rest of us, there was a spider on the dark bus to Siem Reap there and on the way back. She flushed the damn thing yesterday, apparently, because she had her room cleaned and didn’t want to scare the maids.

We were allowed to drink on the bus so after the rest stop it was about six o’ clock and the people that had rum and vodka and whiskey broke their seals and started passing the drinks around. I didn’t have anything, I was still preoccupied with watching the landscape and the rest of the trip passed with a lot of noise. Someone had a Beats Pill and they started playing Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys and other stuff but I had my headphones so I put those in and watched the countryside get ready for bed.

It gets dark in Cambodia. People have electricity out in the country, but they don’t light up their houses like the US. Most houses were lit with cooking fires down below or with a single light up in the living space. So when you hit those stretches of open landscape there’s not weird orangish glow on the horizon from light pollution. It’s just…dark. It really feels wild at night. I don’t know if there are still tigers in Cambodia, I doubt it, but when the sun goes down it’s not hard to imagine they’re still out there stalking prey.

oOo

We got to Siem Reap and our hotel, Freedom Hotel, about eight-thirty. It was a pretty nice hotel. I’d say it was on par with a Holiday Inn. There was a nice pool, and the room doors were carved with goddess relief sculptures. We had roommates and I roomed with another girl who, after a long rowdy trip, wanted to sit in bed and read. Since we were both doing Sunrise at Angkor and had to be up at 4:15am, that’s exactly what we did. We were both out cold by nine-thirty.

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For whatever reason, I think this makes this hotel pretty classy.

Four in the morning comes quick. But we both got up and headed downstairs. Only about half of the group made it down in time to get on the bus and head to Angkor Wat to watch the sun rise over the temple. And, aside from myself and my roommate, everyone was coming down off a late night of drinking.

Until we got to Angkor I thought the sunrise tour would be a really quiet moment in an otherwise busy day, but the entrance was packed with other buses, cars, and Tuk Tuks full of other people there to see the sunrise.

I think the amount of people there made the sunrise feel anticlimactic, but it was still a really wonderful morning. There was no bright disc coming up over the spires, it was just a gradual lightening of the sky from black to periwinkle. I thought it was pretty but I know a lot of people were disappointed by it just from the snatches of conversation I heard. I would have enjoyed the sunrise tour more had I had a hot cup of tea or coffee and a comfy chair and silence. It’s really not something that can be enjoyed in a packed group of several hundred with people pushing and yelling and laughing. It really is more suited for quiet reflection on the fact that you’re watching the sun rise over a temple that was built 1100 years ago.

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No dramatic flare from the sun, still stunning

We got about an hour and a half after the sun was up to explore the temple before we had to get back on the bus and head back to pick up the rest of the group. I wish I could’ve stayed at Angkor. We roamed over the temple touching sandstone worn shiny and smooth by a million other small touches both from recent tourists and from monks a thousand years dead. That’s an incredible feeling.

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I never go anywhere without my sister.

When you walk down those shallow steps and think of the kings and monks that walked down those same steps you have to wonder what they were thinking as they walked through those halls. What were they worried about? What was their To Do list for that particular day? Going back even further to the two million people it took to build that temple over the span of thirty-seven years, was it love or obligation that made them put those stones in place? When they made their relief sculptures of the great battles fought did they do so with pride? Were they poor or master craftsmen in the employ of the king? What stories did they think of when they carved their gods?

We had to head back to the hotel far too soon. I really could have cried walking down the causeway that leads to the entry gate. There has been a great deal of restoration done to the temple but those stones are the same stones kings walked down for weddings, for funerals, for coronations, for holidays. They’re the same stones monks walked down on their way out to market on their way out to visit other temples, on their way in to begin their studies. 1100 years of history, some of it happy and some of it bloody, but it’s all there in those stones.

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