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, 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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