Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

We headed to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh on a sleeper bus, but we didn’t sleep very well. The road was very bumpy and we really felt the effects of those forceful massages we had had earlier in the day as we crammed into the cramped, hard beds. The staff informed the many passengers who complained about the temperature that the AC only had two settings: off and icebox. James was especially chilly as, knowing that Antonia gets cold very easily, he had given her his blanket while she slept. Using the onboard bathroom was a bit scary; the toilet was, for some reason, perched on a high pedestal in the tiny metal bathroom, with no handles but several sharp screws sticking out of the walls. It was quite a challenge making it in and out unharmed considering the extreme rocking that the bus was doing, but we arrived in Siem Reap at dawn in one piece.

We found our hotel and set about finalizing our plans for visiting nearby Angkor Wat over the next few days. The hotel staff was helpful at first, but became a bit pushy when we suggested that we would like to find our own transportation instead of using their driver, for whom they had quoted quite a high price. We only escaped their high-pressure sales tactics by saying that we were going for a stroll and would return soon, when actually we stole away down the lane and luckily ran into the nice tuk-tuk driver who had driven us from the bus station. We negotiated prices for our three days at Angkor, and we spent the next few days being driven by the kind Mr. Rith.

Angkor is an enormous temple complex built between 802 and 1432 as a residence for Hindu and then Buddhist gods, as well as a population of more than one million people at the height of the Khmer Empire. The temples of Angkor are centred around Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world, and a great source of national pride for the Khmer people.

We decided to tackle Angkor from the outside in- we started with some of the furthest temples early on our first day and then worked our way toward the centre. We enjoyed long tuk-tuk rides that day through scenes of rural life and jungle landscapes, and past families of monkeys on the side of the road. The first temple we stopped at was Pre Rup, enormous, partly overtaken by incredibly bright green moss, and literally awesome as a first taste of Angkor. 

Antonia had been to Angkor before, but her first view was just as thrilling the second time around, and it was great to be able to see James experience the impressive ruins for the first time. It was very fun to be able to explore Pre Rup with very few other tourists around, and the fact that authorities allow tourists to climb all over the temples as if Angkor is some kind of adult adventure park, without any kind of safety precautions, is puzzling but fun.

After a long tuk-tuk ride, we arrived at Banteay Srei, built in 967 and renowned for its delicate engravings, said to be the finest in all of Angkor. 

Banteay Srei has changed a lot since Antonia last visited eight years ago; it used to be a quiet and remote site, but now there is a large, modern tourist centre built around it. Unfortunately, the temple was absolutely packed with tourists when we visited; we had to wait in line to take pictures of the most popular reliefs. This proved to be true of all of the popular temples we would visit and made us happy to spend time at the smaller, less popular temples for a spot of peace and quiet among the temples. We can't imagine what it's like during the peak season, when ten times the number of tourists slog through the temples everyday.

On our way back toward the central temples of Angkor, we stopped at the Cambodia Landmines Museum, established by Khmer-Rouge-soldier-turned-demining-activist Aki Ra. The museum educates visitors about the curse of Landmines in Cambodia, where more were dropped during the Cambodian Civil War and Vietnam War than were dropped by all sides during World War II. The countryside is still littered with landmines, which continue to kill and maim hundreds of people every year - about one third of whom are children. Visitors to Angkor are also warned to stay on marked paths because of the possibility of landmines anywhere in the brush. Proceeds from the Cambodia Landmines Museum go towards demining operations, and an on-site rehabilitation program for children who have been disabled by mines.

Back in the central Angkor area, we stopped at the East Mabon temple, built in the same style as Pre Rup, but smaller, with cute elephant guardians. Ta Som temple was next. We especially liked the tree growing on top on the entry way.

The only less-than-magical part of our day was lunch time. Our guidebook suggested that we ask for a restaurant recommendation from our driver, since he would know most of the dozens of food stalls around Angkor and could point us to a delicious and, importantly for us, inexpensive one. Sure enough, Rith was happy to make a suggestion, and we sat down at the restaurant that he showed us to. Although the prices on the menu seemed high, we reasoned that they must be par for the course, and for some reason we allowed ourselves to be pressured into staying there without doing any shopping around. We ate two tiny, overpriced plates of ramen noodles. We then saw the waiters bring out a different menu with cheaper prices for other tourists because they had already seen prices at other restaurants. We vowed that every other meal we had at Angkor would be thoroughly researched and much cheaper.

A visit to the beautiful temple of Neak Pean helped us to calm our nerves after being ripped off. We let our annoyance with ourselves melt away as we took the walkways over the pools that surround Neak Pean, a small but very picturesque shrine at the centre of even smaller pools.

Nearby Preah Khan temple was very beautiful, with the ultra green moss that was one of our favourite temple features (a bonus of visiting in summertime).

An image of the face of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara on the entrance gave us a sneak peek of what we would see the next day at the famous Bayon temple, which boasts 216 of these faces.

Preah Khan also houses several linga, the symbols of fertility that can be found throughout Angkor.

We then entered the walled city of Angkor Thom, the largest and grandest grouping of temples, to see Baphuon. We climbed up its many steep stairs and took in the surroundings from above.

Our last stop of the day was the famous Angkor Wat itself. It is an amazing thing to stand in front of the building that is featured on Cambodia's flag, as well as nearly everything else produced in this country. 

The Khmer people are very proud of it for good reason - it is stunning. 

A few things had changed, though, since Antonia's last trip: there were a gazillion tourists, and instead of having to take your life in your hands to clamour up and down the steep stairs that lead to the central towers (these were intended to be a challenge because Angkor Wat is a representation of heaven, and it's not easy to get there), there are now staircases and organized queues. 

We didn't spend too much time at Angkor Wat that first evening since we knew we'd be back the next day, and we were absolutely exhausted from our day of exploring that had started so soon after we stumbled off the night bus. We didn’t bother sticking around Angkor for sunset - a popular photo opportunity - since the skies were overcast and it had been raining most of the afternoon. We made plans with Rith to return for a sunrise to sunset adventure the next day.

Back in Siem Reap, we tried to make up for lunch by eating a cheap dinner, but unfortunately it wasn't too much more delicious than those ramen noodles at lunch. We strolled through a market near our hotel, then decided to take a 'nap' at 7:45 pm which we didn't get up from until 4:10 am when it was time to meet Rith for a pitch black ride to catch sunrise at Angkor Wat.

It was still overcast (we are here in rainy season, after all), so there wasn’t really a sunrise to speak of, but the light was very pretty.

The busloads of tour groups who showed up for sunrise left to go back to town for breakfast, so we took the opportunity to explore Angkor Wat in the morning light while it was quite quiet. We felt lucky to have some space to ourselves inside one of the most famous and beautiful buildings in the world; this was probably our most favourite moment of our days at Angkor. 

We did some climbing on the temple for good photo ops.

We found breakfast at a nearby stall, this time after a lot of research (devoting much time to making sure we were getting the best possible price), and we shared a delicious breakfast of a cheese omelette and a banana pancake. Afterwards, Rith dropped us off at the elephant gate of Angkor Thom so that we could walk into the walled city through the gate that travellers on elephant-back would enter through nearly a thousand years ago. Some tourists still choose to enter that way, but we passed up the opportunity because we had read that the elephants might not be well treated.

Inside Angkor Thom is Bayon, which served as the most important temple during the reign of King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century. 

The 216 faces of Avalokiteshvara towering over the temple apparently bear a strong resemblance to the king. At least a dozen faces are visible from any point inside the temple, and while they depict a serene expression on the face of the bodhisattva said to encompass the compassion of all Buddhas, they are meant to instill a feeling that one is constantly being watched by the gods and by the king, who, like most kings of Angkor, had professed himself to be divine. 

It was awe-inspiring to be amongst of all these huge faces looking down on us, and this was perhaps James' favourite temple.

We had time to wander around Angkor Thom, and we saw a large Buddha statue, climbed up into the Royal Palace, and walked around the Central Square and the Terrace of Elephants, which would have been used for viewing royal ceremonies and processionals.

Rith then drove us to two smaller temples, Chau Say Tevoda and Thommanon, which were quiet and fun to have almost to ourselves.

Ta Keo temple was more of an adventure than a beautiful temple. It was never finished and is therefore undecorated, but it is extremely high and steep. Ta Keo does not yet have a set of modern staircases to ease the climb to the heavens, and we had a tough climb up, and then an exhilarating climb back down.

Banteay Kdei was our next stop. 

A former Buddhist monastery, it is a series of long hallways leading to Angkor Wat-style towers at the end.

We had been eagerly anticipating a visit to Ta Phrom. It is a particularly picturesque temple because, while most temples are protected against jungle encroachment, the jungle around Ta Phrom has been allowed to overtake it. 

There are gigantic trees growing over walls and between stones. It was another one of our favourites.

We tried to find an affordable lunch nearby, but that didn't seem to be possible (for anyone planning a trip, we recommend the stalls around Angkor Wat, but we were far away by this point). It was already mid-afternoon, we had completed our planned route for the day, and we were exhausted, but sunset was still hours away. Since it was overcast again, we decided to see a couple more temples, and then go into town for lunch and call it a day. Rith told us that he's never actually had a tourist make it the whole 13 hours from sunrise to sunset. 

We stopped for a visit at the small brick temple of Prasat Kravan.

Our last Angkor activity was a hike up Phnom Bakheng and a visit to its mountain temple for aerial views of Angkor Wat. It was a peaceful and picturesque place to bid farewell to Angkor.

Back in Siem Reap, we ate a delicious dinner at Little India restaurant. We toasted the end of our Angkor adventures with beers and felt relieved that we would finally have some time to relax. Our sightseeing in Cambodia was great, but we felt like we were just now able to be on vacation. The thing is, we each have a different idea of vacationing, and James' involves a lot of time spent at markets. Antonia enjoys markets only for a very short time before they become stressful and claustrophobic, but James enjoys the bustle and can happily spend hours there. So we developed a system of compromise: time at the market could be bought with ice cream and/or massages for Antonia. That night, we shared this delicious "American cup" at the Blue Pumpkin Cafe before shopping in the Old Market.

We spent a relaxing final day in Siem Reap researching our next destination, working on our blog, getting massages, and checking out the Art Market and the Night Market.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Phnom Penh

We decided to celebrate our marriage in July 2014 with a honeymoon to Cambodia and Thailand. Antonia had been to both countries before and they are among her favourite travel destinations; it had been a long-held dream to return one day with James. So, ten days after the wedding, we embarked on 32 hours of flights and lay-overs from Winnipeg to our first stop, Phnom Penh. 

After a very busy semester for both of us that culminated in wedding planning and then five fun-filled but rain-filled days outdoors at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, we were determined to relax on our  honeymoon. But when we arrived in Cambodia and realized the short time we had to see the country, we forgot our exhaustion and kicked into full-fledged tourist mode. Our first stop was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum - not very romantic, but a necessary visit when one is in the Cambodian capital, honeymoon or not. The museum was originally a high school but was turned into a prison and torture centre during the rule of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.

Anyone suspected of being unsympathetic to the regime, including many former torturers themselves as the leaders became more and more paranoid, was imprisoned here after confessing under torture. This amounted to more than 17,000 people over the life of the prison, the vast majority being taken to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek to be massacred, and only a few ever making it out alive. Many of the buildings have been left as they were found after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and wandering through the floors of an ordinary high school turned into a torture chamber is incredibly eerie. 

Adding to the unsettling atmosphere are the thousands of photographs of prisoners lining the walls (the administration were meticulous record-keepers).

Some of the most striking exhibits are the photographs taken by the Vietnamese soldiers who first came across the prison during the fall of the Khmer Rouge; 14 prisoners were tortured to death moments before guards fled the prison, and the photographs of their bodies hang in the rooms in which they were found.

After spending a couple of hours at the museum, we stopped for lunch at an Indonesian restaurant called Sumatra and reflected on what we had seen. We were in a somber mood, but the gado-gado (vegetables with tofu in a peanut sauce), stir-fried spinach, and spicy tofu balado were delicious.

After lunch, we walked to the nearby Russian Market, so called because of its popularity with Russian ex-pats in the 1980s, but now mostly frequented by locals. At first, we thought the market was made up only of outdoor stalls around the perimeter of the square city block, but we realized because of the large area of the market that there must be more behind these tiny shops. We saw small openings to narrow passages leading toward the dark innards of the market and ventured inside. 

The market is a great place to catch a glimpse of modern Cambodian life. Traffic is hectic, smells are strong, and the row after row of shop stalls seem chaotic, but we remarked that traveling in Cambodia feels much more laid-back than in other places we have traveled, like China and India. Shopping is not as much of a high-pressure experience, and shopkeepers usually accept a pleasant “no, thank you” in response to their request to browse their goods. We spent a couple of very pleasant hours wandering around and snapping photos. 

We decided to take a tour of Kingdom Breweries, an activity recommended by our guidebook. We took a very scenic tuk-tuk ride across the city along Sisowath Quay and the Tonle Sap riverfront. When we arrived at the brewery, we joined a tour of just two other people, and we were pleasantly surprised to be able to go right onto the factory floor and wander around looking at whatever interested us. It was fascinating to examine the factory assembly line at work, especially the bottling and labelling machines.

Our tour tickets included two free beers each in the fancy bar overlooking the river, which also happened to be completely empty. We tried the pilsner, dark, and gold brews. James preferred the pilsner, but amazingly, Antonia loved the dark- possibly the first one she has ever really enjoyed. It was sweet and had a bit of a chocolate flavour. 

We have been seeking out Kingdom beer in restaurants ever since (no, this blog post was not sponsored by Kingdom Breweries). As we drank, we chatted with our congenial tour guide, who could not understand the concept of -40 degrees Celsius in a Canadian winter (she was perplexed that there could be anything on the other side of zero degrees), nor fathom how we could decline the chance to taste amok fish, Cambodia's national dish, and her favourite food.

When we returned to the hotel, we succumbed to the combination of the beer and the jet lag, and had a short nap before heading out again in the evening. We took a tuk-tuk to the Night Market, which reminded us of the night markets of Seoul without being nearly as crowded. We found a Mexican restaurant nearby for dinner, and then challenged ourselves to negotiate a tuk-tuk ride back to the hotel for $1 (we had paid $2 in the other direction and we were sure we could do better). Our negotiating skills were apparently rusty, though, and we walked most of the way home.

After taking some time the next morning to book a guesthouse in Siem Reap in preparation to leave later that night, we took a short walk from our hotel to the National Museum of Cambodia. 

The museum displays Khmer treasures of historical and artistic importance, but the building itself, and especially its courtyard, are just as beautiful as what is inside. 

We had a lovely time exploring, but we had to delay our departure until a sudden downpour of monsoon strength subsided. 

The break in the weather allowed for a stroll along the riverfront in search of lunch. We settled on a lovely little restaurant called Anjali because the menu boasted amok tofu- we would have the chance to try Cambodia’s national dish, after all! It was delicious- coconutty and creamy, and  it was presented in a beautiful banana leaf bowl. 

Antonia had a vegetarian tom yum soup, which was so spicy that she had a coughing fit after nearly every bite, but so delicious that she didn't mind. We also splurged on spring rolls and smoothies, making this our best meal in Cambodia.

As it had started to rain again, we decided to remain indoors, and headed to Seeing Hands Massage, where blind masseuses work out your knots for only $7 an hour. We had read about exploitation of blind masseuses elsewhere in Cambodia, but our guidebook indicated that this location was trustworthy and helps the masseuses stay self-sufficient. It also indicated that blind masseuses have an enhanced sense of touch, and ours certainly were good at zeroing in on our sore spots, and also at bending and twisting our limbs in ways we never knew possible. Antonia was still sore days later. 

Next, we headed back downtown to visit the Royal Palace, with its gilded temples and diamond-encrusted, crystal Buddhas.

The well-manicured gardens were as impressive as the shining interiors of the temples. 

We then stopped at a nearby park to take in some views of daily Phnom Penh life. 

Every morning at dawn and again at and dusk, Cambodians of all ages and sexes gather at different locations around the city to participate in public aerobic sessions. An instructor will set up a PA or boom box with a microphone and start giving instruction, waiting for people to join in. 

At the park we were lucky enough to see one of these aerobics sessions, as well as kids playing soccer and teenagers playing a mysterious game that had to do with stealing ribbons off of each other’s heads.

To toast our last night in Phnom Penh, we walked to the famed Foreign Correspondents’ Club. It was pretty fancy for us, with cushy furnishings and an open-air view of the river, but hey, happy hour was 2 for 1. James tried a passion fruit mojito and Antonia had the FCC transfusion, a mix of vodka, cranberry juice, ginger ale, and lime. Our dinner of roasted tofu salad and margarita pizza was very good. 

It must have been our honeymoon or something because James, not known for his sweet tooth, suggested dessert, and he even gave into Antonia’s pleas to visit the Cupcake Cafe- a sweet ending to our time in Phnom Penh.