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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Have You Ever Met A Monk At A Bar?

What chronicles below is a trip to Cambodia that I took this April.
(Click on any of the pictures for a larger view)

Day 1 – April 13th 2012
Took an Air Asia flight from BKK and landed in Pnom Penh 1.5 hours later (around 4:30 pm). Getting through immigration was a breeze. I didn’t have the photograph required for the visa application – they asked that I pay 1 dollar extra for it – which I did and that was it – they did not need to take the photograph. They do have you go through a thorough finger printing however. Took a taxi from the airport to get to the hotel. The taxi-driver spoke fluent English and mentioned that the city was pretty much quiet because of the New Years Holiday. It turns out that the Thai and Cambodian New Year (as well as Buddha Jayanti in Nepal) all fall during the same time of the year. He charged us $9 for a 15 minute ride to the hotel – not sure whether we paid more than we should have – no big deal - even if he made a few extra bucks.

In front of the Royal Palace at night: Pnom Penh

I had booked this hotel Called 252 (bears the name from the street  the hotel is located on) after reading some great reviews on the Trip Adviser website. It was ranked within the top 15 hotels in Pnom Penh. Keep in mind that TA is famous for hardcore travelers. The hotels that rank high usually are because of the service and value they offer. Most of the boutique hotels are ranked on top instead of  luxury 5 star hotels. After travelling for number of years through about a dozen countries I have become somewhat of a picky traveler myself. I prefer boutique type mom n' pop hotels instead of large chain hotels – for a more personalized experience and service – does not always happen – but chances certainly are better than in the larger hotels. Hotel 252 sat more in a residential area not on a major street. I was kind of aware of that from the reviews I had read so it was not a complete surprise. Upon entering through the gates we found a beautiful boutique hotel just as in the pictures - with a small pool in the middle and a garden around it.

Hotel 252: This is what we saw when we entered. Nice Place

Hotel 252 is owned and operated by a Swiss couple named Stephan and Nicole (?) – and looked like they had brought their own personal touches to this hotel from décor to service - to everything. Stephan and his staff were very nice– greeted us with a moist cool towel and iced tea and showed us to our room which was right next to the lobby on the ground floor next to the swimming pool. In the picture above, it is the last door on the right in the corner.

After checking in and unpacking I came to the bar next to the pool, ordered a drink and chatted up with Stephan – he gave us lots of information about the city and stuff to do. Really swell of a guy. After finishing the drink we decided to see some of Pnom Penh and took a Tuk-Tuk (Auto Rickshaw) and went to the river front which is the main drag where all the tourists supposedly hang out. The tuk-tuk driver wanted $2 for a 5 min ride – which is what was suggested by Stephan. We were starting to find that unlike BKK – no major surprises or the need to haggle on the Tuk-Tuk fares here.

Near River Front at night in Pnom Penh

Downtown sits on the banks of Tonle Sap River. There were a bunch of western restaurants on the river front and we decided to have dinner since it was already evening - we settled on place called Riverside Bistro – they had a cool bar, live music, pool table, foosball, outside seating – everything. We sat outside and decided to go with a Cambodian set meal that came with a few appetizers, the main course and a desert for $15 each – not bad we thought. And the wines were very decently priced too - $15 to18 for a bottle – something of an impossibility here in BKK. Waitress was very nice. And by now we have clearly noticed one sharp contrast between BKK and Cambodia – people in Cambodia were way nicer – from the taxi and Tuk-Tuk drivers to the hotel managers to the waitresses alike.

The food, however, was so so….not very good but doable. The food tasted pretty much like Thai food but from a cook who is still in training. After dinner we strolled down the river front. Took these few shots. They did not turned out all that great. Still learning how to use this Full Frame Sony Alpha 900 I just bought.

Another Picture of River Front in Pnom Penh at night. Little grainy with high ISO and no tripod.

Got back to the hotel around 11. I had noticed a night club a couple of blocks down from our hotel on our way back from dinner – it was called the “Boom Club”. I decided to go and check it out - had to walk through rather dark 252 street to get to this club. Upon entering I noticed that there were about 20 or so people in there. Mostly local young crowd. DJ was playing some house music but I swear he had upped the tempo to at least 170 bpm. There were a few people on the dance floor dancing so jittery trying to keep up with the beat as if somebody had just electrocuted them.. I was like – man this is comical – I sat in one corner and ordered a local draft beer called Angkor (who names a beer after temple? "Notre Dame Pilsner" Any one?) – but drinkable. Fourth song down and the temp of the music had not changed nor were the zombies who were at it on the dance floor. I walked up to the DJ and asked if I could suggest a number or two – he instead let me play a few numbers from my iPhone while he went to the bathroom. Here I was DJ’ing in some bar in downtown Pnom Penh. I was loving this. I played my usual trance numbers and it got the people going on the dance floor (at more of a rhythmic pace I might add). A few girls had gathered next to my table and when I got off the DJ booth - they enthusiastically introduced themselves probably thinking I am the other DJ at the bar..... I bought a round of beer for all - it was like 8 or 9 bucks – certainly way cheaper than BKK. Then danced for a while lettin' loose with the locals before heading back to the hotel by 1 am to hit the bed.

Gate to one of the Temple Runs in Siem Reap

Day 2 – April 14th 2012
Breakfast at 252 was a nice surprise. Who serves fresh brewed coffee on a French press? Plus home baked bread and beautiful fruit plate. Again I was comparing my numerous hotel stays in all over Thailand. Not one place had this much of "common sense" oriented service.

I learned from the hotel staff that most of the places were still closed for the New Year’s holiday. We were not planning to visit the Killing Fields or the "Torture" Museum – that was not in our agenda in Pnom Penh from the beginning. I don’t handle these types of places well. Simply didn’t have the courage to go to these places knowing what had happened in this land some 35 years ago. With those two places taken out of the agenda we soon learned that there wasn’t a whole lot to do - unless you took a trip outside of the city - which we were not planning to do it either because April in Cambodia is pretty hot. .

Going through the guide book we located a temple as well as the National Museum that were near by  and were worth visiting  . Found a Tuk-Tuk outside of the hotel we took  it and went to the temple called Wat Pnohm. It looked similar to Thai temples – but nothing spectacular I have to say – because it looked like it was recently built – mostly with plain cement plaster (stucco). Was this one of those temples that Khmer Rouge destroyed – hence this recently rebuilt look? I don’t know I have to look it up online. But I was starting to get the sense that this whole morning, this whole temple and this whole city, for that matter, in some ways seem to be still reeling from the atrocities that happened here a few decades ago. I don’t know why or how - but I felt that way. May be I was reading too much into things or that 4 jugs of Angkor draft from last night hadn’t fully worn off. But I have to say, even though I am an atheist, whenever I visit a temples or churches (places of worship) in other places like Thailand or Nepal or USA I see devotion and reverence. Here I saw lot of people with expressionless faces and wandering around as if a big tornado had recently hit and they were still in shock. Again not sure if I was too much reading too much into things – or may be because it was extremely hot due to the mid-day sun. Not to disrespect the amazing people of Cambodia with my comment above – it was just an observation of the moment - in-fact I have nothing but praise for the humble and friendly people that we came to know on our 5day trip.

After the temple we took another Tuk-Tuk and headed to the National museum. But before I get to that – let me do some comparison between the Tuk-Tuk in Thailand and Tuk-Tuks in Cambodia.

Tuk-Tuk in Cambodia

My conclusion: I like Cambodian Tuk-Tuk is much better than Thai ones. Here’s why:

1- They look better – just look at the pic above.
2- They are more comfortable to sit in and easier to get in and out of - than the Thai ones.
3- Most of the Tuk-Tuk drivers seem very honest and polite (again unlike Thai ones who insist on dropping you to some jewelry store for 20 Baht regardless of where you want to go)
4- They are more functional. Meaning, these Tuk-Tuk are basically motorbike with a wagon attached to the back. When the day is over they can unhook the wagon and use it as a motorbike. Ingenious!!!!
5- Because of this “tandem” situation they are never fast. They top out at 20 km/hour probably - which suited me just fine by the way.

The National Museum was a rather small wooden building complex and had a small collection of mostly recovered stone sculptures and statues from the ruins from Siem Reap and other places. Unlike other museums I have been to, we were not allowed to take any pictures here – except of the Atrium which I took below. And most of the displays had signs that only told us the name of the artifact or specimen but no description or dates of what or why it was significant.There were no audio tours or guides either (none that we could readily find anyway) hence we were out of there in about an hour.

The National Museum in Pnom Penh

With the clock barely hitting 11 am and with the whole day ahead of us – we decided that we should at least drive by the Killing Fields to get some sense of the place - while also seeing the outskirts of Pnom Penh along the way. It was about 15 km away. The Tuk-Tuk driver drove us there at a most leisurely of pace. I imagine there must not be very many road fatalities in Cambodia. Also even people with fancy cars don’t drive like maniacs as they do in BKK or many other Asian cities.

Restored Corridor in Ta Phrom Temple in Siem Reap

While on the topic of transportation I have to say – I have never seen a city with so many Lexus’s. It seemed like every other vehicle was either a Lexus or a Toyota Land Cruiser. And believe me they are one of the most expensive vehicles even in the US. All in all it was rather strange to see either Lexus or Tuk-Tuks with few motorbikes and not much in between. Does that mean separation of wealth is that much greater here - I don’t know. That is another Wiki/Google project.

At the gates of Phimeanakas Siem Reap

After about 30 mins of a slow ride through the  outskirts of Pnom Penh that was mostly unremarkable we arrived at the Killing Fields. We stopped at the parking lot and stared past the front gate where a giant monument stood in the middle.Jollity of moments earlier of the Tuk-Tuk ride turned into quiet moment of contemplation. Why am I here? What purpose does this trip serve really? During this entire trip to Pnom Penh I had told myself that this is one activity I would not do and yet here I was standing in front of it.

As I was lost in these thoughts the Tuk-Tuk driver broke the silence and suggested that since we were already here – we should at least go inside and visit it – and he was willing to wait for us as long as it was needed. I don’t know what came on to me - but on the spur of the moment I decided that I should go in – no - not for this disgusting curiosity people often have to see destruction and despair (like slowing down to gawk at an accident on the side of the road) – but rather to stand and mourn for the briefest of moment among these innocent people that had perished there.

Stupa with burning incense inside Prea Khan Temple

As I entered the gates I literally choked. I had never been to such an intense place like this before. I decided not to take any pictures of the place – it would have been too disrespectful – besides what is there to capture besides the agony and sorrow that stirred the air around us. I put my camera away.

Grabbed the self guided audio contraption at the entrance after paying a small fee and proceeded through the gates. As got I closer to the mass grave sites my heart beat started to race. What happened here some 35 years ago is simply beyond comprehension. I kept thinking – this happened when I was alive. Unlike the massacre of Jews that happened some 70 years ago (no less significant in any sense) when this happened I was a 3 year old boy - running around the streets of Kathmandu. And here hundreds of thousands of innocent people including small children and whole family were murdered – not with bullets but bludgeoning them with household and farm tools. I will spare the rest of the details on this blog – it is too painful. As I exiting the premises I saw a little pink girl’s sweater hung in the museum.What drives human to do this? Today I felt like I left a bit of me in these Killing Fields among these souls.

Day light spills through the windows inside  the Bayon Temple Corridor

The Tuk-Tuk ride back to the city was rather quiet. Got back to the river front and had a quiet lunch there -

I was still trying to make a sense of the place we just visited. All I could hear was the chatter around me. Another thing I noticed in Cambodia was that most of the tourists we ran into were Americans; unlike BKK where most of the tourists are from Europe or Australia. Don’t know if it is a pure coincidence – but every one that was talking around us in restaurants and temples we noticed had American accent.

It was round 2 o’ clock in the afternoon and was getting pretty hot so we decided to head back to the hotel – to jump in the pool and cool off a bit. Stephan had told us in his thick French accent last evening that because of the holidays there are bunch of "Tuk-Tuk Jrivers from Provanj” (drivers from province) and some of them may not be able to take us to places because they don’t know the city well. More on that later!

After a few hours of rest at the hotel we were out again for the evening. We wanted to see where the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers met. Took a boat ride for $20 that lasted an hour. The boat was run by an enthusiastic, wise beyond his years, excellent English speaking 24 years old guy and his pretty young wife. They were expecting a baby soon and he was very happy about it. Another thing we noticed in Cambodia (unlike Thailand) is that people in general spoke better English* and were more curious and eager to carry on a conversation with the foreigners.

Pnom Penh at Evening from Mekong and Tonle Sap Junction

He told us that someday he wants to own some tourist business of his own - he was renting this boat from someone to get by for now. He then went on to tell us how he met his wife on the banks of the Mekong few years ago and how he lost his younger sister who had died in a boat accident several years ago. Here again I got a little bit of glimpse of  indifference to despair and sorrow that had happened in a not too distant past. How a death or a loss of human life is spoken of /taken with so casually. Is it because of the recent history they had had or that is how they take on life?

View of a little creek that flowed through middle of the town in Siem Reap

* I should add I do not believe that - being able to speak good English is the measure of any intellect or smartness. As a traveler I merely wish every once in while that I could communicate more efficiently – and English happens to be that one common language that I rely upon. That's all.

After the boat ride we decided to stop for a drink at the famous FCC (Foreign Correspondence Club) recommended by lonely planet and other tour guide books. It was on the river front - where else? We went to the roof top of FCC even though it was bit muggy. Took a snap of the street down below and of the river front. There we met a monk - who happen to be sitting next to us and chugging some Angkor draft. He initiated the conversation by asking us where we were from. He was very friendly and ended up talking for almost an hour. We learned that he was from Cambodia and now lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand studying Philosophy. Has a Japanese girl friend and is going to see her in month. I was like – let me get this – He is a monk yet he drinks, travels to tourist destinations and has a girlfriend. If he just took up smoking and gambling he would be in par with all us sinful souls. He even gave us his facebook account info – haven’t had a chance to check it out yet but wherever you are "dear monk dude" – the world needs less fanatic religious gurus like you - we would have less wars and conflicts.

From roof top of FCC- View of the river front

After FCC we went looking for a good diner place on the river front. Earlier the boat operator had pointed us to a place called "Titanic Seafood Place"(the Name!!) right on the banks of Tonle Sap little to the north from the main drag where we ate last night. Took a Tuk-Tuk to get there. The place was big and immaculate in terms of décor. There was a gal in the center of the dining area on a stage in her traditional dress and guy with a wooden instrument. For such a big place there was only one other table that was occupied besides ours. This was Saturday night and during dinner time and yet this place was empty. Ordered steamed fish, fried rice and an appetizer. The food was not good at all. They hardly had two tiny pieces of steamed fish fillet. But the service was good - what do you do.

Titanic of a Place It Was

After dinner we loitered around the river front for an hour or so. The evening had cooled off a bit and the locals had come out and were chillin’ there. Deciding to head back to the hotel we stopped a Tuk-Tuk and handed him the hotel card. Unlike our good experience so far he didn't speak any English but still shook his head as if he knew where we needed to go so we got on board. But no sooner, we noticed that he was taking an entirely different route to get to the hotel - because it had been taking us barely 5 mins to get there from the river front. If it was a metered taxi I could see how one could rack it up by taking a longer route but with the Tuk-Tuk once the price is settled ($2 in this case) they will take the shortest route to get us there – so this was not making any sense at all.

A Temple Outside Angkor Thom

After driving through an unknown street for 5 minute he stopped to ask for directions from another Tuk-Tuk driver passing by – they talked for few minutes and he resumed back on the same direction we were going with more determination than earlier. But it soon appeared that he was lost again. He stopped at the middle (yeah the dead middle!!) of a dark intersection and scratched his head and looked both left and right not sure thinking what – but I for sure was thinking from which direction we are gonna get hit first with oncoming traffic - that is!!! I then realized that this is one of those JRIVER FROM PROVANJ that Stephan at the hotel had warned us about. But in all honesty even though he was stopped at some dark intersection in middle of Pnom Penh at 11 pm at night I was pretty calm and collected - not sure why but it felt pretty safe - as long as he got off the intersection first. I decided to raise my voice a little – hey why don’t you call the hotel and ask them how to get there? – but he just kept looking at the card shaking his head as if I was trying to trick him by asking him to go to somewhere impossible. I tried calling the hotel but thanks to “technology-sucks" when you need the most and I was not able to get through. I had had it by then so I asked the driver to take us back to where he picked us from. He did - we got a "non-provanj" driver this time and got back to the hotel.

Tomorrow Mekong Express awaits us to take us to Siem Reap.

Day 3 – April 15th 2012
Woke up at 7 – had another wonderful breakfast at 252, and then checked out and left for the bus station. Bus was waiting for us. It left promptly at 8:30 as stated on the ticket.We were on the next to last row and next to the toilet. Fun Fun Fun!!!!. The bus was full of tourists and there were a couple of French guys behind us. They had come to Cambodia from Thailand also after spending two weeks here.

What lay ahead of us was six hours of journey through a main highway as we hoped to see a bit of the country side along the way. Stephan at the hotel had warned us that the traffic would be particularly bad that day (Sunday) because this was the only road that connected to Siem Reap and city folks would be returning back to the capital after spending new years at their respective "Provanj". And Stephan was right - it was bit slow going for the first two hours or so due to heavy traffic. Plus they also stopped right outside of the city for 10 minutes on the middle of the highway. Didn't know why at first– but then saw a guy that got dropped off on a motorbike. He got on the bus and we got going again. My guess – this tight-ass had somehow missed the bus and they were trying to get him caught up (instead of putting him on a later bus). Quite a service– at the expense of 40 other passengers.
Headless guard at the temple gate in Siem Reap

The highway to Siem Reap was torn apart at several sections. Anytime we had to cross a creek that connected to the main river we had to take a little detour since they were trying to build a new bridge over it. We ran across at least 15 of those. How does one decide to construct all the bridges at once? From a schedule stand point it may make some sense but from a resource stand point – not a whole lot. Unlike Thailand, seeing the country side of Cambodia seemed far less developed – I would put Cambodia on par with Nepal in terms of road conditions (but minus the Lexus of course).

We stopped after three hours of journey on the side of the highway at a rather unremarkable place for lunch. The food was very similar to what you find on the eateries on rural highways in Thailand. But not being an adventurous eater I settled on the lunch box with couple of muffins, chicken pastry and bottle of water kindly given to us by the conductor lady when we got on the bus. That was more than sufficient for me. The bus was comfortable for the most part with occasional bathroom use by passengers making us a little queezy at times. Easy on them muffins folks!!!!

Statues Inside Angkor Wat

As we were continuing the bus ride, occasionally chatting the french dudes behind us, about half hour into resuming the journey all of sudden we noticed that the back of the bus was filled with smoke & fumes.They stopped the bus immediately to see what was wrong – but to my dismay most of passenger stayed on not daring to get off into the hot sun - but I got out, curious to find out what had gone wrong. It turns out one of the A/C fan belt had gone out. What this meant was back of the bus where we were seated would have no A/C but the front of the bus would be fine. First we got seated next to the toilet and now no A/C - how did we get this lucky.

Headless Statue of Vishnu in Angkor Wat in Siem Reap

The conductor lady offered us to seat in front where the sit folded out on the isle from the side rest of the adjacent seat. But sitting in the dead middle on the aisle surrounded by people didn't appeal to me that much – plus I listen to my music pretty loud – as my van mates every morning can attest to that - so we decided to tough it out and stay in our assigned seats. There were still a couple of hours left on the journey. The first hour was ok but the second hour was starting to get pretty hot. Oh well……part of the experience –and there was nothing that could be done about it except to go in front and sit among these "less cool" people who took all the front seats by booking three months in advance I am sure.

Reached Siem Reap around 3 (a half hour behind schedule because of that dude being late and for stopping for the A/C breakdown). Got a Tuk-Tuk at the bus station to get to the hotel. The driver took us through the back roads and Siem Reap that looked more like Lumbini in Nepal that I had visited a couple of years ago with not much of scenery but with scorching heat.

Gate to Phimeanakas - Yes Just a Gate!!

I had booked a hotel named the Golden Banana after reading terrific reviews on Trip Advisor. It was another boutique hotel which sat a little further away form the main drag in a residential area. But like Hotel 252 this was very nice also. A salt water pool sat on the middle with a beautiful garden around it. I had hit 2 for 2 for selecting the right hotel - thanks to TA – which I am a frequent user (with over 150 forum posts and reviews by the way).

Golden Banana Boutique Hotel

We were greeted with moist cool towel and iced tea like in 252. In fact Stephan at 252 knew about this place when I had mentioned it to him back in Pnom Penh and assured us that it would be a fine stay. Again we were very impressed with the hotel service in Cambodia. In fact we didn't even need to get to the counter to check in. The manager asked us to make ourselves comfortable next to the pool. He came up to us and did the whole check in right there without us having to lift a finger and handed us the room keys. He spent about 10 minutes or so checking us in and was very attentive throughout out the process. We asked him lots of questions about the temple runs n' all and he patiently answered all of them not once trying to sell any of the tour packages the hotel offered. The room was very nice – it had two stories.Downstairs was a living room with TV, couch and work desk. Upstairs was the bedroom. We also had a balcony with a hung swing chair and we could see the pool from all the windows.

We unpacked our bags then decided to hit the streets of Siem Reap looking for a good place to eat as a first item on the agenda. We walked to the main drag which was only about 4-5 minutes walk from the hotel. On our way we were approached by a couple of Tuk-Tuk drivers asking if we were planning to do the temple tour the next day. We ignored them and kept walking because there were more urgent needs at hand that needed to be taken care of – food first gods later - I say.

Inside ThamannonTemple

We reached one of the main intersection where all the restaurants with hustle bustle were – we asked a Tuk-Tuk driver standing on the corner if he knew of a good place to eat. He responded in a perfect English – "How can I tell you what a good restaurant is when I have never eaten at any one of them. I am a poor man I can’t afford it you see" and further went on to say "but what I can help you with is temple tours". The honesty and candid manner of this driver immediately got our attention and I thought if we hired him to show us around I could not go wrong with this Tuk-Tuk Driver . We asked if he could wait for us until we could do our (late!) lunch – which he obliged. We settled on a Mexican/Cambodian Restaurant. The food was ok; ordered quesadilla and Nacho-Supreme both of which were edible.

Apsaras at Angkor Wat

The Tuk-Tuk Driver, whose name was Chavon by the way, was waiting for us around the corner. He said he would take us to the Angkor Wat which was only 15mins away if we wanted to go. Since this was the whole reason we had come there we decided not to delay this any longer and decided to go there right away- although we knew we would only be able to see it from outside since the place closed around 530 pm. 15minutes of ride later we arrived at the Angkor Wat area. Although I had seen lots of pictures and a map of the temple nothing prepares you for the grandness of this place when you finally see it up close. The moat around the temple alone stretches probably 600 feet wide and a mile long on each side dwarfing any other castles or palaces with similar architecture I have visited.

Covered Balcony at lower terrace of Baphoun Temple

It was close to 5 o’ clock and there were thousands of people coming out of the temple as it was nearing closing time. More like letting people out after the fair closes down in Iowa. But unlike the temple in Pnom Penh this place was tranquil, grand and awe inspiring. Took a few pictures and sat by the steps outside of temple walls soaking it all in as the evening sun went down. Sat there for 30minutes or so - it started to get dark so we decided to head back to town.

In town we strolled around the main drag, went to Pub Street and several night markets, had few drinks and a light dinner at a small eatery and got back to hotel by 10 pm. We wanted to hit the bed so that we could get up early tomorrow and do as much of the temple runs as possible before the mid-day sun scorched us.

A Restaurant in Siem Reap: Hey those belong to the ruins

Sleep was ok – A/C took a bit longer to cool the place off. Tomorrow I am leaving the key pad on the socket so the A/C is running while we are out.I know this is not a very environmentally firendly thing to do but every once in a while you have to break the rules.

Outer Corridor: Angkor Wat

Day 4 – April 16th 2012
Woke up by 630 and were at the breakfast table by 7 am–breakfast was doable. They served fresh brewed coffee here as well. (Not sure why the Thai hotels never got the memo. I have yet to find a place in all the islands that serve a good coffee. All they have is that instant crap)

Chivon the Tuk-Tuk driver was patiently waiting for us outside. We stopped at the gates of the ruins to get the ticket. $20 each for a day pass. They take your picture and print it on the ticket so that there is no selling or transferring of it. If you laminated it (why would you??) or crumbled it you needed to buy a new one – as we were briefed by the ticket lady as well as Chivon.

Gates of one of the many temples we visited in 2.5 days while we were there

Outside Agnkor Thom on one of the smaller temples

Then on to the ruins. The first stop was a temple on the top of a hill called Phon Bakheng just outside the gates of Angkor Thom. Chivon said that people actually come there in the evening to see the sunset but it gets really crowded and that we would be better off if we went in the morning, which we agreed to and did a 10 min hike to the top. This temple alone was so grand in its structure yet we knew it would be nothing compared to the others we would see later in the day –we realized that we had come to a truly remarkable place.

Phon Bakheng sits on a top of a hill

Got to the top of the temple took some pictures including that of Angkor Wat hidden amongst the forest.

Angkor Wat from Phon Bakheng Temple that sits on the hill

The next stop was the Byon temple in Angkor Tom. It just blew me away. Even the gate to the temple itself was spectacular - with Asurs and Devas involved in a tug of war holding the Shes-Naga as a rope while churning the ocean and turning into Amrit - or so the Hindu mythology describes.

Gate to Bayon Temple

Close up of the top of the gate on Bayon Temple

From far the Bayon temple appears like a pile of randomly placed stone pillars and towers – but once you get closer you notice that each pillar has giant faces of Lord Vishnu on each of its four sides. 50 such pillars or towers exist with more than 200 faces on them.

Bayon Temple with Pillars

At every corner of the temple you feel like you are being watched by these giant heads yet with serene faces. Truly remarkable. Trying to capture shots without people was a real challenge. But I was able to manage some.

200 of these faces of Vishnu - each face was close to 20 feet tall

Those Face(s) are unforgettable!!!

Next to the Bayon temple, slightly to the north within the same grounds was the Baphuon temple. The architecture of this temple was very unique and again very awe inspiring. Was originally built as a Siva temple and was later converted to a Buddhist temple. I learned that this temple was dismantled back in 1960 for restoration. When I say dismantle keep in mind that temples in Angkor region are built with stone blocks like building with Lego blocks.

Baphuon Temple

Each stone is unique in size and shape and the carving and shaping is done after the stone is added to the structure. For  the restoration all the stones were taken apart one by one and placed in the front grounds, making the map of what sequence they came off so that it could be precisely put back together later. But then the Khmer Rouge came to power and destroyed all the records and mutilated any statues or carvings that depicted god. What they have now is the world's largest jigsaw puzzle with all the stone blocks still lying in the front grounds with no record of how to put it back together. Whatever remains still looks impressive though.

Phimeanakas - The Royal Palace

The next stop was Phimeanakas (The Royal Palace) again within walking distance from Baphuon temple but I was getting so damn hot I did not have the energy to climb the stairs and get to the top.Instead we decided to see the terrace of the Leper King and terrace of the Elephants which were towards the main road where our driver was waiting for us.

Top of Phimeanakas: Like the stairway to heaven -Had to yell at a Spanish dude to get out of my way to take this shot

After the terrace run the next stop was Ta Keo and Ta Phrom. It was getting so incredibly hot that both of these temples started to look the same. Still managed to walk through both of them and take lots of pictures. At Ta Phrom everyone was taking pictures of where the tree roots had engulfed the entire roof structure of the temple – to me that was not all that serene and orderly. Again my memory of these two temples are a bit fuzzy because I was sweating like crazy.

Apsara Hall on Prea Khan Temple

Got back to the hotel around 1pm and jumped into the pool right away. I was so hot I swear I could hear the water sizzle as I went in. Had a burger for lunch by the pool side and later went for a quick nap.

Inside Angkor Wat. A statue of Buddha

Left the hotel again around 4 pm – this time to go to Angkor Wat. When we got there it was already 4:30 like yesterday. Took lots of pictures in and around the lower terraces of the temple. I wanted to climb to the top terrace but learned that they don’t allow it past 5:00. So we loitered around in lower terraces for another hour or so before heading back to catch the Tuk-Tuk.

Another Temple Gate

For the evening Chivon suggested a dinner Buffet with a traditional Khmer Dance Show – it sounded like an excellent idea so we decided to go there. The dinner place was huge and there was a stage in the middle for the show. At $12each for dinner and a show it was more than a bargain. The dance performances were great.

Stage with Giant Head of Vishnu Like in Bayon Temple. Dance was great.

My favorite was the dance of the Apsaras (the heavenly nymphs) at the end. These girls were beautifully dressed. If there was such thing as Apsaras I am sure these girls came pretty close to it.

Apsaras: If they were - This I am sure came pretty close to it.

After dinner we went looking for a good foot message – just what the doctor would order after a long day of walking in scorching heat. Found a place on the main drag. At $5 for an hour of foot message it looked like a good deal. The massage was ok – not as good as here in BKK I would have to say – but a pretty good deal none-the-less. Headed back to the hotel after a full day of Angkor ruins in the book.

Dancing Apsara in Heavens

Day 5 – April 17th, 2012 - Final day
Slept good last night. Went down for the breakfast. The agenda for the day was to

- climb Up Angkor Wat - what we could not do yesterday
- redo the Royal Palace (Phimeanakas) that we were too lazy to walk to yesterday because of the sun
- then do the remaining temples outside of the Angkor Thom
- get back to the hotel by 1 PM, go for a briny dipping to cool off, have lunch and may be a nap (pretty rough life I lead I know)
- go to see the Tonle SapLake (largest lake in SE Asia)
- and finally head to airport from there to catch the flight to BKK.

Thamannon Temple Outside Angkor Thom

Asked the Tuk-Tuk driver Mr. Chivon to wait for us a bit longer since I was not in super rush. I am not a morning person anyway and I really don’t need to see "how the sun comes up to the temple corridor in the morning". Heck– I skipped the trek to Poon Hill last year to see the sunrise that all the trekkers were ga-ga’ing about. Got on the Tuk-Tuk by 830 am – got to the temple gates, got the pic taken again for the tickets and reached Angkor Wat by 9. Decided to hire a tour guide today for a change. I wanted to know a few key things from yesterday’s observations.

From the top terrace of Angkor Wat Looking at the Western (Main) Gate

I wanted to know
- How come the water on the moat never dries up
- What alterations were made to the temple when it was converted to a Buddhist temple from Hindu temple in the 16th century
- Where were the key figures located in this longest stone carvings that displayed four epic battles in its four corridors
- What repairs or restoration were done – meaning what is original vs. what is restored?

Angkor Wat from Second Terrace. Wide Angle Lens Came Handy. This is tall temple.

The guide must have thought this is not an average Asian traveler who is just rushing through the temples making noise and just to have the trophy pictures taken with them in it with their fingers making a “V” sign (people who have been there know who I am talking about).

Eastern Face Angkor Wat

The guide dude was so so. The only thing he was able to do to my satisfaction was point out the key characters from the Epic Ramayana, Mahabharat, Epic Battle of Dev and Asur in the churning of the ocean, and King Suryavarman himself– who built this temple.

Lawn at the Southern Wing of Angkor Wat - This Temple is massive

There were tons of people at the temple already. But we were finally able to climb to the upper level and see the temple surroundings from the top. When the temple was built at the center dome there was a statue of Vishnu that could be seen from all four corridors. But that was replaced by the four statues of Buddha as seen in the pic. below - when it was converted to be Buddhist temple later in 16th century. The statue of Vishnu lies on the bottom terrace near the gate at  the southern entrance.

Pictures of Buddha Statues Facing Four Sides Underneath Main Dome. Didn't Use Flash Not Wanting To Disturb Prayers

What struck me was the guy who built the temple – unless it is pointed out by some guide it is easy to miss – he could have had a giant statue of himself in the middle – but instead he was one carving among thousands of others. This concept was pretty sophisticated in itself  I thought.

Angkor Wat From the East (Rear) Side

Said good bye to Angkor for the last time. The next stop was the Royal Palace that we had missed yesterday. I was thinking it would be more remarkable than the others. But it was not – don’t get me wrong this is strictly relatively speaking compared to other temples here – it otherwise is still a marvelous monument. Instead of taking the wooden stairs that had a long line of sixty year old grandmas I skipped through the rocks and got down. Did pass through the Bayon temple which was again mind blowing.

Bayon Temple

We did Preah Khan, Krol Koh and Prasat Preah temples for another couple of hours – but like yesterday it was getting hotter, I was sweating non-stop and all the temples were starting to look similar. I think 3-4 hours is max one can do in this kind of heat.

Gate to temple called Prea Khan. Here we would see long corridors extending from the center of temple to all four directions.

Corridors of Prea Khan Temple

We got back to the hotel by 1 PM and followed the same routine as yesterday. A briny dip, followed by a burger and then a quick nap. Checked out of the hotel at 4 pm. They let us do this at no extra charge – this would be unheard of anywhere else. The next stop was the lake.

Another long corridor of the Prea Khan Temple

The trip to the Tonle Sap Lake we could have skipped altogether. It was a half an hour ride through bumpy and dusty roads through the outskirts of Siem Reap. We were thinking we would just chill by the shore there but it turns out we had to buy a ticket for a boat for $12 each and ride through a canal to get to the lake. This we completely missed to read about and plan accordingly. We got on this very noisy long tail boat and headed to the lake through the most muddy river canal I have ever seen. It was quite smelly too –yet I saw locals swimming, bathing, and washing clothes.

wentyT minutes through the muddy canal and we reached the open water of this huge Tonle Sap Lake.The lake doubles in size in the monsoon season I learned. It still it was some 150 km long and plenty wide such that when you reached the middle it felt more like an ocean I was told. But we were no where near the middle but rather on the edge near a floating fishing village. The boat operator another young enthusiastic fellow told us about the floating market, fish farm crocodile, farm etc. We have had our fare share of floating markets here in Thailand- which are nothing but tourist traps. So were not interested in that. All we wanted to do was go as far out into the lake as possible and soak in evening sun contemplating on the trip we had just completed as we watch the sun go down.But there was one little problem with this “touchy-feely” activity. In the horizon a small patch of cloud had rolled in and blocked the sunset. So much for that I thought. Did take a few pics of the floating village. I am attaching one below that captures the mood.

Fishing Village on the edge of Tonle Sap Lake

The boat operator dude insisted that we go to an orphanage on the floating village – which we declined saying we would see if we can help in other ways when we get back. It was getting dark so we asked the guy to take us back to the dock. Then we took the Tuk-Tuk to the airport. The driver Mr. Chivon who had been with us for two and a half days said that he was very lucky to have us as customers. And that he would love to see us again in future and he and his family really appreciated the patronage. In fact we were lucky to have this honest and hard working person who showed us so much with patience and enthusiasm. We compensated him with double of what he had asked for two and a half day’s worth. Hope he was happy.

Mr. Chivon our Tuk-Tuk Driver for two and half days.

Now back to reality and back to the madness of BKK. Goodbye Cambodia and thank you for everything.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing, thanx for sharing !! NO more words i can add to say anything !!