Angkor What?

27 05 2010

So once again it has taken me a while to write a post but here I go. We are currently in Vientiane which is the capital of Laos. The trip here has covered quite a bit of ground and we have visited some significant places along the way. We woke up our last morning in Sihnoukville to some stormy weather and ditched our plans to hang around one more day and explore the surrounding area by motorbike. We decided we where going to head north to the Temples of Angkor Wat but first we had to get there. We each jumped on the back of a couple of moto’s and got a ride to the bus station and bought a couple of tickets just in time for the 7:30 bus. The ride took us about 5 hours to get back to Phnom Pehn where we then transferred to another bus for another 6 hours that eventually got us to the town of Siem Reap. Once there we grabbed a tuk-tuk and headed to the city center where we grabbed a room and some dinner. Before he left we had arranged to meet the tuk-tuk driver the next morning to take us around to visit some of the temples. Angkor Wat is really only one of the many temples in the area around the town of Siem Reap but it is probably the most significant and famous of the lot. It is reported to be the largest religious structure on earth and is one of the eight wonders of the world. It truly is an inspiring place and even though I have seen many pictures of Angkor, the size of the complex really does not become apparent until you make the very long walk from the outside of the moat to the center of the temple. The details and architecture are stunning and when you realize that it was constructed nearly a thousand years ago you really cannot help but be amazed. We spent several hours there wandering through passages and up and down stairs all while viewing beautiful carvings and stonework. After visiting only a portion of Angkor Wat we made our way back to our tuk-tuk and moved on to another complex called Angkor Thom which is really the remnants of a walled city. We visited several structures located within the walls including the Baphoun, The Terrace of the Leper King and the Terrace of the Elephants amongst others. The most significant temple located within Angkor Thom however happened to be the Bayon with 54 gothic towers with 216 enormous, coldly smiling faces carved on them. It was really a very impressive place and you are pretty much given free rein to explore and climb all over the temple. After this we left the walls of the old city and continued on to another large complex called Ta Prohm which is most famous for how the jungle has been reclaiming the land upon which the temple was built. A lot of the structure has fallen and large silk cotton trees have grown in and around the stone walls in many places. Between its appearance and the thunderstorm that had been rolling in the whole place felt as if it had been taken directly out of an Indian Jones movie. We got out of the temple just before the heavy rains started to move in and headed back to out hotel. When we got back our driver for the day, Puan, he asked us if we would like to go to his friend’s wedding that evening. We gladly accepted the invitation and got ready to go. The wedding was fun there was over 500 guests, live music and a lot of wonderful food. The whole affair was not to unlike a typical American wedding but one thing that was interesting was that the bride and groom change their outfits over 5 times throughout the day with each new wardrobe being fancier than the last. We did not stay out too as we had planned on making it back to Angkor Wat for the sunrise which required us to be up at 4:30. The next morning we made our way out to the temple for a less than spectacular sunrise as it was mostly cloudy but which was still nice as it was much cooler than it had been when we had visited the day before. After exploring Angkor Wat some more we had some breakfast before continuing on to some of the other temples in the area. We spent the rest of the day visiting some of the lesser known structures before heading back to town and wandering around Siem Reap for a little while. Again we wanted to get to bed early as we had to be up at 4:30 to catch a bus to Laos. I wanted to mention a couple of things before I describe the rest of the past week. First is out tuk-tuk driver. He was really wonderful it was really a pleasure to meet him as well as heartbreaking at the same time. He was kind, soft-spoken and very interesting but on the other hand he was also the first person we had met that directly and severely impacted by the Khmer Rouge. He has no family and told us his father was lost during the war. He is 32 with next to no education as he lost his parents at a young age. Because of these things he is most likely to live a lonely and desolate life as most marriages in this part of the world are arranged by the families. Yet despite these things he maintains a friendly demeanor and has learned quite a bit of english. He has also managed to save and buy himself a tuk-tuk which has given him the freedom to be his own boss. The second thing I wanted to mention was the touts. There where literally hundreds of hawkers and sellers lurking around the temples. I did really well until the end of our second day visiting the temples when a self-appointed guide began to demand money from us even though I had already asked to be left alone. It was not really him that was the problem and I am sure the 100 degree heat did not help to calm my attitude but since we had arrived in Siem Reap it seemed as if everyone just wanted money from us. It was not like in other places where if you where to spend a little money somewhere usually you received wonderful service. Here it just was as if you where a walking wallet and in nearly every corner of every temple there would be someone telling you to buy water, guidebook, cold drink, painting or some other kind of nick knack. The worst was the children who have obviously been tought to follow around tourists and try to sell them things. It was almost as if they were brainwashed as they would just stand there repeating something like “ok you buy from me, five for a dollar” over and over again in a monotone voice. It was a bit sad and I am fully aware of how poor these people are and that they are just trying to get by but I also think that they are eventually going to have a negative impact on tourism in the area. I was mostly upset not about the constant harassment but mostly by the fact that this place had changed how I felt about Cambodians. Now with a few days to reflect I have calmed down a bit and have been able to separate my experience with the hawkers from the rest of my visit in Cambodia which is really a wonderful place with generally warm and friendly people. I guess there is a lesson to be learned here for me and that is that if you decide to go one of the most popular destinations in SE Asia during the low season which is visited by 2-3 million people a year you are likely going to be mobbed as the ratio of hawker to tourist is extremely high.The next day we got up and took a bus at 5:30 AM which was a bit of an adventure. The bus was and older model with no a/c and a fairly wild driver. I should have known things would be interesting when they first filled it up using jerry cans of diesel on the side of the road and then the couldn’t get it into reverse cause us to run into a sign before we even got on the road. We did make a quick stop where the driver had to open the floor and tinker with something which seemed to have fixed the reverse problem before making the 4 hour journey to our next bus. We transferred to a much nicer and larger bus thankfully with a/c before continuing for another 6 or so hours to the Laos border. The border had been a bit of an issue because we were not completely sure if it was possible to get a Lao visa upon arrival. Most books indicated it was not possible but we had heard some rumors that this had changed. The bus company had told us that it was possible but they also told us that all of the busses had a/c and that our boat ticket to our final destination was included in what we paid but it was not so this didn’t ensue me much. But we did get through the border and our visas were issued albeit by a man working in a little wood shack on the side of the road. Once in Laos we headed up the road a little bit before catching a mini bus down to the Mekong River. At the river we hired a boat to take us to an island called Don Det. The island is located in an area called 4000 islands which is quite appropriate as there probably is that many if you count every little sand bar and lump of land. The island we stayed on is a bit larger but even so it only received grid electricity 3 months ago so is still a bit primitive. We rented a little bungalow and spent most of the time just enjoying the slower pace of life in Laos. It almost feels like we went through a time warp when we entered the country not in the normal I feel like I just went back in time 100 years, although it also feels that way, but in that time has just slowed down. We met a wonderful couple from London, Jen and Paul, whom we spent most of our time with there really just walking around and enjoying some food. It seems as if every meal has taken two hours or more as we typically just hang out and talk as there is really no rush to be any where or do anything. We did take one trip off the island to go and visit a waterfall which is reported to be the largest cascade in SE Asia at 15M high and over 1KM across. It was an impressive sight with a massive amount of water flowing over it. After that we headed back to the Cambodian border to catch a boat out to a conservation area where we hoped to spot some endangered dolphins . We did have to wait out a thunderstorm before going out on the water but we eventually got going. We where not disappointed we some of the few remaining Irrawaddy dolphins with a population estimated at less than 100. I am glad we got to see these rare creatures and hope that now they are marginally protected that they will begin to make a comeback. After our day trip we headed back to the island where we enjoyed a wonderful dinner at a restaurant right on the Mekong. We got to see a beautiful sunset and sat around talking with our new friends for hours. The next morning we had planned on moving on so after breakfast which seems to consume most of the morning in Laos we headed north for a couple of hours to the town of Pakse. We spent the afternoon at a rooftop restaurant just enjoying the scenery before catching our night bus to Vientiane. We walked back to the bus station where we boarded our sleeping bus which is a normal sized bus but instead of seats it has two levels of bunks down either side. The bunks are considered doubles but are really smaller than a twin mattress from the states. So needless to say Justyna and I spent a very cozy night together on the top bunk. You spent most of the night convinced the bus was just about to crash and for me the rest of the night trying not to fall out of the top bunk. We did arrive in the capital of Laos or Vientiane safely and made our way to the center of the city and found our selves a hotel. We spent our day around the capital with Jen and Paul walking and eating. We visited many temples and museums as well as a market. Vientiane almost appears to be a modern european city an I am guessing it may have something to do with the French occupation of the country in the 40s and 50s. As a city of only 235,000 it is quite a relaxed place and some have said it is probably the most laid back capital in the world. This was a pleasant change of pace after our last couple of days in Cambodia. Today we are going to head north into the heart of the country and I am not really sure what to expect. So once again it may be a few days or more before I am able to post.




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