Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Amazing Angkor Watt

I travelled by ferry then bus from Koh Tao back to Bangkok on November 7th.  I was a little bit bummed out that I was going to have to spend another three nights in Bangkok because I had already seen the city for six days when I arrived in Thailand.  However, the time flew by with busy days as I acquired my Vietnam Visa from the embassy, went to a dentist for a tooth cleaning, scaling, and polish (for only $36!) bought my bus ticket to Siem Reap, did a day of shopping and people watching at the weekend Chattachak market, and repacked my luggage into one backpack for this leg of the journey while I left the rest in storage (at the great Suk 11 Hostel...for free between stays) in Bangkok.  I even squeezed in a trip to Siam Paragon mall to see "Thor The Dark World" in a 4D Theater.  A Bangkok splurge at $16, the 4D movie ticket buys you a reserved seat (you select) for a 3D movie with the addition of the fourth dimension of a "physical experience".  The seat shakes, rumbles, rocks, rises, drops, tilts, and even kicks you in the back in order to recreate the action on the screen.  Small jets of air in your headrest create the sensation of arrows whizzing past, water mists your face when things splash in the movie, and special theater lighting flashes during explosions.  I had read that there are also a number of smells that are used (gun powder, burning rubber, woman's perfume, flowers, ocean breeze etc.) but I didn't notice any scents...False advertising!  I totally enjoyed the experience and highly recommend it to anyone who ends up in Bangkok with some time to spare.

In the morning on November 10th I took a taxi to the Mo Chit 2 bus stop and caught the northeastern line direct bus to Siem Reap in Cambodia.  The trip took about 5 hours to the border, 1 hour at the border, and another 2 hours to finally reach Siem Reap at about 5pm.  I had read an awesome blog about this route and how the border crossing works ahead of time and it enabled me to avoid two little scams that trick many tourists out of a few dollars.  First, the bus stopped on the Thailand side of the border and the driver tells everyone "we have reached the border but before you cross you need to get your visa, please get out here to apply for your visa"... Sounds pretty legit, right?  Nope.  This stop was about 25m before you reach the actual border and it was a visa agent office (likely owned by a friend of the bus driver).  Many people went in here filled out the application form, provided a passport and photo, and paid around $35USD.  Once the people finished their applications, someone from the visa agency ran them over to the border, paid the $20USD that the visa actually cost, pocketed the other $15USD, then brought back the passports with visas completed to the bus.  I waited in the bus for the real border, and when we got there, everyone (even those with their new visas) got out, walked across the border, and I was directed to a visa application office while others proceeded directly to get their entry stamps.  I filled out the application there, handed over my passport and photo and was told by the officer "you pay". I gave him $20USD and he pointed to a handwritten sign that said "$20USD + 100 Thai baht" and he repeated "100 Thai baht".  Even though 100 baht is only about $3.30, I played the confused tourist and pointed to a more official sign that said the fee was $20 and I told him I had no more Thai baht because I was going to Cambodia.  He passed me back my visa application and passport and said "you wait" and made me stand to the side.  In a few minutes he accepted my application and I got mine back with the completed visa in about 10 minutes along with everyone else's.  So, a little Internet research before reaching the border saved me about $20 and gave me a sense of accomplishment at navigating the system :)

From the moment I arrived in Siem Reap I fell in love.  All the Cambodian people I have met are extremely friendly, helpful, and have great senses of humor.  I arrived at my hotel, V&A Villa, and Voyech, who is Cambodian and who owns the hotel with her husband Andy, ran out to meet me with a big smile, showed me to my beautiful room, and told me that whenever I was ready I could meet her downstairs to get fully checked in and to get some information.  I dropped off my bags, went downstairs, and Voyech and I went to sit in big comfy wicker chairs I the fresh air restaurant where she  gave me a map to orient myself, told me some options for tours, then she had to go, so Andy came over and went through more information with me.  I asked if there were any tours I could join in on to reduce the costs and he said that lots of people had just checked in and that he would introduce me to them and we could figure it out.  

My palatial room at V&A Villa.  Hot water, air con, comfy bed, tv, immaculately clean, huge, breakfast included for $16/day.

Two girls, Katie and Claire, from Bath, England, showed up shortly and Andy introduced us and I made arrangements to join them to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat at 5am the next morning.  We took a tuk tuk, driven by Sambun, to see the beautiful sight of the sunrise with Angkor Wat silhouetted in the foreground.
These photos do not truly capture the moment, so I turned 180 degrees to take the next one
So many people!
Shortly after sunrise the crowd seemed to dissipate and we didn't notice the crowds much for the rest of the day

Katie, Claire and I each bought a great book that Andy had recommended from a vendor at the site ($5 each) and we proceeded to wander through Angkor Wat and figure out the site based on reading the relevant sections in the book.  This method worked great!  We didn't have to pay for a guide, we went at our own pace, when we got too hot we found a cool, shady spot to sit and read, and we were able to find and understand a lot of points of interest including the huge Bas reliefs depicting different stories central to Hindu mythology.
Katie on the left, Claire on the right
Bas relief of a battle (the battle Kurukshetra)

Depiction of hell where a stag gores one man, a snake eats another, a lion savages another poor soul...quite graphic!
My favorite was a bas relief depicting the legend of the Churning of the Sea of Milk where the gods pull alternately on a giant snake which is coiled around Mount Mandara in order to churn the cosmic sea to produce the elixir of immortality.  The bas relief shows what looks likea. Tug of war with a snake that stretches 49m, there are fish, crocodiles, and lions in the water below and topless dancers flying above.  In the center of the relief, where the churning is most violent, the sea critters are torn in half!  Such a cool relief :)

Angkor Wat

Front of the tuk tuk driven by Sambun
Claire and Katie in our tuk tuk

We next left Angkor Wat and met up again with Sambun who took us to Ta Prohm, known from the movie Tomb raider.  This temple was really beautiful with large strangler figs and silk-cotton trees wrapping around the mossy ruins.
The little carving by my head is so interesting!  A stegasaurus carved in the late 12th to early 13th century!?!? What?!?!

Sambun took us to a nice spot for lunch where we saw some sweet monkeys (not nasty or grabby at all) then we moved on to see the spectacular temple The Bayon and continued on to see the rest of the huge Angkor Thom complex.  Everything was really incredible.  You could spend days here and only scratch the surface!  The whole day cost us the site entry fee ($40USD for 3 days) and only $20USD split 3 ways for Sambun to drive us around all day.  What a deal!

Vanity, thy name is monkey

The Bayon
Impressively restored Bapuon

My lovely Siem Reap tour companions, Claire and Katie battling malaria on the rooftop bar at V&A Villa with mosquito repellent, gin, and tonic ;).  Interesting fact: it would require 67L of tonic water/day to provide enough quinine to adequately protect one person from malaria. 

The next day we did another tour, this time we stopped first at Pre Rup to see some of the oldest ruins and to climb up before the day got too hot.  Next we headed north to see the intricately carved ruins at Banteay Srei and then to do a short hike up to a waterfall at Kbal Spean to see some carvings on boulders in the riverbed.  We ended the day at Preah Khan which was a lovely ruin of mossy building stones, long hallways and beautiful carved reliefs.
Pre Rup

Banteay Srei

Kbal Spean - the circles are lingas (phallic symbols) and there are 1000 of them carved in the riverbed.  The square with the entrance is a yuni (symbol for female organs).  I got the sense our 65 year old Cambodian guide was a bit of a dirty old man because he made sure we understood the symbology, giggled a lot, and when we got down to the waterfall he immediately stripped down to his underwear and got under the waterfall (see below).  Funny stuff!
Linga in a yuni... Get it? Get it? Nudge nudge wink wink, say no more, say no more (tee hee)

Preah Khan

We are feeling a little "templed-out" and exhausted so we have taken a lazy morning (hence the blog update) and will spend the afternoon touring a floating village.  I love everything about Cambodia so far and am thrilled to be here!

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