April 4, 2013

Going to Thailand for a month is easy, you walk off the plane, fill out your tourist visa and head to the beach… Going to Thailand for longer means you’re going to have to do a border run to get your passport and visa updated… The border run of choice: Cambodia.

When Doug pitched the trek in Nepal to me, I pitched the “let’s go to Thailand afterwards” right back. I knew if I could just get him to Southeast Asia I’d probably get to jump a few more borders too. At the top of the list: Cambodia. Honestly, it was Angkor Wat to start with, I love ruins and ancient civilizations and I find the Khmer Empire absolutely fascinating; but the more I learned about Cambodia, the more I knew I had to go see the people and culture of the present day, not just the ancient history.

Cut to our visa due-date. We took a little adventure that included a train, several busses, a taxi, some bicycles, a potential border scam and three tuk-tuks, and low and behold, we’re in Siem Reap, Cambodia!

 The most common mode of tourist transport in Cambodia is via tuk-tuk. Essentially a tuk-tuk is a motorbike with a cart attached to the back. If you’re lucky there is a hitch system, if you’re cheap your driver is probably just sitting on a towel that keeps the whole contraption from falling to pieces!

While the Angkor Temple Complex is the obvious reason Siem Reap tops the vacation destination charts, we’re happy to report they have a rocking nightlife too, especially during Chinese New Year, a fact that had Doug smiling from ear to ear!

After one of our buddies got sick in Cambodia, we were a little leary about street food, but these banana and chocolate crepes were too good to pass up! Actually, we didn’t have any problems with the food at all, it turns out our friend has a two-year old mentality when it comes to appropriate things to put in his mouth…

The light train of tourist flashlights as people head into Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise over the lake and temples.

In Burma I made an effort to get up super early in the morning to go temple exploring for three reasons: the light is really good, the temperature is quite a bit cooler and most people sleep through sunrise, so you tend to have the place to yourself. Not so in Cambodia, when we arrived at Angkor Wat at 4:45am we were accompanied by about 5,000 fellow travelers!

Apparently the guidebooks suggest getting an early start to snap an iconic photo of the reflection of Angkor Wat on the lake as the sun rises behind it… We were a tad shocked to see the photo club by the lake and decided to read the blurbs in the guide book so we would head in the opposite direction from its suggestions!

Despite our griping about the number of people we were sharing our experience with, the sunrise from inside Angkor Wat was absolutely beautiful, and empty since everyone else was outside!

It’s not unusual to find a family having lunch or taking a break inside the temples away from the crowds and heat.

Inside each temple there are usually several shrines dedicated to prayer. Both locals and travellers from distant places take a moment to pay their respects to Buddha.

White lotus blooms rest on an altar inside on of the temples. The lotus is a very sacred flower in Buddhism and is thought to represent the progression of the soul, so fresh blooms are often presented to an altar as an offering.

Offerings to Buddha often come in the form of food, water, oil, candles and flowers and the temples are visited and restocked daily.

Walking into the the Angkor Wat temple complex for the first time was so, so exciting. I’ve been waiting years to visit Angkor, and this temple, Bayon, in particular is breathtaking with its unique and unusual facial structures and carvings.

Bayon, the last formal state temple built in the Angkor complex, sits in the middle of the Angkor Thom complex and is best known for the beautiful, mysterious, massive stone faces that rise from the upper terrace of the temple.

Throughout our trip in Asia we perpetually found another ethnic group: the Germans. They are remarkable travellers and it was always fun to stop for a chat and get their perspective on our mutual experiences.

Ta Prohm temple was lost in the jungle for over seven hundred years, and the jungle took over. Then Angelina Jolie became Lara Croft and Tomb Raider made this one of the most famous temples of the Angkor complex.

When the jungle relinquished Ta Prohm it only half let go. The massive tree roots have embedded themselves into every facet of the temple making for  surreal, creepy settings like this doorway webbed with roots.

One of the best (and probably worst from a preservation standpoint) parts of exploring temples in Asia is the lack of restrictions. We watched a Chinese tour group move through one of the temples from our out-of-the-way location off the beaten path.

The restoration of the Angkor Complex has been controversial to put it mildly, but rebuilding and maintain the temples not only allows current and future generations a glimpse of a long forgotten past, it also provides much needed employment to local Cambodians.

When people think of Buddhism they typically conjure images of old men in orange robes, but Buddhism has nuns too, like this lovely woman arranging her blanket before settling in to pray and giving offerings to the temple.

Like so many tourist attractions, Angkor is filled with hawkers trying to sell their wares to the people visiting the temples. This young man took a more passive approach, displaying his painting on boards and blankets on the ground instead of carrying them from person to person.

Cambodians absolutely win the competition for most people on a motorbike. It’s not at all unusual to see families of 4, 5, 6 or more all riding on the same two-wheeler! Obviously, as the kids get bigger the space on the motorbike gets more cramped, but don’t worry, they have a solution for that too. They just balance a board across the back for more people to sit on!

One of the things that can be disenchanting about foreign travel is getting stuck on the “tourist track,” so we had a good laugh at these entrepreneurial bar owners advertising their lack of publicity in the guide books!

Even after nearly six months in Asia, driving can still be a baffling experience. This sign shows just a few of the “suggestions” for motor vehicle traffic (obviously farm animals, who share the roads, are exempt from any human expectations!).

This young girl is running a stand in the local open market. Among her wares: whole grilled fish, potatoes, curry, a selection of cooked and fresh vegetables and some fried insects!

A traditional fresh air market opens up on the streets at night in Siem Reap. Good luck getting a motorbike down the street if you’re not a local!

From Siem Reap we travelled to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, to fly back to Bangkok. While we were there we took some time to visit the Tuol Sieng Genocide Museum. The site, a former high school, was turned into the infamous Security Prison 21 during Khmer Rouge regime. As many as 20,000 people are estimated to have been tortured and murdered inside these wall between 1975-79. This wasn’t a fun trip; it was heart wrenching and eye opening. It served as an incredibly recent example of the immense cruelty humans are capable of, and a reminder of what they can overcome when given the chance to do the right thing.

The inside of the museum is preserved in the state in which it was found by the invading Vietnamese army in 1979. There are chains and tools of torture in the rooms, photo documentation of the prisoners and torture techniques on the walls, blood on the floors and human remains from the victims in the “library”.

The doorways leading to the cells of S-21. This certainly wasn’t one of the more uplifting portions of our time in Asia, but it was probably one of the most important historically and culturally.

More to come!