Days 70-74 in Southeast Asia (April 4-8, 2016)
Historical Siem Reap: Some Facts
Monday began our first day in beautiful Siem Reap, the city most famously known, of course, because of Angkor Wat. The ancient capital of Cambodia, (before Phnom Penh, today’s capital) was ruled by 26 different kings who developed different temples and capitals in the area between the years 790-1327, the most famous one of course being Angkor Wat because of its official status as the largest religious monument in the world. Today, the entire area has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site, and thousands upon thousands of tourists visit Cambodia each year to visit the incredible temples.
The religious influences in Cambodia came from India in the form of Hinduism and Buddhism. The central figures of worship throughout Angkor are Shiva (the Hindu god of destruction, though also the god of creation because of reincarnation through destruction), Vishnu (the Hindu god of protection, who preserves order and harmony in the universe), and Buddha (of course the central figure of Buddhism). Brahma (the third Hindu god, the creator) is less frequently worshipped, because he has less to do with life on earth, and is worshipped only as the original creator of life, without much involvement in life on earth, which is for the most part cyclical and ruled by Shiva.
Over the Khmer Empire, Hinduism dominated until the end of the 12th Century when Mahayana Buddhism became the primary focus (today, Mahayana Buddhism is more important in what is today’s Thailand than in Cambodia). Both Hinduism and Buddhism in Cambodia were adopted but not changed much or broken into sects like in other areas of Asia, so the temples here are all fairly similar in both form and function. The temples are built of brick, laterite and sandstone for the most part. Brick was used as the main building material early on, and laterite was used as a foundation material for its hardness. Sandstone was usually the most expensive material to build with, unless a temple was built near a good local source, and it was regarded as the highest of the materials for its fine quality, resulting in all of the best and most impressive carvings throughout the temples.
The temples were built as palaces for gods, not as a meeting place for the faithful, and the prasats (towers) of each temple, made to resemble Mount Meru (the ancient centre of the universe, with the central prasat being the highest and often most decorated), were intended solely to house small statues of the gods (many of these statues and other relics from the temples now sit inside Phnom Penh National Museum to be kept safe and preserved).
The moat that surrounded many of the temples was also a religious symbol, meant to represent the primordial ocean. Within the structures, Shiva is often represented by a lingha (phallus), a cylindrical structure, the top 1/3 being visible most often, sitting on top of an octagonal mid section (a representation of Vishnu), and a square base (representing Brahma). The bottom two sections are most often hidden within a pedestal or slab that surrounds the lingha (representing a womb), together representing fertility and prosperity. Because of the structures’ important religious significance, they were the only buildings during the time to be made using the various stones/bricks. All other domestic structures and even palaces were made of wood and less durable materials, and therefore did not survive the test of time. Today, only the layout of the ancient city/streets is evident.
Our First Day Exploring the Temples: Banteay Srei
To begin our first day of exploring these incredible temples, Maddie and I walked down the road to find somewhere to rent a motorbike. We had heard that it was illegal/not permitted for tourists to rent motorbikes in Siem Reap, which is why most people tour the temples by tuk tuk, though we knew several people who had done it all by motorbike and said that it was a much more enjoyable experience and provided a nice little break from the heat of the day, zipping through the streets and feeling the breeze. We also heard that the rule wasn’t really enforced much, and even so, if you’re caught it was more of a “hey you shouldn’t be on a motorbike” warning, to which most tourists just say “oh okay sorry I didn’t know,” and they just let you go and tell you to return the bike.
We rented our bike for the next 3 days for $10USD/day, so $5 each, and it was actually one of the nicest bikes we’ve rented so far, with a pretty comfortable seat, nice mirrors and good brakes (yes, really…actual good brakes). After renting our bike, we went to the ticketing office up to road to buy our all access ticket to the temples of Angkor, which is $20USD for a 1 day pass, or $40USD for a 3 day pass. We opted for the 3 day pass since we had the time, and also had heard that the temples were much better enjoyed at a slightly slower pace than by trying to rush through the entirety of the area in one day.
After we had our tickets sorted out, we headed to our first stop, Banteay Srei, which is about a 20km/40 minute drive North of the city, and by far the most out of the way from the temple area near Angkor Wat. We had heard that it was worth a visit, and since we had the motorbike we didn’t mind a bit of a drive. In fact, we both found that it had the most beautiful sandstone carvings out of all the temples we would see over the next couple of days. Made entirely of sandstone, the “Citadel of the Women”, as it is often called, impressed us with delicate pink relief carvings, certainly some of the finest in all of Khmer art. Also unique to this temple is its size, almost miniature, with doorways much smaller than other temples, and walls that barely reached above eye level. It was very unique in both scale and decoration, and well worth the drive.
Cambodia Land mine Museum
On our way back from the temple, we decided to visit the Cambodia Land mine Museum that was recommended to us by Andrew and Nils, who had just come from Siem Reap when they met us in Phnom Penh. The museum was $5USD to get in, but $3 of that goes to the children who live at and are supported by the museum, as well as the staff who earn a fair salary. $1 then goes to help clear mines, and the other $1 to support other programs in rural villages, so it’s hard to feel bad about paying for entry when you’re helping a cause just by visiting. The museum is set up similar to S-21 and the Killing Fields in that it is full of rooms with numbered signs, and you are free to rent an audiobook (included with admission) that explains each of the areas and displays in the museum.
The layout and order of the rooms was slightly confusing, and certainly smaller and less well-organized than the exhibits in Phnom Penh, but still very much worth the time and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who has time for more than just temples in Siem Reap.
The museum holds thousands of disarmed mines, almost entirely found by one man named Aki Ra, who has received various awards worldwide now for his efforts in making Cambodia a safer place. As a child, Aki Ra’s parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge, and he was made a soldier at age 10 when he was given his first gun, an AK47. Over the next several years, he fought for the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese army, and the Cambodian Army, through which he and his friends were ordered to lay thousands of land mines throughout the country. He did as he was told, without any say in the matter, and at one point almost accidentally killed his own uncle, who was fighting for the other side at the time.
He pretended to miss once he saw who it was, and they both survived the war. When the war ended, and Aki Ra was a free man, he began retracing his steps and uncovering land mines he had laid under orders. He uncovered mines from all over the world, and dedicated his life to defusing them with little more than a stick and a pair of pliers. Before his efforts, the land mine-related injury count of Cambodia was in the thousands per year. As of 2014, there were 157. The mines are now most dominant in remote areas in NorthWestern Cambodia, but the rest of the country has been cleared almost entirely.
In 1997, Canada created the Mine Ban Treaty, which was signed in Ottawa by 122 countries, to prevent the unnecessary use of mines in warfare in the future, which have proven to do little more than cause problems for civilians even after a war has ended. When the US bombed Cambodia in excess in 1965 trying to clear the Ho Chi Minh Trail, an estimated 600,000 civilians were killed, and it only helped the Khmer Rouge gain power. In 1973 the bombing finally stopped, though many of these bombs never exploded. In 1998, after Pol Pot’s death, Cambodia found some peace.
Today, 6 groups are working to clear Cambodia of the remaining mines, funded by several other countries as well as worldwide organizations. The Cambodian Self Help De-mining, founded by Aki Ra in 2008, is the newest addition to these groups, and is made up of entirely Cambodians who were affected by and involved in the war. In 2006, Aki Ra’s old way of doing things was declared unsafe by international standards, and a new way with proper tools and protection has been adopted by the group. Today, the centre (this museum) supports children who were victims of land mines exploding, as well as orphans whose parents were victims, or children who just needed a home and a better life.
It is hard to realize the impact that the land mines have had on this country. 1 in every 300 Cambodians today are land mine victims, and while Aki Ra and his team continue to work tirelessly to make Cambodia mine-free, it takes a lot of money and time to do so, and many people in remote areas still live in fear of UXOs where they live and sleep. Aki Ra has single handedly defused an estimated 50,000 land mines of various makes and models, mostly before the modern way of doing things, using a stick and pliers. As far as real life superheroes go, I think he makes the cut.
If you’ve got the time, definitely check out the museum in Siem Reap, I guarantee you will learn something, and like I said before, just showing up is supporting the cause. There is also art made by the children, and other souvenirs for sale at the museum that help support the cause, and I bought a few bars of “Clean Up Soap”, that gives 50% of its profits straight to the centre to care for the children living here. It was an afternoon well spent.
East Mebon & Night Market
After the museum, we figured we had a bit of time to zip over to one more temple before the end of the day. We drove to East Mebon, a larger temple, and enjoyed the beautiful view as the sun began to go down. When we got back to our room, Maddie went for a swim on the rooftop and I ran out to the nightmarket for some sunglasses (and of course ended up with a new Angkor Wat tank top to add to my collection of Asia tops). We went to bed fairly early, exhausted from the long day, but ready for an early start the following morning for sunrise at Angkor Wat.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
At 4:30am, we were up and ready for action. We left at about 5:15, and got to Angkor at around 5:40ish, where we joined the masses to watch the sunrise from the left side of the bridge, by the lotus water (because it is the tourist thing to do, of course). It was very pretty, as sunrises are, and Angkor Wat was incredible to finally see in real life, it’s colossal size simply incomparable to any other temple or church I’ve seen, even the Taj Mahal.
Honestly though, I didn’t feel the “magic”… it was beautiful, and I certainly appreciated it, but it’s one of those things that looks better on a postcard than in real life, and the colours are never as bright and beautiful as you’ve seen in photos and online, and your photos are sure to be from too far away or with other peoples’ heads in them as you peer through the crowd. Even the pressure of getting a good photo of it was reason enough to feel stressed out. I ended up far off to the side, crouching down in a squat over a rock to get a good photo, and then just sat in the dirt so that I’d be out of the way and could just enjoy the view, despite the crazy crowds. It was nice, and of course I don’t regret doing it, because you HAVE to do it… but I find that sometimes things like this are just so famous and hyped up that you end up just going into it with crazy high expectations, and a lot of pressure to take a perfect photo, and it kinda just feels forced.
We went inside Angkor afterwards, though we weren’t allowed up to the very top since all we had were scarves around our shoulders (and you have to wear an ACTUAL T shirt to get in), so we explored around the temple for a bit, appreciating its beautiful decorations and sheer size, and then we left.
Ta Prohm (The Tomb Raider Temple), Bayon & Preah Khan
Ta Prohm (the Tomb Raider temple) was our next stop, most famous for the trees growing wildly inside, on top of, and straight through the temple walls. This may have been my favourite of all the temples, only because of how truly jaw dropping it was to see the roots of trees making their way down into the walls and through the rubble of the temple.
Next was Bayon, known for its many faces visible in the bricks of the pillars, facing in each direction in every spot you look from both inside and out. Aside from the trees at Ta Prohm, these faces were definitely my favourite temple feature of all.
When we finished up at Bayon, we checked out the Terrace of the Elephants, the Terrance of the Leper King, and Baphuon (though we were turned down at Baphuon because again, it was one of the few temples that required an ACTUAL T shirt and our scarves were not enough).
Our final stop was Preah Khan, with more beautiful trees as well as impressive relief carvings, before we decided to call it a day at around 3pm (after 9.5 hours of temple-ing).
Pub Street, Night Market & Fish Pedicures
We dragged our sweaty butts upstairs to the rooftop pool, and I think I could have cried with relief at how good it felt to get in that water. I think we counted that between the two of us we had bought 4 large water bottles that day (1.5L), totalling 6L (3L each), and still felt insanely dehydrated. We hung out in the pool for a couple hours and chatted with some Swedish girls before changing and heading to the market for some food.
We walked along Pub Street and through the giant Night Market, and got our feet nibbled on by some fish for $2USD, which was a really fun and cheap way to end the day. The workers laughed as we screamed, not realizing just how ticklish we were until we had a hundred little mouthes nibbling at our toes. Eventually we got used to it a bit more, and while I’m still not sure how much they actually DID in terms of improving my feet, it was a fun activity and I’m glad we did it.
Third Day Temple-ing: Pre Rup Sunrise
On our third and final day of temple-ing, we decided to get up early (yes, again), for another sunrise. This time, we went to Pre Rup, which has 3 peaks visible over the outside wall much like at Angkor Wat, but it is obviously far quieter since everyone else is watching the sunrise that makes it on the postcards. We bought some raisin bread and peanut butter the night before and sat behind Pre Rup making ourselves some sandwiches (dipping the bread in the jar), and watched as the sun began to rise.
We were the only people outside of the temple, and I decided to go up top to watch the sunrise, while Maddie stayed behind the temple. There were only 3 other people up top, and I sat off to one side and watched as the beautiful bright red and orange Cambodian sun lit up the ruins below. It was the best sunrise I’ve seen, and the magic that I missed out on at Angkor Wat the morning before was bubbling up inside me. Trees stretched out as far as I could see past the temple area, and it was all just perfect. Best of all… it was quiet.
Ta Keo & Neak Pean
After sunrise, we visited Ta Keo and Neak Pean, which is a smaller monument surrounded by a large shallow lake area with bare trees and bushes coming up out of the water… it had a very swampy Lord of the Rings feel to it, and it was really a really cool setting, though the monument itself wasn’t much to look at.
Neak Pean was also where we met Preston and Brian, two guys travelling together since they met a couple weeks ago in Vietnam. Brian is from New York, and is only away for a few weeks before starting a new job, and Preston is from Texas, travelling for a couple of months in similar areas to us after finishing his Master’s. We chatted a bit by the temple and they invited us out for dinner and drinks at the market that night. We happily agreed and wrote down their names so we’d find them on Facebook once we got WiFi again.
Baphuon & Angkor Wat
After making our new friends, we went back to Baphuon (where we were rejected for not having T-shirts the day before, we brought some in our bag today). I couldn’t tell you how many stairs there were, but it was a lot, and I was very sweaty by the time we left, but it was a pretty cool temple so I cant complain.
Afterwards, we went BACK to Angkor Wat, with our T shirts ready, so that we could get up top… but they’re apparently only open in the morning. We decided it clearly wasn’t meant to be, enjoyed a quick view of the area in the mid day light, and left. We went out for lunch at a restaurant with air conditioning where I tried some fish lok lak, a coconut curry-type dish with fish and veggies served with rice (delicious), and had some ice cream to top it off. It was a well deserved meal after what was already a very long day of temple-ing, soon to be longer.
Bakong & Lolei
We continued on past our hostel area and on the highway heading East for about half an hour to get to Bakong and Lolei temples. Bakong was quite beautiful, and seemed very old, and Lolei was really nothing much to look at, but had a small school behind/inside the temple where we met a teacher there, who showed us around and introduced us to the children, most of whom were monks who were learning English and taking computer classes. We saw their library and classroom, and spoke with several students eager to practice their English with us. It wasn’t at all what I expected when we got to the temple, and I think that might be why I enjoyed it so much.
Night Market & Dinner With New Friends
After conquering our final stop on our list of temples to see here in Siem Reap, we went back to our hostel area to buy our bus tickets to get us to Bangkok the following morning. We booked them through Hang Tep Travel, and it cost us $10USD each for the “8 hour” trip that would leave at 8am the next morning. We then returned our beloved motorbike, and after showering and cleaning ourselves up, we dragged our exhausted selves out to the market area where we met up with Preston and Brian (who we met at Neak Pean).
They were both really nice, and very interesting gentlemen. Preston lived and worked in the Congo for 2 years, and had some really awesome stories from his travels. We all talked about life and travel, and how much easier it is to make friends out here than back home, where everyone already has groups of friends and isn’t really looking to make new ones so much, a big reason we had all fallen in love with backpacking. We grabbed some beers, got the guys to try the fish foot bath, which they forced us to join in on, and went to “Angkor What?” bar for some drinks and a bit of dancing (Preston is from Texas and has got some great moves, that basically require his partner to just trust him and relax while he twirls and spins you around… Maddie and I were both laughing and impressed as he danced with us so incredibly well, especially given our own lack of abilities).
He also told us that he was going to meet up with us for the Full Moon Party this month in Koh Phangan, which I can’t wait for. After Maddie and Preston tried to jump rope at the bar (it was a crazy long rope with huge crowds gathered around), and Maddie took a decently hard fall, we decided to call it a night and head back, knowing that we had to be up in time for our bus to Bangkok, and would then be finding a way South from there to Khao Sok.
The Journey to Khao Sok via Bangkok
Our tuk tuk picked us up at 7:30am on Thursday morning to bring us to the bus station, where we left at 8am to get to Bangkok. We stopped a few times along the way, once at a place where we were forced to BUY something from a food store if we wanted to use the squat toilet… which is really cruel to do to a bus full of tourists who all have to pee. The ladies running the shop were so rude to everyone I was in shock, and it definitely left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth as we left… but other than that the bus ride was pretty standard.
At Poipet we stopped for about an hour where we exited Cambodia and entered Thailand (we got a free 30 day Visa on Arrival at the border). At the crossing we met Zoe and Caitlyn, two other young travellers from England, and Maddie saw a sticker on Caitlyn’s bag for diabetes. We bonded briefly over our diabetes sisterhood, but she was on injections rather than the pump, so we definitely have very different routines and struggles. Still, it is always nice to see other travellers with diseases like mine who don’t let it get in the way of doing fun things.
Our bus arrived in Bangkok 3 hours late, at 7pm, where we grabbed some McDonald’s quickly before going to a booking office nearby to try to get ourselves to Khao Sok, hoping to grab an overnight train. The office told us they couldn’t book anything this late, but to head straight to the train station. We haggled for a 100THB ($4) taxi to take us to the station, about 30 minutes away, only to find out that the overnight train to Surat Thani was fully booked not only for tonight, but for tomorrow night as well. Not ready to waste 2 days in Bangkok, we grabbed another taxi and headed to the bus station (a less comfortable option, but still an option), that took another 40 minutes to get to and cost us 200THB ($8). The bus was fully booked as well, and it was 9:30pm… we were running out of options, and not at all wanting to book a flight.
Maddie ran in and found out that there was a minibus that would be leaving at 10:30pm to get to Surat Thani for 800THB ($30), arriving around 7:30am, where we’d grab another bus to get us to Khao Sok. Sold. We waited for an hour and after running around the bus station, completely sweaty and exhausted from an already long day of travel, we got on our minibus. It was actually really nice, with air conditioning, WiFi and comfortable seats, and Maddie and I laid across the 3 seats in the back with our legs in each others’ faces, in what ended up being not the worst sleeping position in the world. Mostly we were just happy to be moving in the right direction, and not stuck in Bangkok for 2 days… 9 hours later, we arrived in Surrat Thani, booked our 250THB ($10) bus to take us to Khao Sok, waited another hour for the bus, and 2.5 hours later, after approximately 27.5 hours in transit, we arrived in Khao Sok.
Khao Sok At Last
A gentleman who works at one of the hostels here drove us for free to his sister’s bungalow first, and then to his. We decided to stay at his place, Jungle Huts, for 300B ($12) for the night for both of us ($6 each) for a small bungalow with a fan and cold showers (which in this heat was more of a selling point than a compromise). After putting our things in our room, we walked around the small street that makes up the entire tourist area here in the middle of the jungle, sat by the river for a bit, and relaxed for the rest of the day, happy to be away from a bus.
Final Thoughts on Cambodia
I’m very excited to be back in Thailand and headed for the islands, though I honestly feel like I could have spent so much longer in Cambodia. We had 16 days there, and I didn’t expect to love it nearly as much as I did leading up to it from what other people had told me. I had met several travellers before getting there who spoke fairly lowly of Cambodia… “It’s filthy,” “I can’t believe you’re going for over 2 weeks,” “I would not want to spend a long time there,” and “Cambodia is a S*** hole,” are all things I’ve heard on several occasions now, and tried very hard to ignore.
It broke my heart to hear it because I try so hard to accept a country for what it is, and to prepare myself going into it so that I’m not overly shocked or horrified, and won’t come across as ignorant or rude towards another culture especially as a guest in that country. Now, after learning about Cambodia’s history in Phnom Penh and now Siem Reap, it actually makes me mad about what I’ve heard from other people. No, it’s not particularly clean… and yes, there are a lot of beggars and poor people, and the businesspeople here are desperate and frustrating to deal with, but what people seem to forget is that this is a country that has been through so much so recently, and is actually doing really well considering the circumstances. Still, most of these people make less in a month than many of us make in a day back home.
Sure, it gets hard to say no politely after 5000 “no thank you’s” and being chased down the street being offered books or bracelets, and it’s not fun to have to drive 15-20 minutes if you want to find a restaurant that looks nice enough that it might have toilet paper AND soap, let alone a western toilet… but I guarantee you it’s a lot harder for them than it is for us.
Personally, I have loved my time in Cambodia, and actually wish I had more of it. The people have been so kind in nearly every place we’ve been (other than that final bus stop), and the cities are actually far more developed in a lot of areas than I expected, almost even to standards back home, which is really impressive all things considered. I guess all I’m trying to say is that before you go travelling to another country, please leave your privileged life and opinions at the door, and humble yourself a little. If you can do that, I promise you that the not-so-lovely toilets, pushy drivers/businesspeople and dirty streets are a small price to pay for the beauty you will certainly appreciate more once you overlook the rest, and accept a country for what it is.
Cambodia, I’ll miss you, and you can be sure that I’ve left a piece of my heart here… If you look hard enough, you’ll probably find it (sweating) somewhere between Koh Rong and Kampot.