Archive for ‘Cambodia’

December 15, 2011

Siem Reap

by Anna

Last week we made the infamous crossing over the Poipet Thai-Cambodia border. We had heard all sorts of horror stories of swindlers and scammers at the border, so we made arrangements with our guesthouse in Siem Reap to have a “greeter” and taxi waiting for us on the other side. As soon as we stepped foot onto Cambodian soil, the first thing we saw was a giant black and white poster of Johnny’s face! With his beard it looked like an America’s Most Wanted sign, but luckily it was our friendly greeter who walked us through the remaining border lines and finally to our taxi. Phew! We made it, hassle-free, into Cambodia.

Our first impression of Cambodia (other than hysterics at seeing the huge image of Johnny’s face at the border) was how genuinely warm and friendly the people were. We also couldn’t believe how lovely Siem Reap was as we pulled into town along a wide tree-lined boulevard, past the Royal Gardens (and several regal hotels), over the slow moving Siem Reap river and down a red dirt road to our guesthouse. You would have thought we had checked in at the Ritz Carlton with the level of hospitality that met us at this place. We couldn’t get over how polite and sweet the staff were. Every time we returned back to the guesthouse they were all there to greet us and hand us ice cold Tiger Balm towels. We had a huge breakfast every morning that was included with our stay, free wifi, free tea, coffee and water all day and a huge, charming and immaculately clean room, all for $20/night! You can’t beat that!

The Royal Gardens
Siem Reap River
Our guesthouse was decked out for the holidays!

When we weren’t cruising around in a tuk tuk marveling at the temples of Angkor, we were wandering the fun, lively streets of Siem Reap, enjoying the plethora of delicious food options and bargaining our hearts out at the markets. We could see how Siem Reap was a hot spot in the 50s and 60s when stars like Jackie Kennedy and Charlie Chaplin were lured by the temples and silk markets. Unfortunately the hey day in Siem Reap was abruptly halted due to the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror beginning in the 70s. Cut off from the world and put through traumatizing genocide, it wasn’t till the mid 90s that Cambodia and Siem Reap began to reemerge as a tourist destination. Slowly but surely the country has been  building steam ever since, and Siem Reap is once again the place to be.

Pub Street Lots of “Fish Massages” available on the streets
Some ladies brave enough to get the “Fish Massage” where tiny fish nibble the dead skin off your feet
Restaurants and shops along The Alley
Sampling the local brew Sampling Khmer cuisine

Although the city is brimming now with tourists, the devastation that the Khmer Rouge left in its wake and the poverty that affects the country are significant. Luckily many organizations in the city have set up “cause-dining” or shopping whereby you can eat at restaurants that train young, disadvantaged youth to become chefs, or shop at stores that support local craftsmen. There were many places with many worthy causes to support. Some of our favorite spots were Le Café, Butterflies Garden, Touich and the Singing Tree Café. Every place we went we continued to encounter sweet Cambodian people whose big beautiful smiles were truly heartwarming.

Last, but certainly not least, I couldn’t end this entry without talking about the markets! Johnny, who gets hives and breaks out in a cold sweat if I mention the word “shopping,” even got into the fun at the Old Market and Night Market. Our favorite market was  Psar Chaa (Old Market). You could buy everything from silk scarves to pigs’ heads to haircuts in the labyrinth of stalls and passageways. The vendors were all very good-natured and easy to barter with, which made negotiating (something I usually hate!) really fun. Johnny and I had to laugh because at the airport in Johannesburg leaving South Africa, we had 8 rand (approx. $1) left. We wanted to get rid of the rand before we left the country so we went on a mission through the airport to try and find something for $1… a pack of gum…a granola bar? Nope, nothing. We couldn’t find a single thing to buy with a dollar. In Siem Reap it was quite the opposite…the dollar was king. You could buy almost anything for $1 – a tuk tuk ride, 10 bracelets, 2 pineapples – we couldn’t help but load up on some souvenirs to send home and had a really fun time in the process.

Halls of scarves and jewelry in the Old Market Gearing up for some serious bartering
Around Psar Chaa/Old Market
The food sector of the Old Market
 All sorts of items on offer at the market from pigs’ heads… …to dragon fruit
Fruit stalls in the market
So many options causes serious indecision!
Outside the Night Market

We know we were in a bit of a bubble in Siem Reap, but we really loved the time we spent there, and maybe one day we will have the opportunity to return and see more of Cambodia. We hope that good things come to this country and its beautiful people as they continue to heal and rebuild.

Wheelie beasts in tow on our tuk tuk to the airport…next stop: Vietnam!
December 15, 2011

Temples of Angkor

by Johnny

When I was in 8th grade I bought a special photography issue of Life magazine titled, “100 Places to See in Your Lifetime” which showcased some of the most historic, beautiful and unique places on earth. I remember being blown away at how many treasures there were out in the world…and they all seemed to be begging me to visit. I must’ve thumbed through it a million times, and it’s still tucked safely away somewhere in our storage unit. It’s almost as if buying that magazine all those years ago planted the idea of our current round-the-world trip somewhere deep in my brain (sorry, I just watched Inception on the flight over). Out of all the places highlighted, however, two in particular captured my imagination: Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat. I guess I’m just a sucker for ancient ruins from lost civilizations hidden deep in the jungle. While we’re determined to make it to Machu Picchu one day, we were lucky enough to spend the past few days exploring Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples.

A Cliffs Notes history lesson:  Angkor was the capital of the once-powerful Khmer Empire, which ruled the majority of Southeast Asia from AD 802 to 1431.  During this period, various Khmer rulers built hundreds of elaborate Hindu and Buddhist temples and monuments stretching across 400 square kilometers.  After the Khmer Empire was defeated by the Thais in 1431, the temples were left largely unoccupied at the mercy of the jungle until they were “discovered” by the French in 19th century (although many Buddhist monks had continued to us Angkor Wat as a pilgrimage site during this period).  After capturing the world’s imagination and becoming a popular tourist destination in the early 1900s, Angkor suffered a setback in the 1960s and 1970s due to the Vietnam war and Cambodia’s own tragic civil war.  However, Angkor is once again the pride and joy of Cambodia, if not all of Southeast Asia, having been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.  Anna and I armed ourselves with a couple three-day passes and headed out with our trusty tuk-tuk driver, Sol, to see as much of this amazing area as we could.

On our first day, we explored the temples in and around Angkor Thom, a fortified city built in the 1100s and considered the largest pre-industrial city in the world. At its peak, Angkor Thom boasted a population of nearly one million (at a time when London had a mere population of around 50,000).  As soon as Anna and I approached the south gate of Angkor Thom and got our first glimpse of the temples, I swear we simultaneously started humming the Indiana Jones theme song.  Seeing these ruins in the middle of the jungle made us feel like were were in some sort of dream world.  We half expected to be greeted by Mowgli from The Jungle Book.  It was just incredible.  The highlights from our first day were Bayon (with its towers of stone faces), Thommanom (where we had the entire temple to ourselves) and Ta Prohm (where the ruins have been overtaken by the jungle).  OK, enough jibber-jabber…here are some pics:

Our tuk-tuk driver Sol approaching the south gate of Angkor Thom
The towers of stone faces at Bayon
The bas-reliefs at Bayon Carvings at the Terrace of the Leper King
The three-tiered temple mountain of Baphuon
Chau Say Thevoda Thommanom
My buns were a little sore after climbing the steps at Ta Keo
The jungle overgrowth at Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm Ta Prohm

On our second day we headed out with Sol to see some of Angkor’s more remote temples.  Again we felt like treasure hunters as we explored the ins and outs of each temple.  Our favorites from day two were Pre Rup (surrounded by jungle as far as the eye can see), Banteay Srei (with its intricate carvings) and East Mebon (with its stone elephants).  It was also super cool riding our tuk-tuk through the Cambodian countryside and waving at the smiling villagers as we passed by.

At the top of Pre Rup
Pre Rup Pre Rup
Banteay Srei
Banteay Srei Carvings at Banteay Srei
Banteay Srei
Anna making friends at East Mebon
Approaching Preah Khan
More jungle overgrowth at Preah Khan

We saved the grandaddy of them all for our final day.  Angkor Wat is the heart and soul of Cambodia.  It’s the country’s source of national pride.  It’s on its flag and on its beer.  It’s the largest religious structure in the world.  And it’s amazing.  We got to Angkor Wat around 5:00am to get a good spot for its famous sun rise.  Good thing, too, because before we knew it we turned around and there was a sea of people flooding in.  Despite the crowd, it was so worth it to see Angkor Wat at sunrise, as these pictures can attest:

Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat Angkor Wat
Novice monks at Angkor Wat
Sun’s out at Angkor Wat
The humungous moat at Angkor Wat
Heading back for a nap in the tuk-tuk

I had been building up a visit to the temples of Angkor in my mind ever since I bought that Life magazine many years ago, but seeing them in person blew away whatever lofty expectations I may have had. It’s an inspiring place where your imagination truly runs wild.