A Travellerspoint blog

Siem Riep, Cambodia

Angkor Wat: Wat a place!

sunny 93 °F
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Almost two years ago, I sat in a immaculately clean library in the basement of the Smithsonian's Sackler and Freer Gallery of Art. It was a rainy cold day in Washington yet in this climate controlled bubble you would never know it. Buried in books with titles like - Khmer Art and History, Bayon & the Art of Ancient Cambodia, I was researching Bayon - a temple complex near Angkor Wat - for a class on Southeast Asian Art. The research paper never really amounted to much - at its core it was just Ivory tower academia - but for the three days I spent at the temples of Angkor, it was golden.

The Angkor Wat Archeological Park is a sprawling series of temples, ruined cities, and monasteries covering kilometer after kilometer outside of the once sleepy town of Siem Riep. The park is named after the most well preserved temple-monestary (or wat) - Angkor. Between the 9th and 13th centuries, the Khmer Empire was the preeminent power in Southeast Asia and indeed the world. Their ancient capital centered in Angkor Thom (in the current Angkor Wat Archeological Park) was THE largest urban center in the pre-industrialized world and served one of the top trading centers in all of Asia....

Today, not much remains of the civilization. Their writing, written on paper, deteriorated with the humid tropical climate. The Siamese & Vietnamese pillaged first and later the Europeans conquered the region until only remnants of the culture remain in the modern Cambodian people.

We saw the place three ways over there days for what comes out to be about 30 hours. First, through an epic 20 mile bike ride through the humid heat of the Angkor Temple complex (fun, but not repeated). Next, a tuk-tuk ride to the more remote sites and the last day walking through Bayon, Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat, and an unnamed temple we nicknamed "the Temple of Doom". I could rattle on forever about the art, the amazing sights, annoying street children, or any of other sights or sounds of the place.

Instead. I feel pictures will do it more justice.

Expect a photo post soon.

Posted by achamy 02:22 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia angkor wat siem thom riem Comments (0)

Kep & Kampot, Cambodia

Crumbling French villas and delicious crab

all seasons in one day 85 °F
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We left Phnom Pehn reluctant. The town was not aesthetically the most pleasing or had the most fantastic of sights. But the placexcitement, and cosmopolitan charm unlike anywhere we had been thus far. Where Hanoi was a frenzy, a New York of the orient abuzz with motos and dizzy markets. Phnom Pehn was a smiling clamor moving forward against a delicate past. It was complicated. It was interesting.

We headed to Kep & Kampot, two twin French resort towns who hit their heydey in the 60s only to hbe depopulated during the Khemir Rouge and subsequent political instability. After a short bus ride to Kep we settled on nesting for the night on Rabbit Island. The place was primitive with only a few hours of generator electricity but stunning. Tropical forest mingled with blue beaches that looked at the coast of Cambodia at the distance. We really didn't do much of anything that day and a half. Floating on the sea, reading books, and eating their delicious barbequed crab... we managed to really just take it in and reflect on the past few weeks.

It was, however, the wet season and abruptly one afternoon a earth shattering storm blew threw - only lasting maybe an hour at most - but producing torrential rains and even a waterspout over the ocean!

Kampot - the sister town - was equally a lazy holiday. We spent two days there... Exploring spectacular ruins of French villas - including an old abandoned casino from the 1950s.... That without a doubt was a highlight. Just imagine: a ghost town where the wealthy drank whiskey and lounged vacant and eeriely covered in mist! The other day we rented motos on the search for elusive pepper plantations (we never found them!) but saw the rolling hills and rice paddies of the countryside.

Our guesthouse itself felt more like a resort than a backpackers place. It straddled the Mekong River just outside of Kampot city. And had a yoga house and even a music recording study. The place was equipped with a fully stocked bar and delicious food to boot! It had this awesome communal atomosphere and we spent hours just talking to other visitors - Canadians, Germans, and Australians.

The next day, we took a long bus ride to Siem Reap (the town nearest to Angkor Wat). It would have been long any day but this was a national holiday so instead of 6 hours it was more like 10. It wasn't too bad though. We seemed to have learned to read despite the shaking of buses, enjoy Thai and Cambodian music videos, and each others company. We arrived hungry for the dizzying 3 days of exploring the temples of Angkor!

Posted by achamy 20:35 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia kampot mekong crab kep Comments (2)

Phnom Pehn

Phnomenial Place!

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Three days and four nights

We crossed into Cambodia from Laos with a bad taste - literally and figuratively. The border - notorious for its corruption - made us pay $7 extra to our visa cross! Yes, Seven dollars (the equivalent of several meals, a few nights at a hostel). True, we had likely been overcharged, we had felt the bite every tourist faces of being over charged but the sheer gall of the borders guards astounded us. Moreover, we were singled out as Americans - the Japanese and European tourists paid no such toll. Regardless, our extra "fee" WAS perhaps deserved. Border guards are underpaid (if they are paid at all) and they probably HAVE to charge some tourists or they would be unable to support their families. Nevertheless, the experience left us feeling uneasy.

The uneasiness quickly migrated to our stomachs when our bus stopped for lunch - a strange assortment of bland tasteless curries, overcooked soups, and bitter seafood. We consoled ourselves with Magic crackers (salines stuffed with chocolate) and Cambodia pop music videos until our arrival in Phnom Pehn.

Phnom Pehn was simply... dare I say "Phnomenal"! We stayed in a sprawling hostel reminiscent of an Escher painting - complete with narrow hallways and seemingly impossible doors... The next day we spent lazily adventuring through the town. Jenni and I went to the Royal Palace - a strange Asian take on Versaille -complete with frescos of dancing Elephants and Buddhas- and the Royal Museum - with fantastic sleeping Vishnu sculptures and Tantric Buddhist sculptures. It was a lazy but wonderful time.

The next day, we rented a tuk tuk for the day and saw a few more sights. Most impressive was a huge wat with a lake famous for its 10,000 Buddha sculptures. Most depressing, without a doubt was the The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum - a former high school used as a concentration camp and prison (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime. Imagine a 1950s starkly depressingly modern school turned into a torture facility. In the United States, walls might have been bleached and the descriptions accurate but toned down but in Cambodia shakes were laid in place, photographs descriptively horrific. The place was horrific but something everyone should experience. It made me think of other places and peoples - from those Iranian villages massacred by the Mongols to Darfur today - that have no where to grieve. I wondered where they keep their battle scars.

Of course, one of the best experiences in Phnom Pehn was meeting up with an old buddy of mine - Shannon. Between our nostalgic talks about the District and eating absolutely fantastic Cambodian barbecue I felt re-energized. The route down from Vang Vieng to Cambodia was off-putting. We had reached the month mark of the trip - and I was feeling haggard...

Most Cambodians live a very simple, impoverished life - yet they smile. They carried an impossible history but build to the future. Our little squabbles - exhausting haggling and uncomfortable bus trips - should be laughed about. Phnom Pehn was a wake up call, a revival, a spirited reminder to enjoy the highs and lows... and keep smiling.

Posted by achamy 03:55 Archived in Cambodia Tagged art friend buddhist border s-21 hindu phnom penh shannon laos-cambodia Comments (1)

Si Phan Don

Four thousand ways to laze along the Mekong.

all seasons in one day 97 °F

Our last day in Vang Vieng was mostly uneventful.... munching on fried mulberry leaves at an organic farm, learning about silk worms, and generally getting some rest and relaxation. Vang Vieng, is really a lackluster town with some fun adventure sports - tubbing, splunking, motor biking.... Otherwise, we might have stayed a day too long. That said, our ennui left us anxious and excited for our overnight bus (yes, overnight bus) to Si Phan Don - the so called 4,000 islands... Our journey began easy enough, a bus-van to the larger bus station in Vientiane. A small meal of delicious Pho to prepare us for the road...

We arrived on the overnight bus - in a fit of laughter. The thing was a hodgepodge of styles - vinyl 1980s seats, 1970s patterned sheets, and brightly colored carpet. Our laughter was short lived though when we discovered the beds - which due to their minuscule size were assumed to be singles - were in fact doubles! Such is the life of a backpacker! So Amy and Jenni curled up their legs and snuggled close (the beds were made for small Laotians). I, on the other hand, shared my bed with a tiny older Laotian man who promptly fell asleep snoring and kicking me occasionally throughout the night. Clearly, our "sleep" was mostly nonexistent and the next day we were exhausted.

We made it for the island-village of Don Dhet. In the south of Laos, the Mekong widens to such an extent that thousands of islands (called Si Phan Don) form - many are big enough to house small villages and are several kilometers in size. Don Dhet is really a sleepy backpackers town complete with elderly retired hippies, the typical Rastafarian-Australian crowd, and standard European and Israeli adventurers. The rare Irrawaddy river dolphin will occasionally peak its head ( though we never saw it) and mostly people come to the island to find a hammock and sip some ice cold Beer Lao. We followed suit and promptly settled into a bungalow of our own.

For one and a half days we stopped on the island. Relaxed, the day was a lazy haze of watching the Mekong over bowls of steaming curry soup and Laap... Took one epic walk in the heat of the day but had no real sights of note. Don Dhet was one of those stops on a trip without many exciting stories, with no harrowing bus rides or magnificent monuments but... a place so representative of what travel really is about. You see small village life, you rest, you are forced to reflect on your travels thus far - and eventually you pick up your bags and look onward... Thrilled for that next adventure.

Posted by achamy 20:37 Archived in Laos Tagged bus laos dolphin si khong don phan overnight khon muang dhet irrawady Comments (0)

Vang Vieng

A guest post by Amy!

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I was feeling lazy... so Amy wrote up this day:


We rented motos and tried to find this place called the "Blue Lagoon." Little did we know there were about 15 places that claimed to be the Blue Lagoon. The first place we went, we thought it was the Blue Lagoon but we were wrong. We went splunking in these unlit caves. It was insane. I have been to caves in the USA, but they were paved and lit, and usually had about 15 guides walking around, but these were nothing like that. It was a slippery hole, with no lights, huge spiders and we ended up turning back early for fear of being lost forever.

The next place we went WAS the Blue Lagoon. We decided to hire a guide for this cave because we didn't want to go through the same hassle that we did at the last cave. This was a great idea, because without the guide we would have only ventured half way into the cave. The first part was well lit and there was a reclining golden Buddha. If we didn't have a guide we'd have stopped here, not knowing that we could go deeper into the cave. Our guide took us across all of these rocks, that were more like free form rock climbing than any cave I have ever experienced. We had to climb in, under, and through all of these boulders to get to the "real" cave. The real cave was hands down the most impressive cave I have ever been to, just because we were the only ones there surrounded in darkness, with only our headlamps and guide. There were these crazy rock formations and I felt like a true explorer.

Every time I go to a cave I wonder what it would be like to be the first person to explore it, and wish that I could have that sort of adventure. However, I decided that this was a good trade-off because we got to feel like we were the first people to explorer it and got it all to ourselves, but we didn't have to go through the usual dangerous falling to holes and dying part like the first explorers did.

Riding the motos was an adventure too. When we rode the bikes in Vietnam it was mountain roads and twisty-ness, which was a little scary, but here it was like a mad crazy obstacle course. Cows, turkeys, chickens and children all decided to run in front of my bike at various times, and there were pot holes, mud, and huge rocks we had to drive over. It would have been scary terrain in a car, but on a moto it was like a challenge course. Adam got stuck in the mud once and the Filipino woman we've been traveling with for the last few days fell off of her bike. I kind of fell off mine and half got stuck in the mud too, but I was perfectly ok. It was an adventure for sure. Jenni wanted to rent bikes again today, but she was riding on the back of Adam's last time so she just got to enjoy the ride. Adam, Elaine and I all vetoed that idea. One insane challenge course by moto is enough for me!

Yesterday we went tubbing down the river. It was a little strange because we're in the 'spring break destination of Southeast Asia.' Basically this is like the Padre Island of Laos or Cancun. A lot of people come here to party hardy and get inebriated. That's not really Adam, Jenni, Elaine or my scene, but we decided we should float down the river anyway. I'm glad we did because it ended up being a lot of fun.

We all rented a tube and got in a tuk tuk to take us down the river. When we first got to the river we were overwhelmed because there were two bars on either side of the entrance to the river with lots of dancing people being like 'come drink!!!!' We felt completely out of place. We decided to go to one and check it out and we watched people play musical chairs and spray paint their bodies. It was odd. One of the people who worked there came by and gave us each half of a shot that came from a bottle with bumble bees floating in it. It was nasty.

There was a slide off of the bar into the water, so Adam and I took it and we were on our way. Basically there was a long stretch of river that we rode down with tons of bars all along the way throwing water bottles at us trying to get us to stop there. We stopped at two more bars along the way, but mostly because they had these huge swings. Like huge... Like three stories high huge.. We all jumped off of them and it was a lot of fun to swing like Tarzan across the river, fall in, and then have a tire thrown at us to reel us back into the bar. We also took another slide too.

We met a Canadian, Englishman and Irish guy at the last bar and floated back to town with them since they knew where to get out of the water and walk back to the right place to return the tubes. It ended up being a fun day. It was interesting to watch everyone, get spray painted, swing, slide and tube down the river. We got back to town about 6pm. We showered, ate dinner and then watched some of the season finale of Trueblood on Elaine's computer. Jenni, Adam and Elaine all like that show, but I had no idea what was going on. Overall it was a chill, yet exciting day. It was fun to get the spring break experience that I never got in college, even if I didn't get inebriated when I did it.

Today we're going to an organic farm for lunch and then lounging in hammocks, sipping coconut shakes and writing in our journals. Tomorrow we're heading on to '4000 islands.' Pakse should have internet, but the places we're traveling too outside of there probably won't... considering they don't even have electricity.

Posted by achamy 21:21 Archived in Laos Tagged caves laos blue party farm lagoon vang vieng tubbing splunking organic Comments (1)

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