Siem Reap, Cambodia
I arrived at the Luang Prabang airport with overweight luggage in tow expecting to pay for the excess baggage. According to my Vietnam Air ticket the charge for excess baggage in economy class was $1 per kg so I figured I would have to pay about $25. WRONG! When I got to the counter, I was checked in and the lovely young man at the counter kindly informed me that I had excess baggage of 25kg. “Yes. I know. I will go ahead and pay the $25 charge.” “One moment Madame.” I stood there and waited and contineud to smile. Minutes later another gentleman came over and again told me I had overweight luggage. I went through the drill again smiling the whole time. Then the second fellow dropped the bombshell. “Madame. We charge $4 per kg so you will have to pay $100. WTF?!
My smile quickly faded and I looked long and hard at the fellow. I immediately smelled a rat. This was not Russia, and the folks in Laos had been so darn nice I found it hard to believe. “Uh my ticket says the charge is $1 per kg. I would like to speak to your manager.” “Madame, I am the manager. That is the charge we make in Luang Prabang.” My ass it is! I asked to see the regulations that allowed them to charge in excess of $1 per kg as set out on my ticket. “Madame. That will take some time and we do not wish for you to miss your flight. You must pay the $100.”
I again stared at the manager as he continued to smile politely. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. I walked off and debated what to do. The man approached me and told me that the payment could be made in his office. “Yea. I am sure it can.” With no other recourse, I glared at the guy, nodded and followed him to the office. I made the payment and told him I hoped he enjoyed the next month on me. “Madame. You misunderstand.” “No buddy I don’t. Congratulations. You got as much out of me as the Russians.” “Madame? “Never mind. Have a nice day.” With that I snatched my boarding pass and passport from the pint size blackmailer and walked over to security muttering about another “theft”.
When I reached Siem Reap, I was in much better spirits. I was greeted warmly by the Cambodian guards at passport control, given a visa after paying the $20 fee and found my luggage. (Yep still on a streak with only AA as the luggage losing culprit.) I met my driver and we were off to my hotel, which is located slightly north of Siem Reap proper and closer to the Angkor ruins, including Angkor Wat. The hotel provides a free tuk tuk service to and from the hotel to Siem Reap proper so it was no hassle at all to stay a little ways out of the noisy old town area.
I got settled, met briefly with my guide to go over my tour of the Angkor temples the next day and then decided a little exploring was in order. I asked for a tuk tuk and minutes later the rains started. And this was a grade A premium tropical downpour. I decided to grab a drink in the bar and watch the rain. It was at least refreshing and eased the incredible humidity somewhat. Anyway, after about an hour, the rain eased and my tuk tuk driver and I were speeding down the road towards Siem Reap old town. Now the tuk tuks in Cambodia were once again different than tuk tuks I had taken in Indian and Laos. These tuks tuks are more like a rickshaw towed by a motorcycle.
The streets of Siem Reap were much like the other streets I had seen in Southeast Asia. Lots and lots of vendors selling food from street carts. Lots of open air restaurants. Lots of street markets. And hundreds and hundreds of people milling and walking about the streets. I was never sure if these folks were just hanging out or part of the street market scene.
Anyway, we crossed the bridge over the waterway that divides Old Siem Reap from the newer section and had the tuk tuk driver drop me off at the “Old Market”. The Old Market is the largest tourist market in Siem Reap and is teaming with a produce and meat area (VERY smelly), silks, jewelry, massage booths, statutes, scarves, scarves, scarves and yes more scarves. In fact, it became a joke during my four days here. Everywhere I went a woman wanted to sell me a scarf. As I entered the market, “Madame you want to buy scarf?” As I entered an entrance to a temple, “Madame you want to buy “scarf”. As I walked down the street “Madame you want to buy scarf?” And then there were the variations on the theme. “Madame you buy scarf here.” “Madame you buy scarf when you come out.” “Madame I remember you. Buy scarf from me please.” It was incessant. It was never ending. And at times, rather humorous. (Hey these folks were just trying to make a living.) In fact, I am certain as I type this female tourists all over Siem Reap are being barraged to buy a scarf.
So once I entered the Old Market, I wandered around and got my bearings. I purchased a few items (by now my suitcase for purchases was so stuffed I didn’t think I could fit much more into it) and was about to head down the street to Pub Street (Siem Reap’s famous 2 block long area packed with restaurants and pubs) when the rains started again. ****! And as usual, I was totally unprepared. I dashed into the closest bar, the Central Cafe, ordered yet another drink and waited out the rain.
By the time the rain let up, it was dark so I wandered down the street to the Noon Night Market and the Angkor Night Market. More of the same stuff I had seen at the Old Market. Very disappointing as I thought the markets in Siem Reap were similar to the markets in Vietnam. Uh that would be a big fat no.
However, one thing that distinguished the Angkor Night Market from the other two markets is that it was a true outdoor market (walls but no roof) and not just an open air market (covered but with no sides). The down side of this was that the rain could quickly destroy the inventory so the tenants had jerry rigged (or is it MacGyvered?) a roof using plastic tarps to cover the area. Now while the idea was a good one, the actual result was not so good. There had been so much rain that the tarps were weighted down by the water and were dripping all over the inventory and the patrons. It didn’t take too long for me to decide enough was enough and it was time to head back to the hotel.
As I walked back to my pickup point, everyone and their mother wanted me to eat in their restaurant. I had already eaten at my hotel during the rainstorm and was not hungry so I had to decline, but I planned to test the food waters on Pub Street later in the week.
I continued to walk down Pub Street and passed numerous Dr. Fish Massage booths. These places were fronted by fish tanks and patrons sitting with their feet in the tanks and little tiny minnow fish swimming all around the submerged feet. Their motto: “If our fish cannot make you happy, we will not charge.” Curious, I stopped at one and found out that the fish feed (this is not for the squeamish) on the dead skin on the bottom of your feet. Uh come again. But as I watched, the little fishy swirled around and nibbled at the patrons’ feet. Mmm I’d have to give that one some thought.
Anyway, I found my tuk tuk driver (uh actually he found me) and we set off back to the hotel through the darkened, wet streets and past the open air markets and food stalls and puttering of motorcyles and other tuk tuks. When I reached the hotel, I called it a night figuring that Tuesday would be a long day of “templing”.
So my guide, Yousroeun, and our driver, Weuthy, (no relation to Joe Withee Bull), set off for the Angkor complex. We made the requisite stop at the entry gate to purchase my day pass and to have my picture taken (first time on this whole trip that my entry ticket required me to pose for a photo. With my pass in hand, we set out for the jewel of the Angkor temples, Angkor Wat. Now quite frankly I had been highly anticipating this visit, but when I arrived, it was kind of a “meh” moment. My first sight of Angkor Wat did not wow me like the Taj Mahal or Abu Simbel. It was gorgeous, don’t get me wrong, but in my opinion I did not find it the architectural marvel that all the guidebooks and sites rave about.
Anyway, after my first underwhelming impression, the site grew on me, but it in no way approached some of the other sites I have visited on my trip. Now a little bit about Angkor Wat. The temple was built for the King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his state temple and capital city. Angkor Wat is clearly the best preserved temple of all the temples at the Angkor complex. The temple was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, but when King Jayavarman VIII, a Buddhist, ascended to the throne, he converted the nation to Buddhism along with the Angkor Wat temple. The temple remains the world’s largest religious building.
As we approached the temple, we passed over the wide moat that surrounds the temple (Hindu temples always have a moat around them and since Angkor Wat began as a Hindu Temple it naturally had a moat) and crossed through a laterite wall that also surrounds the temple.
Now while I may have been underwhelmed by my first sight of Angkor Wat, the extensive bas-reliefs (shallow carvings depicting Hindu gods) and the numerous guardian spirits adorning its walls were utterly fantastic. The carvings depicted scenes extracted from Hindu tales and the most impressive was the section found in the eastern portion of the third gallery entitled “Churning of the Ocean of Milk”, which tells the tale of demons and gods churning the ocean to produce an elixir of immortality. (Uh can I buy some of that at the market instead of a scarf?)
Anyway, we wandered through the galleries and outside to the tallest tower, which now allows visitors. I climbed the vertigo inducing and very narrow stairs straight up 42 meters to the top and once there, did not want to leave. Now this was impressive! Everywhere I walked there were little alcoves with carvings and of Hindu gods, goddesses, demons and warriors. And it was here that I could finally see the intricate carvings and designs on the towers to actually appreciate the workmanship. In addition, the views outside to the Angkor temple area were spectacular.
I finally climbed down and my guide and I wandered around the moat to the lake that fronts the temple. On a sunny day (as it was when I was there), the image of the temple is reflected in the lake. The image in the sunlight is stunning.
So after the requisite pictures, we left Angkor Wat and headed over to Ta Prohm. Along the way, we made a brief stop at Prasat Kravan, a very small temple along the road to Ta Prohm. It was actually quite pretty and there was no on else at the temple so it was very, very peaceful.
We then drove on to Ta Prohm, which turned out to be my absolute favorite temple of all the temples I visited at the Angkor complex. Ta Prohm, was the temple featured in the Lara Croft Tomb Raider movie. The temple was constructed by King Jayavarman VII in AD 1186 as part of a a massive program of construction and public works. Jayavarman VII constructed Ta Prohm in honor of his family. The temple’s main image, representing Prajnaparamita, (the Hindu god of wisdom), was modeled on the king’s mother.
After the fall of the Khmer empire in the 15th century, the temple was abandoned and neglected for centuries. As a result the Kapoch and Spung trees that surround the temple have actually taken root inside the temple resulting in a glorious jungle atmosphere as you enter.
The temple has purposely been left au naturale (yes, that choice of words was a nod to BNL), because the temple was one of the most imposing temples that had best merged with the jungle, but had not actually become a part of it. The roots of the trees encircle the towers, the carvings of celestial nymphs and the walls of the temple like a giant snake And as you walk through alleys and towers of the temple, you step over smaller roots crawling all around the stone. It was imposing, fascinating and romantic all at the same time.
And as luck would have it, we hit the temple at noon when all the tour groups are at lunch. As a result, we were able to avoid the crowds as we wandered around. In addition, Yousroeun knew hidden areas in the temple where people do not visit and out of the way spots for perfect pictures. I absolutely adored Ta Prohm and would have been just fine if I had not visited any other temple for the rest of the day. It was truly fantastic.
Yousroeun finally dragged me from Ta Prohm for some lunch before we set out again for an afternoon at Angkor Thom and the monuments of The Bayon, Preah Palilay, Phimeanakas, the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King all located within the walled compound of Angkor Thom. The compound is surrounded by an enormous moat and was built in the late 12th or early 13th century by King Jayavarman VII as royal palace. The south gate which we used to enter the complex was really amazing. The bridge leading to the entry arch is filled on either side with huge heads of mythical figures staring out at you. Each face and expression of the face was slightly different and was great fun to look at. We passed under the arch and walked about a ¼ mile along a huge promenade to the interior of the compound.
First stop was the Bayon, which served as the King’s temple. There are 54 towers at the temple and 4 faces of the Hindu god Avalokiteshvara carved in the likeness of King Jayavarman VII on each tower. In addition, there are numerous bas relief carvings depicting life in the Royal court and battles against the King’s enemies.
Yousroeun and I wandered around the enormous complex, up and down staircases and through narrow halls past shrines and carvings. As we walked, hundreds of parrots in the trees squawked. Apparently, they are very active at night, but during the day spend most of their time in the trees. I tried to get a picture of the birds, but no luck.
Not only was the temple really beautiful, it was also a lot of fun at I mugged with the numerous faces carved on the towers (as I did at Buddha Park in Vientiane, Laos). I was able to take some pretty funny pictures by positioning myself, at Yousroeun’s direction, at just the right angle with the carvings. There were shots of me shaking hands with the King, shots of me nose to nose with the King and shots of me mimicking the facial expressions. It was a riot.
Yousroeun and I exited the Bayon and walked along a large grassy area past a giant Buddah and the area that served as part of the King’s residence. There is not much left of the building, but we were able to see remnants of his court and swimming pool.
We then moved on to Preah Palilay, a small temple of unknown origins. The temple like most in the Angkor complex, was built out of sandstone. Because the temple contains Hindu and Buddhist elements most people believe it was built during King Jayavarman VIII’s reign.
Next up was the Phimeanakas, which is a three tiered temple pyramid with a tower on top containing bas relief carvings depicting scenes from Hindu fables. According to my guide, the king spent the first watch of every night with a woman thought to represent a Naga (a Hindu serpent god) in the tower and during that time, not even the queen was permitted to intrude. On the second watch, the King returned to his palace with the queen. If the Naga did not show up for a night, the King’s days would be numbered, and if the King did not show up, the kingdom was in peril. (If you ask me it just sounds like a good story to step out on the Queen.)
Anyway, the best part of this place was that I was able to climb the three stories to the top of the pyramid. (Hey any time I can climb something is a fun day for me.) The view from the top was amazing, but getting down was a little tricky because the stairs were so tiny, narrow and close together. (These places were built for rather small folks.)
We walked from Phimeanakas past the Bauphon (a man made lake) to the Terrace of Elephants which was truly spectacular. The terrace contains beautiful carvings of royal elephants with warriors atop the elephants. Apparently, the area was at one time used by the King for receptions and also for viewing processions and performances, including fights between elephants. (Go figure.) Unfortunately, the area where processions and performances once took place below the Terrace is now a road filled with tuk tuks and bicycles (as well as the occasional bus) moving people around Angkor Thom.
The last stop of the day was the Terrace of the Leper King. This place was a little anti-climatic. The flat area contained a solitary statute of what many believe is King Yasovarman I, who allegedly died of leprosy. The statute has mottled marks all over it leaving the impression that it depicts the disease. The inscription on the statute indicates it is the Hindu god Yama, the god of death. So others believe the terrace was simply a royal cremation site. No idea which theory is correct, but the terrace was not particularly remarkable in my opinion.
By now, we were closing in on sunset (and my collapse from exhaustion), but Yousroeun insisted we return to the Bayon and the moat surrounding the Bayon for a picture at sunset. And I am really glad he insisted on it. The light on the Bayon was spectacular and the image of the temple in the water was absolutely stunning. Another good call by my expert guide. And with that, Yousroeun, my driver and I headed back to my hotel. I was spent. I also wanted to get some rest because the next two day were going to be mentally exhausting as I was heading to the village of Koh Ker (pronounced Kaw Kay) for a village homestay.
The village of Koh Ker is about 100 km from Siem Reap. The village also neighbors the temple complex of the same name (which I planned to visit on day 2 of my stay). I had planned the homestay in the village through the guiding company I had used for hiring my guide and driver, Hidden Cambodian Adventures. The company actively supports the two villages of Koh Ker and “New Village” located near the temple complex through the installation of wells for drinking water and irrigation.Hidden Cambodian Adventures makes this possible by soliciting grants and donations from tourists and others and by educating tourists about the needs of the Cambodian rural communities. Both villages are extremely poor and have neither electricity or running water, however, the company maintains a rather modest guesthouse in Koh Ker Village which guests can book for a night to see true village life and for easy access the next day to the Koh Ker temples. I had been corresponding with the owners of Hidden Cambodian Adventures and thought it would be highly educational to include the trip in my Siem Reap stay.Anyway, when we reached the hotel, I said goodbye to my driver and guide and was off for some much needed rest before my next adventure in the morning.