Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Cambodian Adventure Day Three: Angkor Wat to Phnom Penh

Day three started early... EARLY! Angkor Wat at dawn is supposed to be one of those transcendent experiences that make life worth living... or something like that. So we got to bed early the night before and all set our cell phone alarms for 4:15am. We stumbled out of bed, made some attempt at washing, then dressed and headed out the door by 4:30am. Our tuk-tuk driver was waiting.... in the rain. Isn't this supposed to be the dry season? Ugh. The rain was absolutely bucketing down, as it tends to do here in monsoon country. He said we should wait until about 5am and go then. Sunrise was at around 6am, so we had time. We were NOT pleased about having to get up so early only to be told to go back to bed, but there wasn't much we could do about it. At 5am we rolled back out of bed and fortunately the rain had stopped. We piled into the tuk-tuk and took a very chilly ride out to Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat on a cool grey morning

To be honest... it wasn't really worth the early start. It was cool and wet and crowded; and the clouds made for a very unspectacular sunrise. But on the flip side, it was good to get an early start on the day as we would be heading down to Phnom Penh in the afternoon. (I was right about the whole trip being tourist friendly. Our hotel arranged both the Angkor Wat tuk-tuk ride - $12/day, and the bus down to Phenom Penh - $8 per person.) And it was nice to do all our climbing around before the heat of the day would make us a sweaty stinky mess.

Just wandering around the ruins.

Angkor was more restricted than the previous temples we'd visited, which was comforting. The bas reliefs were roped off, and there were wooden steps built over the stone steps. There were also signs warning tourists not to sit on the Naga railing along the entry way. The most impressive feature of Angkor Wat, in relation to the other ruins, was it's size... it's just gigantic with four concentric areas symbolizing the four eras of creation in Hindu ideology. As we walked towards the center of the complex we were going back in time to the beginning of the cosmos. Well, in theory anyway. As with many of the temples I felt very much as though I were too ignorant to really enjoy it. But we did our best, reading out the descriptions of the bas reliefs as we walked past them...and occasionally reading one that actually pertained to the wall we were looking at!

Bunny and Bobby looking ancient and ruined.

After Angkor Wat we went to Bayon, which ended up being my favorite. It's one of the smaller temples, but by far the most unique. Although all the temples are made from sandstone, this temple looked darker and more blue/green. Maybe it was the overcast sky... but it was just really cool.

Bayon Temple

There were tons of doors and windows and each of the towers had four huge faces carved into them looking in each of the four cardinal directions. So you'd be walking around and look through a window and see faces looking back at you. You don't have to understand the symbolism to appreciate it as just awesome.

a lovely purple flower sprouting up from the ruins

Serene faces everywhere we looked - awesome

After these two show-stoppers, we were ready to go back to the hotel to pack everything up and wait for the bus to the capitol. This was an experience itself. First we were picked up by this tiny rickety looking mosquito filled bus and driven all over town picking up other people. We were really very worried that we were about to spend 6 hours on this tiny thing and I briefly wished we'd splurged for the $12 bus. But eventually it became clear that it was only the bus to pick up passengers & take us to the bus depot... then we'd take a big modern air conditioned bus for the real trip.

The bus depot was one of those places you just wouldn't believe if you'd never been to a third world country. There were a couple of buildings that looked more like rows of garages than anything else, and in the center was just a big ol' dirt lot dotted with garbage and puddles from the morning's rain. The little bus let us off at our 'office' and we waited around on plastic chairs. There were snack shacks and peddlers wandering around offering "Nice cold drink lady?" but everything was severely over priced. $1 for a can of Coke is a bit high in the US, but out here it was just insane. Yeah, it's an import item, but even a small bag of nuts was $1- in Rayong it would be a third of that price. And again, I'm not getting paid in dollars, I'm getting paid in baht, and little splurges like that add up! So we went snack-less. Actually, one of the smarter things I did on this trip was to bring a bunch of individually wrapped packages of crackers, and a bit bag of cashews. They came in handy more than once.

slowly but surely mastering the art of kinnearing

The bus ride itself was a good experience. I highly recommend it as a way to see a lot of a country very quickly. Obviously it would be more interesting to take your time and actually get to visit the villages you pass along the way... but it's better than flying and missing it all completely. Oh, but the bathroom situation... not good. I got confused in my last post... this was actually the trip with the scary bus bathroom & at least one squat toilet too horrible to mention. But when you gotta go, you gotta go, and it you just deal with it. Handi-wipes & packs of tissues are two more essential items for third world travel!

For the first part of the trip the sun was very hot beaming through my window, even with working A/C, so I kept the curtains closed. I used the time to read through Bunny's guide book and get up to speed with Cambodian history. I'm still not completely clear on how everything happened, but in 1975 the Khmer Rouge, a communist revolutionary group, took over the capitol Phnom Penh and forced all of the citizens out into the fields for a grand agricultural experiment. They wanted to return to a purer, more self-sufficient society, but in the process killed millions of their own people, through forced labor, starvation and "purges" of the unpatriotic. I won't go into detail here, but here's the wikipedia article on it.

Just reading the basics gave me a much greater appreciation for the people of Cambodia, and a bit more forgiving of the scamming & overcharging I encountered at each turn. One disturbing trend I noticed was that the average age in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh was about 25 or so, there really weren't a lot of older people... it was a frightening glimpse at the aftermath of a genocide. It's just so overwhelming to look at people and know that anyone over my age would have lived through that nightmare. But I also saw that the people were waking up from that nightmare.

As we drove through the country I saw hundreds of small family farms. Each seemed to have a pond / reservoir in the front of their home, and some assortment of animals or garden. There were chickens, ducks, pigs, cows, horses (ponies actually), dogs and the ever useful water buffalo. There were rice fields and coconut trees, and most homes had big stacks of hay piled up. But there were also schools and towns and shops, and even a long stretch of artists carving Buddha statues out of stone. I didn't get many pictures (I was in a moving vehicle after all), but I can tell you I saw life. I saw families, and children. Chicks and piglets and even a few calves. The people are undoubtedly poor... but they did not appear to be destitute. I almost wished I had more time to spend there, actually talking to people outside the tourist industry - to find out how their lives really are these days. Almost. Based on my current state, I don't think I'm quite cut out to be a traveler!

I've not, however, mastered the art of taking pictures from moving vehicles

We arrived in Phnom Pehn in the evening and were immediately welcomed by the standard greetings "Hello tuk-tuk!" and "Tuk-tuk lady?" We walked a bit away from the crowd of tuk-tuk drivers to find someone slightly less aggressive and told him where we were staying. We questioned whether he knew where the hotel was (the guidebook warned that a lot of drivers will tell you they know where a place is, but in reality have no clue), but he assured us. Over the course of the ride he asked us why we weren't staying downtown by all the other tourist places. We thought he was just trying to get us to stay at his buddy's hotel...and were insistent that we had a reservation and were sticking to it. As he dropped us off outside the Sakora hotel he gave us one last warning... "This hotel... sometimes they do massages upstairs." which, in SE Asia is a thinly veiled code for prostitution. We still weren't sure if he had our best interests in mind, so we agreed that he could wait for us while we went in and looked at the room for ourselves.

Well, sure enough, it was a brothel. There were several young women seated on a couch in the lobby waiting for 'a friend'. But the staff was friendly enough and the room was probably the nicest room I'd stayed in since coming to Thailand. Everything was clean, the beds were comfortable, the bathroom was huge - had a hot shower AND, unbelievably, a bath tub. We went downstairs told the tuk-tuk driver that we were staying, but he could drive us to dinner if he wanted to wait while we checked in. Later, when we came back for the night there was a photo album of the women on the reception desk, and again a different combination of women waiting on the couch by the elevator. They seemed friendly enough, and one even hailed the elevator for us. Of course, as soon as the elevator door closed we busted up into hysterical tears and laughter. It had been a long LONG day... temples at dawn to a brothel at dusk. It certainly is an adventure.

CAG: Code Sweet Chili Sauce

PS - did you really think I would leave without a decent picture of Angkor Wat? ;)


Exuberant Color said...

Waht a beautiful picture at the end with the reflection in the pond. I take it you got your camera fixed, or did you just get a new one? This sounds like a much better day in the trip.

IamSusie said...

You stayed overnight at a brothel! What an unusual, amazing, educational adventure you are on!

gl. said...

i love that poetic symmetry: temple at dawn, brothel at dusk. now THAT sounds like a sweet chili sauce sort of day. yes, i have found snacks, handiwipes & tissues make any travel better.

Rebel said...

Exuberant, yeah - they had it for like two weeks and the day before we left I got a call that it was fixed, it's still a little messed up, but obviously it got the job done!

susie - that's a diplomatic way of putting it! I'd use the words 'terrifying' and 'crazy' myself ;)

gl - again, you say poetic symmetry... I say OMG! I'm in a brothel!!! Insane. I never thought, not in a million years, that something like that would happen, but then it did and it seemed fairly normal given the circumstances.

gl. said...

well, you know what they say: any port in a storm! and it sort of sounds like give the rest of your trip, it turned out to be the best option!