Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Majestic Angkor

Who here has heard of Angkor Wat? Raise you hand. Maybe you recognize the iconic picture below...

Angkor Wat and the Temples of Angkor are the MUST SEE of Southeast Asia. Comparable to the Great Wall of China, or Machu Piccu, or the pyramids of Egypt.

So I arrived to the town of Siem Reap, the jumping off point for the extensive set of ruins that are ALL over the region. Angkor Wat is just one of the many scattered around the landscape. Others include the beautiful Ta Prohm where Angelina filmed part of the Tomb Raider. Bayon temple which has some 200 faces carved in stone looking in all directions, and there are many many other great temples. Even if you don't think you would get a kick out of walking around old buildings, you could find something to peak your interest. I bought a three day pass for the park ($40 USD) and started my exploration.

You can't ride your own motorbike here, only bicycle, so the idea is that you have to rent a moto driver or tuk-tuk driver to scoot you around to wherever you want to go. The prices are definitely negotiable and vary on how far out into the sticks you want to go. (Although don't go TOO far out in the sticks, as Cambodia is the most heavily landmined country in the world- stick to the path!! ) My first day I went to the Bantaey Samre and Banteay Srei temples, the most out of the way temples. These were especially rewarding because they are known for their carvings of sandstone, which is a popular material used on the temples. The carvings are intricate, detailed, and beautiful. Although I had no idea what they meant, so I bought a book off a kid there and started to get a gist for what the whole area is about. The carvings are mainly for the Hindu god Vishnu (the Protector) or Shiva (the Destroyer), but they are scenes with many other characters and meanings. It is really fascinating, especially since I know nothing about Hinduism or Buddhism. Cambodia and some of the countries around adopted India's Hinduism, but definitely put their own twist on the religion. It is evident when you look around at the temples.
This day I also stopped at the Landmine Museum. It was a reality shock. The place is FULL of deactived bombs, grenades, landmines etc... that have been collected by this one man. This gentlemen was in the Khmer Rouge army and later switched to fight for the Vietnamese when they invaded the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (he ended up shooting at his own uncle who was fighting for the Khmer Rouge while this gentleman was fighting for the resistance with Vietnam- !!!) Most of the weapons were manufactured and dropped by the USA, Russia or China, with other nations in there. The museum also gave a comprehensive idea of the reality of the situation in Cambodia. What actually happened. The Who's Who. What war life was like. What is the current situation of the clean up (it is estimated that at the current rate of clearing the Landmines in Cambodia, it will take 100 years to clear all the area!). And things of this sort. It was an eye opening experience, but also enough to twist you stomach into knots.
 I think disagreement in the world is inevitable, but war like it is conducted is NOT necessary.

That was my first day, and I took it quite easy, I was working myself up for the real biggies, like Angkor Wat. The second day I did what is called the Big Loop. I intentionally left out the Angkor Wat area, and Ta Prohm- the two biggest complexes. I visited all the rest on the second day. This included small temples crumpled and overgrown by trees and nature. Moat enclosed temples. Mountain temples with amazing views of the area. Temples left for nature to do it's job. As well as the Prohm temple where Angelina Jolie filmed her movie (she is a popular topic here). They were all special feeling, some more interesting than others, but all respectable. I also read up on each one as I visited and learned quite a few things of the ancient Angkor Kingdom. I also started to form a very small understanding of the ancient gods and importance of religion.

The third day started early when I rented a bike and biked the handful of miles to the temples at 5 am. I arrived in time for the sunrise over the Angkor Wat temples. Although it was a cloudy day and the sunrise was uneventful, I was able to imagine how beautiful it would be to see a clear sunrise over these massive and majestic temples, and also able to get an early start in the cooler weather! I was enchanted by Angkor Wat and spent 4 hours at that temple alone. I never thought I would, but I was very interested in the carved wall murals that where along the entire out wall of the Temple. It included murals of certain ancient stories like the "Churning of the Milk Sea" which created the elixir of life. Also the "Heaven and Hells" mural where there was some real graphic depictions of their version of hell :-/. Also the conquering of Vishnu and his avatar Krishna over the demon gods. Things like this that never peaked my interest before suddenly occupied hours of my time. I dissected the story from each and looked at the carvings- it really was cool!!! Angkor is also the Hall of Thousand Buddhas where there were "that many" Buddhas at one point when Buddhism took over Hinduism in the Angkor kingdom. There was so much to see at this one temple and I was enchanted. It deserves the praise it gets!!
I then biked over to the other complex Prohm Wat. This is a larger complex and contains many smaller temples, all really different. This place is different because it is comprised of many different kinds of buildings. The Royal palace which the King at the time built is surrounded by a moat and in front of that is the Elephant Terrace. The Royal Palace was beautiful, but the Elephant Terrace in front of it was quite unique. The terrace was about 10 feet tall and stretched for at least 1/3 mile, it had carvings of elephants at each staircase entrance. Also there was the Leper King monument where the Leper King statue overlooks a maze. The maze below has walls about 20 feet high all carved with gods and demons and everyday life scenes.

After the Elephant Terrace, I headed over to Bayon Temple. This is a very crowded temple because King Javayrama VII thought his face, with a mixture of the Buddhas facial characteristics, was the greatest thing (as most Kings do). 

The temple has pillars with 4 sides, most containing his face on each side, directed toward every imaginable angle. It is estimated some 150 face are in this one temple. The temple felt like a maze! It was cool to go through every nook and cranny and find your way out and in. I really enjoyed this temple, and it got even more fun when the daily afternoon rainstorms started. Biking back 8 miles in heavy downpour was invigorating!

My experience with the Temples of the Angkor Kingdom was extremely rewarding, and I'm very glad I got a chance to visit them. I would recommend anybody in this region to go and see them!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

1 week to go

Hey all,

I really hope you've enjoyed reading my blog so far. I have exactly one week to go til I'm home back in the good 'ole US of A.
I'm not fully caught up on my blog, meaning there are some things I haven't gotten a chance to write about yet, but I'll try and finish that up. Is there anything anybody wants to know before I depart from this region of the world. Any aching pain in the side questions that just HAVE to be answered??? :-)   Feel free to ask!

I hope all is well with you, and we'll see everybody soon!!
Life is bueno!!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Frogs and Grasshoppers in Cambodia

After saying goodbye to Allen and Isabelle and the kids, I had booked a flight with the relatively cheap Air Asia and was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Phonm Penh, Cambodia. Budget airlines like Air Asia make getting around this region cheap and easy, if you have more money than time.

I arrived to the capital of Phonm Penh during a rain and thunderstorm, which are all the more prevelant as we are approaching the wet season. I stayed here with a couchsurfer named Patrick, and his roommate Brendan. A few days spent here in the capital city with their friends and seeing the sights. One of which being the Tuol Sleng Musuem.
First of all, ignorance is not bliss in this case. Maybe you have or maybe you haven't heard of the Khmer Rouge, I know it's possible some of my generation hasn't, but you really need to inform yourself here on the not-too-long ago past of Cambodia. Search Khmer Rouge or Pol Pot Regime.
The history of the Khmer Rouge plays a major part in what a traveler would do go and see in Cambodia. For example, the Toul Sleng Musuem is acutally a former prison. This is where the brutal Khmer Rouge, S-21 section, tortured and killed thousands and thousands of Cambodian people. It was an eerie place to go and witness the torture chambers, prison chambers, and torturing equipment. I can't explain too well the feeling you get when going to this kind of place, but I did ask myself, "Is it even possible for human beings to do this to eachother, and for what?"
During the Khmer Rouge it is approximated that the genocide commited under the nasty Pol Pot killed about 2 million Cambodians.  Approximately 50% of the Cambodian population is under 25 (the people born young or after the Pol Pot regime).
But, from what I've seen, the Cambodian people stand strong and have plenty of smiles to give.

With my two couchsurfing hosts Patrick and Brendan, we decided to leave for the weekend and head toward the coast of Cambodia. We went to Kampot (which I revisited because I like it so much) town. It is laid back town on an river estuarary near the ocean. We did the trip with their motorbikes, and it was definitely a fun time. We revisited some of Patrick's old fav's since he used to work in this town, went for a swim, played mini golf etc... and also headed to some caves in the nearby mountains. The landscape there is quite gorgeous! Also this town is famous for it's PEPPER! It is supposedly world class, and it does taste amazingly good!

After Kampot and Phonm Penh, I headed east to Kratie. Kratie lies on the might Mekong river, which every time I see that river on this trip, I'm still amazed at how beautiful and massive it is. I headed here for a particular reason, I wanted to see the Irrawaddy fresh water dolphins that inhabit the Mekong river in these parts. Some of you may remember my story of the pink fresh water dolphins in the Amazon, and this is a similar experience, except that the dolphins aren't pink, but you get the sense that it is somewhat wrong. You are 100's of miles from the see and you are surrounded by tons of dolphins in the river. I still think it is just so cool!! :-)

As for Cambodian cuisine, it isn't too spicy, they love soup here, and it is good. But Cambodians differ a bit from their neighbours because they find nothing wrong in eating things that we would consider weird. Any time you ride on the bus and you stop at the restaurants for a bathroom or food break, there is undoubtedly the lady there selling the Cambodian bus-snack favorite, grasshoppers. I tried them, they are actually quite good!!!

Cambodia continues...