Temple of a Thousand Tourists and other sacred sights
Day 2 - First full day
Written by Alex
We anxiously awaited Bunna this morning, our arranged guide, and as promised he arrived at the Golden Banana exactly on time. But it was not to collect us, but to tell us that his brother had been killed the night before in a car accident and that he needed to return to his village to take care of family matters. But he had arranged a replacement guide and that he apologized for the inconvenience. Um, okay. We were so sorry for his loss, though he seemed quite matter of fact about things. We gave our condolences and said good-bye. Our replacement guide spoke English, had a sweet smirk and we figured, what the hell.
Before we knew it, we were on our way, back to the temples. You learn very early on that the name Angkor Wat describes only one temple complex. It is indeed the most famous, with the quintessential imagine of the three towers in the skyline, but indeed the temples of Angkor are each there own piece of history - one more complex than the next. The question is always how to see them and when. We spent a few moments on route sharing with our guide our priorities – we’d like to see the temples in the best light and with the least amount of tourists. Unfortunately, I think that is everyone’s wish, but we hoped that with a private guide instead of a tour of 40, we could be very flexible with our itinerary. With Patrick’s well planned notes and our guide's suggestions, we started our visit at Angkor Thom. This 3km per side walled complex is said to have been one of the largest Khmer cities. There are 5 entry gates into the complex, though most visitors enter via the southern gate. It is this gate that has been restored with stones and statues from the other 5 gates, in order to give the most accurate scenario for what an entrance may have looked like.
We entered Angkor Thom at the southern gate as well. The causeway into the gate is lined with statues: demons on the right, gods on the left who are representing the Hindu legend of the "Churning of the Sea of Milk". We would become very familiar with this creation story, as it was depicted in many reliefs around the temples. The mighty entrance is the first site of the 4 faces of Buddha. Eager to get in front of the growing crowds, we walked through the gate, found our tuk-tuk on the other side and headed to the jewel of Angkor Thom: the temple of Bayon.
Completely engulfed by the jungle when it was first excavated in the early 1900's, Bayon is majestic. With its 54 huge towers, all holding the compassionate face of Buddha. There is a thought that the faces are that of the king who commissioned the work. The temple is like a huge Lego structure, full of depth, with little empty space. The stories begin the minute you walk along the boards of the southeast corner, where the depth of relief work is truly outstanding. The history of a people is clear as day - and you can slowly follow the carvings like a moving picture. It is also here that we first saw the empty spots where the carved images of the Buddha were destroyed during period of Hindu revival. These spiritual buildings morphed to fit the needs of their human owners - the influence is evident around every corner.
After Bayon, we explored the remaining structures inside the Angkor Thom complex like the Royal Palace and the Elephant Terrace. The mid day sun was beginning to dampen our energy and our enthusiasm. It was the perfect time to head for the comfort of shade and lunch. Our lunch break was chosen for us, at a place that fed the drivers and guides and probably gave a commission for each tourist you brought in. But the food was good – as we settled into Cambodian cuisine like stir fried noodles and vegetable soup. Fresh fruit shakes are of course also part of the menu and we never go too many hours without one. The heat of the day was wearing on us a bit, even in the shade, but we refreshed ourselves with an afternoon siesta in the hotel, before returning back to the temples at around 3pm.
After lunch we headed to Ta Prohm - the temple now made famous by Angelina Jolie's Tom Raider movie. It is also a favorite of visitors because it is the only temple that has been left to jungle. Supposedly, when the temples were first re-discovered by the French, they were all at the mercy of the jungle and quickly falling to pieces with the weight of the roots and heavy jungle foliage. The force and power of these trees is apparent at Ta Prohm and uncontrolled, wild energy that envelopes these ruins is incredible.
After Ta Prohm, the energy was low and we were growing more dissatisfied with our guide. He seemed listless and uninspired by his work and it was up to us to pull the information out of him. We were so spoiled in Machu Pichu with Freddie, that we had rather high hopes for something similar here in Cambodia. The afternoon session ended at Bakheng, what we have now re-named as the “Temple of a Thousand Tourists” – the it spot to watch the sunset above the outline of Angkor Wat. A good climb up, the view although vast was overrated and plagued with camera toting tourists (us included of course!) Realizing too that there would actually not be much of a sunset today , we chose the “off the beaten path” way down – the path the poor elephants used to carry tourists up and down. A bit more pungent than the way up, we were alone the whole way down. It was heavenly.
We had decided we would not hire our guide for the next day, and Patrick was already planning his speech. Once in the tuk-tuk, our guide suggested we change our 5am wake-up for the next morning and that gave us the opportunity to simple cancel the whole day. Without a peep he agreed and a minute or two later asked the driver to drop him of on the corner – seems it was close to his house. He seemed quite relieved to have the day off tomorrow.
Written by Alex
Somewhere in Laos I ran out of body lotion. I kept hearing that Siem Reap was a traveler’s dream – with all kinds of amenities and products from home. Excited to find my favorite Nivea lotion, I headed straight for the fancy pharmacy, thinking if any place had Nivea products, it would be this one. And I was right, but I a found a whole world of products I had never seen. And each one with a fancy name containing the word “whitening”. For the face, for the body, for the arms – all containing a skin whitening agent. Some were simply full of high SPF, helping to keep the skin from getting any darker from the sun. Others contained bleaches and other chemicals that actually whitened the existing color of your skin. Four rows of shelves contained one product after another. At home the shelf would have housed self tanners instead.
Wanting just my regular Nivea, I kept going and looked at the local stores and they too only provided more whitening potions. I learned quickly that whiter skin is preferred and in turn actually suggests what social class you might belong to. Sadly, even here the color of your skin is judged.
Written by Patrick
That night I decided to go try out those local barbecue restaurants very close to our hotel. Alex was happiest staying, so I just walked out and picked the stall that smelt the best. As I sat down, quite a few of the locals took a look at me wondering what I'm was doing there. I soon came to realize that none of the staff was really able to speak English. On top of that there was not a menu to look at. It really looked to me as if I was going to be in for a culinary ride, not knowing what will be served up. Luckily I was able to communicate that I was very interested in bottle or two of cold and local beer, which was promptly served. Dinner arrived and it was a rather delicious combination of vegetables, barbecued beef and interesting local dipping sauce. After I finished, I set out to enjoy a few more beers when I noticed this little kid running around in the restaurant. She was most interested in me because I was a foreigner. I started talking to her, and realized that she was smart or at least very streetwise. I gave her one of our ABC books for children that we carried around for opportunities like this and got to read through the whole book from A to Z. I was surprized by how well she picked up the words when seeing the pictures associated to them. She had them memorized in no time. Later that evening I had a few more beers with the owner of the restaurant who actually spoke English quite well and I learned that she was little more than a beggar sent out by her family to get money. The owner only allowed her to hang out at the restaurant to get her off the street and like me saw that this little kid was quite smart. He hoped that by giving her this shelter she might be able to see past her current circumstances and live a different life as a grown up.