Friday, December 29, 2006

Majestic Angkor Day 2 (Siem Reap - Angkor Wat)

When we woke up around 4:00 or so, way too early for a vacation, we quickly got ready so we could join the others at the guesthouse restaurant. By about 4:45, most of us were assembled, and at just before 5:00, we all hopped on the minibus to take us out to the Angkor Wat temple complex. We had to stop at the entrance where Sarah got out and bought all our tickets. We got the one day version, about $20 or so, that would gain us entrance to all the temples we could want to see. To get an idea of how large the whole complex is, go here.

The bus pulled up to the main temple, and we disembarked and made our way across the causeway into the temple grounds. There were hundreds of others who all were gathering to watch the sunrise as well. After a few minutes, we secured ourselves a decent seat to watch the show.

As we waited, we munched on our box breakfasts (a hunk of baguette and cheese ... how I love traveling in former French colonies. They always have excellent bread.) and got our cameras ready. Gradually, the sky began to lighten over the temple, and the silhouette became more and more distinct. The familiar looking outline of the three tower was what we'd come to see.

As the sun rose, I took an opportunity to wander around a little bit, and ran into a little girl with a pretty slick money making scheme. She had a puppy, and for a mere buck, she let me take a few pictures of her and the cute little fella. We also saw her later on in the day leading around a horse, so she had a real animal racket going on there. But, in a country so impoverished, not a bad way to make a living. I just hope that she wasn't a "prop" for someone less scrupulous. I like to think that she got to keep the money she made off me for a few pictures.

After getting a few decent shots of the temple from a different angle, I headed back to join the group. Sarah gave us a time hack and instructions to be back at the entrance of the temple by 7 AM or get left behind. Melody and I then took the opportunity to check out a bit more of the grounds. It felt almost overwhelming wandering around such an awesome site. Even the throngs of people doing the same thing couldn't detract much from the impression that it made on us. The 30 minutes or so that we had free to roam went way too fast. However, we knew we'd be coming back later that afternoon, and figured that any picture that we missed now, we could get later.

We did get a few good photos, though...the light made for some gorgeous opportunities, especially with subject matter like Melody.

On the way out, we followed a Buddhist nun who was on her way to some prayers or something. We followed her out for a way, before she turned off to join another group inside the temple walls. A short while later, we were back at the front, and loitered for a few minutes before the whole group got back together. We headed over to the bus, and made our way to the next stop, Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple.

The entrance to Angkor Thom, a huge complex with multiple temples, is surrounded by a wall an incredible gate. While the ultimate picture would have been one of an elephant coming through the gate, we just had to settle for one of elephants.

We spent a few minutes getting the history of the Angkor Thom from our guide before going in. The bridge across the moat to the gate is guarded by a Naga on either side (big stone cobras held by monkeys and/or demons, I think). We walked across the bridge, marveling at the construction, and once on the other side, reboarded our van to head on to Bayon Temple.

Bayon Temple is famous for its many
faces of Buddha on numerous towers and walls around the temple. We spent a good hour and a half covering only a fraction of the millions of carvings on the walls.

One of the over 200 faces of Buddha at the Bayon Temple. Facing the cardinal directions, they supposedly radiate "Buddhaness" to the world.

One of the resident Buddhist nuns in Bayon Temple. She was gracious enough to let us take her picture. After finishing the formal part of the tour, we wandered around the site for a while taking pictures. The nun was offering prayers in an alcove with a statue of Buddha and incense. We asked her if it was ok to take her picture, and she actually nodded and posed for the camera. There were several other nuns there in the area, too, and most used the opportunity of tourists asking for pictures to make a couple of bucks in donations to the Buddha. There were several dollars in and around the offerings and incense.

After we finished up at Bayon, we wandered around the rest of the area, passing such things as the full families on scooters (the most we saw was 6 people on one), and the Elephant Terrace (named for the elephants lining the walls and seemingly forming the base for the platform above). We ventured up one of the smaller temples which afforded nice views of the surrounding area.

Lori went up to the very top of the temple for a peek, as the rest of us wandered around a level lower. We spent maybe 15 minutes up there, while the rest of the group sat in chairs down below. Lots of little kids crowded around trying to sell them postcards and other stuff. The kids would come up and, upon meeting with resistance in making a sale, would try to tell you the capital of your country. Sometimes, when they'd ask where I was from, I'd say "Mars." They didn't know the capital of Mars, thought. In addition to the kids hanging around, there were scroungy dogs too.

Ta Prohm, made famous by Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. This was by far the most interesting temple that we visited. Much of the area was still overgrown by the jungle which just gave it a really interesting feel to it. Due to the tropical climate, the jungle grows really fast. Huge vines and roots sprawled all over the stone facades like huge gray snakes. I imagine that it would be really creepy to be stuck there at night.

On the way out, we ran into yet more kids trying to make sales. These little girls charged me a buck to take their picture, and a group of them followed us all the way back to the bus. They would have gotten on, I think, if they could, so persistent were they. Seeing that really makes you appreciate growing up in the USA. We are truly blessed.

After hitting three sets of temples all morning, we were ready for a break. So, we drove back to the main area of Angkor Wat temple where there were a few small restaurants. We got some lunch, and hung out for a while before heading back into the temple for a wander around. Before doing so, though, we took a group photo to prove that we were actually there.

As we wandered around for a few hours, we saw a few familiar sights from earlier that morning. The little puppy girl was there, as was her puppy and the horse she'd been leading around when we were there the first time.

We ventured inside the temple and if seeing it from afar was amazing, getting up close was even more so. The sheer number of carvings was incredible. One one wall was a battle scene that stretched for at least 200 feet. There were quite a few people inside, but being early afternoon and the hot period of the day, it wasn't too bad. Later on in the afternoon, as we left, we had to fight our way through crowds of tourists coming for the sunset.

Once inside, a few of us climbed the steep staircase up to the main level. You practically had to use your hands, as the angle was approaching 70 degrees at least. Once at the top, it was interesting to watch the difference between the locals and the tourists as they clambered their way up. The locals, mostly clad in flip flops, would scamper up and down like mountain goats. Most of us tourists were more careful to keep three points of contact (or maybe that's just us who've been so indoctrinated that every possibly dangerous event must be thoroughly checked to minimize risk...) and make deliberate steps. It made for a funny contrasts.

While we wandered around, we ran into several monks who were there on their one day off a week. They were just hanging out, so we asked if we could photograph them, and then stayed and chatted for a few minutes. It was pretty interesting, as their English wasn't too bad, and a couple of them had cell phones. I guess it wasn't quite what we expected.

Finally, after a half hour or so up top, we decided to head down. Carrying a backpack and my good camera made me think that we might be better off using the steps with a railing. It took almost a half hour to make our way with the rest of the crowd to the edge, held up a bit by a Korean woman who was having some understandable vertigo. Eventually, she made it down to the cheers of her friends. In the US, they'd put that off limits because there would have been a lawsuit by now, and it wouldn't meet the ADA standards...not much in Cambodia did, come to think about it.

Once back on the ground level, we linked up with Sarah, and headed out to find the rest of the group, and move on to our next stop, the Landmine Museum.

We drove a short distance through the countryside to the Landmine Museum, a museum set up by a demining expert to showcase the horrors of the mines and other dangerous unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam War and Khmer Rouge eras. Most of the guides are amputees who were wounded during chance encounters with mines. Our guide (picture) was no exception. It was an educational experience, as one of the displays showed how difficult it is to see mines and booby traps when they are set up in the jungle. Tripwires, mines, old mortar and artillery shells, spikes...the Khmer Rouge especially were devious in their emplacement. Many times, if the victim wasn't simply blown up, he'd run into other deadly obstacles trying to escape.

After the mine exhibit, the group did a little shopping at the souvenir store (shirts to bring attention to demining activities), and I spent some time looking at a mural of life in 1976 ) and watching a small parcel of puppies. One poor little fellow barfed up his lunch as he sat in a Playskool type plastic wagon. As I watched, a little boy came along and began to torment the mother dog and babies as they were trying to eat. It sort of looked like the boy wanted some too...

Finally, we headed back to the guesthouse. We cleaned up and rested a bit before heading out for supper to the Temple Bar. I decided to try the Australian steak, thinking that a slab of grilled meat would be delicious. And, the slab of meat I got would have been delicious, had it been grilled. Instead, it looked to have been boiled...not quite what I expected. Still, it had been a long day, and we were all pretty hungry, so I didn't complain. Certainly, the price was right (about 4 dollars for the whole meal). After supper, we went to the trendy "Blue Pumpkin" coffee shop and relaxed a bit upstairs in their all white "looks like it should be in an Ipod commercial" room. It had beds along the sides that you could sit on, and according to Erik Trinidad of TGT2004, free wireless internet access. Not too bad. It was a nice end to a great day.

Majestic Angkor Day 1 (Dave): Mr. T's Wild Ride

4 Nov 06: Singapore to Siem Reap, Cambodia

After the previous day’s trip to Malaysia, I went to grab a bite of supper at a hawker stall, and then checked and send a couple of emails (and updated the blog). I wandered around for a while, before heading back to Bugis Backpacker’s to hit the hay.

Up at about 6, I left to make the most of a few hours before having to fly. I went out for a quick wander through Little India for an hour or so. After passing a place that sold curried fish head and graffiti indicating that a particular wall was not a restroom, I spent a fair amount of time looking at the detail on the different Hindu Temples in the area...fascinating, to say the least. In addition to the Hindu Temples, there was an interesting mosque as well, right next door to a place called the Hasbiyallah Cafe, which, due to the suspiciously close spelling to a certain Lebanese group that caused a lot of trouble over the summer, I did not stop for a cup of coffee. Instead, I went for a cup of coffee and bite of breakfast at Coffee Bean, a Starbucks-ish coffee place. I read for a while, and then headed back to the hostel to finish packing up before check out. With about 30 minutes to spare, I decided to take a quick run over to the Raffles The Plaza hotel to confirm our reservation for about a week later, and to get a feel for using the MRT (metro) system. I wandered around for a few minutes and took a few pictures, before finding my way to the hotel. As it turns out, it was a good thing that I checked, as the reservation I had made on line apparently wasn't registering. After reconfirming, I headed back to the hostel.

The airport transfer guy picked me up promptly at 11, and before 1130 I was at the airport and checked in. I browsed the airport bookstore, blissfully chock full of English titles, and made a couple of purchases before heading through immigration into the shopping mall like atmosphere of Changi Airport.

In all my travels, I don’t think that I’ve ever been to a nicer airport. Clean, well designed with nice spaces, artwork, convenient food and shopping areas, free internet access, it’s a great airport if you have to be stuck somewhere for a while. Most of the good stuff is past immigration. Even the way that they handled security screening was efficient. Instead of having one or two security checkpoints, each gate had its own screening station that would be manned one hour before the flight. I thought that it worked pretty well. Of course, other security measures were in place as well, such as the teams of Gurkhas patrolling the airport with their MP5s and wickedly curved kukris. I felt pretty safe.

After clearing security at the gate, it was just a short while before boarding the flight to Siem Reap. I spent the time filling out my immigration paperwork, handed to me on the way into the gate. The flight was heading on to Vietnam afterward, so I kept a copy of the paperwork for when we’d head there a few days later. The flight was only a couple of hours, and before long, we were descending over the greenery of Cambodia.

Siem Reap International Airport was pretty small. The planes park, and everyone gets off via the rolling staircase and meanders to the terminal. All around me, folks were stopping to take pictures of themselves with the plane in the background before moving into the customs and immigration area. Since I had a visa already and had nothing to declare, I got through pretty quickly. I changed about 15000 yen into 900,000 riels or so and went to find a ride into town.

I didn't really know how much to expect for a taxi, and didn't want to get ripped off any more than necessary. But, I needn't have worried.

Just as I came out of the airport, expecting to be confronted by a seething mass of taxi drivers, legitimate and otherwise, there was a small taxi stand. I walked up to the counter, and asked the guy what it would cost to get into town.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"Bun Nath Guest you know where that is?" I replied.

" many bags do you have?"

"Just one, and this small backpack."

"OK. I think that a motorbike will do fine for you. That will be one dollar."

Stunned, as I'd been expecting much more, I forked over the cash, he gave me a ticket, and called over a young man in a pair of blue pants and a light blue shirt.

" is your driver, he'll take you into town." He said. "Have a nice stay."

"Thanks." I replied, and walked off with the motorbike driver.

Thy (pronounced "Tee"), was his name ("As in 'Mr. T,' the movie star?" I asked, getting a sort of blank look in return. "OK...guess you've never seen the show The A-Team, eh?").

Thy grabbed my bag and put it in front of him, and I climbed on the back. Not having been on the back of a motorcycle since my Scouting days at the Vise Family Farm, I wasn't quite sure where to hold on. Eventually, I got to the point where I felt relatively comfortable, and not like I was going to drop off in the middle of the road at any moment. I just said a prayer, and told myself, "Well, Dave, that's why you got that travel insurance."

In a moment, we were off, driving out the airport parking lot, and into the afternoon traffic of Siem Reap. Thy was a pretty skilled driver, weaving his way in and out of the sporadic traffic. The whole way in to town, he kept up a lively patter about what we were seeing on the sides of the road, and a little bit of his personal history. I found out that he aspired to becoming one of the official Angkor Wat tour guides, but was having a hard time breaking in due to a lack of connections. I guess that there's an old boy network still at work that makes for job security for those who already have the jobs...

Bun Nath Guest house wasn't too far away, and we were there within about 20 minutes. As we drove in, Thy mentioned that he was for hire if I wanted to have him take me around, and could scare up a few friends with bikes too if we wanted to go for a look at other temples on our free day. I told him that I'd think about it, and check with Melody. I also asked him if he would show me around, if after checking into the hotel, Melody wasn't there yet. He was done for the day at the airport, so he agreed.

As I checked in, I discovered that, sure enough, the Imaginative Traveller group that Melody and Lori had joined in Thailand hadn't yet shown up (they were stuck in a traffic jam traversing a mud hole at the time...hopefully a story to come.). So, I dropped off my stuff, grabbed my camera, and headed out with Thy to see sunset over Tonle Sap lake to the south.

We took a right onto the airport road, drove about 50 meters, and turned right again onto the main drag through town. Before long, we were out of the downtown area, and speeding to try to beat the sun before it hit the horizon. We had to make one quick stop to get some gas from the strangest gas station I'd ever seen. It was a cart with about 3-4 shelves of glass beer bottles filled with gasoline. Thy gave the proprietor some cash, and the guy dumped a liter bottle of gas into his tank. A few seconds later, we were off again.

The road wound through some woods before emerging on a broad plain that led to the lake. Ahead of us was a lone hill that overlooked the lake. Just before the hill, Thy stopped so that I could pay about $20 to get a boat ride on the lake. The transaction complete, I hopped back on the bike, and we headed to the boat launch where I handed my ticket to a young boat driver, and got on. Thy waited as I went out with the driver and his assistant, an even younger kid of about 8 years old.

It was perfect timing, as the sun was a handspan or two above the horizon as we left the dock. We meandered past a series of houseboats. In fact, the place was a floating village that actually moves with the lake level. The Tonle Sap Lake feeds into the Tonle Sap River, which, for part of the year actually flows backward into the lake as snowmelt from the Himalayas dumps into the Mekong. That, combined with the rainy season, makes for a veritable "Waterworld" as the village moves to the north end of the lake. Then, as the dry season occurs, and the water level drops, the village moves south. In any case, it was pretty cool.

I rode around on the lake with the two kids for about an hour, including a brief stop to get a can of coke (one for each of us) from a floating Vietnamese convenience store. While drinking it, the part of my brain that is normally germophobic started asking, "Where's that can been?" Visions of shistosomes and filaria and other creepy crawlies that certainly creeped and crawled in the lake just a few inches below me started creeping and crawling into my consciousness, which I promptly sprayed with a can of mental Raid (tm) before they convinced me not to drink my Coke. For those of you who know my aversion to Pepsi products, you can be assured that it was, indeed, a Coke. And, though it had been sitting in a box filled with tepid lake water, and was barely colder than the ambient temperature, it was good. For me, there's something about Coca Cola bought outside of the US. It may just be my imagination, but they seem to taste better, almost like the "old Coke" of my youth, especially if it comes in a bottle. This tepid Coke tasted great.

Eventually, we had to start heading back, because I expected Melody and the group to get back sometime around 7 PM or so. I had left a note at the front desk and in the room, but didn't want to miss her. So, we headed back.

Thy was there on the bank as we arrived. I tipped the drivers a couple of bucks, and hopped back on to the back of the bike. We headed off into the gathering dark, dodging other bikes, cars, and people wandering on the road. I kept my sunglasses on, since the bugs were out in full force. I managed to swallow a few of them, but not enough to ruin my appetite. The streets of downtown Siem Reap were even busier with tuktuks and motorbikes more than once bringing traffic to a stop on the way back to the guesthouse. Once back, I gave Thy $5 for his services, and we arranged for him to meet us to take us around on our free day 2 days later.

Back at Bun Nath Guesthouse, I discovered that the group hadn't yet made it in. While I waited, I sat with an Angkor Beer, and drank the customary toast to my buddy Greg, a fellow traveling man. It was another 2 hours before everyone arrived, coated in fine red dust from the drive. After Melody took a quick shower that left the bathroom red (she was washing red dirt out of her hair and ears for a couple of got everywhere), we headed out to join the group to go out for supper. I finally met the leader and a few of the other group members as we hopped into tuktuks to ride into town to the Soup Dragon restaurant. Dinner (Khmer food) was delicious, tasting all the better because we were all pretty famished. The restaurant overlooked the main tourist district of Siem Reap, and had a nice view of the restaurants and bars along the street.

Once we finished and paid the bill, we headed back to the guesthouse where we hit the rack. The next day would be starting before the sun came up, as we were headed for the awesome temples of Angkor Wat to see the sunrise. It was good that we got our rest, as the next day was a long one.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

New Site for you to check out

Last week, on my way to work, I ran into a gentleman at the 7-11 carrying a Canon 5D camera and professional looking tripod. As an amateur photographer (and, admittedly, suffering from a bit of camera lust), I stopped briefly to introduce myself and chatted with him for a moment. Mr. Sakai, is a local professional photographer; I had actually seen some of his work at a kitschy furtniture store down the street from us. Having been thoroughly impressed with the quality, I was excited to meet him in person.

His work is almost exclusively local to our neighborhood, and he has a website where he posts daily pictures. From the looks of it, hes out there every day, and practically all day, rain or shine. Ill permalink him to our blog when I have a chance, but in the meantime, if youd like to see his pictures, and get a feel for some of the beauty in the area where we live, go here.

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Friday, December 08, 2006


We're up in Tokyo for the weekend for a Christmas party, and had a chance to meet up with some of our friends from the Majestic Angkor trip, Aussies Lauren and Brent. Brent's been on the road for about 4 years now, and Lauren for 2 or so. They came to Japan for a short visit, mainly in Kyoto, and are on their way out today. So, we met them in Shibuya at the Hachiko statue, where millions of other people had the same idea.

Still, we managed to find them, and had a nice evening of yakiniku at a place a couple of blocks away. After a couple of hours, we unfortuately had to say goodbye, as they had to catch a train back to thier hostel. We lingered at the Starbucks overlooking the famous crossing and the zilions of people that cross it.

As far as our trip and the blogging goes, we are (I promise) working on getting more posted. I've been posting pictures to the flickr site, so follow that link to get a look. We've got several posts in draft form, and hope to get them done quickly.

More soon!