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.

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