Monday, April 24, 2017

Wonders of the Ancient World; or, my trip to Angkor Wat

Having spent a few days here, I can understand why my friend who was so adamant about my skipping Cambodia entirely didn't like Siem Reap. It's a town that caters solely to tourists--especially young backpackers looking to get wasted. The tuk-tuk drivers are relentless in their efforts to whisk you away. And it's honestly easier to find Western food here than it is to find traditional Khmer food. I had tacos for dinner last night.


Pub Street Siem Reap Cambodia
Even so, there's something authentic about Siem Reap's commitment to inauthenticity, its desire to be either stereotypical Southeast Asia or anywhere but Southeast Asia. Back in Phnom Penh, Rosemary compared Siem Reap's famous Pub Street to downtown Las Vegas, and she had it absolutely right. It's crowded with foreign tourists, the restaurants feature a wide variety of global cuisines, and every sign is lit up in neon.

Of course, it's a lot cheaper than Vegas. Draft beers are $0.50 each!

The reason so many tourists flock to Siem Reap is that it serves as the gateway to Angkor Wat. Or more specifically, to the Angkor Archaeological Park. Angkor Wat is merely one temple of dozens--though it is the largest and most famous of the bunch. One of the more popular times to visit is at sunrise, when the glow brightens from pink to orange over the temple's iconic towers. I hadn't planned on visiting at sunrise, because I'm just not a morning person.

And then I visited at sunrise.

I didn't have much of a choice. I arrived at my hostel in the evening after my long bus ride from Phnom Penh, and a chatty Australian woman, Jess, invited me to sit at her table for dinner (ACYE vegan BBQ for $5!). She was with a less-than-chatty English woman who introduced herself as Mina. After staying mostly silent during the meal, Mina suddenly asked whether I was planning on going to Angkor Wat.

"Yeah, probably tomorrow?"

"Okay, I'm going at sunrise. Let's split a tuk-tuk."

Fortunately, Mina was a wonderful traveling companion. She became less quiet over time, and she's actually quite funny, in a subtle way. We got up at 4 a.m. (ouch) to meet our driver, who took us first to get our tickets, and then to the park. It's a good thing we decided to split the cost of the tuk-tuk, because admission prices to the archaeological park doubled in February, so it's nearly $40 to go for a single day.

Angkor Wat Cambodia sunrise
Angkor Wat itself was the first stop. We stood outside at the reflecting pool with gazillions of other tourists to watch the sunrise--I eventually walked several feet back and sacrificed capturing the reflecting pool just so I could get a photo without another person's head or phone in it.

After oohing and ahhing over the picturesque vista, we headed inside the giant temple, which is remarkably well-preserved. All (or at least most?) of the temples in the archaeological park were built as Hindu places of worship, but later became Buddhist places of worship--and they remain so to this day. They let visitors explore pretty much the entire site--they even let you climb up into one of the towers via some very steep stairs--and it took nearly two hours to get through it. Lots of opportunities for pictures of course. We watched a monkey steal a woman's bag of food. Her fault, obviously. The monkey was just being a monkey.

When we got back to the nearby parking lot, our tuk-tuk driver was gone. He was supposed to stay with us the whole day. We couldn't ask another driver--they were all waiting for other tourists as well. While we were discussing our options, a different tuk-tuk drove in and pulled up next to us. Turns out the pregnant wife of our original driver had gone into labor, so he had to get back to Siem Reap ASAP. But he'd kindly sent his brother to pick us up and finish our tour--which is sort of amazing! If I were about to have a kid, I'd probably forget about everything else.

Mina and I were on the small circuit of the park, which brings you to three major temples, along with a few smaller ones, and takes around half a day to complete. The second temple we visited was Bayon, known for the huge faces carved into its stone towers. They were everywhere, calmly smiling down on us--and the tourists were everywhere, too. Bayon is a lot smaller than Angkor Wat--still big, of course, but cramped in comparison. It was hard to squeeze around everybody else, but we managed it.
bayon temple cambodia

After that it was a few much smaller temples. At one of them we climbed an enormous flight of stairs only to be confronted with ANOTHER FLIGHT OF STAIRS. By this time it was very hot outside, so we agreed to skip the second flight and find ice cream instead.

Ta Prohm is the third major temple on the small circuit, and as our tuk-tuk driver pointed out many, many times, it is where they filmed Tomb Raider. I've never seen Tomb Raider, and all I know about it is that it's based on a video game and stars Angelina Jolie. But I've got good news for those of you who are equally out of touch with pop culture: they could have filmed nothing at Ta Prohm, and it would still be equally stunning. It ended up being my favorite of the sites we visited that day.

ta prohm temple cambodia
While many of the other sites are in clearings or open plains, Ta Prohm is set further back in the jungle--it took about eight minutes to walk there from where the driver dropped us off. It's also in greater disrepair than many of the other temples, which only adds to its charm--gigantic trees shove and twist through its mossy, blue-green stones. I wish I could have camped there for a few days--and this is coming from a person who hates camping.*

I can't remember the name of the final temple we visited, but it was awfully large for a minor site. Architecturally it was more like Angkor Wat, but it was in the same kind of disrepair as Ta Prohm, and it had one long hallway that ran straight through from one side to the other. An unofficial guide attached himself to us and showed us a few things we wouldn't have found otherwise--an elaborate carving of an elephant, a cracked stone door that hadn't collapsed or been removed. We ended up having to pay him, of course, but it was probably worth it, as we would have missed a lot of that stuff on our own.

We arrived back in Siem Reap sweaty and dehydrated. Fortunately, Mina knew of a hotel down the street that would let you swim in their pool as long as you bought something to eat and drink. We bought spring rolls and beer, and I got a comically bad sunburn in these incongruous patches that don't make sense based on what I was wearing. Story of my life. I am the palest human, after all.

Later that evening we had a drink on pub street, and we picked up some souvenirs at the night market. I bought a krama, which is a traditional Cambodian style of scarf. I found a pretty one for a good price, and there's no such thing as too many scarves. This is an objective fact.

Today I was exhausted, so I mostly just relaxed--went to a nonprofit cafe called Fat Panda's and worked on my novel, drank a ginger-lemongrass mojito to fight the cold that's tickling the back of my throat. And tomorrow I leave Cambodia altogether.

Where is my next destination, you ask?

Singapore! My cousin Erin will be there for a conference, so she invited me to stay in her fancy hotel room. How could I resist? I've enjoyed all the hostels I've stayed in so far on this trip, but it will be nice to have some relative privacy for a few days. And it will be even nicer to catch up with Erin, who I haven't seen since we parted ways in Amsterdam in December. We are quite the jet-setters.

*We built cities because nature is trying to kill us. Why would I willingly go spend the night with the snakes/scorpions/sinkholes/quicksand/flash floods/tornados/etc.?


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