Sunrise, Sunset...Sunrise

Trip Start Nov 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 21, 2006

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Thursday, April 13, 2006

Many people I've met who had been to Cambodia said they would never go back solely for the people. I couldn't believe it was that bad, especially after a pleasant (Killing Fields aside) time in Phnom Penh. I can only now assume though that the people who feel that way spent most of their Cambodian time in Siem Reap. I got an immediate taste of the lunacy around the tourist meat market when we pulled into the bus station. The station was swarmed by probably about 100 tuk-tuk drivers who were constantly swelling toward the bus, many holding signs promising they wouldn't hassle us. When they approached too close to the bus, there was a police officer with a bamboo stick to whack them in the leg to get them to move back. It was a good warmup for things to come. Thankfully, Hannah had arranged a place to stay through our Phnom Penh guesthouse so we already had a driver waiting for us. Our driver was Sarat, an amazingly nice guy with excellent command of English, and he would become our driver for Angkor Wat. The sad thing for him is he was too poor to go to school, so despite his language skills the best he can do for himself is drive tourists to temples every day of his life.

Our first day in Siem Reap we were able to go check out the sunset as part of our one-day pass. We were taken where everybody goes, Wat Thom. First you have to climb up a steep hill and then scale the steps to the top of the temple. Either Cambodians several hundred years ago had really tiny feet and really long legs or the Khmers decided that whoever was going to get up to their temples really was going to earn it. Sadly, the sunset wasn't all that impressive because it was too cloudy. We decided to be up the next morning to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat, maybe the most famous temple in the world, the one that is the centerpiece of the Cambodian flag. The sunrise was as spectacular as people said it would be, with beautiful colors making the three spires of the temple glow. Of course the sunrise in Cambodia had the same effect as those in Western Australia, except for the swarms that descended on us were tourists -- mostly Japanese enjoying their vacation behind a camera, running into the picture and flashing the peace sign. I love those guys, they're so goofy.

After the sunrise, Sarat took us to Bayon, a massive temple that has hundreds of the king's faces etched in stone around the grounds (I won't even bother trying to spell the name of the king who had the area built). The etchings in the stone were incredible as well, we could only imagine how much time and effort went into building all the temples on the complex. Incredible. Next was a series of temples that were only one story and whose walls were lined with etchings of elephants and then large bird men. At this point it was 7:45, but in our minds and based on the temperature outside it felt like noon. We were then taken to another large, but fairly undetailed temple that was nice mostly because there were few tourists. It was another one of the temples where you feel as if you're scaling a mountain when you ascend and descend it. At the very top I made a mistake of climbing inside one of the inner temples. Inside was a Buddha and two little kids. I was deciding whether to move in further and risk getting harassed. As it happened, it was like one of those horror movies where someone stumbles into a burial ground or something, waits a minute too long and awakes the evil spirits. As I was deciding my plan of action, the little girl launched herself at me, "You want postcards? Buy postcards! You want to see Angkor Wat? Postcards." I fled for the exit and ran. And that's the problem with Angkor Wat. I loved the ruins at Sukhothai because they were not nearly as touristy and much much much less commercialized. You could calmly wander the ruins and allow the significance of the place to wash over you and contemplate it in peace. It was soothing and I thoroughly enjoyed it. For the beauty of Angkor Wat, I just felt like I was walking amongst a bunch of old stuff mostly. There were too many other people to feel as if you had discovered something and with restauranteurs chasing 50 meters after you and t-shirt vendors shouting at you to buy something from a way's away, it was near impossible to carry on a conversation let alone appreciate the importance of the grounds.

After that stop we went to what turned out to be my favorite temple, what has become known as the jungle temple because it is being overgrown by trees. It is also known as the Tomb Raider temple, because part of the movie was filmed there. Many of the trees are on top of the walls and their roots snake down to the ground 10 or so feet below. The temple is also more ruined because Pol Pot desecrated and stole most of the heads of the Buddhas carved into the walls. Our "guide" who we didn't ask for but took us around anyway showed us one hidden one that was still perfectly intact. There are also 39 towers checkered around the ground, which is 1 km x 700 meters and you can wander inside most of them. From that temple Hannah and I took a much needed break from the wats and the sun and to add on to our four hours of sleep from the night before. We came back in the afternoon to see the main attraction, Angkor Wat. It doesn't look all that big when you start the walk toward it, but after a few hundred meters of walking you realize how commanding the area is. The outside walkways are covered with depictions of the king winning great battles. To get in the temple is the most ridiculous climb of them all. The climb down is even worse. You're a solid 30 feet up (at least) and the stairs are so steep, you could leap down without hitting the stairs. What complicated things was the stones were so hot under the sun you really couldn't use your hand to guide you as you went down sideways. Good times, especially when you love heights as much as myself. The carvings in the temple are even more incredible than all the other temples, and they're everywhere. The views are also great, looking out into the grassy area surrounding the temple and the lake that forms a square around it.

At night, Hannah and I went "downtown" to meet Sherein and Elle for dinner. I was planning on a quiet night with an early bus the next morning and my money quickly being drained on temples and museums. Ha, so much for that. Where we ate dinner was on permanent happy hour so dinner turned into dinner and a couple drinks. While we sat outside, we were joined by Chris, also from Dublin, who was one of the randoms from the Saigon Bar. After we were kicked out at closing time, we said to heck with it and moved to Angkor What? for "one drink." And I know what one drink means in Irish. It doesn't mean "one drink," it means, dig in your heels, dig out your wallet and grab a box of matches because this one's gonna be a barn burner. And oh boy, did the idea of having just one drink go up in smoke awful fast. My weapon of choice was Beer Clang. Not only does it have an ungodly alcohol content of 7%, it's a ripoff of Beer Chang. When you're drinking a downmarket ripoff of Beer Chang, you know you're in for a classy night. The Clangs started multiplying as we listened to such classics as "Hammer Time" and "Īce Ice Baby." It's good to relive the kindergarten days from time to time. Things took a turn though, when Chris and the massive Maori bartender (who played a song just for me -- Green Day's American Idiot) started throwing water on each other. It quickly escalated into everybody throwing water onto everybody and there wasn't a dry soul in the body after about an hour. It wasn't even because it was the Cambodian New Year (and they, along with Lao and Thailand have a tradition of welcoming the wet season, the new year, by throwing water on each other in the streets). We were about to leave around 3 when Bohemian Rhapsody came on. And you can't leave with a bar full of drunk idiots singing along. After that place shut we moved onto the Warehouse, owned by a guy who was at Angkor What? and offered to open his place because he's a smart businessman. I had a good time bothering everybody, especially when Hannah made the claim that the bar was 80% British, and to prove her wrong, walked up to all 20 people in the bar individually and asked them where they were from. I returned triumphantly to tell her it was only about a third British. It made me plenty of friends too, including a Dutch guy who kept buying me drinks. We stayed until about 6, so more than 24 hours after we had woken up originally, and only half an hour before my bus to Sihanoukville via Phnom Penh.

To say the least, I slept soundly on the bus, except for one goofy stop that sent my head launching off the window and then crashing back into it. The window won that battle and I now have a rather unsightly lump over my left eyebrow. After arriving in the capital, I was forced to get a minibus which I shared at one point with 16 Cambodians and a blasting soundtrack. The bus would probably comfortable seat about 9. And clearly the sound system was worth more than the whole car put together. It was just about the only part of the car that worked properly. That and the horn, but Southeast Asian drivers need horns the way Western drivers need, say, a steering wheel. And now that the cultural part of my trip went out with a bang at Angkor Wat, it's time for beaches beaches beaches. Hooray.
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