Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Back to Bangkok

It was a long day getting from Siem Reap to Bangkok. About 10 hours all told, including three hours with a Redbull-chugging driver to the Cambodian-Thai border; two hours of waiting in lines for visa processing (including some confusion when the wrong exit date was stamped on my visa, and I was given an arrival card instead of a departure card); to the utter chaos on the Thai side where we waited with fellow tourists, all emblazoned with a type of “sticker” on which were written varying codes and numbers which quickly became clear bore little to no significance of any sort of order or timing, and we were jammed into pickup trucks where we drove to another dropoff/pickup point where we waited for the regular buses… into which we were jammed for the final five hour trip.

For the last leg, Mark and I shared the front seat of the bus with the loud, mouth-breathing driver, and so had front row seats for the death-defying Cannonball Run we seemed to be in. Pushing 120 and passing with abandon, our two-lane highway operated predominantly as a three-to-five laner, with all the forced shoulder driving. It was exhilarating. We drove with the empty-tank light on for the first third of the trip, but when we stopped for gas and passengers tried to get out for a pee, the door was slammed in their face. No break! But then another check engine light or something came on a while later, and we had to stop again, and the driver relented that we could all stretch our legs for 5 minutes while another tank was filled.

Back in Bangkok, it was surreal to be back where we’d started our adventures just over two months ago! And the hotel we’d booked for the night ended up being literally around the corner from our first guesthouse! So we knew the area well.

We only had the day in Bangkok before our south-bound night train, so we explored somewhere new: the modern malls of Bangkok. But like no mall I’ve ever been in, ones with Maserati and Valentino… it was bizarre; sparkles and jewels and fancy, oh my! Not exactly my life, or even one that I aspire to, but sure was interesting walking around, looking at all the shiny excesses…

Bangkok tuk-tuks are the funnest!

It's hard to convey how bright and shiny (and loud) the stores were.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Temples of Angkor, Part III: Angkor Wat

We saved Angkor Wat, the crowning jewel of the ancient Khmer empire and a symbol of Cambodian pride, for our last day in Cambodia. It’s hard to take in and appreciate a place you’ve wanted to see for years, a place that has gained near mythical status in your plans and daydreams. I remember when Google Earth was new to me, searching for and finding Angkor; the massive rectangular ponds of the West and East Barays and the moat around Angkor Wat visible from such a great height. I imagined what it would be like to be there, what it was like on the ground. And now I was here! And so was the rest of the world!... It was a busy place… but the massive complex was big enough to absorb all of us, and we lingered around long enough that when the tour groups went for lunch, we even had some hallways to ourselves for a while.

As with any structure planned/conceived/commissioned by any King, Angkor Wat was architecturally designed to elicit awe. And succeeds. I can’t even imagine how much more impressive it would have been in its original splendor.

Grand approaches, corn-cob shaped spires building to one central towering spire, palatial corridors flanked on one side by hundreds of feet of bas reliefs and on the other by rows and rows of pillars creating a tunnel of receding rectangles, mesmerizing in their symmetry. Just awesome.

I'm so glad and thrilled that my parents came halfway around the world so we could experience Cambodia together. It was an amazing two weeks, and I'm sad to see them go!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Temples of Angkor, Part II: Bayon

We began our second day of temple exploring with the Bayon, the central temple of the ancient capital city, Angkor Thom. We entered through the south gate, over the long causeway spanning the wide moat, past hundreds of expressive-faced Hindu deities (warring devas and asuras), and under the giant faces keeping guard. As with Ta Prohm, Bayon has been partially and faithfully restored. Thousands of hefty sandstone and laterite blocks have been reassembled back into their impressive bas-relief friezes, narrow hallways, sacred chambers and towers. The temple has 54 spires, each with 4 faces, for a total of 216 half-smiling faces. I overheard one guide say that if the face features open eyes, that symbolizes protection; half-closed eyes means imagination, and closed means meditation.

After Bayon, we had lunch, resting in the shade from the exhausting heat (which is both humid and dry at the same time, somehow), then explored the Terrace of the Elephants, the Terrace of the Leper King, and the treed grounds of the Royal Palace and Phimeanakas.

In the evening, to relieve our weary feet, my mom and I (voluntarily) submerged our feet in a tank of hungry fish, so they could nibble on them. It was so ticklish, and I handled it for the allotted 20 minutes, but barely. But my feet are so much smoother now!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Temples of Angkor, Part I: Ta Prohm

I don't even know how to begin talking about Angkor. It's the reason most people come to Cambodia, or at least, people don't generally visit Cambodia without visiting the temples. They are famous for so many reasons. They are architecturally, historically, and culturally significant, and just plain, mind-blowingly awesome. It's one of those bucket list things; something of near mythical status, like the Pyramids or the Coliseum that you just have to see with your own eyes.

There are over a thousand different temples spread out over hundreds of kilometres, but three main ones: Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom (specifically the Bayon), and Angkor Wat. It is possible to see the "big three" in one day, but we're stretching them out over three days to take our time, and this is turning out to be a good decision, because the stifling heat and oppressive crowds make it difficult to take in very much in a day!

We began our first day with Ta Prohm. It's a relatively small complex compared to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, but still more massive than I even imagined! And so incredibly crowded. I have to say my excitement dwindled with the busloads of tourists shuffling along roped pathways and posing on platforms, and also the extensive scaffolding supporting many of the structures, but we did end up finding a few quiet spots to sit and appreciate this amazing place. And really, it would be impossible to take the magic away. Ta Prohm is, hands down, the most amazing place I've ever seen. Massive, reptilian tree roots from enormous strangler figs and flanged buttress roots of towering silk wood trees have grown up and over and through the ruins, in an incredibly beautiful and intricate entanglement. Just awesome, in every sense of the word. Even without the roots, the ruins are beautiful. Intricate and surprisingly intact carvings of figures, plants, and animals (even a stegosaurus!?) cover pillars, walls, and tumbled piles of sandstone blocks.

After Ta Prohm we took in a few smaller temples (see map): Prasat Suor Prat, Chau Say Tevoda, Thommanon, and Ta Keo, where my dad mastered his fear of heights and climbed the narrow and dizzyingly steep steps to the very top; and we also stopped to admire the amazing Victory Gate which marks the eastern entrance to Angkor Thom and features the calm, beatific, buddha-like faces of those at the Bayon temple (which we would see the following day).

I had been getting "lazy" in the photo taking department, but then I got my new DSLR, and then Ta Prohm happened, and that combination led to... umm... 628 photos... (In my defense, I was testing out some new settings!). Anyway, here are just a few. But if you want to see two hundred more, check this out!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Lazy beaches and angry seas

Getting to and from paradise requires a 2-hour (on a good day) boat from Sihanoukville to Koh Rong Samloem. The boat trip there felt exciting at the time, but the return trip made it look calm by comparison. We pulled away from our secluded bay to warnings that the trip would be rough. Rough pretty much sums it up. The sea was angry that day, my friends, and while mountain-sized freighters ploughed stolid and unflinching through the Gulf, our tiny vessel was tossed, its occupants tossed, and one little girl’s breakfast too (twice). It was much like that Log Ride at the amusement park; we’d crest a swell and plummet into the trench, smashing into the next wave, soaking all aboard the S. S. Nausea. And when the swells rocked us from the side, there were several times when we tilted more than 45 degrees and back again, water a mere inch or two from the gunnels, and I thought for sure we were going into the drink. But otherwise, it was a blast. We arrived, wobbly-legged and water-logged at the pier, salt crystals coating our skin.

But it was well worth it for three days of bucolic, blissed-out relaxation at the aptly named Lazy Beach. Our rustic bungalows were steps from the beach, with a never-ending soundtrack of crashing surf. We watched sunsets, hammocked, read, played cards, swam and snorkeled with the fishes, marveled at moonlit waves, spotted the Southern Cross amid the constellations, and ate delicious (but expensive) food.

And when I say the bungalows were rustic, I mean simple, thatched roof, no screens on the windows, mosquito net; the “works.” The generator turned on after sunset, and ran until sometime in the night, giving us lights for a few hours. But there was no fan, so we had to leave the un-screened windows open. After patching a few holes in our mosquito net, we settled in the first night, but made the (in hindsight) epic mistake of not tucking in the net around the mattress, and we had a bit of a security breach in the night, when we were visited several times by unwanted visitors. And by that I mean something ewwy scampered across me three separate times! Gecko, mouse, rat, I don’t know, and I don’t really care, but I did. not. like. it.

So the next night we tucked in the netting under the mattress, and it kept the visitors out of the netted area, but sometime before dawn we heard scuttling and scampering up the walls and in through the window, and then a cacophonous ERH-HEURH! ERH-HEURHH! cut clear and sharp over the crashing waves, in the darkness beyond the mosquito net, inches away. It sounded big, like something much larger than the giant geckos we’d seen in the restaurant. I was imagining something like an oversized monitor lizard with a taste for human…

Though there was just the sheerest of materials between us and this unknown intruder, I felt safe in the netted bubble, as in no-YOU-go-find-out-what-it-is-I’m-not-going-out-there!… So it squawked a few times, then was eerily silent for a while, then we heard more unsettling scampering, and I saw one of those giant geckos on the window ledge. We found out later from the owner that it probably was one of the big geckos, and that they do produce a sound that is much larger than you would think. And it was probably also said gecko (or perhaps a mouse, or a rat, or perhaps an army of all three) who left scratch and bite marks in our soap, tried to eat my straw hat, left poop on the bed, ate through our nearly-new rubber dry bag to the sealed power bars (our emergency food!), and even through a plastic bag to nibble on some playing cards! Beasts!

But again, it was all worth it for three days of paradise…

The calm boat ride to the island

Our bungalow


Saturday, January 19, 2013

A silver pagoda and a golden quilt

We visited the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh, and though I marveled at the ornately carved surfaces and colourful, crumbling friezes and giant Buddha footprints, I was distracted. You see, on the way there I met a quilt. A beautiful, golden yellow quilt with a striking medallion pattern and pineapples in the corners. I saw it in a store called Mekong Quilts, which is an NGO that trains and employs women in Vietnam and Cambodia, offers them a fair wage (often double what they made before, allowing their children to stay in school), and provides a safe and comfortable working environment. We had seen another of their stores when we were in Hanoi, but we didn’t even look at prices, because we’re backpacking, and a quilt is not exactly a practical purchase, and shipping is expensive.

But we were in Phnom Penh, and my parents had brought an extra suitcase to send home some other hand-made souvenirs we’ve gathered, so what’s a little king-sized quilt thrown in there? So I looked at the tag: $227. Impossible. You can barely buy the supplies back home for that much, let alone the work involved. And we all know it’s going to be another decade before my quilt is done. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. So after our visit to the Silver Pagoda we went back and bought it. But it gets worse. They had a special promotion: spend $300, get a free small quilt. So… we bought a second quilt (an baby quilt), thus enabling us to just qualify for that free quilt. So that’s three quilts. But they vacuum pack them so they become (relatively) small, so… really, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. Ok, it IS as crazy as it sounds, but come on, where else can you get such a beautiful hand-made quilt for that price and support a great cause at the same time?

A purchase bigger than my entire backpack. Oh dear.

I should have taken a picture of it in the store; here it is on the double bed in the
hotel - it will be better on our queen bed, and will still have some nice overhang.

Pineapple designs in the corners  :)

Friday, January 18, 2013

Parents in Phnom Penh!

Crossing the border into Cambodia, it was clear that we were in another country. When our bus stopped for a break, it was greeted by a throng of children, barefoot and dirty, grabbing our arms and pleading for money as we tried to get off the bus. Hard to reconcile. The roads were quieter too, I think possibly because fewer people can afford cars.

We got to Phnom Penh in the afternoon with hours to spare before my parents flight landed, so we had time to walk around and get our bearings and pick up some fruit to share with them. Phnom Penh is not the metropolis I expected to find after the drive from the border. It's fancy stores and shiny towers belie the dusty poverty just beyond the city borders. But there is grittiness in the city too. But the overwhelming impression I had, right away, was the friendliness of the Cambodian people. So warm and open, and they love to laugh!

We went to the airport later that night to meet my parents, and there were long hugs and happy tears all around. They were here! They had just flown halfway around the world and they were here! I was so happy to see them. We chattered the whole ride back.

The next day we feasted on some fruit and then hit the pavement, walking all over the city, through the busy city streets and up to the Central Market. It was refreshing to see things through their eyes, and realize what things I've grown accustomed to. We walked through the market, haggling and bargaining, sat by the river, got some massages at Seeing Hands, walked around Wat Phnom, and then back to the Night Market, snacking on street food, topping the day off with a tuk-tuk ride home. Mark and I were exhausted! But they had energy and exuberance to spare. Goodness, they're going to run us ragged!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Camera shopping in HCMC

We arrived in the bustling metropolis of Saigon in the afternoon to shiny, modern buildings towering over dusty vendor stalls, traffic lights that were obeyed (to some extent), and park areas filled with people engaged in fitness activities of all kinds. First order of business: start looking for a new DSLR.

We geared ourselves up for hours of searching, comparing, and deciding, but as it turned out there were several camera stores not very far from our guesthouse, and I had a new camera within two hours of arriving. Because my lens wasn't broken, I was able to just get a new body, and I ended up with the exact same camera, just 8 years newer, and 8 years more awesome. And all for a fraction of what I paid in 2005. Though I begrudge having to spent hard-earned trip savings to replace my camera, the thought of not being able to capture what I'm seeing was not a happy prospect. The point-and-shoot works in a pinch, but it just doesn't capture the light or the range of tones the way a DSLR can.

New camera happily in hand, we had ample time to wander and explore this lovely (but expensive! ouch!) city. The Reunification Palace, whose metal gates were stormed by tanks on April 30, 1975 ending the Vietnam War, is a perfect time-capsule of 1960's architecture and interior design. Very, very funky.

Mmmmmm bakery