Shadows and Tall Trees

Trip Start Dec 15, 2009
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28
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Trip End Aug 27, 2010


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Where I stayed
Hotel 89

Flag of Cambodia  ,
Saturday, March 13, 2010

A bright and early start saw Alex and Sarah head out to find some food for the bus journey to Siem Reap. As a welcome change, the lady in the café next door actually resisted selling us something …"No, no, no buy bread here, too much money, you go Kiwi bakery, bread much cheaper". As it turns out we had searched in vain for said elusive bread shop several times before (due to Lonely Planet recommendation …. no wonder they call it Lonely Planet – you can't find anything!). However, armed with directions from the café lady, the mystery was solved and Alex and Sarah found the bakery easily…. inside of a local Chinese restaurant, obviously!

We were soon boarding the bus and bidding a fond farewell to Phnom Penh, an enigmatic city that was at once shocking and endearing to us. $11 each bought our 6 hour transfer to Siem Reap on the Mekong Express. Probably lulling us into a false sense of security, the scenic and enjoyable trip to the most popular tourist town in Cambodia was followed by another tourist con that we again narrowly escaped. Derek was first off the bus and soon spotted a tuk-tuk driver holding a sign with his name on and the two of them went round the back of the bus to retrieve our bags. Meanwhile, Sarah and kids independently jumped off the bus a minute later and spotted a tuk-tuk driver with a “Derek Moody” sign as expected and waited there for Derek to come back. You can imagine the confusion when he returned and walked right past with the first driver and headed for a different tuk-tuk! The second, less pushy, driver had been sent by our hotel and the other driver had been unscrupulously given Derek’s name by the Paragon hotel in Phnom Penh – His ruse was to take us to a different hotel that would’ve subsequently paid him a commission. Nearly worked too, right up to where we got suspicious and asked him “Where are we off to then?”, of course he started asking what kind of hotel we’d like, and so the game was up. Boy, they’re sneaky….

We arrived at Hotel 89 and were greeted with a lovely iced drink and chilled towels – an unexpected and appreciated welcome. It wasn’t long before we discovered that this would be the norm every time we returned to the hotel, whereupon someone would run to the fridge and bring us a glass of cold water and a chilled towel….our kids have never had such clean faces! The hotel staff were truly wonderful and couldn’t do enough for us the entire duration of our visit. They really deserve, and are justifiably proud of, that 97% rating on Trip Advisor. Have you ever heard of a hotel that offers free bed time stories? – No kidding, the stories arrived every evening rolled up in little scrolls for each of us!

Sarah had been yearning to see Angkor Wat at either sunrise or sunset, but taking into account our track record at early mornings we decided that sunset was more realistic. So we were soon back in the tuktuk and on our way to Angkor. As it turns out, if you buy a one day pass after 4:30pm it can be used for both the sunset that evening and again for the following day. We arrived at Phnom Bakheng (apparently the place to watch the sunset over Angkor) and trekked about twenty minutes to the temple at the top of the hill where we found literally hundreds of other tourists with the same idea. The sunset, while pretty, was a little disappointing as the sun actually sets over the airport and not over Angkor Wat.

The following day was one of high expectations as far as our entire trip goes. Angkor was the heart of the Khmer empire, which at its height covered Cambodia and large areas of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam also. The famed Angkor Wat is just one of many temples in the region, albeit the largest religious structure in the world. For some perspective on this metropolis, when London, England had a population of about 50,000, Angkor had more than 1 million residents! All of the other buildings (other than temples) were made of wood and have long since decayed; the right to live in stone structures was reserved for the gods and so the temples have become the legacy. Restoration work has been ongoing since their discovery and still continues (in our photos of Angkor Wat we’ve tried to strategically obscure the prominent scaffolding). One of the more recently discovered temples has been wrestling with nature for hundreds of years, and it appears that nature is winning. The authorities have decided not to intervene too much with the contest and the result was both fascinating and atmospheric, particularly since the tourist traffic was low. Ta Phrom then was where we started our visit, wandering through this 800 year old Buddhist temple while marveling where giant trees have broken down robust structures, their roots appearing to split solid stone in some places, preferring strangulation in other situations. It is hard not to feel an ultimate respect for the power of nature upon discovering  piles of rubble where a particular battle had been won. Ta Phrom lets the imagination run wild and has been the setting for various movies including Two Brothers (a movie about tigers that Lauren loves) and the slightly more adventurous Tomb Raider. Check out the photos for a much better description than we can provide…

Next stop was the Bayon temple within the Angkor Thom complex - another Buddhist temple built in the same period as Ta Phrom and of a similar “Bayon” style. The most notable feature of Bayon is the array of stone faces with their famous enigmatic smiles. Not quite sure why they are all smiling that way but can it really be a coincidence that the golden triangle isn’t too far away??? We had great fun exploring the temple which was again delightfully free of tourists. One aspect that is not so easy to pick-up from the photos is the design intricacy of the interior walls where the fine images carved into the stone make it easy to imagine the splendor of the temples in their prime.

Our last stop was the “mother of all temples”, Angkor Wat. It has been more fully restored, and what Angkor Wat lacks in intimacy, it makes up for in majesty. The style is quite different to Ta Phrom and Bayon. Built as a Hindu temple approximately 900 years ago it displays the many gods of that religion, and, later converted to a Buddhist temple, it was adorned with numerous Buddhas and all the trimmings.  Unfortunately the third regime to leave its mark on this magnificent structure was the Khmer Rouge which attacked Angkor in a bid to destroy all cultural images and national identity and consequently most of the Buddhas have been beheaded. While it truly is a magnificent sight to behold, we were disappointed by the amount of scaffolding and the number of people there, both tourists and touts. Cambodians are justifiably proud of Angkor and Angkor Wat in particular and so its classic image appears everywhere from the national flag to their beer!  I think we were expecting to be blown away and didn’t quite get there, actually enjoying our time at Ta Phrom and Bayon a little more. I think this is often the way when overinflated expectations of famous places set up by marketing materials’ myriad images leave little to be surprised by. Our best moments at Angkor Wat came towards the very end of the day when we ventured around the back of the temple where few other tourists seemed to frequent. We watched the sun descend behind the temple towers while listening to a Donchee (orange robed female monk) and a yaechee (white-robed female monk) chanting and meditating. It was very soothing and peaceful moment with a simply stunning backdrop.

Having become templed-out again we found ourselves with a day to spare in Siem Reap, which we spent wandering through town and browsing the various markets. Highlight of the day was a foot massage which was very welcome after all the walking at Angkor and the markets, but this was not just any old massage. We’ve been seeing the signs for “fish massage” ever since arriving in Bangkok several weeks ago, but never seemed to find the right time, place (or maybe courage) to try it out. This one offered a free beer/pop so we dove in (almost literally). So what is a fish massage? Well, you sit on the edge of a large paddling pool that contains hundreds of a particular kind of fish. When you put your feet into the water they swarm around and eat up all the dead skin! It’s a very strange sensation and initially is almost unbearably ticklish. The ticklishness then gives way to a feeling not unlike pins and needles, which in turn eases and then the whole thing is really quite relaxing. The kids were a little disgruntled as the number of fish attacking, I mean massaging, ones feet seems to increase with the age of the recipient….poor Alex really didn’t receive much attention at all, I guess his feet are just too new!

All too soon it was time to leave Hotel 89 (true to form they kindly gave us silk scarves as a leaving gift!) and catch the bus via Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, a journey that could take anywhere between 12 & 15 hours…..see you in Vietnam!
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Comments

countrybumpkin
countrybumpkin on

OK Vietnam, so far the greatest country my weary feet have travelled. Whether you're biting the heads off Cobra's in Saigon or eating dog in Nha Trang, its got something for everyone.
So to do....
You must must must go to Dalat, and do the 1 day Canyoning trip. It was the single most exhilerating day trip I've ever been on and was about $10.
Don't really see any reasons why all of you couldn't do it. Involves moutain climbing, abseilling through waterfalls, sliding through nature built waterfalls, and rat (optional) sandwiches! I wouldn'd normally preach about anywhere travelling as everyone wants different things, but that day trip could be £100 / head, and you'd think it a bargain!
Hoi An if you want a nice suit made, Nha Trang for the Miami South Beach of Asia, and maybe even the horse races in Saigon if you time it right. And remember to upgrade if you do! As i remember it was the equivalent of 10pence to upgrade at the racing, which gave you aircon, table service and even your bets placed for you! Very few Westerners go, but this isn't a bad thing.
Beautiful country! Think Thailand 20 years ago, and you're close. Actually I'm booking a flight now. Will meet you in Nha Trang on Saturday in the Sailing Club. I'll even get the fish bowls in.....

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