Cambodia travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Angkor Thom photo roundup

This is a final set of photos of Angkor Thom, the ancient capital city that is the largest site in Angkor.
DSC05857
Bayon’s main tower.
DSC05764
Speeding past another tuktuk on the Angkor expressway (joking).
DSC01440a
Closeup view of a couple of faces on Bayon.

DSC01568
Part of the Terrace of the Elephants.
DSC01562
An entranceway through a wall that surrounds Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace, which sadly doesn’t exist anymore.
DSC01559a
Looking down from the stairs on Phimeanakas.
DSC01532
And looking down from the stairs on Baphuon.
DSC01529a
Some engravings on Baphuon.
DSC01518a
Totem on top of Baphuon.
DSC01508
Stone passageway on top of Baphuon.
DSC01501
More engravings on Baphuon.
DSC01496
Baphuon from the side.
DSC01404
Map of Angkor Thom. I did not explore the sites on the right half as those are mainly small structures.

Cambodia travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Cambodia travel- Angkor Thom

DSC05814a
I’m finishing up posting about my trip to Angkor in Cambodia, and I’ve finally come to the great city of Angkor Thom.

Angkor Wat might be the most famous and impressive complex in Angkor, but Angkor Thom is just as historic and was even more important, given it was the actual capital city where the king resided and ruled from. Unlike Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (Great City in Khmer) is not a single massive complex but a city surrounded by a square wall and moat with many buildings. As with Angkor Wat, it has been uninhabited for over 400 years.

I entered the ancient city from its eastern Victory Gate and as you approach, you get a sign of its significance. The road into Victory Gate is flanked by two rows of small giants seemingly engaged in a tug-of-war with two nagas (mythical snakes) at the ends, while the gate is topped by a massive stone “dome,” flanked by two smaller ones.

The largest and most impressive structure is Bayon, which served as the state temple and is distinctive for its numerous stone 4-headed statues. It’s a massive dark gray stone temple-palace with several jagged “peaks” or towers surrounding a giant dome. Despite Bayon’s slightly menacing appearance, it’s got a “friendly” ambiance because the towers feature sculpted faces with a smiling or serene expression. Each peak is topped with 4-headed statues, which is somewhat eerie. The faces are said to be modeled on Khmer King Jayavarman VII (builder of Bayon), who probably thought of himself as a god. Bayon started off as a Buddhist structure but was altered later when the kingdom became Hindu. Bayon was so magnificent I visited it twice, on my second and third days in Angkor.
DSC01476aDSC01443a

DSC01451
Baphuon is a massive ancient Hindu temple built in the form of a pyramid but a lot of it has been destroyed. Even so, it is one of the bigger temples in Angkor. It underwent massive renovations in recent times.

DSC01486a
DSC01481
DSC01539a
Baphuon from the back.

After exiting Baphuon at its rear, there’s a path that leads into a forested area and a wall that you can go through. I was a little apprehensive when I entered this jungle but I trusted from the map that the Royal Palace and Phimeanakas would be there and that it wasn’t that far from the main sites anyways. Unfortunately I was wrong about the Royal Palace, which doesn’t actually exist anymore (I should have realized that why it’s marked as Royal Palace Area on the map), and I kept staring at my map and looking around expecting to see a palace any second.

Phimeanakas however did exist, being a pyramid with a flat top that you can climb to the top of via a long wooden staircase. Just like Baphuon, it was a Hindu temple and was built during the 10th century, so it has a history of over 1,000 years. It’s much smaller than Baphuon but it’s a cool sight as a compact pyramid in the middle of a jungle. This was also where I got approached by a young kid who started to act like a guide, which I mentioned in a previous post. The boy was followed by several smaller kids, and we all walked a good way before eventually parting with him asking for a small tip, which I gave.
DSC01554

This area is forested but there are small structure and villages inside, which I found out by accident. I thought I was lost at one point until I came upon several soldiers armed with rifles sitting in a village. I was a bit startled and images of being shot or arrested suddenly came to my mind. Of course, I didn’t do anything foolish or suspicious like turn and run. I did something even more foolish which was to take out my map and ask the soldiers by pointing and speaking simple English. Eventually one of them pointed me to the right way.

The reason for the soldiers was because of a UNESCO event that night in which some local bigwigs would appear. Along several parts of the road in Angkor, there were soldiers and policemen. That’s why there was a stage set up with young dancers and performers, as well as tents along the lawn opposite the Terrace of the Elephants, so named for its elephant statues, where Khmer kings would stand and view their armies and subjects.
DSC01571 DSC01565
Solitary building in the forested area behind Phimeanakas.
DSC05834
Child performers taking a break during rehearsal for the night’s big show. Notice the boy in red standing on the right staring at me. Also, notice those pale-brownish towers in the foreground- those are ancient structures as well.

DSC01393a
Victory Gate, the eastern entrance into Angkor Thom.
DSC01401a
Giants engage in tug of war on the two sides of the road into Victory Gate.
DSC01464a
What would Angkor Thom have been like when it was a thriving city?
DSC01449
Nicely detailed deity engraved on a wall in Angkor Thom.
DSC01510
The jungle behind Baphuon.

Cambodia travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Cambodia travel- Angkor Wat again, Ta Keo and a few more

DSC06004
On my third day in Siem Reap, I went to Angkor Wat again. I’d almost wanted to take a break and stay in the city, but then I figured I’d be wasting my time so I went back up to Angkor. I hired a driver on the street, negotiated a price and then set off, this time a little later than the previous two days, which almost proved to be bad.

I’ve also listed a few other sites I went to that are not in the other posts. On the third day, besides going to Angkor Wat again, I went to Ta Keo and made a repeat visit to Angkor Thom.
On my first day, the first temple we went to after Angkor Wat was Prasat Kavan, followed by Banteay Kdei. On the second day, my final stop was Phnom Bakheng, a temple located on a small hill right outside of Angkor Thom to the south.

My second visit to Angkor Wat started off well. The day was sunny and there weren’t many visitors. I went back to the highest point of Angkor Wat and I took more photos of Angkor from beyond the pools. While I was there, a couple asked me to take a photo of them, then complimented me on my shirt, which was a New Zealand t-shirt that my mother had bought me when she went there for a holiday. The couple turned out to be Kiwis and they took my photo for me in return, before we parted ways; the second time on my Southeast Asia trip that New Zealanders had seen my shirt and remarked about it to me.
Somehow while I was inside, clouds appeared on the horizon, followed by a little rain. By the time, I walked towards the entrance the rain got heavier and eventually began pouring. I decided to wait but after 20 minutes or so, I took out my umbrella and walked back to the entrance where my driver was. I made sure to look back at Angkor Wat and take one last pic, the one at the top of this post.
DSC05894a DSC05915 DSC05933a DSC05954a
DSC05963-bl and wh
DSC05896a
The very wide moat that runs along Angkor Wat’s outer walls.
DSC05996
DSC05990a

Ta Keo is an imposing temple that stands several stories above a massive stone base.  You can climb to the top, where three large domes are, and enjoy the views of the surrounding forest.

DSC05797 DSC05802a DSC05774a DSC05778DSC05793a

Prasat Kavan was quite simple, basically a shell of a temple with only the pillars and center dome intact, whilst missing the roof and outer walls (if there had been). It did have some cool engravings of deities on walls inside a few rooms.
DSC01084
DSC01089

Banteay Kdei is a long, one-story, grayish temple ruin, but with a distinctive front entrance that was topped by a massive smiling four-face statue. There are at least two separate buildings, along with piles of columns that somehow reminded me of ancient Greece (not that I’ve ever been there).
DSC01140 DSC01148

Phnom Bakheng is a Hindu temple ruin located on top of a hill that is just south of Angkor Thom. The hike to the top only takes about 20 minutes but there are elephants at the bottom that can take you up for a fee. At the top, the temple has a flat top that gives you good views of the surrounding forest, baray (reservoir) and glimpses of Angkor Wat. Interestingly, Phnom Bakheng is over 1000 years old, predating Angkor Wat by more than 200 years.
DSC01610DSC01603 DSC01604DSC01591a

Cambodia travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Cambodia travel-Angkor’s ‘Big Circuit’ sites

Angkor is full of great ancient sights besides Angkor Wat, especially Angkor Thom and the “Big Circuit,” a loop which takes in several major sites to the northeast of Angkor Wat. I went to these places on the second day but unlike my first day when I rode to Angkor with several Chinese, this time I went solo on a tuktuk I hired back in Siem Reap. The driver was a nice, middle-aged guy who I also hired to drive me to the airport on my last day. However, I had to endure an uncomfortable experience in the morning just before I met him.

As my Chinese friends had gone to see the sunrise at Angkor earlier that morning, I went out to eat “brunch” and find a driver myself. I passed some guys near the corner from my hotel and I asked them about prices. I tried to negotiate with a guy but I wasn’t satisfied so I decided to move on.

The guy wasn’t pleased and he proceeded to followed me. As I walked along the road, I hailed another driver and he stopped. I told him my itinerary which would mainly be Angkor Thom and several temples on the “Big Circuit” and he gave me a lower price than the previous guy. I agreed, but right then, the previous guy came up and started to complain. Interestingly, he didn’t challenge or try to scare away the other driver, which was good, though he stood nearby glaring at me. As soon as I continued towards a restaurant, he started following me and protesting. “Why you do this? You come to my country and you do this. Why you [take your business away]?” he kept saying. Finally I had enough and I shouted back, “I didn’t promise you anything!” I was worried he would pick a fight but luckily when I went into a restaurant, he went away. I was a bit shaken, though now I could safely say he was probably desperate rather than malicious. The other driver had parked nearby and gave me a ride (free) back to my hotel, where I got my stuff then came back out for my second trip to Angkor.

The rest of my trip went well as I was carried around in comfort on the motorized tuktuk, in contrast to the previous day when my malfunctioning bicycle wheel and hot sun combined to make me exhausted and lightheaded. As I’d already bought the entry pass the previous day, the driver took another road into Angkor that passed through some rural land.

I started at the Sras Srang reservoir, then red Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som, the artificial island of Neak Poan, the ruins of Preah Khan before going into Angkor Thom.

The first temple was Pre Rup with its tall, reddish distinctive cone-topped domes. It was an impressive site and gave off a different vibe from Angkor Wat.

DSC01232a DSC01234 DSC01238a

Then it was on to East Mebon, which is similar to Pre Rup, but for its elephant statues (which I did not get good photos of).

DSC01268 DSC01270 DSC01276

Ta Som provided a change in scenery, being a one-story temple featuring a long passageway passing through multiple enclosures/gateways and a central shrine. It was a bit similar to Ta Prohm.

DSC01282a DSC01292DSC01296aDSC01301aDSC01311

After three buildings, it was time for a change- Neak Poan, a small temple on an artificial island in a swamp-like reservoir. You get there by walking on a long wooden boardwalk towards a pit.
DSC01324a
DSC01326
DSC01327

The last temple before entering Angkor Thom was Preah Khan, which was filled with ruins, lots of open area, long passageway.

DSC01376a        DSC01341 DSC01346a DSC01348a DSC01349 DSC01360 DSC01367

It was great to go inside and explore all these temples but there was one small issue – the persistent vendors and hustlers.

Inside Angkor, there are villages and a lot of people make their livelihoods from visitors. Some set up stalls along the roads and near the sites inside Angkor, while some individuals try to sell books or even wooden instruments from bags. A few act as unofficial guides (the official ones wear badges) and try to latch on to you for $1 or more as you go inside the sites. Most of the time, it wasn’t bad, even a bit amusing.

At a souvenir stall in front of the Sras Srang reservoir, a girl came up to me. Just like that, she gave me a light bamboo woven bracelet and told me it’s a free gift but that I had to buy something. I tried to give it back but she jumped back, saying that “if you give it back, it means you don’t like me.” Since it was the start of my day, I didn’t need to buy any water or any souvenirs so I didn’t buy anything from her, but now that I think about it I should have, if only to be nice. I still have her bracelet, a reminder of her entrepreneurial flirtatiousness and my stinginess.

There were a lot of child vendors and while they can be cute, it is hard to have to keep ignoring them or telling them no since I didn’t want to buy their postcards and trinkets. However at one site, there were a few child vendors, with the youngest a toddler or 3-year-old vendor. This very little one was so young he could only say “one dollar” and not even fully, while holding a few postcards. And because he was so little, he didn’t hassle or follow you like the older kids, but just stood to one side. It’s kind of cute, but it is also worrying to think that h might grow up to be follow in the footsteps of those older child vendors.

Inside another temple ruins, I saw a heartbreaking scene with another tiny child vendor. There was a European family with two young kids and the little vendor walked up to the younger white kid (maybe around 2). It was a stark contrast – the brown Cambodian 4 or 5-year-old selling stuff standing next to a 2-year-old European boy traveling with his family. It might have made for a cute photo but what happened is the mother saw this and quickly took her son’s hand and pulled him away from the little Cambodian. You can see the mother leading her child away from the little vendor (far left) in the photo below which I took about a minute after it happened – I was actually trying to take a photo of the building and tree but by coincidence I saw the above event unfold. It seemed like the mother was apprehensive about the Cambodian kid being near her own child, and it did seem a bit haughty, but to be honest, parents have to be very careful with their kids and can’t be concerned about political correctness.

DSC01335a
I also encountered some hustlers, both adults and kids.

One guy came up to me inside a temple and started pointing out different spots to take good photos. Then he wanted to lead me to other places inside the temple (I did feel a bit worried but he was smaller than me and didn’t seem like a thief) and describe interesting features. When I started walking off, having thanked him, he asked me for a dollar or two which I don’t think I gave him. I mean, it’s no big deal but it is annoying and it’s a bad precedent.

At another site inside Angkor Thom, a young boy started following me and telling me about the history, in decent English. He was about 10 or so, followed by a few other kids, and he was with me for about 8 minutes as we walked across forested area (again I did feel a tiny bit worried, not so much of him, but of whether other people would suddenly come out). As expected, he asked me for something and I gave him $1, since I felt a little admiration. I complimented him on his English and urged him to keep studying.

If you’ve made it all the way to here, good for you. Enjoy this bonus photo of a small standalone structure outside of Preah Khan.
DSC01331a

Cambodia travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Cambodia travel-Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm

DSC01079
I spent 3 full days in Siem Reap during which I went to Angkor each day. And even then, I still didn’t see every temple and site in the park. Angkor Wat was impressive enough that I went there twice, the first and third days, while I also visited Angkor Thom twice.

On the first day, I met up with my 3 Chinese friends and we rented bikes ($2 for a day) near our hotels to go to Angkor Wat. I don’t ride bikes much so I’d been a little worried as Angkor was half an hour’s ride from Siem Reap but once we rode past the town traffic and got to the outer roads, it was easy.

First we bought our park passes at the ticket center, which is actually outside of Angkor. I bought a 3-day pass which is cheaper and more convenient than buying a day pass 3 times. Your photo gets taken and put onto your pass, which you show whenever asked by guards around Angkor. The system is kind of casual since there are no fixed entrance posts but there are guards at every site. Cambodians get to go in completely free, which is a nice way for them to enjoy their heritage. Of course, many Cambodians go in to earn money, such as tuktuk drivers, vendors and hustlers.

Angkor Wat was our first stop and it was magnificent crowned by its distinctive three rounded towers from afar, and surrounded by a large moat that seemed like a river. We parked our bikes near a side gate of Angkor Wat, then got briefly waylaid by some grey monkeys on the path, who lazed around on the ground and posed, probably used to the many tourists who came this way.
DSC00926a
Like me, these monkeys also found the view really nice.

Angkor Wat is impressive, which is still an understatement. The ancient temple is massive and while its outer façade is a bit worn (900-plus years would have that effect), its structures and walls are mainly intact, with a lot of empty space inside. Along the outer walls are intricate murals of battle and religious scenes, mostly inspired by Hinduism, with some Buddhist elements (different kings followed different faiths). Almost all of it is covered by reliefs of religious and mythical figures, sculpted on countless stone walls, gates and columns. It would be similar at other sites. Inside the walls, Angkor Wat comprises a main raised temple surrounded by an outer complex. You go up a 3-story high steel stair to reach the highest point.

DSC00963

DSC00979a
Splendid battle scene showing giants fighting monkeys, with an elephants and even dogs involved along the outer wall.

DSC00999
The highest part of Angkor Wat.
I have to clarify something which also confused me before I went there.
When I say Angkor above, I don’t mean it as a shortening of Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the most famous ancient structure in the area, being the world’s largest temple. But it is still just one part of Angkor Archeological Park, which includes Angkor Thom, the capital city of the Khmer Dynasty in its heyday. Angkor Thom features several ancient structures including palaces and courts while Angkor Wat was a temple. It is somewhat sobering to see the contrast between the greatness of Angkor and the country’s current state. In reality, Cambodia has been on a steady decline since the Khmer Dynasty ended in the 14th century and Angkor was abandoned soon after.

In addition, there are various large ruins and structures including the well-known Ta Prohm where trees grow out from among its ruins, as well as small lakes that were reservoirs. There’s a small and a big circuit, which cover various sites (small one covers less) along a rectangular path that can be traversed by wheeled vehicles, not foot. Forest covers a lot of the park and it basically borders wilderness. Also, not every Angkor structure is inside the park as some are further out. In fact, not every Angkor structure is in Cambodia, with a few in neighboring Thailand.

After Angkor Wat, we headed out along the small circuit to other temples including the aforementioned Ta Prohm. As it was past noon, it was starting to get hot which made it seem like riding was not such a good idea. My bike also started to seem sluggish, and coincidentally several times Cambodians pointed to me and said something. Unfortunately it was later on that I realized that my rear wheel had gone soft and that those folks had been trying to warn me. I soldiered on, stopping to buy and drink bottles of water frequently. One of my friends even bought a small watermelon (those vendors sure know what to sell).

Of all the other temples outside of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm was my favorite. It’s a long, rectangular, one-story structure that is mostly ruins and has large trees growing from atop the ruins with thick twisted roots covering up entire facades. The site is so impressive it was used as a location for one of the Tomb Raider movies.

1179-Ta Prohm-old style-GIMP
You can almost imagine that it hasn’t changed much from 100 years ago.
DSC01168a
DSC01173
Ta Prohm was interesting even without the big trees.

It’s actually one of the few temples that have been left in its natural state, hence the ruins. There were piles of large rocks strewn about and parts of the structure were already slanting, though the authorities do carry out renovations as could be seen at other places. And Ta Prohm is so well-known that it was where we encountered our first Chinese tour group, actually we saw several while we were there. It’s amusing that Chinese tourists share the same characteristics all over – you have girls dressed up nicely as if they were going to a lawn party rather than visiting thousand-year-old ruins while you got men and women yelling out to each other. Within some of the structures are small shrines, sometimes with monks sitting before it who might ask you to make a financial offering.

DSC01213

Another thing I hadn’t known about Angkor is that people live inside it (the park, not the ancient structures). There are several villages and many of these people sell souvenirs and goods in shacks along the road and near the sites. You’ll also encounter hawkers in and outside the structures who can be persistent. Some of these hawkers are children who often sell postcards and it’s hard to have to ignore or blank kids but that’s what I did since I didn’t want to buy anything other than water. There was one particular little girl who I found charming and cute, notably because she spoke Mandarin and had a roundish face. She went up to me and started with English, then switched to Mandarin. And she didn’t just say one or two words, she kept saying different phrases and counting them out in Mandarin – ni kan yixia (take a look), shi hen pianyi (it’s very cheap), wo haiyou zhege (I also have these), ni kan – yi, er, san .. (look – one, two, three) and so on.

It seemed like an idyllic day, biking around Angkor with my three buddies visiting all these amazing historic sites. But actually as the afternoon went on, I got exhausted both due to my bike’s wheel problem and the searing sun. I continued to ride, lagging my friends by a lot though they were also tiring too. At one point, we had a welcome break at a primary school when one of the guys wanted to use the bathroom. We walked into the compound and I asked a staff who agreed without any reservation, which I found very kind (you probably can’t just walk into a school in the West just like that and get to use the bathroom).

I stopped at a stall with bike service and asked a guy to pump my bike wheel but it didn’t help much. Finally I called a tuktuk and loaded my bike onto it for the trip back to Siem Reap along with one of the three Chinese.

Afterwards back in the city, we had dinner at this outdoor Chinese food place by the street market near where we stayed, and I had $1 fried rice. Then we went to the hostel where they stayed and there were a ton of other mainland Chinese. The 3 guys had befriended these guys and girls from all over China and it was an impressive “crew.” Truth is, they were a good bunch -a mix of hardcore travelers and young professionals, and even a med student from Xian studying in Singapore. By coincidence there were several people from Hubei including 2 of the 3 guys, and interestingly not a single Chinese I would meet during those 3 days there were from Beijing or Shanghai. I ended by hanging out with some of them on the hostel’s rooftop bar before going back to my place.
IMAG1468a
The unreliable bike that powered me, then had me struggling mightily during my first trip into Angkor. I only noticed those girls after I uploaded this photo onto my computer – they were probably thinking I was taking a photo of them or wondering why I was taking a photo of a bike.DSC01051      DSC00985 DSC00989a  DSC01001 DSC01021
In the distance, there is an air-balloon that people can ride in but only straight up and then down. Hint- it’s yellow and round.

DSC01203  DSC01217  DSC01161a
Roots that look like a bunch of monkeys; it seems natural yet I think it was carved, especially the monkey’s head on the left.
DSC00949DSC01177

Cambodia travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Cambodia travel- On to Siem Reap

IMAG1456
The last day of June reminds me that it was one year ago in the same month when I quit my job in Taiwan and went to Southeast Asia for 3 weeks. Yet despite the long time that has passed, I’ve only reached halfway in writing about the trip – Cambodia.

After Phnom Penh, I was going to what everyone who visits Cambodia goes to – Angkor Wat. I would spend four days in Siem Reap, the booming town that is so precisely because of its proximity to Angkor Wat and the many other ancient temples and structures. Siem Reap is also near Tonle Sap, a large lake which features several fishing villages perched on stilts and expands during the … season.
IMAG1448

I again took the Mekong Express bus to Siem Reap, and it was good service just like on the one I’d taken from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh. I’d considered taking the boat up the Mekong to Siem Reap, but it took much longer than the four hours on the bus. I got picked up for free at my hotel by Mekong Express to get to the bus terminal, which was near the river and not Orussey Market, which I’d arrived at from HCMC. The pickup was uneventful, except that I was suddenly greeted by a “Konichiwa!” from behind. I turned around and saw several smiling young East Asians. I replied with a hello. “Konichiwa!” they repeated. Then eventually we both realized we were all Chinese. These youngsters were from Guangxi, which is next to Guangdong, and where the famous Guilin and Yangshou limestone mountains are located.

I didn’t sit by them during the ride since we all had prearranged seats, but this meant I had an English gentleman who happened to be a medical researcher working in Switzerland and who was on a sidetrip after visiting his girlfriend in Thailand. He was a decent chap who had quite a varied background – I think he was actually born in India or somewhere that was definitely not England.

Along the way, there were nice views out the window as the land became more rural and flat. We passed numerous villages with wooden houses built on stilts to avoid the periodic flooding. I also caught a glimpse of Tonle Sap, and this was unfortunately the closest I’d come to see of it. When the bus arrived in Siem Reap, it was dark and the “bus station” was in a small compound in a sparsely populated neighborhood in the outskirts. It wasn’t exactly the most comforting sight when one arrives in a new place, but I’d arranged with my hotel for a pickup and my driver was there. He took me on his tuktuk, the standard public transport here as in Phnom Penh, to my hotel. It was in a side road off a larger street, and it was nice, except that the road was an unpaved dirt lane and had pools of water large enough to swim in (I exaggerate a little).

Siem Reap was a bustling town, clearly benefiting from the Angkor tourism boom. There were large 5-star hotels, restaurants, night markets, boutiques, and even a bar street. It actually seemed better off and nicer than Phnom Penh.

DSC01230a
IMAG1538a

I also met up with my 3 mainland China travel friends from HCMC who were also in Siem Reap. Their travel route was almost the same as mine, though they’d skipped Phnom Penh and gone directly to Siem Reap from Vietnam. By coincidence, they were staying at a hostel just minutes from my hotel. Their hostel was really cheap (US$1 a night for a dorm bed in a huge room with dozens of people) but it had a rooftop bar that sold draft beer for US$1. Needless to say, I went over to see them and hang out every night I was there.

In total, I spent the next 3 full days in Siem Reap, leaving in the early morning on the fourth day for Bangkok. I went to Angkor every day, going to Angkor Wat twice.

The first day, I met my China friends and we rode bikes from Siem Reap to Angkor Wat. It was a good plan except that somehow my bike tire went flat and I ended up cycling really doggedly in the hot afternoon sun. The second day, I declined to wake up early to go see the sunrise with those guys, so I hired a tuktuk and went by myself to other temples and complexes around Angkor Wat including Angkor Thom, the old capital city (Angkor Wat was a temple complex). The third day, I was tempted to rest for the whole day, but I hired a tuktuk again and went by myself to Angkor Wat again.

DSC01056

Cambodia travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Phnom Penh’s genocide sites

DSC00642
The most famous sites in Phnom Penh are unfortunately well-known for a tragic reason. That’s because Cambodia suffered a genocide, one of just a few countries and peoples in the 20th century. The Marxist Khmer Rouge regime murdered at least a million of its own people in just a few years in the late 1970s, in an attempt to wipe out professionals, intellectuals and minorities, among others, and create a socialist agrarian society. To mark this gory past, there are two main sites in the capital city, one a former execution site and mass grave, and the other a former prison.

Choeung Ek, the most famous of the Killing Fields (the places where executions took place and which a movie about the genocide was named after), and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 prison) are where visitors can learn about the genocide first-hand. It’s a staggering thought, to know that one is walking the grounds of places that great evil happened. At least one million (possibly up to three million) Cambodians were killed by the regime led by the dictator Pol Pot from 1975-1979. Intellectuals, professionals, anyone who was suspected of having foreign connections, and Chinese and Vietnamese were among those targeted and killed.

I went to both sites by tuk tuk, a motor scooter-powered rickshaw. The driver, Mr. Evan, was the friend of the guy who’d driven me the previous day from the bus station to the hotel. I first went to Choeung Ek, which is 17 kilometers outside of the city and in a rather rural area. The site is where several thousand Cambodians were killed and buried, dumped into unmarked graves. Sadly, this is only one out of 20,000 such mass graves.

It’s a very somber place, resembling a garden or orchard with a placidness that belies the death that happened here decades earlier. And yet this serenity is the best way to honor and remember the dead. When you enter, you get an audio guide and brochure that outlines a series of numbered places on the grounds, allowing you to easily make your way around and understand the backdrop of the site.

The site is dominated by a towering stupa that contains skulls piled up on over seven shelves.
DSC00637

From there, you make your way on a path that winds through grave pits and execution sites, including one that was specifically for killing babies – a tree stands at that point where the babies were bashed against to death. Be warned though, there are actual bone and teeth fragments throughout the ground that have washed up due to floods that come after heavy rains. Right at the edge of the site are a field, a stream and a pond that leads to a larger lake.
DSC00649

The site used to be a cemetery for the local Chinese community, and there was a few remains of Chinese tombs. There’s a small museum onsite that’s worth a stop before you finally leave.

I then went to the Tuol Seng genocide museum, which was back in the city. Tuol Seng was the S-21 prison during the genocide, before that it was a high school, which is a really twisted notion. Indeed the place still looks like a typical secondary school, except that as many as 20,000 prisoners were killed there.
Tuol Seng features two main rectangular blocks, each three stories high, and you can walk through most of the rooms. The balconies on each floor are covered with barbed wire, a remnant of the prison days and which was put up to prevent prisoners from committing suicide by jumping to the ground.
DSC00693a

It’s a very depressing place and reminders  are everywhere. In some of the rooms, you can view blown-up black and white graphic photos of dead prisoners killed while shackled to bed frames, often the very ones which you are standing next to since they’ve been left intact in the rooms. In a room that houses a shrine to the dead, the bones and skulls of victims are piled in glass cases. However, for me the most poignant exhibits are the portraits of hundreds of prisoners, all of whom met a bloody end.
The prison was eventually shut down when Vietnamese forces and Cambodians rebels came into the city, forcing the Khmer Rouge regime out. Only 12 prisoners were known to have survived being in S-21, and one of them was actually on site when I was there, sitting at a desk outside where you could buy a book and get his signature.
DSC00764DSC00707a

DSC00725

In addition, you can also see devices used for torture ranging from crude shovels and axes to a wooden compartment and barrels in which prisoners were submerged in.

DSC00760DSC00702a

There’s also information about the trial of Khmer Rouge officials, stories of prisoners killed at S-21, and somewhat hauntingly, former Khmer Rouge guards who worked at the prison. The accounts of the officials show the deliberate nature of the evil and unrepentant attitudes, while statements from the former guards show a fearful and pragmatic attitudes to their jobs, a vivid example of how evil can often be banal at the lower levels, when it’s mostly carried out by people obeying orders.
Besides Cambodians, there were also Western victims including tourists who were imprisoned at this prison and who also later met a bloody end. On the grounds lie the graves where the last 14 killed captives were buried after being found by liberating soldiers. There’s also a large wooden frame in front of the graves, from which prisoners were hung from and interrogated.

Sadly, there’s a sign that says that the purpose of maintaining the site is to remember the genocide and its horrors, in order to prevent other such events from happening. That’s a noble aim, but unfortunately is one that failed, with genocides in Rwanda, former Yugoslavia and Darfur all happening later on, within the last two decades.

DSC00659DSC00731DSC00761a
DSC00772
The story of a victim as told by his sister and mother.DSC00774
A brief profile of a former guard at the S-21 prison.
DSC00676

A view of traffic on the way back into the city from the Choeung Ek killing field. The tuktuk (motorscooter-powered rickshaw) on the left is pretty much the same as what I was in.

DSC00685a
A man presumably taking chickens to the market to sell. The chickens are dripping wet because they’ve been pumped with water to make them heavier, and thus cost more, according to my driver Mr. Evan.

DSC00691DSC00694a

Cambodia travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Phnom Penh, once the pearl of Asia

Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia, its biggest and most bustling city. During the French colonial period, it was considered very beautiful, enough to be called the Pearl of Asia. While remnants of French colonialism can be seen in certain buildings, I think it’s fair to say Phnom Penh has lost a good bit of its past glory. Still it is pleasant in some aspects. Sited along the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, it has a nice riverside promenade and a majestic Royal Palace.

DSC00797

The first place I went was to Wat Phnom, a small hill with a temple from which the city got its name from. In 1372, a wealthy woman was said to have discovered a few Buddhist statues in a river and ordered a mound to be created, which became the hill, and a temple built on top to place the statues. Phnom means hill in Khmer, Cambodian’s language, and Penh was the woman’s name.

Soon after I arrived in Phnom Penh and checked into my hotel, I walked about 20 minutes to Wat Phnom. Along the way, I passed some decent colonial houses and a skyscraper in the distance.

Wat Phnom is a very small hill that features a large clock on the front lawn, “guarded” by a large cobra made out of bamboo at the side perched as if ready to strike. It’s an easy climb to the top, which is dominated by a large stupa (domelike Buddhist structure that usually contains relics) and a pink Buddhist temple. It’s a good place to be up close with traditional Cambodian religious architecture and legends.

DSC00628
Several lion statues stand guard on stairways and the leveled roofs of the stupa. The stairway features nagas, the distinctive snake-like creature that is one of two main mystical creatures found in Cambodian temple motifs – the other being the bird-like garuda, the naga’s sworn enemy, that is the mount of the Hindu god Vishnu (Cambodia was heavily influenced by Indian culture and Hinduism many centuries ago). Both garudas and nagas are present in Hinduism and Buddhism.
The roof edges of the temple have peculiar crested heads, possibly nagas, while the main roof is topped with the head of a garuda, with a distinctive arched protrusion. Female figures with pointed hats (kinnaris, female bird-like beings present in both Hindu and Buddhist mythologies), decorate the underside of the roof. The temple features some elaborate carved statues and sculptured murals of deities and nagas. Around the stupa, a few worshippers were offering incense at small shrines.
DSC00609a

From there, I walked to the riverside, a busy stretch filled with restaurants and bars, mostly for Western tourists. I passed a post office, a colonial-era pastel-colored building that rivaled the one in Ho Chi Minh City as the most beautiful post office I’d ever seen.

The next day, I headed to the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng museum. Those places will be in a separate post. After those places, I went to the Royal Palace. My driver (Mr. Evan) dropped me off at the side of the road leading to the palace (since vehicles aren’t allowed on that road) and right away, I was approached by a guy in a wheelchair selling books and a kid. As I walked towards the palace, a little girl who was sitting across the street with her family ran up to me begging for money. She was about 6, and she was holding a baby! I’d like to say I gave her money right away but honestly I felt really awkward and distressed. I don’t mean to be callous, but I felt more horrified than compassionate, having a little girl begging wretchedly and holding a baby. I kept on walking but I gave the girl some money, a small amount. Then she ran back, and immediately another little girl came, also holding a baby. “No money, no food” she repeated, just as wretchedly as the first girl, but this time I just kept on going. This second girl actually followed me for a good distance, whilst holding the baby, but eventually she had to stop. As I write this, I feel bad and I think I should have given her something as well, but honestly at that moment, all I could think about was to try to ignore that sight.

When I reached the palace, it was closed for lunchtime so I walked across to the riverside. Some kind of ceremony was going on at a small Buddhist temple there, with dozens of people clutching incense and praying in. A few persons even released birds, which is a Buddhist act of compassion. You buy animals, such as birds, turtles, or fish, and release it in a nearby park or river. The first photo in this post was taken from the riverside.
DSC00800a

After about 20 minutes, I went to the palace. It was a very large and beautiful complex, though part of it was sectioned off due to members of the royal family still living there. The first glimpse of the complex is a fancy pavilion along the wall that looks onto the street, possibly a stage for royalty to look out at street parades, with a portrait of the Queen facing the street and topped with a green and yellow roof that had garudas perched on the roof edges. Inside the buildings all had the same color schemes, cream with gleaming green and golden-yellow roofs but more elaborate and topped with spiraled pointy domes. The main building was the Throne Hall, while the Silver Pagoda was another major building. It’s not that old, having been built in 1866 after the French made Cambodia a protectorate. There are smaller buildings and stupas, as well as a large model of Angkor Wat.
DSC00897aDSC00856DSC00823 DSC00850a  DSC00873a

The Royal Palace was quite grand and despite its relatively young age, its architecture and design were a striking reminder that Cambodia had a great past. Sadly this past was far back, many hundreds of years ago, when the Khmer Empire was a powerful entity and built and ruled from Angkor. Over time, Cambodia was defeated and taken apart, not by the West, but by Asians, specifically its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam. The Mekong Delta, which I’d taken a daytrip to from Ho Chi Minh City, actually used to belong to Cambodia before being seized by Vietnam in the 19th century. The area where Angkor was situated in, northwest Cambodia, used to belong to Thailand up until 1906, after having been conquered back in the 15th century. This period of time between the 15th century and French control in 1863 is known as the Dark Ages (sadly it would not be the last “dark” age Cambodia would suffer).

After the palace, I walked to the nearby National Museum, a large handsome red building built in the style of traditional Khmer temples (and probably the most attractive museum I’ve ever seen). It is not that old, having actually been built by the French in the early 20th century. It’s a decent museum, featuring a lot of historic artifacts in halls that surround an open space in the center. The only problem is photos aren’t allowed.
DSC00903a DSC00908a

That evening, I headed to the night market near the riverside. An open-air concert was going on and there was one particularly good performance when a local guy did some rapping, set to a Pitbull tune, and a small girl of maybe 8 or 9 years got up from near the stage and just started to dance. She did that for the whole song, and she could have been an extra in one of those dance movies. After her “performance,” she got loud cheers and money from the crowd. Even now, I still think she was just some kid from the crowd and not a performer in the show.
IMAG1426

On my final morning, I walked to the Central Market, a large domed building that is designed in what is called the Art Deco style (not that I know much about this). On the compound were a bunch of stalls selling bags, especially North Face and other outdoor brand-name fakes, clothes and other souvenirs while inside were a lot of stalls selling jewelry, gemstones and gold.

DSC00919aDSC00599aDSC00816DSC00802a
The Tonle Sap river and the part of the city on the opposite bank.

Cambodia travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Entering Cambodia

I’m a little wary about describing how I felt about Cambodia. It was my second country on my SE Asia trip last year after Vietnam, and despite being neighbors, it felt and looked much different. As we crossed the border and passed a row of roadside casinos located on what was just a rundown border town, I could sense that Cambodia was more rural, much less well-off and vibrant than its Eastern neighbor, which isn’t exactly an economic powerhouse itself. I’d had certain presumptions based on sparse knowledge of its poverty and terrible past, and unfortunately those thoughts were all proven true.

I was obviously going to Angkor Wat, the magnificent ruins of a great temple complex that had lain undiscovered in the jungle for centuries. However I would spend one full day in Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital that lay besides the Mekong and had in the past been known as the “Pearl of Asia” and was considered one of the most attractive cities of French Indochina. It doesn’t get many tourists as Angkor Wat, which is near the town of Siem Reap, and for those who do come, its biggest “draw” is an execution site where the Khmer Rouge regime murdered thousands of civilians, the infamous Killing Fields. The Khmer Rouge killed over a million Cambodians, basically a genocide against their own people, as part of their Marxist-inspired revolutionary reign during the 70s and 80s. This terrible period still seems to loom over the country’s people, perhaps a big reason why there is an air of despair and resignation. Poverty is also a factor, with the country being one of the least developed nations in the world as well as hungriest. You can easily experience this when little children run up to you and start begging. There’re also disabled people in wheelchairs who sometimes sell stuff, unfortunate victims of landmines or war.

I traveled to Cambodia by the overland route from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, taking a Mekong Express bus. It was a comfortable ride that took about 6 hours and included a border crossing, a river crossing across the Mekong, and a lunch stop.

The trip was led by a lovely hostess, possibly the most beautiful Cambodian I’d see during the whole time, who spoke in both English and Khmer, and an assistant. I had booked my ticket on the company’s website and was able to choose my seat beforehand. We got free water and pastries after boarding, and were also treated to a Bollywood movie which I will never forget- a silly romantic comedy about 3 Indians in a love triangle in London – followed by  some Cambodian music videos after the movie. The staff even tagged your luggage before you got on board and checked your tag when you take your luggage at the end, which is reassuring. All in all, it was very professional and efficient, a pleasant surprise and laudable given the company is Cambodian-run. I’d take the Mekong Express again from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap.

I definitely recommend Mekong Express to anybody who wants to travel to Cambodia overland without much hassle.

The river crossing occurred after we were in Cambodia. We got out of the bus, got onto the ferry with the bus and other vehicles drove onboard behind us, and enjoyed the languid “cruise” across the calm brown waters of the Mekong river. When we disembarked on the other side, we had a bit of a wait, and I talked to several members of a Western tour group who were also on the bus. Their tour guide, a local, had bought fried crickets and was sharing them out, though I declined. A few local kids came over and I thought they were going to beg, but they never did, instead they approached us, both shy and curious. The river “town” we were in was rather small and simple, with tinroofed stalls and one and two-story buildings. From the start, I thought the surroundings were much different from Vietnam, despite it being literally next door.
We pulled into Orussey Market in Phnom Penh, where I got a tuktuk to my hotel.

DSC00574a
A nice big appetizing plate of crickets, on sale on board the ferry.

IMAG1383
Waiting our turn to get on.

DSC00581
Crossing the Mekong.

DSC00587 DSC00593a
A street in Phnom Penh, taken from the back of a tuktuk.IMAG1359
Casinos at the side of the road, one of the first things I saw after crossing the border checkpoint from Vietnam.

IMAG1369
Fish vendors in a village the bus passed through.