Those of you who are CJS grads of my era will remember an incredibly frustrating project in Core “English” class called your life list. For those that aren’t basically it was a bucket list of (I think) one hundred things you wanted to do before you die. It was an incredibly stupid project that we spent a ludicrous amount of time on in senior year. Now don’t get me wrong, I think getting kids of that age to at least pay some cursory attention to that sort of concept isn’t a bad idea but:
This project required 100 ‘Meaningful’ things you wanted to do in your life AND was going to be posted in public in high school, I don’t know about you but that meant nothing EXTREMELY personal was going on there. As with most of my friends I was grasping at straws after a few dozen… by 70-100 I was straight up making crap up. No 17/18 year old has or even should have 100 goals yet, we’re still discovering who we’re going to be as an adult.
The thing for me is that a big portion of the project involved displaying your 100 things in some meaningful way, some of us just did a poster with some sort of random hook to it (mine was a trombone and my items were on music notes I think?) and some people went ridiculously overboard. I forget how much this project was worth but I recall it being a not insignificant mark in a required ‘english’ course that was essentially being given out for how meaningful my dreams were and my skill at elementary school arts and crafts.
Yes I am still bitter about this (and other things about that class, never got my credits for gunther!) 20+ years later. Sure glad I spent that time on that instead of you know… my real english class that taught me how to write well for university… or Physics! It may not surprise you to note that I believe my parents talked to this teacher at PTIs and were told something like “Tristan does not hide his disdain well and needs to stop rolling his eyes.”
That said… this giant rant serves as a preamble to the fact that one of my legit number one things on that stupid list was “See the sun rise at Angkor Wat” and by god I checked it off. You’re welcome 17 year old me!
Let’s back up a bit though. My mostly nice stay at the Bamboo ended on a bit of a sour note as I realized the maids had thrown out or taken my packing bags. Thankfully I wasn’t so overpacked that it was an issue. As previously discussed in the blog I’d sprung for some air travel to pack as much as possible into the last week and a half. So while it’s theoretically possible to go directly to cambodia from the Phu Quoc area, it involves a fair bit of time on a bus, extended border transition times and then transfering in Phnom Penh to get to where I wanted to be in Siem Reap. It just made more sense to fly there via a quick hop back to HCMC then onward to Siem Reap, then direct from Siem Reap back to Hanoi for my flight home. Thankfully the flights lined up quite well and I was delay free and ended up touching down in Cambodia around 4pm.
First off, Siem Reap has an adorable airport that seemed very new. The other main reason for making sure I got to Cambodia this trip was that I’d sprung for the extra money for a multiple entry Vietnam visa. The Cambodian visa on the other hand was pay on arrival in USD. After getting extorted with a $5 fee at an atm for some yankeebux (I’d spent my reserve the week before paying Dr. Phu.) I stood in the brief line with the other foreigners to pay (most of the plane had been full of locals and Vietnamese who don’t require a visa) I waited for my name to be called. Despite being warned that they have trouble with western names and to pay attention it still took me 3 calls before I realized that Arz-ee was me. Turnabout is fair play and all with how I no doubt butchered the names of everything I tried 😉 Somewhat hilariously the dude asked if I wanted to skip the line, I remembered reading in my guidebook that five bucks can usually get you ahead, but turning around at a mostly empty customs hall I told him I’d take my chances and was in fact through in about 3 minutes. I suppose that scam works better when there are planeloads of chinese tour groups but about a quarter of the arrivals board was cancelled flights that day.
I’d booked in at an eco-guesthouse that offered free airport pickup and the very smiley Mr. Thon was waiting for me with a sign. Stuffing me and my bag onto his Cambodian style tuktuk (essentially a regular motorcycle with a permanent trailer) he took me into the city proper with a running commentary that I could hear about 50% of over the rush of the wind. He told me it was a shame I was here this week instead of next as the new Angkor Eye (a large ferris wheel in the vein of a smaller London Eye) was opening the following week. As we got closer to our destination I wondered if he was taking me somewhere to be killed as we zigzagged across bridges and through lanes until finally turning down a dead end path that…. surprisingly was lined with guest houses out of nowhere.
My place was called the Babel Guesthouse and is run as sustainably as possible by a Norwegian Couple. The lobby contains a shop full of various Hippie home and beauty products, the idea being to refill rather than buy more plastic. This extended to water bottle which is an ethos I can get behind to a point… except that their public refill bottle was just under a thin cloth cover. If you’re going to want me to not buy water it needs to be at least somewhere in the zip code of cold. I’d been places in Thailand that did the same and they had ceramic jackets they could put over the bottles with a bit of ice to keep the water significantly colder. Other than that it was a fairly nice place with a small courtyard bar where you could watch soccer and get a drink/food. The breakfast was apparently nice but I never partook as it wasn’t free and I was usually out of there too early anyway.
After checking in and arranging my (gulp) sunrise excusion to Angkor Wat the next day I set out to explore the town and get some food. Siem Reap is not a particularly large city, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 100k people though of course usually swollen with tourists. While it was busy enough, I walked past several large hotels that looked mostly empty and even one that appeared to be shut down. Crossing over the canal that bisects the city I by chance spotted a restaurant called Chorney Tree that was highly rated in my guidebook and pulled up a chair and I was absolutely famished after skipping lunch.
Last year when I was in Berkeley for a wedding with my food friends we went to a cambodian place for dinner one night and we were all blown away by the flavours. In a trip I knew would be filled with a ton of great food I was probably looking forward to Cambodia the most. That first meal was phenomenal. Beef loc lac (tender thin pieces of marinated beef served with a bright tasting lime and black pepper sauce, crispy fried egg, rice and veggies) and a steamed egg and pork bao. Even later in the evening it was still very hot so relaxing with a great meal under a whirling fan was lovely, especially washing it down with a beer and a fruit smoothie as well as some crispy banana chips made with those amazingly sweet se asian bananas.
Walking a bit further after dinner I discovered the main Siem Reap night market and pub street which is basically tourist central after dark. There is a proper market but it’s surrounded by all sorts of restaurants, numerous upper floor bars blaring at each other across narrow alleys and even a kickboxing/wrestling ‘arena’ (there is apparently a full sized kickboxing arena in town as well that has more traditional events.) I had a quick look around but as I’d arranged to leave for the temples at 4:30 the next morning I went to bed basically the moment I thought there was a chance of sleeping.
Man four A.M. is early, especially when you’re in vacation mode. I mean I’d mostly been getting up at a reasonable hour this trip due to none of the hotels having blackout curtains or being particularly well soundproofed… but 4 is another matter entirely. Up, showered and (quasi) awake I made my way out front where my driver was waiting with a similar tuk tuk to the one I’d taken the day before. Bleary eyed as I was I didn’t actually make note of any of its identifying features which was an issue later. By 4:45 we’d arrived at the Angkor ticket office for the national park which contains the temples. Nominally it opens at 5am but I guess they start a bit early, unfortunately I didn’t notice the small sign that said the 1 and 3 day passes were different lines and only just managed to change lines before the first of the tourbuses arrived and started disgorging more hordes behind me. One can only imagine how much busier it would have been with another 10 buses with Chinese folks. Tickets are fairly pricey, but one can imagine they’re the main way the conservation is funded so I’m a-ok with that. It was $62 us for a three day pass so I grabbed one despite not being sure if I’d be doing that much time.
It was still pitch black as he ran me down the road towards the park entrance and it was with fairly vague directions that I was pointed at Angkor Wat itself but even ahead of the main crowd there was a trickle of visitors confirming I was heading the right way and eventualy I found myself at the edge of the moat water. February is firmly in Cambodia’s hot and dry season and space at the water’s edge was at a bit of a premium but I was still kind of shocked at how many people were trying to cram around the water in hopes of grabbing a reflection shot of the sunrise. It was a fairly long wait and as dawn approached swarms more people arrived and people started demanding those in front get down. Unfortunately I was standing in mud but managed to find a dry spot because there was no way my knees were going to handly crouching for 45 minutes. Occasionally people up front stood to stretch or take a shot and some loudmouth Australian who had just arrived kept yelling out crap about ‘sit down, do you think you’re special’ or the like. I mean I get it, let’s try and let as many people enjoy the best view possible but give people a break. Eventually he yelled ‘Your mother would be ashamed of you’ and I yelled back something in the vein of “my mother taught me to be places on time” and got a few claps and cheers from folks at the front.
Sunrise itself was slow in coming but absolutely magical. For the most part people kept their yaps shut once it arrived and you just heard the occasional hushed whisper or whirr of a camera shutter. I can’t really described it but those ancient towers slowly coming into view in front of the growing dawn light made it easy to imagine you’d been transported through time.
Once dawn had well and truly arrived I gave in to my aches (should have done this when you were younger T) and got up and walked around the moat towards the main temple. Angkor Wat is the only one of the temples in the region to have been continually used since being built (in the 12th century originally as a Hindu temple) and is thus the best preserved. It’s also the largest single religious monument in the world.
I’d actually walked in complete darkness over the floating bridge that is replacing the causeway during repairs and through the 5km long outer wall but now that daylight was here the galleries and inner area were opened and I could explore in earnest. The pure symetry of the place is what strikes you first after you start to comprehend the sheer scale.
In addition to the spires and long raised galleries Angkor Wat is famous for the intricate bas-reliefs that adorn the walls. The most famous of these is the ‘churning of the ocean of milk’ a representation of the reinvigoration of the universe comprising dozens of painstakingly carved asuras and devas.
Interestingly a lot of the modern restoration work has focused on cleaning out or reimplementing the original drainage and cleaning systems from construction as earlier restoration efforts caused as much damage as they fixed. Other efforts involve keeping plant life at bay, more on that later.
I spent what felt like ages exploring the place but it was still quite early when I made my way back towards the floating bridge and discovered that while I had a vague idea of what my driver looked like I had zero idea which of a probably fifty tuktuks was mine. Eventually I spotted a dude in a red shirt in the distance which turned out to be my driver Tam. This time I made sure I looked at the ad on the back of the seat to better spot it later.
A couple KM north lies the south gate of Angkor Thom, once the capital of the Khmer empire until it was later sacked by the Ayuthaya kingdom of Siam/Thailand. Unlike Angkor Wat this was an actual townsite and large number of people lived here before it was abandoned, though most of the later buildings were not stone and don’t survive today. What remains is gorgeous though, a number of temples and terraces in noticeably different styles.
The main temple of Bayon, probably the second most famous after Angkor Wat itself had a number of monkeys hanging around outside. They were surprisingly unpushy though there were a few warnings around about being careful. Though in much poorer shape than some other temples (and currently undergoing a major restoration effort of the upper levels) there’s still a vast maze of passages to discover. The towers carved with massive faces are very impressive.
From there I snaked through and walked the long causeway to the Baphuon temple which was one of the few you could climb to the top (up some absolutely mentally steep wooden stairs that covered the originals for preservation purposes.)
Phimeanakas was just to the north of there and was apparently the royal palace area for much of the era of the city. It’s guarded by the terrace of the elephants from which one could once see the royal processions from the victory gate.
A quick stop for lunch and a giant bottle of water helped me recharge a bit as the full heat of the day had arrived and it was probably pushing 35c with not much of a breeze to speak of. I was glad I’d had some time to adjust to the heat before getting here.
Our next stop was Ta Prohm, known as the Tomb Raider temple due to being used to film several sequences in the original Jolie film adapatation of the game. This is one of the temples where the conservation work has focused on maintaining the balance between invading nature and keeping the temples whole. Large trees and vines grown around, through and actually on the temple buildings and walls and if you catch a courtyard at a deserted moment it’s easy to imagine you’ve just emerged from the jungle to find a forgotten ruin.
We Finished the first day’s exploration at Banteay Kdei and Sra Srang. Banteay Kdei was a monastery but is in poor repair now, apparently due to using lower quality stone than many of the other monuments. Sra Srang is a large resevoir with terraces which was used as a bathing area for the royal family and every time I went by it on this trip there were a number of kids swimming.
My driver offered to drop me off at pub street and I agreed thinking a drink and a snack might be nice, but when he forgot and took me back to the hotel I sucumbed to the lure of a shower and a nap. I must admit it was nice that the guesthouse had their own crew of trusted drivers, they make a point of paying them a solid wage (it probably cost about 30% more than if I’d hired a random person) but the guys did a good job at steering you around properly, dropping you at the right place and time to avoid as much of the crowds as possible and chimed in with the occasional fact that added some context.
Once I’d recharged I walked back over to the night market and explored more thoroughly before eventually ending up down a side street at a tiny place that smelled amazing when I stopped to look at the menu. The resulting meal was almost as good as the night before, Khmer Spiced chicken skewers and ultra crispy spring rolls. Walking back I noticed a movie theatre which just like the ones in Vietnam was essentially a giant chaotic motorbike garage under the teeniest of lobbies and a couple screening rooms. I finished the night in a random bar along the pub street having a couple drinks and just people watching now that it had cooled down a bit.
I’m pretty sure I was out the moment I hit the pillow though with the nap I did manage to stay awake until a reasonable hour, thankfully day two was going to start a bit later.