Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cambodia - Angkor, stepping back over a 1000 years...

 The famous "Angkor Wat"
We arise early and depart the hotel at 5am in complete darkness. Our bikes are the nice old fashioned kind ubiquitous in China about 20 years back, so they have only one gear, but do come with a built-in bike light that operates by pedaling. The air is fresh and cold, totally different than last night’s trip to Angkor Wat. This time we enter Angkor from the east gate, a less used entrance. We pass the ticket inspection, and proceed on the dirt road in darkness. There isn’t another visitor in sight. The dawn light slowly ascends. The foot path has an eerily, surreal appearance as it catches some of the thick mist drifting over from water that surrounds the area around Angkor Wat. We glimpse a building appearing in the distance shrouded by the cover of trees. What is it? New or Old?
First break of dawn at "Angkor Wat"
We can’t tell until we reach it. It is a separate building perhaps a library, or a bath house or a boat house or maybe just a temple to the lake moat that circumvents the perimeter of Angkor Wat? Later when we return in daylight, we discover that it is rich in orange and red from lichen and growth on the masonry’s surface. It is painted by the humidity and protection of the forest’s canopy!

First glow of the Sunrise at 6:45am

We arrive at the eastern facing outer wall of Ankgor and find our own corner niche perch to await the sun-god’s appearance. There are a handful of other visitor’s, who must have come from the normally used West entrance, already positioned in sunrise perch.
Illuminated crowns of "Angkor Wat"
We are like vultures waiting to catch the first morsel of sun and capture the once a day glow of the sun when she briefly kisses the temple’s crowning spires for the first time. Within five minutes, Angkor is in total illumination from crown to foot. It is a short and sweet kiss. We opt not to go inside as we know it’s filled with loads of tour bus visitors by this time. We want to preserve this feeling of solitude and magic that we have experienced.

The four of us still in awe by the
magnificent sight of the Sunrise
The "Angkor Wat"sun-perch

We then continue in an easterly direction, opting to follow the small circuit today. Mike and Karin decide to go the big circuit as they only have one day for the entire region. They have bitten off a huge challenge as the mid-day sun is HOT.

A bit of goofing around at "Sras Srang"
before we separate for the rest of the day
We decide to split the day into two segments and at 9:00 head back to the hotel adding 20 km of round trip distance pedaling but removing the scorching sun element during the peak hours. By 9:45, we are enjoying our huge breakfast in the hotel: sustenance for the afternoon. A shower and siesta also follow before we once again mount our bicycles and become Wat Warriors again!

Back to the Angkor area: Small Circuit Route: Temple Day 1
We continue on the small circuit. This is about 17 kms which means almost 60 kms in total effort (thanks to our siesta stop).
Starting around 2:30pm, we visit Prasat Kravan, Banteay Kdei, Sras Srang, Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom complex, and finally Bayon for sunset.

The overgrown "Ta Prohm"
Temple, Angelina was here too
Our favorite Wat today is Ta Prohm. It is the one made famous by Angelina Jolie in the Lara Croft film. The complex is full of temples that were devoured by the jungle after centuries of abandonment. The dense undergrowth of the jungle’s web has been hacked away but the massive trees that have devoured many parts of the temple could not be safely removed and remain intact and glued to the temple until they die.
They look like the tentacles of an octopus that has found its prey and latched on...frozen forever. Their roots snake through the interiors and appear sometimes on the exterior again. It is the miracle of nature. I will let the pictures tell the story to do it full justice.

Sunset at "Bayon"
At the end of our route, we watched the sunset from Bayon temple. By this time the crowds had left as it seems that everyone needs to go to this small hill called Bakheng in order to watch the sunset. Apparently thousands of visitors end their day here. We catch a small bit of the madhouse as we bicycle by and observe the huge number of transport vehicles waiting below. Ironically, you can’t even see the sunset together with a temple. It’s literally only to see the sunset on the horizon from a higher elevation.

We connect with Karin and Mike at the hotel later and discover that they were there on that crowded, small hilltop.

The next day, we decided to take a day off to rest our bodies after this long bike trip. Yes, we haven’t been doing this sort of thing in a loooooooong time! And the bikes are adequate, perhaps fine specimens of bikes used 100 years ago? Forget gears, suspension, and well oiled smooth turning wheels, every pedal stroke is happily confirmed by a squeak from the bicycle. But its got a basket and bell!

Plus we wanted to have a bit of time together with Karin and Mike in a more relaxed setting not overwhelmed with exhaustion. Plus a healthy dose of shopping and eating also needed to fit into this visit, right?

Big Circuit Tour: Temple Day 2

Today’s venue: Ta Prohm (again), Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean, Preah Khan, Bayon.

Today, we decided to have breakfast first and then take the entire day to explore, sans siesta. So, we depart at a late 7:30am just before the thermometer started to rise.
We decide to return to our favorite temple, Ta Prohm, to see it again in the morning light and hopefully with less visitors. Our first day, we saw team Korea everywhere. Today is surely team China’s day. And China is a helluva lot bigger in size.

Julane at "Ta Prohm" in a peaceful
spot away from the big tour groups
They come enmasse (in large tour groups) and have a certain style of traveling that is reminiscent of most communist countries when they first opened up to the outside world. It’s a more direct and pushy kind of interaction. Loud, yes very loud. And the fashion sense is quite…well special. I should have taken pictures of their travel fashion! There is clearly the need to cover the body against sunshine as white skin is of utmost importance to the Chinese and Koreans. They seem to all wear some kind of protective hat for this purpose, straw hats seem to be the most popular by both men and women. Then, also full body cover, of course. Often, this includes accessories such as the contra-daylight umbrella and even gloves.

The modes of transport for tourists vary widely. There are large buses which were usually only one quarter full (unless it was a group from China!). Plus, there are large 12 seater vans and normal vans, private sedans, motorized rickshaws, and bicycles. We found that bicycles were generally used by westerners of all ages. I was impressed by the number of the grey haired crowd cycling about too, because cycling is only part of the effort. We probably walked about 5 kms exploring the temples on foot and some of that involved steep steps, very steep indeed.

We will let the temples speak for themselves. They are awesome.Here a few pictures of the highlights of day two, more temple pictures are at the end of this blog entry.
Julane at "Pre Rup" watching the
mobile trash recycler pass by
Patrick can re-cycle too

Having Fun at "Pre Rup"
NO! I'm not part of the artifacts

The Monks are having
fun too ...
... I guest they are
tourists monks?
... Taking pictures at
"Preah Khan"...
Also Patrick is enjoying  "Preah Khan"
Great light at "Angkor Wat"

If you want to dive into the history of the great Khmer kingdom which began around the 9th century to the early 13th century, I suggest reading more on Wikipedia

Patrick is obviously fascinated
by the history of Angkor.
Or maybe just tired from the cycling?
Jayavarman VII ruled over a rich and powerful period where the Khmer kingdom reached into Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Most of the temples/wats were built in this period under his patronage. The wats were built and dedicated to whichever religion that the ruler/king chose. So he would build the temple to honor his particular god (often the statues were carved to represent the king’s own likeness!). So there are many different gods scattered around. Suryavarman II ruled under the auspicious power of the Hindu God, Vishnu; while Jayavarman VII actually changed the religion entirely to Mahayana Buddhism so Buddha was added to the god image cacophony. They didn’t usually destroy the previous statues but instead just added the reigning king’s god to the ensemble. So Angkor is a bit of a hotch potch of Hinduism meets Buddhism.

Dust and smoke are our two worst demons on this trip. Cambodians burn litter and also use fire to clear their fields in order to plant crops. So there is smoke always in the air. Then, whenever we are “out and about” on our bikes, we also need to contend with pollution from over-loaded vehicles belching and wheezing as they try to move forward, their diesel engines badly tuned. These fumes are mixed together with the exhaust from numerous motorcycles to create a lethal cloud of haze.  The worst pollution is when a car decides to pass a slower moving vehicle and needs to use the imaginary emergency lane which is basically a dirt edge. A tornado of dust immediately springs to life. So imagine the life of a bicyclist who is incidentally at the bottom of the traffic food chain. We are the little ants among the giants. Patrick and I invested in a set of those surgical face masks to help us in our travels, (note: even the locals use them). Did I mention that we take showers very often?

The driving style of the locals is not like too many other places that we’ve ever visited-kinda like Italian motorcyclists on steroids. We eventually learned the proper driving technique, which entailed going against the flow of traffic until you can cross the street to the other side and then continue moving in the correct direction. But the one thing that you don’t do is waiting at a corner to cross (unless there is a proper traffic light there), otherwise you will get nowhere slowly.

Sweeper, dusting the temple
We even saw motorcyclists texting on cell phones while going against the flow of traffic.

After discussing dirt in great detail, this paragraph might sound a bit strange. There is very little rubbish lying about. The streets are actually quite clean. There is basically an army of sweeper covered from head to toe in protective gear and armed with long-handled twig-brooms: they are constantly sweeping everything, all the time. You can spot them initially by the little cloud of dust that engulfs them, but like genies they eventually appear through the haze when the earth is bare of dust and debris.
Sweep, sweep, sweep...

Generally, they were sweeping leaves and dust into piles. Hundred of people employed to sweep dirt around the Angkor area. What an unusual concept! I guess they are helping to eliminate dust clouds too! I rarely saw litter anywhere at Angkor, even in Siem Reap. And when you did, it was swept into neat piles waiting to be erased from the scenery. Phnom Penh is not quite the same…nope.

Going Farther Afield: Temple Day 3

Heading to "Bantaey Srei", the 75km
trip may is a bit too far for our legs
We negotiated for a tuk tuk driver to pick us up at 7am at our hotel for a half day tour to Bantaey Srei and Bantaey Samre which are about a 75 km round trip. After having yet another filling breakfast, our driver was promptly waiting for us at 7am.

So nice not to pedal for once.
The air was frigid especially with the 50 km/h wind-chill factor of our open air vehicle. The countryside was filled with morning activity. People were boiling up a liquid and selling these bundles all along the road. We later were informed it was palm sugar. There were many palm trees along the way with makeshift, permanent ladders attached to them (which is a pole with little bamboo cross-sections nailed every 2 foot or so along the height). Palms are tapped in the morning for juice which can be drank fresh or kept until the day’s end when it to ferments and becomes a bit alcoholic. Or they can boil it and make a thick, sweet substance like jaggery or brown sugar.

We arrived at Bantaey Srei at about 7:45am and there were about 50 people already there but no big tour buses yet.
"Bantaey Srei" before
the masses arrived

This is a small temple complex but it is considered to be one of the jewels of the region. It is an unusual, pinkish quartz sandstone of exquisite detail (most of the best sculpture work from the other temples resides in museums now).
There are many intricate carved scenes from Hindu mythology found here. We spent about 45 minutes enjoying the setting, and on our way back to our tuk tuk, we encountered hundreds of people just arriving. This small temple was comfortable with 50 people but I can’t imagine how these crowds will fit in. Perhaps they queue up? I was so happy that we arrived when we did. At the car park, there were loads of buses and even more people on their way in. Yikes!

Queen of "Bantaey Samre"
We continued to Bantaey Samre which gets very few visitors. It seems that buses don’t stop there. It was nice to quietly explore, consequently.

We arrive back at our hotel just slightly past 11am. Relax and organize a bit. Then take our trusty bikes, in the late afternoon, and head back to Angkor for our last visit.
Last pose at "Angkor Wat" before
leaving for Phnom Penh
We start at Bayon (again) and then back to Angkor Wat completing the circle of our Angkor Exploation! Back to where we started on our first evening’s visit.

Time to say good-bye to a very special place!
... next stop is Cambodia's Capital Phnom Penh. 

... and here the additional pictures for the Temple buffs.

Angkor Wat:
 Showing the massive size of the
Temple complex
The usual "masses" during the day.
Early morning or late night is THE
time to visit Angkor Wat

Banteay Kdei:

Ta Prohm:

Ta Keo and Victory Gate


Ta Som

Neak Pean

Preah Khan

Banteay Srei

Banteay Samre