Sunday, April 16, 2017

From Phnom Penh to Siem Reap to Saigon

I left Phnom Penh for Siem Reap on an airplane, and it was a very short flight. It would have been an all-day long bus trip if I had chosen to take the bus. But the flight was fairly cheap (I think in the vicinity of $45), so flying was worth it. When I arrived in Siem Reap, I checked my emails to find info on my hostel, and discovered that if I had let them know when I was arriving in advance, they would have arranged a free ride from the airport. Oh, well. I considered calling them, but just decided to pay for a tuk-tuk from the airport to the hostel.

The hostel was pretty nice. It had a pool, a movie theater, and its own fleet of tuk-tuks that charged fixed prices so you didn't have to bargain. I always feel a little bit weird about the bargaining culture in many Asian countries. On one hand, it's interesting to bargain down to get a better price, and to some degree, it is expected. But then again, the people you are bargaining with are fairly impoverished, and you are driving their income downward by bargaining. I hope to usually find a happy medium where I pay the expected Western surcharge, but don't get taken advantage of.

I spent a couple of days just checking out the town of Siem Reap before exploring the temples at Angkor Wat. There is a Pub Street and a Party Street, both of which are popular with tourists. The street that is popular with locals is Khmer Pub Street, which I never managed to visit because it was in a faraway location, and I never really had much reason to go there.

I bought a three-day pass to the Angkor Wat temples, which lets you go to all the areas in Angkor Archaeological Park. "Angkor Wat" is used in two senses; there is the actual Angkor Wat temple, which is the narrower use of the term, and then it can mean, in the broader sense, all of the temples in Angkor Archaeological Park.

The first temple I visited was Angkor Wat itself. I opted for the sunrise tour, which meant that the tuk-tuk I had booked left at four-thirty the next morning. It is best to visit Angkor Wat first because it opens earlier than all the other temples, mostly because of the popularity of the sunrise tour. And there are a TON of people there that early in the morning.

So I set an alarm for four-fifteen in the morning. Most of my life, I haven't used an alarm clock; I have just woken up on my own when I need to. But that costs me a slight bit in stress, so I decided to set an alarm clock. Unfortunately, the sound on my phone was turned all the way down, so the alarm didn't go off. But I woke up and decided to check the time, and it was about four-forty eight. Oh, crap, I had overslept a bit. I hoped that didn't mean that I would miss the sunrise.  So I hurriedly gathered together the stuff I would need to bring with me, and bounded downstairs about five in the morning. Now I was about a half-hour late. But, no worries, the tuk-tuk driver was waiting for me, and there turned out to be plenty of time. The first stop was the ticket office, so I could buy my three-day ticket. And, as luck would have it, there were huge lines for the one-day tickets, but no wait at all in the lines for the three-day tickets. So I was able to just get in and out almost immediately.

Angkor Wat is probably the best restored of all the temples in the vicinity. It doesn't have many huge piles of rubble on the premises like many of the other temples in the area. I toured the temple and walked around the grounds. There was a donkey on the grounds; she looked friendly and gentle, and I had just seen a woman petting her, so I walked over to pet the donkey, and it bit me on the foot. It didn't bite very hard, just hard enough to tell me to fuck off.

After the sunrise at Angkor Wat, the tuk-tuk driver took me to a place to eat breakfast. Then we went to more of the temples on what is called the Little Circuit. These are a group of temples that are fairly close together. These temples include several temples in the Anchor Thom area, and the tour ends with Ta Prohm Temple, which is where many scenes in the movie "Tomb Raider" were filmed, so it is also called the "Tomb Raider" Temple now. It was probably the most spectacular temple of the day (except for maybe Angkor Wat), because of the juxtaposition of chaos, rubble, overgrown mature trees that invaded the walls, and the finely sculpted structure.

That night, I watched the movie "The Killing Fields" in the cinema at the hostel. I had never seen the movie before, but I had seen "Swimming to Cambodia", which was about the making of "The Killing Fields." For some reason, I thought Spalding Gray would have a much bigger role in the movie, but he only had a small part.

The second day, I went on the Big Circuit of temples. These temples were a little farther apart, and there was a lot more travel by tuk-tuk in between the sites. The sites were also, for the most part, a lot smaller than the temples that I visited the day before, except for the first temple, Preah Khan Temple. But the subsequent sites of the day were not very big. The next site was Neak Pean, which was just a series of small shrines surrounded by water. Most of the paths were not open to the public; I went down one path that was apparently closed but marked ambiguously (there was a sign that indicated no entry, but it was not near the path, so I took the expansive interpretation and went down the path), and was immediately told to come back by park employees. Ta Som, East Mebon, and Pre Rup were the other sites I visited on this day, and they were much smaller than the other temples.

On the third day of my three-day pass into Angkor Archaeological Park, I went to some temples that were very far apart, so most of the day consisted of travel. The first temple I saw was Banteay Srai, which is also known as the "Women's Temple." Then there was about an hour and a half tuk-tuk ride to Beng Mealea Temple, which was far outside Angkor Archaeological Park, and was within its own park. This was probably the temple that was restored the least, and was filled with stone rubble and invasive huge trees, and they allowed much more climbing on the rubble than the other temples. Then it was back to Angkor Archaeological Park for the temples in the Roluos Group, which are the oldest temples in Angkor Archaeological Park. The Lolei Temples were the first ones of the group that I visited, and they are the ones undergoing the most extensive renovation. They were built within two layers of walls, each area raised up from the last, and there was an amalgam of ancient and newer buildings on the site. Then I saw Preah Ko and Bakong Temples, which were close by. This was the longest day of temple viewing because of all the travel to get to these remote sites, but not the longest day of actual temple visits.

After the three days of temple visits, I just spent the rest of my time there wandering around the town of Siem Reap before flying back to Saigon. This time I got a private room rather than a hostel so I could take apart my packs and re-pack them thoroughly, and get rid of some stuff (unfortunately, I didn't get rid of enough stuff to keep my main backpack from nearly bursting at the seams, so I'll have to revisit this project soon).

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