It’s -26 degrees celsius where I live right now, and as if that isn’t horrific enough we have the distinct displeasure of a windchill bringing the feel of the temperature to -33. Yes that’s actually true and not a typo. I have a cup of tea, a big cozy blanket, and blinds over the window so I don’t have to see the wintery misery outside; I’m directing my focus solely to happier memories of warmer climates! And my first trip down memory lane brought me back to Cambodia, which I remember being more along the lines of 30 degrees celsius above zero instead of below. Ahhhhh, feeling warmer already….
But I don’t think I’m going to write much tonight since I’m feeling much more visual than verbal. Instead how about a few more of my pictures from Angkor Wat out of the 250 or so I took that day?
After Angkor Wat it’s time to move on again, letting Siem Reap fade in the rear view mirror and looking forward to Phnom Penh. Another day and another bus, story of my life lately!
As I was watching the countryside scroll past me out the window I had a sense of déjà vu that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but I found myself smiling. And then it hit me: What I was seeing was the real life version of a childhood fascination. When I was about eight years old I learned that in some impossible-to-imagine place on the other side of the world people would live in houses built on stilts, letting them spend the day in hammocks in the shade under the house or keeping the floor dry when the flooding comes. I remember vividly thinking this was the coolest thing ever, and I wanted to live in a “treehouse without the tree”. Fun to witness it almost exactly the way I had pictured as a kid!
While in Phnom Penh we learned about the horrific period in Cambodian history during the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot regimes. Heartbreaking doesn’t even come close to describing the devestation inflicted on the country, where in a four year span roughly two million people lost their lives by execution, starvation, exhaustion or war. We visited the memorial at the Killing Fields as well as the Genocide Museum housed in a former detention prison, and I think each of us struggled to contain our emotion while hearing about the atrocities committed by the regime. I find it really difficult to write about; on one hand I believe it’s important to share and educate people about such shocking events, and on the other I’m afraid to do a disservice to the victims due to my own ignorance. Hearing from our local guide some of the facts and personal stories made me want more information. If you would too, here’s two websites I’ve been reading through to learn more: Killing Fields or Khmer Rouge
I don’t know the real significance of the memorial stupa, but to me it evokes a graceful sense of hope in the soaring height of the pillars. (A stupa is a sacred structure that contains the remains of the deceased. Inside this one are more than 5000 carefully preserved skulls.)
Emotionally drained by the weight of the Killing Fields, I had wanted only to escape to my hotel room and disappear into a novel for a while. On the walk back, though, I spotted a beautiful spa promoting massages, and almost before I realized what I was doing I had Tricia and myself booked in. We didn’t really know what to expect of a Khmer massage, complete with a guava and rice milk scrub, but the whole place just seemed so serene. That is, at least, until our awkward nervous giggles broke the tranquility. Tricia and I were led to side by side tables and instructed to take off everything – everything! – and to cover with the towel set on each table. Feeling sheepish that I apparently booked us a couples massage, we did our best to swallow our giggles and just enjoy the treatment. And as soon as the massage began I forgot about anyone or anything else… My masseuse was a tiny beautiful woman who seemed to possess superhuman strength, which she used to wipe out knots I hadn’t even realized I possessed. Once my muscles were sufficiently tenderized, jasmine and lemongrass oils were massaged into my skin. First time I’ve smelled so nice since I left home I’m sure! Next came the body scrub, and I was impressed with her ability to keep my modesty intact as she deftly folded the towel to only expose the limb she was working on while basically giving me a sponge bath with guava fruit. The final step had her massaging a thick and grainy paste all over me. Toes to nose my skin glowed baby soft!
Dinner together with our group this evening had been hotly anticipated (or dreaded, in Tricia’s case) as our guide Joe had promised to take us to a place that served spiders. As we arrived, I think everyone breathed a small sigh of relief to see it was a really nice restaurant. Just as we were placing our drink orders there was a commotion at the table beside us, and we got ringside seats to witness a plate of three tarantulas being eaten by one brave tourist. So we couldn’t let our table be shown up, and ordered our own dish of horror to share among us.
The most surprising part of this story isn’t even that we ate huge and hairy fried arachnids – it’s that it actually tasted really good! If you want to know what it’s like but don’t see yourself getting here, just imagine a big mushroom with a crispy coating and delicious peppery citrus soya sauce. This was Tricia’s show, and everyone including the people at surrounding tables, was invested in her ability to overcome her phobia and take a bite. After she finished her first bite spontaneous applause broke out!
3:40 in the morning and my alarm cuts short the end of my dream; but I don’t mind because I’m about to go experience a real life dream come true! We’re both a little groggy from lack of sleep and we have a quick deadline that doesn’t leave us much time to get ready – no time even for coffee or breakfast! – but I don’t care at all because nothing can dampen my enthusiasm for getting out to watch the sun rise over the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. I’m buzzing with a giddy energy, and already envisioning all the epic photos I’ll be able to take.
The drive from our hotel in Siem Reap to Angkor Wat was about half an hour, and some time during those thirtyish minutes it started to rain. The guide made a comment about how nice it was for us to be here in the rainy season, as it meant there would still be water in the ponds. “More much beautiful this way.” Within three steps of exiting the van the rain intensified and all of us travellers made the instinctual decision to buy the plastic rain ponchos being offered us. We finally enter the complex and try to get ourselves set up in the best spots for the sunrise photos, mostly by following the crowd of other ponchos and umbrellas. Apparently we had about 25 minutes before the big moment. But the rain kept pouring and it was starting to become obvious that we wouldn’t see a bright sunrise through all the rain and clouds. I had left my umbrella in the room that morning, and the worst part was that I hadn’t forgotten it, I deliberately took it out because I didn’t want to be bothered carrying it all day; that fact added to my mood steadily souring as I tried to shelter my camera with a plastic bag. Standing in the rain and mud I snapped a few photos but it wasn’t long before I was ready to give up. Cliche as it is, I kept thinking “man, when it rains it pours!” because my list of little grievances was suddenly flooded. No Sunrise. No golden photos. Ruining my camera in the rain. Water dripping down my neck, mud coating my sandals and toes. No coffee or breakfast. Not enough sleep. I finally bought another umbrella from a vendor because at least that could protect my camera, and didn’t even care that I paid his first price instead of barganing down to a more reasonable price.
Our tour group of seven made the unanimous decision to return to our hotel for breakfast in the hopes that the rain would stop during that time, and I’m sooo glad we did. That was the reset I needed, and by the time we returned I was on my way back to being able to enjoy it all. The rain did stop, sun came out again, and we were able to explore the three main temple ruins like we had originally planned – Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm.
Throughout the centuries in Cambodia’s history the religion practiced here changed between Hindu and Buddhism depending on who was in power. It’s left behind an amazing mix of carvings depicting Vishnu and Rama next to statues of Buddha, both hemmed in together by the surrounding dense jungle.
Angkot Wat is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, and exploring through the complex is still a complete dream come true. If you ever get the chance to go there yourself don’t pass it up – but just be open to having a different experience than what you may have pictured. I didn’t get the stunning sunrise photo like seemingly the rest of the Travel Bloggers were able to but in the end I don’t even miss it.
After Tricia and I spent our first two days on our own, it was time to join the tour I’d booked. I really like to sometimes have the mix of solo travel and organized tours, and we get to do both on this trip. For 8 days we’ll be part of a small group on a budget tour adventuring across three countries. Frankly, it wasn’t off to a great start, as half of our group was given incorrect information on where to meet and join the tour but thankfully it didn’t take long to sort out and we were already close by.
First thing the next morning we set off for our bus and settled in for a four hour ride headed towards the Cambodian border.
I like seeing the countryside this way; getting a compilation picture of what life might be like there as I gaze out the bus window. Plus the little roadside stands we make pit stops at have never failed to delight my curious adventure side. Have you ever had the pleasure of browsing a shelf of preserved cobras and scorpions while looking for a bottle of water? I have. And while I chose to skip out on the fried birds being offered, I did stock up on some new-to-me flavours of chips for the ride.
Crossing the border was an easy process, just a little slow while we waited for the entry visas. On the other side we found a new bus and loaded back up for the rest of the drive to Siem Reap. My first views of Cambodia were so satisfying in a stereotypical way, full of water buffalo in rice fields.
Our destination revealed itself to be a small city with a great laid-back tourist vibe. This is the launching point for Angkor Wat, the reason most people come to this corner of the world – myself included!