Phenomenal Phnom Penh

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! 

Our tour team selfie
Not sure he liked all the loud English spoken around him
Our chariot, half way to Phnom Penh

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 

A former school transformed to an execution prison
Bracelets left as blessings at one of the mass graves
Killing Fields memorial, built as a Buddhist stupa

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!

Scene at the spa waiting for us after the massages were complete

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.

Our order of tarantulas

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! 

Cambodia: Part Two Angkor Wat

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.

Mood of the morning
Angkor Wat in the rain

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 WatAngkor 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.  

Hindu and Buddhist
Buddhist monk visiting the temple
Amazing ancient ruins
Monkeys!
Elephants!
The Tomb Raider scene
Ta Prohm temple ruins

The good looking group

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.  

Cambodia: Part One

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. 

On the way to the bus

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. 
Cobras and scorpions in rice whiskey

Roadside gas station
I love this kid’s shoes… at the gas station

Option A: fried bird, or Option B: sweet basil Lays
 

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! 

Better than expected Bangkok

When was the last time an experience was a pleasant surprise for you?  I’m curious about that now as I sit and process my past two days in Bangkok, pleasantly surprised at just how much I’ve enjoyed it here.  Don’t get me wrong, I expected to like it – by nature I tend to go through life with an “everything is awesome!” outlook, but I had also entered Thailand’s main city with the preconceived opinion that it was a busy smoggy city much like any other.  Everyone always says to get out of the city as fast as you can, and tour around the countryside instead.  At the moment I tend to disagree, because had I left immediately I would have missed out on being wowed by the kindness of its citizens. 

Thailand is in official mourning after their King died.  I’m not sure what it would be like here during a regular day, but what I witnessed over and over again was the unique camaraderie that comes from a united population.  All along the crowded sidewalks people would be stationed to give out free bottled water, or meals, snacks, and photos of the king. Thousands of them.  And often an extra effort would be made to let us know we were also welcome to take what was being offered.  Beyond that, there were several times both days when someone passing by would stop to point us in the right direction, translate for us, or even lead us for 10 minutes down the winding roads to our destination. 

Finding commonalities in adoration
Memorials set up all over the city
Hundreds of thousands paying their respects

Many of the usual tourist highlights in the city are closed or adjusted this week, but the ones we did see were stunning.  

We started at Wat Pho, the temple complex of the Reclining Buddha.  

Wat Pho
At Wat Pho (shared photo credit with Tricia)
Wat Pho images of the reclining Buddha
Reclining Buddha’s face
Reclining Buddha’s toes
Wat Pho
Guarding the entrance at Wat Pho
 

As per usual during my travels, much of the day was spent walking.  I love seeing a city by foot and thankfully Tricia’s a good sport about that – we just need to make pit stops for food all the time and street vendors are the perfect solution!  

I tried the octopus

Between all the eating and temple touring we found time to shop.  Bangkok has everything you could possibly want, and more tourist-trap knickknacks than you can imagine so it’s easy to get lost in the markets.  Figuratively and literally.   The good thing about backpacking is how reluctant I am to buy things I don’t really need, since I know it just means I’ll have to huff it around for the next 20 days.  I was feeling quite proud of my shopping self control, until I realized it’s really only the instant reward of lighter bags with the delayed gratification of knowing I can buy it all when I’m back here before my flight home.  One for the win! 

While wandering the shops along Khao San Road, happily hypnotized by all the sensory onslaught around us, we talked ourselves into trying a fish pedicure.  Seemed like a fun way to cap off a day of new experiences.   Aaaaand, we hated it.  Yes, our feet were soft after the little fish ate away all the dead skin but I can achieve the same with a pumice stone and way less ick factor.  I was suddenly reminded of my biggest childhood fear in the summers at the lake: “What if fish come and bite my toes?”

Barely keeping it together (Photos by Tricia)

Early morning of Day Three has us meeting up with our tour group and setting off to Cambodia.    But before we go, here are a couple more shots from Bangkok.

Quiet riverside lounging
Water taxi
Temple

En route 

One of my favourite ways to pass the time is to people watch, especially when cultural differences are at play.  Thankfully, 25 hours of travelling have given me ample opportunity to sit back and observe!  My route took me from Calgary to Vancouver where I met up with Tricia (more on that later!) to Beijing, and finally to Bangkok.  During the 10.5 hour flight across the Pacific I was reminded again that the North American concept of personal space is something I’ll need to say goodbye to for the next three weeks.  I had a window seat and when I indicated to my two seat mates that I needed to get up, they both smiled at me, collected some of their items, and leaned back in their seats.  It took me a moment to realize they expected me to climb over them, since I was expecting them to stand up and move to the aisle to let me pass.  And so I did my best to delicately walk past/over these two strangers without stepping on their feet or touching their legs or having too much of my body in their faces.  No easy feat in economy class.  I was trying to decide which way is more appropriate – should I have faced away from them or toward them as I clambered across their laps??Apparently they were unfazed because when I returned to my seat we repeated the whole hoopla again in reverse.

My friend Tricia was with me, but we weren’t able to get seats together on the flight due to an error I made earlier.  Too bad… I had anticipated using those hours to get her opinion on the various details of my messy life!  Instead I watched a Chinese movie by reading the subtitles and noticed throughout the film that the characters showed affection by teasing each other.  Maybe we’re not that different after all…

Are you wondering what error I would have made to keep us from sitting together?  For a self-proclaimed “travel expert” I sure pulled a boneheaded move; one that almost cost her missing the flight!!  Here’s the scenario that I’m super embarrassed to admit.  If you remember a couple weeks ago, I had both of our passports after bringing them to Ottawa in order to get our entry visas for Vietnam.  The plan was for me to make a trip up to visit her before our departure and I could bring her passport, but due to some recent chaos at home I ran out of time for that.  So, I told her she could just use her drivers license to fly from Edmonton to Vancouver, where I meet her, then I’d hand her her passport for our international flights.   Yeah… that was really bad advice.  She was able to check in for the domestic flight using other ID, but was not allowed to be checked through the connecting flights, meaning her her luggage needed to be picked up at the baggage claim after landing in Vancouver then hurried over to check in for the next flights, all while still making making it past the security line ups and back to the gate in time for boarding.  There was only an hour for all this to happen, and while she was running around dealing with it I spent the whole time worrying and kicking myself for not considering a potential negative outcome prior.   Thankfully, Tricia was able to charm the right people into helping her, and she arrived at the gate with minutes to spare!  But because she was the last person to check in for the flight we couldn’t get seats together.   But as she said after we were both onboard “we made it!  If this is the worst hiccup we face on the trip we’ll be in great shape!” 

Next post from Bangkok Thailand! 

BFFs arrived in Bangkok

Not much personal space