Monday, January 30, 2012

Indochine Adventure pt.2 - Cambodia

Emily visits Angkor Wat at sunrise
            Over the past few days, my family and I have been exploring the ancient city of Angkor (and surrounding area) near the modern city of Siem Reap in Cambodia.  I have experienced true awe walking through the remnants of the now jungle-infested 1000 year-old ruins, thinking about the advanced civilization that once existed here, and contemplating the reasons that forced them to eventually abandon their capitol city.
Claira at Angkor Wat

            On our first day in Siem Reap, we awoke at 4:45am so we could arrive at Angkor Wat, the largest temple complex, before the sunrise. Unfortunately, the time-corridor between Christmas and New Years are some of Angkor Wat’s busiest days of the year, with crowds of up to 15,000 passing through the gates each day. But then again, I would much rather deal with the crowds than be here much of the rest of the year, when the heat is simply unbearable -  it can be so bad in April and May that the local tour company we're using is reluctant to book tours during those months. After arriving at the temple, our guide showed us to a secret spot on the wall of the moat to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat, as we watched the thousands of tourists march quietly over the bridge into the grounds like lemming-soldiers in the early morning light, it was quite beautiful.

This temple has been completely reclaimed by the surrounding jungle
Temple at Angkor Thom

There was a bit of a letdown as low clouds formed before our eyes, partially obstructing the beautiful sunrise (but not to worry as my Dad and sister Emily were back at 5:00am a few days later and were rewarded with the sunrise pictured above - carpe diem!). But the lack of direct sun was ok, because now we could tour the complex in the pleasant early morning temp before the noon heat hit. The temple was breathtaking. Just thinking about how much work went into all of the small minutia of details is staggering. They built giant towers, but didn’t have cranes or other modern conveniences. Stone was cut from queries over 40 miles away. After several  hours tour of the main temple, we broke for lunch, then continued in a different area of the complex called Angkor Thom. Here we visited a few smaller temples (but equally as crowded), and got to walk around inside them. By then it had become quite hot, so when we had visited our last temple of the day, we were happy to get out of the winter heat. But, we weren’t finished yet! At 4:30, we arrived at the base of a hill, which we were going to climb up so we could see the sun setting over Angkor Wat from a different temple on top of the hill. The catch was that only 300 people are allowed on top of the temple at one time, and first we had to climb the hill just to see if we were amount the lucky 300. Fortunately, we got there before the biggest crowds showed up, but we still had to wait for some people to depart - as we stood in line waiting for about 45 minutes to enter the temple.
it was great to see my two sisters (for a little while)

Fun with perspective!
          For our entertainment during the wait, we got to look on as street justice was dealt out to a European line cutter gang of 4-5 middle aged men. First, they  walked by us and passed through the front of the line as it made a 90 degree turn towards the temple. But, while passing through the line, one of them slipped quietly out of the middle of the group and stayed behind, while the others kept walking another 30 meters away. After a few seconds, the group turned around and walked back to join their friend at the front of the line, as he called out to them as if he had been saving their place all along. At first it looked like the swarthy Euro-tourists were going to get away with it, but not with America on watch. A few moments later, two loud, but completely correct American tourists stormed up and confronted them, which got the attention of others around them; the cutter-gang's cover had been blown! For a few moments they tried to maintain the facade and stubbornly held their ground, but then the people who confronted them began clapping at them, and soon the whole section of the line around them joined in as well. Now with everyone looking at them, they obviously couldn’t stay, and they retreated in shame from the line and back down the hill. Victory went to the two brave tourists who dared to stand up against the line cutter’s trickery. Oh, and the sunset was beautiful too.

Lots of climbing in the heat
            The following day we explored 3 more temples which, thankfully, were well off the beaten tourist track. The first temple was still a bit crowded one, but was still amazing to see, because we could climb up to the very top and get an amazing few of the forest below. The next was much more special -  we had to walk about a mile or so out into the depths of the jungle, but once we reached our destination, it justified the walk. Here, in the middle of this vast jungle, was a massive, but completely empty temple. We had it all to ourselves, because all the rest of the tourists were still crowding around the more famous buildings. We found a comfortable spot in the inner courtyard of the temple where we then sat in complete silence for 15 minutes, listening to the sounds of the jungle and the wind.  I reflected on this giant empty complex, and the amazing complexes of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Back in its prime, the population here was around 1,000,000 people, now, it is zero. I thought about what it would be like if an entire city in the US was simply abandoned.

Where does land end and the floating village begin?
A "floating village" on Tonle Sap lake

kayaking through the mangroves
A familiar friend!
At this point, we only had one full day left in Cambodia. Early in the morning, we met our guide and drove around an hour or so to the shores of Tonle Sap Lake. We boarded a small boat, and drove another half an hour to a village built entirely on stilts! It wasn't out in the middle of the lake (which I think would have been much cooler), but was in and among the mangroves. We eventually stopped at a house with Kayaks stored underneath. We spent the next hour out in the lake, going through mangroves, and eventually reached the open waters. It was a great paddle, and we saw and heard many things we wouldn't have if we had been in a larger boat. Upon our return to the house, we were greeted by the people, who served us a great lunch! It was spectacular. It was a fairly simple meal that consisted of fish, rice and assorted greens. AND, we drank water from the exact same model of (easily sustainable) bio-sand water filter that I had helped install in remote Amazon villages in Bolivia several summers ago! The next day, new years eve day, we visited a village on land. This one was around 30 minutes away from our hotel. We were taken there by a guide who was actually from that village. He took us to his family's land, and showed us what it was like living in the traditional village way. He even climbed up a coconut tree for us, and gathered some coconuts for us to drink! After visiting the village, we drove back to our hotel, had lunch, and left on a 2 o’clock flight to Luang Prabang, Laos.

A fish-monger makes a deal
This little village had recently suffered a devastating flood


  1. Wow! Everything looks great once again! Those temples look beautiful and the kayaking through the mangroves seemed to be great also. Glad you had a good time!

  2. that temple with the tree growing on it is so cool!
    -Chloe geography sbms

  3. Wow! Sounds cool! Too bad you missed the sunrise.