Friday, December 24, 2010

Angkor Wat and A Buddhist Christmas

 Hello everyone, I hope you are all doing well, and that you have a wonderful Christmas holiday. As of now, Cambodia is in the rear-view mirror, and I am in Thailand, writing from the roof-top deck looking at the lights of Bangkok listening to the song 'One night in Bangkok', hahaha!

Our day began early. We met the tuk-tuk driver outside of our guest house at 5am in order to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. The $20 day pass to get into all the temples is a bit steep (the second most expensive thing I've done after the diving class actually), and we paid the driver $5 each, but it was well worth it. Arriving early, we followed the masses of other tourists through the dark to the edge of the reflection pool and waited for the sun to come up in spectacular fashion. We then explored the inside and outside, snapped a few more pictures of the sun and headed off to the next site.

All three of us ran into camera issues here: low batteries. I came prepared, with two spares, but I got a little shutter-happy during the sunrise, and forgot how bad my generic batteries were, having left the real Canon battery back in the room for some reason. By the time I'd left Angkor Wat, the first site of a day we thought was going all the way until sunset, I was on my third battery and both Nick and Ellen were receiving low battery warnings! What this meant was that we didn't take nearly as many pictures of the next sites as we (and I in particular) normally would, and we were freaking out about our batteries dying the whole time. It ended up being ok, but I wish I hadn't gotten into that situation. Oh well.

From Angkor Wat, we headed to the next site, Bayon. While Angkor is in drastically better shape, and is the major draw, I immediately found Bayon to be a more beautiful space. I'm not sure I can explain why, but I found the shapes and layout more appealing, and I guess I almost like the fallen apart look better than the pristine look. That said, international teams are working constantly to rebuild and repair nearly all of the ruins, and the Japanese, through UNESCO were working on this particular site. Something I really enjoy about these sites is something you experience in southeast Asia as a whole from my experience: freedom. What I mean by that, is unlike a western historical site, where you would probably just have a roped off path through a predetermined route, here you can walk and climb nearly everywhere. Certain areas are off limits of course, and signs tell you not to sit certain places, etc, but overall you can really do your own thing which I find wonderful.

Next, we walked to Baphuon. This particular site had been in a major state of disrepair and was in the process of rebuilding during the 1970s. An international team was working to restore it, which involved documenting and numbering every stone, taking the whole thing apart and then rebuilding it. The Khmer Rouge however disliked this idea when it came to power, and destroyed the plans to put it back together, leading to what is described as 'the worlds largest jigsaw puzzle.' This particular picture is of the back side of the site, with a never completed image of the Buddha laying down. Had it been completed, I believe it would have been the largest such image ever created.

We then visited a number of the smaller and lesser known sites before heading to Ta Prohm famous for the trees that grow over the ruins. The truth is many if not all of the sites had similar trees growing in and through them, but at this site the largest and most spectacular trees were left intact. The effect is stunning: trees and their roots appear to entangle and flow down the ruins like water. The trees are also huge, some probably 100 feet tall. Obviously since I work in trees, this site was of particular interest to me and I also liked it more than Angkor Wat. Walking through it was somewhat torturous however, I wanted to climb to the top of the trees so badly!

We walked through this site a bit longer, and were continually blown away by what we saw. We then went to a few other sites of varying degrees of impressiveness, and overall had a long (~6am until ~2:30pm) but excellent day in the area.

At some point, the driver took us to a restaurant for lunch. We looked at the prices, $4-$5 for a meal, and told him it was much to expensive and that we didn't want to eat there. Instead, we wanted to go to the food carts we had passed earlier, and eat for $1-$2 as we had usually done. He insisted we eat where he took us, and the place agreed to let us eat for a discount, $2/$3. I am sure it is a very common scheme drivers pull on tourists, and it turned out the driver got to eat free for bringing us. On top of it all, it was the most disappointing dish I'd eaten in a long time, the fried rice tasted like what you would get at all all-you-can eat buffet. Ugh. Even worse than that however, was the next place he took us: some stupid Chinese owned junk store, that sold a bunch of jewelery that was probably just colored glass, and the same tourist junk as the markets, but for 5 times the price! At this point he also told us we had to pay more to go see the sunset, when we thought we were getting that all along. At this point, we were all rather annoyed, but also tired from getting up at 5am, so we just went back to the guest house.

It was later this night that Nick and I ran into Steve, Kathrine and Eric on Pub Street (the picture I included in the last update) which of course was quite a surprise. We'd agreed to meet up the next evening for dinner at their hotel, and surprise Aunt Wilma!

The next day, we really didn't have any plans, and were mostly just going to relax. The morning got off to an interesting start however, when I awoke to find I had acquired two ticks while I'd slept. Nick had actually found one on him the previous day, and we assume they got on our cloths in the jungle the other day and we had brought them with us, but you can never really know. We spent the rest of the afternoon laying about, catching up on internet business, getting another full body massage (this time $4 for an hour, however mine paled in comparison to the earlier massage) and walking about the markets.

The plan for meeting up with the family for dinner was simple enough. At 5:30 I'd call their hotel to see if they were in, and if not leave a message saying where to call me back. Due to various problems with communication, we gave up on the phone thing, and just decided to show up and find them. Upon arriving, Aunt Wilma was brought out not knowing I was there, and the look of surprise on her face was priceless! She was thrilled to see me, and it was a wonderful treat for me as well to get to see her and some of the family around Christmas time.

The plan of course was to have dinner together, but despite the fancy accommodations, the service was remarkably poor. I think it was the first time in southeast Asia when it seemed like someone DIDNT want to make money. Service was horribly slow, and by the time we finally sat down and ordered, they didn't have half the dishes we had wanted. By the time food finally came at 9pm or something, a few of the dishes were delicious, the fish amok in particular, but the noodle dish used instant noodles, one dish was missing and the beef skewers were cold and chewy. I don't mean to sound like a whiner, because despite this it was wonderful to see everyone, and it was a very enjoyable evening, it was just a surprise to receive service like that at such a (relatively) expensive place, but hey, I guess that's Cambodia for you!

After dinner, we headed out to the night market. In all honesty, it sells the same things as every other market, but it was fun anyways, and I ended up buying some t shirts: one as a gift, one to send home for myself, and one to wear out here. This town is full of the same 'massage fish' that we had experienced earlier, and I just have to share one of the signs with you: “$2 All night long. You have ever tested only the people to massage before. But now day Garra Rufa Dr. fish can make surprise better performance the people. They can absorb cell of dead skin and make the fresh cell appear.” Hahahaha...

The next morning, at 7:30am, we left our guest house to get on a bus to Bangkok, Thailand (cost: $8). We were told the bus left at 8am, was 6-ish hour ride, and we would be in Bangkok around 3pm. Thus began our rather irritating twelve hour bus experience. The bus finally left around 9am, and drove in a manor that seemed intentionally slowly. We hadn’t eaten breakfast before getting on the bus because all buses make food stops along the way. This bus however, took us to a stand with no real food, but rather just overpriced drinks and snacks. We bought some bananas and decided we could wait until lunch. Lunch was even worse. The bus took us to this massive 'bus terminal' place that was nearly empty and only had a few overpriced and disgusting looking dishes. I refused to give in to these type of scams the buses run, and continued to go hungry.

This photo is of the boarder between Cambodia and Thailand. We had to get off the bus, go through the departure process with Cambodia, go to a different line, and show our visas to get across the boarder into Thailand. From there, we were supposedly getting on another bus and finally getting to Bangkok. The boarder for some reason took two hours, and while on the other side food was for sale, they put us in the back of a pickup truck, and drove us to yet another overpriced restaurant for another break before getting on the bus, ugh!!! Maybe this was the difference between this company and the $13 bus...

At about 7:30pm, twelve hours later, we arrived in Bangkok. We had no idea where it was going to drop us off at and were rather worried we would be miles away, requiring a fairly expensive taxi ride to get where we needed to be and find a room. This turned out to be the only good thing about the bus besides the low price, it turned out we were dropped off exactly where we wanted to be! Coming into Bangkok was quite interesting, as it is much more developed than the other cities I've been in thus far. We were driving on one of the only modern highway systems I've seen this entire trip, the road was full of cars instead of motos (scooters, etc), we passed expensive hotels and condos, and it generally felt like a modern city.

Once off the bus, we went in search of a place to stay, knowing Bangkok is an expensive city. For the first time since meeting up with Nick and Ellen, we had to buy two rooms, which cost about $5 and $7. My room was about 5.5x8 feet, has no window to the outside, and just has a bed and little table. Not fancy, but it does the job. With our room sorted out, we headed out to finally get some food, walking down the famous tourist street that is Khaosan Road, grabbing some cheap (35 baht, about $1.10) and excellent dinner from a street vender, walking through the extremely busy district, and generally being thrilled about being in Thailand.

The next morning, we slept in, left our room, prepared for Nicks family to show up late that night. We checked into a new hotel, one we had booked earlier, and a place much nicer than anything I've stayed at this trip and probably nicer than anything I'll stay at again. Personally, I don't mind a dark and ugly room with a shared bathroom with only squat toilets, especially when the price is only a few bucks, but we figured Nicks parents would want a little more, and that's just fine with me too. This picture is from the rooftop overlooking the city of Bangkok.

In the early evening, the three of us headed out to meet up with a friend of Ellen's from college who is spending a year here in Thailand teaching English at a school outside of Bangkok. We ended up also meeting one of her fellow co-workers as well, from West Virginia, and later meeting some Canadians from British Columbia who we hung out with.

At around 2:30am or so, Nick's family showed up, Colin, Jean and Chris, and after hellos, we went to sleep.

In the morning we awoke, and had breakfast downstairs in the hotel. Seeing Nick's family out here is a ton of fun. After my own family, I've spent more time with the Jones family than anyone else, since we have been friends since 5th grade or something like that. They are a bit of Seattle 'family' for me here in Bangkok on Christmas.

After eating, we headed out into the city and took a short ferry ride down the river.

Our first destination for the day was Wat Po, an amazing temple complex that houses a gold reclining Buddha, the largest around at something like 150 feet long. It was a really amazing sight, and Ellen remarked while she had seen a lot of wats on her travels thus far, this was a truly impressive sight.

The reclining Buddha is just one part of this complex. Along with the Royal Palace complex in Cambodia, this is the most intricate and ornate places I've ever seen. We walked around the grounds for a good while, seeing the hundreds of other gold Buddhas on display, marveling at the architecture and generally just looking around in awe.

After a bowl of noodle soup, we headed off to the National Museum which went over Thailand's early history, and had a great number of artifacts on the large grounds. This particular photo is of a funeral chariot that was used in the 1800s I believe, and just like the Wats is quite a thing to behold.

Returning to my room to rest, I opened the box of cookies from my grandmother Oma, that the Jones brought from Seattle and dug in. I've had these cookies from Oma for so many years it was the first thing out here that has made me feel like it is really Christmas! After a bit of a rest, we went out to dinner and are turning in early for the night.

Tomorrow, we will do more exploring of the city, I need to figure out my visa situation for India, and shortly we are headed south towards Phuket and back towards the beach, can't wait!

Until next time, merry Christmas everyone!