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!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Blissed Out in Cambodia

Evening ladies and gents, tonight I'm writing from my guest house in Siem Reap in the northern part of Cambodia, the gateway-city to Angkor Wat!

After our rest day in Sihanoukville, we decided to head to Krong Koh Kong, a city on the far west end of Cambodia, near the boarder with Thailand. We woke up at about 7am, got breakfast at our favorite noodle soup lady, and rode a tuk-tuk to the bus station. Unfortunatly, we had missed the early bus, and had to wait a few hours for the next one. We were a bit annoyed about this, but we ended up just going back to the beach, laying in the sun, eating fruit and fried shrimp, and swimming. There are worse ways to wait for the bus. Anyways, in the afternoon we caught the bus from Sihanoukville to Krong Koh Kong, a 5 hour ride I think? Koh Krong is a pretty small little town without a whole lot to do, other being a gateway to the Cardamom Mountains, 'the second largest virgin rainforest on mainland southeast Asia' and home to threatened species such as Asian elephants, tigers, bears, but more on that later.

This van is in Koh Kong, and is not an uncommon sight anywhere in southeast Asia. Rather hilariously, despite totally uncontrolled intersections, getting to drive on the wrong side of the road, cutting through gas stations at corners, and so on, I've seen a rather large number of driving schools! It would seem one of the first rules to driving in southeast Asia, weather you are on a bike, moto, tuk-tuk, car, truck, or van, rule number one is to shove it so full of stuff the frame is nearly dragging on the road and the whole thing is tied together with twine and granny knots, haha.

In the morning the first thing we did was woke up and moved to a different guest house because we didn't really like the guy running it and it simply wasn't very nice. We did however have an interesting evening talking to (or rather being talked at) him and another ex-pat woman who ran a tour business in the town, and all their complaints...

After that, we walked to the dock and hired a local guy to take us on a little boat tour through the mangrove forests that are just outside town. We climbed onto a rather small dinghy with a 15hp engine, Nick got a laugh when he asked about life jackets, and we sped off. Beginning on the main waterway out to sea, we passed fishing villages built on stilts, and rows upon rows of identical fishing boats that look 100 years old. After the villages we went through the mangroves and out into where the mouth of the river met the sea.

In this brackish water, lived dolphins, and we sat and watched the dolphins for 20 minutes or so. We didn't see any jumping out of the water, or anything spectacular like that, but we saw plenty of them, and many fins and tails as them would come to the surface.

After watching the dolphins, the driver took us to this little beach island. He really didn't speak English, so we got there and didn't really know what we were supposed to do. All that was on this island was a rundown cabana with even more rundown toilets, a stack of tires, and for some reason, some tire swings. He pointed to the stacks of tires, which turned out to be attached to each other, and pointed out to the water. Totally confused, we pushed the tire things to the water, knowing they wouldn't float or anything like that. I pushed mine into the water and sat on it, causing our guide to laugh at us I guess. This particular beach was really lousy honestly. The water smelled pretty bad, it had lots of biting sand fleas, washed up dead squid and the weird thing with the tires... we left shortly afterwords. It was pretty funny though.

Our next stop was the boardwalk through the mangroves. It cost about a dollar I think, but was quite nice. From the boardwalk you could stop at lots of little huts, see fish, frogs and snails in the water, and of course climb onto the trees. Having never seen trees like this, I of course had to get onto them and climb around. Sure, flip flops aren't ideal, and I dropped one, but the trees are amazing things, woven into some hugely tangled structure of roots.

Farther down the boardwalk, in addition to rooms you can stay at, is a restaurant. I think we all ordered the seafood fried rice (or maybe that is what the girl told us she had, I forget how it went actually) and we got to eat lunch on a bamboo mat in the mangrove forest for $1.25 I think it was. It was a lovely place to sit and relax, and we could have spent all day laying out in the trees. Personally I've taken a liking to squid while out here, tentacles and all!

The next morning, the three of us hopped on motos for what was a rather long ride, and headed out for a bit of a jungle trek and overnight. We had three 'guides', who took us out of the town and into the 'conservation area' where we would hike around.

We headed off in some random little trail, that was really not established at all, and our guides walked around with us for a while in what I assume was a search for wildlife. Only one of the guys spoke English, and it was not excellent (not that it was really a problem, and he was really funny) so we mostly just walked around with them leading us off on random little explorations to look for... I'm not sure. I did see a big black and white bird, and lots of insects, but nothing else on that little walk. It wasn't exciting, but it was fun to just see what it all looks like

Let me just make mention of the Cambodian dry-land leach (no idea what it's real name is). They are a little terror! We were told to expect leaches, and neither Nick or I had shoes nor were we willing to buy any. Honestly it wouldn't have made much of a difference. These things can be as small as a 1/4” long piece of spaghetti, up to the size of a large inch-worm. They stand on their back and look up and around like a periscope, in search of blood. I teased one with my foot actually, and they track with incredible speed and accuracy. They attach and you don't even feel it, and even Ellen who was wearing hiking boots, had leaches get inside of the boots and attach to the top of her feet. One guide was wearing tall rubber boots, and he got them, and of course Nick and I got them as well. When we stopped, we pulled off our socks, and found a bloody mess!

Around lunch time, we walked through the jungle and along a river, where we saw a bright green snake, and had lunch on the rocks. After lunch, we went swimming in the stream, and it felt really nice to be in cool, fresh-water instead of the warm ocean for a change! (but I still love the beach) After a lunch of rice, beer, and fried fish, the guides did the classic 'burn all the Styrofoam garbage maneuver' which we got a kick out of. Oh well, I guess it's better than just littering, like everywhere else in the country, haha. We saw one other interesting bit of wildlife here, a fresh-water river crab with bright blue stripes on it's underside.

This is a sign that unfortunately is all to real in the nation of Cambodia, as huge numbers of landmines have been buried in the nation during various wars, and the victims of landmines can be seen on the streets of Cambodia nearly every day. These signs however, were not real. Our guides told us a Cambodian guy put them up to scare the Chinese who are working in the area, so they would pay him to 'clean up the mines' and make it safe for them to work, hahaha!

Just beyond the fake minefield, we set up camp. It was mostly setup when we arrived, but the guides did go chop down a small tree, and then literally use a vine to tie it to another tree to set up our hammocks on. Authentic!

The food (meat and veggies in a baguette roll (a very popular type of bread in Cambodia, a result of the french occupation of the nation) and was cooked on a rack made of sticks over a fire. The food was simple, but the taste was fantastic. I had three. That night we hung around the fire, talked to Mooney (in white, the one who spoke English) and tried to talk with the others, mostly just laughing. The evening was a ton of fun.

Sleep was another story. All three of us got a bit cold, and none of us found the hammocks comfortable. I got maybe 4 hours of sleep? The funny thing is, it really wasn't that bad. Sure I was cold and uncomfortable, and didn't sleep, but in the morning I felt amazingly ok with it, and it really didn't sour the experience at all.

In the morning after a breakfast of instant noodles and coffee, we played a game with the guides, and had a blast. I can't remember what they called it, and I've seen it in other nations, but it's the hackey-sack like game with the disks on the feathers. I ended up buying one in the market later on for $1, because I' want to play more of it! Since playing with the guides, I've noticed Khamer people playing it every day.

On the way back to town, we stopped on the side of the road to check out this view. That sign indicates something like beyond it is a protected wilderness area where you can't cut trees. The Cardamom Mountains, however are anything but protected. Every single person we talked to, from the guides, to the guest house/restaurant/tour people, as well as locals and other tourists talked about how the Chinese have sent 3000 workers into the jungle, are building a large hydroelectric damn, are killing the local wildlife, either to eat themselves or to send back to China. On top of this, sand is being dredged from the rivers and sent to Singapore, and in recent years illegal logging has increased drastically. People talk about how the politicians and generals own the companies stripping the jungle, that fish stocks are being completely ruined, and no one seems very hopeful. A sad sight to see.

The same day we returned from our little jungle adventure, we hopped an afternoon bus to head off to Siem Reap. The ride began with a 6-ish hour ride from Ko Kong to Phnom Penh, where we had to transfer buses with much confusion as to if we were being ripped off or not. We got some noodle soup for dinner, and hopped the second bus to Siem Reap, which arrived in town at something like 1:40am, hardly an ideal time to arrive in a new city. The fact is, we were hoping to get an overnight bus that we could sleep on and not have to buy a room for the night, but naturally it did not go exactly as planned, but however, worked out just fine.

This photo is from the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where the textile factories are located. From our bus, we saw dozens upon dozens of trucks drive by, all filled with women I presume were all going to work (or coming from work, it was around 5pm. Shift switch?) in the clothing factories. We passed buildings with names on them such as Tairong (Cambodian) Knitting Co Ldt, (Chinese), New Orchard Garment Factory Limited (signs also in Chinese), and many others I didn't catch. I have no idea the conditions of these factories (though I'm curious to know) are what we would describe as 'sweat shops' but from the outside at least, they did not look like pleasant places to work.

Because we had a long quasi-night bus ride into Siem Reap, we were naturally exhausted. This being southeast Asia however, the city gave us no breaks! At 8am, a wedding party on the street below began blasting music which came in quite clearly through our open window. We however persevered, me putting in my ear plugs, and going back to sleep until 11am. Upon waking, we found a place where we got our usual noodle/rice/soup meals for $1.25, and explored the town a bit. At the local market, Nick looked at some crocodile skin wallets, Ellen bought some Cambodian silk scars, and I acquired some new flip flops.

Now this is a tip the Lonely Planet wont share with you. Cambodia in particular, is chock full of counterfeit copies of books, and the Lonely Planet guides are perennial favorites. Even the National Museum sold counterfeit copies in the gift shop! This picture comes from one of the used book stores, where you can buy a pirated copy of the Laos guide for $2, and a real copy for $5. I needed a copy of the Thailand book for my time in Thailand, and ended up buying one from one of the many kids on the street selling books. The kid I purchased my pirated copy from, according to his sign at least, goes to school every day, had his leg amputated (this part I can attest to) at age 9, and uses the money to pay for school. The book was $5, and was the latest edition, only two months old! Maybe I should buy the India book while I'm here...

In the afternoon, we decided to treat ourselves to a massage. We walked around and looked a our options, and ended up with the three of us getting an hour long full body massage for just $5 each! We walked in to a pretty nice looking place, they washed our feet (I felt pretty guilty because I hadn't showered for 2 or 3 days....) and took the three of us to a room where we were all treated to a sort of synchronized massage. It was my first ever massage, and it was a pretty funny experience. I had a very hard time trying not to laugh, despite the fact it felt wonderful, and I ended up with the most feisty and talkative of our three masseuses. Among the things she said, was that I'd look like an Arab if I grew a beard, she wanted to see me cry (from laughing) and and that I had to promise I'd clip my fingernails! After the massage the three of us were all amazingly blissed out, and wondered aloud why we had waited so long to do this. From there, we had an amazing $1.25 dinner and equally amazing $.75 fruit shakes, going to bed fat and happy. One of the highlights of the trip for sure!

This picture is a day out of chronological order, but I NEED to post it.

I was having trouble getting this blog uploaded at dinner, so Nick and I headed out to Pub Street to get online and grab another beer. We walked into a restaurant purely at random, and as I walked past a table I saw a familiar face. It took both of us about three seconds to realize what was going on, but somehow, at about 9:50pm, with no prior knowledge, I walked into the same restaurant, on the same street, in the same city in Cambodia as Aunt Kathrine, Uncle Steve and my cousin Erik! I knew they would be in Cambodia around Christmas but I expected to be in Thailand around then, and had no knowledge of their travel itinerary. To see them on the other side of the world was an amazing and unexpected surprise!

Next on the to-do list, is visiting Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, so stay tuned!