Thursday, 15 September 2011

Angkor Temples! A blog in pictures

I feel it necessary to begin this blog with a description of the horribly unpleasant bus ride to Siem Reap.  We were picked up by the bus company 30 mins late, and then seemed to drive aimlessly around Phnom Penh, stopping numerous times but only picking up one other passenger.  We made it to the bus station, and endured vendors on the street shoving various products in our faces (bread, sunglasses, books) and trying to get us to buy them (this despite the fact that I was wearing sunglasses and reading a book).  The bus left town about an hour late, and it was FULL.  I don't know how they cram so many people on these buses, but somehow they all manage to find somewhere to sit.  It was a double-decker bus, with the upper level for passengers and the lower level for baggage.  People were bringing the most random things on the bus, including puppy dogs in cardboard boxes that cried very loudly the entire trip, motorcycles, car equipment, etc.  There was a small child behind us who vomited for most of the trip, lending the voyage a distinctly unpleasant odour.  I was sooooo bored - so jealous of people who can read on the bus (ahem Greg), I was actually moved to tears.  Then we heard a loud BANG, and the bus screeched to a halt.  Yes, we blew a tire. Luckily there was a spare on board, and so we weren't delayed too long.  I did take some interesting pictures while waiting on the side of the road:

Scenery from the side of the road, while waiting for the tire repair

Lots of water buffalo grazing nearby, including some babies!!

Broken bus :(

Standing on the side of the road, and suddenly this man emerges from the bushes.  There was a baby water buffalo following along behind the cart.  Adorable!

Ok, enough of the bus ride!  We got to Siem Reap safely, and settled into our guest house.  We decided to hire a tuk-tuk for our 3 day temple extravaganza.  We wanted to save Angkor Wat and all the other super impressive temples for the last day, so we started out small, heading far out of town to see some interesting sights.  Before I get to the pictures, a brief history for you:

The Angkorian era spanned AD 802 to 1432.  The only remaining buildings are temples, as only they were allowed to be made from stone.  Normal people were not allowed to live in stone buildings; it was reserved only for the gods.  And there are over 1,000 temples in the area!  The city itself was huge, estimated to be over 1,000 square kilometers, and the population could have been as large as one million people.  The Angkor civilization was quite advanced, with complicated reservoirs and irrigation systems to support so many people.  Angkor Wat is the largest, most famous temple in the region, and actually the largest religious building in the world.  It has been in continuous use since it was built.  Some of the temples were built to worship the Hindu religion (including Angkor Wat), while others were Buddhist.  Angkor Wat was actually 'converted' to Buddhism by later Angkorian Kings.

Ok, now for the pictures!

Aw, look at us, so excited to see some ancient temples!

Our first stop!  We hiked 1.5km uphill to a stream, where the rocks making up the stream bed had been elaborately carved.  It was quite intricate, and I was impressed that they were in such good shape, even the carvings on the bottom of the river.

Impressive detail

Second stop on day 1 was Banteay Srei, an elaborately carved temple made of pinkish-toned rock.  Apparently the carvings here are supposed to be some of the finest on earth.  Very beautiful.

Some of the amazing carvings.  You can really see the pink hue to the stone here as well.

Banteay Srei

Day 1, stop #3: Banteay Samre.

Final stop on day 1: Pre Rup.  Our driver took us here to get some nice sunset pictures, but unfortunately it was only 4pm, and the sun doesn't set til 6.  And there was a really wicked thunderstorm brewing off in the west, so we made a hasty retreat back to town!  It started pouring on our way back, and I saw a really horrible accident with a motorcyclist lying on the road, with blood gushing from his head.  So scary!  I hope he is ok...

That night we were quite tired after our first day exploring the temples.  The next day, we planned to do the "grand tour," which includes the smaller temples around Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.  We arranged for our tuk-tuk driver to pick us up at 8am, and then headed into town for some *delicious* Indian food.  It may have been the greatest mango lassi of my life!

Day 2, temple #1: Preah Khan, which translates to "sacred sword."  This guy was on the bridge leading up to the temple.  There was a long row of sculptures like this, all holding the body of a giant snake.  

Preah Khan.  This is actually one of the biggest Angkorian temples.

The front entrance of Preah Khan.  The doors along the central hallway leading to the inner temple get progressively smaller, so that as you reach it, you are bowed over to properly worship the deities.   I really like the tree growing out of the top of the wall on the left side of the picture.

Cows also like to visit temples.  Notice the row of statues in the background.  They are holding the body of a giant snake, as I described in the previous picture.

Temple #2, Day 2.  Frankly, this temple (Preah Neak Pean) was quite unimpressive.  This was it.  The supposedly neat thing about it is that it's surrounded by man-made ponds.   But the water was stagnant and  brown, not making it terribly nice to look at.  

Temple #3, day 2: Ta Som.  We saw an amusing sign on the way in to this temple saying "No Dogs Allowed."  First of all, no one seems to have dogs as pets in Cambodia, and tourists certainly aren't bringing their dogs to visit Angkorian temples.  We saw many stray dogs disobeying the signs.

Day 2, temple #3: Eastern Meborn.  I quite enjoyed the elephant statues placed all around the upper levels.   

Greg deciding if he wants to spend the energy to climb up.  There were some nice views from the top, where we sat and had a snack.

Umm, ok, what temple is this?  They're all starting to blend together at this point!  But I think this is Banteay Kdei.  Not too tall, not too wide, this didn't have anything too distinctive about it.  I remember a man trying to sell us temple rubbings, and he gave the exact same speech to me and the guy behind me, spoken very quickly so we'd hear it all before we ran away.  Sigh, the people trying to sell us crap everywhere we went was very exhausting!!  The kids were by far the worst though; so sad.  Some of the kids had to be 3 or 4 years old, trying to sell us postcards, no parents in sight.  We saw some tourists taking pictures with the little kids, as though this was just so adorable.  Horrifying!

Banteay Kdei again.  Just thought this was a cool picture.

Cool tree growing in the middle of the ruins of Banteay Kdei.

Oh thank goodness, last temple of the day!!  It was only about 2pm, so our tuk-tuk driver offered to take us to Angkor Wat, but we said no thank you.  We were ready to go back and flake out at the guest house. Quite frankly, we were getting rather tired of looking at the temples!  Especially since the next morning we were going to see sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat!  We were picked up at 5am, and it was raining pretty hard.  Fortunately it had mostly stopped by the time we reached Angkor Wat, but it was of course still overcast.  We didn't actually see a sun rise, the sky just got mildly lighter.  Oh well, it was still a beautiful sight to see!

The outside walls of Angkor Wat are covered with elaborate carvings telling stories.

Giant spider at Angkor Wat!  I wanted to put my hand in the picture to give it some perspective, but then thought better of that.  I included it for a nice break from temple pictures!

Outside wall of Angkor Wat, with a perfect-looking tree.

More Angkor Wat.

Inner courtyards at Angkor Wat.

View from the front of Angkor Wat, looking towards the front gate.

Gate at the entrance to Angkor Thom.  Angkor Thom was a walled city, with sides of about 10km in length.  This is the southern gate of the city, with four giant faces facing the cardinal directions.

The Bayon, an impressive temple inside Angkor Thom.  The temple contains over 200 faces of a god carved in the many towers.  Apparently the faces are said to strongly resemble the king who commissioned the temple, and have an enigmatic 'Mona Lisa' expression.  

There were workers like these everywhere around the temples.  They did all the landscaping: cutting grass, pulling weeds, etc.

Giant faces carved in the Bayon.  

The Bayon was like a maze inside!  Greg and I managed to lose each other for a good 20 minutes.  This was Greg's favourite temple.

Right beside the Bayon, the Baphuoun.  The French were in the middle of restoring this temple when civil war broke out, and all the records were destroyed.  Apparently it was quite the puzzle to put it back together again!  Unfortunately it was all locked up and we couldn't go in for a look.

We did climb this temple, located inside the old Royal Palace.  Unfortunately there weren't very good views from the top, just treetops!

Terrace of the Elephants.  This was used as a viewing stand for the King, and has many sculptures and engraved elephants on the walls.

Terrace of the Leper King.  These sculptures were very beautifully preserved.

More temples on day 3!  We were both really exhausted at this point, and felt like we'd had our fill of temples.  Just one more to go: Ta Prohm.

Finally!  Last temple!  We made it!  This is Ta Prohm, where the Tomb Raider movie was filmed.  It is very much falling apart, and in the worst shape of any of the temples we saw.  But that made it quite interesting as well, and was a nice break from all the orderly, clean and restored temples we'd seen.

Current restoration efforts.  An Indian firm is doing the work, and they recently completed a huge restoration of Angor Wat.  It was interesting to see all the stones laid out and numbered, organized to be put back together again.

There were many trees growing on the temple like this all throughout Ta Prohm.

Another tree growing out of the temple.

Holy crap, we're done!!!  Hallelujah!!  While we really enjoyed our experience, it was thoroughly exhausting.  Now, we are good and truly 'temple-d out' and plan on not visiting any more religious sights in SE Asia.  Next stop: Battambang, Cambodia, to rest up before heading back to Bangkok.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Diving into Cambodia's dark history in Phnom Penh

Well, after a rather relaxing bus ride from Saigon, we arrived in Phnom Penh!  The contrast between Vietnam and Cambodia is pretty striking: a lot of dirt roads, potholes, and garbage on the streets.  We were dropped off at a busy market in downtown Phnom Penh, and since the guest house was theoretically quite close we decided to forgo a tuk-tuk and walk.  Of course, the tuk-tuk drivers are quite aggressive in trying to get our business, and one driver followed us for blocks yelling at us that we shouldn't be walking.  While the streets are numbered and in a grid pattern, they were incredibly confusing and we thought we got lost a few times.  Thank goodness we had a compass so that we knew we were at least walking in the right direction!  We surprisingly ended up on the correct street, and found our guest house without too many more problems.  The owner was incredibly awesome, giving us lots of great advice and pointed us to an amazing vegetarian restaurant where we stuffed our guts for only $5!  Brilliant!

Since we only had a day and a half in town, we had to make the most of our time and so immediately set out to explore the city.  We spent a few hours walking around, watching the sights before we almost fainted of hunger and finally hunted down some dinner.  The past few weeks there has been a lot of talk of food between me and Greg... at this point of desperate hunger we were imagining Christmas dinner, and I am quite convinced I would have stolen the entire pot of mashed potatoes and made a get-away.  But what I would do for some good chocolate and a bottle of wine....

Ok, anyways, back to some of the sights we saw on that first afternoon and evening:

Sunset over the Royal Palace

This temple is not for sale, so don't even think about it.  (I have no idea what this sign was really for)

Wat Phnom, a temple on the only hill in Phnom Penh (only 27m high, so not even much of a hill!).  The locals come here to pray for good luck

Our second day, it was off to the Killing Fields and the old prison of the Khmer Rouge.  A bit of history first: after an invasion into Cambodia during the Vietnam war, where Cambodia was heavily bombed, a civil war occurred which the communists eventually won in 1975.  This group of communists was known as the Khmer Rouge, and within 3 days of taking Phnom Penh, the entire population was forced to leave the cities and head to the countryside for absolutely gruelling labour.  They worked for 12-15 hours a day, subsisting on watery gruel with a few grains of rice.  The communists tried to create an entire revolution in a few days, abolishing currency and property ownership.  Everyone was forced to work in the fields, and any intellectuals or disobedient people were immediately executed.  It's estimated that at least 1.7 million people were killed during this genocide.

The killing fields were where any dissidents (and I'm sure many innocently accused people) along with their families (men, women, children) were taken to be killed.  Their bodies were dumped in mass graves and then covered in horribly toxic chemicals like DDT to kill any survivors as well as try to mask the smell of the rotting corpses.  The pictures of the excavation of this site were astonishing; so many skeletons.  There is a memorial tower there today containing the skulls of over 8000 victims.  The fields today are so peaceful and beautiful, it is really hard to imagine what actually happened there.

Skulls in the memorial tower

Memorial tower.

When it rains, bones and teeth are often uncovered.  Here is a tooth lying in the dirt, recently washed out by the rain.  There were also bits of bone surfacing as well.

Our second stop was to the Tuol Sleng Museum, which was a prison used by the Khmer Rouge.  It was a former high school, with the four buildings converted into cells and torture chambers.  It was a very disturbing place.  It was turned into a museum in 1979, right after the Khmer Rouge regime fell, so it was quite unchanged from then.  

One of the cells where victims were tortured.  There were some very grim photos on the wall of the bodies that were found there.  The metal boxes on the bed were used as toilets.

One of the classrooms turned into a series of cells.  These cells were tiny, and very hastily erected with sloppy brick and mortar.

I will not show any more photos, since it was quite a disturbing place.  There were row upon row upon row of boards containing photos of all the people that were killed after passing through Tuol Slueng.  Only 7 people survived this prison.  

After this visit, we headed to a very peaceful, beautiful restaurant just across the street, which was absolute words away from the horror we'd seen.  I had the most amazing sandwich here, with melted brie and grilled vegetables. YUM!  Worth every cent of the $3.85 it cost!

I'm surprised I'm not drooling in this photo.

Next stop: Angkor Wat to see some of the most spectacular archeological ruins on earth!!  And a much happier visit than our upsetting sights in Phnom Penh.