Friday, February 27, 2015

Angkor Wat

If you ask people who visit Cambodia what the number one thing they want to during their visit is, hands down the vast majority of them will say Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple for the god Vishnu in the early 12th century.  Later, it was turned into a Buddhist temple as Buddhism replaced Hinduism as the prominent religion in Cambodia. Angkor Wat is the world's largest religious monument, marking the amazing achievement of the Khmer Empire, which at one time ruled parts of what is today Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.  

One of the "must-do" things at Angkor Wat is watching the sunrise over the temple.  I knew there would be tons of people there, but I figured it's just one of those iconic things you have to see while you're in Siem Reap, so I added it to my plan for my second day in Siem Reap.

Although I got a poor night's sleep due to an argument my hostel roommates decided to have in the middle of the night over the air conditioning (seriously, this happened), I had to wake up bright and early to meet my tuk-tuk driver at 5 AM.  My hostel had a board where we could sign up to share tuk-tuks with other people, so I signed up the night before and when I showed up it turned out that I would be sharing the ride with a guy from Denmark.  Although I was tired, he was hungover (or maybe still drunk?), so I felt better about my situation by comparison.  

We arrived at Angkor Wat in the complete pitch black.  There were some people who led the way with flashlights, but without it we really wouldn't have been able to see where we were going.  If we didn't already know Angkor Wat was going to appear in front of us, there's no way we ever could have guessed it.  

As the crowds of people piled in, everyone was trying to get a good spot in front of the water in front of the temple.  Slowly but surely, the sun started to rise, slowly reveling the outline of one the most famous temples in the world. 

When we first arrived we couldn't see anything, but gradually we started to see the outline of Angkor Wat.

Finally seeing Angkor Wat with my own eyes...incredible.

Everyone wants to capture photos of this iconic sight

My tour guide later told me that about 700 people come to watch the sun rise at Angkor Wat everyday during the high tourist season. 
After the sun rose, we decided to get a head start to explore the temple.  I knew Angkor Wat was big, but it's one of those places that I think you just need to experience in order to really understand the magnitude of it.  I visited tons of temples during my time in Cambodia, and while many of them were large, Angkor Wat's size is unparalleled.  When I returned to Angkor Wat, I think my tour guide told me that it took 37 years to build the temple, but I haven't been able to verify that number.  Regardless, it was an amazing undertaking to build this temple at a time when machinery didn't exist.

The walls of Angkor go on and on and are covered with these carvings. My tour guide told me that they would draw the pictures before carving them because obviously making a mistake was not really an option.  

It took some time to wander around Angkor Wat and I think my tuk-tuk partner was ready to go a bit before I was, so we got some food to eat at one of the food stations, then went on to see more of the other temples around Angkor.  I'll write more about that in another post, but this wasn't my only trip to Angkor Wat.

The day after I saw the sunrise at Angkor, I went to see another group of temples by myself.  Since I didn't feel completely satisfied with my first visit to Angkor Wat, I asked my driver to take me back at the end of the day.  

As I was walking into the entrance of the temple, a man who works as a tour guide for the park asked if I wanted a guide.  I asked how much and he said $15. I figured it was worth it to me because I wanted to know more about what I was seeing, and it's not like I was spending a lot on anything else in Cambodia.

I was glad I did, because it made me appreciate what I was seeing even more.  There is so much symbolism in the way that the temple was built, and it was nice to have my own personal guide to indulge my inner history nerd.

After my tour was done, I spent some time just sitting and watching the sun set a bit.  I was trying to just take in as much as I could, fully aware that this was a place I'll probably never be again.  

Photo and photo idea courtesy of my tour guide.  I told him he was good at taking pictures and he told me he watches the people from the large tour groups and steals their ideas.  

Goodbye Angkor Wat!

Overall, I felt very satisfied with my Angkor experience.  I still can't believe I was really there--I feel so lucky to have been able to experience this amazing piece of the Khmer Empire.  

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Arriving in Cambodia and Visiting Banteay Srei & Beng Mealea

I was sad to leave Laos, but I after five days I had pretty much done everything there was to do in Luang Prabang, and it was time to move on to Cambodia.  I had been itching to visit Cambodia pretty much since I first came to Asia, so I was excited to finally be making my way there.  Cambodia's temples are world-famous, and I had heard only good things about this country from my friends who have already visited, so I was more than ready to at long last check it our for myself.

The flight from Luang Prabang to Siem Reap was a short one, and my wonderful hostel was able to arrange a driver to meet me at the airport.  This was my first of many tuk-tuk rides in Cambodia, and as I took in my first sights of Cambodia, I immediately realized that Cambodia is a very flat country--quite different from Laos's mountainous terrain.  I was also instantly greeted by more of those familiar sights in SE Asia that remind you that many of the people are living in very different conditions from what we're used to--people piled onto motorbikes, small and broken down houses, and trash on the sides of the roads. However, once I got to the main part of Siem Reap, it almost seemed as if I was in a completely different country.  Suddenly everything was modern looking and was obviously I had hit the tourist part of the city.

My hostel in Siem Reap was fantastic--a welcome upgrade from where I stayed in Luang Prabang. I was located right near the infamous Pub Street, and within an hour of arriving at the hostel I had bumped into one of my hostel roommates from my first days in Luang Prabang.  About fifteen minutes later I bumped into another guy I had also met in Luang Prabang, and I realized I was going to be just fine in Siem Reap.

The girl I knew from Luang Prabang asked if I wanted to join her the next morning on a trip to Banteay Srei and Beng Mealea, two of the temples that are located a bit further from Siem Reap's center.  I didn't have anything planned for my first day in Siem Reap, so I agreed and the next morning we met up with another girl from the hostel who also wanted to join us. Since the temples were far away we had to hire a tuk-tuk driver for the day, so we were happy to have someone else join us to help split the cost.

We had a long drive to our first stop, Banteay Srei, so we spent time in the back of our tuk-tuk chatting and taking in the scenery.  Being away from the tourist hot-spots gave us a real chance to see the Cambodian countryside and gave us a glimpse of how the majority of Cambodians live.

This is pretty much how all of the houses we drove by looked.  
 We finally arrived at Banteay Srei, and I finally felt like I was really in Cambodia.  Banteay Srei is a 10th century temple that was built for the Hindu God Shiva.  The detail on this temple is absolutely amazing.  It was incredible to think about the kind of work that went into creating the temple, and I could only imagine what it looked like before it started crumbling down.

After we finished at Banteay Srei we got back in the tuk-tuk and continued to drive for a while.  We stopped at a small restaurant and had lunch, then finally got to Beng Mealea.

Since Beng Mealea is so far away from the center of Siem Reap and the rest of the Angkor temples, not many people make the trip all the way out there.  It was really nice because we could explore the temple in the peace and quiet--something I would really come to miss in the following days.

Beng Mealea hasn't been restored as much as many of the other temples around Angkor.  Instead, the majority of the ruins are left to nature and are completely overgrown by the jungle.

After we finished exploring the temple, we made the long trip back to the hostel.  By the time we got back we felt very dusty from sitting in the back of the tuk-tuk and tired from climbing ruins all day.  After a quick dinner on Pub Street, it was an early night for me because I had to wake up at 4 AM the next morning to see the infamous sunrise at Angkor Wat.  Cambodia was making a great first impression, and I still had a lot of sightseeing ahead of me!