Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Angkors Away!

Departing from Cat Ba, we had three legs of travel by boat, by car and by air to get us to Siem Reap Cambodia; oh yeah and from the airport we had a short ride by tuk tuk to our hotel. Being New Years Eve, we wasted little time throwing our stuff down and getting out to explore the center of town, known as 'Pub Street' (can you guess why?). Various levels of hunger and restaurant preferences led to a bit of a squabble between Juli and I about where to eat dinner. Siera just tried to stay out of it until we had finally made a decision. After dinner we started our new year's pub crawl on pub street. Things got off to a poor start when Juli left her purse unzipped while hanging on a chair...say good bye to a couple hundred dollars, credit cards, and perhaps worst of all her driver's license (who wants to ever go to the DMV?). From here on out on the trip, my ATM card would be our only source of funds, since the only credit cards we each brought were the two that we shared an account on (there is a lesson for the future!), and Siera apparently had not fallen for any of those enticing college t-shirt for a credit card offers.

Crisis behind us (mostly), we started at a Scottish rooftop bar where we could take in some of the street performers below, relax in some funky swinging chairs, and sing along to famous Scottish songs. Only two of those three things are true by the way.

Pub Street, Siem Reap - New Years Eve 2018
As the minutes crept towards midnight, the street crowds began to swell, so we made our move to stop #2, a place called "X Bar" at which we were fortunate enough to claim a small table with a view. We watched the craziness of Pub Street pass us slowly by, then took in some new year's fireworks before joining the mass exodus of tourists back to their hotels.

Entrance to Angkor Wat temple complex
On new year's day we allowed ourselves to sleep in a bit, heading out for our Angkor tour by tuk tuk at 10:30am. Angkor is pretty swarmed by tourists at this time of year, but the place is huge and sprawling, rarely did we feel crowded out of places; we harbored no illusions of getting photos without other tourists in them anyway. Our first stop was Bayon, famous for its hundreds of large faces as well as very intricate reliefs along the outside walls depicting local life, warfare, and royalty in the 12th century. We spent a almost 3 hours exploring Bayon and the nearby Bauphon & Elephant Terrace areas; taking in the views and the reliefs while looking for some 'keeper' photo shots.

Famous faces of Bayon

Naval battle relief at Bayon
After lunch at Ta Keo, we spent most of the rest of the afternoon at Ta Phrom, famous for the trees that have melded together with temple structures, and as a location shoot for the Tomb Raider movie from a few years back.

Ta Phrom

The stark difference of unrestored vs restored buildings at Ta Phrom
At sunset we headed to Angkor Wat to watch the sun set on the most famous of the temples. Angkor Wat is surrounded by a huge moat, and all around the moat that day (a holiday) were picnicking families. The number of tourists and locals made for a busy but interesting scene to take in. We were lucky to have a nice sunset, painting the template with soft golden rays of sunshine. Based on the perfect light of what I was seeing, I wondered why sunrise was such a big deal at Angkor Wat, but that would have to wait for a couple days. Wandering around the tuk tuk parking lot, we finally found ours and called it a day.

Sunset at Angkor Wat

Sunset posing at Angkor Wat

Being my birthday (and possibly just to avoid a repeat of the night prior) I got to choose the restaurant for dinner; of course the place I picked was full, so we booked for the following night and now its Juli's turn to pick. She decided on a very local-looking place so we walked on in and grabbed a table. Our table was approached by two women dressed in San Miguel Light (a beer brand from the Philippines) who we assumed were restaurant servers, but seemed only interested in selling us beer. After some fun attempts to mutually understand one another, they gave up and walked away. This, apparently, was the cue for two ladies dressed in Cambodia Lager garb to repeat the scenario. We managed to order a bucket of beer, but we could tell that the San Miguel peddlers were definitely disappointed in us. For the rest of the meal, we were a Cambodia Lager table. Only then did an actual restaurant server come by for us to point & pray, since we didn't really recognize any words on the menu, but of course it turned out just fine - how can you go wrong with barbecued meats in Southeast Asia?

For day two of temple touring, we opted for a car; we were headed further out of town to Banteay Srei which was Juli's favorite. Much smaller than the others and built in a unique pinkish stone, it also had a really good 'interpretive center' detailing the story of the temple as it was found and restored.

Banteay Srei temple
Banteay Srei in detail

On the way back from Srei we visited the Cambodia Landmine Museum. Landmines and unexploded ordnance are still a big problem all over Southeast Asia, and the people behind this museum are going the extra distance to help address that problem and many people affected by it. The stories of the youth who were fortunate enough to be taken in by the adjoining school/orphanage were very touching. Though it made for a somber stop, it was well worth the visit to understand a bit more about what this particular country has been through in the past, and to provide some hope that these challenges can be overcome by the force and will of dedicated people. We then wrapped up our temple exploration at Preah Kahn, an underrated stop with a nice entrance and in many places, similar to Ta Phrom with trees having grown within and around temple structures.

Preah Kahn - the mini Ta Phrom

Preah Kahn entrance guards (in matching uniforms, no less)

Heading back to the hotel in the early afternoon, we had some pretty good pizza at Hawaiian Pizza House and then cooled off a bit in the hotel pool. Juli and Siera headed out for some afternoon shopping and massages, where Siera learned to bargain but apparently forgot to count - she thought she made a deal for 7 shirts but upon returning home there were only 6 in her bag! Meanwhile, I visited the War Museum Cambodia, a large yard with various pieces of 20-50 year old military vehicles and equipment organized about. Having read really good things about the guides on TripAdvisor, mine did not meet those expectations, that's just luck of the draw sometimes.

Soviet tank at the War Museum Cambodia

That evening we were able to dine at Marum an NGO-run restaurant that works with street children and other marginalized young people in Siem Reap. While the food was tasty, the service suffered a bit, but it all goes to a good cause anyway!

Our final (half) day in Siem Reap we departed our hotel at 4:30am in order to visit Angkor Wat at sunrise. Because the sunrise often provides such a colorful backdrop for the temple, the ritual of being there for the sunrise has become one of the 'must do' activities for visitors to Siem Reap. With a departing flight around noon, we really had no excuse not to give it a go. As apparently is typical, a large crowd milled at the gates in the dark when we arrived, and at 5am was let loose across the floating bridge. We hustle-walked along with everybody else jockeying for a good position; for comparison's sake with our sunset visit we decided to go for the right side pond; most people and advice says that the left side pond provides a better vantage point (and I agree). Fortunately we were early enough to each get a front-row seat (on the ground) at the right side pond, where we settled in with my camera and Juli & Siera's phones. The audience continued to grow, we could feel and hear it behind us, as we watch the temple grounds transition from darkness to early morning light. We could see some clouds in the sky, which was a good sign as opposed to totally clear or worst case overcast skies. On the scale of sunrise photos I've seen, I'd guess ours was more in the middle/average - we did our best to capture the scene with both our minds eye and our digital lenses.

Our Angkor Wat sunrise - January 3 2018
After a couple hours of sitting in place, we headed back the hotel for breakfast and then to the airport, where a brief 18 hour stopover in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon awaited.

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