Friday, December 31, 2010

Cambodia Trip - Part 2

While many tourists visit Cambodia simply to see the temples of Angkor Wat, we wanted to take it a step further and really see what the rest of Cambodia is all about. Officially known as the Kingdom of Cambodia, most of the locals that we came across were extremely poor - poor beyond what any of us living in America can comprehend.

To see what village life was like for these people, Matt and I took an ATV Day Tour, where we were able to spend the whole day driving along dirt roads through the small villages. I felt like I was inside the pages of National Geographic the whole time - the amazingly bright green rice paddies, the kids swimming alongside water buffalo in murky water ditches, women carrying bundles of sticks on their heads, shacks made of palm leaves and branches, and the swarms of tiny children, only partially clothed, who came running to greet us as we passed by. I felt bad for these little children, living in dirt poor conditions, but the fact that they were all so excited makes me realize that they didn't know any better and were simply happy living the way they were. We probably passed about a thousand children, and I think I had a smile plastered on my face ALL day - It wasn't possible NOT to smile when they were so happy just to get a wave or hi-five from us! The experience definitely opened my eyes to how much we have to be grateful for in America.

Me on my ATV

Matt making his way around some water buffalo in the road

Water buffalo on one of the rice paddies

It was amazing how these people built everything - houses, fences, bridges - with bundles of sticks!

Their main source of income in this area was rice - they would harvest the rice and lay it out to dry on these tarps

Children everywhere swimming in the water

Along the tour, we got to stop at one of the orphanages and meet some of the kids. The boy in the plaid shirt spoke English well and was our tour guide.


Some of the happy kids that ran out to greet us

We started with one bag of Dum-Dums (which lasted about 10 minutes) and ended up going through a few more bags of candy that we purchased on the way. I wasn't expecting as many children as there were! This is Matt giving out hi-fives.

Check out this video clip of Matt handing out some candy to a group of kids - the little girl is my favorite - she was adorable!

Later that night, we had reservations at a hidden restaurant that was outside the main town. The owner picked us up from our hotel and drove us to his restaurant himself! He was really a nice guy and drove a classic old Jeep, which was part of the fun! He explained to us how he started up his restaurant only a year and a half ago, and already, it had become so popular with locals and tourists that he would be able to open a second location in town. The restaurant is family-owned (his own sister was our waitress, and his wife cooked our meal!). However, he explained to us that traditional Khmer food takes awhile to cook, and if he went out in town, he would have to be faster for the tourists (thus, decreasing the quality of the traditional food), so he decided to just keep his one location. I say, good for him!

Me riding in the back of the Jeep

Our third day in Cambodia was even more adventurous than the ATV day. We had made a reservation to be driven out to this remote temple (about 1 1/2 hours outside of Siem Reap) with a tour guide. However, the previous day, we had seen a dune buggy drive by us, and after seeing Matt stare, the driver handed us a brochure. It turned out that we could rent one of those dune buggies and drive it ourselves to the same temple we were planning on going to. That sounded more fun to Matt, so we cancelled our tour and scheduled with the dune buggy company.

We started off the day a bit wet and muddy - It had poured the night before, and all of the dirt roads had turned into mud roads with potholes full of murky water! Although Matt did his best to avoid the mud, we inevitably were soaked and splattered with chunks of clay-like mud. Even with a helmet, sunglasses and a dust mask on, my face was somehow still covered in mud, and I needed to wipe it clean with antibacterial wipes! As the 3-hour drive progressed, the sun came out and dried up all the mud, however, our dune buggy ended up having some mechanical issues half-way to the temple and broke down. Adding to our adventurous day, we were basically stranded in the middle of nowhere in Cambodia while our tour guide and mechanic tried to fix us. As the buggy was deemed unable to continue on, the owner of the company drove a replacement buggy out to us (how he found us, I have no idea!) and we got to swap it out. Matt was happy, though, because he got to drive a dirt bike to the nearest village where we were meeting the owner - I rode on the back of our tour guide's bike. I might also note: even in the middle of nowhere, swarms of children seemed to come out of the woodwork to watch us!

Matt and I with the dune buggy - Matt drove it pretty much the whole way as it was manual. I tried it once, and after stalling about 8 times, I got it going and nearly killed us while crossing over a small "bridge"- scary!

Check out this video clip of us driving in the dune buggy through the villages:

Attempting to fix our buggy

While stranded, we found hung out with a few kids swimming in the water

Some of the children that came out of nowhere to watch us fix the buggy - these kids looked like they were on their way to some sort of school? Many of them had old, rusted bikes that were way too big for them - one we saw didn't even have a chain!

Mud-covered and drinking my coconut (only $1 - everything was so cheap in Cambodia!) almost to the temple

Beng Mealea, known as the "Jungle Temple" by tourists, is located about 40km outside of Siem Reap. Not much is known about it's origins, but Beng Mealea is one temple that has been untouched and unrestored, unlike the Angkor temples we saw the first day of our trip. It used to be difficult to get to, but a road has recently been constructed that leads to it, helping it to become more of a tourist spot. Beng Mealea had partially collapsed centuries ago, and today, you can see where the jungle has grown through the ruins, almost supporting the remaining structure. In order to explore this hidden treasure, you can either walk along the outside, or climb over the sandstone blocks and rubble that liter the inside corridors - we did both.

The entrance to Beng Mealea

Climbing around one of the courtyard walls

Inside one of the corridors - the roof is partially collapsed and these large blocks on the ground are what we had to climb over to see the inside of the temple!

Tree roots everywhere

Matt up top of one of the courtyard walls

This place was incredible!

Pieces of sandstone carvings that had fallen

Me sitting outside the temple

Sunset on our ride back to town

Later that night, riding in a tuk-tuk after our long, muddy and adventurous day!

Soup Dragon for dinner - delicious soup & great spot right on the corner of Pub Street

Check out the last part of our trip to Cambodia - coming soon!


Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cambodia Trip - Part 1

Although our flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia was only a mere two-hour flight from Singapore, it might as well have been in another galaxy! Coming from one of the wealthiest countries in Asia to one of the poorest was quite a culture-shock. As with most third world countries, the luxurious parts of our trip were mainly confined to our resort. We stayed all five nights at the Lotus Resort and Spa, which was absolutely gorgeous and tranquil - we were treated like kings from the moment we arrived and were offered drinks of Sugar Cane juice. The hotel grounds were also incredible, and I couldn't help but take photos of everything! Beside the pool, the best part of our hotel experience in Cambodia was our room. It was the exact opposite of our tiny Singapore room - large and spacious, the room had beautiful wood floors, an enormous bathroom, and tall french doors that opened up right into the garden and pool area of the resort. After arriving, we got a bite to eat at the hotel restaurant (the deep-fried won tons with peanut sauce were amazing!!), had some drinks by the pool, and ended up taking a loooong nap!

Walking from our plane to the beautiful Siem Reap airport

In our hotel lobby

The view right outside our room

Pool and garden

In our room

Drinks by the pool the first day

I loved the hammocks

Many people have asked us why we chose to visit Cambodia, and I guess the decision really stemmed from our goal to visit as many countries in Asia as possible while we're living in Okinawa. In fact, there are only a few countries that really are not on my list to see! Anyway, the major tourist attraction in Cambodia is called Angkor - an enormous complex of temples within an ancient city that dates back as early as the 9th century (the entire complex is approximately the size of modern-day Los Angeles). The city of Angkor was ruled by the Khmer Empire, who created some of the world's most incredible architecture within its' walls. The temples are each in varying degrees of ruins, however, most of them still stand today and are easily accessed by a walking tour throughout the complex. Some of these tours can last days! We had a few other things that we wanted to see while in Cambodia, so we opted for the full-day tour of Angkor Wat, which I'm glad we did - the tour began at 7:00 in the morning and lasted until around 8:00 pm - well after sunset!

Us at the entrance to Angkor Thom

Statues along the causeway that lead into Angkor Thom - many of these were beheaded or partially destroyed during the Khmer Rouge, and it is very obvious which statues have been restored (ex: the heads that have been replaced are lighter in color, etc.)

Inside Angkor Thom - the temple of Bayon is most famous for its giant and majestic stone faces carved into the many large towers. As with all of the Angkor temples, the religion has changed between Hindu and Buddhist based on the current king. Because of these changes, the temples were modified based on the religious preferences of the time. For instance, we saw many statues of Buddha that had missing limbs or noses, and many were beheaded all together by the Hindus. I think the Faces of Bayon was one of my favorite sites - they were incredible!

Our amazing tour guide for the day - Bun (short for Bunleat) - explaining the story of the Leper King that was depicted in these relief carvings to us. He customized our day-long tour to fit in everything I had wanted to see, and he was so full of knowledge! We would have been lost (literally!) inside Angkor if it wasn't for him - I felt like I learned so much!

The king's palace inside Angkor Thom - this was his swimming pool! Looks more like an enormous lily pond now, but was still incredible!

Pillars underneath a bridge that led to a temple that was actively being restored

The Terrace of the Leper King - part of the Royal Square of Angkor Thom. There were thousands and thousands of relief carvings all over the maze of walls here, and they were meant to represent the underworld.

So realistic and detailed - just incredible to think how long this must have taken them to make!

Another part of the Royal Square - the Terrace of the Elephants, where they used to have actual elephant fights for entertainment. This is us standing with the three-headed elephant statues.

Buddhist monk in the window of one of the "libraries" at Ta Keo Temple

Matt climbing up Ta Keo

More interesting stories from our tour guide Bun

Just amazing

Bun imitating the Apsara Dancers that are carved all over the walls of the temples

One of my favorite places in Angkor - the temple of Ta Prohm - has been abandoned for centuries and overgrown with gigantic tree roots that consume the structure. It is also one of the more popular sites featured in the Tomb Raider movie with Angelina Jolie - this may seem like a random fact, but trust me when I tell you - no one leaves Siem Reap without knowing this!

Check out this video clip of us at Ta Prohm - Bun is showing us how in one tower, you are not able to make an echo unless you hit your chest with a closed fist. Hard to believe - but it was true!

That was a heavy one!

One of the many headless statues of Buddha

Just incredible - its hard to believe we were actually there!

Yes, the Khmer people carved a STEGOSAURUS on the wall inside the temple of Ta Prohm.... Matt thinks this is proof that dinosaurs and humans may have coexisted...

Finally, we make it to the main attraction: the temple of Angkor Wat - the best preserved temple in the ancient city as well as the largest religious building in the world! This is a view of the outer enclosure and giant moat that surround Angkor Wat.

Reflection in the famous lily pond in front of the main building - also in the Tomb Raider movie!

View from higher up inside the main complex inside Angkor Wat - the view of the structure is amazing!

Climbing back down

These carvings were everywhere - in every temple we saw that day! Bun explained to us that you could tell how old a temple was based on the direction of the feet in these carvings. He said that some of the feet were facing forward, some on angles, and others sideways (like these) - the reason being that each century wanted to put their own "spin" on the carvings.

We got to sit up at one of the libraries inside Angkor Wat and watch the sun set

Saying goodbye to Bun at our hotel - we had such an amazing, yet exhausting day!

More adventures from Cambodia soon to come!