Well, we are sorry to our devoted readers that it has been a long time since our last post, things have been busy over here and internet connection has been poor. We are happy to inform you that the next leg of our trip was indeed to Siem Reap, Cambodia. If you guessed we went to visit the temples of Angkor Wat, you were correct! To get to back to Bangkok from Chiang Mai was an ordeal and to actually get to Cambodia was going to be no different. We had a pretty comfortable first leg of our trip to the Thai-Cambodia border. Aside from these weird American’s behind us and stopping every hour to fill up (Natural gas doesn’t make a good fuel for vans). Once we got close to border we stopped to switch vans and get some logistics in order. Soon after that 30 minute pit stop we made our way to the Thai Immigration line, which was pretty big and long. The line did move quick if you had your stuff in order, however we witnessed a girl who was denied exit because she over stayed her visa. Something Thailand views as a big offense, and charge 500 baht a day. Her’s was going to cost her a cool 6,000 baht so about $200 Canadian to get over the Thai border and into Cambodia.
Once we got past the Thai side of the process it was time to start filling out the Cambodian visa paperwork and get in line. Now Thailand is by no means a very well off country, but Cambodia is a step way back and it shows right as you cross the border. Little kids wandering around some with clothes some without, trucks loaded well beyond what they should (seriously 15 feet high from the ground), people pulling carts and mostly dirt roads. Getting the Cambodia Visa was pretty quick and painless aside from the border guards asking for $3 USD extra. This corruption is well-known at the Cambodian border and you can beat it by applying for the Visa online before hand, which was an option we were not organised enough to take.
$45 USD later and we both had shiny new additions to our passports, Cambodia Visas. Next we had to meet up with our taxi ride from the border to Siem Reap, which we thought would be quick and painless. We didn’t opt for the bus because we were told a taxi would be faster and you would not have to wait for it to fill up with people like the bus would. However, we had to wait for 45 minutes and watch 2 buses fill up & leave while they ‘waited’ for a guy to clear the border who was apparently supposed to be in our taxi too. So much for being quicker(more expensive), private taxi.
We finally did get in a cab and onward to Siem Reap about 3 hours away from where we were. It was a pretty uninteresting ride aside from hearing how much others paid for their visas (some as high as double more) and seeing the Cambodian ‘gas stations’. They have a these wooden stands with about 20-30 reused 1L bottles of pop and liquor filled with gas. Cambodia is pretty green and flat otherwise. Our taxi driver was quiet and we don’t think he spoke much english, but he did inform us once we got closer to Siem Reap it was flooded…about 70cm in the center of town. We just can’t win!
When we got closer into town, we eventually switched from our taxi to a truck to take us further into town and finally to our hotel. We all piled out of the taxi and piled in to the truck. Not even 5 minutes into our drive in the truck the driver informed us they can’t take us to our hotel because the water is too high there, but they could take us to this hotel that is a friend of theirs. We had been told that this was a scam in Cambodia where the drivers get commission to take tourists to certain hotels so we declined his offer, he was very insistent though. In fact he refused to take us to our place and told us to get out in the middle of the water. So we walked with caution in water as high as our shins on a street we had never seen dry. That is until we realized the hotel wasn’t just down the road it was still a ways. Low and behold we got into a tuk-tuk to take us the last little bit of our journey. The road was a little flooded on the way to the guesthouse, but the place itself was dry as can be, thank god!
After we got all checked into the hotel, they gave us the best news all day we got a free upgrade in rooms cause they overbooked the one we wanted! Not too much went on our first ‘full’ day in Cambodia since it took us 9 hours to get here. The next day was pretty slow-moving too but we did get a guide for Angkor booked and headed to a butterfly sanctuary. We got the butterfly place a little late and the person at the ticket place informed us that the butterflies weren’t that active at this time in the afternoon. We could have saved it for another day and went to the landmine museum just up the road, but our tuk-tuk driver wanted more money to go another couple of kilometers.
Even if the butterflies weren’t that active it was nice to have this young guy give us a tour of the complex. He showed us the butterfly area and pointed out which ever ones were flying around, all the caterpillars in cocoon and also a bunch of different caterpillars too. The guy was very knowledgable and friendly. He seemed to really enjoy his job and told us that he loved working there, and loved the butterflies. This genuine experience was very nice to have, as it seemed many people in Cambodia were just looking for ways to part us with our money. On our way back we pulled over to catch the sunset on the moat of Angkor Wat which was extremely pretty.
Day 3 was the beginning of the 3 day tour of Angkor we booked with our guide Kim. On day one of Angkor we toured around Angkor Thom, which was the city and in english means great city and boy was it ever great. In Angkor’s time of use it was believed to have a staggering population of 1 million.
To put this into perspective, at the same point in time London had a lonely population of 50,000. The houses where the people actually lived are no longer standing, they believed humans should live in wooden houses and gods in stone. The wooden houses did not stand the test of time, but the temples themselves held up. What is left of Angkor Thom is a bridge crossing a massive moat with decorative humans fighting a naga (cobra in english) on one side and the gods fighting a naga on the other. The 4 gates to city are also left standing one each on North, East, South and West. These gates were used on different occasions victory, defeat, etc.
Also left standing in Angkor Thom is a temple called Prasat Bayon with 49 peaks that have four-sided faces on each of them, signifying the 49 states in the Angkor empire. Most are still standing and about 200 faces remain. To build these temples they had to bring in stone from a mountain some 70 kilometer away by elephant. The size and complexity of this temple is outstanding, it’s just unfortunate they built it with lava rock and then sandstone on top. Father time and mother nature have taken their toll on the temples that weren’t consumed by the jungle after it was abandoned. If they didn’t, Thai Soldiers or the Khmer Rouge certainly did. In fact the soldiers stole many of the decorative heads off of the statues by cutting them off and these are repaired now by a modern-day restoration, a true shame. Also in Angkor Thom, we saw the terrace of the elephants which is where the king lived. The kings place of residence no longer stands fully stands, but a beautiful stone carved promenade stands along with some stone gates and towers. This is also where the king watched performances and his victorious army march into the city.
The temperature during the morning in Cambodia is RIDICULOUS and the afternoon is no different. Most people head back to town in the afternoon to have lunch and then come back for the later afternoon and catch a sunset. After we finished Angkor Thom it was a bit after twelve and we decided to delay lunch and scratch Angkor Wat off the list seeing as it would be dead right now. Angkor is the jewel of all temples and is the biggest religious building in the world, not bad for being built-in the late 12th century by King Suryavarman II.
As you look Angkor Wat dead on you will see the peaks of the temple in the background, then a large gate and lastly a long bridge crossing an even bigger moat then Angkor Thom. Angkor Wat has the same mortals on one side fighting a naga and gods on the other on its long bridge. This is a type of artwork is something you’ll find all over Cambodia. Once you cross the bridge you’ll come face to face with the large gate. The significance of this gate is it has 5 different entrances one for the king, one for royalty, one for monks, one for elephants and one for common folk. Everyone enters different gates when they come to worship, but once they are in they all enter the same way to the temple. Walking through the gate will give a grand look at Angkor Wat and what that massive gate was hiding behind it. Aside from the temple and its surrounding structure all there is on the inside grounds are two libraries, one for the monks and one for the people.
Walking around Angkor Wat we noticed it was in a lot better shape and just a lot grander. You can climb the stairs still to the top of the temple and thank goodness we came when we did because our guide Kim told us during the peak times the line is huge. The original stairs are no longer in use because they are steep and small so they have built ones over top, but they still really aren’t stairs, they are more like a ladder. Once we got to the top there was just us and the bats hiding up in the dark hallows of the temples peaks. The view was pretty great! Another little tidbit of information; no building in the outlining town of Siem Reap is allowed to be as tall or taller than Angkor Wat. It’s still pretty tall, but it puts some limitations on those big hotels that keep sprouting up.
Once we climbed back down the stairs to ground level, we snapped a few more pictures and then headed back to town for lunch, a break and a swim. Kim picked us back up at 4:30 and we made our way to catch a sunset at a temple we haven’t seen yet. When we got there Kim informed us he can’t make it up the hill and temple because of the wound he told us about earlier in the day. He got shot in the knee by a AK-47 back when Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia, we’ll go into more detail on that later. Up the hill we climbed to catch this sunset. On our way up we were expecting this hardcore climb if Kim couldn’t make it, but as the temple was in our sights we wondered why couldn’t he do this. We soon found out to climb the temple on top of the hill was the hard part. Just like the stairs at Angkor Wat we met earlier except not as many and no new stairs were erected on top.
It was interesting to see a group of people using both their feet and hands to climb these stairs. Glad to say we both made it up with no cuts, bruises, broke bones or dirty underwear. We sat around for a bit waiting for the sunset, but it just wasn’t happening today the clouds were too thick. So down all 300 of us went and of course those ridiculous stairs also. When we got to the base of the hill we met back up with Kim to share our sunset disappointment. We all hoped into the truck and headed back to town where Kim dropped us off at one of the Children’s Hospitals called the Jayavarman VII.
This evening we were going to watch a Swiss Doctor play his cello, who also ran the hospital and 4 others in Cambodia. Dr. Beat Richner played his set giving the audience information on the hospital and Cambodian children in general in between songs and at the end of his performance. Dr. Richner came to Cambodia in the 70’s to work in the children’s hospital, but soon Pol Pot came to power and destroyed it. After Pol Pot was removed from power in the early 90’s the Cambodian King asked Dr. Richner to please rebuild the hospital, so he did. There are now 3 of these hospitals in the capital Phnom Phen, 1 in Siem Reap and another set to be opened in Phnom Phen.
All these hospitals are 100% free for the children (they even pay for your mode of transport to hospital) and over 90% of their budget is from private sources. The Cambodian government gives the hospital about 3% of its yearly budget and the Swiss around 7%. Pretty amazing. The hospitals on average sees 2,800 children a day, has decreased mortality rate in children from 65% to less than 1%, has one of the lowest cost per patient of any hospital, pays every employee a high wage to stop corruption (In the form of bribes, stealing, etc), is mainly Cambodian staffed (I think they have 1 other expatriate) and I’m sure we are missing other amazing information. They also recently opened a maternity ward and started taking in the mothers because they can eliminate the transfer to babies of HIV infected mothers. Studies there have found a happy and healthy mother greatly increases the child’s odds. At the end of the concert the Doctor asks for you to either donate money or blood as they are both greatly appreciated. Dr.Richner did pose a question to us that really made us think though. He told us that from start to finish it only costs 240 dollars to save a child’s life, and with all of the poverty in the war-torn country; is the life of a child a private matter. Having to beg for the money in private donations to save these children, why are governments not becoming more involved. You can find out more information on this hospital at their website here: http://www.beat-richner.ch/
The following day was our second day with Kim and we did some more temple sightseeing. We went and saw a temple fairly far away from Angkor Thom and Wat. The temple has no big historical significance, but was extremely beautiful and in good condition. After that we went to a school where they teach Cambodians the art forms used by their ancestors. They create Buddha’s out of sandstone, jade, soapstone, wood and maybe a few others. There is also tile work and painting done and taught here. There really is no artistic freedom here, but it is interesting to see.
For the second half of our day, Kim brought us to the temple where they shot the scenes from Tomb Raider. This temple has had major jungle growth where 300 year old trees have grown in, on, and around the temple. Some just have their roots spidering across them, where others have a massive tree that just grew out of them. Really makes you wonder how they found some of these temples because the growth of the forest here is incredible. We can only imagine what 300 years of growth would do. Kim’s expertise on what temples are busy when really paid off this time too. Us three and one other person were the only ones there. It felt very secluded and peaceful. That evening we didn’t try to catch a sunset because it was super cloudy. However, that evening we got some interesting news. Aaron’s friend Joseph, whose travelling South East Asia with his girlfriend Devon were going to be in Siem Reap the next day.
On our last day with Kim, a temple called Beng Mealea was on our itinerary. This temple is famous for being in rubble, a beautiful disaster if you will. The day was a rainy one so it just added to the atmosphere of being a treasure hunter, collecting the massive ruby and running out of the temple as it collapses. They have plans to try to reconstruct the temple by sorting out the stones that are piled rubble and putting them back up again. We actually got to see before and after pictures of one of these reconstructions and it was very well done. We ended our last day with Kim by visiting a village that was built on the water. There was even a barge that was turned into a school and after asking Kim, we got to go aboard and visit the children. Jess tried to get them going by teaching them a Canadian song but they were very shy and just stared at Jess like she was crazy, Aaron helped by staring at her like she was crazy also. Mission Cambodia Floating School=FAIL! So it was back to the hotel in Siem Reap and time to say goodbye to our friend Kim who just happened that he would like to visit Canada sometime. Aaron and Jessica future employment, tour agency!
It was time to wrap up our trip to Cambodia, and we spent our final night there with two friends from Canada. Joseph, who Aaron worked with at Kiewit and his girlfriend Devon were only a few blocks away from us and we met them at a Mexican restaurant for some much-needed frozen drinks on a very hot evening. We’re sure you can imagine that one drink turned into two, and our rowdy party grew from four to around ten. We met a man from San Francisco with an amazing mustache, and even a Canadian from Nova Scotia! We decided to have an evening of dancing together and when the crowd went to bed Aarissca ventured together to a nightclub called the temple. We danced and sipped cocktails all evening, it was really a great night together and the perfect way to end our time in Cambodia.
The next day we moped in bed and tried to kill our hangover with fried eggs and a lot of rest, packing late in the evening when it felt safe to move. We caught the same service back to Bangkok as we had already paid for it and it was much of the same as on our way there. This time it took a mind-blowing 13 hours, which was only made less painful because of the nice couple we met from the Netherlands who made the journey with us.
That is all the time we have for this blog, next up we hit the islands and the beaches. Life is GOOD!
Thanks for reading