Thursday, June 27, 2013

Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor Wat

Young Monks in front of Angkor Wat
After an emotionally tiring week in Phnom Penh, it was time to head north to Siem Reap, and see the temples of Angkor Wat. We hopped on our first long bus this trip, a 7 hour journey north across Cambodia. We did some research and picked Giant Ibis, as they pride themselves on having lots of legroom (and boy, did they!). As long bus rides go, it was an easy one through the countryside. Every once in a while (ok, frequently), our driver would lay on the horn, indicating to the cow (or two or three) on the road that they would need to move. Very rural indeed!

We arrived safely, got to our pretty hotel, The Golden Mango (yep, picked purely for the name, as I am a sucker for a mango!), and prepared for 3 days at the temples. We gave ourselves a couple of days by the pool to get over our head colds, not wanting to tackle a day of temple touring feeling like crap (especially with the insanely hot weather!).

The South Gate of Angkor Thom
We hired a guide and a tuk tuk driver for the first day (at a ridiculously reasonable cost of $25 for the guide and $15 for the driver...for the whole day!), and learned A LOT. We didn't hire a guide again, and we certainly wouldn't recommend the one we ended up with. He didn't really "get" us and despite watching Cory take incredible, artsy photos of the temples, spent the morning trying to guide us to all the kitschy photo ops with all the other tourists (the Chinese tourists especially seem to love all the photos: you stand here and in the photo you're nose to nose with a Buddha that's 50 feet behind you, or you stand behind this headless statue and it looks like you have a stone body, etc).

Though Angkor Wat is the largest and most famous temple, the area is made up of many more temples, built over the span of about 300 years (starting in 900 and including additions and renovations over the years, including today). 

So the next couple of days we took our favorite driver, Run, out and he was wonderful. Gave us a little info (and our Lonely Planet book gave us the rest), and stopped anywhere we wanted (which was usually a random spot that we found really cool that everyone else was speeding right by).

Spong Tree at Preah Khan
On our third morning, we went to Angkor Wat to see the sun rise overhead, and although we missed the sunrise (it wasn't spectacular that morning), we had the best day!
Clouds over Angkor Wat
After the sun was overhead, we walked through the temple and walked into the jungle a ways, hoping to see some monkeys (but seeing none). We gave up and went back up to the temple, to see the most incredible, feisty, families of monkeys, all enjoying the early morning on the back wall of Angkor Wat.

After a good half hour of enjoying the cute little guys, we went back to our tuk tuk to head back to bed. As we crossed the bridge over the temple moat, it started sprinkling. By the time we reached the tuk tuk, it was a torrential downpour! As we sped home in the downpour, we heard a little "hi" and looked over to see a charming local boy who was hitching a ride with us to school. After a while, he said, "this is my school!" and waved and smiled as he pedaled off!

Here are some of our favorite photos from the temples of Angkor Wat:
Apsara DancersThe South Gate of Angkor ThomAngkor Thom South Gate StatuesMolly at the South Gate to Angkor ThomStatue at BayonEngraving at Bayon
Carving at BayonBuddha's Faces at BayonMollyMollyClimbing the Temple StepsMonk'ing around at Ta Prohm
Spong Tree at Ta ProhmEngraving at Angkor WatBlushingColumn CarvingsPlaying at the MoatYoung Monks at Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat West GateMolly at Temple WallVictory Gate at Angkor ThomEntrance to Preah KhanCarvings at Preah Khan
Click here to view the Album: The Temples at Angkor
Lots more photos from our trip adventures on Flickr and Facebook (just click those links!)

Final costs for Cambodia: $441 on housing (avg $29.40 per night), $551 on food (avg $37 per day), $189 on transit, including tuk tuks and buses across country (avg $12.60 per day), $264 on other, including tickets/guide/driver for Angkor Wat, haircuts and mini golf, (avg $18 per day). Total costs for 15 days (not including $58 visa fee): $1445.76. Daily average cost: $96.38. Budgeting and spending money in Cambodia was delightfully easy after so much conversion, because they use US Dollars, and Cambodian Riels (4000 riels to $1) for anything smaller than $1. The only problem is that ATMs hand out $100 bills (which is way to much to spend in one place!) and the ATMs give torn bills sometimes, which no one in Cambodia will accept as legal tender. If we were returning, we would bring $500 in one dollar denominations!

Our favorite restaurants and attractions in Siem Reap:

Cory enjoying Blue Pumpkin
Blue Pumpkin - yummy HUGE fruit shakes and ice cream sundaes in an air conditioned upstairs lounge. The perfect end to a sweaty day of temple visits. But the food basically sucks :(

Viva Mexican - shockingly good Mexican food at crazy cheap prices ($1 tacos and 75 cent beers). It's no gas station taco, but not bad!  Best we've had since San Diego.

Yellow Submarine - Beatles themed burger joint on Pub Street, with pool, ping pong (!!) rooftop terrace and fun bar. Delicious burgers, great herbal tea, and fun owner. Great dinner spot!
Angkor Wat Putt

Angkor Wat Putt - mini putt made by an incredibly entrepreneurial Cambodian guy, who had never been to a mini golf course but read about it on the internet and decided to make one in Siem Reap. Lots of fun!

Beatocello concert - a weekly cello concert and presentation about the state of the children's heathcare system in Cambodia. Very interesting and worthwhile. The doctor who started a series of privately funded, free for all patients, children's hospitals across Cambodia, plays the cello and speaks about the hospitals to raise money. If you'd like to donate, as we did, the website is:

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Khmer Rouge in Cambodia

Other than getting sick, traveling in Cambodia has been unlike any other place we have been to, due to the connection between the recent history of the country and lasting effect it has had on both the people and current politics. We did not know very much about the Khmer Rouge and the mark it had left on Cambodia, we spent the first week of our trip absorbing as much of the history as we could.  What we discovered is that it's not so much history as it is current events.

Here's a quick rundown (though even wikipedia will do you better!): The Khmer Rouge overthrew the Cambodian government in 1975 and remained in power until 1979, under the hand of Pol Pot. Most all professionals, doctors, and otherwise educated people were tortured and killed. Phnom Penh city was completely evacuated, with all inhabitants relocated to the country to live in Agricultural Communes.  Parents were separated from their children (so the Khmer Rouge could indoctrinate them as they wished).  The Communes were basically concentration camps where the Cambodian people were put to work growing rice; many of these people died of famine, as much of this rice was sold to china and other countries. During the 4 years under Pol Pot, somewhere between 1.4 and 2.2 millions Cambodians died, from torture, murder, starvation, or disease.

Fast forward to today. The two biggest tourist attractions in Phnom Penh are the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, and Tuol Sleng (also known as S-21), the prison where thousands of Cambodians were tortured before being transported to Choeung Ek for termination and disposal). The Killing Fields are a surprisingly peaceful memoriam to the people who died during the Khmer Rouge regime. Part of the peace is brought on by the fact that all the visitors are walking through the outdoor memorial on headphones listening to a guided tour provided by a survivor of the regime, speaking about his experiences. It was a moving and powerful memorial.

The S-21 prison was an elementary school prior to being evacuated and transformed to a prison. It is an eerie place to be and it is filled with hundreds of photographs the Khmer Rouge took of their prisoners before, during, and after torture. You very much get a sense of the people who were tortured or died here.

And lest you think because these horrible crimes occured more than 30 years ago, that it is history, you would be mistaken! The morning paper, the Cambodian Daily, had front page articles regarding the Khmer Rouge every day we were in Phnom Penh. Heading into elections, the opposition leader who is running for PM stated that the Khmer Rouge never tortured prisoners at S-21. The very next week, the legislators drafted and passed a law that one can face prison time for denying torture and other atrocities done by the Khmer Rouge. In addition, the Crimes Against Humanity Trials were taking place not a mile from our Hotel and the daily progress of the trials was front page news. This is definitely not history!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Cooking up a storm in PP

After a few days of dorking around, both sick and feeling quite sorry for ourselves, we picked ourselves up and decided to spend the day at a cooking class. Although we have been wanting to learn some local dishes in several countries we've been to, this was the first time we found an affordable class to take ($23 each for the whole day, Cambodia Cooking Class).

The day started with a tour of the local market, and it was great to finally know what it is we were seeing when we've been in the markets! The colors, sounds and smells were abundant (especially the smells, as it was about 100 degrees in scorching sun!).

Scenes from the market tour: Mangosteens; Prepping the fish to sell; Selling salads; Dragonfruit; Market stalls; Meats for sale
 After the market tour, we hopped into tuk tuks for the ride to the rooftop kitchen (and enjoyed the much-needed breeze along the way!). We got to a nondescript building and started climbing the back stairs to the roof. Either we were going to a cooking class, or they were going to kill us! Luckily, it was a cooking class!

Our menu for the day included Fish Amok, a steamed curry and the national dish of Cambodia, Taro Spring Rolls, Banana Flower Salad, and Mango Sticky Rice. Yum!! With only 7 students in the class, we had a great day learning the basics of Khmer cuisine. We pounded out our own curry paste (did you know that Turmeric comes from a root, not just a powder bottle on the grocery store shelves?!), made our own banana leaf steaming cups, mixed the best sweet chili sauce ever, and enjoyed the heck out of the day!
Cory pounding out his curry paste in 100 degree heat; our freshly made spring rolls; Molly about to enjoy our fish amok; Fish Amok steaming together; Banana flower salad; Preparations for the amok paste
Don't worry - we got to bring home the recipe book, so we can have a delicious dinner party when we come home, to share our newfound knowledge (we can get Banana Flowers at home, right?)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Phnom Penh First Impression

Our first impressions of Cambodia are...I love it!! Phnom Penh feels vibrant (in a way that Bangkok felt crazy) and the people are friendly and warm. The city has a very french feel, with wide, tree-lined avenues and a beautiful embarcadero that lines the river, where locals and foreigners dance, picnic, and play. Sure, the traffic is insane, there are no sidewalks for walking because they're all parking lots or have scooters on them (trying to avoid the traffic), and it's so hot. But I totally love it!

We got to our little Monument Hotel and were met by the delightful young receptionist, who looked at our passports and said, "Obama was here! We love him! He bought hamburgers. What a great man." In addition to this being more composed English than we heard over the last month in Thailand, he was able to explain that the Cambodians love Obama because, unlike their prime minister, he went to a local shop and bought burgers for everyone. When we commented on his excellent English, he said that Cambodians learn English from a young age because they know that if they are going to be important in the world, they need to know English. 

In other goodies, I noticed a sign in the lobby that our hotel was part of the Childsafe network, which means they are trained to identify and intervene in issues of child abuse and child slavery and sex trafficking, and as a result, we had to sign that we would not be using the services of any sex workers in their hotel. :)

And every night in the lounge, they show educational documentaries about the Khmer Rouge and the fallout (except on Mondays when they show a national geographic documentary about Angkor Wat). And it's happy hour and for $1, they delivered a pint of draught beer and a ginger ale (Cory's caught a bug) to our room…with a smile! 

So far totally pleased with Cambodia!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Final Thoughts on Thailand

We are planning on returning to Thailand after touring Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and southern China, but for now, we're getting kicked out (as we don't much feel like paying the fines for overstaying our visa!). Overall, I liked Thailand, but maybe not as much as I was dreaming about, in my last year in a cubicle. It was much more expensive than I thought it would be, which for those of you who know that I am a bit of a nut about finances, you'll know that can take some enjoyment away for me! Our impressions overall:

- The food was delicious (but often quite spicy). And when I would ask for something not spicy, it often came piled up with hot chili peppers, because clearly, THOSE aren't spicy!
- The customer service was hit or miss, and we're not sure if it was because it was bad, or there are just different cultural expectations. One oddly annoying tendency of restaurant servers and shop keepers is to stand about 1-2 feet away from you while you peruse the menu, so as to be completely available the second you want to order. And if you tell them you need another minute (in an effort to peruse in comfort), they might move to 3 feet away.
- Haggling for price was very difficult, largely due to the bigger-than-we-expected language barrier. When you can't joke or add levity to the negotiations (which requires a certain level of shared language skill), it becomes very hard to negotiate without feeling like a total ass. That and there are so many tourists that it felt like people were unwilling to budge on price because they knew someone would come along and pay it. Such as the photocopied version of the Lonely Planet guide that I wanted to purchase from a market stall...but the woman would not negotiate down her $15 USD asking price!
- The beaches are absolutely lovely, and there is nothing quite like scootering up to the beach with your honey, finding a beach bar to plunk down your clothes and jumping off for a swim in the warm water. Swim back to shore when you're ready for a fresh coconut or cold beer, and your day is complete!

Total Costs for Thailand: Our average daily cost in Thailand was $103 per day, which is higher than we were expecting (and we could have brought it down in a few ways). This included 3 nights at a splurgy (but delightful) hotel in Bangkok (for $114 per night), and the splurge of flying back to Bangkok from the islands, instead of taking the overnight train again. Avg daily cost of hotel: $36; avg daily cost of transportation: $18 (including trains and planes within the country); avg daily cost of food: $37. We certainly could have gone cheaper, but we had a very fulfilling and lovely 25 days in Thailand, and were able to see a lot that we loved!

See ya later, Thailand!!