Thursday, February 17, 2011

12th Stop: Siem Reap

So, we got off the boat from Battambang, and meandered through a crowd of tuk-tuk drivers til we saw our guy from the Golden Mango holding a sign with Aisling's name. Although the boat trip had been amazing, we were on the water all day and it was roasting hot, so we couldn't wait to get to the hostel just to chill out, in every sense!

The Golden Mango was the number one ranked hostel in Cambodia in 2009 and 2010, and we can see why! As soon as we arrived, we were greeted with ice cold goblets, (yes, goblets!) of orange juice, and cold towels, while our bags were taken to our room. As well as that, they had free internet, free tea/coffee, free breakfast, free bike rental and free tuk-tuks to anywhere in the city! What a place! And when we got up to our room there was even a complementary bowl of fruit, though we weren't entirely sure what it was...

There you can see an apple, a few tiny bananas (they really were tiny!) and then some weird furry things... We later found out they were called rambutans. We didn't really get how they worked and we were trying to bite into the hard exterior, thinking that was the fruit. It turns out you have to open them up, kinda like a chestnut (though not as prickly) and the fruit was inside. It was delicious too! It tasted like a mix between a grape and a coconut, if you can imagine that. I was hoping we'd get a fresh bowl of fruit every day but sadly we didn't...

It was late enough in the day at that stage so we just did our usual routine of Pizza Company and Amazing Race, and planned for our stay in Siem Reap. There are literally hundreds of temples around so we had to do some research on what ones we actually wanted to see. (Like Bagan, I won't bore you with the details of each one!)

The next morning, we grabbed breakfast in the hostel, again with some more weird fruit (the pink and white speckledy one is a dragonfruit, which was quite nice, kinda like a watered down kiwi) and then made our first voyage, cycling to the nearby Roluos Temples.

That's the last picture of fruit, I promise...

The Roluos Temples were the earliest, though probably not the most impressive of the Khmer temples, but still worth a look considering they're over 1,100 years old. As I said, I wont go into detail about each one. Bakong was probably the most impressive of all the temples we saw that day, and especially notable for its Flintsone-like scaffolding outside.

There was another smaller one nearby, Prasat Prei Monti, so we said we might as well have a look as we were here. We cycled down a few country lanes, but there was no sign of it anywhere. We stood there looking at the map for a while, when this woman who was walking past pointed down a little dirt track and ushered us to follow her, so we presumed it was close by. Ten minutes later, after following her down a series of narrow, jungle trails, we started to get the feeling that maybe we misunderstood and we were actually just following this woman home... She hadn't said a word since giving us the directions, and there was no way the temple was this far away. We were really in the in the middle of nowhere. It was beautiful, sure, but it wasn't where we were meant to be!

We eventually arrived at some temple (not the one we were looking for, but relieved that she was actually leading us somewhere!) but when we landed, there was some woman saying we needed to pay 2,000 Riel (around 50c). We presumed she meant that we should give it to the woman who showed us the way, which was fair, so we gave her the money. But no, she wanted money for herself! Who was she like?! I think she was trying to imply that she owned the temple or something. Seriously! I was going to pay her, just to get her to go away, but Ash told me not to give her anything, out of principle. She was right too, as I said, who was she like?! In the end, we ignored her and walked on.

The temple (well, I say temple, it was just some ruin in the forest) was actually pretty cool. Not so much down to the building itself, but because it was in the middle of nowhere, with no tourists around, and also cause there were leaves everywhere!

We still don't know where this place actually was...

We played around in the leaves for a while, until we finally had to 'leave' ourselves. We wandered back along the forest trail and miraculously made it out onto the main path again, and so we jumped on our bikes and cycled on. It was great actually, cycling around the temples for the day, and just look how red the dirt is!!

I don't know why, but I really love red dirt!

We went to our last temple of the day, Lolei, (which was nothing special at all) before journeying back to the hostel just as the sun was setting. Cycling is fun!

That night, we went into Siem Reap town for dinner and got dessert in a local bakery, The Blue Pumpkin. They have a brilliant offer actually, that after 8 o'clock, all of their pastries are half price. It's genius really, seeing as they'd just be throwing them out anyway. It's a good way of making some extra dough...

We then took a wander around some souvenir shops, and while the shop assistant wasn't looking, started trying on their hats for our amusement. Aisling was caught rotten though, but pretended to be interested in buying one, telling the assistant that she was going to get money and would be back!

She never came back...

The next day we had to get up early for a cooking class we had booked in a place called Le Tigre de Papier. We didn't really know what to expect from it but it was actually a lot of fun! When we went in, we were given a menu and told to pick out a starter and main course that we'd like to cook. Then we were taken through the mazes of street markets to pick up the ingredients. Myself and Ash both made pumpkin soup for starters, while she chose chicken & cashew nut, and I made chicken with fried noodles, for the main course.

We were even shown how to make fancy little decorations for our plates!

All in all, we had a great day! The pumpkin soup was incredible, I'd even say it was the best bowl of soup I ever had! The mains were only alright, but we were so full from the soup that it didn't really matter. We were given some sticky rice and mango then for dessert, which was unreal too! It was excellent value for $12 (about €9), considering you were getting a 3 course meal, and being shown how to cook it! 75% of the money is given to charity too, so we had a very wholesome day really!

We even went back there for dinner the following night!

That day we also fulfilled our promise to Happy and gave his friend, Mr. Peakdey, a ring. Now, I don't know what happened when they were giving out nicknames, but this guy was 10 times happier than Happy! He was a lunatic! We loved him though. We needed a tuk-tuk anyway as we were planning on doing some serious templing, as well as going to Banteay Srei, which was 32km away.

Banteay Srei is one of the most famous temples in Siem Reap, despite being so far away, and you can see why it's described as the "jewel in the crown of Angkorian art". The stone carvings are incredible and even though it was built in the 8th century, they are still in pristine condition today.

The only downside really was that it was absolutely jam packed when we were there, and because the temple itself is quite small, you'd really notice the crowds. That, and it was quite a long way out from Siem Reap itself. The long journey was most certainly made worthwhile on the way back though! Let me explain...

While we've been in South East Asia, and Cambodia in particular, we've seen motorbikes carrying 2, 3 and sometimes 4 people, and it's become a little game of ours when we're travelling to see as many people as we can on the one bike. I've been trying desperately to get a picture of a 4 person bike for my records, but it's hard when you're whizzing by so quickly. On the way back from Banteay Srei though, we saw one on the road ahead of us. I fumbled around for my camera and just about got the photo off as we passed by. I was delighted with myself, 4 people on the one bike!

But what's that?! It couldn't be!?! As I checked the camera to see if I had taken a clean picture, I noticed a 5th little head at the front! No way!! I know it mightn't seem like a big deal at all, but we were ecstatic! 5 people, what a result!

Again, I'll skip past some places we went, Banteay Samré, Eastern Mebon, Pre Rup, and it's funny really, I'm skipping past these place because I've nothing really of note to say about any of them, which just shows how desensitised we've become here. These are some incredible temples, that anyone would kill to see, but we've seen so many beautiful places over the last couple of weeks that our standards have really gone through the roof!

Next was Banteay Kdei, and Aisling's 12 year old entrepreneur. Now at most of the temples, you'd get kids running up to you trying to sell you postcards, fridge magnets, bracelets etc. and to be brutally honest, these kids are usually pretty rubbish at it! But at Banteay Kdei, one little girl absolutely charmed the pants off Aisling! She was excellent in fairness. She was smothering Ash with compliments and said she was just selling this crap so she could start her own business. She even had a few words of Gaelige to throw in too! Very impressive stuff.

As I said before, we really became spoilt with all the amazing things we had seen, and so it would take something really spectacular to impress us... and then there was Ta Prohm. It was like nothing we had ever seen before. In fact, no. It was like something we had seen before, but something you'd only ever see in a movie. It looked like it was fresh out of Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider. (It turns out, it actually was used in Tomb Raider! Go figure!)

Some of the temples we've seen so far on our travels have been centuries old and so, ravaged by time, the elements and even invading armies, but we've never seen one ravaged by nature itself! It was unreal! Roots the size of tree trunks sprawling across rooftops, vines obscuring ancient stone carvings, solid walls crumbling beneath the weight of branches - these buildings were pretty much being consumed by the jungle. It was like discovering a lost world (except for all the tourists obviously!). I guess it just shows the power of nature.

Doesn't it just look like a scene from a movie?!

Next we went to Ta Keo, with its almost vertical climb to the top. The steps were literally 15 inches high and 4 inches wide, not an easy ascent in sandals under the hot Cambodian sun.

Our last stop of the day was Phnom Bakheng, to watch the sunset with Mr. Peakdey. It was a nice spot, with a nice view, but that's all it was really... "nice". I think it's more of a case of it being famous for being famous. People go there for sunset because, well... people go there for sunset! It's a thing that's done so that's why people do it.

But if sunset was underwhelming, we more than made up for it at sunrise.

Ok, I didn't actually take that picture myself, I found it on Google images... It's nice though, isn't it?!

So then, Angkor Wat, the biggest religious structure in the world, the national symbol of Cambodia and probably the most famous landmark in South East Asia. What better place to watch the sunrise on our last day in Siem Reap! We had a lot of temples still to cross off our list, despite the marathon session of the day before, so we hired Mr. Peakdey again to take us around, starting with a 5am trip to Angkor Wat (or Angkor whuuut?! as we like to call it...).

It was (quite obviously) pitch black as we arrived and followed the crowds to the best spot, waiting for this massive wonder to emerge from the darkness. And emerge it did! (although maybe not as dramatically as the picture above would have you believe...). Another upside to visiting the place at sunrise was the fact that it wasn't crammed with tourists (bar us hardcore few of course), so after the sun came up, we went for a walk around the temple grounds.

Again, clearly, I didn't take that photo, but it gives you a good idea of what the place looks like. Unfortunately though, there was some construction work going on while we were there, so the spectacular views were partially obscured by scaffolding. One thing we did see though was a monkey stealing a bag of fruit from some woman! It was very entertaining for all concerned, well, probably not for the woman herself... but definitely for us! And, I'd imagine, even more so for the monkey!

After Angkor Wat, we went over to another one of Cambodia's most recognisable images, Bayon, with its iconic stone faces. (And according to the Lonely Planet, there are in fact 216 of these stone faces). Our early start really helped us beat the crowds that day.

Next door was Bauphon, and although it might look like a graveyard out front, those are actually pieces of the temple - numbered but not exactly ordered. See, Bauphon is known as "the world's largest jigsaw puzzle" because before the civil war, it was taken apart by archaeologists for preservation. However, their records were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge reign, and so now it is being painstakingly being put back together, piece by piece...

We zipped around to a few more temples before we really had to call it a day. We were wrecked after our early start and to be honest, a bit templed out, so we asked Mr. Peakdey to take us home. In fairness, he really earned his money over the last two days, with a tuk-tuk here, and a tuk-tuk there (here a tuk, there a tuk, everywhere a tuk-tuk!) We had a great chat with him too after he dropped us at the hostel. He's had a pretty tough life, like most Cambodians I'd imagine, but you wouldn't think it for a second to look at him. He's a great guy. We eventually had to say our goodbyes, but he was definitely one of our favourite people of the whole trip, and one we'll be sure to get in contact with if we're ever in the area again.

And that was pretty much it for our time in Siem Reap, and Cambodia as a whole. Certainly a rival for Myanmar in the best country stakes, again not just for the scenery but for the people too.

So, it was off to our next city/country... Singapore!

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