South East Asia December 2012 – January 2013
04.01.2013 - 07.01.2013
Friday, 4th January
Day one in Siem Reap, and we started off with a long sleep and a leisurely breakfast. There is something about Cambodia that makes you want to take in all the beauty without rushing, but unfortunately we were limited to a few days in this country and we had better make the most of it. And so, we ventured the street, looking out for a tuk-tuk driver. We met a friendly local man named Lucky and he became our driver for our whole time in Siem Reap. Now all we needed to do was get ourselves a pass for the Angkor Wat Archeological Sights. Seen as we weren't going to be in Cambodia for very long, but still wanted to make the most of the temples, we opted for the three day pass. And I can tell you already: best money ever spent!
We wanted to keep the more impressive and better known temples until the end of our journey, so that we would appreciate the beauty of the lesser known ones without comparison to their famed siblings. Lucky devised a special route for us and off we went! * exciting *
Not that the names will mean much to you, but we visited Prah Khan temple, Neak Pean temple, Ta Som temple, Eastern Mebon temple and ended with the Prah Prerup temple. Every single one of them was different and stunning in its own accord. Some were small, some were large, some were well kept, others were in ruins, some had trees growing through them, some were bare, etc. It was a feast to the eyes. And of course, everywhere we went, vendors were coming towards us to sell us their goods.
I will never forget meeting a group of gorgeous little five year old girls trying to sell us ten postcards for $1. We had just bought a few packs and really did not need any more, but they kept coming up with the cutest ways to get us to give in. “Lady, 10 postcards for only one dollar. That is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10... for one dollar!” and when that did not work, they went on with “Or: un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six, sept, huit, neuf, dix... for one dollar!” No? “Or: ein, zwei, drei, vier, funf,...” and on they went, counting until ten in numerous different languages. My severely neglected multi-lingual ears were buzzing with joy and I would have given anything to spend my day with these little gems. Anyway, they soon realised we weren't going to buy any more items from them, so they walked away. One little girl however, had one more trick up her sleeve for me. She invited me to crouch down on the dusty ground and asked me to play “tic tac toe” (naughts and crosses) with her. Beguiled by her little charming multilingual ways, I sat down to play with her. She made the first move, I made the second, and just before making a winning move, she shouted out “I win, you buy!”. Oh, the cheek! I was just quick enough to block her off and we have laughed about it ever since.
In the afternoon, Lucky took us to Tonlé Sap Lake, where we were going to view the floating villages. We did not know that you had to book a boat tour in order to see these villages and we awkwardly realised that we did not have enough money on us. Thankfully, Lucky was able to lend us enough so we could still set off. We got our own motored junk little junk boat and off we went into the waves. The sun was just about to set, and so our driver stopped in the middle of the lake so we could enjoy the spectacle without obstructions. He insisted we should have a swim, and so we dove into the darkness of the lake, with the sunset right behind us. It was quite the experience. We did come out of it feeling a little oily and sticky, but nothing that wouldn't wash off in the shower of the hotel. Next, we were taken to one of the floating shops which also hosted a crocodile farm. A few alarm bells rang in our heads as we discovered that crocs were being bred in the very lake we were swimming in, but hey... just another thing to add to our list of adventures.
Sunsets and crocs aside, the actual floating villages we paddled past were a little underwhelming. We know there is much more to it, but whether they just weren't accessible to tourists or whether we came at the wrong time of day, we will never know. Lucky patiently waited for us at the little port and drove us back into the city. It was quite a long drive back, maybe 30 or 45 minutes. Many of the locals get around on bicycles, as did two young locals boys, who took the opportunity to hang on to the tuk-tuk for a bit of a rest. We thought it was hilarious, and we tried to help them to hang on. They were able to drive along for a while, before Lucky angrily told them off. I think the boys noticed our disappointment, and so for the last 15 minutes or so, they peddled as hard as they could to keep up with us the entire journey. It's these little encounters that made us fall head over heels with this country – such gorgeous people!
We got back to Siem Reap and Lucky convinced us to book ourselves in for a Cambodian dance and music spectacle at one of the hotels the next night. After we made the booking, we quickly got out of our oily clothes and went out for dinner. A series of fancy and Western restaurants adorns the busy streets of the city, but we preferred to have our meals in the little side-streets with the locals, who were filled with pride at having us dine amongst them. Bellies filled with scrumptious food, we walked it off by having a stroll through the night market. Now, I will happily admit that I am a sucker for markets and bargains, but that night, it was Ben who went on a t-shirt extravaganza! That's my man!
Saturday, 5th January
Lucky convinced us to get up at 4.30am to see the true beauty of the majestic temples at sunrise. There was a surprising amount of other tourists up at the same time, having the same idea, and it made for a really great atmosphere. The temple that was regarded the best at sunrise, was the famous Angkor Wat temple. Renovation work was being done on the temple, which was a crying shame. Luckily for us, it wasn't all that noticeable on the pictures we took at sunrise.
Now, we both believed Angkor Wat did not deserve all the hoo-ha. Seeing it at sunrise was an experience of a life-time. And yes, it is a great temple. Amazing architecture. But, for some reason the dark stone that was used reminded me of the victorian architecture which you find around Scotland and the whole place had a sombre appeal.
We were quite happy to move onto the next 'big' temple: Bayan. And oh. my. goodness: What a beauty!!! I am not going to spoil this place with badly worded descriptions, but will leave you with a picture instead:
We went back to the hotel for a snooze. Tonight, we were heading to one of the posher hotels for a lovely dinner as well as to see a traditional Khmer dance and music show. It was a gorgeous evening and the dancers were amazing. Thoroughly enjoyed it!
The show finished early enough for us to enjoy a walk along the river beds, before bidding another wonderful day in Cambodia goodnight.
Sunday, 6th January
Last day on our temple pass and Lucky decided to take us to one of the furthest located temples.
It was yet another beautiful place, and we quite enjoyed the long drive through the many villages. We stopped along one of the roads to see the locals make some local sweet delicacies made out of palm sugar. It was nice to get amongst them and see how they worked, but my attention soon drifted off when a beautiful little girl asked me to hold on to her baby sister. Anyone who knows me well, will know that handing babies over to me isn't the best move, as chances are very high that I won't want to return them again. And this time was no different: what a gem of a bub!
Sadly, we had to get a move on if we still wanted to see some of the other temples as well. We visited so many that it was hard to keep track of, but the one that definitely stood out was the temple which was made famous by Angelina Jolie in the Tomb Raider. You know, the temple, which has a giant tree growing right out of it! To the locals and the architects, these trees are a real nuisance, destroying important landmarks and holy temples. But from many a tourist's perspective the trees add a certain charm to the place. The architectural site once represented a city, bustling with activity, lived in by numerous inhabitants, with merchants visiting from far and wide. Now, it lies empty. Seeing nature living amongst these beautiful ruins in a way seems like a reincarnation. As if the souls of the past came back to claim their lands. Maybe I am reading too much into it, but my favourite temples were by far the ones that had trees living amongst them...
Ben wanted to pay a last visit to the Angkor Wat temple. We saw most of it the other day, but there were so many crowds at sunrise, that we never really bothered to see the inside. The place kind of gave me the creeps, so I waited outside whilst he had a little peek. Whilst I was waiting, a Japanese couple ran up to me with a massive camera and excitedly asked “photo”. Yes, of course, I'll gladly take a picture of you both. I make a gesture to grab the camera off them when they suddenly pull away and say “No! Photo you!” and before I knew it, the wife stands next me, puts an arm around me, while the other hand, stereotypically, makes the peace sign. I was too gobsmacked to say much. Or smile much, for that matter. The husband thanks me a few times, and is about to go away, when the wife shouts at him, angrily pointing at his bag. Out comes another camera, even bigger than the previous one, and yes, now it is her turn to take a picture of me. Their commotion at seeing a white person brought along so much attention that I heard a group of American passerby's ask one another what kind of celebrity I was. I was mortified. But... it did make me realise what it must feel like every time I travel and want to take a picture of a local person. How when they say they feel embarrassed and I tell them “it's all good”, they are in fact really embarrassed. Karma, maybe? It wasn't the only time people were taking pictures of us in Cambodia. Whenever we drove in the tuk-tuk, Asian tourists would take out their cameras and shoot away. You can almost imagine them saying: “Look at those two uptight whiteys sitting there!” Very bizarre feeling.
Monday, 7th January
[Happy Birthday to my lovely brother, Yani!]
I read somewhere that one way of making a difference in countries like Cambodia is by donating blood. Now, donating blood has long been on my wish list, but I was too young to do so back home, too “short” to do so in the UK (absolute bollocks!), and too foreign to do so in New Zealand. So, I grabbed my chance when we had the day off. Lucky donates regularly and so he came to get me from the hotel in the morning so we could donate together. Arriving at the hospital, I was greeted by the director and the doctors as if I was royalty. They were so appreciative that I was willing to give up some of my blood to them! This was not a regular hospital, but also invited young mothers and their children for a free nutritional breakfast every single morning to ensure they started their day well. And seeing what amazing work they did, made me all the more certain about doing it here. A preliminary prick and I was given a sad tap on the shoulder and I was pointed to the door. I burst out in tears, asking what was wrong, and got a massive cuddle from a few nurses who kindly said: “Lady, you too small. You need your blood more than us.” I was unhappy the whole day... and vowed there and then that I was going to be donating blood in Australia, no matter what the cost. (And I eventually did)
After that minor debacle, I returned back to hotel a soppy mess, and started packing our bags before having breakfast. We were able to leave the bags at the reception until the end of the day, so we did not have to carry them around whilst wandering around the streets of Seam Reap for the last time. We found a stall that did pancakes and my day was suddenly brightened up significantly
We had our final dinner at our usual local spot in one of the side-streets. While we were eating, an old homeless man, whom we had seen roaming around before, begged us for money. We had been trying on several occasions to get him to join us for dinner, but every time he got a shock when we addressed him and walked away. Being an emotional bag that day, I was determined not to let him get away. But again the old man refused, too embarrassed, maybe even too proud. The locals must have been watching us as they were all in on trying to get the old man to finally give in. As soon as he sat down, the lovely stall-holder and her children prepared him a thick broth of rice and meat, something which would fill him up a lot more than our well presented meals. It filled our hearts with joy that he wouldn't be going hungry that evening. As a buddhist country, compassion and giving to others is regarded highly and we were happy to be able to end our time in this country helping someone out, as small as the gesture was. And it just shows that the kindness of others does rub off on you, no matter what language they speak, no matter whether you know them or not. And that is a priceless feeling, which we sadly did not encounter whilst in Vietnam.
This country is worth its weight in gold and more. Kindness, compassion and beauty all go hand in hand and it was with a heavy heart that we said our goodbyes, hoping to make it a “see you soon again” instead. We love Cambodia!!