Prasat Preah Vihear – A Temple Under Fire

Thailand and Cambodia are in a constant battle although most people might not know this.  You don’t really hear it in the news in either of the two countries and you definitely don’t hear about the soldiers dying. 

The conflict is over the ancient temple of Prasat Preah Vihear, which is located directly on the Cambodia-Thailand border.    Ever since the temple gained Unesco Status in July 2008 Thailand has been trying to claim the temple, which has a main entrance on the Thai side, as their own. 

Recently, as in the last couple of days before I explored the temple, there have been a few skirmishes where soldiers have died and Thailand has closed their entrance to the temple for the time being. 

When I decided to head up to the temple, I was unaware of the recent casualties and didn’t really question the reasons why the Thai side was closed.  I had also heard that the road up to the temple was a dangerous dirt road full of treacherous potholes that feed on small cars, but being the “new me” who is constantly seeking adventure, I decided to do it.

After our third and last day touring the temples, my friend Nauman and I decided to find the little dot on the Lonely Planet map that said “Prasat Preah Vihear Share Taxi Stop.”  After a slow creep down the street, scrutinizing every shop front, we found it. 

And finding it was an understatement. 

When our tuk tuk rolled up to the place, we were suddenly surrounded by at least 10 men, yelling destinations and times and prices.  Our tuk tuk driver acted as a liason and after much haggling, we were scheduled to be picked up the next day at 7 AM, with no guarantee of how many people would be smashed inside the small car. 

Well, lucky for us, there weren’t too many people in the car.  One guy in the back with us and two guys in the front seat.  Glad I wasn’t in the front seat (we eventually picked up another passenger who crammed in the back with us) and for the next four hours or so I can’t complain that I was too uncomfortable.  The dirt road that was continuously under construction didn’t help much and I can see how the road would be impassable during the wet season because it was practically impassable on our journey.

We made it to the bottom of the mountain, met up with two motorbike drivers, had a quick and oddly expensive lunch and soon embarked on our adventure up the mountain.

And once again, up was an understatement. 

I resisted the urge to cling to my driver who somehow needed to jerkily change gears on the steepest inclines.  And these inclines were steep!  I felt like we were going straight up at times and I wish I had a videotape of my ride because a humungous smile was plastered on my face from start to finish.  I was so incredibly excited and happy to be where I was.  I had heard so much about this temple and I was finally going to see it!

One of the bunkers around the temple

We passed an army encampment (the place where Lonely Planet says is a hotel, a little strange if you ask me) and were soon surrounded by men in green posted to protect the temple.  Walking up the path to the entrance, we passed bunker after bunker filled with ammo and a large gun (I’m not well versed on gun types or else I would state what kind of gun it was, but for the purpose of this post, the guns were quite big).  Sometimes men were sitting in the bunkers, ready for action, and sometimes they were meandering around the temple grounds  (At the time, I was unaware of the actual closeness of the battle and that I was only mere days after actual warfare and death).

Then we made it to the temple.  And it was definitely worth it.

A view of the temple

The temple is made up of four tiers, many steps followed by a temple, then more steps, and another temple, you get the point.  It was pretty run down, but that of course is the allure of the ancient temple.  Cambodian pride signs are posted everywhere telling visitors that “Preah Vihear our temple” and “Determination to protect Preah Vihear forever.”  I was also lucky that my motorbike driver walked with us and attempted, in his very broken English, to tell us what things were. 

The edge of the Earth or so it seems

By the time we reached the last temple, we were pretty high up (well, we were already on a mountain) and what an incredible view it was.  I felt like I was on the edge of the Earth, and for a second it definitely feels that way because there is no barrier between you and plummeting to the countryside below.  This put my fear at the Grand Canyon to shame ( I could barely walk up to the edge with the railing, I had to slowly inch myself forward until I could firmly grab the railing… but that was the “old me”).  I couldn’t bring myself to get close to the edge and every time someone took a picture or came close to the edge, I cringed and couldn’t watch. 

But I could have sat there for hours just taking in the Cambodian countryside in front of me.  It was so peaceful and quiet, and because the Thai side was closed, the tourists were luckily at a minimum.

We made our way down, which was just as exciting as the way up, and were soon on our way back to Siem Reap.  Because we were the only ones in the car, our driver decided to take four or five thirty minute breaks in desperate attempts to find more passengers, which he never found, but we eventually made it back after a long “day trip.”

Completely worth it though!

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Temples of Angkor – Day 3

It was our last day at the temples.  We only had a few more to see and then I wanted to do a quick run through through Angkor Thom and end with Angkor Wat.  I thought it would be great to start and end with the legendary temple. 

The interesting carvings at Prasat Kravan

We started the day off with Prasat Kravan, which wasn’t anything too special but had a few unique carvings in one of the towers.  I found it interesting that the carvings looked like they had been neatly cut in half.  Clearly, parts of the carvings were missing, but it was so neat and tidy it made me wonder what had actually happened!

Monks checking out Sra Srang

Sra Srang, which means “royal bath,” was next and offered a great view over a lake (most likely man-made).  It is apparently a great place to watch the sunrise, but after our crowded time at Phnom Bakheng, we decided to forgo the zoo and show up a little later.  It was incredibly peaceful and would have been a nice place to get some writing done if I had the time!

The ruins of Banteay Kdei

Across the road was Banteay Kdei with an entrance just like the gates of Angkor Thom (we came to love these gates and the four heads that adorned them and will always remember our peaceful time at the East gate away from any signs of tourism).  The temple was quite large and like most of the temples was elaborately decorated with dilapidated carvings of gods and dancing apsaras.

The trees over-running the Ta Phrom ruins

The infamous temple of Ta Phrom from the movie Tomb Raider was our next stop.  Built in the late 12th century to early 13th century, Ta Phrom was the temple chosen by the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient to be left in its natural state as a model of how most of Angkor looked on its discovery in the 19th century.  Because of this decision, the temple is overrun by large trees and it looks like the trees are actually the reason why the temple is still standing.  Instead of wood beams and scaffolding, Ta Phrom’s trees support the temple from crumbling.  It was amazing to see huge tree trunks shooting out of the rubble and it now looks like the temple was strategically built around the vegetation. 

A monk wandering through Ta Keo

One of the most interesting temples on the route was Ta Keo, which was one of the first temples to be built entirely of sandstone.  It looked like your ordinary temple.  It had steep stairs, many levels, multiple towers, lots of places to explore and get lost in, but something was missing.  It looked odd and it took me a few minutes to realize what it was: no carvings!  Not only were there no carvings, but there were no statues either!  I read later that experts believe that the temple was never finished, which explains the absence of the carvings.

The Apsara at Angkor Wat showing her teeth

We stopped at the “twin” temples of Thommanon and Chao Say Tevoda, which weren’t entirely too exciting and then we headed into Angkor Thom for a quick walk through and lunch.  After a delicious lunch of fried beef with pineapple, our last temple of our Tour of Temples trip was Angkor Wat.  We had heard that every temple has one smiling apsara showing her teeth and we had directions to the one in Angkor Wat (looking through my pictures from the Bayon I realized that I had found that one too without even knowing!).  Avoiding the crowds and tour groups, I found the teeth bearing goddess and my mission was complete!  We spent about thirty minutes in the temple and scooted out of there before the sunset crowd set in. 

So my adventure at the Temples of Angkor was over.  It was an absolutely amazing couple of days.  I saw history that some people only dream of and I couldn’t be luckier! 

This world has so much to offer and I want to see more!

A City on Water – Kompong Khleang

I definitely needed a break from the temples today and decided to take an excursion to one of the floating villages.  A few couchsurfers and I got the tip from a local couchsurfer telling us not to go to the nearby village of Chong Khneas, telling us that it was solely developed for tourists and a complete trap.  Thus, we headed out to the distant Kompong Khleang 35 km away from Siem Reap.

Look how high those stilts are!!

The tuk tuk drive out to the village was peaceful and we saw a lot of the countryside.  The road into the town was a tough dirt road, which ended up being our downfall later that evening.  The houses that lined the path were all on stilts to protect themselves during the wet season.  I was impressed by the height, probably 5-6 meters tall, but nothing compared to those along the river bank, which towered almost 10 meters.

A couple of the children who hounded me for 1000 riel

We were told that a boat should be $15 and when we were quoted the price of $20 each (utterly ridiculous!) we decided to take a walk through the village to get them to reconsider their offer.  I was hounded by the adorable children asking me for 1000 riel, 1000 riel, 1000 riel.  I fell in love with them right away and I was actually disappointed I didn’t have any riel with me, although that probably wouldn’t have been the best idea to cultivate their ideas that tourists should give them money.  I loved the feel of the little town, there was even a little ice cream cart going around.  All the houses were hoisted up on huge stilts, townies were lazing around, and life in the village seemed to be pretty good. 

On the river heading to the floating village

After much negotiation, we lowered the price to $35 for the entire boat and were soon puttering down the river towards the Tonlé Sap lake.   There were so many great photographic opportunities along the river, many boats passing, pigs playing around in the mud, children splashing in the water, and field workers coming home from a hard days work.

About 20 minutes later, we were faced with the opening to the huge lake and soon enough encountered the floating village for the first time.   

A cluster of homes in the floating village

What an incredible way to live!  Taking a boat to the market.  To see your friends.  To have dinner.  Pretty much, taking a boat to do anything.  We spotted pigs, dogs, and chickens hanging on these large house boats.  Some houses were bigger than others.  Some were by themselves while others were located in clusters.  Live moved around just like it would on land.

Watching the sunset from our boat

We passed through the village and decided to take a break to watch the sunset.  It was crazy.  The ocean and the sky melded into one and it literally looked like we were at the edge of the earth.  It was a really eerie feeling.  Not know what was out there and the toxic green water of the lake made us wonder what was beneath us as well.  It was pretty cloudy so the sunset wasn’t too dramatic, but it was still an incredibly peaceful setting to be in.  Chilling in a lake, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, in a floating village, in Cambodia somewhere.  Who would have thought I would be here??

A closeup of one of the floating houses

We got a little more up close and personal view of the village on the way back and actually stopped a store to get some fuel.  Unfortunately, it was getting dark and I was unable to use a shutterspeed fast enough to counteract the movement of the boat (I don’t like using flash in these situations because I believe that it is intrusive) so I didn’t get as many up close shots as I would have liked.

We made it back to the village and were soon on our way back to Siem Reap.  Or so we thought.  A few minutes down the road our driver pulled over and told us to get out.  Panic rushed through my body as I thought he was going to leave us in the pitch darkness, in the middle of nowhere, and no way to get back, but then I remembered, we hadn’t paid him yet, so there was no way he would leave.  He pointed to his tire and we noticed it was completely flat.  Great.

About an hour and a half later, and after I intently watched the way they attempted to fix this tire, first by sewing, then some weird goop like substance, then a patch, and ultimately just changing out the tire completely, we were on our way back to Siem Reap again.  While we were waiting, we had stopped in a small area of town where the boys were viciously playing around whipping a wet towel at each other.  Boys will be boys anywhere in the world.  I stayed far away for I wanted no part in that and wished I could have meandered around a bit more, but alas the town had barely any electricity, and wandering around would surely get me lost.

It was an absolutely amazing experience, although I would have loved to spend more time on the lake weaving through the houses and checking out everything they had there, but then again, I wouldn’t want someone sneaking through my backyard.

Temples of Angkor – Day 2

Since my first day at the historic temples of Angkor went amazingly, I was extremely eager to start the second day.  So eager, that I agreed to wake up at 4:30 in the morning and get an early morning start to catch the sunrise at Pre Rup.  I figured, I’m here, why waste time sleeping, right? Right.  I dragged myself out of bed and met up with three couchsurfers and a tuk tuk driver ready to take us to the faraway temple of Banteay Srei. 

The sunrise at Pre Rup

Honestly, the sunset wasn’t too dramatic.  There has been a constant haze around and the sun didn’t appear until the temple was almost completely lit.  The warm sunlight brought out the orange in the walls and statues of Pre Rup and it was definitely worth it to get an early start on the day.  We experienced more history and culture before most people get out of bed in the morning!

Banteay Srei

One of the many beautiful carvings at Banteay Srei

Built in the 10th century, Banteay Srei, or the “Citadel of the Women,” is known for its unique red sandstone and intricate carvings, which were breathtaking and I have to say it was one of my favorite temples so far.  Seeing it in the morning light really brought out contours and beautiful redness of all the carvings.  There were also some distinctive statues in the main temple which were crosses between monkeys, birds, or lions with humans, something that I hadn’t seen yet.   It’s great to see new things from temple to temple because I think it would get a bit repetitive and “temple fatigue” would set in a little quicker. 

After a peaceful walk through the woods around the temple and a delicious omelet for breakfast, we jumped back into the tuk tuk and headed to Banteay Samre, which was perfect timing, because we just missed the hordes of people coming into Banteay Srei. 

Banteay Samre

The Sun and the Moon carving at Banteay Samre

I really enjoyed this temple.  It was extremely compact, but it was covered in wall carvings.  There were lots of little corridors and places to climb and explore and we actually almost had the place to ourselves. 

I love that we are able to climb all over ancient ruins.  You would never see that in the States!  I get to scale stairs that are crumbling as I write this and its such an amazing feeling.  Imagining what it was like in its heyday.  All the people bustling around.  The cities of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom must have been madhouses!

One of the elephant statues at Eastern Mebon

Next, we shot over to Eastern Mebon, where we got a quick look at some large elephant statues, which we haven’t seen anywhere else.  They seemed to be in pretty good shape too, which was surprising.  Everywhere else, you see the lions faces smashed in, they have only three feet, or no head, but the elephants were solid and seemed untouched.   

We decided to power through our day so we could end by threeish, so we headed right over to Ta Som.  The temple wasn’t anything too special, but it did have a lot of great carvings, dilapidated statues, and rubble to climb around on. 

The unique Preah Neak Poan was right down the road and offered us something slightly different to look at. 

Preah Neak Poan

The island at Preah Neak Poan

The temple was formally an island and is said to represent the Himilayan lake of Anavatapta, a lake known for its miraculous healing powers.  It was a circular monument (the island) surrounded by a large square with four smaller squares surrounding it.  It would have been wonderful to see this in the wet season (like a lot of the temples and things to do in Siem Reap!), but imagining the water was good enough. 

Preah Khan

Life among the ruins of Preah Khan

Our last stop of the day was at Preah Khan, an enormous complex that seemed to keep going forever!  It had trees growing through the walls, rubble in every room, stone blocks of rubble everywhere, and of course, amazing carvings.  Those ancient Khmers really knew how to carve stone and the fact the all these carvings are still here today just blows my mind.  Most of these carvings are older than America.  Actually, scratch that.  All of these carvings are older than the U.S.  So incredible. 

Another amazing day at the temples completed!  I’m definitely up for a break tomorrow though!

Temples of Angkor – Day 1

When we think of Angkor Wat we picture those stunningly beautiful shots of the temple silhouette at sunset or with its striking reflection.  It is synonymous with power, ancient wonder, and most importantly, beauty. 

To tell you the truth, I was nervous to go to the Temples of Angkor, my second UNESCO  World Heritage Site.  As a photographer, I felt a lot of pressure to get pictures just as beautiful or maybe more so then the ones I had seen in National Geographic or Lonely Planet.  Of course, this pressure was completely self induced and completely ridiculous, but I was so eager to get that perfect picture that I caused a little anxiety to build up as I rode that 7 km road up to the temple from Siem Reap.

I had attended a couchsurfing get together the night before and had invited a guy from Washington D.C. to accompany me, so we got an early start at 7:15, bicycle pedals ready and anticipation growing.  We purchased the 3-day pass and decided to head to Angkor Wat first.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat was built in the first half of the 12th century and is the world’s largest religious monument.  The temple is a depiction of the Hindu universe.   The moat around the complex represents the mythical oceans that surround the Earth, the concentric galleries represent the mountain ranges that surround Mount Meru, the home of the gods, and the towers represent the mountain’s peaks.

The view from the main tower at Angkor Wat

Approaching the temple, we had to brace ourselves for the hordes of tourists, cameras in hand, and touts trying to sell us everything from t-shirts to rip-off Lonely Planet guides.   We entered through the gate and the world of Angkor Wat unfolded in front of us.  We explored the spectacular bas reliefs and stone carvings around every turn.  Dancing apsaras surrounded us with their sly smiles and graceful features.  We climbed the steep steps of the main tower and took in the beautiful complex from above.  I tried to imagine the hustle and bustle temple when it was a city inhabited by thousands of people.  Too bad they didn’t have cameras back then! 

Unfortunately, they are working on restoring the monument and decided that bright green tarps were the way to go, so I wasn’t able to capture that perfect shot of the towers, but I do understand that renovation is necessary to ensure that generations to come will be able to appreciate the historic temple.   

The South Gate at Angkor Thom

Next up was the ancient city of Angkor Thom, one of the largest Khmer cities ever built.  We entered through the South gate and witnessed the peaceful faces of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, that ran rampant around the complex.  The entrance to the gate is powerfully lined with statues of 54 gods (on the left) and 54 demons (on the right).  We took our time throughout the day to explore the other four gates and found the East Gate to be one of the best experiences of our days at the temples.  There were absolutely no other people there, we were able to climb up to the top of the gate and I was able to give one of the massive faces a little smooch. 

The Bayon

One of the many smiling faces in the Bayon Temple

The Bayon is the main temple in Angkor Thom and it was one of the most spectacular of the Temples of Angkor.  Having 54 towers, each donned with four mysteriously smiling faces, the temple has moved through many different religious phases from Pantheon of the Gods, Hindu worship and Buddhism.  It gave me a sense that I was being watched at every turn, and as creepy as that may sound, I think it was with more of a protective air.

 I tried to explore every inch of the temple, getting lost in the narrow hallways and corridors, studying the intricate stone carvings and elegant dancing apsaras and climbing the crumbling stairs to the top.  I couldn’t get enough of the faces that surrounded me and I never wanted to leave!  But of course, there was much more of Angkor Thom to explore so I needed to pry myself away from the countless photographic opportunities. 

Some of the carvings at the Terrace of the Elephants

We meandered down the Terrace of Elephants, which is a 350 meter –long intricately carved stone once used as a viewing stand for public ceremonies and then moved to the Terrace of the Leper King, which donned beautiful carvings as well.  We biked over to Baphuon next.

Baphuon 

The view from the top of Baphuon

Baphuon is one of the oldest Temples of Angkor, being built in the middle of the 11th century (1060).  The temple had began a massive restoration, being taken apart piece by piece, when the Cambodian civil war erupted and unfortunately all the records were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, leaving a giant hopefully solvable jigsaw puzzle.  Restoration began again in 1995 and was pinned to be done by 2002, but what we saw was definitely a temple deeply under construction with no sign of an end.  I would love to come back here later and see the finished product!

 Sunset was approaching and we wanted to take it in from the “sunset hotspot” Phnom Bakheng, which ended up being a horrible idea.

Phnom Bakheng

The sunset at Bakheng

Because the temple is well known for its beautiful vistas and views of the surrounding countryside and temples (thank you Lonely Planet), we found ourselves surrounded by the most people we had seen all day.  We had a leisurely hike up to the top dodging slow moving tourists and when we made it to the temple, we could barely see the stones through the massive amounts of people awaiting the sunset.  The steps were extremely steep and I was thoroughly impressed with some of the elderly visitors that were able to make it to the top.  We only hung out for a half an hour or so and then decided that it would be better to beat the crowds down.  I can’t imagine what it would have been like making our way down those steps with hundreds of others trying to do the same. 

It was an absolutely amazing first day at the temples and I would definitely recommend not trying to do it all in one day.  We were able to take our time and not feel rushed at all and we still have so many more temples to see in the next few days!  Stay tuned for my next post!

First Impressions: Siem Reap

Upon entering Siem Reap, I didn’t have any prior expectations.  The only thing I really knew about the town was that the Temples of Angkor were close by. And that’s just what the town was.  A settlement that developed because of the World Wonder six kilometers down the road. 

But that’s not a bad thing.

I loved the slowness of Siem Reap.  Or I guess a better word would be sleepiness.  It did not have the urgency of Bangkok.  It did not have the traffic of Phnom Penh.   It did not have the strict rules of Singapore or an extensive railway system like Kuala Lumpur.  The roads were quite bumpy and worn, the people appeared the same and the town seemed to know its very significant role in Cambodia and more importantly the world: the gateway to the Temples of Angkor Wat, one of the Wonders of the Ancient World. 

Moto drivers still hounded me, but with a more blasé attitude.  The shops were all set further off the road and walking down the street, I didn’t feel like something was constantly being sold to me (of course, this all drastically changed when I visited the Temples of Angkor). 

I didn’t explore downtown Siem Reap until later in the day and it was definitely a little busier than Airport Road, or National Highway 6, the street that I first encountered when entering the city.  There were cute shops selling knick knacks and souvenirs extremely similar to those found in Thailand (although, naturally, the “Thailand” was now changed to “Cambodia”), small guesthouses and of course, cheap beer everywhere. 

My kind of town!

A taste of Voluntourism

Awhile ago I had been searching for volunteer opportunities throughout Cambodia.  Most of the projects I had found were going to cost me and I honestly don’t believe in paying to volunteer.  The essence of volunteering is that you are giving back to a cause that you believe in, helping those less fortunate, and assisting in making the world a better place.  You shouldn’t have to pay to do a good deed. 

After planning my itinerary for the next couple months, I realized that volunteering might not be an option because of my short time in each city and country.  But to my luck, I did in fact get the wonderful privilege of lending a helping hand in Phnom Penh.

The leader, Isaac

My couchsurfing host had a friend named Isaac, who was building a school in a local village and was recruiting volunteers (he was also recently feature in Asia Life Magazine, click here to read the article).  I wasn’t quite ready to leave Phnom Penh and decided right away that I would love to help out any way I could.  The task: Digging a ditch where the water during the wet season(only a month away) would drain so that the children had a place to play.  Yes, I would be digging a swimming pool-size ditch on my vacation (well, I wouldn’t personally dig the entire thing, that would be impressive!) and I couldn’t be happier. 

Getting a workout in the dirt!

The school construction site was located in the South Central (Isaac had lived in California at one point and used this to give me an idea of the type of neighborhood he had chosen for the school, which also indicated the reason why he chose that area) of Phnom Penh.  He had suspended classes until the children of the village had returned the tools they had stolen from him (he pointed to the smallest, cutest little girl and told me that she was one of the culprits who stole a ball and said “Can you believe it?? The littlest girl was in on it!”) and the volunteers were to focus on digging the ditch.

The volunteers digging away

Even though I only was able to volunteer one day, I absolutely loved it.  And I know what you’re thinking.  You enjoyed digging in the hot sun, especially with a bad back?  And no, I did not enjoy that part, but I loved the atmosphere.  A bunch of twenty-something travelers getting together to help something bigger then them.  Dedicating time they could be using gallivanting around the world to shoveling dirt all day. 

I highly recommend getting your hands dirty when traveling.  Its rewarding and can really enrich your cultural experience!

If anyone knows of anyone who needs help, or who has experiences volunteering, in Laos, Northern Thailand, or Vietnam, please send along their information to me so that I can maybe contact them when I’m traveling!  I would love to keep volunteering, even if it is only for a moment!