Friday, January 29, 2010

Why Angkor Wat?

11 January 2010 – Siem Reap, Cambodia. Angkor Wat.

Most travelers rush into Siem Reap and see the ruins for a day, maybe two, before rushing onto their next destination. I’d been there an entire week, quietly wandering the town saying little to anyone, when I finally decided to check’em out. The thing to do, they say, is to leave at 5am.[bxA]

Angkor at Sunrise (random photo found on internet).

It didn’t sound fun. They set up lawn chairs – tons of them – and a stadium crowd shows up to watch the sunrise like a football game. I didn’t want to do it, but the thought sent me down memory lane...

14 August 2009 – Palmyra Syria – two strangers meeting. “Hey, will you take a photo of me?” “Sure, will you take a photo of me?” The rest, as they say, is history.

Back in the Beirut days, people often assumed Chaz and I were dating and I was asked more than once how we met. It was a romantic start - our platonic friendship – we were making idle conversation in the ruins waiting for the sun to crack on the horizon in Palmyra.

Palmyra, Syria. After the anticlimactic photo op, Chaz and I walked on the sand, in the wind among ruins discussing his research in Kuwait and my….um…basic lunacy I guess. Chaz became one of my all time best travel buds and introduced me to a whole new social world of great people back in Beirut.

But back to Cambodia…
“Have you seen Angkor Wat?” That’s what everyone asks. They don’t say, “Have you seen the temples of Angkor?” It’s very specific that the reason you travel to Siem Reap is to see Angkor Wat, the main temple with the moat around it. The Lonely Planet says it’s the largest religious structure in the world and various other travel blurbs call it “the eighth wonder of the world.” (Nikki reminded me that we were raised on the belief that the Houston Astrodome is the 8th wonder of the world. Isn't it?)

Angkor Wat is cool and all, but…
Bayon is way cooler.

Way way cooler.
When you travel a lot you come up with just a handful of unforgettables. Or, I do, anyway. There aren’t many and they’re not the ones you might assume – the sights that make you think, wow, that’s spectacular. Bayon is now near the top of my list.

And so…I will bore you with what the Lonely Planet has to say:

The Bayon epitomizes the creative genius and inflated ego of Cambodia’s legendary king, Jayavarman VII. Its 54 Gothic towers are famously decorated with 216 enormous, coldly smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara that bear more than a passing resemblance to the great king himself. These huge visages glare down from every angle, exuding power and control with a hint of humanity – precisely the blend required to hold sway over such a vast empire, ensuring that the disparate and far-flung populations yielded to the monarch’s magnanimous will.
Bayon Temple of Angkor - Bas Relief depiction of a cock fight.

The Bayon is decorated with 1.2km of extraordinary bas-reliefs incorporating more than 11,000 figures. The famous carvings on the outer wall of the first level vividly depict everyday life in the 12th-century Cambodia.

To be fair, if you really must know… Angkor Wat also has a rich history. The tour guide, who bored me nearly to death, talked for hours about its significance.

There are many books about it. Tons to know.

However, I will spare you the enthralling detail and tell you what Alyssa and have come to regard as ‘The History of Nearly Everything’:

Angkor Wat was built…

by the ancestors…

back in the day.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Solitude in Siem Reap

6 January 2010 – Siem Reap, Cambodia. Stuffed dog napping.

I didn’t run straight to the ruins. I wanted to chill out for a few days. My first venture out of Home Sweet Home Guest House was a long wander along the river. I didn’t say much to anyone [bxA] for days so I don't have much to say much here…

There are lots of cozy resorts, guest houses and restaurants along the river in the tourist section.
North of the second bridge there's a non-tourist area.

Lots of market stalls.

Clothes stalls.

Food stalls.

Adorable kids.
The Cambodians love their dogs. The cutest muts you ever saw are always sleeping in the market stalls.

The little girls run around the most adorable little pajama sets.

It was a good day. Peaceful. Siem Reap is my kind of place.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cambodia Crossing

3 January 2010 - Poipet, Cambodia. Border crossing from Thailand.

7:15am. I asked the waitress at the Atlanta if she could make me some toast, takeaway. It was the older waitress, the one with the long black hair who remembers everyone. Every day she tallies my order at the cash register, and says, “ah one toas’, ah one porridge, ah one cappuccino… and one big smile!”[bxA]

The driver showed up while I was eating my toast from a Styrofoam box and the sweet Thai waitress reprimanded him for rushing me. Let her finish. She walked me to the street and hugged me like we were long friends. The young guy who always hauls my heavy backpack to my room on the 4th floor hauled my backpack to the van and even though it was just a few feet I tipped him 20 baht. He did the prayer thing with his hands, bowed his head and thanked me.

The mini-van was nice and there were only three other passengers. I asked if we could stop at an ATM since I was down to my last 300 baht (less than ten bucks). When we stopped at the 7/11 for me to get cash, it turned out what we were getting was redistributed into other already-crowded vans.

An older German man and I got stuffed into the very back half-seat next to an overflowing stack of luggage in an 8-passenger van that already had 8 people in it. German Man chatted me up with the world’s stupidest and most boring trivia about what awaited me in Cambodia – at the border and in Siem Reap. He asked me if I knew how much a Cambodia visa costs. No, I didn’t.

“Twenty US dollars… and they only take US dollars.”

“Well, I don’t have any US dollars.”

“You don’t have any US dollars!!! How are you going to pay???”

“I’ve got Thai baht,” I said, thinking dude, they’re lucky I have any money at all, didn’t you notice I just went to the atm?

He was like Rain Man regurgitating everything that was going to happen. “You will have to carry your luggage across the border. It is a very long walk. You will have to carry it all yourself…,” he recited in his thick German accent, anxiously awaiting my distress. I knew it would delight him to learn I’d overstayed my Thailand visa.

“You have!?! Do you know how much they charge if you overstay your visa!?!”

“Um, yeah…five hundred baht per day.”

“Oh, so you do know!”

German Rain Man wasn't finished.

“You can take a riverboat from Siam Reap to Phnom Penh for $35 dollars and a tuk tuk will cost you fifteen dollars to see Angkor Wat and the guest houses will cost you ten U.S. unless you don’t need air-conditioning it will be only five U.S.…”

I stared out the window for ten seconds then closed my eyes and pretended to go to sleep. Eventually he got the point and redirected his Rain Man ramblings to two guys in the seat in front of us - as if they didn’t have enough problems with the tower of luggage toppling onto their heads. Seems they were also going to places in Cambodia…that would cost money…and German Rain Man was going to tell them all about it. I turned on my iPod for the duration.

German Rain Man was correct: the border crossing was the longest ordeal ever. The bus dumped us at a restaurant next to a travel agency where I ate fried rice while a travel agent arranged my Cambodian visa. My agent, a young Cambodian man wearing a Jason Mraz hat with the brim pulled down over his smiley face, herded us to the side of the road and lectured on what awaited us corssing the border.

We were to hold our belongings close because children would approach us and ask for money or sweets or a drink but only as a distraction while they picked our pockets. Then, as we exited the Cambodian immigration office with our freshly stamped passports, official looking men would tell us to follow them, but if we did they would take us to the jungle and steal our money.

German Rain Man was right again: It was a long walk. It was hot, my backpack was heavy, and I braced myself for the seedy underworld that awaited me on the other side.

The villains turned out to be handful of joyful little kids, mostly girls, carrying brightly colored lifesaver striped umbrellas to shield us from the sun. They were barely begging much less picking pockets.

We waited an hour for our Thai exit visas, crossed the border and spent another hour in queue to get our Cambodian entry-visa stamps.

In the Thailand queue I’d befriended a young Italian guy who watched out for me the rest of the way. He reminded me not to talk to the jungle-villains (they too were harmless) and we joined the same share-taxi for the four hour drive to Siem Reap. He insisted the taxi drop me off at my guest house first because he was certain the driver would try to fleece me.

“I know how things work here,” Italian Guy told me, “because my country is enough dodgy.”

And he was right. The taxi driver did try to pull the exact scam the agent had warned about – where he delivers you to a tuk tuk stand instead of your guest house. Italian guy argued politely for a good long back-and-forth with our driver and a tuk tuk driver, eventually winning the battle and getting me to my guest house unscathed at 7:15pm.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Dinner with Family

Photo: Arrested Development, American comedy series.

17 January 2010 - Siem Reap, Cambodia

I’m sitting at the Two Dragons restaurant eating Thai food by myself because I came to Cambodia to be alone and alone I’ve been for fourteen days now. It’s great but it gets lonely. I was thinking, time zones aside, that it’s Saturday night which means my whole family is feasting at my parents’ house in Houston. Yeah, I know, it’s not Saturday. But I’m a gadabout and I don’t know what day it is.

Miss y’all!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Avatar & The Atlanta

2 January 2010 - Paragon 3D IMAX Theater, Siam Square, Bangkok, Thailand.

The Atlanta had no vacancies the night of the 1st, so I woke up on the 2nd at a semi-sleazy hotel [bxA]in the heart of the Annie’s massage complex, which spans a full block connecting Soi 1 to Soi 2 and hosts a variety of restaurants and pubs offering Annie’s famous soapy massage. I tried the complimentary breakfast while sitting alone next to two German guys eating with their morning-after Thai bar girls. It didn't look like their massages involved anything to do with soap. The sight was as unappealing as the runny scrambled eggs so I packed my rucksack and headed back to the Atlanta (where sex tourists are not allowed) to book my bus ticket to Cambodia and sip on a cappuccino so delicious it made the whole ordeal worthwhile.

An hour later my bus ticket was booked for 7am on the 3rd. The front desk said a room had come available and I could stay for the night. It was time to hop on the sky train and brave the crowds at the Paragon Imax to see the film everyone in the world was talking about, for which I hadn’t even seen a preview and had no idea the plot or premise.

What a movie! I wanna see it again.

I bounced back to my no-frills room at the magical Atlanta. Stayed up way too late writing postcards (let me know if they arrive!) and fretting a little bit over my decision to save a pile of money by taking the bus rather than a plane to Cambodia.

The alarm on my mobile beeped at 5:30am, when I got up to discover room C15’s hot water was on the fritz. A cold shower seemed apropos for a day I’d spend on a bus crossing the border to Cambodia.

A new year, a new adventure…

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!

01 January 2010 - Bangkok, Thailand.

Happy new year, everyone!

I flew to Bangkok on the 30th and got to the US Embassy with only minutes to spare. [bxA] My new passport is valid to December 2019.

Reminds me of the summer 2000, waiting in a queue at a post office in Southwest Houston with the application for my very first passport. I was heading to Tanzania for a month to study abroad. My arms were sore from immunizations - Hepatitis A, Hep B (and the boosters), Yellow Fever, Tetanus, Typhoid, Diphtheria, etc...not to mention that fat stack of Lariam (anti-malaria) pills that made me CRAZY and DEPRESSED and PSYCHOTIC just like the disclaimer warned. Ahhh, the fun of travel.

Speaking of travel fun, I'm hanging in Bangkok lazily planning my exit strategy since my Thai visa expires on 2nd January. Looks like I'll probably head to Cambodia and check out Angkor Wat, then return to Phuket for a while. Technically I should leave tomorrow, but I want to see Avatar in 3D at a cinema in Bangkok.

So that's my New Year's Day report. Looking forward to 2010!