Saturday, July 3, 2010

Siem Reap (Cambodia)

A 12-hour bus ride from HCMC through the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh brought us to Siem Reap. We were concerned about hearing stories of greasing palms along the way at the border crossing of Moc Bai-Bavet, but our e-visas made it pretty smooth. The bus was a "video bus," which showed a marathon of Rambo films (or it could have all been the same one - who can really tell?), Cambodian pop videos, and Michael Jackson's History.

Siem Reap is THE stop for anyone coming to Cambodia since it is the base for exploring the magnificent Temples of Angkor. Most of the structures were built around 9th-11th centuries by Hindu god-kings in the heydey of the Khmer Empire, which used to cover most of SE Asia. Rich thought many were more intact than Machu Picchu. Most of them are now Buddhist. We opted for hiring a tuk-tuk (motorcycle with a carriage on the back) and driver. Our favorite visits included:
- Angkor Wat, the most famous - the largest religous monument in the world, which we viewed with the multitudes at sunrise. The sunrise was so-so because it was cloudy, but it was pretty cool to be wandering around a ruin in the moonlight beforehand.
- Ta Prohm, aka the temple from the Tomb Raider movie, which has been kept in a semi-suspended decline where giant trees (one looking strikingly like the White Tree of Gondor, for all you LoTR nerds) have overtaken the structures. It is a striking dichotomy, to see kings assert their dominance by building these massive structures and then to also see how nature can still overcome and turn them to ruin.
- The Bayon (temple) in Angkor Thom (a huge fortified city) where giant stone faces are staring out at you from every angle.

One of the greatest unexpected pleasures in visiting the Temples of Angkor is that you can just climb all over ruins, and very few sections are cordoned off limits, and even fewer sections are supervised by the guards/park rangers. Of course, this has encouraged some pretty devastating looting. However, for everyone not looking for a career in grave-robbing (or dare I say, tomb-raiding), you can wander down mazes of corridors and courtyards, and given the scale, find yourself alone and free to pretend you are Indiana Jones. I swear some of those doorways look like they could be Stargates. A busy schedule can be an excellent workout, too, since many of the structures are meant to evoke mountains, and going up the "stairs," many times is more like plotting your hand holds in rock climbing. We both finished in one piece, but there were easily some vertigo moments.

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