After a quick, distracted, lunch, we headed across the street and walked, albeit slowly, in the heat(temp in triple digits, and almost equal humidity) to the causeway leading to Angkor Wat. The benefit to visiting Angkor Wat during high noon is the lack of tourists. As Narin explained to me later, "after lunch, during the hottest time of the day, all the Japanese and Korean tourist head back to the hotel for a rest. The European tourist are visiting the other temples, and will return later in the afternoon, and stay for the sunset." And he was right, the only other folks we saw were Cambodian and Thai.
Angkor Wat was built by Suryavarman II and is dedicated to Vishnu, the Hindu God who is the preserver and protector of creation. One of the texts I read, mentioned that during the time of Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat was known as Vrah Vishnuloka, "the sacred home of Vishnu." Suryavarman II identified himself so closely to Vishnu, that when he died he was given the name Paramavishnuloka - "he who has entered the supreme paradise of Vishnu". Almost a thousand years later, Angkor Wat is so ingrained into Cambodia's National Identity, that all you need to do is to look the Cambodian flag:
Angkor Wat is famous for the spectacular Bas-reliefs that line the walls of the first terrace.
These "galleries" if you will, document great historical events, and significant Hindu legends. The galleries are meant to be viewed in a counter-clockwise direction, and we started from the Southwest corner. There's so much here, that I won't delve into them much. I think you'll enjoy the photos. Click on any of the photos to enlarge.
This is a well known bas-relief of Suryavarman II shaded by 15 parasols:
Panel 3 - The Heaven and Hell Gallery is broken into two; the top shows heaven where people live the leisurely life.
On the bottom terrible punishments are inflicted in hell. People chopped in half, eaten by animals, and forced to watch Jerry Springer Show reruns.
Panel 4 - Is probably the most famous Bas-relief, the Churning the Sea of Milk, the Hindu creation myth. Unfortunately, part of the gallery was undergoing restoration.
The most famous portion, that of Vishnu in the middle of the 92 Gods and 88 Demons in a tug of war for the elixir of immortality was in full display.
Panel 5 - Vishnu conquering the demons.
Panel 6 - Battle between Krishna and Bana.
Panel 7 - The 21 Gods fighting the demons.
Panel 8 - The Battle of Lanka
I'm sure by now you're relieved that I'm done with the bas-reliefs, no? Near the end of our little "tour", the Missus saw a flash of orange...it was a Monk, enjoying the bas-reliefs. Intrigued, She insisted we follow Him. I had my reservations, "There's something just wrong about stalking a Monk. This is bad, we may get punished by being sent to one of the 32 hells....the one where we have to watch all of the episodes of Golden Girls." "Hurry up, he's turning the corner, let's go!"
Though the bas-reliefs are the main draw of Angkor Wat, there were a few other things we enjoyed. Among them was the Hall of Echoes in the first terrace. If you lean back against the wall of this small room, and thump your chest, you'll hear and feel the vibration echo throughout the room. Who needs Disneyland?
There's much to see, much more than I could ever hope to capture in a single post. Here are a few more photos:
After visiting the other terraces, we were amazed...it was already 230! As we left the temple, a wave of tourists started pouring into Angkor Wat.
As we left Angkor Wat, Narin met us with fresh cut pineapple, iced towelettes, and iced water. We'd been out since 520 am. As we drove away, Narin, who'd started to get to know us, asked us if we'd like to visit Tonle Sap Lake. Having read in various guides to Cambodia that Tonle Sap was a bit of a tourist trap, we weren't quite sure. But Narin said, "I think you would like it." He also told us not to worry, we'll take care of the entrance and boat, and he wouldn't charge us extra for time and mileage. Because of all the questions we asked, he really wanted us to see Tonle Sap Lake.
And because this is a food blog.......
While I was in the tour office purchasing entrance to Tonle Sap, the Missus caught a whiff of something that put Her on high alert:
It was the fragrance of the roasted sweet potatoes.
The Missus couldn't help Herself, and bought a couple. The Missus devoured one, and She gave one to Narin, and saved one for later. Per the Missus, these were moist, roasted perfectly, sweet, and were the best She's had since childhood. Sweet potato - sweet memories......
I know many have been waiting for more on the Siem Reap portion of our trip. The biggest problem for me is trying to figure out which photos to use. Over the course of our trip we took over 4500 photos, and discarded many. But we are still left with about 3700! But without further ado, let's move forward.
We had no problem waking at 430 am in anticipation of our 520 pick-up. The combination of our still present jet lag, and our excitement over-rode our internal clocks. Our Driver, Narin was there to pick us up exactly at 520am. Narin seemed to be a very nice, mild-mannered, calm individual, and once the Missus started up with Her incessant questions(everything but "why is the sky blue") , Narin warmed up and started smiling a lot more. He took us to get our passes(with your photo), and asked us what we had in mind, and helped us plot out the day. And soon we were off. On some very good advice, we had decided on hiring only a driver. Drivers are allowed to drop off and pick-up tourists, but not enter the temples. Only official guides (costs $2000, + a test, + some, ummm, "connections") are allowed on Temple grounds. At every site you're supposed to show your pass to the guards. Some are a bit more diligent than others.
The main reason for the early wake-up was for the sunrise at Angkor Wat. We looked for the classic shot of sunrise at Angkor Wat, from the pool on the Northwest side.
What this photo doesn't show is that everyone else is trying for the same shot.
Even though we had been told by several people how annoying all the clicking of the cameras and jockeying for position was, we never did get that feeling. Perhaps deciding to visit during the hottest month of the year wasn't too bad an idea. By this time we decided to extricate ourselves from the crowd, crossed over the causeway and took more photos of the sunrise.
Knowing that we'd be returning later that day, we quickly made our way back out to the car. we quickly arrived at Phnom Bakheng. Phnom Bakheng, situated up a hill(sometimes called, "The Strong Hill") was one of the first major temples built in the Angkor era, at about the 9th Century AD. It is believed that the first capital of the Khmer Empire, Yaśodharapura(City that Bestows Glory) was built around the Phnom Bakheng, by Yasovarman I. Due to the hilltop location, Phnom Bakheng is usually packed with tourists during sunsets. All this traffic has badly damaged the original stairways up the mountain, which are now closed off.
Instead, a trail wound it's way around the mountain, and since it was still fairly early in the morning, the weather was still cool, and we only had the constant electrical buzzing of Cicadas to keep us company for the short walk up the hill.
Having the Phnom Bakheng to ourselves only heightened the feeling of awe and wonder.
And while the Missus was climbing about exploring, I just circled. I still had some reservations about walking on the ruins. And though I would get over the feeling that I was somehow a party to destruction, the thought was always hovering about in the background.
Because this site is elevated it is very popular during sunset. In fact, I've heard it's downright sardine city! During the evenings you can catch elephant rides up and down the mountain as well.
The next stop, Angkor Thom. Many persons I know who have heard of Angkor Wat, believe that Angkor Wat is the only ruin in Siem Reap. They've never heard of the "Great City", Angkor Thom. In the 12th Century, the Kingdom of Champa, and the Khmers were at war. In 1166, the Khmer ruler Yasovarman II was assassinated, supposedly by one of his subordinates, Tribhuvanāditya. Sensing the instability in the region, the Cham, in war canoes crossed Tonle Sap Lake and invaded Angkor, destroying Yaśodharapura, and killing Tribhuvanāditya. under the leadership of the person soon to known as King Jayavarman VII the Cham were defeated and driven out. Seems that Jayavarman VII was quite the builder, and one of his greatest achievements was the centralized city of Angkor Thom. I've read accounts that have said that within the 9 square kilometers that comprised Angkor Thom resided anywhere from 100,000(low end) to over a million(high end estimate) people. After reading a bit more about Angkor Thom, I couldn't help but admire the combination of practicality: the city was surrounded by walls 8 meters high, and huge moats, that provided water, as well as protection. Hard to believe from this pastoral scene, but I was told that they used to have the moats filled with crocodiles....for a bit of extra "insurance".
And spirituality: From accounts I've read, Jayavarman VII was a fervent Buddhist, so when he was inaugurated, so was Buddhism, replacing Hinduism. I've also read that when the Khmer fell to the Cham, so did their faith and belief in Hinduism.
The South Gate is probably the most famous entrance to Angkor Thom. The entrance portal was built to accommodate elephants entering the city.
The causeway to the gate is guarded by 54 "Gods" on one side:
And 54 "Demons" on the other:
It makes for quite a sight. You can read more on The East Gate, and on Angkor in general on Wandering Chopsticks post here.
For me, the one thing that always stood out, and what I consider to be sort of the "trademark" of Jayavarman VII is this:
Each head faces one of the four cardinal directions.
If that weren't enough, our next stop was one of my favorites. The Bayon. From afar, it looks like a pile of ruins, with spires rising out of it.
But each of those "towers", holds 4 faces, each face has that mysterious, sly-knowing smile....the "smile of Angkor". According to literature, there used to be 54(yes, numerology is very strong) towers, but now only 37 exist at this temple.
The Bas-reliefs at the Bayon are also magnificent. They are carved much deeper into the sandstone, really projecting the various scenes. I'll go into these a bit later on. We enjoyed The Bayon so much, we decided to return later on.
The temple consists of 3 enclosing walls and a top terrace, where the forest of towers reside. There are a few stairways, and one good metal staircase. You need to watch your step, some of the stairs are really worn down.
At the top you can get up close and personal with the faces. One thing I noticed, look through any window, and you'll see at least one, or more heads. I'm sure this was by design. But it really gave me a strange and eerie feeling. The only feeling more strange than those provided by those enigmatic faces, was that in the back of what little grey matter still exists, I could hear the faint sound of a song:
"I always feel that somebody's watchin' me And I have no privacy I always feel that somebody's watchin' me Is it just a dream?"
Egad! You gotta be kiddin' me.....I'm standing among one of the great wonders of the world, and the best I can do is a "Bad 80's" song by Rockwell?
Now for the, "yes we're tourists, and sometimes we do cheesy tourist things" portion. The Missus had always wanted to do this...so for $10 a person, we rode an elephant around the Bayon. I was a bit concerned for the elephant's sake, but was told that if this elephant wasn't giving rides, it would be doing logging work. So I guess this is the lesser of 2 evils. So what about the ride? It's bumpy, and really no big deal. We can now cross the elephant ride off our list....no need to do it again. We were also told that the elephants have set hours, with breaks. Must be a pretty good union.... We did see elephants trotting "home" for lunch. They can move pretty fast.
Our next stop was the Baphuon, just North of the Bayon. The Baphuon was built around 1060, and is still undergoing restoration. For us, the most interesting feature of this temple is the raised sandstone causeway leading to the temple.
It's hard to see that the causeway is raised in that photo, so maybe this is a better one:
We took a walk across the road to Prasat Suor Prat, the so called "towers of the tightrope walkers".
The most popular story is that tightrope walkers walked on ropes tied from tower to tower. Another says that the 12 towers were used to resolve disputes. The individuals were placed in different towers, and after a few days the person who was in the wrong would become ill. To his day no one is sure.
Behind Prasat Suor Prat are 2 buildings called the Khleangs.
No one is sure what the purpose of these buildings are.
After walking about, Narin asked us if he could drop us off for lunch. One of his customers needed a ride to the airport. We would have lunch at one stands across from Angkor Wat, and than head on over to Angkor Wat right across the street. This wasn't a problem with us. We just wanted something small to eat...the combination of excitement and heat had repressed our appetites.
The menu at this place was pretty extensive...but the Missus wanted...drum roll please! Yep, Fish Amok($8.00):
We had a large order, which was served in a coconut...all it needed was an little umbrella to complete the picture. Actually, this tasted much better than what we had at Khmer Kitchen. Much richer, and not as sweet.
And after having all of that very low grade rice in Vietnam, we really enjoyed the rice.
Of course, I was a bit distracted....because right across the way some "dancing girls" were calling to me.....
"Hopefully, we'll be hearing about Cambodia soon (hint-hint)." So sayeth Ed from Yuma, in one of his recent emails. I guess this means that I need to get a move on.
In Vietnam they don't tell you anything part 3:
We arrived in Hanoi from Lao Cai station at a bit after 5am. Say what you will, but our experience is that the trains do run on time in Vietnam. It seemed that the rain had followed us to Hanoi, as there was a steady drizzle coming down. After disembarking, we walked over to the Taxi stand, and started negotiating a fare to the airport. The guy running the place firmly stated $20/US, a bit on the high side. So, fine, I wrote 140,000 VND on a piece of paper. When the guy saw this his eyes popped out of his head, and he wrote $20! OK, I wrote 120,000 VND, even in the darkness I could make out the veins in his neck bursting through his skin. He wrote 300,000 VND, I wrote 200,000 VND, he wrote 280,000 VND, I wrote 240,000 VND. By this time, my "good cop" the Missus, played Her hand, She grabbed my arm, and started leading me out to the street, and said real loud, "we can get a taxi on the street". The guy relented, and we got a taxi to the airport for 200,000 VND. But not without a catch. Our taxi was driving through the soaked side streets of Hanoi, when the driver suddenly stopped in the middle of the street. He walked out of the cab, which kind of freaked me out! After a few minutes he returned and said, "you get out now!" At which point, not being sure of what was going on, I was starting to get into a fighting mood. He basically kicked us out of his taxi, and another taxi appeared in it's place, and this guy waved us in. I guess there was some kind of side deal, this driver took us to the airport without uttering a single word.
After making it through stoic customs and immigration, we had a Banh My for breakfast, and eventually, we caught our Vietnam Airlines flight for Siem Reap. Here's a photo of the in flight meal:
In case you were wondering, along with looking like plastic, it tasted like plastic.
As we arrived in Siem Reap, we glanced up at the display, and it read 96 degrees! We knew that this was the hottest month of the year in Cambodia, and yes indeed it was going to be a hot one. I was ready for a hot, and sticky miserable time. But something happened to me on the tarmac in Siem Reap. Both the Missus and I immediately made out the fragrance of plumeria in the air...and we couldn't help but smile.
Customs and immigration is usually a trying ordeal, and we expected such at the airport. And when we saw the gauntlet that was the immigration line, we thought we were in for one.
But it was not to be. I paid our $20 a piece and we moved on down the line. Our money and passports were passed from officer to officer, sort of a passport bucket brigade. And these guys were smiling! In fact, the Missus thought one of the officers was calling Her, and walked up to the Guy. It turns out that Her maiden name sounds just like a Cambodian word. After checking Her passport, instead of being irritated, the Guy cracked up laughing, and started telling everyone else at the desk. They were just having a good old time. The Missus went to exchange some money, and the teller, realizing She made a mistake, started giggling. We certainly were not in Vietnam any longer. There is a central Taxi desk at the airport with a $5 flat rate to hotels in Siem Reap. Things were very organized.
The hotel for our stay was the Angkor Star. The hotel was interesting, it was a bit older, but very clean. There was a small "casino"(I'm really stretching the definition) attached to the lobby, with the universal casino scent(damp-cigarette) making its way out into the lobby area. But everything was more than adequate for $30/night.
Also, the Hotel was located on Sivutha Street, one of the main drags. It was also one of the few streets that actually seemed to have a "name". After rehydrating, and taking a shower, we decided to take a walk and grab something to eat. It was over 100 degrees by now, with the humidity hovering in the 80's, but maybe because we were so excited to be here it didn't bother us much. We walked down Sivutha(the heat just makes you slooow down) looking to find "Pub Street", but no one seemed to have a clue.
Of course, we could have stopped and grabbed some noodles or something else at any of the many restaurants lining the street. Or maybe have some...... Korean Food? It seems that the latest tourism wave in Siem Reap is from Korea. I counted at least 6 Korean Restaurants, and several hotels seem to cater specifically to Korean tastes. Here's a restaurant in transition; the cuisine of the last "wave", Japanese Food, is being served in addition to Korean Food.
There's even a Korean Market on Sivutha! In all seriousness, I was very impressed by what troupers all the Korean tourists were. The older Ladies in their visors with towels wrapped around their necks(don't forget the parasols) marched through the ruins at Angkor in the mid day heat and humidity with aplomb. They sure were tough. We also noted all the humanitarian efforts being provided by the Koreans and Japanese in Siem Reap in our travels. My favorite vignette was when the Missus offered an older Korean Lady Her seat, to thank her, the woman handed the Missus a piece of chocolate.
There was something a bit different about our planning for Cambodia. For once, I hadn't really done any research on restaurants or food. I did read the guidebooks and various forums, but didn't take notes. So, with no plans, we headed toward where we thought Pub Street was. But it seemed that none of the locals knew or had heard of "Pub Street". Finally, we came upon the Hospital(Hospital Street, of course!), and I recognized some of the names, the Blue Pumpkin, Happy Herbs Pizza(guess what the Happy Herb in the pizza is? No thanks, I've already experienced the late 70's...no need to go back, god help me if I ended up in the 60's), and the Red Piano. Finally, we came upon our destination, a place that many of the guidebooks and forums recommend, Khmer Kitchen.
Khmer Kitchen is supposedly known for Khmer Home-style dishes. And so I thought I'd give it a shot. Now it's disclaimer time. Siem Reap seemed to have the worst lighting I've ever experienced in restaurants. Ranging from "bug killer neon green" to almost pitch black, photos were always a challenge. Khmer Kitchen was no exception. And since I don't use a flash...well, my apologies in advance. This restaurant down an alley of restaurants was pretty packed. We were seated at a table, handed the binder with laminated pages that is the menu, and eventually made our selections.
The one dish I kept reading about was Amok, a steamed curry like dish usually made with(for us tourists) fish. So it was a must for us to try.
Coconut and galangal were the principle flavors in this dish. The fish, sliced into small pieces were very moist and mild. What we noticed in Siem Reap was how fabulous the green beans tasted, even in this dish they stood out. Going through the various forums, I found that many people were really disappointed in the fish amok, and Khmer food in general, which is often described as Thai food without spice. I'd disagree, Cambodian food is much more subtle, and as I learned later, very dependant on the Kroeung or the flavoring paste. It is a mild dish, and not something I'd crave, but the Missus really enjoyed it.
I also wanted to try the Beef Loc Lak:
I've had this dish prepared Vietnamese style, and this is totally different, though I've been told the origins(the French influence) are the same. In this case, under the fried egg lay chopped beef in a sweet-peppery gravy. It was delicious, as was the additional sauce provided. One thing you'll notice is that at these types of restaurants, someone comes to your table and a scoop of rice is put on your plate by the Server. We made good use of the rice in this case.
Water Spinach with Tofu. I had wondered why the Missus ordered this. She didn't know that water spinach is Ong Choy(Kongxincai 空心菜). This was very bland, and the tofu was lousy.
Green Bean Omelet.
This was a pretty dish, which we saw at many of the food stalls in Psar Chas(Old Market). However, it did not have much flavor.
All told our dinner ran $14/US, cheap by US standards, but having just come from Vietnam......
We returned to our hotel, and tried to get in touch with the driver who had been recommended to us. We had communicated by email, and were told that he was booked, but that he'd find someone for us. And yes, he did indeed have a driver ready for us....with a 520am pick-up. No problem, we could dream of what lay before us.
Everything was working out...as if someone was looking out for us.
Well sort of......my body feels fine but my mind is kind of "lagging"(well, maybe it's nothing new...), so give a me a couple of days to regroup, and in the meantime enjoy a few more posts from FOYs(Friends of Yoso). And here is a short run down of a few places we've been(click on any photo to enlarge)....
Starting in Hanoi, with the endless stream of thousands of motorbikes, and crowded sidewalks...it seems like controlled chaos:
And the cramped markets stocked with every sort of item imaginable
Yet, you're still able to carve out moments of inner peace and tranquility along Hoan Kiem Lake...
Or maybe even coax a smile out of a little girl patiently waiting for a wedding to start
Or just admire the view...
To the village of Le Mat, and a date with a snake....
Perhaps a little "over-touristed", but on overcast days...it's easy to imagine, perhaps The Land That Time Forgot, or maybe Pirates of the Caribbean?
To the wonderful vistas of Sapa, and a "little" 14 kilometer hike through Matra and Ta Phin villages
And the short hike to Cat Cat Village, with a view that I think even the locals never get tired of....
On to Bac Ha, and colorful Can Cau Market, where we broke bread(actually pigged on pork) with the locals, and had shots of the local moonshine with Giay(Nhang) men. The Flower Hmong added bright splashes of color.....
After a night of more "hootch", poured into used plastic water bottles from plastic Jerry Cans
The huge Sunday Market in Bac Ha is almost overwhelming.....
Flying into Siem Reap, where the only thing warmer than the 100 degree temp, and 80 percent humidity, are the people....
In Siem Reap, smiles are just around the corner...especially from the children
The floating village we visited on Tonle Sap Lake, was a study in perserverence and adaptation.
And we wrapped it all up in chaotic Phnom Penh.....looking at each other, we said in unison; "isn't this where we started?"
Wait! Sorry, this is food blog, right? I guess I'm not sure how much "slice of life" stuff I'll be able to post on......we have dozens of nice little stories, and it wasn't all "wine and roses", but that just added to the color and sense of adventure.......
So, we did visit many, many markets
And have no fear, there were some interesting meals.
And some pretty darn good street food...
So hang in there while "this piggy goes to market"....
Here's one of my favorite photos of the trip, I wish Da Boyz could do this!
Beyond the food, the theme on this trip was quite evident....it was about the people, and on that note, we'd like to dedicate this post to the larger than life(how many times have we called him that?) person all the OC food bloggers know as "Beach" who helped us plan our trip, it would not have been as enjoyable, nor as successful without his help, knowledge, generousity, and plain hard work on our behalf. We owe you big time!
Also, mucho Thanks go out to Cathy who held down the fort, and made sure that those mmm-yoso gears kept 'a runnin!