Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Siem Reaport

Wow. The temples at Siem Reap in Northern Cambodia are simply beyond description. The scale of the archealogical park is enormous--everyone recognizes the 3 main stupas of Angkor Wat (on the right) and the jungle temple of Ta Prohm (where Lara Croft Tomb Raider was filmed), but there are hundreds of other temples in the area. You can spend weeks exploring, climbing and hiking through them. So enjoy all the pictures below; I hope this gives you an idea of how magical and special this place is.

The majority of the temples were built during the heyday of the Cambodian empire in the 10th through 13th centuries. King Jayarvaman VII is responsible for the most impressive areas--some as temples for worship, other as tombs for his parents and some as massive religious cities, housing up to 70,000 people. This entire site is a great juxtaposition of Hindu and Buddhist cosmology and imagery. On the left is us posing in front of one of the towers in Bayon, the main temple in Angkor Thom.

Below on the left is is the causeway leading to the West Gate of Angkor Thom. On the right is Bayon. Home to hundreds of images of Lokesvara's face (four-sided, usually), this is the most impressive example of baroque Khmer architecture.

Our tour guide, Sim, while not the best English speaker, knew all the great spots for amazing photos. Below is each of us kissing Lokesvara (from afar, thanks to perspective). Hey, we're engaged, not married yet!

We walked through the woods of Angkor Thom, scouting out some of the smaller temples. On the left was one of our favorites, as two trees sprouted out from the stairs. It was just a teaser of what was to come later--Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider). On the right is me below a tree root. Everything about this place was BIG.

Once inside of Ta Prohm, we were blown away. It would have been easy to stop the trip here, as we'll be hard pressed to find anything more awe-inspiring and beautiful. But hey, we're always up for a challenge! Enjoy the montage of photos.

And one more that will probably end up framed on our wall...

From Ta Prohm we headed a few km south and crossed the long causeway over the moat leading up to Angkor Wat. This more famous spot is the prime example of classical Angkor architecture. It originally had 9 main towers but today only 5 are still standing (but you usually get a vantage point straight on, so it looks like there are only 3). On the left, we're standing between two nagas (5-headed snakes believed to be the mythic ancestor of the Cambodian people) with Angkor Wat on our right. Below are two more of our favorite photos. The word "picturesque" really just does no justice...

That evening we treked up a hill 1km west of Angkor Wat to watch the sun set (see on the right). Pretty spectacular view... That night we had a great dinner in town and got much-needed foot massages. Life is tough!

The next morning we got up super early to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat. This involved tiptoeing across the causeway in pitch black, which gave us the feel of being the first explorers to ever set eyes on this man-made wonder of the world. Once inside, we set up on the stairs to the northern library and waited for the sun to poke through.

We spent the rest of that day on the grand circuit route, seeing some of the less-popular (though still amazing) temples. And we went back to Ta Prohm just to get lost in the ruins at 6am, when we were the only people in sight. Such a special morning!

We're still hanging at the beach right now, relaxing (after 5 consecutive mornings waking up before 6am). On Monday we take a bus across the border into Vietnam, where we'll start our five weeks there with Ho Chi Minh City. I'll leave you with one more picture from sunrise... Enjoy!

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Here we are again, back at the beach in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Rachel just left after a whirlwind 10 days crisscrossing this unique country. We met her in Phnom Penh, where we had a pretty solemn day touring the killing fields and former prison of Pol Pot's horrible Khmer Rouge regime. At the right are Deanna and Rachel riding in our favorite form of transportation--the omni-present tuk tuk.

We started the day off at Tuol Sleng, the former elementary school that Pol Pot turned into a prison known as S21. From 1975-79, over 14,000 people were brought here, tortured, forced to confess to crimes they did not commit (mostly they had to admit to ties with the KGB or CIA). All but 7 were either killed on site or taken by bus during the night to the killing fields 15km outside of town. Warning--some of the pictures below are pretty greusome.

This concentration camp still conjures horrendous memories and nightmares to every Cambodian. Below on the left is one of the cells, on the right is the bed inside, with leg iron, used to bind the feet of the inmate.

Below on the left is one of the gallows used to torture and hang prisoners. On the right are the rules of conduct for the inmates. Open that picture up and read them.

Finally, below on the left is a grim reminder not to take this prison too lightly. On the right is my picture of a picture of a map of Cambodia made from prisoner skulls and blood. The KR regime used this map to plan raids on villages and transportation of prisoners.

From S21, we went outside of town to see the actual killing fields. This was one of 17 spots in Cambodia where the mass killings took place. Several million were killed in the 5 years of Pol Pot's rule. This place was originally a Chinese cemetary set a bit back from the road. It wasn't even discovered until over a year after the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge. On the left is a shot of some of the mass graves. Below on the left is one of the skulls--most people were bludgeoned to death, as the regime didn't want to waste bullets. Note the fatal blow mark in the skull. On the right is a pile of prisoner clothing found during the recent excavation.

Below on the left is a picture of the ground; clothing and bone fragments are poking through as the ground turns to dust during the dry season. On the right is a lizard on the tree--a nice reminder that even in such a horrendous place, life still goes on.

We finished the afternoon at the Grand Palace, and topped the night off with some tasty cocktails at the Foreign Correspondant's Club. A little more upbeat, that's for sure.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Life in Laos

So last we checked in, we had hung around the Golden Triangle. From there, we took a ferry across the Mekong to cross into Laos. We spent the night in Huay Xai, a relatively worthless town which exists solely for the launching point for the 2-day Mekong slow boat. In the morning we bought some provisions (canned tuna and cold Beer Lao, which is by far the best local beer we've had so far) and got prime seats on the slow boat.

We were the first ones on the boat and things looked pretty good when the 11:00am departure time rolled around. Sure the wooden benches were uncomfortable, but at least we each had one to ourselves. Then at 11:07, a group of about 35 people showed up and we had to all scrunch together. Luckily, Deanna and I were up in the front and still kept our extra butt room. We sailed and salied and sailed (ok, well I guess technically we motored), watching the beautiful scenery laze by (Thailand on the right and Laos on the left).

After a few hours the novelty wore off but we made the best of it, hanging with Seth and Erin, a fun couple from Texas (he happens to be an accountant so he and Deanna had plenty to talk about), and Laura from SF. Just as the sun was setting, we pulled into a small town to crash for the night. It felt great to stretch the legs and not have to sit on hard, thin, wooden bench.

The next morning we got on the boat (a different, smaller boat) and were all SUPER packed in. No leg room, no butt room and no room for our bags. So it goes... note: if you're planning on doing this trip, either go north (far less popular, aka not crowded) or get 25 people together in Huay Xai and charter your own boat, with leather captain chairs and all the extra room you could hope for. After a few too many hours, we finally docked in Luang Prabang, our home for the next week, to watch the sun set.

This French colonial town has everything a semi-weary traveler could want--beatiful scenery, two rivers, friendly people, great restaurants, chill bars and did I mention great restaurants? It reminded us a bit of Cusco in the sense that LPG has a friendly and inviting vibe. It has a good balance between the locals pandering to tourists and doing their own thing, so we never really felt as intrusive as we do now (in Vangvieng, which really only exists so backpackers can get drunk at bars showing reruns of Friends and Family Guy all day and night).

We spent hours just strolling around town, winding through alleys and enjoying life. Here are some pictures from around town (mostly flowers, with one pic of sausages drying in the sun). The one of the white flowers is not upside-down; that's how they grow.

We had a great French dinner at the best restaurant in Laos (not saying much, mind you), where we met Rebecca, a sweet and friendly Aussie whom we'd love to meet up with if/when we get down to Oz. We spent our last day in town at the waterfalls 25km south, seeing bears, turquoise water and lazing around. See below.

Tomorrow we tube down the river and the next day we beeline for the border back into Thailand, straight to the beach. We should be in Ko Chang with enough time to unwind for a few days before crossing into Cambodia to meet Rachel who is coming in for 10 days.