"I can't print your boarding passes, because the flight you booked is not scheduled for another month" the check in attendant announced gravely. It was almost midnight, and we were in the airport in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) waiting for our flight to Cambodia. Prior to this, we'd been trying to print our boarding passes at a self check-in kiosk to no avail. It kept saying, "Invalid check-in time." Finally, completely stymied we hunted down an Air Asia desk, where we discovered that we'd purchased tickets for July 27th, instead of June 27th. If you've ever had something like that happen, you know that sick feeling of running into a big hang-up that's your own fault. Buying tickets for this trip had been a tricky task, with 14 individual flights through six countries, so we couldn't totally hate ourselves for slipping up. Regardless, I started to have a bit of a freak out. Me: I'm the one that bought those tickets! I can't freaking believe I made a mistake like that. I've never done something like that before. I always triple check everything! Justin: It's okay, stop stressing about it. It's not the end of the world. Me: Yeah, but buying tickets this last minute is going to be crazy expensive. Justin: Expensive by AirAsia standards, but probably not by most airline's standards. Me: It's going to be like $200! And there might not be any seats left! Justin: Betsy, just chill out and wait until we know more information. It's going to be fine.
Poor Justin. I'm generally pretty easy going with disasters, because most trips have them, but I have an extremely perfectionistic personality that leads to unpleasant freak outs when I screw something up. Anyways, we ended up getting two seats on the same flight we thought we were going out on, for $80, so Justin was right - it wasn't the end of the world.
Okay, let me back things up a bit. We've been planning a marathon of a trip to Asia for the last six months. The marathon bit being that we only had two weeks for the trip due to Justin's work schedule. Two weeks sounds like a pretty long trip, you might be thinking, but we're us and we go big or go home. At least that's what we tell ourselves. It's also possible that we're just kind of stupid. At any rate, we planned a trip spanning six countries complete with overnight bus rides and ferries. We've decided to post stuff about the three countries we spent the most time in: Singapore, Malaysia, and Cambodia, and I'm going to start with Cambodia.
Moving forward again. So, we amazingly get on the same flight and make it to Phnom Pehn early in the morning. One of Justin's aunts has been living in Phnom Pehn for the last fourteen years, working as the assistant country director for an NGO, so she picked us up and we spent the day with her, roaming around the city. Our first stop was the Royal Palace, which was built in 1866 yet continues to be the residence of the royal family. Because of this, large parts of the compound are closed to the public, but there are a still a number of beautiful buildings that can be visited. The entrance fee us $3 per adult, plus an extra fee of $2 to bring in a camera. There is also a strictly enforced dress code in order to enter; no tank tops or women in shorts (even longish ones) are allowed. If you show up in improper attire, you can rent clothes in order to enter.
I'm not going to lie - we found the Royal Palace interesting, but not incredibly so. We spent about an hour wandering around and that was enough for us. Maybe it was because we got spoiled by some of the incredible palaces and forts we visited in India, or because of the limited access (at one of the buildings you could only look in the windows, with no photos allowed), or because it was just such a darn hot day to be wandering around in the sun. Whatever our reason, it's still a worthwhile place to visit. The buildings are beautiful, there's a lovely temple where you can join the worshipers if you're Buddhist, and there are a number of collections of antique items on display. The following are all photos from the Royal Palace, until you reach the next section of text.
After the Royal Palace we visited the Tuol Sleng Museum of genocidal crimes of the Khmer Rouge. The museum is housed in a high school that was taken over by Pol Pot's forces and turned into a notorious prison known as S-21. As we toured the museum we learned that there are only twelve known survivors out of the approximately 17,000 (some estimate more like 20,000) individuals who were held in S-21. It was an incredibly sobering reminder of the cruelty of humanity. As a warning, the museum is very graphic and can be quite distressing, so keep that in mind when deciding whether or not to visit. I don't remember exactly how much we paid for admission, but we opted for the self-guided audio tour, and it was $5 per person or less. If you do go, we highly recommend the self-guided audio tour. It was put together exceptionally well and took about 1.5 hrs to complete.
That evening, we took a Giant Ibis sleeper bus from Phnom Pehn to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat. When we first decided to travel by bus from Phnom Pehn to Siem Reap, I was a bit uncomfortable with the idea, because I've lived and traveled in so many countries where the buses are absolutely terrifying and get in accidents all the time. After doing some research though, I was fairly impressed with Giant Ibis. They have two drivers at night that switch halfway through the trip, and a GPS that sends data back to their main office to discourage them from speeding. Plus, their website allowed me to buy tickets online and we didn't have any issues using them. My one word of caution is that the website says they'll e-mail you the e-tickets, but I decided to screenshot them just incase, and I'm glad I did, because I never received an e-mail from them, and they did ask to see our paper e-tickets when we checked in. At 10:00 PM we boarded the bus and were stoked to discover that there were legit little bunkbeds instead of the lay back chairs we expected. There was single bunks down one side of the aisle, and doubles down the other side. Each bunk had a pillow and blanket, and everyone got a bottle of water. The bus also had free wifi and outlets. We were super impressed and were planning to take advantage of the wifi to get some stuff done, but we were so exhausted from our long night in the airport in Kuala Lumpur that we were asleep before the bus even left the station, and didn't wake up until we arrived in Siem Reap! It was seriously our best public transport trip ever. The trip was seven hours, so we arrived at 5:00 AM and caught a tuk tuk to our lodging: Cambana d'Angkor Suites. We had no hope of checking in so early, but thought we could at least sit in their lobby and read. Imagine our amazement when the fellow at the check-in desk asked if we would like an early check-in and proceeded to cheerful lead us to our room, which was already beautifully prepared, complete with a drawn bath strewn with flower petals.
From the moment of our early check-in on, Cambana d'Angkor and its staff were nothing short of incredible. If you go to Siem Reap, I'd highly recommend staying there - I booked our room for $45 a night through Agoda. Now I know that $45 is a lot of money for lodging in Asia, but the quality of what we received made it well worth it, especially when you stop and think that $60 a night will get you an extremely simple room in a motel in the U.S. Some of the stand outs for us from our stay was having our laundry done for free and delivered back to our room, the fantastic included breakfasts, and having a tuk tuk arranged and paid for by Cambana d'Angkor, to take us to the airport when we left.
Even though we kind of just wanted to spend our entire time in Siem Reap luxuriating at Cambana d'Angkor, we headed out onto the street after breakfast looking for a tuk tuk to take us to the temples. I say temples, because Angkor Wat is just one of many ancient temple complexes located near Siem Reap. In no time we found ourselves in Mr. Chong's #1 Tuk Tuk (this was painted on the side) headed out to the center that sells the passes to see the temples. The passes are a bit steep at $20 per person for a one day pass, $40 for a three day pass, and $60 for a seven day pass. But I will say that the temples are incredible and we thought they were well worth the money. We decided to use Mr. Chong's services for the entire day as the temples are fairly spread out. You can rent bikes in Siem Reap and cycle from one temple to the next, but it was intensely hot, and the person who told us we should rent bycyles also runs ultra marathons, so we weren't sure how much to trust his assessment that cycling between the temples was easy. It can definitely be done, but is probably pretty miserable when it's super hot and humid. We ended up paying $15 to rent Mr. Chong's tuk tuk for the day, which was a fair rate from what we'd read.
There are two circuits that encompass most of the temples in the area, referred to as the "small circuit" and the "big circuit." We did most of the small circuit on our first day, and were going to do the big circuit on our second day, but ended up just going back to Angkor Wat since we missed out on a lot of stuff due to a massive rain storm.
A little FYI about visiting the temples - the photo above is the back of one of the passes, where the rules and visitor code of conduct is listed. This code requests that respectful clothing be worn, meaning shoulders and knees should be covered. Since it was extremely hot, we definitely saw a number of people not dressed to code and they were allowed into the temples anyways, unlike the Royal Palace. The exception was climbing up to the second floor in Angkor Wat, where the dress code was strictly enforced and people in sleeveless tops and shorts (well, women in shorts at least) were being turned away. So best idea I'd say is to come prepared with some light, cool clothes that meet the requirements so you can be both respectful, and get the full tour!
Our first stop was Banteay Kdei, a Buddhist temple built in the mid 12th to early 13th centuries AD. Amazingly, from what I've read it was actually occupied intermittently by monks up until the 1960s. Compared to some of the other temples, Banteay Kdei is a bit dilapidated, but fascinating none the less.
After that, we headed to Ta Prohm, which is one of the most iconic temples aside from Angkor Wat. Massive trees and intricate root systems embrace the structures, lending a special, other-worldly atmosphere. It gives you a sense that your're stepping out of the jungle and seeing the place for the first time. Ta Prohm is one of the few temples in the area with an inscription providing details about the inhabitants. Apparently, close to 80,000 people maintained or attended the temple, with 2,700 officials and 615 dancers!
While in Ta Prohm I trained my lens on these unfortunately sweaty women to illustrate how sweaty we were! We were both wearing dark colored shirts so I couldn't get a good photo, but we were absolutely drenched. I am convinced I could have rung sweat out of my shirt a few temples in.
Next was Ta Keo, a step pyramid structure consisting of five tiers with five towers arranged on the top. I don't think I mentioned yet that June (when we visited) is part of Cambodia's rainy season, so when it started to rain at Ta Keo we weren't surprised. It was just a drizzle though, and since we were incredibly hot and sweaty we were quite happy to explore Ta Keo in the rain.
From Ta Keo we drove to Angkor Thom, literally the "Great City" which was the last capital city of the Khmer empire. It was nine square kilometers in size and contains multiple sites within its crumbling walls. Some of the main ones are the Bayon temple and Terrace of the Elephants. However, by the time we got there it was absolutely pouring, but did we buy an umbrella like everybody else? Of course not, because we're cheap and sometimes foolish. The upside was that we got a free shower, the downside is that we only got a couple of pictures. I think the best thing in Angkor Thom was Bayon. It was pretty massive with lots of stairs and convoluted passages, which was exciting to explore.
Last but not least, we headed to Angkor Wat to finish the day. The rain kept teasing us - letting up a bit and then drowning us again. When we got to Angkor Wat the rain had almost stopped and there was even some weak sun, but about ten minutes later the flood gates opened once again. As such, we decided not to explore the whole thing and just stick to the dry columned galleries which form the outer enclosure. Now, let me tell you a bit about Angkor Wat. It's an amazing place, and is actually the largest religious monument in the world, covering 402 acres. Built in the first half of the 12th century, it was originally constructed as a temple to the Hindu god Vishnu. However, after the rise of a new king at the end of the 12th century, Angkor Wat gradually changed from a Hindu place of worship to a Buddhist place of worship. Random side note: no contemporary inscriptions referring to the temple, nor any inscriptions at Angkor Wat itself have been discovered, so we actually don't know what its original name was. Okay, on to the design as it's rather interesting too. It's said that the design is suppose to represent Mount Meru, the sacred center of the spiritual and physical universe according to Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist cosmology. A large moat surrounds the structure, followed by concentric galleries and buildings which get smaller and smaller while simultaneously rising upwards, terminating in the most sacred area, which is the highest level in the structure and contains five towers. The moat and walls are said to represent the oceans and mountains, while the five towers are said to represent the five peaks of Mount Meru. If you're trying to visualize it, it's kind of like those Russian dolls that get smaller and smaller, each one inside the next. Okay, enough history, but let me leave you with a quote from the first Western visitors to lay eyes on Angkor Wat, as I think it beautifully summarizes the magic of the place. That visitor was Antonio da Madalena, a Portuguese monk who visited in 1586 and wrote, "it is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of."
As I mentioned previously, the next day we headed back to Angkor Wat for further exploration, as we hadn't gone beyond the galleries due to the rain. Angkor Wat opens to visitors at 5:00 AM so you can photograph it as the sun rises, which was something I desperately wanted to do, but it was super cloudy the next morning with no chance of a beautiful sunrise. Oh well. I guess it's just another reason to visit Cambodia again. The following are all photos from our second day of exploration.
The next morning we bid Cambodia a sad farewell. Well, sad until we went through security at the airport and they took away the stunning carved salad fork I'd purchased in Cambodia as a gift for my sister because it was "too sharp." I had some very choice words to say about that after we got out of ear shot of security and decided in my pissed off mood that I had no desire to remain in Cambodia any longer. But of course, if countries were judged by their airport security people wouldn't want to travel to a lot of places! So, Cambodia is on our "possibly return someday" list, and if you haven't been, we highly recommend it! Next post I'll be filling you in on the details from our time in Singapore, but don't hold your breath about that being any time super soon. I think I've depleted my writing energy quota for awhile... does the fact that I have a writing energy quota mean I'm a bad blogger? Probably, but let's go with unconventional.