Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cambodia in a (coco)nut shell

Early Saturday at midnight we boarded a night bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh.  It was somehow almost worse than our original night bus experience.  We arrived six hours later than the time we'd been told, and were forced to access the downstairs bathroom by crawling over multiple boxes of cargo.  But we made it.  After bargaining with our prospective tuk-tuk driver we were off on a mini-tour of Cambodia's capital.  First we visited Choeung Ek, also known as the Killing Fields.  Now a memorial to those who died during the extreme Khmer Rouge  rule, it was once a place of forced labor, torture and murder.  We spent a sobering hour there, where the reality of the recent events made our hearts break.  We couldn't bring ourselves to visit S-21.

Next we went on to see the magnificent Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda.  The temples and other buildings within were different from anything we've seen in Asia.  The architecture and design borrowed more from Hindu culture than others we've seen.  For dinner we tried our first Cambodian curry, flavored with heat and a hint of sweet coconut milk.

After another shorter, but more bumpy night bus ride, we arrived in Siem Reap.  We spent our first day here walking around the quaint river area near our guest house.  We visited a great market and tried some more of the local food.  Close to sunset we purchased our three day pass to the temples of Angkor, inclusive of a free sunset viewing at one of the oldest temples.  We climbed the steep stairs and watched the sun glow red and orange among the ruins.

Monday morning we awoke at 4:15 am to visit Angkor Wat by sunrise.  Unfortunately the clouds made a colorful sky impossible.  We waited expectantly, but without result.  However it was nice to have an early start on the day.  We saw the gorgeous pink sandstone carvings of Bantaey Srei and dodged a bullet when our tuk-tuk went off the road into a ditch backing a barbed-wire fence.  The views at Banteay Samr√© were also amazing and more remote in a beautiful jungle setting.  The rest of the afternoon was spent lazing around, catching some yummy Mexican food and a traditional Apsara dance show in the evening.  A downpour during dinner also provided entertainment, especially when three kids were pulled by a tuk-tuk up and down "pub street" as we looked on.

Tuesday we looped around to visit the notable Preah Khan and the smaller but still amazing wats of East Mebon, Pre Rup, Neak Pean and Tasom.  We dined outside at a lovely restaurant in old town.  Part of their platter for two was a delicious Khmer specialty, Amok.

We saved the best for last today, visiting Angkor Wat again at sunrise with a better result and a wonderful tour giude.  Angkor Thom and Bayon were astounding.  We were told in detail about the history and design of the many magnificent buildings and their carvings.  Ta Prohm was amazing as well, with massive Ficus trees both destroying and protecting the ancient temples.  Ta Prohm's claim to fame is that Tomb Raider was filmed there.  We saw Banteay Kdei, Ta Keo, Sras Srang, and Prasat Kravan in the afternoon.  Our day was amazing.

A local dinner, a much needed pedicure, and a walk through the bustling night market were the perfect way to end our stay in Cambodia.  Next.... Si Phan Don in Laos!

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