backpacking… upgraded

Angkor Wat Week! Day four…

I had a long Wednesday ahead of me, and I wanted to get the earliest possible start, so I left the guesthouse at 5 a.m. to find a tuk-tuk driver. Still smarting from nine hours spent on a bike seat the day before, I was really looking forward to the sweet, forgiving padding of a tuk-tuk carriage. I hadn’t walked thirty feet when a driver zoomed up to me. I told him all the places I’d plotted to go, most of which were quite a distance from Siem Reap. There was no way a tuk-tuk could navigate some of the roads we’d have to travel to fit them all in, he told me, so I’d have to go by motorbike or scratch some of the stops. Against the protest of my hind end, I opted for the motorbike. We agreed on a price ($32), borrowed a second helmet from another driver, and tore off into the darkness, leaving the tuk-tuk trailer and its oh-so-sweet, oh-so-soft seat to languish at the side of the road.

[One point of interest: Lonely Planet sorely understates the price of a hiring a driver. You can expect to pay $10-15 for a day’s worth of shuttling around in the vicinity of Angkor Wat by motorbike, $20-25 by tuk-tuk, depending on the distance. As is the way, when gas prices increase, so will these.]

Our first destination was Beng Mealea, an Angkor Wat-era palace more than 70 kilometers from Siem Reap. The first 40 km of the ride saw us speeding down the well-paved and relatively boring National Road 6, until we broke off to the north shortly after sunrise, heading down a cratered, mixed-surface road that connects several tiny villages, where the residents were just beginning to stir. Cico, my driver, had spent his entire life in Siem Reap but had never seen Beng Mealea, and he seemed as eager as I did to tromp around the ruins. Amazingly, on arriving we found we had the place completely to ourselves.

Abandoned for centuries to the closing maw of the forest, Beng Mealea is one of the most ruined of the ruins. Most of the former construction has been reduced to an enormous pile of rubble within the decaying palace walls. What remains standing is grown over with groping tree roots and a brilliant layer of moss. The early morning sunlight slicing through the foliage gave the scene a romantic quality; were there not a long, wooden walkway coursing around the grounds (or a man selling $5 admission tickets at the entrance), it would be easy to trick yourself into believing you had discovered this marvel for yourself. Due to its distance from the main circuit around Angkor Wat, it’s probably the least visited of the ancient sites, but one that’s definitely worth a stop if you have time.

Next we rumbled down rough and muddy roads between Beng Mealea and our second stop, the enchanting river carvings at Kbal Spean. A night of heavy rains had left the last half of the way in awful shape, but Cico managed somehow to keep the tires churning on the four-inch tendons of dry dirt and rock between prodigious pools of sludge. After 90 minutes of repetitive trauma to my hind end, the mile-long hike required to reach the carvings was therapeutic.

The river rocks are engraved with wonderful images of Hindu deities and animals, and Sanskrit inscriptions. Somehow they remain well defined and vivid despite being run over by wind, rain, and river water, not to mention the sediment it carries with it, for hundreds of years. The area isn’t very well marked, and I would have missed most of the carvings had not a guard volunteered to show a few of us around, offering what information he could in broken English. Thanks to him, Kbal Spean was one of the highlights of my trip.

Nearing midday now, the air was as humid as a cloud and the sun oppressively hot, even beneath the forest canopy, so before heading back I stopped for a few minutes at the riverside for some swigs from my water bottle and to shake the crumby remnants of an addled bag of sugar crackers into my mouth. Lunched and refreshed, I rejoined Cico at the trailhead and we motored onward.

Banteay Srei is simply incredible, but I don’t recommend going there in the late morning or early afternoon. It features the most ornate and beautiful relief work of any of the temples I visited, but provides little in the way of shade, and its character gets washed out by the potent midday sun. It’s certainly the calmest time to visit, as most of the tourist groups disappear to Siem Reap during the lunch hours, but there is a reason they do so.

Finally, after failing to make it through the gate the prior day, I rounded this day out with a stop at Ta Prohm. Just in case I ran out of time before I got a chance to go back and see it, I had belittled Ta Prohm in my head as “nothing special, just more crumbling stone blocks and some gnarly trees.” And I was right, except for the “nothing special” part. The place is instantly memorable. The trees are not merely gnarly, but the gnarliest – their gargantuan roots cascade like dam-bursts over the sides of meter-thick sandstone walls, which buckle and crack beneath their weight. If these trees could spring to life and do battle like J.R.R. Tolkein’s Ents, we’d all be doomed.

As Wednesday afternoon expired into darkness, likewise did my visitor’s pass pass, so to speak. I was OK with it, though. After three days and more than a dozen temples, I was finally ruined for ruins. Thursday morning would see me to the floating village and flooded forest of Kompong Phhluk. This was feeling more like Lord of the Rings all the time.

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Angkor Wat Week! Day three…

Sorry for the infrequent posting. Angkor Wat Week is turning into Angkor Wat Fortnight due a lack of internet access. Without further ado…

Finding myself to be pretty worthless after a thorough sun-soaking and a stomach full of lunch on my first full day in Siem Reap, I planned an ambitious itinerary for day two, fittingly called Tuesday. I was going to bike what’s known as the Big Circuit, a 26-km loop that starts at the south end of Angkor Wat and connects a dozen or so other major places of interest before returning to the same spot. The last stop on the circuit, and the one I was most excited to see, would be Ta Prohm, a setting so remarkable it was featured prominently in the movie Tomb Raider. Alas, neither the brilliant set location nor Angelina Jolie could redeem the film, which offered less mental nourishment than your average coma.

I won’t bore you by describing all the temples I visited. Seeing temples, even those as astonishing and varied as those around Siem Reap, illustrates a classic Econ-101 concept: diminishing marginal utility. The first temple you see (particularly if, like most people, you begin at Angkor Wat) is revelatory. You are wowed by its vastness, its detail, and the fact that it predates John McCain. You want to spend hours examining every nook and cranny, appreciating its miles of carvings, photographing it from every angle and in every possible light. (These temples give amateur photographers, myself included, a false sense of confidence in their abilities.) But after absorbing the first one, each additional temple you visit, though impressive for all the aforementioned reasons, drops your jaw a little less. Your utility gradually slopes downward, until you’ve reached temple number eight or fifteen or twenty-three and you’re content to give a perfunctory “Wow, that’s really old… and quite ruined,” and simply snap an off-kilter and blurry photo from the seat of your tuk-tuk as you rumble by.

Reading about them one after another, I would imagine, descends a much steeper slope.

[But if you’re going to be in the area, check out Preah Khan (pictured above: look for carved images changed from Buddhist to Hindu when a Hindu devotee became king, and the inscription carved by North Vietnamese soldiers, who hid out here in the early 1970’s), Neak Khan (left: formerly pools where purification rites were performed, check out the ornamental spouts in the shape of an elephant, lion, human, and rhino(?)), Tam So (below left: the tree enveloping the eastern entrance is amazing), and Pre Rup (below right: fabulous complex of stupas that looks stunning in the late afternoon).]

I’d nearly managed to complete the circuit by 2 pm, leaving only the famous Ta Prohm left to see. That’s when I made the regrettable decision to save Ta Prohm for sunset and instead head over to Bakong, a ninth-century temple that’s one of the earliest Khmer constructions, which lay a full twenty kilometers away. It was a decision at which only a drunk or a sunstroke victim would have arrived. I won’t say which I was, but off I went.

Halfway to Bakong a noncommittal shower blew over the area, and I took the meager sprinkle as a sign to stop to fuel up. I hadn’t eaten all day and was dead tired. I bought a pack of imitation-Oreos and a Fanta Orange from a pharmacy – easily the best part of traveling by bicycle is the guiltless justification to eat like a loosed three-year old during the ride and for a few meals afterward – and downed them both in a flash, expecting a reaction in my stomach that would send out a fizzy cataract whence they came in. Disappointingly, one never came.

The rain ceased and I started again toward Bakong, which the pharmacy cashier had told me was a mere five kilometers to the east. In fact it was probably twice that distance. The energy spike from the carbonated-drink-and-cookie porridge didn’t last very long, as it turned out. The kilometers piled up grudgingly on my churning legs, and I began to entertain those thoughts that sprout in your brain when you’re exhausted and not at all sure where you are. Had I missed a sign somewhere? Surely I’ve gone more than five kilometers by now, right? These people don’t even look Cambodian anymore. I must look ready to collapse; these ribby stray dogs keep licking their lips as I pass. Why do these dogs have lips?

At last I saw a sign for Bakong and turned down a narrow, paved road that soon gave way to a smooth, dirt path. I rounded a bend and the tiered figure of Bakong mercifully came into view. In a few moments I was staggering up its steps like Rocky Balboa gone to seed. Unfortunately there was little time for a victory dance upon reaching the top; ominous, charcoal-hued clouds were collecting to the east, and they looked ready to spill their contents as they drifted westward.

After a bit of exploring I abridged my visit to Bakong and got back on the bike, but I was beginning to dread the 20-km ride back to Ta Prohm, especially with a succession of lightning bolts slashing the sky in the distance, when I had the good fortune to meet a couple backpackers willing to let me hop in their tuk-tuk to hitch a ride back to Siem Reap. We made it back to town at about 4:45 p.m.

It appeared that the rain would hold off after all, so, ignoring the discomfort in my haunches, I mounted my metal steed to pedal to Ta Prohm for sunset. Again the rain came; though not sufficiently strong to make me turn back, it was dampening enough to make me doubt my judgment. I should have doubted harder.

I pulled up to Ta Prohm’s gate shortly after 5:30 p.m., which left me about 45 minutes to wander the ruins until sunset. Or so I thought.

Lonely Planet neglects to mention the rather important fact that visitors are not admitted entry into Ta Prohm (et al) after 5:30 p.m., which I found, after unsuccessfully lobbying the security guard to please bend the rule for someone who’d cycled 14 km only to arrive a few minutes late, to be non-negotiable. I had no choice but to climb back on the bike and ride, dispirited and suddenly doubly exhausted, back to town.

On a positive note, being rebuffed at Ta Prohm meant that I was passing by the southern end of Angkor Wat’s lovely moat as the sun sank into the horizon. I stopped for a few moments to take let the scene replenish my spirits – it was nearly as remarkable as the previous day’s sunrise had been – before returning to the road.

Arriving at the guesthouse at dark, I went upstairs and sprawled across the bed, taking stock of the day. My body was completely drained and aching from 80 km of pedaling in Cambodian heat, the last 28 of which were maddeningly for naught. I decided that wherever I was headed the next day, I’d be traveling on a well-padded seat.

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Angkor Wat Week! Day two…

I arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on Sunday afternoon, and after consulting the maps and advice of my Lonely Planet guidebook, I opted to rent a mountain bike for the next couple days to motor myself around the sights. In retrospect I won’t say it’s the optimal way to make the rounds in Cambodian August, but I really enjoyed the freedom to explore areas inaccessible to tuk-tuks and cars, not to mention the exercise. And there is something undeniably magical in approaching one of the vast, crumbling relics with little but your thoughts, the breeze, and the whirring of bike wheels scoring the scene.

Everyone who’s seen it says the sunrise at Angkor Wat is something to behold, a must during a visit to Siem Reap. That’s why, subduing the pull of my sluggish brain to fall back asleep, I tugged myself upright on Monday morning at 4:30, showered and tossed a couple bottles of water and some cookies into my backpack, and cycled across the river bridge and down the linear temple road, its chewed pavement lit only occasionally by the headlights of a passing car or tuk-tuk. Six-plus kilometers (and a $40 three-day pass) later, I pulled up to the entrance as first sunlight began to dissolve the predawn darkness. Across the moat, the looming towers and eight-meter high stone wall were silhouetted black against the sky, offering no glimpse of the immense temple behind them.

It wasn’t until I got beyond the wall that I saw it. At a distance of a few hundred meters, I could make out three jagged bullets rising up from the horizon. The sun was still submerged, but it shone a warm, orange light on the swirling clouds above the towers. I felt my way down the long, uneven, cobbled path, only looking down every few steps when I’d stumble over a proud stone. I paused for a few moments at the lotus pond on the north side of the walkway, where a couple dozen other gawkers were already camped out, some of them staring out from plastic chairs that lined the bank at the water’s edge. The view was mesmerizing: the striking figure of Angkor Wat, still in shadow and bathing in fluorescent sky, married to its perfect, inverted reflection on the serene surface of the pond. It’s one of those rare visions that, even as you experience it, you’re aware of its being indelibly etched into your memory.

As I traced my way around the halls at the perimeter, the accumulating sunlight began to wash over the epic works in bas-relief on the walls. Starting at the eastern entrance and walking clockwise around the palace, the elegant carvings relate the story of the gods creating heaven and earth by churning a sea of milk and follow with depictions of Khmer history, featuring frenetic scenes of war with the rival Chams and of a later civil war among themselves. Most of the carvings, now well into their ninth century in the open air, are remarkably well preserved.

At the interior of the palace, the five conical towers make a quincunx pattern – four towers form a square with the fifth tower, the tallest, at the center of the square. The size and complexity of their design and the intricacy of their detail are even more impressive viewed from up close. Each of the corner towers is accessible by a couple of narrow, worn staircases, but all the entry points were roped off on this particular day. Also, renovations were being undertaken on the middle tower, evidenced by scaffolding left in place on its south side.

After more than three hours at Angkor Wat, and with the sun now beginning to assert itself, I decided to push on toward Bayon, the spectacular and decaying ruins at the southern end of Angkor Thom, just a few kilometers up the road. Bayon is one of the more photogenic sites you’ll ever visit. Everywhere you stand inside its walls, sanguine-looking stone faces peer out at you from contoured towers. Each of the 59 towers features four Buddha images (said to resemble Jayavarman VII, the Khmer king who ordered Bayon’s construction) facing north, south, east, and west. The stonework of has been for centuries completely exposed to the elements, and the erosion of the towers and reliefs has given them a kind of grotesque charm. Gaudí would have loved Bayon, pictured below.

A couple hundred meters north lies Baphuon, an enormous temple that will be extremely impressive when it’s put back together, but which is currently scurried over by men in hard hats and overseen by a crane. Whether it will be rebuilt to its former glory is another issue altogether. A restoration project undertaken decades ago saw Baphuon deconstructed and its building blocks carefully catalogued for later re-assemblage, but then the Khmer Rouge came to power and laid waste to the plans. Of course, during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian people had bigger fish to fry than reworking some ruins. Among the items on the their to-do lists were avoiding starvation, escaping the arbitrary terror of the ruling party, and burying the millions of their countrymen who hadn’t been able to accomplish the first two.

You could spend an entire day visiting the various temples, terraces, and walkways within the walls of Angkor Thom – it’s nine square kilometers of fascinating history –- but it was nearing lunchtime, and I wanted to make just one last stop before

heading back to Siem Reap for some vittles. I was looking for Preah Palilay, a stupa at the northwest corner of Angkor Thom whose base has been shot through by the growth of several immense trees. On the way I met a wheelchair-bound painter who beckoned me to browse his work.

His name was Kim Leung, he said, and he sells his hand-painted canvases and postcards to support himself and his family. Besides having a personal story that makes you want to fork over your cash, his paintings were quite good, and I left with a sleeve full of postcards.

[Slightly off subject, there are an appalling number of people in Siem Reap – and the rest of Cambodia, I’m sure – whose missing limbs and appendages attest to the existence of leftover landmines in the Cambodian countryside. To learn more about it, visit the Cambodian Landmine Museum or its website.]

Over at Preah Palilay, I tromped up and down the ruins for a few minutes – one of the wonderful things about the Angkor Wat experience is the ability to interact with history, to climb over and run your fingers along it, rather than just stand before it and squint at a placard from ten paces – until my empty stomach gave a loud growl, signaling the end of the morning’s activities. Riding back by Kim Leung again, my front wheel caught on a stubborn tree root and I was flung awkwardly over the handlebars. I got up, mystified and mildly embarrassed, and began to brush myself off. His reaction was polite, even concerned, unlike that of a nearby worker, who’d fallen to his knees, weak with heaving laughter. I pulled the bike upright, climbed on, and hurried off, giggling to myself. It seemed like a good time for a lunch break.

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It’s Angkor Wat Week! Day One…

Hey there, flashpackers! It’s Angkor Wat Week here on, for no other reason than that’s where I just spent four wonderful days. And since Angkor Wat is also one of the most consistently astonishing places on this glorious planet, it gets its own week. Whit and I are in transit today through Malaysia, so we’ll start small with a short post on some of the area’s less imposing sights: its monkeys.

Nearing noon on my first day of exploring, the sun was withering, and I, having been up and at ‘em since 4:30 that morning, decided to head back to Siem Reap for lunch. Returning through the enormous southern gate of Angkor Thom, I noticed a few tourists shuttling around to take photos in earnest. The gate is pretty photogenic, but not that photogenic, so I stopped and to see what the spectacle was. Turns out a huge group of monkeys were camped out around the gate, playing together and scrambling up rocks, logs, and, as it turned out, the limbs of tourists.

As I wandered over to a triangle of downed trees, I was greeted by a bemused-looking European couple under siege. The gentleman had a monkey perched on his right shoulder, tugging absent-mindedly at the skin of his cheek like a massage therapist with an attention deficit. Another one dangled from his upper arm, slapping his string-suspended lens cap around like a piñata. I thought the young lady with him had managed to avoid his fate, when a third monkey emerged mischievously from the cascade of her red curls. She gave a shout as the little guy grabbed a handful of locks and yanked.

Sensing my amusement, the gentleman-cum-jungle-gym offered to transfer one or both of the scoundrels to me, but I politely declined. I’m told I share more than nine-tenths of my DNA with the little guys, but that’s all I want to share with them.

Frankly, monkeys are just about all I need to see to make a trip worthwhile. But I promise, there’s a bit more to Angkor Wat than monkeys. Tomorrow I’ll share some of it with you… Thanks for reading!

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