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Temples in the jungle

Siem Reap, Angkor Wat

sunny 34 °C
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Siem Reap greeted us with hot, humid weather. We had thought that we had acclimatized well in Phnom Penh, but soon realized that Siem Reap’s heat was much less bearable.
The solution was easy: once Mr. Tommy (our tuk tuk driver) had dropped us at our hotel, we quickly changed and headed down to the pool. Lucky us, that we had booked a place with a pool again!

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That evening, we took it easy and did not venture out for dinner – even though the hotel even offered a free shuttle service into the center of town. We tried the hotel’s restaurant and were soon after ready for bed.
The next morning, we were a bit disappointed about breakfast. Having been spoiled by a large buffet selection in Phnom Penh, both size and quality of our breakfast did not reach that standard by any means. So we headed off hoping that we’d be finding some better food during the day.
Mr. Tommy was waiting for us already. We were excited to have him as a companion for the next couple of days. Being used to the tuk tuk drivers we encountered in Phnom Penh, it was a pure delight to talk with someone in English, who knows his way around and who even offers suggestions of his own. All of that at a daily rate of 15 USD - just perfect!
Our first stop was at the ticket counter getting three day passes for the Angkor Wat Archeological Park. At 62 USD per adult, prices for US American or Canadian National Parks seemed very tame in comparison. But, we wanted to see the place without having to rush through in a single day.
Mr. Tommy suggested us to start our tour with a quick look around Srah Srang, a royal bathing pool dating back to the 10th century. Its gigantic size of 700m by 350m surrounded by stone steps gave us already a first impression of the incredible size of buildings that have been undertaken in the area.

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From there, Banteay Kdei was just across the road. We were amazed once more by the sheer size of this monastic complex, despite the fact that our guidebook described as much smaller than other temples surrounding them. It was fun exploring the temple and finding our way through the various enclosures. While partially restored, parts of the temple looked rather deteriorated – which added a certain charm to the building.

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Seemingly it had been built using poor sandstone and not the best construction methods. We did not mind. It was a perfect introduction to Angkor’s many temples. And it featured much shade which was important in the mid-day heat. After a feast of fresh coconut juice, mango and pineapple, we were ready for further explorations.

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Our goal was to see the Ta Phrom temple. This is one of the most photogenic temples as it has been only partially cleared of jungle overgrowth. While partially restored, it had been intentional to leave most of the massive trees that had grown in the temple, creating a jungle-like atmosphere. We were impressed and even though I had never seen the ’Lara Croft‘ movie with Angela Jolie, it seems that Ta Phrom served as backdrop for several scenes.

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We were fascinated by the place and impressed to see how the jungle is claiming back what man cleared centuries earlier. Unfortunately, we were not the only ones impressed by it. While we wandered around rather aimlessly, we ended up in the middle of large tour groups twice. In both cases, we found a quiet corner and waited. Once the chatting and constant selfie and picture taking of the Korean and Chinese groups had ended as quickly as it came, we headed off again – largely undisturbed and having the place for ourselves and a couple of other tourists again.

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As much as we liked the place, the sun won today’s battle easily and we asked Mr. Tommy to take us back into town for lunch. We went to the Butterfly Garden, which is not only known for good food in a pleasant garden-like setting, but also for supporting local communities.

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After lunch, we headed back to the hotel and were thrilled to have a pool. Admittedly, I rather spend a bit of extra money to stay in a nice place offering a bit of comfort and luxury. The thought of returning from a hit day just to a tiny hotel room without any possibility to be outside is not really appealing to me. So we fully took advantage of the pool and stayed there for most of the afternoon and evening.
The next day, we took a break from visiting temples. While Max and I stayed at the hotel, Sam went motorbiking for half a day. He got to ride some single trails through remaining jungles. But between the stretches of jungle, most areas have been deforested. And the continued development with more and more roads being paved, caused tracks to be graded, which just a mere two weeks ago were still some nice offroad terrain.

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But Sam also enjoyed having the opportunity to watch some village life and a jungle temple that is not on the usual tourist route. Despite the fact that the half day ride was laid out for 4 hours, Sam and his guide La were back already after a bit more than three hours. And La could not resist commenting that he had not done that tour so fast for quite a while.

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In the afternoon, we headed out together again into town. After an excellent lunch at the very comfortable Blue Pumpkin, we checked out the old market. It was easy to get lost between the stalls, even though everything was organized in sections. The fruit and vegetable section was not very busy and we even detected a couple of sellers sleeping on the tables surrounded by their wares.

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Then there was the textile section which eventually turned into the souvenir section. In an attempt to keep our baggage light, we declined all offers to buy bronze buddha statues, wooden elephant carvings and even the pretty muesli bowls made from coconut shells featuring colorful insides.

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The meat and fish section tempted us even less to do some shopping. The dirty floor and the smells did not help to create an atmosphere where I’d trust the quality of the wares. That might be wrong – after all eating in restaurants probably implies that our food might originate from a market like that. Even though we did not buy anything, the market was a nice place to take pictures.

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There’s something that strikes me about today’s markets. No matter how small the stalls are, no matter how little basic hygiene there seems to be in many areas, no matter how slippery the floor might be. Nowadays at least one out of two salespersons seems to hold a smartphone in his / her hands, briefly distracted by customers and eager to return back to whatever they were checking out on social networks.

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To a certain degree that is disappointing, as it clearly signals that time has not stopped here and that things might not be stopped in time like we would sometimes like to imagine in our romanticized view of less developed countries. But practically speaking, this adds a freedom to look around the market stalls without the otherwise tiring firework of ‘Mister, mister, good price. How much you pay?’.
Filled with lots of impressions from the market, we headed across the road to a nice icecream shop. It’s interior design was well thought through and would have fitted as well in a downtown of any major European city. Well, except that in Germany we’d probably have paid three times as much than here for our icecream – even though the store was way above local standards in terms of pricing.

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But not only the market was a good source of photo opportunities: just driving along in traffic was providing so many fun sights that we were only able to capture a fraction of the inventive and packed vehicles we saw on the road. And we loved the small gas stations along the roads!

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By the time, we got back to the hotel, Aurel had arrived with his parents Thomas and Petra. They had stayed at the same hotel with us in Phnom Penh and as the boys got along so well, they booked the same hotel as us. Max and Aurel were delighted to meet again. And their parents were delighted to have such a good entertainment for their respective kid.
Even though Max would have been entertained as well in the hotel, we headed out for some entertainment of a different kind: We wanted to see Phare, the Cambodian Circus. Standing in line to get into the tent, we met Nadja, Remo, Ben and Lenny again – who had stayed with us in Phnom Penh a couple of days earlier. Similar to Western Australia, also in South East Asia many tourists seem to walk along the same trodden paths, so meetings like that did not really surprise us much. It was nice to see them.
But even better was the circus itself. It recruits its talents exclusively from a school for disadvantaged kids in a nearby town. And with the proceeds from the circus, the school is being supported such that 1200 kids are getting a free school education and another 500 are getting vocational training.
We did not really know what to expect of the circus, but were pleasantly surprised how the protagonists combined music, artistic performances and dance. All artists were fairly young and were teeming with energy. In a way, the closest I can compare them with is Cirque du Soleil – just on a bit smaller scale. And as we love the Cirque du Soleil, this was great.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 19:19 Archived in Cambodia Tagged temple market tree jungle circus pool motorbike tuk_tuk Comments (1)

Impressive, but crowded temples

Siem Reap, Angkor Wat

semi-overcast 35 °C
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We had taken our lesson from the first day sightseeing not to start sightseeing too late in an attempt to avoid the midday heat. Consequently, we went for breakfast at 6:30am and headed out with Mr. Tommy already at 7am.
Today we planned to check out the Bayon, one of the most famous temples in the Angkor Wat Archeological Park. In fact, the Bayon is the central temple of the Angkor Thom royal buddhist city which dates back to the 12th century. It is supposed to have been home for 1.000.000 people.
Already the approach to Angkor Thom was very impressive. There was a 100m (!) wide moat, then an 8m high wall (of a total length of 12 km) with an enormous entrance gate. The bridge leading to the entrance gate was lined with Buddha statues on both sides.

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The Bayon temple marks the exact center of Angkor Thom and is famous for its gigantic sculptures. In total there are over 216 huge smiling faces looking down at the visitors of the temple. So no matter where in the temple you are, there is always a ‘big brother’ watching you.

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Well, and in addition we had at least another 250 people watching us – probably a third Chinese, another third Korean and the last third all others. Especially the last and highest level of the temple was more than crowded and we were happy to descend again towards the quieter levels further down.

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In addition to all the tourists, there were lots of monkeys around – probably a result of being fed by eager tour guides who want to enable their guests to get great shots of the monkeys. We rather kept our distance. Since I had a monkey jump on my shoulder in a Balinese temple over 20 years ago, I have become extremely cautious with these animals.

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From the Bayon it was only a short walk to the Baphuon, While the temple is impressively big, being in the shadow of its famous neighbor Bayon makes it look rather pale in comparison. Still, there's one story about it that we could hardly believe: according to archeological best practices at the time, all stones of the temple had been taken apart, cleaned and when needed repaired or replaced in order to assemble the restored temple again. What seems straight forward was only made significantly harder due to the fact that all works halted during the reign of the Red Khmer and by the time works were recommenced, none of the plans on how to reassemble the 300.000 pieces were to be found anymore. That's what I'd call puzzling!

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From there we headed towards the Terrace of the Leper King and the Terrace of Elephants. We explored a bit, but eventually were just too tired and hot to continue much longer.

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When we left the area via the Western gate, we found an area of solitude. No cars were allowed along that dirt road and there were just a few tuk tuks and scooters using it. The wide moat was not tended as well as at the fancy Southern Entrance that is mainly used by tourists and there were even some waterbuffalo around.

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Along the back roads, we got to see once more some interesting vehicles that we’ll never be able to see in Europe. Mr. Tommy took a couple of short cuts and suddenly we found ourselves in front of our hotel.

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We had done enough sightseeing for the day, and used the remainder of the day to relax: we relaxed in the pool, had lunch in town and decided to get a massage. At 4 USD for half an hour massage, it’s a luxury we’re enjoying without having to spend huge amounts of money. And even though the fish massage would have been an even cheaper treat, we preferred to decline – being afraid of the tickling fish.

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Back home, the pool was the destination of choice again and thanks to Max and Aurel entertaining themselves, we had some time to relax ourselves.
We had left the best for last: On our last day of sightseeing, it was time to explore the temple of Angkor Wat which Guinness lists as the world’s largest religious structure. It is made from several million sandstone blocks weighing up to 1.5 tons. In total, there were more stones used in Angkor Wat than in all Egyptian pyramids combined. And all of these stones had to be transported over a distance of over 40km from the quarries. And while this is already an impressive statement, we were even more in awe when we read that the temple was built by 300,000 people with the help of 6,000 working elephants.

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Originally it was built as a Hindu temple, but then gradually converted into a buddhist temple. But this seemed to have gone both ways depending on the respective ruler’s afflictions: at the Bayon temple there had been Buddha carvings that had been converted into Hindu symbols by later kings. Contrary to most other temples in the wider Angkor area, Angkor Wat has been preserved better. It was always more or less actively used and never overgrown by the jungle.
In an attempt to avoid the crowds, we had opted to enter the temple from the Eastern entrance. And indeed, there were hardly any people around and we could enjoy the quiet atmosphere and solitude approaching the temple.

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Admittedly, we did not walk along all of the 800m of bas reliefs depicting various scenes of Khmer history and culture. After a couple of meters, we got the idea and rather headed into the temple than around.

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Getting closer to the inner sanctum, we finally hit the crowds again who had entered the building from the western entrance. There was a 30min queue to climb the ‘Bakan’ - highest part of the temple. We kindly declined and tried to find a quieter corner again.

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Close to where a couple of monks were holding ceremonies for local worshipers, we had a huge area for ourselves. At least for 5 minutes that is which is when a couple of Asian tour groups chose exactly that spot for doing their selfies and fun pictures to prove that they have been there. When some of them tried to sit next to us to have us in their pictures, it was time to flee once more.

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We headed outside, tried to do a couple of classical reflection pictures (which proved to be very hard due to the wind) and headed out. A bit more people watching and we left.

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Once more we rewarded ourselves for a successful day of temple sightseeing with an excellent massage and a relaxed lunch at the Blue Pumpkin before heading back to the pool.
A short rain shower did not stop us from taking a dip in the pool – it was hot and we were anyhow planning to get wet. Soon enough, our friends Thomas, Petra and Aurel arrived. We were treated to a pleasant surprise - a round of cool ‘Angkor’ beer. Sure enough, a second round followed before too long and beer continued to be the beverage of choice over dinner.

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While food was the same as always, we had some unexpected entertainment when suddenly a frog jumped from the roof onto Petra’s head and from there into the grass. We had lots of things to laugh about and it was a fun filled evening. We decided that we had to make sure we met again once more in Bangkok.
We left the next morning in a heavily packed tuk tuk to the airport and soon enough found ourselves in another Air Asia plane. It was time to wave good bye to Cambodia and to prepare ourselves for Thailand.

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Posted by dreiumdiewelt 23:16 Archived in Cambodia Tagged temple monkey pool crowd tuk_tuk massage Comments (1)

Feeling at home

Bangkok

sunny 35 °C
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After a couple of days in Bangkok, we even cut down further on our activities. We would be busy again before too long and had no intention of stressing ourselves with too much sightseeing.
At the pool, we did overhear others who had visited the Royal Palace in the morning, did a river cruise in a longtail boat, spent lunchtime in Chinatown and were discussing in their quick pool break which night market they should visit before retreating to a rooftop bar. Well – that’s not us. There were days which we spent exclusively at the pool – maybe interrupted by a quick to our favorite juice bar to get our fix of smoothies for the day.
And whenever we did venture out, one major activity usually was enough. On Sunday, our target was Lumphini Park. The original plan of walking there, was quickly dismissed when we passed a metro station along the way. The elevator down into the pleasantly airconditioned clean world of Bangkok’s excellently organized public transport was just too tempting.
Two stations further, we emerged again into the heat and strolled around the park. We had fun on our outing in a swan boat, passed the local version of Muscle Beach (which presumably is much more crowded when it gets cooler in the evenings) and realized that the canals were full of goanas and turtles.

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But it did not take long for us to call it a day. We headed home by metro again and retreated to the pool.
Another day was reserved for Sam to get his Mongolian visa from the embassy. Given the experience from his first visit, he had the taxi wait for him for the two minutes it took him to pick up his passport. He swiftly got back to the hotel with a new and shiny visa.
It was time to celebrate having all documents in place to complete the plans for our remaining journey. We went for Hanaya, a Japanese Restaurant just 15 minutes away on foot. We sat at the typical Japanese low tables and enjoyed excellent food. We had eaten so much Khmer and Thai food lately that we were excited to have something very different for a change.
The food was excellent and probably typical. We were not able to tell, but that’s what we concluded - considering that all patrons seemed to be Japanese. Despite some ‘interesting’ menu options such as shark fin or whale bacon, the most adventurous in our order were the roasted gingko nuts. The Bento Sushi Box and the Tempura Set were excellent.
Our city tour the next day cost a fraction of what we spent at Hanaya. We walked to Siphraya Pier and took the express boat on the river. It was nice seeing the river live. Once we left the touristy areas, the river got much less crowded and the vistas of stilt houses decorated with flowers took over. Every other stop seemed to be at a temple of some sort.

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Eventually we headed back all the way to the last station where we connected to the Skytrain which directly delivered us to the shopping district at Siam Square. Our plan for lunch was neither adventurous, nor very exciting. But MBK’s food court provided us with good quick food options. Just what we needed.
Compared to MBK, Pantip Plaza seemed out of this world. The shopping center that sells everything around IT and computers was fascinating. The neon lights all over the place grabbed Max’ full attention while Sam kept admiring the gaming PC’s. There were computers and mobiles everywhere, but not a single place to get an overview of where to find what. Eventually we were directed into the right area. After all, we had come to get our laptop fixed. Since the time when it fell into the sand and Sam was only able to get rid of the sand by taking some of the keys out, the backspace key had an issue. And not being perfect in typing, I really need that key probably more often than all the others.
We kindly declined the first offer to replace the keyboard for 1500 baht. A couple of stalls further someone was able to help: using some pincers, he pried the key and its mechanics apart. After fixing its attachments, everything was just like new. All of that for free. I am so thankful to have this fixed!
So while Sam and Max headed off to check out the gaming PCs, I retreated to the McDonalds to enjoy typing with my fixed keyboard. Strolling around in a mall like that might be heaven for Sam and Max, but gets close to the worst nightmare for me.
Getting a taxi to take us back home was a bit of a nightmare as well. We simply refused their offers to take us for 200 baht – knowing that we had paid a third of that price coming here. Eventually, a tuk tuk driver offered to take us back for 100 baht and we accepted. And it was an excellent deal, as he skipped many traffic jams by driving the back roads. The only downside to the much quicker journey was to sit directly in traffic with its unpleasant exhaust fumes. Bangkok traffic is only pleasant wherever there is public traffic available.
Sam also tried the other quick transport option: using a moto taxi was very quick indeed. Still, despite the luxury of having his own helmet on the ride, Sam did not recommend using this way of transport for the family.
At Max’ request we did one more trip to Khao San Road. He wanted to see some more Thai Boxing. And this time the trainer had even brought along his son. It was fascinating to see how well he was doing – much better than any of the other people training at the center despite him being not older than 10 years. Max knew already where he wanted to have dinner and anyhow felt quite at home.

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Well, needless to say that we spent even more time at the pool. Sam enjoyed having the fitness studio at his disposal. And with the exception of a quick shopping tour to get a birthday present for Max and a tripod for Sam (he had been regretting not having brought his since the beginning of the trip), there was not much more we did.
But despite having had lots of time to relax, the nine days in Bangkok had passed too quickly after all. And on March 31, the alarm clock woke us up at 6:15am and it was time to head to the airport. We spent our last baht on breakfast and made sure that Max got a maximum of exercise before boarding the plane. This time we flew on Thai Airways. In other words: there was an entertainment system and the four-hour flight was over before we knew it. Unfortunately, there were so many clouds and haze that we did not get to see any mountains as we descended into Kathmandu. Let’s hope we’ll get a better view in the coming weeks.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 16:26 Archived in Thailand Tagged taxi boat river pool visa mall tuk_tuk Comments (1)

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