Monday, June 14, 2010

City of Temples

Ah, the end of our trip has come, and we head to Siem Reap to see the famed Angkor Wat! I've been looking forward to this, and yet as it drew nearer part of me did not want it to come, because with our brief two-day outing to Siem Reap also comes the end of our time in Cambodia, for we leave on Tuesday. Still, I was excited.

We arrived very early Saturday morning, and instantly went on the tour of the many temples. Siem Reap really is the city of temples. First stop was the temple of Banteay Kdei, a Buddhist temple built by the king Jayavaraman VII in the 13th century and the site of Tomb Raider. This was our first taste of the Angkor temples. After lunch in the city, we set off for the main attraction, what we've all been dreaming about and waiting for; Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat literally means City Temple, and it truly is the mother of all temples (mai wat). It was breathtaking. We pull up in our van and first you see the gate, though really it's a long wall with columns. We crossed the ancient bridge over the man-made moat and passed through the gate and then: Angkor Wat itself. Sandstone towers and all. Once again, purely breathtaking. It is darker than I imagined, and our view partly obscured by the restoration scaffolding in the front, but it is imposing nonetheless. One thing that I didn't know was that Angkor Wat is actually a Hindu temple, not a Buddhist temple. The kings of the Khmer empire would go back and forth between being Buddhist and being Hindu, depending on which had the most influence on the king at the time. Angkor Wat was built by king Suryavarman II in the 12th century. Our guide walked us through and explained the carvings in the sandstone corridors, depicting scenes from the Churning of the Sea of Milk story and stories of the Hindu god Vishnu. We trudged through heat and humidity, climbing to various levels and towers. At one point, all of us were blessed by a monk in the temple and given a red cloth bracelet. Unfortunately for me and two others, when it came to climbing the steep steps to the tallest of the towers and of the temple, apparently jean shorts that don't go below the knee and a sleeveless shirt are too indecent. We were forced to stay behind as the rest of our group got to ascend to the top and all its wonder. I usually consider myself a generally modestly dressed person, never one to raise eyebrows with the amount of skin exposure, so I was pretty miffed and surprised when I was barred from going to the top. I guess that's an incentive to come back?

After the beautiful Angkor Wat we returned to our five-star hotel that we got for a much reduced price, thanks to the connections of Kosal. I decided to splurge along with everyone else and opt for a spa treatment! Best decision ever made. I got the "Sweet Scent Special", which was first a jasmine-salt body scrub, then a jasmine body wrap, then finally a jasmine oil massage. So much bliss and relaxation that I never thought possible! I actually fell asleep when I was all bundled up in the wrap (when have I not?), though I have no idea for how long. It took me a while afterward to realize that I actually had dosed off. For a while I was at that point of subconscious where I felt completely removed and outside of my body, dreaming and yet not dreaming, my mind wandering without a care or thought to where it was going. I think this is my way to meditation.

We went to dinner with Kosal and his long-time friend Sumai, who is also his sister's best friend, at a Khmer BBQ restaurant. It's kind of like hot pot, but better! The pot is shaped almost like a bunt cake, a bowl around the edge with a raised hump in the middle, and it sits over burning coals. The soup broth, noodles, and vegetables all go in the lower part, while the meat cooks on the raised part above the broth, seasoned with a nice slab of lard. So juicy! We had beef, pork, chicken, and even crocodile meat. I will say crocodile tastes sort of like chicken, but it's very tough. I didn't care for it, but the rest was amazing.

The next day, more temples! In the morning we went to Angkor Thom, which I think I like better even than Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is beautiful, but at Angkor Thom we were allowed to climb all around the temple and ruins without restraint; it was much more fun and adventurous. Less crowds, too. Then we made a brief stop at Banteay Srei, a small Buddhist temple which we were told is famous because it's pink, but really was orange. In the evening, we took elephant rides up the mountain-temple of Phnom Bakheng to see the sunset, except there was no sunset thanks to the clouds. Boy, though, the elephant ride was... interesting. I went first with Shoshana and Francis. The three of us climbed to a platform to get on a seat that was strapped around the elephant's back. Apparently our elephant was female, which was why we were able to go three at a time. The others went two at a time on male elephants; the females are stronger. Francis insisted on sitting in the middle because she was scared, and I thought, how bad can it be, of course I don't mind sitting on the edge. Well, if you go on an elephant ride, I highly recommend you don't sit on the edge. The second we sat down and it felt off-balance, I got scared! My feet were dangling, I didn't know how far to the right I should sit or if I should lean forward or backward! I think there were a good five minutes at the beginning where the three of us were just shrieking and laughing with absolute terror. Then the thing started to climb the mountain. It's a thin trail that zig-zags up, so half the time my side of the seat is tucked nicely against the side of hte mountain, while the other half i'm hanging over the edge and down right afraid. The entire time I was either stifling screams or laughing from nerves! There were definite moments when I doubted the sturdiness of our elephant and the power of the seat to stay on her back. At one point when we stopped, our elephant literally grabbed at a tree and tried to uproot it. I swear after the handler made her let go I felt/heard her slip on the ground. Yikes! The experience was exhilarating, to say the least! We did have fun making fun of each other and we took a video to document our fear, and it really was funny. Was it fun? All I can say is I was glad when we reached the top, unscathed. Would I do it again? Now that I can say I've had this experience, I would not. I don't even want to think about how those poor elephants are mistreated, and don't want to encourage it. I'm glad I did it, but I don't want to again. It was very scary, and very sad.

At the top we played around the temple of Phnom Bakheng. We climbed the steepest steps to the top (how did people back then climb them? Aren't they supposed to be much shorter than us??) in hopes of seeing at least a glimmer of what could be considered a sunset. Mostly, though, we took a bunch of goofy photos as a group. I really do love this group; we have so much fun together!

Thankfully, we hiked down to the bottom of the mountain. Back at the hotel, we all jumped in the huge pool, and here we got our sunset. The clouds overhead turned absolutely red and orange, literally it looked like the sky was on fire. I've never seen anything like it!

This was our last night in Siem Reap. The visit was too short; the city is so beautiful. It reminded me a lot of Kyoto in comparison with Tokyo; the old capital, way too many temples to count, and more of a nature-feel than Phnom Penh. Lots more tourists, though. I think what's more sad about leaving Siem Reap is the fact that we're leaving Cambodia altogether tomorrow. It honestly feels like these two and a half weeks went by like two days. I'm not ready to leave yet!

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