|(Taken from the train ride into Hoi An)|
|(The lanterns - ya we bought a few. The prices|
are actually really amazing)
|(The Great Holy See Temple - Cao Daism)|
|(Where is Sarah?)|
|(There she is!)|
|(The tunnels were small, dark, and|
narrow. Though I think our ex-
perience of them was quite nice
compared to during the war)
Ok - Cambodia Time!!
We only went to two cities and spent six days in Cambodia. The first of these two cities in the famed Siem Reap. What's in Siem Reap? Oh lots of ancient temples, most notably one called Angkor Wat.
This is one of the largest temples and archaeological sites in the world. Not only is it beautiful and ancient, but the art and style in which the temple (and those surrounding Angkor wat) are wholly unlike almost anything we have ever seen. The vastness of the land dedicated to the temple grounds is as much a part of the grand display as is the intensely intricate amount of detail committed to the sculptures and art carved into the walls. One could dedicate hours to surveying the various outlying buildings and sculptures without even entering into the main structure itself. I have not done research yet to see if what our tour guide told us was correct, but if what he said is true, the history of this place is almost as interesting as it is. Originally built as a Hindu temple (to a very particular sect), it has survived a country who's overall religion has shifted a few times back and forth with Buddhism. These changes are always dangerous for a place like Angkor Wat, but it seems for the most part that it did not suffer too much from the deliberate decimation that comes with religious changes.
|(Angkor Wat from the backside. There is no side to this thing that is not impressive)|
We very much enjoyed our time at Angkor Wat, making sure to see as much of it as we could. This often meant telling our guide we wanted to see a building he did not deem important enough to waste time on, but that was fine with us. He was not keen, for instance, on us waiting the forty-five minutes to ascend to the highest part of the temple (the government only allows 100 people at a time to the top but there was no way we were missing that). Our guide told us this was sort of the Mt. Olympus of the Hindu gods when it was built. The bridge over the moat was like coming to the city of the gods, while the last climb we did was representative of visiting where they resided. It was nice comparison that was easy to think about while walking through the temple.
But Angkor Wat is only the beginning of what we saw that day. There are so many temples in the surrounding area it's almost kind of crazy. So off we went in our tuk tuk and saw as many more of them as we could for the rest of the day, knowing we would need at least one or two more days to see even more of them. Seriously. Each temple we visited could have stood on its own as an impressive work of art, and each of them were only slightly over-shadowed by Angkor Wat - though one or two seemed to vie for our favorites. I am not sure if there were temple building rules, of if each ruler had their own creative streak to exhibit, but one of my favorite parts of these temples was how they all differed from the last one. Some of these variation were vast while others were less significant. In some cases this meant dedicating an entire art form to the temple, like giant faces carved into almost every elevated portion of the temple, to placing a small temple in an island that can only be reached by boat after a long walkway which may or may not have existed when it was created.
To this end we went from temple to temple never really knowing what to expect. Some had ancient looking trees seemingly growing out of the temple itself, while another seemed a giant geometric cross with corridors running along the axis of North, South, East and West. It was exhausting trying to walk through them all and see everything they had to offer, knowing each time you chose going down one corridor you would miss something significant down the other. But a person has only so much time to wander through temples before it gets dark and they make you go back to town. So we did our best and tried to hurry our guide along, who was quite fond of long stories, in our attempts to experience as much as we could.
At night we would shop, eat food, get some drinks, shop some more (Sarah loves to shop), and then usually eat some more food. I mean what better way to understand a country than to learn what types of food they eat right? While in Siem Reap though, it is all really just resting up so you can go see more temples on the next day...unless you're into thinks like a silk farm, which we are. The next morning we spent our time learning how Cambodians make their famous golden silk. Super cool. They took us through the process from beginning to end, from growing silk worms to the final beautiful silk product. It was very interesting and good way to spend a portion of the hot day not outside walking through the hot and humid temple grounds. I've got some great photos from this time but I might opt for only shots at more temples - still deciding. Maybe at the end.
|(It's hard to see but how many faces can you count? They are carved into almost every piece of this|
temple you can see)
Then we spent another afternoon walking through more temples. This time we did not hire a guide and we just ventured out on our own to see as much as we could of the temples we had not seen yet. Hundreds of elephants either carved into the walls or as standalone sculptures, bats hiding in the dark recesses of darkness provided by certain high vaulted areas, monks wandering around in their orange robes, way less tourists in the late afternoon and away from the larger temples - we had a blast. There were still several portions of temples we had to rush through due to a lack of time, but overall we saw most of what the area had to offer. We even stopped off at a nearby, though sort of out of the way, museum dedicated to the mine fields of Cambodia. It is an interesting stop and one dedicated by a man who laid several of these mines himself during the time of the Khmer Rouge, who then committed his life to disarming them and digging them up. Worth the stop, though short and sweet. Sweet meaning good, not nice or fun. It's a serious topic for sure.
As our time in Siem Reap neared an end, we decided to follow up on one last suggestion from some friends and what we had read. Being at Angkor Wat for sunrise. Woah. Outside of the thousand other people who also decided being there at sunrise was a grand idea, this really was worth the getting up ridiculously early to make it happen. I had not yet managed to get a run in while in Cambodia, having been nursing a nagging injury and giving it some time off while we traveled, so I woke up a little bit earlier to run to the temple. Sarah took a tuk tuk and met me there, where we then played the waiting game. For the first little bit I felt we had wasted our time due to the overwhelmingly large number of people mixed with the locals trying to sell us breakfast or coffee. Not exactly the peaceful sunrise I had expected. But then the colors in the sky started changing and it was all gravy. Certainly a sunrise to remember. And then we were able to explore some more of the grounds we had not seen during our first day walking through Angkor Wat.
This brought our time to Siem Reap to an end and we headed to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and big city life. After an all-night bus ride, we visited the presidential palace and the silver pagoda (along with everything else on the palace grounds). We were quite tired and rugged from our bus experience, but the palace is certainly worth visiting as there is quite a lot to see in such a small area. We ate more food (of course), spent an afternoon exploring the city, and got ourselves situated in a hotel Sarah booked for us right on the river - super sweet. We then looked to tomorrow and booked a tour to go see The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the killing fields.
Now this does not sound like fun, and it is not. But it is a big part of the recent Cambodia history and while some people seem to ask why we went, I think places like this are important to visit. There is a danger in those of us who did not experience such horrific events to dismiss or avoid thinking about such tragedies. I have heard people say things like, "Surely that many people did not die in that genocide," or other such statements. Well I will tell you it is difficult to pretend an evil of this magnitude did not take place when you stand exactly where it did. When you walk the hall of a high school converted into a prison by power hungry rulers with a huge conspiracy problem and see where people were tortured to death, there is no room for dismissal. When you read a sign that explains why a particular tree is called the killing tree and the description mentions the pieces of brain from children that were found there, the heart cannot process how another human is capable of such atrocities. But capable we all are of such things and we must be reminded how easy it is for such things to take place.
So yes, we visited these places and we read the accounts of those hundreds of thousands of people who were wiped off the face of the planet because of the whims of a madman who never owned up to what he did. I will not mention his name, for he is not important. Those who were killed are the important ones and places like the killing fields remind us there is a time when people just like them need protecting. Did it define our trip to Cambodia and ruin our stay there? No. It helped us learn about a portion of their history where the darkness was able to reign for a short time. It certainly was not fun to read the placards posted on the walls of the prison or on the graves where the bodies of over 400 people were all found, but it was important for us to experience these things. Let us all experience such so that we can see it coming and defy it with all of our being.
The rest of our time spent in Phnom Penh was the usual: eating, visiting temples in and around the city, shopping at the various stores (my favorite was Daughters of Cambodia), trying some Cambodia beers, and watching locals as we walked down their streets. The one unusual thing we did was renting a motorbike. We decided to experience the Cambodian culture the way they and the Vietnamese get around. We rented (a scooter might be the right word) motorbike for cheaper than we could get around in tuk tuks and we headed out into the countryside to see more of the country we were traveling through. For anyone who has ever seen how the locals drive these machines, this was somewhat of a daunting decision to make - at least for while we were in the city. But we jumped on one, had plenty of adventures, and somehow made it out alive. Some stories are reserved only for the closest of friends, especially when they involve motorbikes in Cambodia. But if you're adventurous and have any experience riding one, we highly recommend it as a way to get around. We wished we had rented one earlier to save money and have more fun.
We very much enjoyed our Vietnam/Cambodia times. Wonderful countries you should go visit. The food and the people are amazing in both countries, offering so many places to go and wonderful things to do. Both countries are super affordable to visit, though the prices for visiting the temples around Siem Reap have raised recently to reflect how significantly amazing the experience truly is. We recommend everything we did during our stay in both countries, though as I mentioned in our last post on Vietnam, sometimes people do not have as much time as we did during our stay. Below will be a suggestion of how much we enjoyed various places in Vietnam should you have to choose when making your own visit, and should you care what we think.
Our next post will be on the recent trip we took back to Antarctica. This trip was very different and all through a cruise boat Sarah worked on as a doc. Way more animals than our previous time spent at the South Pole, which was really amazing and I cannot wait to share about our times there.
A list of top things to see/do in Vietnam:
2. Halong Bay - I had looked forward to it and it one of the most beautiful places we visited. It was a bummer that there was a little bit of trash floating around but we also saw boats of people picking it up - nice. I could have spent more time here!
3. Hanoi - Originally I did not think I would enjoy having as much time as we had built into our schedule to be in Hanoi. When we left Vietnam I wanted to go back to Hanoi. There is so much to do and see! From food and drinks to temples and museums to countless streets to shop on, Hanoi was very enjoyable for us. We highly recommend spending some time here. We walked a lot! But we love to walk, and it was a great way to see the city.
4. Hoi An - We very much enjoyed our time in Hoi An. Unfortunately we could not visit one of the highlights for this time, the Cham Islands, because of weather. But we were thrilled with some food that is specifically Hoi An (seriously one of my favorite food spots in our Vietnam travels), had some dresses and a suit made here, and bought more than a few of the hand made lanterns (the prices are super good). We liked Hoi An and you should go to there.
5. Mekong Delta - The delta was an interesting trip. We got to spend a lot of time on the water and visit some fun places. Coconuts! This one I will talk more about in our second blog post on Vietnam, but it's a fun way to spend a day.
6. Ho Chi Minh City/ Saigon - Again, we enjoyed the time we spent in this big city quite a bit. Breweries, food, rooftops, more food, and mostly just walking through the city to get a feel for Vietnamese city-life. Quite the adventure.
7. Hoa Lu/Tam Coc Day Tour - We enjoyed this tour but it took a long time to get there. And while very beautiful the guides who rowed us up the river were a little bit pushy about tips. Though it did not sour the experience it sure made it weird. It is a nice area but if you were pressed with time I would visit Halong Bay or something higher on this list. Still worth seeing and experiencing if you have the time to see more of Vietnam.
8. Cu Chi Tunnels - This is lower on my list only because it was difficult to tell if we were actually traversing any of the tunnels that were used during the Vietnam War. I would hazard a guess - no. But it is the same area and if you are into history this is a must see place. I will write more about this in our next post.
9. Sa Pa - So I actually wrote a lot about Sa Pa in this post and though we did like it I rank it lower on our list because our weather was so damp and dismal. I do believe if we had had a clear day this very well could have been a highlight of our trip. We did enjoy it and it is worth seeing but it does take quite a bit of time to get there. You should probably go to Sa Pa, however, if time is short I would not feel too bad at having left it off your list.
10. Cao Dai Great Holy See Temple - This is last on my list for a few reasons. It is on my list because through all of my religious studies in college and in seminary, this temple is quite unique. I will write more about it in the next blog post, but what an interesting place! I wish we could have spent more time there with someone who could have explained what was happening during the portion of a service we witnessed. Watching any religious ceremony in another language is difficult, though still fascinating.
Some of the most memorable things we did, which I hope I will include in these posts, are things we stumbled upon or one of us discovered while researching what to do in certain areas online. Go read up on these places by people who have been there and find some off the beaten path places to explore. And make sure you won't end up missing something right near where you are traveling!!