Friday, August 30, 2013

The Asian Adventure: Part Two - Cambodia

Getting to Cambodia can be an adventure, but it's definitely worth it.  After our jam-packed first day in Thailand, we caught the ungodly early train north to the Cambodian border.  It's a rickety second class train with open air windows. 

We'd been told it wouldn't be crowded - we were told wrong.  By some miracle we scored seats so we weren't among the unlucky standing-room-only folks for the six hour ride to Poipet.  When we got off the train is when things really got interesting.  There aren't any trains in Cambodia, so you take a tuk-tuk from the station to the border and cross on foot.  In Asia, bribes are part of the culture in a lot of countries and that tradition is alive and well in Cambodia.  You want a visa at the border crossing?  That'll be a $20 (US) fee for the visa and 100 Baht (about $3) as a "thank you" to your friendly border officials. 

We crossed the border and made our way by taxi to lovely Siem Reap, the town that has developed as the jumping off point to Angkor Wat.  By the time we got there, it was too late for temples, but the perfect time to head down to Pub Street for a delicious taste of Khmer food.

But Pub Street isn't just great food and pubs.  It's also hour long full body massages for $3, a fabulous Night Market, and... wait for it... the fish! 

The Fish Foot Massage (or Fish Pedicure, as we also saw them called) is essentially a giant tank of tiny fish who will eat the dead skin off your feet.  So of course we had to try it.  (It tickles like you would not believe.)

The next morning, it was off to see incredible Angkor Wat!

The ruins were beyond incredible.  (If it looks familiar, I think this is where they filmed part of Tomb Raider.)  To see the temples, you hire a tuk-tuk driver for the day... and he may pause to let you visit with the monkeys if you're so inclined (be careful, they steal).  

You can also ride an elephant around the ruins, but I think the temples are best explored on foot.  (Though it helps to be in good shape.  There are a lot of steps and they redefine steep.)

The carvings are incredible...

And no two faces are alike in the entire structure...

We headed out one of the gorgeous gates (can you see the tuk-tuk driving through the opening?)...

And then, as the day rolled into afternoon, our driver presented us with a unique opportunity - the chance to see Angkor Wat from the air.  Turns out our driver knew a guy and he could get us onboard a fifteen minute helicopter flight to see the temples from the sky if we were willing to each chip in a little "incentive" (ah, the glory of the Cambodian bribe system).  None of us had been on a helicopter before and we all thought it sounded like an amazing idea, so we gave our driver the go-ahead to arrange it as we went to lunch

Little did we know...

This was our helicopter:

 Yeah, we had no idea what we were getting into - hopping on board with the Royal Cambodian Air Force as they were doing a training flight, but you can bet we saw Angkor Wat from the air - isn't it beautiful?

And I don't think I'll ever forget my first helicopter ride!

After that, it was off to my favorite temple of the day - Preah Khan.  It was the temple that nature had most reclaimed. 

We crawled around...

And then made our way back to the largest temple - Angkor Wat.

After a long day of crawling all over temples (seriously, guys, if you ever get the chance GO TO ANGKOR it is SO INCREDIBLE), we were ready to unwind on Pub Street once again.  We indulged in more massages (we were even offered the somewhat sketchy backroom ones, though we turned that down) and more delicious Khmer food - this time in the form of street pancakes (like banana crepes) and "Khmer BBQ", which is a hot grill in the middle of the table where you can cook your own frog, crocodile or snake (all of which we tried).  

It started to rain on us (but tropical rain isn't such a hardship) and at one point the power went out in the whole street during the storm, but we still had a deeply fabulous time.

The next morning, it was time to make our way to Phnom Penh.  We wanted to take a boat down the Mekong, but we were only at the very leading edge of the rainy season and there wasn't enough water in the river to make the trip.  Instead, we hired a minivan - some of the other folks in the van with us were Irish and loudly fearing for their lives as we drove, but we'd seen Cambodian driving already and knew that playing chicken with the other cars while leaning on the horn in a sort of "ready or not, here I come" announcement was just the way people got around in Cambodia.  (Cambodia was actually the one country we got into a car accident in, but it wasn't that drive.  We were in a tuk-tuk that hit a car in Phnom Penh - and neither one even reacted.  Our driver didn't even look at the damage until he stopped to drop us off.)

The scenery was incredible - houses built on stilts for when the rains come and long stretches of flat land that would flood during the wet season, with mountains in the distance.  The bus stopped at a sort of roadside market where locals were selling all manner of snacks... including fried tarantulas.

Now, I feel like I should take a moment to explain that I have a phobia (yes, I know it's irrational) of spiders.  They freak me out.  So I would like to report with extreme pride that I did not scream or hyperventilate once during the episode I'm about to recount. 

At this roadside market, there were these little girls.  Several of them.  Running around with defanged tarantulas, shoving them at tourists, grabbing your hand and putting the spider RIGHT ONTO IT.  Or, in one case, putting it on a guy's head.  I refused to get out of the van.  I did not want to hold the scary spider (though the little girls thought I was laughably adorable in my fear).  One girl put her spider inside the van's floor next to my feet while another put hers on the head of another passenger - all INSIDE THE FREAKING VAN WITH ME.  Eventually (thank God), they packed up their spiders and we went along our merry way, but not before one of the little gamines - who all thought I was hysterical - put her spider against the window next to my face and posed for me with a sweet little smile.  The cute little brat.

Next stop, Phnom Penh.  This city is amazing, developing almost entirely in the last twenty years... as the country began to recover from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.  (We chose not to go to the Killing Fields on this trip because we had just been to the Bridge on the River Kwai and we were about to head to Vietnam and... there's a lot of heavy stuff in that part of the world, you guys.  A lot.)

We roamed around...
And promptly found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a political parade. (We're in a tuk-tuk and if you look behind me, you should be able to see mopeds flying banners and pick-ups full of people waving flags.)

This was actually the second political parade we inadvertently joined while in Cambodia (the other was up near Siem Reap).  We were there a week before their elections and for the first time in a gazillion years, the Opposition Party had a chance.  The ruling (or People's) party ended up carrying the election (though there were some murmurings of tampering, which make me nervous especially considering my track record with visiting countries immediately before crucial elections.  Sorry, Egypt.  I love you.  Hope things get better for you soon.).

We made our way up to Wat Phnom, visited the Buddha and the cool giant snake sculpture, and explored the lovely riverfront, enjoying some more local Khmer dishes.

 And thus ended our time in Cambodia (easily one of my favorite stops on our trip).  Next up, Vietnam!

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