Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Christmas Week 2014, In and Around (way around) Siem Reap

Written (or at least pieced together) in Kulen, Cambodia, roughly speaking in the precise middle of nowhere, on December 30, 2014.  No, that's not so.  I'm now in Stung Treng, another 180 km to the east and a little north, it's 5:30 in the morning on January 1, 2015 and this still isn't ready to print.  I need an editor with deadlines I guess.  But we were about to discuss Siem Reap. . .

"Doing" Siem Reap and Angkor Wat is not something you write an easy blog post about.  Let's start with Angkor Wat, since you know already most of what you can find out without going there. . .eighth wonder of the world. . .1000 year old temples built by magic (or so it seems) covered with jungle until brought to Western attention by "discovery" way back during the French administration, absolutely unimaginable carvings and structure, horribly deteriorated (covered with jungle??)  heavily restored, require a $20/day entry fee. . .(let me pause and say that $20 seems to be pretty reasonable pricing. . .for the amount of effort they put into keeping the place together in the face of gazillions of tourists).  If you want a description of Angkor Wat you need to buy the book.  I spent 3 days climbing more steps than I ever imagined I could. . .and haven't a clue, really, what I saw.  I'll show you some photos, but better you should go and see for yourself.  And go ahead and buy the book, maybe from one of the kids that are selling the old edition everywhere in the ruins. . .for cheap.

Siem Reap, like any biggish city, is a hard thing to describe.  If you're a tourist, you've been shunted by the delivery system into the "central Siem Reap" area, which is a) full of services for tourists, and b) full of tourists.  In five days' time I saw only 2 people of African descent and one of them was a Frenchman from Martinique.  So, leaving Africa out of the discussion, I'd venture to say every other language on earth was in use in Siem Reap last week, and English was very widely available.  All the kids. . .all the waitresses and counter staff and policemen and corner store clerks and most especially all the tuk tuk drivers. . .all of them. . .spoke English very well.

The place rocks.  Sorry, but it does.  One of the main streets is "Pub Street".  It's full of them.  Some are quiet, others, not so much.  There are guest houses from almost cheap, okay, really cheap, to very very nice.  There are whole streets of nothing but fine restaurants (and other streets with local style eateries at half that price or less).  You can get a firm or a brutal massage (take your pick, but either one can leave bruises) THROUGH YOUR BLUE JEANS along with 20 or 30 of your closest friends in a large (nice) room filled with chat in Khmer (the massage artists carry on a running conversation while they work) and you name it (I already mentioned the Babel of languages in use here), all for $5 the hour.  Or you could get your nails done or your hair cut (or permed) or schedule a 5-day yoga retreat or. . .goodness only knows.  Suffice it to say that this is not Cambodia as such, but it's one heck of a money making proposition and it's a lot of fun while your dollars last.

But if you think that's Siem Reap, you're like the blind fellow who declared after an interesting investigation that an elephant was a large sort of snake. . .there's a lot more to the beast than just the 'central area".  For the most part, it's simply a large town or a medium city, with all the normal things a city has, motorbike dealers and repair shops, real hotels (for real Cambodians though they'll take poor white guys), computer repair shops, telephone stores (they won't rest until every last one of us has a smart phone. . .and that time is not far off I think).  But I could go on and on.  The tourist side of the city and the tour sorts of things you can do (try hot air balloons, go on bird watching trips, learn to cook a Khmer dinner or throw a pot on a traditional wheel, shop until you drop (or you fill up a tuk tuk). . .whatever. . .the tourist side of things is only a part of the whole, and not necessarily the most interesting.  I didn't make a dent in it I'm afraid, what with wearing out a pair of shoes and getting leg cramps climbing around on 1000-year old temples for three days straight, there simply wasn't time to really explore the real city.  I did get lost a few times and wandered into it, and I did find a dealer selling tuk tuks (the buggies, not the motorbikes). . .and I suspect my fleet of solar powered tuk tuks could revolutionize transport between the Seattle ferry terminal and the Kingdome (or whatever they call that place now).  But that's another story.

And I'll admit that I saw most of what I saw with the Polish Scotswoman, who turned out to be a super traveling companion. . .and probably kept me from tripping over. . .oh, be conservative. . .maybe 50 or 100, certainly not  500. . .things you might otherwise trip over.  She wasn't in position to keep me from slipping, falling and sliding down an embankment covered with round pebbles. Think of it as ball bearings on a sloping sheet of greasy steel.  She got the photographs (fabulous tree roots and some old rock walls).  I got a ragged hole in my green shirt and quite a colorful scrape on the elbow. . .shouldn't have tried that without her I guess.  Anyway, I recommend competent traveling companions these days. . .for anyone well into his dotage.

I could run on forever, but it's time for some photos and a soft bed.

This is Ania, the Polish Scotswoman, an essential part of a tour of Angkor. . .

She insisted to be fair I had to have a photo in the blog too.  

This is mostly just to give the sense of immensity of Angkor Wat itself.  It's by no means the whole place, nor the most interesting part visually, but it is immense and complex and in places quite tall.  This is the old approach causeway from the parking area, which is immense too.  There are myriad tour buses and enough tuks for a major traffic jam, a few cars of course, and motorbikes and pushbikes.  If you doubt me about the traffic jam, just try to get back to town in the evening after your sunset overlook moment.

I eventually gave up on getting un-peopled photos, but this is from when I was still trying.

So mainly I focused on architectural and ornamental details.  I could bore you to tears and still not make a coherent presentation.  Buy the book.  It's best bought from a kid younger than 14. . .though it's an old edition they all seem to be selling this year.  

Actually, the people (and horse) watching was the best part.  

Especially if you count these guys as "people" for the purpose.  There aren't a great number of them, but quite a few in places. 

Keeping track of tourists. . .full time job.

But sometimes it's really hard to stay focused.

The old nun prayed and chanted for the various pilgrims (many are not just tourists) and would pose for photos with the occasional sweet admirer.  She lectured the young monks quite a while.

More people watching.  No wonder kids love their moms eh?

Make a Joyful Noise. . .indeed.  

Quite a few elephants around.  Is it $18 for 15 minutes or $15 for 18 minutes??  I forget, but after brief consideration we didn't.

Chinese kids. . .their dad was shooting and coaching.  It was apparent that he'd just said "no Sweety, use TWO fingers.   

Just a tuk.  They are not expensive really and the young men that drive them are often excellent guides and know the city and the temples very well indeed.

No Photoshop needed, it was simply that gorgeous. . .sunset on our first day in the ruins, not the mandatory sunset overlook at all.

The run up to sunset at the mandatory sunset overlook temple. . .I've no idea how many people, several thousand for sure, mostly with cell phones, but lots of cameras too.  You are not allowed to leave Siem Reap unless you can produce a photo from a sunset.  (I don't know what people do who are there in rainy weather. . .)

That's the best I could do. . .Ania pulled and another lady pushed (no, I'm serious) and somehow I got up  onto the tall step at the bottom of the pyramid.  No way to go further, and my descent was something to see.  
Okay, here's a wide view for you without tourists. . .impossible, but again, I didn't photoshop them out, they just vanished for a second or two.

And this is my masterpiece for the week.  Ania in a corridor with sunlight.  Goodness.  In order to take great photos, go someplace interesting with somebody pretty and shoot a lot!  You get lucky now and then.  I also have one of the corridor empty. . .and that's what it looks like. . .empty.  

The water actually is green, but water is special no matter.

One of the gates, still in use, still sized for only one elephant at a time.  The morning traffic jams at these structures boggle the imagination.  But they're gorgeous anyway.

Proof that I can still take photos when bleeding.

We saw several of these bands, really quite nice music, rhythmical and almost endless.  Landmines.  Damn landmines.  

A lot of the ruins are much better off now than they were when first "discovered" by Europeans, a huge effort has gone into cataloging and sorting loose and scattered stones and reassembling significant parts. . .and more effort has gone into stabilizing what is still where it belongs.  The different teams (from all over the world) that have been working on the projects have different approaches and standards, so in some cases it is very clear what has been "restored" and in others your only clue is that the stone seems to be unusually well preserved.  H'mm.

From a distance Angkor Wat itself doesn't seem overly tall.  Lots of steps though, and you gain a much wider view out over the countryside.  The layout of the long galleries is confusing (ha!) and it's possible to traipse around quite a ways before you realize you're in a cul de sac.  Warm .  Very warm.  

Did I mention stairs?  You get a nice rest before you have to climb, the queue was about 10 minutes long.  This is the FIRST flight of stairs.  Thank goodness for the hand rail.  It doesn't look like a lot but it's steel and well bolted down.  
The four face towers at the Bayon temple are about my favorite of all the monumental architecture.  Most of my life I thought they were part of "Angkor Wat". . .I'm told there were originally 160 of the faces (40 towers) but only 137 survive today, and not all of them are well preserved.  Still. . .a thousand years old??  Something like that.  I need to buy the book.
A new record for me. . .six live humans.  All of them are pretty small i admit, but still, to make a 6-passenger vehicle out of a motorbike. . .well, it's an accomplishment.  The little gal in back did NOT slide off when they started up either.