Siem Reap: Exploring Angkor Wat

Thomas and I spent 3 days in Siem Reap. After the first day, which we mostly spent waiting to check into our Airbnb, we decided to rent bikes and explore Angkor Wat. We got a late start on day 2, but we found a bike rental place and shelled out $3 each for some city bikes (could’ve paid double for mountain bikes, but we’re cheap.)

As soon as I sat on this bike, I knew I was gonna have some problems. But we pressed onward.

Now, we were riding at the hottest part of the day, but we started the journey to Angkor Wat, which is a little north of the city. We got to the ticket checkpoint and were told that we were supposed to buy tickets at another location. The policía was very nice and suggested that we leave our bikes and take a tuk tuk. Penny pinchers that we are, we declined and rode to buy tickets. It was so far, but we made it, bought tickets, and then rode back to the checkpoint, and finally made our way to Angkor Wat. I’d been pretty cranky and frustrated because we got such a late start to our day and then wasted even more time on the most uncomfortable bikes in the world. We decided not to go into the actual Angkor temple yet, and instead made our way to Bayon temple.

After we passed through the gate, we were soon greeted by some friends.

By the time we got to the temple, it was sunset. We weren’t allowed to go inside because we arrived after closing, but we got a couple pictures outside.

We rode around for another few minutes to see some nearby temples, but then decided to head home and prepare for the next day. We stopped at a restaurant near our house for dinner, where we decided not to subject ourselves to the pain of biking one more day. We met a nice tuk tuk driver who offered to take us starting at 5 am, so we could get to Angkor Wat in time for the sunrise.

Fun fact: my phone didn’t calculate the distance that we rode on our bikes, but I calculated after and it was about 30 km. The terrain was flat, but oh my gosh was the bike horrible to sit on for more than 30 seconds.

Anyway, the next morning, we were greeted bright and early by our tuk tuk driver. He brought us to Angkor Wat and we ventured inside when it was so dark that we could barely see a few feet in front of us.

Slowly, the light started to creep in.

The place was packed with people, all waiting for the sunrise. The temples were built at different times, but most of them have been around since the 12th century or earlier.

One thing that crossed my mind as I was visiting this site is that…I don’t know, there are WAY too many people here. Compared to everything else in the area, it is expensive to come here, but the place is still absolutely packed, and from what I’ve read, it’s like this year round.

These structures are almost a thousand years old, and I’m honestly pretty shocked that people are allowed to just stomp around all over them. This archaeological site is expansive, and some of the ruins still have an obvious temple structure, while others are just a pile of rocks. Millions of people come through here every year, so what’s to stop the rest of it from crumbling? It seems like some effort is being made to restore and preserve it, but this level of tourism will have negative repercussions alongside the obvious benefits.

At one of the last temples we went to, we encountered some pretty steep stairs. Thomas opted out of climbing them, as he was feeling gross all day, but I was curious.

The trek up wasn’t so bad, but I assumed I’d come down on my butt.

Hi, Thomas!

Can you find Thomas down below?

When you get to the top, you see…more stairs.

So I climbed up more stairs and peeked inside.

And then, as I predicted, mostly went down the stairs on my butt. My knees just did not love the steep steps down.

I appreciated the next temple in part because it had become one with nature.

And I made a new friend. A teeny tiny kitten friend.

Anyway, we were exhausted and Thomas felt sick, and luckily we didn’t have to bike home! We sat in the tuk tuk and drank water and generally had a very pleasant trip home. If any of y’all are planning an Angkor Wat trip, my advice is to splurge on better bikes than we had, or be willing to pay for a tuk tuk from the start 😂 it’s been days and my seat areas still haven’t recovered.

Phnom Penh Day 2: The Island Tour

On day 2 in Phnom Penh, we had a tuk tuk take us outside the city and away from the tourist areas. We stopped at a few temples along the way, and I was impressed by the artistry of them. I’m generally impressed by any sort of painted ceiling, so I spent some time staring up at this one.

I haven’t studied a ton about world religions, but one common thread I see is the way that we try to understand the world through art. I’ve seen countless museums full of renaissance paintings of Jesus and angels and other biblical figures. We see statues depicting figures from various mythologies. A quote comes to mind: Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

Translated into English: “This is not a pipe.” Of course it’s a pipe! you may say. But it’s not a pipe. It’s a picture of a pipe.

I think about this a lot in the context of religious art. A picture of a deity is of course, not a deity, but it may help us to visualize and understand our belief system, right? At what point does art become idolatry? These questions are all constantly floating through my mind.

Anyway, some of the structures were not well maintained. Others were. I’m not sure how old any of these places were, because there was nobody guiding us around or telling us information, but it was kind of nice to just be there in the midst of it all.

Next, we moved onto textiles. I don’t know what to call it, but it’s a place where people make and sell things made of silk.

We started by trying our hand on the spinning wheel.

Thomas snapped this photo at the exact moment that I accidentally snapped the thread

We moved onto watching these skilled women make intricately designed scarves on the loom.

We got the hang of a super simple pattern .

And we met some silkworms and learned a little about their life cycle.

We hung around long enough to browse the wares, and before we left, we were offered some fruit and water. We met a family and their friend who was visiting. The friend is actually from Richmond, Virginia, so it felt like a small world, since Thomas is from the Richmond area. The world got a little smaller still when we learned that they all lived in Shenzhen (where we now live) before moving elsewhere in Asia.

After we left, Thomas and I finished our day at a restaurant on the river. We ate family style and didn’t necessarily love the food, but it was worth it anyway.

The next morning, we left our Airbnb at 4 am and headed to Siem Reap!

Phnom Penh Day 1: Everything Else

After we went to the killing fields, we went to Central Market, where we ran into a person wearing the same ugly Peace Corps shirt that we got before training. Thomas made a brief introduction and learned that she is a Peace Corps Cambodia volunteer, but we learned nothing else. We went on a long and winding journey to find food, and eventually kind of pointed at some stuff and ate (I wouldn’t say either of us were huge fans of whatever we ended up ordering).

Next, we went to the National Museum, where we weren’t supposed to take pictures of the art. It was basically full of Buddha statues. I’m sure we would’ve learned more if we’d been willing to pay for the audio guide, but we are still pretty pinche.

The National Museum building was pretty

Next, we ventured to the Royal Palace and saw some ornate structures.

The Victory Gate
This mural went around the entire perimeter

Even the door is incredibly detailed

I hope you enjoyed this brief photo tour. Day 2 in Phnom Penh coming soon!

Phnom Penh Day 1: The Killing Fields

I said I was going to wait a couple weeks to blog, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to get my rambles down when they’re fresh.

On our first full day in Phnom Penh, we did quite a bit. We started at the day with a visit to Cheoung Ek, also known as The Killing Fields. This is a site where thousands of people were executed during the Khmer Rouge’s reign in Cambodia. We took a tour around the grounds and learned the history of the place through an informative audio guide. I felt like it was incredibly important to reflect on this dark time in history. One detail that I find particularly difficult to process is that because guns and bullets were expensive, the Khmer Rouge soldiers didn’t want to waste them on executions, which meant that these thousands of people were killed using farming tools and other weapons that could inflict blunt force trauma.

I won’t go into a lot of detail about the killing fields, and I didn’t take many pictures, but most of the area contains mass graves.

Now, the site serves as a memorial. At the center is this memorial stupa.

The inside of the stupa houses thousands bones of those who died (I think bones of about 9,000 people.) There wasn’t enough space for all the bones, but we saw many skulls, mandibles, humerus, and femurs. These bones are all catalogued by sex, injures, and other information. There are 17 tiers of bones. If I remember correctly, tiers 2-9 house the skulls. Most other large bones are above.

It was truly heartbreaking to end the tour with such evidence of the genocide. It’s especially heartbreaking because this was not the only killing field—over a million people were executed across Cambodia from 1975-79, and even more died of starvation and disease.

In preparation for this trip, I read Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father, the author’s account of being a child in Cambodia during those years. I recommend it to anyone who wants to know more. The book has a pretty narrow scope, as it’s only one person’s story and not a history of the region, but I found it to be very well written, and I plan to read more books by other survivors as well.

Next time, I’ll share more of what we did on day 1 in Phnom Penh, but I think this is enough for one day.

Cambodia Comparison

So, we have officially been in Cambodia for a day! You may remember that I wrote a compare and contrast of China and Nicaragua (I actually wrote that in September or October but then forgot to publish it until January. Oops.) That ended up being more of a contrast, but today I just want to start the Cambodia chronicles with a quick compare and contrast between Cambodia and Nicaragua.

Pretty much immediately upon arriving in Phnom Penh, I felt a sense of familiarity. Before we even got out of the taxi, it felt so similar to Nicaragua, and it made me miss Nicaragua even more than usual.

In training, we got around mostly by moto taxi (or walking). You may remember all of Niquinohomo piled into one tiny moto taxi, really testing the limits multiple times per week. Anyway, there are moto taxis here, but in Cambodia they’re called tuk tuks. When we got to the airport, a weird series of events led to us getting a regular taxi. The driver wasn’t totally sure where our house was, and as we wound through the streets, I looked out the window and saw so many familiar things.

  • People driving motorcycles, often with a small child in their lap
  • Dusty roads (it’s the dry season)
  • Lots of little shops that we referred to as ventas and pulperías in Nicaragua

The similarities really went on and on. The buildings looked similar. There are animals wandering the streets (I only saw cats and dogs when we first arrived. We may have to get more out in the campo to see the chickens and horses wandering the streets like we had in Matiguás).

In the day that we’ve been here, I’ve reacquainted myself with my friend the mosquitero (mosquito net) and because there’s no air conditioning, I’m a big fan of the fans. In my room in Nicaragua, I had a fan pointed at me all day long, year-round. My daily routine included getting home and immediately shedding whatever clothing was required for the workday, because one simply cannot survive the Nica heat in jeans and a polo for more than a few hours a day. (I mean, Nicaraguans do it no problem, but I cannot tolerate jeans in a tropical climate.

I remember now how dirty and sticky I felt after even the smallest venture out into the heat. I often walked in Nicaragua, and by the time I got to my destination I was full of sweat. When I took a taxi, I was slightly less full of sweat. I’d often put some facial cleanser on a cotton ball and clean the gunk out of my pores at the end of the day. The first cotton ball was always a dark-brown/black. The second one was similarly gross. Only by the third or fourth did I feel like I’d gotten somewhat clean. I feel the same way here. It was 90 degrees and humid, and I could just feel the dust mixing with sweat and sticking on me all day.

Of course, I don’t want to compare my time in the Peace Corps too closely with this vacation. We’re staying in a very nice Airbnb, and we had our own personal tuk tuk driver today. We’re living a pretty sweet lifestyle, one that we absolutely never would have splurged for as volunteers. (Thomas and I always got INDIGNANT when a taxista in Nicaragua would try to charge us one or two dollars for a taxi ride across the city. “We live here! We know it’s only 50 cents!” we’d exclaim anytime we were in a tourist spot.)

God forbid the time when someone tried charging us to go look at the laguna. First they said that foreigners had to pay 20 cords (less than a dollar) and after we explained that we’d been coming here for months and we lived right over there, one town over and nobody had ever asked us to pay, he offered to let us pay the price that locals pay: 2 córdobas, or about 6 cents. We turned around and left.

The point of that story is that we have slightly released the tight hold we had on our wallets now that we actually HAVE money. Cambodia and Nicaragua are two very different countries, but I can’t help but lie in bed under this mosquitero and think back on my time in Nicaragua with a new level of nostalgia. I’ve appreciated a lot about China–hot showers, air conditioning, flushing toilets, food delivery, the metro–but I’d go back to sticky heat and cold showers in a heartbeat. I’m not sure that I’ll ever be able to explain the impact that Nicaragua had on me, but it still feels like home in a way that other places never will.

Anyway, it’s been nice to live temporarily in a place that reminds me of the home I had to leave. I’ll keep you posted on our travels (though probably not until the trip is over in a couple weeks, because typing posts on my phone is not ideal.

We should have internet in most of the places we’re staying, so feel free to shoot me a question and I’ll try to get back to you!