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Siem Reap, Cambodia 03/'06

Note: First Part HERE. Second Part HERE.

After a filling lunch at a no-name overpriced restaurant on the side of a road (like I said, all restaurants in and around the area are overpriced), we finally headed off to what most people consider the highlight of Angkor Archaeological Park — the majestic Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat is a postcard-perfect effigy. Case in point: it sells more photographic prints than all of the other temples combined. Simply put, Angkor Wat is very pretty, which makes it the rightful emblem on the Kingdom of Cambodia’s flag.

[photo via timeout.com.hk]

Flashback to 2005. This photo, taken by Gordon from Tales of Asia (the pioneering definitive source for overland travel to Cambodia), defined my eagerness to visit Siem Reap and see all its wonders — of which Angkor Wat is at the heart of.

[photo via talesofasia.com]

I turned out to love the solemnity of Bayon’s cocooned towers more, but the sheer expanse of Angkor Wat was more overwhelming. It was larger than life. And I literally felt its weight on my shoulders.

We went in through the outer wall entrance and walked on the long causeway leading up to the epicenter of the the 12th century temple’s five towers (arranged in a precise quincunx).

This is one of Angkor Wat’s best vantage points. It is the million-dollar view that has inspired a million postcards.

However, this was the last time I’ve seen Angkor Wat in all its photogenic glory. The two other succeeding visits (10/’07, 12/’10) left this facade in a state of disarray. Sure, restorations are a must, but could they have at least found a way around preserving this beautiful view?

Four years after restorations began, these unsightly green tarpaulins are still covering Angkor Wat’s front towers. A first time visit to Angkor Wat now, may not be as dramatic as it used to be. Because these tarps will bring you straight back to reality. It’s unfortunate for people expecting to see the postcard-perfect view from days-of-olde, which is no more.

[photo via http://blog.travelpod.com%5D

Occupying over 800,000 square meters, no wonder Thom (our guide) slated Angkor as the last stop. This is not the place for lazy tourists. A one or two-hour walk is necessary to get a real “feel” of the place. It’ll also give you some time to notice the little details carved on stone that are easily overlooked when you’re in a rush.

When I saw the vertigo steps, my face must’ve said it all — “Whee!!!” I wanted to climb it all the way to the top. It doesn’t look like much, but looks can be deceiving. These steps have an almost 70-degree incline. Make no mistake, it’s dangerous — which makes it all the more appealing.

My dad put on a stern look that screamed “Don’t-even-think-about-it!” But I couldn’t be bothered. I was already a few steps up when he noticed where I had gone. Helpless in the scheme of things, he then just took out the camera and snapped away at his (not so) little daredevil, then joined me up the stairs to the higher towers. iWon! 😀

Please note that this is no longer possible. Due to previous accidents that caused fatal injuries and even some deaths, the authorities have now barricaded these steps. For people who want to go up the higher towers, there are designated metal stairs installed beside some of the vertigo steps. You will need to fall in line and show your passport and pass to get through.

Our tour guide, Thom, stayed below while Papa and I meandered through the hallways and towers of the upper terraces. We even met a bunch of European backpackers, and asked them to take our photo.

I love this shot. One for the books.

Sweaty and exhausted.

Gorgeous view from the top with the monks taking a rest down below.

After about 20 minutes, we climbed down the steps — which was much harder than going up. When looking down, the 70-degree inclined barely left sight of the steps below. At that point, I momentarily regretted being stubborn enough to scramble my way up, not knowing how to go down. In the end, we did manage to get down by Papa holding me up as we descended slowly. It’s hard to explain. Haha.

Wasting no time, we then headed to the outer buildings surrounding the 5 main towers of Angkor Wat. This is one of the temple’s ancient libraries, where sacred Hindu (and later, Buddhist) scriptures were kept until the empire’s demise.

Here’s our tour guide, Thom (who I think is half-Khmer, half-Caucasian), explaining something to Papa, which frankly, I cannot remember anymore now. Heh.

I left Angkor Wat satisfied, but with a heavy heart, not knowing (in retrospect) when I will be back. (Note: I did go back — twice!)

But the day wasn’t over just yet.

I still had to satisfy one more thing on my bucket list: Ride an elephant to the top of Phnom Bakheng! Here I am with Nom, my elephant rider for the afternoon. 🙂

Yes, it’s overpriced (US$15 one-way) and touristy, but cut me some slack. It was my first time after all (excuses, excuses). Nevertheless, I hope the people who manage this tourist trap treat their elephants and elephant riders well.

Here’s my “stupid look.” Silaw much. Haha.

Papa, being his thrifty self, decided to save the extra US$15 and just climbed to the top of the hill on his own. That’s how we do it in da ‘hood, ya’ll!

Two days later, we were set to leave Cambodia for Da Nang, Vietnam (which was included in our Singapore Airlines package tour), but that’s another story for another post. 🙂

I wanted to ride an elephant again, but Papa wouldn’t have any of it.

So I just took a photo with Prince D’Angkor’s resident elephant.

Last-minute hoarding spree at the New Market… before Papa came to his senses and withheld the ca$$$h.

Last few hours in Siem Reap. Spot the Philippine flag! Pinoy pride. 😀

So, is this the end of my story? Not quite.

I came back a year later (with my mom and brothers), then two years after that (with friends) — which you’ll be reading about soon.

I witnessed the rapid change of Siem Reap’s landscape through the years since I first came to visit. Some changes were for the better, others I couldn’t care less about. But underneath the superficial make-over lies the heart of the place I’ve always known it to be: a breath of fresh air and a culturally-rich respite from the rest of the world.

Needless to say, I will keep going back for as long as Siem Reap (and Cambodia) is on the face of the earth.

Siem Reap, Cambodia 03/'06

Note: First Part HERE.

The souvenirs are now a bit worn, and the photo album has already gathered dust on a forlorn shelf. But the vivid memories of seeing Angkor for the first time are still as clear as ever.

Our guide, Thom (who has been the most informative tour guide of all the times I’ve been to Siem Reap), picked us up at about 7 a.m. An hour earlier than most other tour groups. But Thom insisted on this, so we could beat the crowds and get the best view of the temples. One problem: I’ve never been a morning person. So naturally, I woke up late and crammed. And my face got the short end of the stick when I applied too much sunblock in the rush of things. My father pointed out that I looked like I had a kabuki mask on. Yeah, that’s my dad. Ever the sensitive guy.

[photo via http://discover-indo.tierranet.com%5D

I had a kabuki mask on, but I was rarin’ to go. Good thing that Siem Reap’s located in South East Asia, where there is only one seaon: Summer. It was scorching hot, so the zinc oxide paste on my face melted away after an hour, and blended to my pale skin. But I’m digressing.

Ho hum…

In my experience, the first temple that Angkor tour guides take visitors to is, Ta Prohm. Tomb Raider ring a bell? I’m not sure if it’s because Ta Prohm looks best with the sun just barely out, or if they think everyone is a big fan of Angelina Jolie.

[photo via phuketno1island.wordpress.com]

Back then, Ta Prohm wasn’t the barricaded ruins that it is today. I actually got to touch and enter the individual citadels and its long corridors. Yes, most of Ta Prohm was crumbling to the ground (which prompted the recent restorations). But the winding roots and lush foliage of hundred-years-old trees made the place more interesting than the other much-restored temples. The serpentine roots creeping on age-old stone bricks was living history! Awesome.

Please don’t mind the bayong and awful clothes. I was feeling very Jane Birkin then (peg fail!). This was a time when I was actually larger than my dad. Heh.

I planted my hand on the trunk of one of the oldest trees, in a profound moment of solace. I’m not sure what that was all about. Perhaps I was being melodramatic, but I was most likely just being emo.

Oldest tree, about 800 years.

On our way out, we passed by a group of landmine victims playing handmade musical instruments. The music was lovely, but their broken state overshadowed the uplifting melodies. It was a bittersweet sight. Unfortunate how the Khmer Rouge disfigured such a beautiful country.

———————————————————–

Our second temple visit was going to be a surprise, Thom said. Later on, he disclosed that we were going to visit “his” temple. At the time, I wasn’t sure if he was trying to tell us it was his favorite temple, or I just didn’t understand his particular brand of Khmer-English (which was actually very good). Turns out, it was in fact a joke. As we were nearing the end of a dirt road, I started to make out a row of what seemed like stone gargoyles leading up to a steeple-like entryway. It was freakin’ Angkor Thom! Nice joke.

We stopped by the entrance to take some photos. Papa, who suddenly became so camera-handy, was ready to shoot even before I could position myself beside the giant elephants carved out of – yet again – stone bricks.

I thought I looked so cool (bayong and all). Operative word: thought. Past tense.

Up close.

We then made our way back to the car and drove to the 12th century Buddhist temple, (my favorite) Bayon, built by the Khmer king, Jayavarman VII. The temple’s baroque style is more similar to Ta Prohm (with the individual citadels), than Angkor Wat (as you will see later). But I’m not here to give a history lesson. So let’s move on.

From afar, Bayon’s many towers may appear to be a jumbled mishmash of random faces. But upon closer examination, you will see that each tower is calculatedly configured in relation to the others. This is why there are so many picture-perfect points on Bayon’s upper terraces.

See what I mean?

We moved along to other nearby parts of the complex which included Pre Rup Temple, The Elephant Terrace and Terrace of the Leper King, which had an open stadium in front for all kinds of sports competitions in the ancient Khmer kingdom.

After an exhaustive and exhausting (there’s a difference) tour of everything in sight, we made our way back to the car and headed off to the other side of the Angkor Archaeological Park, to where the Angkor Wat is located. I was starving for a proper lunch by then, so we took a break and ate at a no-name, overpriced restaurant on the side of a road. Please note that all restaurants in and around the temples are overpriced, and not necessarily good. However, we lucked out on the first time because despite being overpriced, the food actually tasted nice (unlike the other restaurants on my succeeding visits thereafter).

Here’s Papa (kind of) enjoying his lunch. This was when he still had a head-full of hair and less forehead wrinkles. From what I remember, we had chicken amok, a sweet-and-sour fish dish, fried rice and some sort of potato gratin (far out).

NEXT UP: More of the Angkor Archaeological Park... and Angkor Wat!

Siem Reap, Cambodia 03/'06

Flashback to 2005:

I was nearing my 18th birthday, and decided to ask my dad for a trip to Cambodia.

I never thought it would change me forever.

Half a decade ago, Angkor Wat wasn’t on most local travel agencies’ menus. Please be reminded that this was a time when travel agents made more money than travel bloggers, and eons before Philippine backpackers became in vogue (or so it seemed).

A year before Cambodia took the South East Asian tourism circuit by storm, it was an expensive destination for Filipinos — and seemingly not worth the price. MNL-SIN airfare aside, the cost of a roundtrip ticket to Siem Reap, Cambodia from Singapore was about the same price as a r/t ticket to Australia or Hawaii (around US$600). Understandably, Papa was not sold. But I was determined to get that immigration stamp on my passport.

It took a lot of prodding (a.k.a. pangungulit to death) and bribing (straight A’s X-deal), to convince him. It was not handed on a silver platter. I worked my ass off, and it did me well (basic rule of life #1).

Before I knew it, my dad and I were on a plane to Singapore — en route to the destination of my dreams. Sheena Easton’s Fern Gully theme, A Dream Worth Keeping, was kept on replay on my archaic MP3 player throughout the entire flight. Hearing the song now still evokes pleasant sentiments of goosebumps-worthy memories.

I believe, we’ve found a dream that’s worth keeping… for more than just a day. And even though the winds of change may come sweeping… a dream worth keeping, can never fade away… ❤

I will never forget the sight of red Cambodian soil and the many rivers winding through it — all seen from a few hundred feet up in the air upon final descent. That in itself, was breath-taking. *kilig*

Following immigration formalities, we made our way out of the airport and were greeted by the Prince D’Angkor Hotel & Spa’s pick-up service. The driver cruised through Siem Reap’s dusty airport road (where enormous hotels were being built every few blocks) to reach Sivatha Boulevard, where the hotel was located. Oh, and we happened to pass by a herd of cows along the way!

We arrived at the hotel soon after, and boy, was it gorgeous — with the claim-to-fame of having the biggest salt-water swimming pool in Siem Reap. Unfortunately, I never got to use the damn pool because my lovehandles were a fright to behold and I couldn’t dare wear a bikini for fear of scaring everyone away.

The room was charming with a rustic touch (very cozy), but the best part was the huge balcony overlooking the pool below (bliss). I also loved the interwoven silk and cotton drapes (made by Artisans D’Angkor), and the hard wood furniture (just hope they didn’t come from illegal logging).

See how happy I was?? LOL 😀

Papa and I went out for dinner later that evening and watched a traditional Apsara show at Bayon II (US$12 pp), as recommended by the hotel concierge. I’m not sure if he got a commission for the referral (which is the norm in Siem Reap), but it was a good show nonetheless.

Note: The best show I’ve seen, however, was at the custom-made Apsara Theatre at the Angkor Village Hotel & Resort during my last visit in December ’10. US$23 – US$26 pp.

With the overwhelming day coming to a close, Papa and I went back to the hotel and dozed off — happily bulging tummies and all. 🙂

NEXT UP: Seeing the Angkor Temples Up Close for the First Time!

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