Cambodia has awesome visa stickers. They're huge (take a full page of the passport) and say "KINGDOM OF CAMBODIA," which is ultra-cool.
Now I flew here from Luang Prabang, which was beautiful and the heat really wasn't so bad. What a world of difference. Siem Reap is hot and dusty and thoroughly unattractive. Here's the street my guesthouse is on, and this is considered a good location:
That's a good location because it's next to the downtown area, here:
And yet, somehow, the guesthouse itself looks like a nice 1930's hotel, with 14 foot ceilings and dark stained wood.
Don't be fooled, of course. The rooms are certainly not up to international snuff: the bathroom door doesn't close, everything's peeling away from the walls, and anything that used to be white is now the color of an egg you'd find on the ground. But for $6 a night, I call it a steal.
As I'm sure you've figured out by now, I won't be staying here long. But hey, you don't come to Siem Reap for Siem Reap; you come for Angkor.
Angkor was the capital of the ancient Khmer empire, which was big in the 9th-13th centuries. Word is Thai invaders sacked Angkor in 1431 (after the empire had declined significantly), though I figure the Thais must've lost some later battles, since (1) Angkor is now in Cambodia, not Thailand, and (2) the name of the modern town from which I'm typing, Siem Reap, means "Thailand defeated."
How could you not be excited for Angkor? Like Luang Prabang, it's a former capital that's now endorsed by Unesco as a world heritage site. But in every way, it's more. Older. Bigger. I mean way older and way bigger. Back when London was a prepubescent town of 50,000, Angkor was the capital of one of the world's largest civilisations and home of 1,000,000 Khmers!
A cricket just landed on my keyboard. He's on F6 and F7. This is one of those outdoor internet cafes, see.
Anyway, I'm stoked for Angkor. Most folks rent a tuk-tuk for the day for $10-$12, but my room comes with a bicycle, and at 9am, I thought biking around Cambodia in the hot, dry season was a good idea. Well, I guess it was a good idea, but dude, this place is hot. And dusty. You actually see a fair number of locals wearing surgical masks.
On the bike, map in pocket, Angkor is just two turns, and then you go straight for about 4 miles. Easy peasy. It's a little scary to negotiate the roads here, since despite lots of traffic, there are no signs and very few traffic lights. Even then, a red light seems to be only a suggestion, which, of course, demotes green lights to suggestions. Very bad suggestions. Once you're going straight, though, it's not too POP! What was... oh, booooooooo tire! Given the state of the roads, I'm hardly surprised, but I could do without a flat tire.
Thankfully, one of the locals watching spoke enough English to point me to a place I could get it fixed, so I start walking the bike. I don't make it 100 meters before the guy is next to me on his motorbike. Thanks! So on the back I go, holding my busted bike out with my right hand so it rolls and hobbles and pops alongside. The repair shop is a guy with some "tools" in a wheelbarrow. Instead of tire levers, he uses broken rebar. Sandpaper? A branch. (These are standard things you use to patch a bike tire, which, except for the tools used, he did exactly the same way I would at home.) The repair ran me 2000 riels, which is 50 cents.
Okay, back on the road, to Angkor.
The moat around the Angkor Wat, the largest temple/area in the old city (kinda like the temple mount in Jerusalem), is impressively large. And yet, as the trees give way to the view, the temple seems comparatively so small!
Oh, wait, that's just the front gate...
Okay, here's the part of the blog I knew I'd come to and have been dreading a bit. I'm not really that into temples I don't know about. You're right, you're right, I should've done more than my day-before research. I know, shame on me. But whenever I started reading about Angkor, suddenly it was all Jayavarman this and bas relief that, and I fell asleep. C'mon though, be fair! To each his or her own, right? I'm into things, just not temples. Some people think you need at least 3 days to appreciate Angkor. I needed 5 hours, by bike.
So, what did I see in those 5 hours?
Ha! Yeah! You tell me what you were looking at? The glorious capital of a lost civilisation, or the MONKEYS! That's right! I saw MONKEYS!
Some other folks noticed them too, and there we were, staring at the monkeys who were staring at us who were staring at them. The tension mounted. Then the big leader monkey was all "whadder you lookin at?" and I was all, "you, monkey boy," and he was all "you wanna start something, you damned dirty ape!" and I was like "bring it!" and he went all hiy-ya! but I went hiy-ya too and we kung-fu'd all vicious-like for a while but it ended with him buying me ice cream and it was all water under the bridge.
Okay, so that was going on in my head when I took this picture:
I'd like you to notice the group on the left. Blow the photo up and check it out. What are they looking at? Also, that white dude is about my height.
But really, Angkor would've impressed even without monkeys. It had some great trees:
Haha! I'm so funny! (Seriously though, are those great trees or are those great trees?) This gate was awesome, and one of many:
I took a photo of that one in particular because the statues there still have their heads. Most of the stonies could've listened to the Red Queen a little better:
Sadly, these statues show* the once-rampant and still-existent black market for Khmer artifacts.
* - What word am I looking for here? They don't highlight it, they don't intimate it, exactly... ahh, this is killing me.
Ooh, a crab about the size of my hand (with fingers) just walked under my chair.
Back to Angkor. I don't know a bas-relief from a hole in the ground, but the sheer size of this thing was impressive:
And one of the real treats of getting around by bicycle was that...
Maybe I should explain first, the Angkor complex is quite big. The walls around Ankor Wat itself are about a half-mile a side, and all the other temples and sites are scattered haphazardly over miles and miles. (I biked the "little circuit," which is a 12 mile loop.) If I took a tuk-tuk, we would've zoom zoomed from site to site. But by bike, when you see something, anything, that you like, you can stop and investigate. So when I came across a little pond covered in the greenest moss, oh my! And guess who was swimming in the pond?
There was one temple that was ultra-cool, though. I mean, Angkor Wat was huge and all, but I just wasn't that into it. Ta Prohm is not nearly as complete or magnificent, and it doesn't have a moat. According to the info-sheet I picked up, that's why I loved it so much. Apparently the seeds of big trees can't cross moats (really? I'm super skeptical of this claim). But, for whatever reason...
WOW! The whole thing was just overrun by giant tree warlords. You wanna talk great trees? Let's talk great trees! Right out of Indiana Jones! What a treat!
So between monkeys and trees and temples (in that order...), Angkor was pretty fun.
A bug just tried to land on my face. Ew.
As I was saying, Angkor was pretty fun. But one day at Angkor and I don't feel I really need to go back and see all the temples. I promise I'm not so Reagan about everything - obviously one tree isn't enough for me! - but I'm kinda templed out. And Siem Reap certainly isn't bewitching on its own.
You know how I once said that the 7-11's in Thailand made me feel far from home?
Yikes. So I'm heading back to Thailand tomorrow morning, which means this is the only time I'll get to say it this trip:
Much love from KINGDOM OF CAMBODIA!
Much, much love. As always.