Sunday, December 27, 2015

To Cambodia and Back

Angkor Wat.

We've visited Cambodia a couple of months ago (hence this is a long overdue post). This is the second time I've been out of the country this year, and if there's anything that's been emphasized for me, it's that the world is a terrifyingly large place, and the disparity between its many peoples can only be apparent to someone who travels.

Causeway to Angkor Wat.

To say that Cambodia has a long way to go as a developing country is a gross understatement. Decades of conflict during the Cold War have set the country back by many years. Despite this, rapid modernization is undeniably present in the country - Western staples such as malls, convenience stores and hotels seem to be within arm's reach, at least from what we saw in Siem Reap (and I assume that the case would be the same for Phnom Penh).

Angkor Wat - Exterior Wall.

What Cambodia lacks in modern infrastructure, it more than makes up for with its tourism industry. The country has a surprisingly rich past dating back to over a millennium. Countless (and I mean countless) temples dot the landscape - architectural marvels that have stood the test of time and have survived wars, natural disasters and looting. The famous Angkor Wat is but one of Cambodia's more famous landmarks and is flocked by countless visitors daily.

Sanskrit.

From walls covered in long forgotten stories written in Sanskrit to entire carvings depicting the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, there is an astounding amount of history preserved in the ancient stone. The modern Khmer people have deep respect for their history and culture, as evidenced by the level of preservation of their ancient artifacts.

Ramayana.

Sanskrit.

Recurring themes are visible throughout the different temples, as the ancient Khmer Empire has strong roots from the Indian subcontinent. Our guide mentioned that each temple was aligned to either Hinduism or Buddhism (and later temples to both).

The Lotus.

The Naga lines most temple causeways.

Reclining Buddha.

Buddha is given shade by the Naga.

The views are definitely breathtaking. Climbing atop the temples takes a bit of work, but seeing the magnificent views (that were once only reserved for the highest of royals and holy men) is a privilege for anyone living today.

Angkor Wat - Side Entrance.

Angkor Wat - Middle Wall.

Angkor Wat - Center Interior.

Angkor Wat - Overlook.

Angkor Wat - Stairway to Heaven.

Angkor Wat - Rear.

Of course, Angkor Wat isn't the only temple that Cambodia has to offer. Ta Prohm, made famous by the Tomb Raider film,was an eerie sight - ancient stone structures slowly being reclaimed by the forest, with the massive roots of the spung trees carving through the rock like it was clay.

The lingering effects of the past are seen on the way to the smaller temples. Millions of landmines have been deployed throughout the country over the years, and victims try to make a living by playing music or selling handcrafted souvenirs and fruits.

Ta Prohm - Entrance.

Ta Prohm - Entrance Close-up.

Ta Prohm - Ruined Wall.

Ta Prohm - Spung Tree Over Temple.

Ta Prohm - Spung Tree Growing Out of Rocks.

Even the paths towards the major landmarks were decorated with ancient pieces of architecture. Gates, signifying the territories encompassed by sacred grounds, stand tall above the thick foliage.

The Gate - See our van on the other side for size comparison.

The Gate - Elephants adorn the stone, which is an homage to Vishnu.

Elephant Training Grounds.

Temple Stones - Grounds staff pile them around while waiting for resources for their restoration efforts.

My personal favorite was Bayon. Massive stone heads depicting Buddha are found in its interior, most of which were carved and stacked like Lego bricks. Temples like these took generations to complete. Imagine spending one's lifetime dedicated to the completion of a singular goal - something that's unthinkable these days.

Bayon - Side.

Bayon - Exterior.

Bayon - Interior.

Bayon - Exterior Front.

Bayon - Exterior.

Needless to say, expect a lot of walking when visiting Cambodia. We had to trek to the top of a rather high hill to see the sunset on our first day (which was unfortunately crowded when we got there).

We also got to climb a mountain to visit one of the more sacred Hindu sites - a mountain spring that fed water to the entirety of Siem Reap in ancient times. The mountain is rife with symbolisms of the creation myth, particularly of the sivat linga - a representation of the union between man and woman.

The highest part of the mountain has the streams running through these carvings, as if the water itself is made fertile by their gods.

Sivat Linga.

Overall, I'd say Cambodia is worth the visit. The country is a massive change of pace from the insanity of the modern world, and revisiting a country's unspoiled past is one way to disconnect from the craziness.

The Fine Print
I'd recommend visiting as a group to allow expenses to be split. I think we spent a little less than PhP 25,000 per person for the entire four day trip, which included the air fare, tour guide, a rented van, the hotel stay and allowances for food, souvenirs, tips and miscellaneous stuff like massages, exotic food (like tarantulas and silkworms) and the infamous happy pizza.

I prefer their airport over NAIA, even though it's a lot smaller. NAIA is that bad.

Bring US dollars and (for the love of all that is holy) do not exchange them for Khmer riel at a forex counter unless you like carrying a bag full of paper money (or fancy yourself a millionaire for a short while). US dollars are generally accepted as the standard currency and the local currency is mostly used for spare change. Some establishments, especially souvenir shops, also accept other currencies, including Philippine pesos.

Best Meal of the Trip - Hot Pot Buffet at Market Street.

The food is great - expect a lot of Thai and Indian influence in local restaurants, such as tamarind-based tom yum and different curries. I'm a huge fan of coconut milk, so this was mostly my cup of tea. Western choices are available, although I don't understand why anyone would choose that over local cuisine.

We stayed at the Sonyn Retreat House and I was surprised and satisfied with the service they provided. The Khmer people are probably one of the most hospitable folks I've met so far.

Lastly, do listen to your guide, should you decide to hire one - it's way worth it.

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