Sunday, March 23, 2008

Angkor Wat

( PICTURE: Me climbing one of the temples at Angkor Wat in my favorite Bar Mitzvah t-shirt. Sorry for the sideways picture)
Our mini-bus arrived at the University at 1pm to drive us six hours to Siem Reap, the city located outside of Angkor Wat. By "mini-bus" I mean a Toyota Corolla. We were told that our transportation for the weekend would be a nice comfy bus, this was not the case. Crammed into the backseat were Ryan (5'11ish, @180lbs), Ryan #2 (5'10ish, 170lbs, wide swimmer shoulders) a former Languagcorps Alumni who had never taken the trip up north and myself (6' and 195 pounds of pure all-American muscle). Side by side by side our shoulders wouldn't actually fit into the backseat. We had to angle ourselves slightly in order to physically fit. So, why didn't one of us just sit in the front passenger seat? Well, that seat was taken by our "Guide" Trea. Trea, the Languagcorps rep in Cambodia was accompanying us on the trip and claimed the front seat--all 5', 90lbs of her. I thought she was joking when she took the seat but realized after an hour and a half and two spasms in my surgically repaired left shoulder that indeed this was no joke.

To make matters worse the drive was single handily the scariest transportation experience of my life. As I've mentioned a few times, drivers out here in Southeast Asia are a tad crazy. Well our hired driver was far and away the craziest f-ing driver in all of Cambodia. Not uncommon moves by this psychopath were:
a) Flying through the center of villages at 100 kilometers an hour as schools were being let out.
b) Passing cars, motorbikes, bicycles, etc. on two lane roads as cars zoomed towards us in the passing lane.
c) Treating cows on the road -- not an uncommon occurrence since we saw at least 150 cows crossing the road -- as nothing more than orange cones to swerve between.
d) Not flinching as he nearly ran over other stray animals such as dogs and chickens
e) Brushing up against motorbikes every few minutes
f) Accelerating at any chance he can get only to slam on his brakes at the last moment as he approached pot holes and speed bumps.

After five hours, we miraculously made it to Siem Reap in one piece. Siem Reap is not like Phnom Penh at all. For one, there are exponentially more foreigners there. It's a city based on tourism so every other building is a hotel or a guest house. The main bar street there, aptly named "Bar Street" caters to 90% foreigners...and I think the 10% of locals that hang there are mostly hookers.

Ryan, Ryan and I agreed in the car that we'd wake up early to see sunrise over Angkor Wat. Trea, our "guide", fought us with tooth and nail saying that she needed her sleep. Eventually we won out and she called our guide and told him of our plan. She told us to be ready at 5:30AM for our ride to the ancient temples. A few hours later, after talking to the driver, she corrected herself and told us we actually had to be ready at 4:30AM in order to see the sunrise. Hey, what's an hour difference? That night we went out for a drink or two and some dinner. Around ten Ryan #1 and I decided to pack it in so we'd be fresh in the morning. Trea and Ryan #2 decided they'd stay out for another drink or two.

CUT TO: 4:30AM.

Trea knocks on our door and says that she and Ryan #2 aren't going to see sunrise. It was a late night. They'd meet us later. Oh well, their loss. Ryan #1 and I packed our stuff and went outside to wait for the driver and the guide. After fifteen minutes neither was in site. We started to panic and Ryan went out past the front gate and found the driver waiting. We figured that perhaps only the driver was coming so we hopped in the car and took off. Now if the driver spoke any English the confusion probably would have stopped here...but he didn't.

Ryan and I entered the Angkor Wat park at around 5:10AM. Nobody else was in site. We were pointed by a ticket checker/security in the direction of the temple. We slowly started to make our way in the PITCH BLACK towards where we thought we should go. The only lights were burning incense around Buddhas and a distant light in front of us. Ryan and I fumbled through the darkness until we caught up with the light. It was a couple, or as I've now started to say regarding Ryan and I: "another couple", who were guiding themselves with the light from their cell phone. Long story short, Ryan and I stumbled/fumbled/tripped, etc. through this ancient holy structure having no idea what the hell we were doing. Turns out, the guide had said we'd leave at 5:30 since sunrise wasn't till 6:30ish. However, our wonderful "guide"told us what time the driver would be there. The guide showed up at 5:30AM at the hotel to find himself all alone. Having no guide in Angkor Wat is insane. Imagine being blindfolded and dropped off at the gates of Disney World and being told to find Space Mountain. It was basically the same.

Eventually after an hour of destroying a few priceless carvings and disturbing a group of chanting monks we saw some flashes in the distance. We made our way to the lights and came across hundreds of people, guides to their sides, set up for sunrise photos. We joined the group and snapped away. By the time the sun rose there were about 4,000 people snapping away photos. We overheard a guide say that this was "the best two days of the year" for sunrise because of the lunar calendar and that he had never seen so many tourists up so early. The sunrise though was covered in haze and highly disappointing. The true fun and adventure came with exploring in the dark.

Anyway, our guide, Trea and Ryan #2 eventually met up with us and we spent the whole day at the ruins. Well, the two Ryans and I spent the day at the ruins--Trea spent the day reading magazines in the car because "it was too hot out." The place is absolutely mind boggling. I could really elaborate on it but it would be easier for those who care to just wikipedia it or eventually look at the 150 photos I took.

Ryan #1 and I told Trea that we wanted to see sunset that evening. There is a mountain in the middle of Angkor Wat where crowds gather to see the sunset every evening. The postcard pictures I saw of it made it look spectacular. Trea said that the guide would take us but first we had to see something else outside of the park. We all climbed into the Toyota (FOUR OF US IN THE BACKSEAT NOW SINCE THE GUIDE WAS WITH US!) and drove out of the park. Turns out the site we needed to see which was about a half hour detour was a tourist shop where Trea needed to return some pants for her mother-in-law. Yeah, that's right, we were doing her errands.

We then dropped off Trea and Ryan #2 back at our guest house and were taken back to Angkor Wat for sunset. Ryan and I climbed to the top of the mountain where at least a thousand other tourists were waiting. We find a cool spot, legs dangling off the high temple, and waited for sunset. As we waited we met a cool American brother and sister and began to chat away with them. After about a half hour a policeman came up to us and said, "You must leave." "But what about sunset?" "You must leave." Turns out the sun was behind a wall of cloudy haze and there would be no sunset photos that evening. Bad sunrise, bad sunset. Oh well.

Finally, yesterday we took off to come back to PP. On the way back we stopped at an ancient temple that was quite spectacular. The temple was in the middle of the jungle and still in almost complete ruin with vegetation growing in every crack. In truth, this was a cooler site than Angkor Wat. There were probably a dozen tourists total and it felt almost undiscovered. We played around and explored the site for a little while before Trea told us we had to take off...she had a birthday party to go to in PP and didn't want to be late.