At this point I am woefully behind in my travel log/blog as I desperately try to squeeze every last second out of the opportunity we have left here in China. With less than 3 months to go, I imagine my new slogan will become “no sleep ’till June,” and I will become rather scattered with my posting abilities…so I am playing catch-up on the way home from Huangshan trying to get these adventures catalogued for all posterity. A majority of this blog is brought to you by high speed railway and the magic that is “remote hotspot.” Enjoy!
For Chinese New Year our plan was simple: add two more people (David’s parents) and cram in three countries (Cambodia, Thailand, and China). The main attractions in Cambodia for us were the temples of Angkor, and as such we did not opt to add Phnom Penh to our itinerary. We do have an interest in returning to visit there as well, but it was not in the cards this time around.
We arrived in Cambodia very late in the evening and had no plans for the next day beyond recovering from our flights. While contemplating what to do the next morning we got an excellent suggestion from our hotel: visit the Angkor national museum to learn a bit about the history of the temples before we visited the following day. On our way to the museum we happened upon a nice looking restaurant where we had some AMAZING food. I had not heard much about Cambodian cuisine, but I am now a huge fan of anything amok.
Tourism is a major industry for Cambodia, and while the temples of Angkor are the main attraction in the north, the city of Siem Reap was a nice place to stay. The area of the city where we stayed we found to be very walk-able and the city itself is very tourist friendly. If walking is not your thing, you can easily find tuk tuk drivers more than willing to take you anywhere you want to go. Even an hour or more away. The service in restaurants and our hotel was the best we have experienced in Asia so far as well. We quite literally had our hotel help us organize and recommend activities the entire time we were there. We had only per-arranged one full day tour of some Angkor temples, so we we relied on them quite heavily for suggestions and making arrangements. They did not disappoint!
Now back to our story…The museum itself was well organized with an English audio guide option and several multi-media displays and presentations to watch. The major take-aways from the museum for me were the fact that Cambodia had been both a Hindu and Buddhist nation at different points in its history and that it had, at different times, occupied part of Vietnam, Thailand, and other countries in the region. Of course the temples and art are uniquely Cambodian, but many of the teaching and stories are consistent with similar religions in Thailand, India, and other neighboring countries. Feeling well prepared for our temple visit the next day we opted to take in a dinner show which had one of the elements we had learned about in the museum: Apsara. These creatures adorn many of the temples in Cambodia and are ethereal beings known for their dancing and entertaining skills. The dancing style was somewhat similar to what we had seen in Thailand with the fingers bent backwards at extreme angles, but the footwork was a bit different from what I remembered.
During some of our down time in the city we visited a nearby artisan workshop where an organization started with the mission of teaching Cambodians an artistic trade such as carving, lacquer work, jewelry making, and other skills. The apprentices in turn sell their products in this shop for a commission to help keep the school running. The prices are a little higher here than you will find in the local tourist market (which is incredibly cheap), but the quality is quite good and the proceeds support this organization in their mission to provide training and jobs for those who are able to attend.
We even ended up with a beautiful lacquer piece as a host gift compliments of the Williams! Next we made our way to the local tourist market for some browsing and food. Both parties took home some gorgeous paintings along with compulsory cheap T-shirts and lightweight pants in order to have appropriate temple attire. Haggling is expected, though the starting prices here were generally quite low to begin with, so we did not have to try very hard to get good-enough-for-us prices. It was not like China or Thailand where they will literally mark up the price 10x just to see if you will pay it. With everything else being quite cheap, it would seem rather ridiculous in comparison I presume. Meals are quite affordable and a local draft beer can run you as little as $0.50 in some spots. Our guide from our temple tour said it was common for many people to only earn $100 per month, and the currency (Reil) is so devalued the exchange rate is $1:4100. As a result they tend to use USD for many transactions here because the amount of Cambodian currency required to make larger purchases would be overwhelming. We would often get change back in Reil, but it was difficult to spend on anything as it was only worth a few cents.
One of the most exciting experiences for me on this trip was a chance to go hot air ballooning! David’s dad found a brochure in our hotel and mentioned it at dinner one night. Little did he know this was a major bucket list item of mine and most of us were instantly in! One of our party had to be convinced, but it did not take long to persuade everyone to try it. We found a trip that would take us for a birds eye view of some of the Angkor Temples at sunrise. The next step then was to brace ourselves for an early wake-up the next morning.
Our Pilot was Chinese, so the rough translation of what happened next was: “Here, throw candy to the children” *Pilot pulls out a bag of candy*. What ensued next was nothing short of delightful. These children clearly expect balloons to come by around the same time every day because they started sprinting out of their houses through the fields trying to catch the candy almost immediately after the pilot produced the bag. They have obviously had practice and many were even able to catch pieces right out of the air.
The last day we had a late flight so we took a trip to see a rather out of the way Angkor Temple: Benteay Srei. When I arranged our transportation to the temple from our hotel the woman at the hotel desk offered to book us a car and mentioned a few other stops we could make along the way including a butterfly garden and the Cambodian Landmine Museum. We started with the butterfly garden which was neat to see. I had never seen so many different kinds and colors of butterflies in person before. My favorite was the green spotted one, but it was moving so fast it was almost impossible to get a picture. Almost.
The land mine museum was a sobering experience. It focused mostly on the clean up effort in effect today all across Cambodia and had a small amount of history about the whole conflict that lead to the planting of so many mines. We learned the US, Russia, and several other countries participated in planting many of these mines having dropped them from aircrafts during the war. The curator of this land mine collection (numbering in the tens of thousands) is a Cambodian man whose parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge and was turned into a child soldier at a very early age. In the course of his military training he learned how and where to set many of these mines in the first place. This made him uniquely qualified to lead his own 1 man clean-up crew in his local village and neighboring villages when all the dust had settled. He started clearing mines himself with entirely inappropriate tools and a plethora of experience, but he was eventually asked to stop his unconventional methods by the Cambodian government several years ago. He later received official training and certification to continue this work today. A methodical UN approved method and protocol for land mine clearing is currently in use by his non-profit organization and others like them in the country. At this time they estimate approximately 80% of Cambodia is land mine free, but tragedies still occur in rural areas.
One last aside: on our way back from this trek we came across many houses up on stilts like this one. We were told houses were originally built like this to protect against predators in the jungles such as tigers, but today these threats are almost non-existent. The houses themselves ranged from newly built to more aged structures, but they all still had a similar design despite it likely having outlived its original purpose.