Sunday, May 2, 2010

Siem Reap - Day One

Finally, it's time for some blogging about my trip to Siem Reap to see the Angkor temples.  In order to make it on our 6 AM flight out of Singapore, my friend Elizabeth and I left her apartment at 4 in the morning.  This was the earliest we got up during the trip, but not by much.  After an uneventful flight, we landed in Siem Reap and headed into town on a tuk-tuk.  What is a tuk-tuk, you ask?  The usage of the term varies widely, but in this part of Cambodia, a tuk-tuk is a small, three-wheeled carriage that is pulled behind a motorbike.  They normally have a roof for shade and space for 2-3 people.  Here's a picture, courtesy of wikipedia.
After arriving at our hotel, we hired a tuk-tuk for the day and headed out to the temples.  First we had to buy an admission ticket - $40 for three days!  Quite steep, but I guess if it goes towards preserving the temples, it's ok.  The first temple was saw, of course, was Angkor Wat.  Angkor Wat is HUGE!  The outer walls measure about 1.5 km on each side.  In addition, outside the walls is a 200 m wide moat.  It's also the single largest religious monument in the world.  Construction started in 1113 and took over 30 years to complete.  It seems strange, but the temple is actually dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu (the Angkorian kingdom was originally Hindu, but Buddhism took over in the late 12th century).  Here's me in front of the main temple!
You can maybe see that I'm a bit sweaty.  That's because it was about 100 F and 70% humidity outside.  I think it's actually some of the worst heat I've dealt with while in Southeast Asia.  It was seriously hot!  One of the first things that we saw was crowds of Khmer people taking wedding photos with the temple as a backdrop.  They all had on elaborate matching outfits.  We sneakily took several pictures:
Around the inner walls of the temple were lots of amazing carvings.  They were based on the history of the Khmer kingdom, and also on the Hindu epic of Ramayana.  My favorite was called "The Churning of the Ocean of Milk", which is the Hindu creation myth.  In this myth, the gods and the demons agreed to work together to churn the ocean of milk for 1000 years.  This would create an immortality elixir, which both the gods and the demons were supposed to share.  However, at the end of the 1000 years, the gods stole the elixir and didn't give any to the demons. After walking around the inner walls to view the carvings, we went into the very center of the temple, where the highest tower stands.  It's quite a climb to the top:
However, we did climb all the way up to the top, from which we had quite a nice view.

After Angkor Wat, we headed to Angkor Thom, which was one of the largest Khmer cities and served as the state capitol in the late 1100s.  Apparently it used to house over 1 million people!  I thought Angkor Wat was huge, but Angkor Thom was actually bigger.  The 8m high outer walls measure 3km on each side!  However, the temples inside Angkor Thom are much more spread out than in Angkor Wat.  The most famous temple is Bayon.  The craziest feature of Bayon are these faces, of which there are 216 of throughout the temple:
The faces probably represent the king who built the temple, Jayavarman VII.  As the faces look in all directions, they were supposed to show that the king could watch over all of the kingdom simultaneously.  Slightly creepy.  After seeing a couple more of the temples within Angkor Thom, we abandoned this temple in favor of a breezy tuk-tuk ride to another location.

 Next, we headed to Ta Prohm, one of the most photographed temples.  This is because many of the trees growing within the temple have been allowed to remain, making for some very picturesque scenes.  It was really interesting to see how the trees had grown in among the stones of the temple.
The trees were enormous!  You can see the scale of things in the next picture.
After Ta Prohm, we were too tired to see any more temples.  We headed back to our hotel and took full advantage of the hotel's swimming pool.  Later that night, we ate some delicious Khmer food for dinner, including a dish called "pumpkin in oven".  It was sort of a casserole dish involving pumpkin, egg, shrimps, and some other vegetables.  It tasted a lot better than it sounds.  After some nighttime shopping, we called it a night (given that we had woken up at 4 AM) and slept for about 12 hours.  Speaking of sleeping, time for me to go do some of that right now, so I'll leave this post as just day one.  Days two and three coming soon!

PS: exciting news!  I just bought my tickets for the Grand Southeast Asia Tour, which commences in three weeks!