Vietnam & Cambodia: Tonle Sap & Angkor Wat


In the morning, we took off to the airport and our flight to Siem Reap. When we touched down, I was surprised at how different the landscape was. We certainly weren't in Kansas anymore! The poverty adjacent to the luxury was stark. The city is experiencing a growth spurt in upper end hotels. These look shockingly overly opulent when you see the grass huts with no electricity and running water down the street. Our hotel was tastefully low key and well located and proved to be a welcome oasis after our long days touring in the heat.

During our two days, we covered a huge amount of territory. We began by travelling out to Tonle Sap Lake and taking a boat down the river to the lake. We saw close up the families living on the boats, and women washing and children swimming in the muddy waters. Once in the Lake, we visited a floating fish farm. The boat village that lives on the Lake has a population of about 7,000 people. Even the schools are on barges. We followed up with a quick stop at Angkor Wat to see the sun set with a plan to return two days later for the sunrise and tour. We ended the day at a local restaurant and yet another incredible dinner.

A full day of temples! We started with Boeng Mallea, one of the most distant in the 77 square mile Angkor complex, and one of the least visited. It was very overgrown with jungle and not in the best of condition. However, it was a fascinating introduction to the entire Khmer period. Once surrounded by land mines after the Pol Pot regime in the late 1970's, the land has been cleared and red and white posts now mark where they were located. It is a reminder of the recent tragic turmoil of Cambodia...and a reminder to not go wandering off into unchartered territories for a little picnic!

Our second temple was Bantay Srei. This was overall my favorite. Although small and compact, it was made of pink limestone, the hardest of the stone. Consequently the details of the carvings had been exquisitely preserved. This, too, is a little too far for most day trippers and thus we had the place almost to ourselves. From there we visited Bantay Samre, another ""minor"" temple in the complex. Here we experienced our first Cambodian afternoon shower. It lasted only a short time and then the sun came out again. The highlight of this visit was the elderly Buddhist who had set up his mat and incense in the upper chamber. Several of us took turns having him bless us. It was a thrilling moment to sit next to him while he chanted and sprinkled me with water and said prayers. I am still proudly wearing my little red yarn bracelet and it shows no sign of wearing off.

Fourth on the list was Ta Prohm, made famous by Angelina Jolie in her embarrassingly horrible movie, Laura Croft. After Angkor Wat, this is the ""poster child"" of the complex. Once consumed by jungle, many enormous trees were left during the excavation. These now form the uniqueness of the temple. These dramatic images of giant trees intertwined with the stones are often seen on brochures and websites on the area.

Our day finished at the Raffles Hotel. After a tour, we met in the Elephant Bar for refreshments and some pleasant conversation on the day's journey.

Our day began at 4AM when we crawled out of bed before the sun was up. We traveled in the dark to a little used entrance to the Angkor Wat temple. From there, we walked down a dirt road and approached the Temple from the east with the help of our guide's trusty flashlight. Just as we entered the clearing, the sun was up just enough to make out the grand towers of Angkor Wat. At that precise moment, all the cicadas, all at the exact same instant, suddenly burst into ""song."" It was truly awe-inspiring . Just magical. This is the kind of thing that just happens when you travel. You can't plan it. You can't anticipate it. And it stays with you forever.

We joined a small crowd and waited for the sun to come up. We were fortunate that the sky was reasonably clear. Eventually we were rewarded for our patience...and our stoicism in getting up so early...and the sun rose from behind the Temple. It glowed through the towers and slowly lit the causeway. It was worth the effort. We began our trek toward the gates.

Angkor Wat is truly deserving of its reputation. It is a magnificent structure dating from the 12th century. We spent the next two hours climbing among the ruins. We ascended to the upper levels viewing close up and personal the many pine cone shaped towers. Unfortunately the very top level is now closed to tourists because of a series of tragic - and most likely avoidable - fatal falls. But that did not detract from the overall experience.

Following this stop, and thinking that we could not possibly top this one, we moved on to Angkor Thom. This dated from a slightly later period and is the only temple we visited that had been built as a Buddhist temple. Prior to the 13th century, all the temples were originally Hindu. But Angkor Thom was built once the region had become predominantly Buddhist. Hence, here we found the towers sculpted into the face of Buddha. But before we set off for a closer look, we were treated to an elephant ride around the edge of the temple! It was a particularly memorable occasion.

This signaled the end of our temple touring. From there we boarded our bus and headed south out of town.