The final destination on our 6-week spring holiday was Siem Reap, Cambodia. We arrived in the early morning after staying the night in an Indian restaurant at the Kuala Lumpur airport. Cambodia was hot and humid but not nearly as much as the other stops on our brief Southeast Asian tour.We spent the morning waiting for our room so we could take a desperately needed nap. Kelly caught some shut eye at the airport, curled up in a booth, but Mi didn’t, and we were both desperately tired.After our nap we rented bikes from our hostel. It was $2 a day and half goes to a charity that benefits the community. If you don’t use a charity bike rental, it is $1 a day. That day, we rode down to explore the Old Market and Pub Street. We dipped our feet into the fish tank one last time on our trip.
After a day of exploring we went back to our hostel, The Rosy Guesthouse. It was a beautiful building with nice clean rooms and an okay restaurant. The staff was friendly, including resident cat who was always in a convenient place to be petted. Unfortunately, at 5am the next morning we were rudely awakened by prayer music blasting from a loudspeaker right outside the hostel. We hadn’t planned on waking up until 6 so for an hour we laid awake praying for them to shut their religious music up. Once we realized it wasn’t going to, we got ready and rode our rented bikes to the entrance of the Angkor temple complex. The first construction of this massive rectangular site of at least one thousand square kilometers began when the people were united by Jayavarman II in the 9th century. First Hindu, then Buddhist, this complex grew more massive with each successive ruler. For centuries The Khmer Kingdom that ruled the complex built many famous temples such as Angkor Wat, the Bayon, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm as well as dozens of lesser known ones. The Khmer had ingenious hydraulic systems which still exist today and innovative farming techniques. They were very powerful kingdom in the region with a large role in political and cultural development. In the 12th century all major construction ended. Approximately 300 years later, the Khmer Kingdom fell. One of the first westerners visited at the end of 16th century to discover what is now one of the most famous tourist destinations in the world. The most famous temple on the complex, Angkor Wat, is surrounded by a moat. Angkor Wat temple is one of the largest and best maintained temples. It is also one of the most visited. Already at 7am, we were surrounded by hoards of tourists. We explored this temple for at least an hour and it felt like we were rushing through.
By the time we left Angkor Wat, it was already blazing hot. Tourists have the option to buy 1,3, or 5 day passes during which they can explore the huge complex. We only had 1 day and were determined to see as much as we could, so we hopped on our bicycles and set out for other temples. While some were crowded with tourists, others were steep, unmaintained, and deserted.
By 9am we were still in a high-traffic area and the crowds were getting thick. Staying true to our cyclist roots, we opted for the most independent option, so we were able to zip through and get to different areas where regular tour guides don’t take their patrons. Our map outlined two routes, a small ring within a larger one. No strangers to long bike rides, we immediately veered toward the outer ring, hoping to detach from the crowds and see a larger number of temples. We casually rode our bikes on the flat deserted roads and stopped at every temple we saw on the way. The next temples we visited were within the square canal of Angkor Thom, which was the last and longest enduring capital of the Khmer empire. This 9 square kilometer city, translated as the Great City, is said to have sustained 80,000 to 150,000 people between its establishment in the late 12th century until its abandonment sometime before the early 1600s. At the center of the city stands the state temple, the Bayon, which is famous for its abundant depictions of the Buddha, including massive carved heads that loom over visitors on all sides.
Temple Bayon was one of Mi’s favorites. The whole temple had a distinctly comforting and serene atmosphere, mostly because of the colossal faces that smiled down at visitors, usually with eyes closed, appearing totally content.
This was our first time seeing elephants outside a zoo and we felt terrible for them. They did not look happy to be a vehicle for tourists. Elephants are extremely sensitive animals that even have the ability to cry. You can see how she feels from the expression on her face.
After the temple Bayon we stopped for a snack of fruit and nuts. Coconuts are an excellent source of electrolytes making them the perfect snack on a hot day or after a workout. We gulped down the water to stay hydrated and ate the flesh of coconuts to fill our bodies with enough energy for the rest of our day. Besides, they’re delicious. We jumped back on our bikes and zipped down the road to the exit of Angkor Thom to visit lesser known temples.
The lesser-known temples were usually less well-preserved. We often found big piles of rubble that once fit together like a massive jigsaw puzzle. The partially collapsed walls and angular piles of rocks did have a certain romantic quality too. Mostly, it made Mi feel like Indiana Jones, which was especially thrilling, as we’re sure many of our readers can gather from Mi’s intense love for the rugged hero archeologist.
After seeing similar scenes a few times we realized that people were picking lice out of each others’ hair. The poverty-stricken people selling souvenirs to tourists were out in droves, desperately trying to sell their goods. Often the children were the most persistent sellers.
We had visited over a dozen temples by the time we arrived at the final of the third most famous temples: Ta Prohm. Famous for the trees that look as if they melted down from the sky, this temple was one of Kelly’s favorites. The long roots poured down the walls like tentacles reaching for the soil. It often looked like a war between nature and human civilization. This temple proves how powerful nature is when left to its own devices.
We cycled a total of 40km that day and visited 17 temples. Kelly had correctly estimated the exact distance we had traveled, and was even more proud of herself for judging the distance in kilometers rather than miles. We made it back to our hostel with sore butts and hungry bellies. Basking in the glow of our unforgettable day, we ate dinner and spent the evening relaxing and remembering all that we had seen.
While we waited, innumerable carts like these crossed the border in both directions. Sometimes their burdens were so heavy that it required many people to push. The carts usually had only two wheels, so when the loads teetered, the people at the front were lifted off the ground.
After waiting and sweating in line for hours, we finally crossed back into Thailand, where we boarded a large van that took us back to Bangkok. We arrived in Bangkok around 10 PM and checked into our hotel. Our flight to Xi’an was around 6am the next morning so we arranged a taxi to get us to the airport. When we arrived at the Xi’an airport we knew exactly how to get around the city. We got on the bus for the city center to get snacks from the Muslim district for the train ride home later that night. By then they had finished the restoration of the Drum and Bell towers so we finally got the pictures we wanted. Once our bellies were full and we had enough supplies for the train ride, we made our way to the train station for the 14 hour journey back. Just a couple hours after getting back to Mianyang, we were teaching our first classes of the second semester.
Stay tuned for more updates about our other recent travels; next is the Chinese Labor Day holiday. Our school combined all of the holidays for the semester to create a 9 day holiday, so we visited China’s capital city, Beijing.