Day II: The Real Angkor Experience
One may argue that Angkor is best experienced through an air-conditioned car or bus. Another might rebuttal, sincere that by mode of a speeding motorcycle or tuk tuk is the way to go. And the lavish spenders would drop their two riels with the argument of a hot air balloon ride overlooking the majestic temples. But in my opinion, neither options leave an everlasting experience more memorable than the simplicity of a bicycle.
Seven in the morning signaled our start for Friday, the official start of the three-day new year festivities. Susan and Tony, in their motorized tuk tuk, dropped me off at Orchidae Guesthouse where I rented my cheap $1.50 per day ol' school Schwinn.
"Peace and sayonara," I screamed towards the two and off I peddled towards the Angkor Archaeological Park.
"K'yom jea koun Khmer," I smiled proudly in response while passing uniform staffs that guarded the entrance.
The long paved road leading to the first turn before seeing the first peak of the Angkor towers seemed endless under the blistering sun. At the foot, one can see the humongous moat that surrounds the complex. In ancient times, crocodiles were strategically placed in these waters to fend off intruders. Today, young kids are more commonly found swimming inside.
"Oh, magical Angkor! Our people will rise again because of the perfection you have inspired us everyday!" Time and space at a standstill as I gaze out in the distance…
We stop to enjoy a bowl of Khmer noodles (ka-tiev) at one of the many food stalls paralleled to Angkor Wat. With food and morning coffee in my system, I was ready to resume my adventure.
As I parked my bicycle to walk on the steps leading to the center of Angkor Wat, Steffen and Emilia appears out of nowhere among thousands that have now mushroomed the complex.
"Are you guys ready for the ride of your life?" I asked the two. Both smiled to the challenge and off we left from Angkor Wat to begin the long journey that awaited us.
I lead the team in the opposite direction of the 25+ kilometer trip. This route proved best as I rightfully anticipated less traffic and people.
About 10-minutes into the ride, we stopped to observe two girls encounter with the local monkeys. The sweet corn that they had in their plastic bag triggered two small adorable macabre monkey's attention and appetite. What started as an innocent observation ended with an uneasy weariness as the monkeys aggressively tried to "attack" the couple. The girls smartly threw the corn off into the woods and we all jetted the scene in our bicycles and motorcycles! We laughed it off.
We're now off the paved road and onto the dusty red dirt path. Here, I lead them to one of the entrance gates of Angkor Wat that looms out in the far distance. Many snapshot flickers and gallons of water consumed to catch our breaths before we resume.
Prasat Kravan, characterized with its red laterite stone passes our trail as we are now on concrete road. Many kilometers later, we find parking to Banteay Kdey temple.
This pedestrian friendly temple is strikingly similar to Preah Khan with its long symmetrical layout. Disabled and limbless mine victims play traditional music and groups of choir boys with decorated banana leaves crowns entertain tourists and locals as they walk their way to the main complex. I snapped some photos of the kids and donated 1000 riels to each before proceeding.
It took us about 30-minutes before leaving the complex to the adjacent Srass Srong. In ancient times, the king would meditate on the elevated platform overlooking the large reservoir. We did not meditate, instead, we mesmerized our eyes at a group of kids enjoying a nice swim inside the warm waters while waiting for our fresh sugarcane drink. Nothing beats a refreshing cold sweet sugarcane on a typical April day in Cambodia.
I extended my stay in the area to chit chat with loyal vendors who I made friends in previous trips.
"Oun, do you remember bong?" I asked several familiar faces who fight for our attention to buy their products.
"Jaa, of course, I remember. Last time, you came with three barangs (foreigners) from the States," rightfully, the kids answer. This was months back when friends from Washington state visited. We left the area after purchasing several traditional Khmer pajama-like pants called "kao a-jaa."
Our next stop came at Ta Prohm, the famous complex known for its larger than life trees that devours out the crevices of the temple walls. My two Swedish friends were amazed at the spectacle -- a strange natural phenomenon only validated with our own eyes. I tried to find the temple caretaker, an elderly man made famous after the front cover cameo of Lonely Planet 2004 edition. I was told by a guard that he suffered an illness and have been recovering. Our privilege bellies were growling again.
We had a simple yet tasty, but overpriced stir-fried noodles at the entrance of Ta Prohm. Exhausted and satisfied, we rested under the shaded vendor stall for 30-minutes to enjoy our meal before resuming our trip.
At this point of the bicycle trek, we have accumulated at least 15 frequent peddler mileages and about two-thirds complete of the 360 revolution. The other major temples we explored before leading up to our final stop of Bayon were Ta Keo, Baphuon, Vimean Akas, The Elephant Terraces and The Leper King.
The last four temples in the previous series are clustered together. We had an adventure going through almost impossible tracks with our bikes. Many times, we had to carry it up endless stone stair steps, low level gate entrances, and oversized pebbles that made our maneuvering difficult.
Bayon ranks on the top five most visited temples in the Angkor region. The others, in my view, are Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srey and Phnom Bakheng. As usual, we had to fight the overcrowd with other international tourists from virtually every language imaginable. The smiles of the four face Bayons are all unique -- and all fight for the right position to take a picture in front of the most "fullest" smile face on the top level. I also sat through a round of fortune telling by a local wise man. Here, two girls, crowded by spectators like myself surround to eavesdrop in the conversation. The language used was too advance for me so I cannot recall what the lok ta said.
Completely exhausted, our bodies ached after we arrived in front of Angkor Wat, completing our 360 revolution. By now, we have accumulated around 25 miles of peddling. We took a very lazy stroll back to our separate hotels to rest before contemplating our evening plans.
Initially, we had plans to catch the sunset on top of Phnom Bakheng, a must visit for all tourists. Here, on the highest natural point in Angkor, thousands make the pilgrimage to catch a glimpse of Angkor Wat, surrounding temples and the main attraction -- the postcard snaps of the sunset. As many readers might recall, my first experience at Bakheng in early September 2005, the crowd gave a standing ovation. Foolish as it may seems to skip such opportunity, we enjoyed a relaxing night at the Cambodian Cultural Village (CCV) instead.
The CCV is the closest equivalent to America's Disneyland. It's an amusement park but with no rides. Instead, in this mega-size complex are re-creation of the diverse communities of the country. For example, the Chinese-style temples, hill tribes of the Pnorng, fisherman quarter -- around 15 in total. In each of these communities, visitors will be entertained by CCV's talented group of young artists -- as they dance, sing, and act. Cambodia's Halloween (Pachum Ben) holiday, I glued myself watching a beautiful horror show -- Khmer style. But today's visit was on the occasion of the New Year, so the performance reflected the festive holiday.
CCV is a popular spot among the middle to upper echelon of society on any weekend, but today's visit was beyond my anticipation! The road leading to the park dots with tons of magnificent pieces of architecture, as new high rise hotels emblazons the over congested road. The scene was in casual chaos when we arrived.
For Khmers, entrance fees are a cheap 5000 riels (USD $1.25), whereas foreigners, a well-worth the price tag of $7.50 (I think). Of course, all of us aneakajun (expat Khmers) talked in getting the Khmer rate. My two Swedish friends and I thought they got away, but once we walked through the gated fence, they refuse their entrance. They reverted to purchasing a non-Khmer tickets. It was worth a try, right?
Once inside, we visited two Museums. One has artifacts, paintings, and other props glorifying the Angkor time period. On the wall, a beautiful larger than life painting depicts an epic battle with the Cham people. The adjacent building houses a wax museum that spotlights Khmer icons ranging from the King and Queen of Khmer music, Sin Sissamouth and Ros Sereysothear to King Ang Duong, respectively.
Several thousands converged to the village scene to watch a live performance under the full moon. Congested and sticky because of the humid weather, all of us fight for position to catch a glimpse of the stage.
It's around 9pm now. Exhausted from walking and sightseeing, it was time for dinner. Today's choice: The Soup Dragon, which specializes in Vietnamese and Khmer cuisine found on the far west end of Bar Street. As usual, Tony ordered on behalf of the group. Our dessert was an unlisted treat created by Tony -- three deep fried bananas dipped in flour topped with two scoops of vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup with one luscious red cherry. Satisfied, we left to our hotels and guesthouses at around 11pm.
That night, the three of us (Tony, Suko and I) stayed up talking out in the garden until the wee hours of morning. At 3:30 am, we called it a night.
Day III teaser ... The Pilgrimage to the sacred Phnom Kulen.