Saturday, January 12, 2008

Don't Fear the Siem Reaper

So we entered Cambodia to the raucous laughter of 10 uniformed immigration officials. We weren't sure what was funny, but it was a heck of a way to be introduced to a country. Our next surprise was that our friend Kim (AKA the Oregon Smasher) decided to pop over from Vietnam and travel with us for the duration of our Cambodia time. Though the logistics of our meet up weren't completely settled on, seeing her pull up on the back of a moped, frazzled and briefly not recognizing us made it seem like we had planned it perfectly. We spent the evening enjoying cheap eats and planning our trip to nearby Angkor Wat.

But first, a brief note about the town of Siem Reap. After the languid rhythm of Laos, the city is a bit of a shock. With the UNESCO World Heritage draw of Angkor nearby, the place is a boomtown. But in the context of Cambodia, a boomtown tends to mean massive construction of luxury hotels without paying any mind to city planning and infrastructure like garbage pickup, or paving roads. The result is that the town feels a bit schizophrenic. It is vibrant and dirty, chaotic and filled with tourists.

On to Angkor. We decided to get the three day pass because our research made clear that one day was nowhere near enough. But with all of the research came the usual anxiety: everyone raves about Angkor Wat and we worried that we would be underwhelmed. There was not reason to be concerned. The place is amazing. Representing 400 years of Khmer culture, the ruins are a massive conglomeration of buildings filled with intricate bas relief carvings seemingly on every surface. What we hadn't fully comprehended was the scale of the entire area. Structures are spread out over a 20 KM square area whose organization, some believed, was an early representation of the universe. What that meant for us was that we had to hire a tuk tuk for each day just to get around.

Someone somewhere along our travels recommended we do the smaller structures first, working our way to Angkor Wat. We spent the first day exploring the outlying structures northeast of the main Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom central complexes. Our first and possibly favorite stop was at Preah Kahn, an enormous and intricate labyrinth of buildings that combined well preserved carvings with complete ruin. It's hard to really describe the experience of seeing all of these sites, other than to say the buildings all combine Hindu and Buddhist iconography, but are all unique, and climbing unbelievably steep stone stairs and scrambling over ruins results in a sweaty sweaty day. (And at some point we'll get around to uploading all those photos).

By the time we got to the actual structure of Angkor Wat on the second day, we were still amazed. We decided to stay into the evening to watch sunset from a hilltop temple, along with about 1,000 other people, which turned into a fun people watching opportunity and pretty great sunset.

-K & D

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