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Siem Reap Airport

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A few weeks ago someone sent me an email to say that they had seen my photos from my trips to Siem Reap, and wanted to send an update on the new airport. Here is the picture that I posted, on August 15, 2002, along with the caption, "Beautiful Siem Reap International Airport welcomed us to Cambodia after a quick 30 minute flight from Bangkok. They are currently building a new modern terminal, and expect to have 4 million passengers a year by 2012."




And here is the picture that I was sent by email a few weeks ago, along with this message: "I was there in March this year & this is what the new airport looks like - Arrivals on the left & departures on the right as seen from the airside."

siem_reap_airport.jpg

Quite an improvement, isn't it? (You can click on the pic for a really big version.)

So until I started writing this post and looking back at my pictures from Angkor Wat, did I realize that today is my 6th Anniversary of moving to Thailand. Mark and I went to Angkor a few days after I arrived in Thailand and it turned out to be one of the best trips of my life. Some of the photos (that I was just looking through) still stick very clearly in my mind. Here are a few of my favorites:

I can't believe that six years have gone by already. What an amazing ride this has been!

Greedy Expats in Cambodia

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I have heard of abuses (corruption?) in the NGO community in SE Asia, but I didn't realize it was as bad as a recent article suggests. An article from today's "The Australian" website said that up to 80% of international aid goes to cushy expat employment packages. "A country director for a prominent international charity typically receives a $250,000 package that includes a spacious villa, four-wheel-drive and schooling perks."

If this is true, it is really, really sad. Just taking into account the salary alone, someone making $250,000 a year is making $684 EVERY DAY. According to the CIA World Factbook, Cambodians make an average of around $2,500 EVERY YEAR. So this rich expat is making a an Cambodian annual salary EVERY FOUR DAYS. Makes you wonder who is truly the recipient of the "charity".

I mentioned the book "Leaving Microsoft to Change the World" before. One stat that Tim Woods mentions is that the NGO he founded (Room to Read) only has a 10% overhead, which means that 90% of all donated funds go to the people they are trying to help. That is a very respectable number.

Just goes to show that when you make those contributions, it's a good idea to check to see where they are really going...

The article I referenced above is Expat pay absorbs aid to Cambodia

On our third and final day in Cambodia, we woke up VERY early, caught the tuk-tuk at 5:45 AM and headed to Angkor Wat. The idea was to experience a calm peaceful, solitary sunrise, but we were amazed that many busloads of tourists (most of whom were Japanese) had beat us there and were setting up their camera tripods in front of the temple and were noisily waiting for the sun to appear.

We quickly walked past the tourists and up to the very top of Angkor. Even there, a few people had gathered, but everyone was quiet and respectful. The sunrise was quite amazing -- not so much the way the sun looked as it rose above the horizon, for I have seen many sunrises and sunsets before. But instead it was more of a spiritual feeling this time with my back propped up against this amazing ancient temple, looking out over the trees, listening to the birds calling to each other and watching the yellow light dancing on the grey carved sandstone.

The afternoon of the third day was spent at the floating village on the great lake called Tonle Sap. When Mark and I visited last time during the rainy season, Tonle Sap was much wider, and the floating village was closer to the main road. But now in the dry season the village is out on the lake. We hired a boat for $10 each to get a closer look at the floating houses and restaurants. I recognized a few of the same buildings (like a Christian Church) but it was funny to see them in a different location.

So all in all, it was another great trip. The temple ruins of Angkor are still as impressive as they were to me three years ago. This time around I knew a little bit more about the context of SE Asian history, which made the experience all the more richer. Unfortunately, though, the tourist bubble of Siem Reap don't allow one to learn much about modern Cambodian culture, but perhaps I can explore the country a bit on my own at some later date.

On our second day in Cambodia, we took the same tuk-tuk out about 30 kilometers to see the "River of a Thousand Lingas", or Kabal Spean, and then stopped at the tiny but intricately carved sandstone temple called Banteay Srei. The road out to Bantey Srei has been paved, but the remaining distance to the river has not. By the time we arrived, we were coated with a thin layer of red dust.

In the afternoon, we went in the opposite direction to visit three temples near the town of Roluos. These temples date from the 9th Century and therefore pre-date the 10th-13th century temples around Angkor Wat. They weren't as impressive as the Angkor temples, but they were still fun to climb and admire.

After another long day in the tuk-tuk, we again found ourselves at the pool eating snacks and relaxing. We headed out for a little "night-life", which in Siem Reap it consists of drinking beer at foreign-owned pubs surrounded by white people. This area is truly a tourist bubble, like a dirty, run-down Disney World. But unfortunately, we don't have the time on this trip to break outside the bubble and to see what real life is like in Cambodia.

Angkor Wat First Day: Small Circuit Temples

Stephen and I arrived in Cambodia late last night. Our plan for the three days we are here is a very similar schedule to the one that Mark and I had three years ago. The first day (today) we hired a tuk-tuk to take us on the "Small Circuit" of temples at Angkor. We visited the Banyon, Baphuon, Phimeanakas, the Leper King Terrace, the Elephant Terrace, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei, and finally to the grand-daddy of them all, Angkor Wat.

Luckily, the crowds weren't TOO terrible, and the weather was not TOO hot. And we found the tuk-tuk a great way to get around. It was slow enough to be able to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the area, comfortable enough with a nice padded seat and a roof to block the sun, and certainly cheap enough at only $12 per day for an all-day tour.

We are staying at the Auberge Mont Royal hotel in Siem Reap, where my friend Martin is the General Manager. It was a decent hotel with a great little pool area. After touring the ruins today, we rested our weary bodies next to the pool and snacked on beer, fried spring rolls and fruit.

We are noticing that prices are a bit high here in Siem Reap -- even more expensive than Bangkok. Most meals are $3-4 and our mid-range hotel is $30 per night. And also thanks to all of the tourists, we are getting a lot of offers from tuk-tuk drivers, book sellers, massaeures, and restuarant employees. We are also getting a lot of attention from dirty little children and amputees who are begging for money. I have mixed feelings about this kind of begging, since I know that most Cambodians have had horrible experiences over the last few decades.

But on the good side of being in a tourist bubble is that most everyone speaks fairly good English. I've also seen a lot of Cambodians leading tours in French, Japanese and Korean.
I don't know how the rest of the education system is, but the language skills are
quite impressive!

Angkor Wat Photos are posted

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I finally posted my favorite photos from last week's trip to Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

I have been able to make a few changes to the look and feel of the site, and the navigation, but I feel like I still have a long way to go, so please bear with me. I thought you might like to see the pics I have posted in the meantime, though. Let me know what you think about them.

Life in Bangkok is still good. I started looking for apartments today, and hope to start my job hunt next week. I am also starting to plan a trip to Northern Thailand -- to Chaing Mai and Chaing Rai sometime later this month.

After a 30 minute flight and a 30 minute line for the Cambodian visa at Siem Reap International Airport, Mark and I were on the backs of motorcycles headed for our hotel. Right away we could see that a great revitalization was going on -- everyone seemed to be working on building construction. Most of the new buildings were hotels that lined the road from the airport to the "downtown". In fact, it seemed as if every single building that we saw was built in the last two years. We later learned that our observations were correct.

Our motorcycle drivers offered to show us around the ruins at Angkor Wat for $7 for the day, so we took them up on it. It turned out to be a wise decision, as the same two guys drove us around for the next 3 days.

The entire rest of the day was spent climbing over the ruins of temples from the 11th - 13th century. Mark and I tried to think of what one word would describe what we saw: Unbelievable. Awesome. Fantastic. Phenomenal. We finally decided on "Un-imaginable". The shear scale (in number and size) of the ruins were mind-boggling. It was without a doubt one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.

That night we went to bed early, tired from scrambling over huge carved boulders, with anticipation of seeing the actual "Angkor Wat" the next day.

On the second day in Cambodia, Mark and I slept in, even though we had gone to bed early the night before. Our motorcycle drivers from the day before were waiting in front of the hotel when we stepped outside. The agenda for the day was to take a 35 km ride through the countryside to see the "River of a Thousand Lingas" with some waterfalls and stone carvings, and then to head back to see Angkor Wat itself.

The 30 km ride took us an hour and a half, as the road turned from a paved one-laner to a potholed clay one-laner. Again, words failed us as we tried to think about how to describe what we saw. Grass huts on stilts lined the road, naked babies played in the clay mud at the side, men bathed in their sarongs from a big cement container in their front yard, chickens, pigs, water buffalo, fields of rice as far as the eye could see, tuk-tuks and trucks and bikes and motorcycles and tourist busses all making their way down the narrow road.

When we finally got off the motorcycles, our drivers explained to us how the road we had been on continued on north to the Thailand border, and as few as 3 years ago was controlled by the Khmer Rouge and was a dangerous journey if not outright impossible. But now the people are free to move about as they wish. They went on to tell us that as few as 6 months ago, wild tigers roamed the mountain jungle we were about to hike through. But now that the mountain was open again to the public, the tigers were gone.

An uneventful 20 minute hike brought us to the waterfalls. The waterfalls were not that impressive themselves, but what was impressive was that the entire creek bed and the rocks around it were carved with Hindu figures from the same time period as the temples of Angkor. In the river bed iteslf, thousands of lingas had been carved (hence the name of the river). Again, the attention to detail and the beauty of the reliefs in the natural setting was overwhelming. The fact that no one was allowed to see them until only 6 months ago added to the thrill.

On the way back to town, we stopped at a small temple called Bantay Srei, and then went to Angkor Wat itself. It is billed as the largest temple in the world, and I believe it. Again, words failed us as we climbed the extremely steep and extrememly old carved stone staircases to the top. Un-imaginable. Phenomenal.

That night our motorcycle drivers took us to a Cambodian restaurant and left for the night. We walked back through town as motorcycles flew by and tuk-tuks pulled up and asked if we wanted a ride. Ahhh, Siem Reap: small but loud. Chaotic and dusty. Struggling to build and repair and turn itself into one of the greatest tourist destinations in the world overnight.

Our third and final day in Siem Reap started early. We had a 1 PM plane to catch, and we wanted to see as much as we could. Our drivers picked us up at the hotel and we headed in the opposite direction from Angkor to a floating village. Siem Reap is near the largest lake in SE Asia, called Tonle Sap. Every year during the rainy season, the lake doubles in size. Since the rainy season had just started, the lake had begun its annual rise.

We turned of the main road onto a dirt road, and near where the road disappeared into the rising lake, we got off the motorcyles and boarded a long-tail boat. We were accompanied by a crew made up of a Cambodian guy, his little brother, and the brother's friend. For the next hour or so we traveled down a stream that was flanked on both sides by house boats. We watched as Cambodians on the left and Vietnamese on the right went about their daily life. Some were fishing, some were spreading out shrimp on the boat decks to dry, some were bathing the children, some were just laying in their hammocks. We made it out to the lake and tied our boat to one of the half-submerged trees. The two young boys with us (they were 16, but they looked 10) immediately jumped barefoot into the tree and began climbing it. It looked like great fun, so of course I had to join them. For the next half hour or so, the three of us sat in the very top of this tree, rocking in the breeze 20 feet above the 20 foot deep water.

After we made it back to the submerged road, we got back on the motorcycles and headed back into town for one last lunch and a ride to the airport. Luckily we got to the airport an hour before our flight was scheduled to depart, because it took off 30 minutes early!

As we flew into Bangkok, Mark and I were both amazed at how civilized and modern the city is, compared to the adventure that was Siem Reap.

Back in Bangkok After Cambodia

We are back in Bangkok safely. But before we left, we visted a floating village on Tonle Sap, the biggest lake in SE Asia. Again, lots of pictures and memories I hope to share when I get a chance (soon, I hope!)

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