Monday, December 22, 2014

Cambodia - Day 6: Siem Reap

When I woke up in the morning, I could hear a repetitive recording of what sounded like someone singing. I went down for breakfast and asked a member of the hotel staff if he could explain it. His answer: “ghosts.” I learned that someone had died, and that was the reason for the singing and chanting that I could hear wafting over the neighborhood. When I went back to our room after eating some fresh fruit and drinking a couple cups of coffee, I looked out the window (from the balcony at the end of the hallway, we could see over the rooftops of the neighborhood buildings) to see from where the sound was emanating. One building about two blocks away displayed a long white flag that was suspended from its balcony. A gold-draped tent had been erected in the street in front of the apartment building, and the seemingly requisite singing and chanting lasted from 7AM until, as we discovered later that day, 7PM.

Angkor Thom.
Anyway, when we had finished our breakfast, we drove out to Angkor Thom, the largest of the temples in the countryside near Siem Reap. Tour buses swarmed, tourists clustered here and there like single-minded sightseeing amoeba, tuk-tuks en masse with their drivers snoozing in the back or standing around in small groups smoking, and elephants ambled along in the heat and air thick with dustclouds. Angkor Thom, a rather large complex of structures, was subdivided into various smaller points of interest, one of which was a marvelously preserved and restored three-tiered temple adorned with bas-relief scenes depicting elephants and horses, warriors and all manner of creature in procession or battle. More impressive, however, were the numerous gigantic smiling heads carved out of stone blocks atop the towers and pillars of the temple that overlooked a maze of lichen-spotted passageways tinged in rust-reds, patina-greens and streaky brown-blacks from years of deterioration. This site was really overwhelmed with tourists. After wandering around for a bit, we all had to go to the bathroom, so, in search of a public restroom, we high-tailed it through the remaining ruins. We had had our fill. Before going back, we stopped for a refreshing pineapple and then returned to our tuk-tuk to continue on to our next destination.

Angkor Wat.
In comparison, Angkor Wat was nearly deserted. We had arrived at midday on a Monday and the throngs of tourists that we had encountered earlier in the day seemed to be taking lunch breaks, so we practically had the temple to ourselves! We walked along the raised stone promenade lined on both sides with the stone snake balustrade of Naga and crossed the wide mote around the temple to reach the entrance. Angkor Wat, the most famous and, perhaps, most impressive of all the temples. It was easily one of the most preserved of any of the temples we had seen. There were beautifully preserved bas-relief carvings around the entire exterior wall; all the columns and door jambs were decorated in a similar manner. In the center of the temple, there was a high tower, but children under twelve were not permitted to climb any higher, so Angela and I both continued separately, taking turns watching Vito at the bottom of what must have looked to him like a perilously fun flight of stairs to climb. He shed a few tears, but, in the end, seemed to understand, especially because there were other kids that had been denied access. When Angela descended, she mentioned how it was really impressive to see how the temple was surrounded by the jungle and that it seemed to be far from civilization, subsumed by nature. When we had had our fill and were returning to our tuk-tuk, we noticed the swarms of tourists re-emerging from the hives of tour buses that had arrived.


Bas-relief Apsara.
On the way back to our hotel, we stopped at Artisan Angkor to look for some souvenirs. Angela found a carved wooden Buddha head that she liked, and we bought a gold lacquer picture on a black background depicting three Apsara (traditional courtesans) dancers based on the engravings on many of the temples, similar to the ones in the picture on the left.

Back at the hotel, we rested for a few hours, made plans for the next day and discussed our dinner plans. While Vito and I penned a couple of postcards, Angela left to get a massage at Bodia Spa. We planned to meet her a little later and, when the time was right, set out on foot to walk to Pub Street, which was where the spa was located. I thought we were going in the right direction, but Viti and I got a little lost. Everything looked different in the dark with the lights and throngs of tourists, other pedestrians, bicycles, mopeds, tour buses and tuk-tuks all tousling for right-of-way. I had been looking for a book to bring to Koh Rong Island, our Christmas destination, and, as Angela wasn’t ready when we arrived, we trotted back up the street to a used bookstore that I had seen on the way to the spa. The selection was unimpressive in that there were not many modern titles, and, without mining the shelves very scrupulously for a hidden treasure, we returned to the spa empty-handed.


When Angela was through with her massage, we walked until we found Le Malroux, a French restaurant that I had read about both in reviews online and also in the Lonely Planet guide to Cambodia. Many of the businesses were displaying Christmas lights and other holiday decorations, and we even passed a group of Christmas carolers on our way to the restaurant. There were 30 or 40 people singing on a corner near Pub Street—a mixed group of foreigners and, perhaps, locals—but it really put us in the Christmas spirit. The restaurant, on the corner of a busy intersection, was quite nice. We sat in the outdoor seating underneath an arbor overhung with orchids. The meal didn't impress us much, and we walked home after finishing our meal. In the hotel, we Skyped my parents before going to bed. We had an 8AM appointment the next day and we needed to get our rest.

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