The Wonders of Angkor: Afternoon at Angkor Wat

Me at Angkor Wat

Me at Angkor Wat

The layout of Angkor Wat itself is very symbolic, not surprisingly. It has three levels, representing Hell, Earth and Heaven. Pools abound. And nothing quite prepares you for the scale of the thing – it is enormous!

The first level of the temple has four different series of bas-reliefs, primarily covering a variety of Hindu stories. Sadly, you can see where people keep touching the stone, as it has changed color. (Granted, it can make it a little easier to see the contrasts!) Some of my favorite carvings were of the monkeys.

While that first level may be the most interesting artistically, there are breath-taking views everywhere.

Level three – Heaven – is at the top of the temple, and you can walk around the base of the five towers that make up Angkor Wat’s iconic silhouette. It’s no mean feat going up there, however, and while I made it up just fine, I had some difficulty going down. Let me put this in perspective. One “level” is many stories high, and the stairs, once again, are at about a 90 degree angle.

I made it up and down these crazy high stairs!

I made it up and down these crazy high stairs!

I wasn’t going to let something like a severe fear of heights prevent me from seeing something I’ve wanted to see for years! And thank goodness for my friend’s help – a travel buddy is a must when you need to face your fear.

We headed out of Angkor Wat, admiring more vistas as we left to kill some time with a beer at the foot of Phnom Bakeng, where we planned to watch the sunset. Unfortunately, several hundred other people planned on watching the sunset with us, so I didn’t get a very good photo of the sunset itself. But some friendly young monks posed for me, and I had a great view of Angkor Wat in the setting sun, so it was still worthwhile!

The Wonders of Angkor: The First Morning

My Park Pass

My Park Pass

I was a little worried that I would be disappointed when I went to Siem Reap to explore the various temples in Angkor Archeological Park, because I had such high expectations at the very least for Angkor Wat, not to mention the other temples. But it completely lived up to expectations! It really is as spectacular as all the hype about it, amazingly enough. Get ready for a lot of pictures, because even though I pruned what I decided to post, it was impossible to prune enough!

I had left Ho Chi Minh City for two nights in Phnom Penh, where I took the cooking class I wrote about earlier and met another American who was traveling to Siem Reap as well. We decided to share a guide and driver for our first day in Siem Reap, when we visited much of what is called the “little tour”, encompassing Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (including Bayon), Ta Prohm, and a couple of other shorter stops. Exhausting but fabulous!

Me at Ta Prohm temple

Me at Ta Prohm temple


We started out the day with Ta Prohm, the temple featured in all the postcards of banyan trees growing into or on the temple, and also known for its cameo in the Tomb Raider movie. Seeing the trees was amazing. Given how big they are, they must be incredibly old. Here and there, they are pushing the temple stones away, but in other places, it looks like they are supporting the temple. Ta Prohm also has some lovely carvings. Something you see throughout the various Angkor period temples (and on some of the earlier temples) is figures of dancers, called apsara. I was told the various poses of the dance reflect the steps of planting, growing and harvesting rice.

We headed towards Ta Keo, but unfortunately they were working on maintenance/restoration and had closed it off for the day. I was ok with skipping one set of super-steep stairs as I suspected there were many more to come!

Ta Keo

Ta Keo

Next we entered the Angkor-era royal city of Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom’s walls are well worth seeing, as the various gates consist of monumental stone heads representing the king or a god, and there are several terraces as well. Then within the walls lie a number of temples and royal buildings, the best known of which is Bayon. (Yes, that would be the monumental head temple – forty or fifty of them, I’ve heard.)

We entered through a victory gate:

and continued on to Bayon. Bayon is a bit of a contrast, because not only does it have monumental sculpture at the top of the temple, but it is surrounded by some of the finest carvings from the period. These carvings show scenes of going to and coming from battle:

But the morning wasn’t over yet! The next temple to explore was Baphuon. Climbing it was…interesting, for someone scared of heights. (The stairs are awfully steep!) There aren’t really major carvings with this temple, but a great view from the top.

Interestingly, the back of the temple itself forms a “statue” of a giant reclining Buddha. Can you see the curve of its face on the left?

We passed the ancient seat of the king, the only part of the palace to be built in stone, apparently. All of the other non-religious royal buildings were built of wood and no longer exist. I passed on climbing up this one.

We headed out of Angkor Thom through another gate and onto the Elephant Terrace, where the king apparently watched elephant fights eight hundred years ago. At this point it was time for lunch, before heading to spend much of the afternoon at Angkor Wat. We ate at one of the touristy restaurants across from Angkor Wat, nothing too great, but not bad Khmer food. Fresh coconut juice drunk directly from the coconut helped to fortify us for the afternoon – when people mention how hot Siem Reap is, they aren’t kidding! Very, very hot and humid.

Mice, Monks, and Drums

image

What do mice and monks have to do with one another? English conversation practice at Big Brother Mouse!

Big Brother Mouse is a Lao non-profit that works to bring Lao language books to village children who may never have owned a book before, or even been exposed to anything but a dry textbook. Laos has a big problem with illiteracy, so this is a great non-profit. (For more information, check out their website at:www.bigbrothermouse.com)

Foreigners who want to volunteer are directed to the twice-daily English conversation sessions at Big Brother Mouse. Georgina and I headed over to see whether they needed any volunteers that morning. Speaking good English is key to getting a tourism job, which for many Lao is the path to (relative) prosperity.

We were greeted by a row of six or seven young men turning expectantly towards us. Apparently we were the only volunteers that morning – no pressure! We chatted and translated and explained for two really intense, rewarding hours.

Conversation with people of such a different culture, living under a communist government, can be tricky at times. We needed to steer away from any discussion of religion (though we could ask the two young monks there about their experiences as monks). Proselytizing is illegal and you don’t want anyone to say that your explanation of a term is actually proselytizing. Ditto for politics, of course.

One of the encounters that affected me most deeply was a high school senior who spoke great English and was planning on dropping out of school to get a job. He wanted to know what I would advise him to do, because he deeply respected my opinion as a “falang” or foreigner. (After we spoke, he gave me a very respectful “nob” – the gesture of respect where you put your hands together and raise them in front of your face. The higher your hands are, the more respect you’re showing – and his were almost completely in front of his face.) Foreigners need to remember just how much their actions may influence locals, especially in developing countries.

Then there were the little funny moments of language exchange, like when I tried to explain “jumpy” and one of the guys thought it a synonym of bumpy – as exemplified by Lao roads!

Both Georgina and I were tired out when we came out of our conversation sessions. We walked around a bit and had lunch, after which I popped out briefly to visit an incredible wat she had visited the day before, Xieng Thong. The last two editions of Lonely Planet Laos have had one of its buildings on their covers, the bright pink walls covered in shiny mosaics. I honestly didn’t think the walls in the wat would be pink, but I was wrong!

The main sanctuary building is actually red, but it too is covered in shining colored mirrored glass shards within mosaics. I haven’t seen anything like it in all the was I’ve visited thus far.

There is a little smaller shrine that is pink, also covered in the mosaic work.

The sun was beating down pretty mercilessly, so I headed back to the restaurant. We left around four, and heard drumming coming from each of the wats on “Main Street”. We later found out that it’s a local tradition. Legend has it that giants used to live in the area, preying on the people of Luang Prabang. The monks made a deal with the giants, who would stop eating people as long as they got this drum tribute every day at four.

From the main street we went to a laid-back bar/restaurant/cafe called Utopia. I had heard that it was “the” place to go, so I figured it for a backpackers bar. Not the case, at least if you’re there before eight or nine. Loved it!

Solo Travel Doesn’t Mean Traveling Alone: Luang Prabang

The night I arrived at Manichan Guesthouse, I met an Englishwoman named Georgina who was traveling solo and interested in many of the things I was – namely, weaving and cooking classes. The next day at breakfast, I met a woman photographer who ran a non-profit working with hilltribe women who were using cameras to document their lives. There was also a Dutch young woman doing an internship at a fair trade store in the Old Town. A few days later, I met a compatriot named Sadaf who is also a solo traveller (and actually traveled overland from Capetown to Cairo!). Two Belgians, Pierre and Roxanne, were also traveling around the world. This has been the first time in my travels that I’ve stayed at a place where so many people were solo travellers, many on career breaks, most at least in their late twenties or thirties. The atmosphere was fantastic, people sitting around the big wooden table in the courtyard talking over breakfast or after a day out. These were interesting conversations, discussing travel and Laos and wide-ranging topics. The guesthouse owner Peter would join in, often over a game of Uno with him and his son. In fact, it became the kind of experience that the books and blogs say solo travel is about – traveling solo so you can meet new people and do things with them. An adorable fur ball puppy just rounded out how ridiculously wonderful my stay was.

Georgina and Jacques

Georgina and Jacques

As part of this, my first morning in Luang Prabang was spent in part in changing my scheduled classes so I could do them at the same time as Georgina. I was very excited to be taking both a cooking and a weaving class, and we thought it would be fun to have company. My plan is to take a cooking class in each country, so I can better compare the cuisines.

I also got to meet up with an old college friend who currently lives in Cambodia but was in town for the first ever Luang Prabang half marathon that weekend. (What are the odds? Apparently pretty high since Georgina also knew someone running the race!)

Saturday's half marathon

Saturday’s half marathon


Then I just wandered through Luang Prabang’s Old City (a UNESCO site), soaking in the laid-back, former French colonial atmosphere. Wats line “Main Street”, while white houses with teak trim remind you of the French colonial presence. Heavy traffic is forbidden in the Old Town, so only an occasional car goes past, though tuk tuks and motor bikes may run you over! Cafés and massage parlors are everywhere. The Old Town is on a peninsula between two rivers, so it’s only a block down a narrow, stair lined alley to get from the main street to the Nam Khan.

I stopped in the small but interesting TAEC museum, a center documenting the different tribes and ethnic groups in Laos. They showcase the different textiles from the different (large) tribes, which I find fascinating. For example, the Hmong use crosstitch a lot, often in orange.

The shop at TAEC also has some amazing examples of textiles, not as cheap as buying it directly from the craftspeople, of course. I bought myself a reversible cap since packing away my wide-brimmed straw hat hadn’t done it any favors. (I was also planning on being around people more in Luang Prabang than I had been elsewhere, and wanted something at least a nod closer to fashionable!)

I ate lunch and blogged at Le Patio, the cafe attached to TAEC, in an effort to avoid the blazing sun. They use some of their textiles as table runners, which I enjoyed idly admiring as I sipped my (almost toothpaste-tasting) mint syrup and bubbly water concoction.

I managed to see a lot of the Old Town without going out in the worst of the sun too much, always a plus!

Serene Buddhas and an Ancient Capital: Sukhothai

On Sunday, I headed up north, taking the train up to Sukhothai. The Sukhothai Historical Park houses the remnants of the 13th-14th century capital of arguably the first Thai (as opposed to Khmer) kingdom.

The train went to Phitsanolok, about an hour from Sukhothai. The trip was on a two-car special express train – I was rather puzzled to see the train because the car I was in seemed to be the engine! If you looked straight ahead down the middle of the car, you saw a door and the train tracks stretched ahead. I had bought a snack for the train, but surprisingly they served us complimentary cookies and coffee, and them later some curry for lunch.

Train curry!

Train curry!

The scenery was definitely interesting. We passed through Ayuthaya, another ancient capital, and could see tantalizing glimpses from the train tracks. Next we passed through Lopburi, where clustered around a shrine were more monkeys than I’ve ever seen before, in the shrine area, walking to it, in the street. Remember the deer in Nara? Well it’s the monkeys in Lopburi in much the same way.

We passed a lot of water, explaining why traditionally Thai houses are on stilts. We passed lots of those, too. There were many water lilies and more crane-like birds (herons, egrets, don’t know) than I’ve ever seen before. I saw some emaciated cow-like animals that seemed to have a hump (so I’m not sure if they were cows and I could just see bone structure normally hidden on a well-fed cow, or if they were some hybrid). I even saw a water buffalo!

I noticed a Western couple getting off the train at the same time so I asked whether they were going to Sukhothai and if so whether we could go in a group. As we stood looking at a map of Phitsanulok, a couple of guys speaking English joined us and we decided that a tuk-tuk to the bus station made sense. So five of us AND our luggage somehow squeezed into one tuk-tuk and away we went.

We found the bus to Sukhothai pretty easily and sat in the back by the luggage. It was a local bus, so it stopped frequently to let people on and off. A bunch of tiny older women got on, clearly coming back from selling their wares at the market. Our backpacks gradually were surrounded by piles of (probably handmade) baskets, bags of chili peppers, and finally a mesh bag of (live!) frogs. It was a great, if not terribly comfortable, trip.

The humidity in Sukhothai made the Bangkok-like heat feel 10-15 degrees hotter as we trekked to out hotel. (Turns out the first couple I had spoken to were staying at the same hotel.) Luckily, the hotel was beautiful (think teak cabins and beds with mosquito netting and a princessy feel) and, more importantly, had air conditioning. I really needed it after walking around – I’ve never been as sweaty in my entire life as during the few days spent in Sukhothai!

The following day, I set out to explore the center part of the historical part on foot. I started with the museum and then headed into the park. Some of the ruins are little more than that, while others have enough left (or reconstructed) that they are mind-blowingly beautiful. It’s just a bunch of pillars and water and serene Buddhas. I’m not sure whether some of the reconstructed ruins have been overly reconstructed, but it is a UNESCO heritage site and they do tend to be quite picky about that. Anyway, I loved it, despite being taken aback by how manicured the park is.

I had lunch at a noodle shop patronized by several of the pink-shirted park staff (delicious Sukhothai noodles) and then called it a day. I spent the afternoon reading and posting in the blissful air conditioning.

I had planned for two full days in Sukhothai, which let me be very leisurely. I booked a tuk-tuk to the northern part of the Historical Park since it seemed too far to walk in the heat. It was early enough that I beat the crowds, too. The Buddha at Wat Si Chum is beautiful. I’m so glad I didn’t miss that part of the park! My tuk-tuk driver was very sweet, off-roading a bit to get me as close to the monuments as possible. I’d have been fine with keeping our exhaust away from the ruins, but there wasn’t any way to communicate that so I accepted the offering with the spirit with which it was intended. He also picked up a turtle crossing a road so I could hold the poor creature – luckily we passed a later pond so I could set him free again!

It wasn’t even ten when I finished my tuk-tuk tour, so I wrote postcards and then walked a mile or more to the post office. People on the whole are so friendly here – I had some random people wave and yell “hello” to me in Thai and English!

I wrapped up the day with an oil massage. Massage is so cheap here!

The Jesuit Trail: Estancias and the City of Cordoba

Back in Buenos Aires, I spent the day napping and hanging out in a hotel room – after I bought my tickets to Cordoba, near the Sierras. And the next day, Friday, I headed out. I had opted for a day ride so that I could see the countryside, but I must admit it wasn’t too exciting. It was mostly flat fields, often with grazing cattle. In many ways the landscape is similar to parts of the US Midwest.

Cows in the pampas - looks like the US Midwest

Cows in the pampas – looks like the US Midwest

While I arrived after dark, I still felt comfortable walking from the bus station to the hostel, which was pretty much a straight shot of about a mile. Perhaps because it was Friday night in a college town, there were a bunch of people (including many single women) walking towards the bus station with their bags in tow.

Since I arrived pretty late, I didn’t really see anything that night, but I planned to head out and explore the city the next day. Saturday morning I was lucky enough to strike up a conversation with an Australian woman who was visiting Cordoba for a few days, and was up for exploring the city together. And it’s an engaging city. The Jesuits made it their headquarters, founding the university in the early seventeenth century. To fund the university, they also founded estancias (loosely translated as ranches or farms) in the small cities around Cordoba, introducing wine to Argentina.

The historic center of Cordoba seems to have a Jesuit church every other block. Since they range over a period of time, their building materials are different, but they share a certain architectural similarity. People from the US Southwest or California may recognize the Spanish influence.

We had lunch at the market, finding a little Middle-Eastern restaurant that was pretty tasty. Our server was so nice, only charging us for the part of the bottle of wine that we drank (and since it was the middle of the day, we only had a glass or two).

We wanted to see the inside of the university, so we took a guided tour in the afternoon. There’s an excellent collection of old books, although much of the Jesuit riches disappeared after the Jesuits fell out of favor with the Spanish king and he disbanded them. I think things were handed over to the Dominicans (as in the monastic order).

There were several estancias I wanted to see, and I knew that some would be closed on Monday. (Surprisingly, they weren’t supposed to be closed on Sunday.) So Sunday I set out for the farther estancia, to the town of Jesus Maria. There is an estancia there, and another one (which my guidebook thought the most beautiful) about a 20-30 minute drive away, called the Estancia Santa Catalina. Apparently the only way to get to Santa Catalina is by taxi, so I wasn’t sure I was going to make it out there. However, when I got off the minibus in Jesus Maria and was trying to get my bearings for how to get to the Jesus Maria estancia, I ran into a British couple who had been on the university tour the previous afternoon. They offered to split the taxi ride with me, so we went over to one of the drivers to figure out how much it would cost. My Spanish more or less saw us through, and we decided it was worthwhile to head out.

We bumped and jolted along a country road, the distant Sierras growing closer, until we came to Estancia Santa Catalina. And it is absolutely lovely.

Arguably the most beautiful Jesuit estancia...

Arguably the most beautiful Jesuit estancia…


Unfortunately, it was also closed. The British couple mentioned to me that there were elections going on and that might be why it was closed. Our poor cab driver felt awful for not having known, and actually turned off the meter on the way back, only charging us about half of what it would have cost otherwise.
Me at the Estancia Santa Catalina

Me at the Estancia Santa Catalina


He dropped us at the Jesus Maria Estancia, which was (of course) also closed. We looked at the outside and then went across the street for a lovely, long lunch outside in the sun. While not the day any of us had been planning, it was actually still a good time.

With so much closed on Monday, I went to the few things in Cordoba that were open. I stopped by a museum that I think is called the City Museum, located near the old city center in a beautifully preserved colonial house. The rooms in the museum are set up to reflect historical Cordoban family life, though primarily focusing on the 19th century. While I really enjoy social history, and this was a good museum, I did feel a little huffy that they made me leave my purse at the front. (Really, a purse? No, my purse is not one of those over-the-shoulder purses the size of a tote.) Since we were supposed to take all documents/money/valuables with us, this resulted in my pretty much having to carry 90% of my purse contents in my pockets or my hands. The guard was chuckling as I kept pulling things out, and if my Spanish had been better, I would have asked him what he expected when he asked a woman to take out all important items from her bag. And then I saw a man in the museum with a briefcase. Go figure! Anyway, despite my having to juggle my belongings, as I said, it is a good museum!

I walked around some more, then had lunch and tea to kill the afternoon.

My bus back to Buenos Aires on Tuesday was a late, overnight bus, so I had plenty of time to head out to Alta Gracia to see another estancia. And this one was open! As well as absolutely lovely.

After the estancia, I wandered the town a little more, going to the Che Guevara Museum, in the house he pretty much grew up in. I must say the museum is really overpriced. I also went to the Manuel De Faella Museum, though it sadly wasn’t open since it was undergoing renovations. I’d had no idea that De Faella lived in Alta Gracia after Franco won the Spanish Civil War.

And then, finally, I headed back to Buenos Aires that night, and thus homeward a day or two later after visiting with some friends in BA.

The Hills of Valparaiso

I had heard so much about how beautiful Valparaiso is, I just had to go. And it’s a cheap and fast bus ride – I had picked up some tickets the day before for only a few dollars each way. (Granted, I got a special cheap rate going because I left Santiago around 7 in order to ensure I made it for the free walking tour at 10am, but the more expensive rate wasn’t much more.)

Well, beautiful is definitely one word for the city, as are gritty, dirty, and amazing. I was glad to go on a day trip only, because I kept being warned about various parts of the city I shouldn’t go to alone, or shouldn’t to after dark, or just shouldn’t go to, but I definitely can understand how people get the city under their skin. The houses are brightly painted and picturesque, stacked up a series of hills that go down dramatically to the water, a little like Positano on the Amalfi coast in Italy, but grittier. The hills are steep enough that there are funiculars up and down many of them, called ascensores in Spanish. Few of the ascensores are open today, since they don’t make a profit, but they are definitely part of the charm. And I definitely preferred going up one which was open to taking one of the brightly-painted flights of stairs!

One of the ascensores:

A true Valpo ascensor!

A true Valpo ascensor!

And a typical staircase…

Just one of the many, many staircases in Valpo

Just one of the many, many staircases in Valpo

I arrived at the bus station expecting to find a tourist information counter (as I had checked on whether one existed before heading out of Santiago). Apparently my information was wrong, as all I found was a tourist information board that was primarily a big map. However, the map showed me that I could walk to the trolleybus and it would eventually take me to Plaza Sotomayor, a big plaza where the naval buildings are located that is facing the port.

I joined my Tours for Tips group and we walked to the port, then to a street parallel to the port that used to be extremely rich and exclusive (in the 19th or early 20th centuries) and now has a bit of an air of faded glory. Then we headed up an ascensor on Cerro Alegre to see an amazing view of the city. (“Cerro” means hill.)

Valparaiso is just starting to get street art (as opposed to graffitti taggers), and we passed some brightly-colored murals as we walked along the top of Cerro Alegre, down and over to Cerro Concepcion. We stopped for some fresh, homemade alfajores on the way. As we explored the area, our guide told us that Valparaiso falls victim to fires pretty frequently, especially post-earthquake. With the narrow streets and no access for firetrucks in certain neighborhoods, it’s amazing as much of historic Valparaiso exists as it does.

After our tour ended, I ate some lunch (a Chilean stew) and took a bus up to Pablo Neruda’s Valparaiso house, La Sebastiana. It is another amazing house with amazing views. My favorite room was the living/dining room, another room with floor-to-ceiling windows. The outer wall is rounded, and in the center of the room is a round fireplace. In some ways, it’s very 1960’s, but in other ways it’s timeless. I had a lovely time there, and a great chat (in Spanish!) with the guard in the top room. I think it’s the first time I’ve had a conversation in Spanish with a Chilean (outside of the hostel) and understood something – the Chilean accent is so different from the Argentine!

I walked down the hill and back to the bus station, walking through the Open Air Museum on my way down from La Sebastiana. The Open Air Museum is pretty small, essentially a bunch of murals that I think they are hoping to add to in future years. It wasn’t my favorite part of the day, but I did really enjoy the picturesqueness overall of my walk down the hill, which was a great end to the day!