Cambodia exceeded my expectations! My time here was split between a brief and unsuccessful visit to Phnom Penh and a fantastic visit to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. The visit to Phnom Penh turned into pretty much of a bust due to bad timing. It seems I chose the King’s birthday to visit the city and plan my tour of his palace and the adjacent Silver Pagoda and Temple. Unfortunately, both were closed for his birthday. So, basically, the only thing I did interesting was an evening stroll down the promenade along the Mekong River.
The promenade was at least interesting though. I got to see the palace and pagoda lit up at night from a distance as well as the skyline across the river. This walk also gave me plenty of interesting people to watch and enjoy their weirdness. Also, gave me an opportunity to try tasting a few more fried insects (photos attached).
One bright spot was after I, more or less, enjoyed my bug snack I stumbled on to a Lebanese Restaurant. What luck! A change of menu from rice and mystery meat. I enjoyed a nice lamb sate, rice and nan and all in air conditioning! What a treat! Stumbling onto the only Lebanese Restaurant in all Southeast Asia now that is good Karma!
From Phnom Penh I flew to Siem Reap and after a hot, dusty, bouncy Tuk Tuk ride from the airport arrived at my hotel. Where I was greeted with a nice chilled silver chalice of lemon grass tea, fruit, a cold washcloth infused with some sort of mint herb and ice water, and an orchid.
The young man checking me in had an odd name on his name tag so I had to ask. Why do you have Helicopter on your name tag instead of your name? His answer: Because that is my name. My response: What the hell kind of name is that? Who would name a person Helicopter? His response: it is a cool name and I selected it myself.
So, my new best friend for a few days was the world’s tallest Cambodian named Helicopter. Anything I wanted or needed Helicopter handled with a smile and bobbing head. Sunrise tour of Angkor Wat – no problem. Ticket and transportation to Apsara Dinner Theater – give me just one moment. Tuk Tuk for the day to travel around Siem Reap – You got it. Laundry back in four hours – of course. Arrange a tour of the Kompong Floating Village – no sir, you do not want to go there. This is the dry season, there is no water and it stinks! This kid was incredible!
My first night in Siem Reap was a little hit and miss though. The Apsara Dinner Theater was a waste of money. The food wasn’t fit for human consumption, dinner was served on the floor and despite the fact that the room was less than half full they insisted on seating me in a corner with my back to the stage.
Anyone that knows me can predict how I reacted. I walked out in the middle of the performance and headed to the Angkor night market for something edible and something cold to wash everything down.
And the night market and surrounding cafes and bars did not disappoint. There were street vendors hawking souvenirs, clothes, jewelry, drinks, and foods of all types. The most interesting display was of all the exotic snacks – small 5 inch snakes, scorpions, palmetto bugs, grub worms, crickets, tarantula, and bottles of local alcohol with a cobra and scorpion preserved inside
Since this was my first night I decided to be prudent and skipped the exotic for the night. Instead, I found an interesting Cambodian Barb B Que Café that let you cook your own meats on a charcoal stove at the table. I chose a combo set of 13 kinds of meat including: Duck, Frog Legs, Kangaroo, Ostrich, Beef, Fish, Chicken, Crocodile, Shrimp, Squid, Pork, and Shark. All washed down with Chang beer with locals screeching Karaoke from the bar across the street.
The interesting thing about Asians and Karaoke is that they love to hear themselves sing. And I use the term sing in the loosest possible sense. There seems to be a universal rule of Karaoke – the answer to being offkey or offbeat is the same. Sing louder! These people have absolutely no sense of self-awareness or shame. They are the vocal equivalent to the way Walmart Shoppers dress. They just don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks of them.
After filling myself with the Noah’s Ark of meats I worked my way back to my hotel and Helicopter’s friendly welcome home.
Day 2 at Angkor Wat
Next morning I was up at 4 am for one of the best days of my trip so far. And by 5 am I was at Angkor Wat waiting to catch the sunrise over the temple complex. And, yes, the early morning was worth it – the sunrise was spectacular.
My guide for the Angkor Wat tour was an interesting young man. He spoke good English and was extremely knowledgeable about the Temple Complexes and Buddhism in general. He had several secrets that he unveiled as the day progressed though. First thing I was to learn was that he is absolutely terrified of heights.
He spent a very long time walking me around the base of the temple complex explaining in detail all the construction, sculptures, and images until he could stall no longer. We then began climbing the stairs of the first of three tiers of the temple complex. Instead of walking up the steps upright he climbed them like a spider. Using both hands and feet very slowly and very strangely.
When we reached the second tier he informed me that was as far as he could go because of his fear of heights and he would wait for me below and explain everything I saw above in the next two tiers when I came back down. An Acrophobic Angkor Wat tour guide – what are the odds!
But Ing was a very knowledgeable guide and I had to ask him at one point if he was some kind of Buddhist monk. To my surprise, he had been a monk briefly! So an acrophobic Monk Angkor Wat tour guide – even longer odds! Finally, to just fill the time I told him about my new friend at the hotel and his weird name (Helicopter).
And he agreed it was weird.
I asked him if he had an American name he used even though his name Ing Dara is pretty easy to say and remember.
He turned away and mumbled something I couldn’t make out. I asked him to repeat it and he said his name was “Joe Kool”.
I shit you not! Joe Kool! My Acrophobic Buddhist Monk’s name was Joe Kool!
So, Joe Kool, Acrophobic Buddhist Monk Tour Guide and I, spent the day touring Angkor Wat one of the largest religious monuments in the world. It began as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu. But was transformed into a Buddhist temple in the 12th century as the Kings converted to Buddhism.
And again, the temples are actually temple complexes. And there is not just one temple complex. The UNESCO protected site is 400 square kilometers in size and contains multiple temple complexes built by a number of kings between the 9th and 15th century. Angkor Wat is the name of just one of the temple complexes but has become shorthand for referring to the entire protected site.
Each new king had to build a temple of his own to honor the Lord Buddha as well as two more temples to honor his mother and father. Seven centuries of kings have left a large assortment of temples scattered across Cambodia – many found and recorded but a few probably still reclaimed by the forest and jungle and still hidden from modernity.
We had time to visit just three of the most recognizable temple complexes – Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and the Bayon Temple. For the most part, I will let my photos guide you thru the day but want to mention a few observations about each Complex.
Angkor Wat is the headliner. It is this temple that you will see on countless postcards and in magazine features. It is unique in that this temple faces west which is why it has become such a fan favorite for sunrises. My sunrise was wonderful but Joe Kool shared a photo of the sunrise on September 23rd (vernal equinox) when the sunrises directly over the center temple. And the temple complex cast a perfect reflection from the water’s surface.
Angkor Thom also known as the Smiling Buddha Temple has the face of a smiling Lord Buddha on nearly every surface. Of the 37 towers that remain of the original 40 – Buddha’s face is smiling down from all sides of every tower. In all there are over 200 Buddha faces carved in the temples stone.
And the final temple visited is the reason so many people have heard of Angkor Wat in the first place. Ta Prohm is the temple featured in Angelina Jolie’s 2001 Lara Croft: Tomb Raider blockbuster movie. You will recall in the movie Ta Prohm’s incredible exterior shots with huge magnificent trees growing out of and encasing the temples provided the backdrop for the climatic scenes for Lara’s struggle with her antagonists.
And if you have any doubt about the film’s effect on tourism – consider that in 1993 Angkor Wat had only 7,650 visitors. In 2018 Angkor Wat accepted over 2.6 million international visitors. And most anyone in the local tourism industry will quickly credit Angelina Jolie for putting Siem Reap on the map.
In fact, Angelina Jolie is beloved in Cambodia and not just for helping establish a growing tourism industry. Think what you will about her liberal politics – she has put her money and fame behind things she believes in. She fell in love with both the country and the people of Cambodia.
When she arrived in Siem Reap in 2000 the country was still suffering the devastating aftermath of the brutal Pol Pot regime. The psychopath Pol Pot was responsible for either executing or starving 25% of the country’s population. But Jolie was so impressed with the people’s resilience, natural kindness and the country’s beauty she has returned many times and taken a personal interest in the country and people.
Jolie adopted her Cambodian son Maddox shortly after filming the movie in 2000. Started the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation in 2003 and since bought tens of thousands of acres of jungle to prevent the logging of old growth forest and deforestation. And in 2017 released the award winning film “First They Killed My Father” directed and co-written by Jolie with Loung Ung. The movie is based on Ung’s personal story of being forced to become a child soldier at the age of 5 after his parents were murdered and siblings were sent to forced labor camps by Pol Pot’s regime of terror.
But back to the temple, it is incredible how the jungle has reclaimed so much of what man built. In Ta Prohm, huge trees hundreds of years old have grown from and over the temple structures. Stone structures have just been absorbed by the roots, trunks and limbs of gigantic trees creating a other worldly tableau. I’ve included some of my favorite photos of the temple along with a photo of Jolie from the movie. I posed for the same photo in the same spot but I don’t think I quite captured the effect.
As we were finishing our visit to Angkor Wat, Joe Kool invited me to tour the night markets and cafes used by locals instead of the tourist spots for the evening. Sounded interesting so why not! Because the result was seven days of extreme intestinal distress and five days of antibiotics.
But it seemed like a good idea at the time and it was an experience. I’m not sure if it was the fried scorpion, palmetto bugs, worms, crickets, spiders I ate from one stall or if it was the local hooch bottled with a cobra and scorpion like a Tequila worm or the general unclean food prep conditions but something definitely did me in for a few days.
But regretting trying a new thing once in a while is all part of the experience of traveling. And for every less than tasty scorpion in Siem Reap or Camel Toe in Bishkek, or Airag (fermented mare’s milk) in Ulan-Bator there are plenty of wonderful things just waiting to be tried and enjoyed.