April 6-7, 2012

Approaching the harbor of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, by boat is impressive to say the least. An Angkor Wat-like structure greets visitors atop a massive ramp and sprawling riverfront boulevard. The closer you get, the more imposing the effect becomes. We’ve arrived at a magical, mythical place.

B.J. and I grab a tuk-tuk, which I will go on the record and say is the most luxurious, most spacious, most attractive, and most comfortable mode of cheap transportation in all of Asia. Why don’t other Southeast Asia countries throw out their ugly rusty metal farting exhaustmobiles and invest in these charming vehicles?

Note the anti-bagsnatching net!

The one we get looks like a combination stagecoach, Cinderella carriage, buggy, and surry with with a fringe on top with a motorcycle pulling it instead of a horse. Sparkling clean with leather seats, intricate chrome grillwork along the sides, polished wood armrests, expansive interior, high ceiling, lace curtains, and pockets for passengers’ water bottles or maps. Filipino trikes look absolutely Neantherthal compared to these models.

The condition of our tuk-tuk, we discover, is not the exception. Every tuk-tuk we see during our next six days in Cambodia is as immaculate as this one. And not one is the same. Each one is lovingly cared for. Whoever’s in charge of Cambodian tourism should get a medal. I love the place already, and I’ve only been here five minutes.

On the way to our hotel, we weave through the heart of downtown. We pass parks, statues, plazas, wide boulevards, museums, outdoor cafes, clubs, boutique shops. Everything’s clean, people smile, music is playing, and it’s all happening along the riverfront that seems to stretch forever.

We check into the Boddhi Tree guesthouse, nap, take showers, and eat at the guesthouse’s restaurant, which was rated among the best in the entire city. It’s better than advertised. After dinner, B.J. rests while I head downtown. I step into the Riverfront Bistro, take a seat at the enormous round bar, and marvel at the funky decor, a potpourri of Khmer art, neon, Angkor images, posters, sculptures, sexy waitresses, and mysterious expats. A live band plays in a rear alcove among pool tables. What a town. It will become my favorite watering hole in Asia.

The next day B.J. and I stroll around town, shopping for bargains. A polite man introduces himself to me at the riverfront and asks if I can help him and his wife fill out a U.S. immigration application form. I do so, and they thank me profusely and buy me a bottle of water.

We try to see some of the city’s landmarks but they’re all closed. Seems a conference of Southeast Asian leaders, including Philippines’s president, is in Phnom Penh, and the dignitaries are out and about touring the city. All the museums and places of interest are off limits to the general public.

April 8, 2012

Our travel guidebook recommends a stopover here on the way to Siem Reap because of its quaint setting along the river, its French Colonial architecture, and the idyllic boat trip from there to Siem Reap.

The bus ride into Battambang is long and tiring, and when we arrive, I am not impressed. The town boasts a sleepy river, but its designers must have fallen asleep at the switch. All the establishments along the riverfront are industrial (cellphone shops, tire repair, electronics, hardware, etc.). All the town’s hotels, bars, and restaurants are tucked into small side streets and alleys with no views of the river. What were the city leaders thinking?

But B.J. loves the place. He didn’t care much for Phnom Penh because it was overrun by tourists and expats. Here there are fewer, the place is quieter, and the cafes seem more intimate. We have a nice dinner and are told by our hotel not to take the slow boat trip Siem Reap as we’d planned because the water level is down now. “That means the boat will go even slower than normal to get there,” the woman at the desk tells us. “At least ten hours. Better to take a bus. You’ll get there in four.” We buy our bus tickets and retire for the night.

April 9, 2012

The bus to Siem Reap, the launching point to the famed temples of Angkor Wat, takes only three-and-a-half hours. Our guesthouse, the Villa Siem Reap, lives up to its ratings in Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor. We’re greeted effusively by a half dozen staff members and given welcome drinks.

After lunch in their garden cafe, we arrange for an all-day guide ($35) and tuk-tuk driver ($15) to take us to the temples tomorrow. The rest of the day we shop downtown. Cambodia accepts only U.S. dollars except for small purchases where the local currency is okay; ATMs dispense dollars. Hooray.

Downtown Siem Reap is flooded with tourists, which makes B.J. grumpy. But I like the action. If you want a how-to guide on how to promote tourism in your town, come to Siem Reap. Every hotel and guesthouse has free booklets on nightlife, restaurants, tours, side trips with detailed maps. The streets and neighborhoods are clearly marked with neon gates: “Pub Street” is where all the bars and restaurants are. “The Alley” is where Cambodian food and shops are located. “The Night Market” is where you can find handicrafts, silks, and souvenirs. The vendors’ booths stretch endlessly, and I mean endlessly.

I shop for hours, picking up handwoven purses and cellphone holders for my female coteachers and cool Angkor Wat keychains (each with nail cutter and can opener) for my male coteachers and tennis barkadas

Siem Reap has everything, from 8-hand massages to fish massages. The latter is a trip. You take off your shoes, sit on the edge of a large fish tank, and dangle your feet in the water for 30 minutes ($3). The fish all converge on your feet and nibble off the dead skin. It tickles, the fish get full, your dead skin is removed, and you have something with which to amaze and disgust your coworkers. Win-win!

April 10, 2012
Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world, is the heart and soul and pride of the country. Its image is on Cambodia’s currency, national flag, and practically every place you look.

One of the first Western visitors to the temple was António da Madalena, a Portuguese monk who visited in 1586. He said: “It is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.”

Later, in the mid-19th century, French explorer Henri Mouhot wrote: “One of these temples—a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo—might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.”

The next morning we meet our guide, Seak, who’s dressed in khaki and an orange and yellow Khmer scarf and a winning smile. He speaks fluent English, and seems raring to go. With him is a tuk-tuk driver who will transport us from temple to temple during the day.

 We set off. The drive to the temples takes us through a beautiful tree-shrouded lane and flower-scented pathways. The road is full of bicycles and tuk-tuks, all heading the same way. Some are coming back, having gone early to catch the temple at sunrise.

The first indication that we’re getting close is a mammoth lake on our right side. It seems as wide as the Mekong. Seak chuckles when I ask what lake it is.

“This is not a lake, sir. It is the moat surrounding Angkor Wat.” Good Lord. How big can this thing be?

The moat surrounding Angkor Wat.

We reach the corner of the moat, and peer down the length of the next side. There, halfway across, running down the middle of the moat, is a bridge stretching hundreds of yards. It ‘s filled with people. All are shuffling toward the eighth wonder of the world, a charcoal black edifice of towering magnificence.  

The temple layout represents Mount Meru, the mythical home of the gods. The central towers symbolize the five peaks of the mountain, and the walls and moat symbolize the surrounding mountain ranges and ocean.

Built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his state temple and capital city, the monument is constructed out of more than 5 million tons of sandstone, as much as Khafre’s pyramid in Egypt. One modern engineer estimated it would take 300 years to complete Angkor Wat today. In truth, the entire complex was finished in 40.

Angkor Wat

The next few hours are a blur of head-shaking bewilderment at the vastness of the grounds and tunnels, the size of the walls and towers, the maze-like labyrinth of passageways and stairwells, the detailed carvings of statues and bas-relief friezes that stretch up and down and across seemingly every square inch of this endless architectural marvel.

One breathtaking panorama after another.

By lunchtime, our heads are spinning from information and sensory overload. Seak is a superlative guide, explaining every detail and sprinkling his data with anecdotes and personal political views. Cambodians fear the Vietnamese, he confides to us, because they’re “powerful and aggressive.” Cambodians hate the Thais, he says, because of all the wars between the two in the past. Siem Reap means “defeated Siam” (the previous name for Thailand), which I don’t imagine makes Thai tourists very comfortable.

April 10, 2012
After lunch we head for Ta Prohm, the temple complex I’m salivating to behold, the one I have a serious Indiana Jones for.You’ve seen it on the cover of National Geographic. You’ve seen it in Tomb Raider. Looking probably the way most Angkor temples did when the first European explorers laid eyes on them, the monument has been almost completely overrun by the jungle.

Mother Nature always has home-court advantage.

When we approach the temple,  however, it looks nothing like I imagined. First of all, there’s no jungle. It’s more like a quiet forest glade. Few trees. No thick foliage. No howling birds. No swinging monkeys. And what “overruns” the place are just a few scattered trees, albeit gargantuan, whose bleached white roots, as thick as Nile alligators and as long as a Peace Corps tapeworm, wrap around and through every orifice of the structure like tentacles, literally bursting it apart in a thousand places, leaving ancient rubble strewn around as if from an explosion.

I lean down and pick one up. “Don’t even think of taking that antiquity home with you,” Seak winks. “They will check every inch of your bags at the airport. They know exactly what these stones look like.” I put it back.   

Seak says that experts disagree on which trees they are. The larger roots are either from the silk-cotton tree or thitpok; the smaller roots are from the strangler fig or Gold Apple.

B.J. whispers to me, “Root canals.” Funny.

This bas-relief figure refuses to disappear.

When I ask Seak why the authorities let nature run wild here and not at the other temples. He says that after the fall of the Khmer empire in the 15th century, this one was abandoned and neglected for centuries. When efforts to conserve and restore the Angkor temples began in the early 20th century, it was decided to leave Ta Prohm as it was as a “concession to the general taste for the picturesque.”

According to Angkor scholar Maurice Glaize, Ta Prohm was singled out because it was “one of the most imposing [temples] and the one which had best merged with the jungle, but not yet to the point of becoming a part of it.”

That said, a lot of work has been done to stabilize the ruins, to permit access, and to maintain its “condition of apparent neglect.”

We see plenty of that. All around us, crews are gathering and labeling the broken sandstone blocks that have crumbled from the jungle’s onslaught. Cranes are in place, areas are cordoned off. It looks like a construction site, not an islolated “temple of doom” springing out of a thick jungle as I’d hoped. Oh well.

April 10, 2012
Seak has saved the best for last, he tells us: the massive Angkor Thom fortified city, ten times the size of Angkor Wat.

“Gee, I’ve always wanted to see Angkor Tom’s Cabin,” B.J. says sotto voice.

“What’s that?” Seak asks.

“Uh, nothing, sir,” I say, digging an elbow into B.J.’s ribs. 

At its height, this city boasted one million people (compared to London’s 50,000 at the time). It has five spectacular entrance gates, each 20 meters high, atop which loom the massive face of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

One of the entrance gates leading into Angkor Thom.

Within the gates are several temples, but the one Seak is leading us to is the Bayon, an eerie homage to Cambodia’s legendary king, Jayavarman VII. Its 54 towers are festooned with 216 enormous stone faces of Avalokiteshvara that coincidentally resemble the king himself, who glares down on us from every conceivable angle. Eek, let me outta here.

“Whew,” the head face sculptor said. “One Avalokiteshvara down. Only 215 to go!”

Our guide knew just where to pose me.

For camera buffs, Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and the Bayon are the Big Three in terms of photogenic opportunities and OMG moments. Despite the tourists, though B.J. and I continually marvel at how often we seem to have the places solely to ourselves, allowing us to get clear, unobstructed views of anything we want.

April 11, 2012
B.J. takes a Cambodian cooking class the next morning while I buy our plane tickets to Laos and shop. In the afternoon, we return to finish up what we didn’t see at Angkor Thom, but the remaining ruins — the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King — don’t have the wow factor of the first day.

To me, Cambodia is my favorite country on the trip so far. But we have two more to go. And both of us feel that Laos may be the sleeper of the bunch. Neither of us have been there before, and we’re eagerly looking forward to what we’ve heard is jaw-dropping landscapes rivaling that of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and Guilin in China.

Next stop: Laos.