Given how the future of women’s rights in America probably took an enormous step backwards this month, I thought I’d start this post about our last day trip in the Siem Reap area with an empowering historical fact. Combining three fascinating sights into a complete day, my personal favorite was Banteay Srei, an architectural jewel of Angkorian art and one of the most popular HIndu Temples of the Khmer Empire. Aside from its beautiful layout of three rectangular enclosures separated by a causeway, they built the entire structure from red sandstone which can be carved almost like wood. Earning the nickname The Pink Temple, it’s also one of the only temples commissioned by a brahman and not a king.
Constructed in 967 A.D., the foundational stele tells us that its creator was a scholar and philanthropist who helped those suffering from illness, injustice or poverty. Known for its pediments (the triangular space above a rectangular doorway) and lintels (horizontal beams spanning the gap between two posts that can be decorative or structural), you’ll find entire scenes of Hindu mythology depicted. But that’s not the interesting part. Its modern name translates into “Citadel of The Women” and there’s several interpretations. The first refers to the intricate carvings found on the walls. Characters from Indian mythology, Aspiras are divine nymphs or dancing-girls and the widespread use of them as a motif for decorating walls is a unique Khmer feature. Also called Devatas, or minor female deities, they’re usually seen standing around and not dancing. More specifically, the second theory revolves around the intricacy of the carvings themselves. Said to be too fine for the hand of a man, decorative carvings cover every available inch of space which leads me to the third and most interesting theory.
Undeniably beautiful, the Temples of Angkor Wat are easily the main reason to visit Cambodia. As the world’s largest religious monument, it’s every bit as amazing as you’ve heard and all the accolades, reviews and compliments are not exaggerated. Even if temples, culture and history aren’t your thing, you’d be crazy to visit Cambodia without devoting at least a full day to this incredible architectural wonder. With thousands of great informational sources and countless travel blogs devoted to the area, attempting to describe either a complete detailed description of what to see or a travelogue explaining the fascinating historical significance of the area is best left for the experts. Instead, I’ll describe our second day trip of three in Siem Reap. Featuring the “must-see” temples, and mostly mimicking the “short-circuit” that’s a suggested itinerary for those with limited time or minimal patience, it started out before daybreak with a visit to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat.
Having read the entire chapter on Angkor Wat and environs in Lonely Planet, trust me when I say it’s best to find a qualified guide and customize your day trips according to personal interests and time allotted. With a cornucopia of options from walking to hiring a tuk-tuk for the day, the best strategy is visiting places when everyone is somewhere else. Not always the easiest task given the millions of visitors that flock there all year, I’d recommend avoiding peak season (mid November through March) but also not choosing monsoon months unless you enjoy sightseeing in a torrential downpour. Finding a guide is easy but reserving ahead of your stay makes sense given how many of them are dying for your business. Ours came highly recommended from one of our friends in Penang and since he runs his own business, a website made it easy to break down all the options and customize three guided day trips according to our interests. Hotels specialize in take-away breakfasts for sunrise trips to Angkor Wat so you won’t go hungry. Possibly the only time you’ll ever see a picture of Diane awake before the sunrise, our second day began at the ungodly hour of 4:30 AM.
Visiting Cambodia for the first time, Diane and I spent some time researching what to do in the immediate area besides touring the overwhelmingly beautiful temples. As one of the most touristy areas in all Southeast Asia, Siem Reap has something for almost everyone and wildlife is no exception. Although a multitude of off the beaten path excursions involving rafting, hiking and wildlife treks permeate much of the remote Northeastern corner of the country, we chose the relative ease and comfort of the main drag this time around. Fortunately, there’s enjoyable, educational and beautiful scenery as well as some great wildlife viewing that’s easily doable as day trips not far from Angkor Wat. Always eager for birding opportunities, we decided to visit the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary and combine it with a day trip through the famous flooded forests of Tonle Sap, a seasonally inundated freshwater lake that’s Southeast Asia’s largest.
On the way to the flooded forest
Venturing out at around 8:30 AM our guide picked us up in the comfort of his air-conditioned Honda and we headed out-of-town. With countless options for touring the area, we prefer private personalized guides when possible but living as early retirees on a fixed income makes this a bit harder. In our working days we generally used most of our vacation time on combination trips that offered both amazing wildlife opportunities and a chance to explore the local expat community in some of the world’s most popular retirement zones. Lucky enough to visit places like The Galapagos Islands while staying at beautiful eco-lodges in places like The Ecuadorian Amazon or Borneo’s Danum Valley,we’ve entered a new stage of life where money doesn’t come easily so now we choose less expensive guides.
Getting there is half the fun. Unless you live in Penang which means getting to Cambodia is a pain in the ass. Anyone that’s visited KLIA, Kuala Lumpur’s luxuriously beautiful main airport gets an impressive first glimpse of Malaysia. Quite fond of first impressions, the government liked the airport so much they built a carbon copy. Known as KLIA2, this shiny new and totally unnecessary behemoth is a five-minute shuttle bus away and looks as modern and clean as any other large Asian hub. Unfortunately, many of us non-working retirees live in Penang. Although you’d never know it, the nation’s second biggest population center and main tourist draw is only a short 45 minute flight away but its pathetically dilapidated dinky airport looks more like an airstrip in the rainforest when compared to its big brothers.
Hasn’t changed much since this picture
Sporting a few fast food joints, an ATM or two and a newsstand, Penang International Airportdesperately needs a multi million dollar overhaul, a new terminal or two and about ten more airlines willing to fly there. Offering non stop service to only a few destinations like Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, and recently Yangon, living in Penang makes getting to Cambodia a long, tedious and expensive proposition but proved worthwhile despite the government’s obvious ploy to woo everyone to its shiny capital city. Unsure why they neglect Southeast Asia’s most popular foodie destination so badly, Diane and I explored every possible option from flying to KL and connecting (impossible on the same day) to a train/bus combination (even worse) and concluded the only practical way was a four and a half hour bus ride from Penang to KL on the brand new KTM Express Train, a 65 kilometer Uber ride to the ridiculously distant airport, an overnight stay at the airport’s one and only lodging option, and an early morning flight to Siem Reap.
Its hard not to fall in love with Cambodia. From its warm and wonderful people to the fascinating history dating back over a thousand years, the nation is transitioning quickly but retains so much of its culture and hospitality, it’s every bit as great as you’ve heard and then some. Apologizing for not writing during our trip, we shortened this excursion to ten days so unlike our jaunts to Myanmar, Australia and Thailand, I found myself occupied almost every minute. With no easy way to get there from Penang, we’re hanging out in Starbucks in KL Sentral, the main transportation hub in Kuala Lumpur after a two-hour flight from Phnom Penh for a three-hour layover. We’ll then hop on the new high-speed express train to Butterworth and four hours later we’ll be back in Penang.
Although mighty inconvenient for Penang dwellers trying to get to Cambodia , the new high-speed train from Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur is very reliable. Seating is a bit cramped but the trains are new and the bathrooms are cleaner than almost anywhere in Malaysia. (The sore spot of Malaysia, toilets are disgustingly dirty, never have toilet paper or soap and we’ve now visited yet another developing nation further down the development scale whose cleanliness puts Malaysia to shame). The trains leave on time, they’re well staffed and best of all, the air conditioning is a bit warmer than the sixteen degree Celsius madness we experienced our first train trip last year. Taking the opportunity to write a quick post, here’s some pictures from each area we visited. I’ll write much more detail of each experience once we get home. Writing on my IPad sucks and OS10 is proving to be a piece of shit filled with flukes for my old pad so please bear with me.