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Auld Lang Syne and Angkor Wat

Written on: Thursday January 1st, 2009

Leaving Saigon I was anxious to get to one of my most anticipated destinations of the trip: Cambodia; specifically, Angkor Wat.  And to be here to ring in the New Year was extra special.  I wasn't really sure how things would play out...Ksenia and Dennis were stuck in Phnom Penh, so there was a good chance that I'd be solo for New Year's Eve.  But I didn't mind...Siem Reap, the gateway town to the temples of Angkor, was a pleasant surprise.  It was sunny and hot, making the dusty ride from the airport to the hotel pure bliss.  My perma-smile was back, and it was due to laid back, third world feel of this place.  The roads were dirt, the houses broken down and the people friendly, definitely a zero stress environment.  I settled on staying at Garden Village, a bare bones place with large, clean rooms, a restaurant and bar (complete with pool table) and even a sand volleyball court.  I splurged for the $6/night room!

After strolling through town to get my bearings, I headed back to the hotel to check internet.  I was happy to see a facebook comment from my former travel friends Rich and John; they were asking when I was coming to Cambodia.  I wrote back saying that I just arrived in Siem Reap, and would be staying for a while.  The unbelievable response was that they, too, were in town, and were hanging out for New Year's Eve!  Too cool!  Suddenly my so-so, mellow new year's plan shifted to a high octane reunion with good friends.  We met later that night in the Temple Bar, one of the many establishments on the infamous 'Bar Street'.  It was so good to see these guys again...we remenisced, talked about what's been happening in the last two months, had a few drinks and danced our asses off.  It was a really fun first night in Cambodia!

The next day was New Year's Eve.  We had plans to meet for lunch at Temple at 2:00pm.  And what a fantastic afternoon it turned out to be.  We talked and talked, catching up on all the news with stories and anecdotes from our respective experiences across Asia.  We watched the hundreds upon hundreds of people sauntering past, representing dozens of countries from around the world.  The beer flowed and the laughter was perpetual.  Soon other travellers joined our fun and the day was taking off to be...'one of them days!'  We stayed at Temple 'til 8:00pm, adjourning to my hotel for the New Year's prep party.  Here there was an even mix of locals and tourists, as well as an even mix of English and Cambodian music, which made for interesting dancing and people watching.  We played Poi Tak Noi and drank whiskey out of the bottle and throughout it all laughed til our cheeks hurt.  About an hour before the final countdown, we headed back to town to check out the bigger celebration.  Last year there were apparently 4000 people on Bar Street.  This year's showing was significantly smaller, but no less crazy.  People were on a natural high as everybody appeared happy to be in town.  Finally the moment came and we toasted to 2009...what a brilliant surprise to be able to welcome it with good friends.

The next day Rich and John took off, but K&D arrived.  I really could not have planned this better!  We took the day to relax and plan our temple visit beginning tomorrow. 

We bought a three day temple pass en route to the grounds.  As we approached and saw the first temple in the distance, I got shivers!  Much like the Great Wall, this place IS history...one of those absolutely 'must sees' in life.  We started off on the south end of the Angkor Thom complex.  Describing this place in a paragraph would be futile.  Simply know that it was amazing.  We walked around and through the entire site, looking at all the exquisite details still existing on the walls and floors.  We climbed up the pyramids and towers to get even better views of the grounds, the highlight of which was, of course, Bayon.  Situated in the center of Angkor Thom, this structure is one of the most beautiful I have seen.  I can only imagine how magnificent it looked in its prime.  After a quick lunch we headed over to Ta Prohm, the temple complex made famous by the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.  Do you remember the scene?  The really cool temple that looked as if it was being swallowed by the jungle?  Well, that was this place, and it did not disappoint.  The were dozens of locations where the trees and tree roots engulfed the structures and walls of the complex, almost making the buildings come to life.  In many locations the structure had failed, or was about to, resulting in the application of more modern reinforcement.  It detracted a bit from the overall feeling, but considering the temple was built in the 1100's, it was somewhat inevitable.

The next day we wake at 4:00am to see sunrise over Angkor Wat.  Our trusted tuk-tuk driver brought us to the base of the Ta Prohm Kel pyramid, where we hiked for about 45 minutes before reaching the top.  It was nice to see that there were only a handfull of folks with the same idea as us, keeping the ambiance quite tranquil.  We sat and watched as the first rays trickled above the jungle canopy.  Soon we could make out the steeples of Angkor in the distance.  We meditated, photographed or simply gazed at our surroundings for hours, not wanting to be anywhere else in the world at this moment.  Eventually we succumbed to the fact that we had to leave; after all, there was a lot more to see and we only had another day and a half to accomplish it.  So we walked in the shade of the massive trees from this pyramid to Angkor Wat proper. The pyramids, the buildings, the details and the sheer size of Angkor made this complex the best I had ever seen.  It took most of the rest of the day to get through it all, but we were fortunate to come across a Russian speaking guide about half way through his tour.  We joined them and Ksenia translated for me.  It sure added a lot to get more historical information as we gazed at the wonders before us.  After the tour was complete, we decided to walk 'off the tourist path' and see another temple that wasn't really advertised: Ta Nei.  We walked for about 30 minutes through the jungle before we came to a clearing where this beautiful temple existed.  And the best part was that there was NOBODY there!  Not a single tourist; not a single worker.  We had it all to ourselves!!  And it was magnificent!  Trees engulfed the walls, the outer wall crumpled to the ground in places, and the inner temples were easy to climb and explore.  This was definitely a highlight that we stumbled upon.  And the most interesting part about it was how we found it: we were walking toward a cache!  Without geocaching the three of us would have never had this experience. :)

The rest of the afternoon was mellow, as we went back to the hotel and crashed for a while, waking only to hit the $1/plate street food vendors.  Noodles with shrimp and squid...probably the best dollar I've ever spent!  We made our way to the night market and checked out all the cool items for sale.  It would be so nice to be able to buy something in one of these countries; but, alas, there is only so much room in the pack.  :)

The third and final day at Angkor was spent visiting the temples on the north-east ring: Prah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon and Pre Rup, before concluding in Takeo.  They all had their high points, but East Mebon and Pre Rup demonstrated a different style of architecture from the others that was refreshingly unique.  And what can I write of Takeo other than it is the steepest structure I have even scaled!  We returned to town and had one last night in Siem Reap before rising early to take the bus across the border to Thailand. 

Yeah, baby!  Another challenging bus ride!

 

 

From Will and Maria on Jan 13th, 2009

Wow man thats is so cool Iv seen Photos before but you got some great ones. I brought the new year in Udaipur Rajastan dusty and dirty but blissful. Rock on Bro