Europe - Germany, Belgium, and France
Nepal - Around Manaslu
Australia - Driving around Southern Australia
Australia - Olympics
Australia - Great Barrier Reef
Thailand - Bangkok
Vietnam - Central and South
Vietnam - North
Egypt - Along the Nile
Egypt - Touring and diving
Israel and Jordan
Brief return to the USA
Ecuador - Quito and surroundings
Ecuador - Galapagos Islands
Ecuador - Quito and the jungle
Peru - Machu Picchu and Lima
Peru - Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Zimbabwe and South Africa - Vic Falls and Blyde River Canyon
South Africa - Motorcycle trip
Argentina - Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls
Argentina - Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes
Chile - Exploring the Lake Region
Chile - Pucon and the Bio Bio
Argentina - El Calafate and El Chalten
Chile - Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine
Argentina - Rio Gallegos and Ushuaia
Chile - Santiago and Punta Arenas
Guatemala and Honduras - Rio Dulce and Copan
Guatemala - Coban and Spanish school
Guatemala - Tikal and Spanish school
Guatemala - Antigua and Spanish school
We arrived at the domestic terminal more than two hours early for the flight to Phnom Penh. We waited in the unorderly Vietnam Airlines queue. The airline actually serves as a foreign exchange as well which was a convenient way to rid ourselves of extra Vietnamese dong.
We waited in the only airport restaurant. Tom wrote code for the web site while Louisa wrote in the journal. They announced the flight and it seems that we landed almost before we took off.
Soucain, our friendly guide in Phnom Penh, met us at the airport. He talked nonstop about Phnom Penh and Cambodia during the 10 minute ride into town. We checked in to the Princess Hotel. The rooms were newly appointed and comfortable, but the location was a good cyclo ride from the riverfront.
We were starving, so Soucain took us to a tourist restaurant to try Khmer food. It was good, but did not resemble the descriptions in the menu. Almost the only other table had two American men with what appeared to be a Cambodian prostitute. Perhaps our ideas were somewhat warped due to book about modern Phnom Penh we finished recently.
We requested to add the genocide museum Tuol Sleng to our itinerary, and Soucain agreed, provided we had time. He then told our guides at the National Museum and the Royal Palace to hurry a bit, so we would have time.
First stop was the National Museum. The building was built in the Angkor style, and houses historical treasures from wats and digs around the country. We spent a half hour there and it was plenty, especially since our "English-speaking guide" (not Soucain but one provided by the museum) was not actually English speaking. An elderly woman offered jasmine flowers in front of one of the Buddhas. Their fragrance was beautiful and topped the list as Louisa's favorite flower over the frangipani, the national flower of Laos.
At the Royal Palace we had a much better experience, with a guide that spoke excellent English. First we walked the palace grounds, where we were pleasantly surprised by the grandeur of the throne room. Next door, we visited the Silver Pagoda, totally filled with treasures. The floor is most impressive, made of 5000kg of silver tiles. The "Jade Buddha" is nice, but green crystal instead of jade. Everything seemed to be encrusted with diamonds, rubies, and other precious stones, with most of it looking gaudy and overdone.
Because we hurried the first two, we had plenty of time for Tuol Sleng. This museum was formerly a high school, turned into prison S-21 by the Khmer Rouge, and then preserved as a museum by successive governments. When they liberated the city, the Vietnamese found 14 bodies, one in each interrogation room, freshly tortured to death. Soucain shared his years during Pol Pot's reign. He is the same age as Louisa, which made his experiences seem all the more real and horrible. He was 4 when the Khmer Rouge took over and worked in the fields until 1980 when the schools were reopened. At the age of nine he did not know how to read or write, which seemed amazing as he is now bilingual and speaking with us in good English.
We took a circuitous route through the city and along the waterfront on the way to Wat Phnom. We climbed the steps to the top while Soucain told us the story about Lady Penh. who had the Wat built originally. There is a strange side wat which looked to be more of a restaurant than a religious center. The main Wat was somewhat interesting. Although the large number of grimy children and amputees begging detracting from the atmosphere.
We stopped briefly in the hotel then took two tuk-tuks to the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) for a drink. It seemed as if rain was inevitable, so we staked out seats at along the windows to watch the storm approach across the Tolne Sap and Mekong rivers. It never arrived, but we had a relaxing evening chatting and watching the traffic pass three stories below.
We noted one major difference from Vietnam - a lack of horns. Pleasantly, Cambodians do not use theirs incessantly.
We decided to order dinner there rather than wander along the street and had a delicious pork chop and a fair pizza. We moved to more comfortable chairs and read the Bangkok paper, savored it, actually, with its complete news and business coverage.
We hit the internet cafe at street level for a few minutes on the way out to check on hotel confirmations.
We piled into one tuk-tuk and enjoyed a lovely ride through the empty streets on the return to the hotel. The driver spoke great English, and enjoyed teaching us a few words of Khmer. It was a great end to our day in Phnom Penh.
The alarm woke us brutally early at 4:15, and we dragged ourselves into the shower. Soucain took us to the new airport terminal - we were there before the airport employees. Waited a few minutes for the parking attendant, then a few more for the ticket counter agent to arrive at work. No problem getting on plane, and short, uneventful flight.
We were met at airport by Phalla, who speaks great English. He took us to the Ta Prohm hotel, they are under renovation, so it was dusty, smelled of varnish, and sounded of pounding hammers. The room was decent, but didn't have a double bed. We asked for a room with a double bed, and they showed us a crappy one far away - we stuck with the original. Then we ate breakfast in the hotel, and gathered our laundry
Phalla took us to a local laundry where they agreed to do our entire bag for a very low sum, then we went to Angkor Park. A private company runs the park now and they have installed tickets with the visitor's picture. The process was amazingly efficient and we had our pictures taken and badges made in just a few short minutes.
We drove past the moat and outer wall of Angkor Wat for our first destination, Angkor Thom. The entrance gate is protected with a snake on either side, known as Naga, each held by gods. The gate itself is decorated with carvings, including a three-headed elephant on either side. We walked the bridge over the moat, then drove into the ancient city.
Bayon is the main temple in Angkor Thom. Its walls are completely covered with bas reliefs depicting everyday scenes. Louisa particularly liked the absaras, traditional female dancers. Four faces of bodhisattva adorn the top of each of the towers in the complex. The temple houses Buddha statues that are still worshipped today. We wandered the complex admiring it only to learn that Angkor Wat is better preserved, we could hardly imagine what lay ahead.
The Angkor Thom group is quite extensive. Next we walked to Baphuon which has an impressive esplanade comprised of a long open walkway flanked by a moat. The temple is currently closed while it is being restored. Nearby is the entrance to the Royal palace. All that remains is the gate, the rest would have been made of wood as all houses of the Ankgorians and have not survived the centuries.
We walked by the Celestial palace, also known as Phimeanakas, the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King. The latter was unimpressive except for the double wall that forms its foundation. Apparently, the outer one was added a few centuries later, which has left the inner wall beautifully preserved.
We had lunch in town at Lucky Pizza. We ordered tuna melts but what arrived was hardly up to expectations. We decided to stick to Khmer food going forward. We returned to the hotel for a much-wanted power nap before returning to the park.
We spent the afternoon in Angkor Wat. A wide moat surrounds the entire complex. Its walls are covered with carvings that tell Hindu legends, including the churning of the ocean of milk. Phalla told us the stories as we walked by the various bas reliefs. Many statues remain, including one of the many-armed Vishnu. Later the temple was converted to Buddhism and it houses many Buddha statues as well (most are headless). We climbed the central towers, took some pictures, and enjoyed looking for miles around. The sun came out really lighting up the stone work.
On the way out Phalla took a few pictures of us. However, the sky darkened and the rain started to pour out of the sky as we got into the car. We picked up our clean laundry and returned to the hotel for showers.
We walked the two blocks by the market in town and had dinner at Chao Saya. It was highly recommended in The Lonely Planet, but served very average food. We chatted with a family originally from Seattle, but now living in Malaysia. On the way back we bought snacks and an Economist at the corner store. Then we watched tennis until turning in for the night.
We wandered down the street for a delicious breakfast at Lucky Cafe that included cappuccinos and real bacon. Phalla and Rith met us at 9 and we drove into the park to see some of the side temples.
First up was Pre Rup. This older temple was made of bricks, with plaster coverings for the carvings. Most of the plaster had fallen, but the structure was still intact. Also, they had used large sandstone blocks for door lintels, and these were often intricately carved. We climbed the towers to investigate and admire the carvings.
We went next door to Eastern Mebon, and walked across the now-defunct moat. This one was constructed only a few years before Pre Rup, by the same king and contains many decorative carvings as well. Guess he got tired of crossing the moat - Pre Rup doesn't have one. As usual, Louisa admired the elephant statues on each level.
We then stopped by the Neak Pean ruin, an unusual model of the universe as perceived by the Angkors. A large pond was surrounded by 4 smaller ones, symbolizing the universe and 4 oceans. The central prasat (island) had a small tower, and each of the 4 "oceans" had a figure as a fountain from the central one. Priests would pour water from the central one through the figure, where a supplicant would drink or wash with it and be healed.
Finally, we wandered through Preah Khan, which was not as well restored, so in some ways more fun to explore. We ducked through narrow galleries and around piles of rubble, in search of a well-preserved absala hidden deep in the ruins. We found it, tended by a wizened old nun with a shaved head to signify her piousness and tossed her a few rial.
We then headed back into town for a decent lunch at La Noria. One of the waiters was practicing his English, so he came over to chat with us for a little while. Unfortunately, when it came time to pay the bill, his English failed, and we took a little while to clear up the misunderstanding.
We had a short rest, then went out again at 3pm to Thommanon. This smaller temple was apparently constructed for the local people, and had all the same features as the others only on a much smaller scale. (Angkor Wat and Bayon were just for the priests and royalty.)
We drove by the unfinished temple of Ta Keo, and took a picture. Apparently this kind of sandstone was harder to carve, and makes the temple look almost sterile by comparison.
The highlight of the day was definitely Ta Prohm. This temple is unrestored and partially cleared, but many of the ancient fig trees were left in place, often because their roots are holding the buildings together. We wandered from [pic -r 3695 courtyard] to courtyard, marveling at the size of the trees and roots growing straight out of the buildings.
In one courtyard, we sat with Phalla for a few minutes and discussed his idea for starting a travel company in more detail. We gave him a lot of advice, and promised to take him to an internet cafe and show him a few things later on.
On the way out Phalla asked if we were "templed-out", but we were game for one more. We walked through Banteay Kdei, which was constructed for two generals of the Cham war. The entrance gate was ornate, with elephants and a fierce garuda carved into the wall.
We went to the internet cafe for an hour. Louisa checked email, while Tom tried to give Phalla a crash course in creating a web site. Cambodia has very little infrastructure for internet - only one ISP, for example - so the pickings were slim. Finally, we settled on a homestead site to get him started.
Rith (our driver) had waited for us, and took us straight to dinner at Bayon. There we had an excellent and inexpensive meal. The place was fairly crowded, too, which is always a good sign. We then caught a moto-cyclo back to the hotel, and watched some tennis before bed.
We woke at 4:45 to try to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Rith was on time, but Phalla was a little late - they don't have alarm clocks here, and he just overslept. Rith told us he had been up since 3, worried that he would oversleep too.
We still made it to Angkor Wat in plenty of time, and discovered that we weren't the only ones with this idea. In fact, it was as crowded as we had seen it the day before in the afternoon.
We waited as the sky lightened, but unfortunately there were too many clouds on the horizon to get a good red color. We snapped a few pictures anyway, then went to walk through the ruins once more.
We got a nice picture of the towers reflected in a pool, then went into the ruins themselves. Tom climbed to the top, but didn't get any new perspectives, except when looking down at Louisa and Phalla. We didn't linger too long, and were back in the hotel having breakfast by 7:15.
We relaxed and watched an exciting Venus Williams match live from the US Open, then headed out again at 8:30 to see some temples a bit further away.
Our book says that to visit Banteay Srei you should have a 4-wheel drive vehicle. We went in a Toyota Corolla. And it says you should check the security situation - not 2 years ago this temple was closed to tourists because of danger from the Khmer Rouge. Phalla assured us it was safe. When we arrived, we were surprised at the number of people there - the place was positively crowded with tourists.
The trip over appalling roads was worth it. We saw some of the most detailed and best preserved carvings in the complex. The stone was a rich, red color, contrasting the dull gray of most of the other temples. We wandered around the fairly small site, appreciating the small details and listening to Hindu legends retold by Phalla and depicted in carvings. We definitely enjoyed it.
On the way back we stopped at Banteay Samre. This temple had a nice entrance, well preserved libraries, a small coffin that nobody could explain, and phallic roof ornaments that we didn't see anywhere else.
On the way back to Siem Reap we took a different route, and encountered mud so deep we had to turn around. We took the long way around, and picked our way around mud holes, but made it back.
All along the roads we saw small bamboo and thatch houses, ubiquitous rice paddies, and half-naked children. The rule seemed to be that kids under 5 (for boys, up to 8 or 9) don't have to wear clothes, and often don't. Somewhat surprisingly, Phalla assured us that it usually didn't mean the family couldn't afford clothes. This region is not rich, but in general they do have enough food and clothes for themselves.
We were dropped for lunch at Angkor Green, where we had excellent Khmer food. We then looked for Monument Books, but it is closed in the middle of the day. We were tired from our early morning, so we went back to the hotel and napped.
We dragged ourselves out of bed at 3pm to go see the Rolous group of temples. These were built in the late 800s, preceding Angkor Wat, and it was possible to see how some of the design ideas developed from these. The first two, Lolei and Preah Koh, were built for the parents and grandparents of the king, while the last, Bakong, was for the gods.
When we arrived at Lolei the rain was pouring out of the sky, so we waited in the car for a few minutes, while the ubiquitous postcard kids waited outside our car doors in the rain in order to be the first to whine "Sir want postcard?" After a few minutes it seemed to lessen a bit, so we got the umbrellas and went up.
Lolei is a small site next to an active Buddhist monastery. We poked our heads in the doors of the small temples, and were surprised by one that didn't have a back - the jungle had encroached. We also enjoyed the contrast between the ancient temples and the new wooden monastery right next door.
Next stop, in the ever-lessening rain, was Preah Koh. This site has 6 towers, 3 "male" and 3 "female", with some stucco carvings preserved. Louisa liked the statue of a sacred ox in the courtyard. She also made the fatal mistake of asking to see one of the cloths a child was selling - instantly she was surrounded by screaming children, all begging her to buy. She didn't find anything she liked, and spent the rest of the walk back to the car trying to fight them off. Tom kept them away by pointing at Louisa and saying that she would buy.
Our final stop of the afternoon was at Bakong, a temple built in the pyramid style meaning that it was for god and not an ancestor. On our way in, we saw lots of monks and nuns returning home to their dorms nearby. We climbed some of the high towers, and admired the elephants guarding the corners.
We stopped by the hotel for a quick change, then Rith took us to dinner.
Siem Reap had one elegant hotel during our visit, the Grand Hotel d'Angkor, although many were under construction. We went to have dinner, but the restaurant opened at 6:30 and we wanted to attend a benefit cello concert at 7:15. Rather than hurry dinner, we had a drink in the bar then hopped in a moto-cyclo to the Children's Hospital, Jayavarman VII. A few years ago, a Swiss doctor opened three children's hospitals in Cambodia, all run from private donations.
Dr. Beat Richner holds a cello concert every Saturday night to raise money for the hospital. However, starting today, the concerts were canceled until November, due to lack of tourists. It was raining, so we called to the moto-cyclo and returned to the Grand Hotel d'Angkor for dinner.
The restaurant was amazingly elegant, with a silver candelabra on every table. The food was sublime, especially the cinnamon and honey duck. The dinner was outrageously expensive, costing more than all of our other meals in Cambodia combined, but still less than at home. We browsed the hotel's book shelves and bought a chocolate truffle that looked incredible.
We had the same moto-cyclo driver to our hotel, the Ta Prohm. We settled in to watch the US Open and caption all of our pictures. We also nibbled at the divine chocolate truffle. As we finished with the pictures, the Psion went dead. All of Tom's best efforts could not revive it, but at Louisa's coaxing he finally agreed to go to sleep and hope that it would be alive again in the morning.
Tom woke up at 6:30 and immediately began to investigate the problem with the Psion. Louisa gave up on trying to sleep more and turned on the US Open and watched some live matches. Despite trying everything, Tom could not fix the Psion and had to hard-reset it, which meant that the memory was completely erased. We did have a backup, but we lost many hours of work done over the last few days. He spent some time restoring things from the backup, and after breakfast, we unhappily started re-creating the data we had lost.
Phalla and Rith met us at 9am and drove us the 12km along a dirt road to Tonle Sap Lake. While not far, the drive took longer than 30 minutes due to the condition of the roads. We boarded a wooden boat and explored the floating villages. Some of the houses are built on bamboo floats, others are actually houseboats. The former have to be pulled by a boat when the water level changes. The lake contracts 5-fold in the dry season, so these communities end up moving quite significantly every year. Interestingly, the Tonle Sap river actually reverses direction, flowing into the lake in the wet season, and out to the Mekong in the dry.
Many houses had fish farms underneath, from which they derive much of their income during the wet season, when net fishing is prohibited in the lake due to spawning. We enjoyed seeing slices of daily life, including shopping, boating, working, and cooking on the water.
Soon we entered the permanent part of the lake, which stretched to the horizon. There, we turned off the motor and drifted for a while among the flooded mangroves on the "shore", chatting with Phalla about the internet.
We drove back to town and stopped at the internet cafe. Louisa showed Phalla about Onebox, while Tom downloaded unzip to continue restoring the Psion. We then picked up our laundry (a whopping $2), and walked to Continental Cafe for lunch. The food was terrific, and not too expensive. Surprisingly, even the pasta with tomato sauce was great. Recommended.
Back at the hotel, we worked hard to shower, pack, and journal so we could be ready to go at 3pm.
Rith drove us along the dirt road to the silk farm and school past the airport. Unfortunately it is closed on Sundays. We drove to see a large man-made lake constructed in the 12th century, Western Baray. Two boats pulled into the beach with great amounts of cheering. The high winds with the rain that was blowing in had caused one of the boats to almost capsize, spilling a few passengers into the lake. Everyone was fine, but some were wet and they were cheering reaching land.
With plenty of time before our flight, we stopped at the Greenhouse restaurant for some delicious spring rolls. While we whiled the time away, we took pictures of Cambodian life. Throughout Indochina, trucks with exposed engines drove by, but in Cambodia their sense of humor is demonstrated by the phrase that refers to these trucks as 'made in Cambodia.' These trucks carry amazing loads along Cambodia's appalling roads usually including people and cargo.
We tried to capture the high capacity motorbikes as well. While we had seen 4 adults on motorbikes, once even 5, but this afternoon we found only 3. The motorbike is also the typical family vehicle with baby, toddler mom and dad driving around town together.
Bicycles usually carry two, but not in the tandem style. Some bicycles are outfitted with a seat above the rear tire, otherwise the passenger(s) stand on the wheel axle or the handlebars.
Enterprising folks in Vietnam and Cambodia have created convenient 'motorbike' gas stations. Along the roadside are homemade wood stands stacked with one and two liter bottles of various beverages. However, the contents are either yellow, green or red gasoline. (The color indicates the octane.)
Motos and cyclos pull off the road and fill up, sometimes with their fares on the back (both serve as taxis) and sometimes with cigarettes burning.
Eventually we had to head for the airport and our flight out of friendly Cambodia. We asked Phalla and Rith to wait while we checked in, which turned out to be fortuitous. Checking in went smoothly, but the departure tax woman would not accept our $50 bill. She claimed that it was too dirty. We had no other money easily accessible, so the situation went back and forth. The two women did not suggest what to do, except that they were willing to take the bill for an extra 'charge.' Needless to say, we considered this ridiculous.
Tom went outside to discuss with Phalla who had been our problem solver for the last couple of days. At this point another traveler came up to pay for six people ($48) with a $100 bill, and they started the process with her. Their weakness is that it is possible to see in their change door with the large quantities of bills, including $50s. Phalla found someone who was able to change the bill at the same time that Tom gave way to caution and pulled out our extra money. Twenty minutes later we finally walked into the departure lounge to wait for our Royal Air Cambodge flight.
The plane was quite modern and comfortable, and empty. We landed early in Bangkok and had an efficient time going through immigration, again. Our bags came out on the carousel as we walked down the stairs and soon we were in a taxi.
The driver spoke no English, but we communicated the Siam City hotel. Tom went in to claim our box while Louisa figured out how to tell the taxi driver to wait and then go on to The Peninsula. Tom got the package. It had a note on it stating that the hotel received the package on July 14th. Yes, that was before we arrived to claim it the first time. So the hotel had it, but had misfiled it under 'Schnell' rather than 'Shields.' Oh well, we have it now.
On arrival at The Peninsula, things were different. The doorman and baggage man were very welcoming and helpful. The check in was smooth and the front desk clerk escorted us to our plush, river view room. She demonstrated some of the amazingly cool electronic controls in the room, which we continued to discover all night. We contacted housekeeping for some cd's to play, and they immediately faxed the selection to our in-room fax machine. We ordered up some Eagles and Frank Sinatra who crooned while we unpacked, completely - no getting anything out of luggage this week!
The room has five phones, although it is slightly smaller than Louisa's SF apartment. One on the desk, one on either side of the bed, one in the bathroom, and a wireless speaker phone activated by a button above the bathtub. We settled into the room and down covered bed. Tom's family called early in the morning. It was great to hear their voices and hear how they are doing.
Revised: Wed Feb 13 11:37:55 2008 on