Cambodia | Angkor

Angkor Wat, the majestic sunrise

Here I am again with the 2nd part of our trip to Indochine, the amazing country of Cambodia!! Well, the first part of it, as we stayed there 4 whole days. A lot of parts I know… but I wanted to divide the posts so that it won’t be tiring to follow the story.

So, as I told you before, it was a very intensive trip, a lot of places to see compressed in so little time. We had a lot of flights and we weren’t sleeping enough, at least at the beggining of the excursion…so my first day at Cambodia I got sick! You can’t imagine my frustrution, I wanted so much to see everything but had no power to follow and with all that heat and humidity got me crazy. I ended up taking some cambodian medication (whaat) which thankfully got me better!

In Cambodia we stayed for 3 days at Siem Reap and one day at Phnom Penh. Siem Reap is a small city near the famous archeological sites of Angkor and the ancient city of Angkor Thom, so it’s very popular. It was really cute and very vivid, quite touristic in some parts but not in a bad way. It had a lot of local character and was very vivid.

Our first morning (well, before morning actually…) in the country was surreal!! We woke up very early to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The beauty of it was beyond words… Watching the sun rising in such a beautiful and old monument was sacramental.

Angkor is the old town of the kingdom of the Khmer’s dynasty. It’s a large area with a lot of beautiful temples, the most important of them is Angkor Wat. It’s a real architectural wonder and we were very lucky to start one day of our lives there.
We strolled around the courtyard, admiring everything around us, until we went inside the ancient complex to learn its history. We were very lucky to have a good guide that told us so many interesting thing, of which I remember almost nothing to convey to you!

Angkor Wat actually, this ancient city, with its magnificent monuments and the most clever irrigation system in the rice fields, remained “lost” for centuries until a French explorer discovered it in the jungle at 1860.
It’s the largest religious monument in the world and was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, as his state temple and eventual mausoleum. It was built as a representation of Mount Meru, the mythical sacred center of Hinduism and was dedicated to the god Vishnu, as a Hindu temple at first and gradually trandformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of 12th century.

The temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become such a symbol of Cambodia that it appears on its national flag. At the higher level of the complex, where only the priests and the king were allowed to enter, there stand four corner towers and a temple at the centre of them 65m height above the ground. Inside, it is fully decorated with many figures of their mythology and Buddha illustrations. What impressed me a lot was the system of shading at the window openings, with these stone crafted columns that left the sun slipping through them and enlighten different parts of the interior place, creating a magical atmosphere with golden lines.

When we went out again at the courtyard, the sun was dominant already and we were walking to the exit, trying to adjust all this remarkably beauty…until we met the monkeys!! It was the back to earth element that connected us again with the terrestrial. They were so cute and clever!! They were trying all the time to get food from tourists, grabing their sodas from their hands or sneaking inside their stuff! You should be very careful not to carry food or drinks out in the open, because you were a lost cause…

Our next stop was the great Bayon temple! It stands in the exact centre of the city of Angkor Thom. Very different this one, with all these huge, stone heads of Buddha at the top of the towers, with peaceful and smiling faces. On the bridge outside the complex there is on your left a series of smiling Buddhas and on your right a series of sad Buddhas, representing life I suppose.
Some say that the Khmer empire was divided into 54 provinces at the time of Bayon’s construction, that’s the reason for the 54 pairs of all-seeing eyes watchin the kingdom.

Unfortunately for me, I was feeling so sick when visiting Bayon that I didn’t have the strengh to go inside the temple and see more of it. Instead, I sat on a rock and tried to rest as the others continued the tour.
Eventually, I slept for real, there, sitting on a rock of ruins that was actually a door and some tourists walked over me to pass through and at some point I think some monkeys too!!

The third surreal monument we visited was Ta Prohm. Or the so-called ”Tomb Raider temple”! Here was the place where all the world fell in love with Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in that movie. Or the place where Mowgli from the Jungle Book was living!

What makes Ta Prohm so exquisite, is its strangler figs’ silvery roots completely taking over some of the breathtaking temples. It’s a heavily damaged temple complex, where ancient trees grow through the masonry, sometimes the stones and trees are so intertwined that they would not withstand any separation.
You may wonder how this has happened. That I can tell you because I asked the same question our guide: Birds did it! They were leaving seeds when they’re standing on the stones and these seeds (of course with the help of humidity) grew up and became trees!

Undoubtedly the most atmospheric ruin at Angkor. Its appeal lies in the fact that, unlike the other monuments of Angkor, it has been swallowed by the jungle, and looks very much the way most of the monuments of Angkor appeared when European explorers first stumbled upon them.

Built from 1186 and originally known as Rajavihara (Monastery of the King), Ta Prohm was a Buddhist temple dedicated to the mother of Jayavarman VII. It is one of the few temples in the Angkor region where an inscription provides information about the temple’s dependents and inhabitants. Almost 80,000 people were required to maintain or attend at the temple, among them more than 2700 officials and 615 dancers.

If Angkor Wat is testimony to the genius of the ancient Khmers, Ta Prohm reminds us equally of the awesome fertility and power of the jungle. It’s amazing afterall what nature and man created together, a whole new piece of art!

Stay tuned for the next posts about our trip to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh!

Check out the previous posts about Laos here and here.

Luang Prabang, Laos

The view at Mekong river

I’m very thrilled to post – at last – about my trip to Indochina!! Well, just the 1st part, of many…because I took so many photos that it took me sooo many time to choose just a few of them and even now I have to split the posts.

So my mother, my brother and I went to Laos, Cambodia and Bangkok for 10 days the last October and I don’t need to say that we had the best time!
It was a very intensive trip, very tiring (I even got sick some days) because we squeezed so many things and places to so little time but it was definitely worth it.

At first, we visited Laos, and specifically Luang Prabang, a small and very beautiful town in north-central Laos. It’s a remarkably well-preserved town, combining the traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, Luang Prabang has been claimed by UNESCO to be the best preserved city in South East Asia.

We spent only 3 days there but were enough to feel the peaceful spirit of Laos and understand just a little of their culture. The hotel we stayed was the cutest, it was the best welcoming place in great style that got us in the mood immediately.

We arrived in the morning, after a whole day travelling with almost no sleep…so we were exhausted! My brother D. took his clothes off at once and slept under the mosquito net of his bed without even thinking about it though my mother and I felt more courageous and decided to explore Luang Prabang. During noon…with the sun and heat at their strongest…it was impossible!!
However we were very lucky to find out the paradise on earth at our first steps! Manda de Laos is a hotel with the most amazing restaurant in an artificial lily pond with lotus flowers!! We walked a path through a beautiful garden with small ponds to excite you without even know what’s in the end. So when we arrived at the large pond with all the exotic plants around we had our jaws dropped!! We sat for a cold coffee that Laos is very famous (they produce their own coffee) and a juice to fuel us for our walk.

So, we left the paradise on earth and began to stroll around the town, exploring the colors and the flavors of the town who was sleeping at that time. The town inspires a tranquility, maybe because there are very few cars, a lot of bicycles and is sited on the side of Mekong river with the vigorous vegetation all around. Also, Luang Prabang is famous because of the many Buddhist temples, very well preserved and the monks that live there.

The biggest monument of Luang Prabang is the Royal Palace and the area around it. Very well preserved, today the National Museum, unfortunately photos weren’t allowed inside and it was very interesting. You could totally imagine the life of the kings living there, accepting visitors or sleeping in their simple bedroom. Also it displays a lovely collection of artifacts reflecting the richness of Lao culture throughout the ages.

Then we visited the magnificent Wat Xieng Thong with the impressive “tree of life” mosaic set in colored glass. Traditional architecture of these buildings (Palace and temples) impressed me a lot because it was quite different from what I’ve seen already in Asia, very unique, simple but majestic at the same time. And the small glass tiles which covered some parts of them were sparkling in the sun, creating a light atmosphere.

As every asian town respecting itself food markets are very widespread and seductive. It’s the joy of the photographer, so many colors and strange products and of course a lot of fresh fruits and street food counters. I liked a lot the people that worked there when they were relaxing or even sleeping while they waited for customers. With that heat and humidity of course, there aren’t much you can do.

The atmosphere of the town is really unique, the morning stillness alternates with the evening buzz when everybody goes out and the market is working for real at a cooler temperature. We were afraid sitting at one of the many picturesque restaurants by the river (I don’t know why, we had no reason actually) and decide to eat at a simple yet cute little restaurant by the main street because it felt less touristic.
The food ok, I can’t describe how nice it was in general wherever we ate, I love asian cuisine and I especially love noodles where you could find everywhere in so many versions. It felt really good to taste the food in a simple way of offering, without trying too hard.

Local people wake up at 03.00 or until 05.00 in the morning as we’ve been told (wow…) to go to work and it’s very natural for them because of the temperature of course. A very early morning religious ritual is also happening every day, the morning alms giving ritual to saffron clad monks. This tradition is unique to Laos, being the only Buddhist nation still preserving this procession.
These daily morning alms are very important for the people, expressing their deep faith and work like this. Group of monks of each temple parade in a row, holding a basket. People sitting on the side of the street offers them cooked sticky rice which they’ve bought through specific vendors. That’s happening because the old days this was the food of the monks, only by people’s offerings, they don’t cook inside the temples. Today I’m not sure if it’s still the same but people still offers them cooked food for sure as an expression of faith.

However, from what I’ve read online this procession has become a touristic magnet which annoys the locals, sometime they don’t respect the monks and photograph them very closely like they are an exotic animal, but when we went very few visitors where participating and they were very respectful.

All the days in Laos I stayed almost sleepless because of circumstances: at first, travelling one whole day without sleeping, the first night my mother had a migraine crisis during the night so we were helping her, the next night my cat from Athens was lost and I was doing phycological support to G through telephone to help him find her (I didn’t want to return to Greece missing a cat!) and last but not least we wanted to attend the morning alms of the monks so we waked basically at night..! So, you get in the mood of how tired I was and how difficult it must be to even walk through the hot day!!
However, I remember 2 nights that stood out, the night market at the main street of Luang Prabang and a dinner at Manda de Laos.
The night market happens every afternoon until almost midnight, the street is filled with vendors and tents in red and blue color (Laos flag) creating a festive atmosphere full of colors! People gathers, plays music, eats, it’s like a real fest. Also, the stuff that they sell…not bad at all!!

However, we lost my brother there for a while and because of not having phones to contact (rookie mistake) we were very anxious but eventually we found each other. He had gone to watch a local theater play and he was just enjoying his time while we were waiting for him!!

The second night that will stay in my memory forever was the dinner at Manda de Laos. As I told you before we went with my mother there the first morning there and were so impressed that wanted to have dinner also, and have D. to see it too. So we made a reservation and went our last night in Luang Prabang.
The place was magical, like you were in a fairytale! The lilies had opened full because of the night coolness and the lights were highlighting the beauty of the place. Such beauty that words aren’t enough!!
Of course, the food was equally great. It’s a fine dining restaurant that offers a very upgrade level of laotian cuisine, expensive for Laos but close to european prices, not more. We made also a mistake and ordered 3 times (!) the food we wanted to eat so we were suffering at the end – I was close to explosion that night!

In the meantime, we went some excursions to Mekong river and other places and we were amazed by the great nature of Laos.
So stay tuned for the next post that will cover that part!