28 July 2012

Our Cambodian Adventure

Our bus. Destination Phnom Penh.
It is a dream come true for every traveler to visit a place gifted with profound beauty and rich culture. Our trip to Angkor Wat in Cambodia mesmerized our eyes like never before. I guess it is the "Temple City's" rare ambiance that attracts so many pilgrims all year round.

From Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, we took a bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. We wanted visit to the King and Queen of Cambodia but sadly, it was not part of the itinerary.  From Phnom Penh we took a connecting bus to Siem Reap where the famous Angkor Wat Temple can be found. 

En Route.
Never seen so much motorcycles before. :)

When we arrived at the border of Vietnam and Cambodia, I got the scare of my life when I was approached by two angry immigration officers because I took a photo of the sign "No Photographic" with a funny icon of what appears to be a camera. "No photo no photo!" the two officers barked as they came towards me. I was afraid because I thought they would take my camera Dina the D90 away, or worst, they would detain me.

I stood up like an Extra Terrestrial and showed them the palm my hands --  the universal sign for  "I come in peace." I showed them the screen of my camera, and told them, "I am pressing the delete button." Then, I simply smiled and said, "I'm towee." Lesson learned: Don't take pictures of signs telling you NOT to take pictures. Hehe. Talk about being lost in translation.

After more than 10 hours of sleeping in the bus, we arrived in Siem Reap at 8PM.

Cambodia’s King-father Norodom Sihanouk, Queen-mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk
portraits displayed at the receiving area of our hotel.
We were surprised how comfortable and budget friendly our accommodation was in Siem Reap. At less than 20 dollars a night, we wondered how our hotel profits considering the rooms were big, has cable TV, air-con, Wi-Fi, and free breakfast. The hotel also chartered a van for our tour. They arranged everything for us, we didn't  have to worry about anything.

Cambodian currency is known as Riel. One dollar is about 4125 Riel. No need to trouble yourself exchanging dollars with local currency, the US Dollar is an acceptable local currency.

Our first agenda when we woke up early in the next morning was to visit the temples. On top or our list were Angkor WatAngkor Thom, and many other smaller temples like Ta Prohm.

Our tree day pass to all the temples of Cambodia.
Before we could enter the Angkor Archaeological Park, we had to smile before a camera at the ticket booth before they give us our entrance pass. Passes are sold in one-day ($20), three-day ($40) and seven-day ($60) denominations and must be used on consecutive days. Visiting hours are 5:00AM - 6:00PM. Tickets are checked upon each entry at major temples, so we made sure we always carried it around. Local residents are free of charge.

The exploration team: Rah, Avril, My beautiful Mom Tita Cora, and Tita Milkah
It took a few minutes before we reached the moat around the Angkor Wat temple. The moat around was about 190 meters wide. Exploring the temples was like being in an Indiana Jones movie, I just can't believe my eyes that such amazing temples exist in real life. A tip of advice when exploring the temples, bring a water bottle with you, around a liter per person if you can. The weather can be very hot at times and drink stands may not be readily accessible.

Hindu god, multiple hands symbolize multiple powers.
modern day humans share the same profound power.
It's called "multi-tasking."
Despite the beauty of the Temple City, not too many people know that Cambodia has an unfortunate bloody history. In the 1970s, the world was horrified by the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge Regime - a government notorious for mass killings and policies that  caused widespread famine on its insistence on absolute self-sufficiency. The "Regime" also had a strange horrific fetish of killing intellectuals, professionals, and anyone who looked smart, including anyone who wears eyeglasses, no kidding. It was only in 1993 that Cambodia restored democracy and peace.

 Rio our tour guide tells the story of Rama at Sita.
In the photo above, Rio tells the story of Rama at Sita, an epic love story about the ancient Indian life. It tells about Rama's courage in searching for Sita and fighting a epic war to rescue his wife Sita. It was a pleasure listening to the Rama at Sita's story from our tour guide with visual aids engraved on the ancient temple walls itself.

It's advisable that you get a tour guide for your trip to the temples. The tour guides are very professional. Most speak more than one language. As we were told, tour guides must pass a grueling licensure exam before they can practice. Rio, our tour guide, is a law student, too. He speaks English and Spanish and is knowledgeable on local and world history. Your tour guide will explain the history behind the temples and will answer all your queries. He will be more than willing to take your photos, as well.

The temples have an aura of  mystery, genius architectural designs nestled amongst prehensile vines and gigantic trees. I can just imagine how beautiful the temples were when they were newly built centuries ago.
Because of the vastness of the temple complex, a one day tour not enough. You need at least two days to make the most of your visit there. Aside from chartering a van, you may also rent bicycles or charter Tuk-tuks as alternative modes of getting around the temples.

Hindu god and a beam of light.
One thing you should expect is that as a tourist, you will definitely be approached by local merchants of souvenirs and memorabilia. They are mostly children trying to sell you postcards, books, drinks, etc. Most of the times, these kids didn’t give up the first time you said "No." It is to be expected. Locals also need to make a living. Just be patient with them in a friendly way. I think that's the best approach. 

Panda and Sweet Pea's blurred picture in front of the temple
One time, I told a young girl that I can't buy from her because "I don't have money." but what I really meant was that "I didn't bring money with me."

She said, "I don' believe you don't have money, and if ever it were true that you don't have money, then, I will give to you what I am selling for free."

That was an instant eye opener for me, I can't believe a young girl was teaching me a lesson on honesty and humility. So, I got my wallet, drew all my one peso coins out my wallet and  gave a short lecture about Rizal, our national hero. I gave the young girl the 1 peso coin, and when her other friends also approached me, I gave each kid 1 peso, too. It seemed to have made their day, maybe because it's the first time they had seen a one peso coin with a free story about our national hero. They went away to show their playmates and parents. She might have lectured me on honesty, but in return I shared to them a piece of our nationality. I missed that cute kid.

Angkor Thom

In  Cambodia make sure you don't forget to attend at least one traditional Khmer dance performance. The Apsara is one of the most popular classical dance performance. It conveys not only body movements but also a story and drama.

The traditional Khmer Dance 'Apsara'
Apsara as dance is an ethereal experience that is uniquely Khmer. This classic dance features ornate costumes, taut posture, arched back and feet, fingers flexed backwards and is danced in synchronized  grace. Dancers have positively mysterious facial expressions. The movements are slow, close, deliberate, but flowing. It presents themes inspired primarily by the Reamker, the Cambodian version of the Indian classic, the Ramayana, and the Age of Angkor.

Tonle Sap Lake
The next day, we visited the Tonle Sap Lake, still with our guide Rio. 

The floating village at the mouth of the canal offers an insight into their way of life.

 The Tonle Sap lake of Cambodia has the fourth highest fish species diversity of any lake on Earth.
At the heart of Cambodia, an immense lake is the soul of a nation. The great Tonle Sap lake is a source of national pride. It is known to be one of the most productive and most biologically diverse lakes in the world.

My favorite photo of our trip. Angkor Wat temple at the break of dawn.

My trip Cambodia made me realize a lot of possibilities in life. I want to thank my family for encouraging me to travel, especially to my mom. Thank you to all who prayed, helped, and contributed to our exploration. Believe it or not, one of the great lessons I have learned from our Vietnam and Cambodia trip is the importance of "packing light." The value of packing light extends beyond the things we put in our suit case. It means simplifying what matters. It means sticking to the fundamentals. It means making up what is lacking by using our imagination. It means giving priority - first things first. 

It is true what long time travelers say that  you get a fresh perspective on life from traveling. You become tolerant, you become more understanding. You realize that a simple genuine smile to: local people, the hotel host, the driver, the airport crew, the immigration officer, to all people involved in your travel, goes a long way.

My first trip abroad made me more inquisitive, I found the need to take a look at other country's history and to relate its meaning to my country's own. I became more proud of our own heritage and language, and appreciated how it unites us as a nation. My fellow countrymen are not just another person anymore, (you are) my brothers and sisters. 

I don't know where I am going next, but I know life goes on and that the adventure continues. I believe what a wise man once said, "There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open." The way our eyes perceive the world is indeed: a reflection of the world -- and a reflection of who we are.