Picking up where we left off in Siem Reap, we visited the Angkor Wat temple. It is located just outside of Siem Reap- pictures don’t do justice to the immense size and the grandeur of the architecture. It is the largest Khmer temple complex in the world, built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century. The incredible decoration, which is made up mostly of bas-relief friezes and large-scale scenes is something to be seen in person. Even though the temple is Buddhist, the carvings and sculptures are mostly Hindu.
After climbing to the top of the center tower and exploring as much as we could of the vast complex, in the short time we were there, we grabbed lunch at a stand in the parking lot. In addition to the usual Khmer dishes, Sky was “kind” enough to order a plate of Beef with Jungle Ants for all of us to share! The group voted it the worst of the bugs we (not me!) had tasted- ants taste like ants, and you can’t say anything else about them.
After lunch it was a short ride to Angkor Thom, our next stop, and a much smaller temple than Angkor Wat, but it was just as grand and impressive. We continued our Temple tours with the Banteay Srei temple, known as the Pink Temple, or Women’s Temple because of the pink limestone that it is built from.
After a very long and hot day of sightseeing, most of the group went to dinner at The Soup Dragon restaurant, a restaurant that gives 10% of its profits to a local children’s clinic.
The Vietnamese style pancake with chicken that I had ordered as an appetizer, could have easily fed two adults for dinner, and was superb. Most of us called it an early night so we could be up early to watch sunrise over Angkor Wat.
A very sleepy group of 8 of us got up at 4:30am to get to the temple early enough to capture a prime spot. Walking by the light of our flashlights, we found a great spot on the wall of the Library at the temple where we settled in and waited for the sun to rise. Our guide asked if anyone wanted coffee and took our orders and disappeared into the darkness. A few minutes later a woman appeared caring a silver try with all of our coffees and tea’s and milk and sugar.
The sky was overcast so sunrise was a bit of a disappointment. I had hoped for some great pictures, but the experience was worth it, even with the lack of actual sun.
We headed back to the hotel for breakfast and to meet up with the late sleepers of the group. Our touring today would take us to the infamous Jungle Temple, where Tomb Raider was filmed and then we’d have a free afternoon around Siem Reap.
The Jungle Temple was really a magnificent site, with massive trees growing and engulfing the stones. There were literally trees growing directly from the rocks.
For dinner, Sky had planned to take up to a local street market and then an all you can eat BBQ buffet. First we walked around the street market where we sampled local fruits, deserts, and other street foods, including the best scallion pancakes I’ve ever tasted. We then sat for a snack at one of the many “cow on a spit” stalls for a few slices before we headed to dinner.
Dinner was more of hot pot rather then BBQ. Everything was delicious and you could either cook your meal directly over the heat of the coals in a pot on the table or in the boiling broth that surrounds the coals. The buffet had all of the assorted parts of chicken, beef, and pork, as well as seafood and vegetables. We cooked by dangling the meat over the coals or by poaching it in the broth.
Everything was great until about 2:30 am when a wave of food poisoning started passing through the group. I was one of the lucky two people who did not get sick. Because of this we got a slow start and had an easy day.
A bus trip to Battambang, with a stop at Sky’s family house was really wonderful. We saw how people actually live in the villages. This was not your typical tourist destination and I am thankful for the opportunity to see how these kind and gentle people live. For a business, his family drives to the Thai border and buys used American clothing then alters them to smaller sizes and resells them to the locals. It’s quite a demanding profession but has been very successful for them.
We drove to Battambang where, those of us who felt well enough to eat, went for lunch at Ptea Teuk Dong Street Families Center, where we ate a delicious meal and we learned about their programs here to help abused and homeless women and children. This is one of the aspects I really like about Intrepid Travels. They have a foundation that sponsors charities and humanitarian projects around the world and with each trip they try to make visitors aware of these endeavors.
After lunch we took a ride on the bamboo railway. It’s basically a small bamboo platform powered by a lawnmower engine, driven down tracks that were laid by the French in the 1920’s and have not been repaired since.
It is only a single track but a 2 way trip! The rule of the road is that which ever direction has less cars, or less people on the cars, has to get off the track to let the other pass. This is not so easy as you have to disassemble your train car and move it off the track and then rebuild it when you can go again. It takes quite some time to actually get anywhere.
Dinner that night was at the Gecko Café, another restaurant that teaches people trades by having them work in different positions in the restaurant. Here I had a fantastic Chicken Curry. It wasn’t too spicy but full of flavor.
After the long day of travel and many people not feeling well we called it an early night to be ready for the long drive to Bangkok.
During the 9 hour drive to Bangkok, we stopped along the way for a taste of bamboo sticky rice from a roadside vendor. These rice treats were very popular and quite delicious. The bamboo gives the rice a nice flavor as it is cooked directly on the fire. You peel the bamboo down like a banana as you eat the rice from the center of the stalk. It seems easy enough to do at home on a grill. The moisture from the bamboo steams the rice as it roasts.
We arrived at the Thai border and after clearing immigration, we had to switch to Thai buses and take a Thai guide with us. Once across the border to Thailand it was not only a different country, but a whole different world. We had to take a guide with us from the border, as Sky, our Cambodian guide couldn’t actually work in Thailand.
As Thailand is a much more westernized country, along the highway we actually stopped at 7-11 for a snack break. There are more 7-11’s there than there are Starbucks in NYC!
Our hotel in Bangkok was located in the backpacker district, where every shop along the streets were either a tattoo parlor, bar, t-shirt shop or fast food restaurant.
Our final dinner as a full group was at a small restaurant near the hotel where we had a room to ourselves. We had a great time, plenty of food and good conversations. We then made a night of it and went bar hopping and ended up in a club with a Thai cover band singing 70’s classics.
I had two more days in Bangkok as did several others from our group. We visited the Royal Palace, took a Tuk-tuk tour around the city, and took the water bus down the Chao Phraya River. I visited several temples and I ate as much Pad Thai from the street vendors as I could.
On the flight home I didn’t get to upgrade to Business Class but Coach on Cathay Pacific was pretty comfortable, especially since there was no one next to me. It was a long flight from Hong Kong to New York with a stop in Vancouver.
The time changes on the flight home could get anyone lost-
I left Bangkok at 7:40pm on Tuesday and I arrived in Hong Kong, departing at 1:00 am Wednesday but when I arrived in Vancouver, it was 7:30 pm on Tuesday! And when I finally arrived in New York at 5:40 am, it was on Wednesday (again!)
This trip was definitely a trip of a lifetime. It opened a whole new world to me and I want to keep exploring- especially those places that are not so much tourist destinations, but are off the beaten path and experience life where the real people live.