Thursday, May 30, 2013

Spring Breakin' All the Rules! (Part 1)

Last post, I explained how I managed to have a proper Spring Break despite my lack of PTO and now, here's the result! I had a fantastic 8 day journey yet again through parts of Southeast Asia that I never imagined myself going to. This time, it was with my best guy friend and together we set out to make this a trip of lifetime.

Early in January 2013 we were causally talking about what we'd both like to do before leaving Japan. After what was at first just a talk about what we longed to do, quickly became a plan! Not being overly ambitious with our limited break time in between semesters, we agreed on two countries and made clear goals for each. The first, travel to Siem Reap, Cambodia to see the infamous Angkor Wat. The second, some chill time on the well known beach paradise, Bali.

I won't bore you with the details with how we figured out the ever exhausting puzzle of finding flights and accommodations, but after a crazy week of constant research and tactical planning, we managed to get very good deals on our flights and hostels. We get paid well enough on JET to not have to worry about price so much, but it becomes part of the challenge for the avid traveler.

After that was settled, the next hurdle was my 'spring breakin' out of work' plan (even though no work was to be had, since it was break for the kids, but you can read all about that here.) Last came my favorite part - planning the activities! Spontaneity always makes for better memories when traveling, but I would hate to have gone to a place and missed out on its most famous {fill in the blank} attraction out of pure ignorance. My policy is to be in-the-know about what to expect from a place and then let the days fill themselves with that knowledge or whatever else comes our way. What follows is an account of the activities we managed to do, which is impressively, about 98% of everything we wanted to do.

Overall Itinerary:
March 23        Flight from Osaka, Japan to Siem Reap, Cambodia
March 24~25  Trekking the Angkor Kingdom Ruins and Temples
March 26        Flight from Phnom Penh to Bali, Indonesia
March 27~29  Exploring beautiful Bali at our leisure
March 30        Flight from Bali, Indonesia to Osaka, Japan


The Kingdom of Cambodia is a fascinating place with a tragic history and the most kind people. If I had more time, I would have gone to see the sobering 'killing fields' and gotten to know more of the culture of Cambodia. However, my time only allowed me opportunity to go the World Heritage Site, Angkor Archeological Park. I've heard of visitors spending up to a week in this place, but most have a 3 day excursion (my companion and I saw the highlights in 2 days).

We arrived in Siem Reap after a layover in Shanghai where we met the nicest Korean gentlemen who inadvertently chatted us up so much we nearly missed our flight. How ridiculous would it have been to miss a flight during a 4 hour layover? Anyway, once we arrived we paid the 25 USD entry visa (paying for visas on arrival is not always an option so check that about any country you visit ahead of time!) and in line met a woman from San Francisco who was the chaperone of a group of high school kids on a volunteer trip. My boyfriend (he's going to get various names from now on) and I could pass as high school kids ourselves with our baby faces, so she must have felt the need to take us under her wing and next thing we knew, we were being escorted to our hotel on a free ride via their tour bus.

Arriving at our hostel, we immediately inquired about how we'd go about seeing the best of Angkor. As is usually the case with hostels, they are extremely helpful with these matters. We devised our plan for the following day, showered off the trip and got to bed. But not before learning our hilarious wifi password, you know, since we're unabashedly addicted to our smart phones. The rest of the trip consisted of us using that pass code as code for something or other (sorry! I'm gonna keep it our little inside joke, haha!)

Another thing I love about hostels is that they will typically have a restaurant attached to them that serves some of the local food for ridiculously cheap and without the hassle of searching for a place on your own. Cambodia used to be a French colony until as recently as 1963 and so baguettes were on the menu. Baguettes, fruits, eggs, beans on toast, juices..simple but delicious. After our $3 breakfast, our tour guide arrived. His name was Bo and is a friend of our hostel owner. This is obviously a partnership they have going on so we had full confidence that he'd be a good guide in the interest of keeping this partnership going. He would be taking us around the expansive park in his Tuk Tuk. A normal Tuk Tuk ride can cost between $2 - $4, so for the whole day we were asked to pay $15. That's it. He was going to be our personal driver and tour guide for $7.50 each (it wasn't required but we tipped him enough to make it an even $10 each). And after going to the park I believe transport via Tuk Tuk, as opposed to tour bus or bikes, is the best option. These temples are part of a huge complex and are not close together. Being in bus loses some of the adventure aspect of it, but being on a bike means you're exhausted by the time you arrive at each temple and have the sun beating down on you most of the day.

Bo recommended doing what is known as the outer (also 'big') circuit one day and then the most famous temples the following day. We trusted him and off we went. The hostel had also lent us a Lonely Planet book, so on our way to each temple we'd read up on what we were about to see. From the first temple to the last, each was unique in its own way and absolutely fascinating. Trees woven in between crumbling structures. Intricate carvings, weathered and yet vibrant with their history. The structures themselves stood tall and I for one found myself staring in awe.

The only unfortunate part of the experience is that in front of each temple are various peddlers grabbing for your attention, including small children. Even inside some of the temples, usually men crouched in a corner, are Cambodians offering to give you personal tours of the temple for a fee. What they do is they start walking with you, pointing things out and their significance. Once you're intrigued and listening, they ask for a tip. They also know some creative poses for pictures within the walls. Outside, food vender stalls set up which is convenient for a quick lunch break without leaving the grounds. I say unfortunate about these things because it does distract you from walking up to these ruins with only wonder in your eyes since instead you're saying 'I'm sorry, no thank you' to the 20th kid to ask if you want a postcard. However, more unfortunate is that for many this is their only livelihood. Cambodia is poor and Angkor is the biggest pull they have as far as local economy.

Now a quick summary of the temples I saw and my impressions (the history is for the guide boks):

A quick note before I start, some temples are dress-code enforced and others are more spectacular at certain times of the day. Take heed when I point these out. Also, make sure to discuss where your ride will be waiting for you outside of each temple if you choose the Tuk Tuk option.

Pre Rup: Gorgeous one to start the day off. Lots of steps and different carvings on the wall to see. The morning sun worked really well to shed light on the intricate carvings. 

East Meabon: Elephant corners temple! There were Elephant statues at each corner and that was basically the only differentiating feature about it.

Ta Som: One of the more popular temples that is the first on the Big Circuit you'll see with the trees weaving themselves in between the crumbling ruins. Be ready to wait to take a picture in front of the courtyard entrance where one tree has elegantly draped itself. *must go*

Neak Poam: A long walk for a big lake with some still-standing ruins around it. I'd skip it.

Prea Khan: The bridge leading up and the back courtyard are the best bits of this temple. The bridge is the best example of the Naga bridge style in my opinion. The back courtyard is virtually empty but has one of the tallest, if not the tallest, tree sticking out of one of these temples and was really impressive. *must go*

Phnom Bakeng: Notably, the sunset temple. Lots of steps to climb, but at the top there is really only one not so very impressive structure. It does afford you a view of the park but not a great view, just a lot of foliage. It's very crowded with people waiting for sunset and not worth it in my opinion. Also, dress code enforced (ladies, no bare shoulders or above the knee; gents, just no cut off shirts if I remember correctly)

The Bayon: The temple with the faces. There are lots of steps to go up and down so you can see the faces up close and from the ground. This is also one to do when the sun is high in the sky so that the faces are illuminated and thus letting you see all their intricacies. I kept expecting one to talk to me about the legend of the hidden temple, haha! *must go, my favorite temple overall*

Ta Prohm: The Tomb Raider temple. Just wow. You've never seen trees like this. They're big, tall, wide, long, twining, never-ending, and just imposing! They spill over the temple like melted candle wax. Because it is so well-known, this temple is very crowded and many places for photo ops have a wait (but only 5 minutes or so). This alone is a reason to come to Angkor. *must go, one of my favorites*

Angkor Wat: People mistakenly call the whole park 'Angkor Wat' when it is in fact referring to this one temple - but with reason. This is the most important temple and rightfully should take up at least half a day. This temple has both a dress code enforcement and a time day to see it; that time being sunrise. Bo and other tour guides know this and so they have no problem accommodating this as part of their tour. Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat is something I'll never forget. The colors burning into the sky, feeling the moisture in the air turn humid, seeing the shadows of the temple burn away to reveal new layers - it is simply stunning. You'll be able to see it anywhere from the walkway leading up to it, but most people like to be the perfect distance away to be able to get the rising sun and the temple by in a tight shot. My buddy and I went the extra mile and some perspective fun using the sun (as seen below!). The temple is also beautiful at sunset, so in this case we left Angkor Wat after sunrise, went to Ta Prohm and The Bayon, and then came back to see the rest of Wat around early evening before closing time. This worked out well for us as the sun was not necessary to see many of the inner courtyards. *must go, my favorite lasting impression of the whole experience*


After the archaeological park, we had found that the cheapest way to Bali was through Phnom Penh and not through Siem Reap where we were. To clarify, we knew this when we booked our flight while still in Japan, but left finding a way to Phnom Penh until we arrived and talked to someone. We found a bus (again, through our hostel), that would take us there over night in time for our flight in the morning. It was $20 for a 6 hour overnight bus, but we saved over a $100 on the flight as a result. This was ultimately worth it, but there was a short period while making the arrangements where it seemed like we wouldn't be able to get a shower in before getting on the overnight bus. Picture it, we got up at sunrise, spent the whole day visiting temples, were about get on a 6 hour overnight bus that would take us to the airport where we'd immediately take an 8 hour flight to Bali. Just after a day is dusty, humid Angkor, we were gross. And thus I had my first ever panic attack. I'm a very clean person and don't mind getting sweaty and dirty as long as there is the promise of a shower at the end of the day, so without warning and faced with this prospect, I started pacing, shaking, and hyperventilating. Thankfully, my boyfriend saw something was wrong, took the lead, and found us showers. I don't think it was a full blown panic attack, so forgive me if it seems like I'm making light of it or if my reason for having one seems trite, but it's just the truth of what happened. I mention it because now I know for future travel to avoid that situation because it is a trigger for something that, apparently, makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Before boarding the bus, we had some time to browse at a local night market and a quick dinner and then we were making our way to Bali! This post has gotten quite long so I'll save that half for next time!

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