Thailand: The second time around

It’s been 95 days since I left home to begin this journey – and it’s not a home I’ll be going back to. I hopped in a friend’s car at 6:30 am on July 31st and have been slowly making my way east ever since.

It’ll take me another 29 days to reach the place I used to call home, Minneapolis. But for the first time in months, it finally feels like I’m coming to the end of things. All my flights have been booked, all my days have been planned, and I’m seriously looking forward to seeing my sister’s face at MSP International Airport on December 2nd.

At the same time, it feels odd to remind myself that this trip isn’t finished. I’m not hopping on that plane tomorrow – well, I am hopping on a plane tomorrow, but that’s to Chiang Mai! And I have to admit, I’m beginning to lose steam on these blog posts.

We’re spending more and more time in each place we go (nine nights in Bangkok, two in Ayutthaya, seven in Phuket), but I’m finding that I have less and less to say. Guess that’s how you know you’ve planned a trip a little too long! Because it’s certainly not the fault of anyplace we’ve been – Bangkok is easily one of our favourite cities (throughout this trip we’ve spent a total of 16 nights there).

For these ten days in Bangkok, we did a lot of shopping, mostly at Siam Center, Siam Paragon, and Siam Discovery. What can I say? After two years in Ethiopia, we both needed serious wardrobe upgrades.

We then spent the rest of our days wandering around the area near Koh San Road (though avoiding the road itself!), eating cheap pad thai, drinking fresh pomegranate juice, and stocking up on real books to read during our upcoming beach days.

Then, we took a quick trip up to Ayutthaya. Many do this as a simple day trip, but we decided to spend a couple of nights in the town. We didn’t even bother to leave our hotel, Tamarind, that first night (with the exception of grabbing dinner at the night market down the street).

We purchased some street popcorn, corn on the cob, waffles, cantaloupe, and a Coca-Cola to split and settled into this room to enjoy our spoils and watch The Shawshank Redemption:

Tamarind Guesthouse

The next day we were rested up and ready to check out the ruins that make up Ayutthaya’s UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ayutthaya was a Siamese kingdom that existed from 1351 to 1767, when the Burmese army destroyed the city, effectively collapsing the kingdom.

We started at the sites closest to our hotel and worked our way out. First came Wat Ratchaburana. Founded in 1424 by King Borommarachathirat II, it was built on the cremation site of his two older brothers. The two brothers had fought to their deaths in a duel for the royal succession to their father.

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A sunset inside Angkor Wat

The day before had started at sunrise, and this one was going to end at sunset. We passed through Angkor Thom’s southern gate shortly after 7 am and headed straight for Bayon.

Bayon is comprised of 54 Gothic-style towers that are decorated with 216 smiling faces – all of which are an odd amalgamation of Avalokiteshvara (a Buddhist deity) and Jayavarman VII (a king who wanted to be seen as a demi-god). The only temple more visited than this is Angkor Wat itself, and even just driving up to it, you could see why.

The sun was rising, and while many recommend this time to view Bayon, I found the sun to almost hinder getting a grand look at the temple. Instead of enhancing the faces, the sun (and the shadows it created), made it more difficult to discern fine details. It wasn’t until we were underneath the faces, on the first level, that we were able to get a good first look.

Bayon 1But I can’t bemoan the timing too much, once again we had arrived before the large tour buses (they showed up right as we were walking out, over an hour later!). Bayon isn’t a particularly large temple, but there’s so much to look at, from the bas-reliefs on the first floor to the faces on the third.

Everywhere you turn…there’s a face staring back at you. Built in the late 12th century or early 13th century, it’s sort of amazing that so many of these faces are in such good condition.

Bayon 2It’s hard to get across, with either words or photos, just how large these faces are. So I’m including the following photo to help give perspective. Keep in mind – at 5′ 6″ (1.68 m) I’m not a particularly large person.

Bayon 3After Bayon we made our way to Baphuon. This temple is awesome because it’s comprised of 300,000 stones that were at one time all disassembled. Records were made, of course, but they were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and the temple had to be reassembled without them.

I’d say they did a pretty good job – though when you’re up close, it’s obvious what was an exact match and what was just an approximation!

BaphuonNext we weaved our way around and on top of the Terrace of Elephants. I have to be honest, you get a better view of them by simply driving past. We also went to the Terrace of Lepers, which I found to be much more interesting – especially the carved walkway.

And then…it was time for a BREAK! After three temple days, we decided to take a break between the big ones. We went back to the hotel (read: took a nap) and then grabbed a quick lunch.

At 3:45 pm, we started making our way to Angkor Wat. Only, on the way, our tuk-tuk kept breaking down – which meant I was freaking out. I wanted to watch the sunset from inside Angkor (which happens at 5:46), but we still needed to look around the temple first. Luckily, our driver eventually figured out the issue and we were only 15 minutes later than planned.

We arrived at the gate and my heart sank – “Angkor Wat: Open 5:30 am to 5:30 pm.” Didn’t they know that that was before sunset? I couldn’t believe it. And at 4:15, there were already dozens of people lined up to watch the sunset from outside the main gate. So we decided to go inside and make the most of our time there.

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Starting at sunrise

I’ve never been a fan of early mornings, but I wanted at least one sunrise during our time in Siem Reap. Most people flock to Angkor Wat itself, but since we (read “I,” Chandler would have been content sleeping in) didn’t want to be surrounded by hundreds of other tourists, we made our way to Sra Srang instead. Sra Srang, also known as the Pool of Ablutions, was used by the king and his consorts.

Our alarms went off at 4:15 am – we used two in case the one couldn’t cut it – and were on our way by 4:45, breakfast in hand. Our tuk-tuk driver (yes, we down-graded, no more car!) drove us through the checkpoint, with no other vehicle in sight. We arrived at the pool to find that only one group (of three) had arrived before us. Throughout the course of the sunrise, we were joined by maybe a dozen others, but we felt perfectly content to snack away on our egg sandwiches and take in the sunrise.

I may never know what a sunrise over Angkor Wat looks like in person, but I have no regrets over our choice to head to Sra Srang instead…

Sra SrangAfter the sun had risen too much to be looked at directly, we made our way across the street to Banteay Kdei, a Buddhist monastery built in the 12th century. The entrance is decorated with the four faces of Avalokiteshvara.

After passing through the doorway, we found ourselves in a completely deserted temple – the cleaning staff hadn’t even arrived yet to remove the previous night’s cobwebs! This was one of the most surprising temples for us. We hadn’t expected much past the gate, but we were pleasantly surprised to find that the temple just kept going.

Banteay KdeiThings got a little interesting when we went back to our tuk-tuk driver. Technically, we were paying him to take us on the Grand Circuit, but we wanted to save Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom for the final day, so we had a slightly different route planned. Turned out it wasn’t as simple as that. Luckily, our driver was an affable man, and agreed to the change in route, for another $5 that is.

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Beng Mealea: My favourite temple

We officially have three holes punched on our seven-day Angkor pass. Which sounds silly when you think about it, why didn’t we just get the three-day pass? But actually, it worked quite well in our favour.

Tuesday morning we rented a car (a car? How fancy…but it seemed the best option when traveling over 150 km in a day and still wanting plenty of time to explore), and made our way to Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean, Beng Mealea, and the Roluos Group.

We decided to start with the outermost temples first and spend our final day at Angkor Wat and Bayon – the most famous of the temples. We had a fairly early start to the day, because we heard tour groups take a little longer to get up and running and we wanted as much time to ourselves at the temples as possible.

Our first stop was the ticket office. The lines for the three-day passes were already twenty-or-so people deep (at 7:30 am), but we were the only ones interested in a weeklong pass (the three-day passes are valid for a week, the week-long passes are valid for a month). Bonus number one for spending an extra $20 on days we didn’t end up needing: We were in and out of the ticket area in less than two minutes.

Then it was on to Banteay Srei. Banteay Srei is a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, also known as the Citadel of Women. It is cut from stone that has a pinkish hue and includes some of the finest carvings in all of Angkor (and possibly the world). Construction began in 967, and it was the first major temple restoration undertaken by the EFEO using the anastylosis method – a method of recording, dismantling, and reconstructing ruins.

Banteay Srei 1Banteay Srei 2Banteay Srei 3Then it was off to Kbal Spean. I should mention that when our driver asked us where we wanted to go (and gave us a list of options), he was surprised to hear us come up with Kbal Spean all on our own. You see, once again, we fell prey to Lonely Planet’s optimistic reviews – “Kbal Spean is a spectacularly carved riverbed, set deep in the jungle to the northeast of Angkor.”

In actuality, Kbal Spean is a handful of carvings, most of which are underwater during rainy season. The ones we could see were fairly interesting, but now I’ll tell you why I wouldn’t quite recommend this site…you see, LP had gone on to mention that “it is a 2km uphill walk to the carvings, along a pretty path that winds its way up into the jungle.”

Lies. Well, I suppose it was pretty. But it was no “walk” and it was a hell of a lot more than just “uphill.” Not to mention that the word “path” was used pretty liberally. As we neared the top (over 45 minutes later), the rains began and we were forced to take shelter under my umbrella. Chandler had once again forgotten his.

That said, we were incredibly grateful for the rain – Cambodia, like Vietnam, is unreasonably hot, and the rains are pretty much always welcome in my opinion. When we finally made it to the river, we were a bit disappointed at the absence of “a spectacularly carved riverbed.”

Luckily, we continued along the path (I had to forage this alone first and then return back for Chandler), and found the waterfall LP had ever so casually mentioned. Which I have to say was a lot lovelier than the carvings themselves. All-in-all, I enjoyed the stop (which took over two hours), but Chandler was definitely wishing I hadn’t felt so adventurous.

Bonus number two for getting the seven-day passes: Had we waited in line for the three-day passes we would have been mid-climb when the rains started. Trust me, you do not want to be mid-climb when it starts pouring.

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