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I Love You Like Apfelstrudel

Heaven is a European Christmas Market


I love Vienna. My friend Calin and I were here in 2013 in the springtime, so it was lovely to see it now gearing up for Christmas. Nobody does Christmas like Europe! Christmas lights are draped over all of the streets in the old city, and little Christmas market huts set up shop all over town. Gina and I were all over this like white on rice. We love Christmas. Yes, it was a shock going from tropical Cambodia to December in Central Europe. No, we didn't let it slow us down.
What was unfortunate though, was that we are back to Western prices. Which meant that the hostel I booked was not...the best Vienna has to offer. It was an ex-night club with pieces of the bar now serving as the "kitchen" (microwave and electric kettle). There were about 12-15 bunk beds in the dark, narrow space, and your bags just got piled in the middle of the floor where you hoped people didn't walk on them. There were weak little lockers where you hoped people didn't pop off your little lock and make off with your shit. Sigh. So we spent as little time in the "room" as possible.
Nice, right? Gina got embarrassed whenever people saw us going in.
Since our plane from Dubai landed around noon, we made it to the hostel around 2pm, dropped our stuff, and hit the town. No rest for the weary.
Vienna is breathtaking. As the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it has enjoyed a lot of wealth over the centuries, and it shows. The buildings are regal and imposing, and there are wide avenues of cobblestones with fountains or monuments on every corner.
The sun started setting around 4pm (!!!) and we were rather low on energy, we decided to save the big stuff for later and start with the State Hall of the Austrian National Library. This was something that Calin and I had not managed to visit last time, which is really a shame because it is amazing.
Gina was so funny. As soon as we walked into the hall, her mouth hung open and she staggered around like she had received a strong blow to the head. "I'm in Beauty and the Beast," she whispered, craning her head up at the frescoes.
This is one of those situations where cameras utterly fail. I wish I could communicate better to you how breathtaking this place is. The ceilings are soaring and covered in frescoes of clouds, angels and the inevitable divine Hapsburgs. The walls are lined with bookcases, maybe twenty feet tall, and weighed down with delicate books, hundreds of years old. And then there's another floor of them above that! There's a huge statue of Emperor Charles VI in the center, flanked by many others of other of men of varying degrees of importance. My favorite though were the four huge globes in the corners of the central dome.
The sun had fully set but the time we forced ourselves to leave the library and head towards the Stephansdom, the central church downtown, which was lit with the colors of the French flag in support of the Paris bombings that occurred a few days before.
It's a bit of a shame Gina didn't see the inside of the church during the daytime. It is a massive gothic cathedral, very poorly lit inside, which does wonders for ambiance but not much for first-time viewers. The Stephansdom Christmas market was already up and running in the square outside (YAY), so we browsed the little huts selling gingerbread, fresh honey, sausages and Christmas ornaments, and we drank hot toddies out of little boots. Then we wandered off to eat sausages and sauerkraut and were supremely happy.
The next day we spent at the Hofberg, which is the imperial complex. It doesn't really have a single front view, like Buckingham Palace or the White House, but is a maze of different imperial buildings added over the centuries. Perhaps the best front view is of what is now the National Library.
The Hofberg tour takes several hours, because there is the imperial silver collection (more interesting than it sounds) the imperial apartments (the winter residence of the emperor and his family) and the Sisi Museum. Sisi is the nickname of Empress Elizabeth, who was really not a very good empress--she resented her official role and even her place in her own family, and spent most of her time abroad, writing poetry and going on extreme diets and generally being angsty--but she was assassinated in 1898 and had since plummeted into a romanticized (if false) memoriam. This museum is very good because it not only covers her personal and public life but also examines what exactly caused this veneration to occur. She is idealized almost like Princess Diana, except without any of Diana's good works.
She was very beautiful, but she knew it, and was rather obsessive about it. Her story is quite sad, since she was very unhappy for most of her life. Gina and I wound up touring the museum with a Romanian guy named Claudiu, whom we befriended early in the day at the silver collection. The Hofburg ticket includes all three museums, so we wound up spending most of the day together. He is in Vienna on a month-long grant for his phd, and in his spare time he is trying to see all Vienna has to offer (which is a lot).
Next I dragged Gina to the imperial crypt, which is not a very crowded spot because it is dark and creepy. But I find it very interesting.
Many generations of the imperial family are buried here, from 1633 all the way up to 2011. I think it's interesting, when you spend all day learning about the Habsburgs and their empire, to also see what they chose for their final resting place.
Thursday we took the metro out to Schönbrunn Palace, another Habsburg gem. Like the Hofburg, you are not allowed to take pictures inside (the humanity), so you will just have to imagine ornate, Rococo style palace rooms filled with furniture that looks like it's made out of buttercream and silk damask coating every surface. It has 1441 rooms, only a fraction of which are on display. The ballroom is my favorite, all in gold with angelic ceiling frescoes and tall windows looking out over the grounds. The grounds are massive, full of labyrinthine hedges and little pleasure gardens. Most of it is pretty blah right now with the onset of winter, but you can still see the layout and statuary.
And there is always the Gloriette, which is a folly/monument built by Empress Maria Theresa in the late 1700s. It's way up the hill behind the palace, an excellent spot to be viewed and view from. Gina and I had coffee and cake there to sit and enjoy generally being fancy.
We tried to selfie with the palace in the background but the wind was a bit strong...
Weird moment after that though. We were walking down the winding garden path from the Gloriette to the main gardens and suddenly Gina heard her name. Turning, she saw Abby, her friend from MSU. We knew Abby would be in Europe because Gina and I wrote her an email with travel suggestions for Hungary, Croatia, Australia and New Zealand, but we had no idea she and her cousin would be in Austria. And when we wrote her the emails, we didn't even know we would be in Austria (because I hadn't yet battled the Internet in an attempt to find a cheap way from Siem Reap to Zagreb). But there they were, strolling up the path. If we hadn't taken our time with our coffee we would have missed them. What're the chances? The world is so small sometimes.
That evening we spent at the main Christmas market by City Hall (Rathausplatz). It inspires holiday joy that's like being a kid again. There are grand light displays everywhere, and whole avenues of the little house selling gingerbread, mulled wine, etc., and carts of roast chestnuts and popcorn. Instead of Santa Claus, Austrian children can get their picture taken with Christkind, whom I will water down here and say is basically an angel/spirit of baby Jesus who brings presents. It's portrayed though by a beautiful young woman In a blonde wig with a halo. There's also little huts where kids can make cookies or Christmas crafts, as well as a carousel and other tiny rides. The huge trees of the Rathauspark are hung with light-up violins, red hearts, acorns, and cupcakes. The huge tree in front of City Hall was also lit in red, white and blue in Support of France.
It rained on our last day in Vienna. We really cannot complain as it has rained so little on this trip in total. But as the weather report predicted heavier rain in the afternoon, we switched our plans for the day and started at the Zentralfriedhof--ones of the largest cemeteries in Europe and in the world (yes, I'm aware I spend a considerable of my travel life in cemeteries). It was just a quick stop, to check out the Musicians' Corner, which inters the likes of Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss and more, and also to stroll through the derelict and picturesque old Jewish section. I find this cemetery fascinating because (despite a lot of initial opposition in the 1800s) it is colorfully interdenominational, covering many Christian denominations (including lots of Orthodox), Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, and other faiths.
Next we took the tram up to St. Marx friedhof nearby. While Mozart (Vienna's most famous citizen) has a lovely monument in the Musicians' Corner, he is actually buried in a very modest grave near a small neighborhood church. When Calin and I visited this cemetery in 2013, it was undergoing extensive renovation, as overall, the graves and stones had suffered many ravages of time (except the beloved and well-cared for Mozart). Now, the whole cemetery is in quite good repair, which is pretty fast work for less than three years.
It was raining quite steadily by the time we made it to the Upper Belvedere, which was originally a Baroque palace built as a summer residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy and has served as a small but formidable art museum since 1781, when Empress Maria Theresa installed part the imperial art collection there for public viewing. It is the first and only home of Gustav Klimt's "The Lovers" (commonly known as "The Kiss"), which the museum purchased directly from the artist before it was even finished. Even though he was a bit on the outs with the art world at the time, and reception was chilly during his Gold Period, the Belvedere knew genius when they saw it and snatched up "The Lovers" for a whopping 25,000 crowns (currently $240,000). I will take a moment for some perspective here. Prior to this sale in 1908, the most money that had ever been paid for a painting in Austria was 500 crowns. Think about it! Naturally, the Belvedere refuses to part with the painting, which has been a national treasure and a symbol of Vienna. It's value cannot be named, but for comparison, Klimt's lesser-known painting "Adele Bloch-Bauer" sold in 2006 for $135 MILLION (the most ever paid for a painting at that time, according the NYT). You might be rolling your eyes at me and my facts by now, and thinking that it is not even a pretty painting. What is all the fuss?
But that is why I dragged Gina to this small art museum in the rain. You have to see The Kiss to be completely mesmerized. Once she saw it she completely agreed with me that photography does it absolutely no justice and the six foot square canvas is hypnotizing, much in the way Mona Lisa is supposed to be. The golds are gold leaf (remember, Gold Period), and the faces are ethereal and out of focus. It is stark, romantic, melancholy, sexy, masculine and feminine all at the same time. I used to not care for Klimt's work at all, but after seeing this (and many of his other works, from many of his phases) in person, he is now one of my favorite artists of any medium. If you ever go to Vienna, absolutely do not leave Vienna without making a stop. Clearly I feel very strongly about this.
We warmed up with some goulash and dumplings (Heaven. The American idea of goulash is swill compared to that of Eastern Europe. Not even comparable.) before Gina went and grabbed a drink with Abby and her cousin. I had not felt completely well since our last day in Cambodia, so I went back to the hostel/night club to empty out our pathetic locker and pack (which I could now do blindfolded, asleep, drunk, or all three simultaneously). Four days is enough time to see only the choicest bits of Vienna but unfortunately that's all the time we have. It's more important to both of us to get to Croatia and spend time with our lovely family, and anyways for a last minute side trip, Vienna is an excellent one.

Posted by Chloeah 09:15 Archived in Austria Comments (0)

It's lizards in your shoes

A few thoughts on travel


Many of you noticed the awkward leap we just made from Cambodia to Austria--arguably the most underdeveloped and politically fractured country on our list to the wealthiest (historically speaking). Yes. It was major culture shock. To say nothing of the change in climate. It happened this way because we needed to get from Siem Reap to Zagreb, and it was much cheaper to fly into Vienna (via Abu Dhabi) and then take a bus to Zagreb. So of course we had to stay a few days in Vienna!! I was there a few years ago and loved it, and I wanted Gina to experience it.
Unfortunately, as lovely as Cambodia was, the experience was tainted by the ridiculous business practices of Cambodian Angkor Air. Don't ever fly with them, even just a little one hour flight to Bangkok like we had purchased. They post a lot of flights and then don't fill any of them, so they "delay" all the flights until the evening and then put you all on the same plane. This caused everyone with connections in Bangkok to miss them (including us), but Angkor Air doesn't care because they are not responsible for those flights (of course they're not, they only fly to like three airports in Southeast Asia). So we were s.o.l. on our tickets to both Abu Dhabi and Vienna, and there are no phones or wifi in the Siem Reap airport, so we couldn't do any damage control until Bangkok, when we were already exhausted and ready to punch someone (especially me, who was really sick yet again). If you are heading to Siem Reap I would seriously opt for the seven hour bus ride from Bangkok, because we also didn't care for Air Asia on our flight in and my hopes are not high for the other airlines. So eventually our shitty plane shuddered and sputtered its way to Bangkok and we wound up having to book whole new tickets with a whole new airline to Vienna via Dubai. Fingers crossed that travel insurance comes through. We got all Juan Herakovic on their asses about giving us all the documentation of this bullshit in Siem Reap so we can submit it.
Which brings me to an interesting point. Gina and I talk from time to time about how travel is glorified a lot, especially by all those silly Pinterest style quotes like, "just buy a ticket" and stuff. We have a lot to say on this. Yes, travel is one of the best things you can do. No, we don't regret leaving our lives for six months to do this. Yes, we would totally do it again, with a few minor changes. But if you are thinking of going on any sort of extended trip, don't lie to yourself that every moment is going to be amazing and fulfilling. Travel is not just white beaches and new cultures and wild adventures. It's also eighteen hours in an unairconditioned bus station because your bus only leaves once a day. It's not showering for four days because you are in transit and spilling dinner all down your front. It's getting sick and not speaking the local language to find medicine. Your bank card doesn't work. No one will cash your large bills, which is all the ATMs will spit out. The hostel lost your reservation. You don't know where to get off the bus. Your flight was cancelled.
Travel is getting places, which is more often than not a pain in the butt and exhausting. It is hauling your suitcase up ten flights of stairs because there is no elevator. It is throwing up in a crowded airport bathroom because we have to make this flight, no matter how you feel. It is always wearing shoes in the shower and always getting stuck with the top bunk. At least if you are a budget traveler. It is strangers sleeping on your shoulder and snoring in your ears, it is ticket agents and bus drivers who yell at you in foreign languages. It is eating whatever is in front of you, whether you like it or not and whether you know what it is or not.
Travel, especially budget travel, is A LOT of hours of research and inquiry. Yet you also have to be able to fly by the seat of your pants. But if you want to save money, you have to know what all of the options are and stay informed. It's hard to balance these two frames of mind.
Travel is getting your underwear stolen out of the dryer because you left it unguarded for ten minutes (Gina). Travel is the grown man curled up next to you on the plane whimpering "mama" in his sleep as the top of his head jams into your elbow (Chloe). It is squat toilets. And getting pestered to buy things because you look foreign. It is 20 hour bus rides and three connecting flights and lizards in your shoes. It is really big spiders.
But but but. I am in no way trying to discourage ANYONE from traveling. Travel changes you and softens you, it illuminates the world in your mind and makes it delightfully smaller. I am just saying that there are struggles with all of the many, many benefits, and those are often overlooked. Like your privacy? Don't book a hostel. Picky eater with a germ phobia? Don't go to Asia. Stress out at the thought of multiple modes of travel in a non-English speaking country? Maybe consider a package tour. But whatever form of travel is best suited to you, please do it. You won't regret it. (At least not overall. For example our teeth-gnashing exit from Cambodia did not color our opinion of the lovely week we spent there, or some of the wonderful people we met.) And you learn so much about yourself during all of this. You are capable of using a squat toilet! For #1 and #2! Yes you are! And if there is a learning curve, the rinse the pee off yourself. It's fine. No one died. And you really can sleep anywhere, if you are tired enough. And when you are in a bind, you know more words in that language than you think you do. All of the unease and new situations break you down and build you back up in ways you didn't know were possible.
And when you do go, just be aware in the back of your mind that every moment will not be amazing. That's all I'm trying to say, really. But it is those tiny struggles that get you to the amazing parts. You can wipe that stranger's drool off your shoulder, pack what's left of your delicates, swallow whatever is in that bowl and go and see something life-altering. Just make sure to bring a credit card in case of emergencies. And flip flops for the showers.

Posted by Chloeah 04:08 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Mother Nature you's a bad bitch...

Searching the Cambodian jungle for more ruins. And lunch.


We were a bit more spry Friday morning, since we didn't have to meet the tuktuk at 4:30am. Instead, Kim was waiting out front by 8 and together we rode back out to the ruins, past Angkor Thom and out to Preah Khan, which is another walled city but only about 1/5 the size of Angkor Thom.

90_11824CB4906F3FE3420CA72ACB8C63C3.jpgToday we were completing the Grand Circuit, which covers a bigger loop than the Mini Circuit. As an added bonus, the Grand Circuit had far less people clambering up its staircases and ducking through temple doorways. Many people, especially big commercial tours, only have time for one day of ruins, which means the Mini Circuit. Indeed if I only had one day I would choose that. Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat are the big icons of the area, and Te Phrom with its conquering trees was my favorite of all the temple complexes.
But Preah Khan was also awesome. It's restoration process was just starting to get a foothold, and the cloudy skies and lightest possible raindrops made it seem moody and shadowed. The trees and moss continue to reclaim their area, prompting Gina to mutter, "Mother Nature, you's a bad bitch!"
It was originally a Buddhist monastery, then served as a home for Jayavarman VII while he constructed his resident city of Angkor Thom. Jayavarman VII was a name that Kim recited a lot: he was known as "the builder king" and is responsible for most of the temples and monuments in the area. He also was responsible for switching the official religion to Buddhism (which got switched back to Hindu after his death). But as there are no written records apart from a few lines of Sanskrit here and there, we don't know much more about him. He dedicated Te Phrom to his mother and Preah Khan to his father. He built the massive city of Angkor Thom. Temples went up all over, coated in carvings and bigger and better than ever. I thought about him a lot. On the one hand, he exhausted his empire's resources with all of his grand projects, bankrupting himself and pretty much starting the collapse of the Khmer Empire. On the other hand, his grand projects are practically all that remain of that empire. Isn't that interesting? If he hadn't built them, the empire might have stretched further into history. But history remembers the empire because he built them. Such is man's weakness to make his mark, even to his own detriment.
Note the niches with the stolen Buddhas. Many of the temples we have seen have these marks;it's usually quite apparent where the statues and more prominent carvings once stood.
After some very satisfying temple hiking (which makes me feel more and more like a archeologist/treasure hunter, especially since there are now crowds here) we hopped back in the tuktuk and the driver took us to Neak Pean, otherwise known as the hospital temple. This one is situated out on a small island. Kings and nobles would have reached it by boat, to drink from its holy water and pray for healing. It is now accessible by a long, narrow wooden walkway over the water. Locals selling temple drawings, cotton pants, and fresh fruit line the tiny bridge, and another group of musicians played traditional Khmer music under a small tent. We have seen these musicians at pretty much every temple site--they are all victims of land mines, grown men with missing limbs and eyes, some of them badly burned, but all of them playing beautiful traditional music on instruments I can barely identify.
This temple was pretty much a series of pools (one for the King and Queen, one for officers, one for nobles, etc) formed around a small central tower. The water is flat and green, and I would hate to think of anyone drinking that. Kim acknowledged that, while the water was probably fresher in this temple's heyday, you would have to really pray if you were relying on it for any sort of cure. It is from the late 12th century, but attendance fell off once better cures became available.
We saw. The worst. Spiders. Ever. They were black and shiny and about the size of my palm. They lurked in huge, cottony webs that stretched between the trees over the road to the temples. Kim laughed at Gina and me each time we had to walk under them, as we craned our necks upwards to make sure they didn't move as we passed underneath. He said it is common to eat fried spiders in Cambodia, but not these black ones. Ones that live in holes in the forest. (Shudder). He offered to bring us some, laughing at the looks of horror on our faces. I'm all for trying wild things but I can't do spiders or scorpions, I just can't do it. There are some shock-value carts at the night market that cater to tourists by offering photo ops for fried grubs, snakes and tarantulas on sticks, and scorpions. I will lose sleep over this.
The stop at Ta Som was relatively quick as it is a small temple, but no less lovely. Mother Nature once again proved her dominance over the man made structures.
Next we started the long drive out to Banteay Srey, which is both a temple and a village, 37km from Siem Reap. The tuktuk puttered along as Kim pointed out rice fields, Cambodian home stays, markets, and women bent low over steaming kettles of cane sugar. We ate lunch at an open-air restaurant and enjoyed amok--a sort of stew with fish, beef or chicken and fragrant things like herbs, lemongrass, kaffir lime and coconut milk. We ordered chicken amok and cashew smoothies and while we received the latter, then only brought one serving of amok. After an hour and repeated requests for my meal, we gave up and split Gina's before traipsing back to the tuktuk.

15C3F0B1D581481768209D06C2F01DD2.jpgIt was fantastic. Every single thing we have tried in Cambodia was simply delicious, and delicately different from other Asian cuisines. A small monsoon had commenced however, and the little tuktuk had to chug through increasingly muddy village roads. It was still raining buckets when the driver pulled up to the path to the temple, so rather than be daunted by mere weather, we bought ponchos off of a village girl and set forth for our oldest temple yet.
Kim referred to Banteay Srey as "the lady temple," and the guidebook called it "the citadel of the women." These titles did not, as I hoped, recall any ball-busting,femme-power purposes this temple might have served, but were a straightforward nod to the intricate carvings of women that coat the temple walls. Bummer. But the carvings were the best we've seen--it's crazy what ancient artisans could create out of simple stone--and how well they have survived the ravages of time. It is also a deep brick red/pink, which helps separate it from the masses of other moss and lichen covered grey stone temples in my mind.
We ended our temple-fest at Pre Rup, a late 10th century brick temple that was relatively simple, comparatively speaking. Once again we clambered to the top with Kim, looking down on the remains of a centuries old holy site and tried to envision what life would have looked like here. The builders wresting stories from the sandstone, the monks carrying offerings to the statues, the kings climbing the steep staircases to pray for their empire. It's all very heady.
We said a heartfelt goodbye to Kim, who thanked us in earnest for choosing to visit Cambodia and invited us to stay with him if we ever find ourselves in Siem Reap again. Incidentally, if any of you plan to visit Angkor and wish to hire a guide, I have his number and email. He was lovely and I highly recommend him.
Dinner that night was another gustatory delight. I know I say that a lot but we get to try so many good things. We wanted to try Cambodian barbecue, and there happened to be a restaurant packed with locals not far from our guesthouse. After an awkward few moments of menu pointing, G and I ordered the platter, and the server brought an iron grill with a small flame and set it right on our table. He showed us how to plug most of the drain hole with a bit of fish, and smeared the grill with loads of what I'm thinking was either some sort of palm oil or a very foreign-tasting butter. He then loaded our table down with little dishes of beef, pork, squid and shrimp, as well as a huge platter of cabbage, carrots, onions, mushrooms, cucumbers, bell peppers and okra. We were then free to grill all of these to our satisfaction, and they tasted just delightful when slightly singed. I am not huge on mini-squids, as they are very chewy and their heads are a bit much for me to wrap my own head around, but we even ate those. It was so good (especially when washed down with the watery Angkor beer) that Gina wanted to go back but alas, we didn't have a chance.
Saturday we had a lot of poolside time before we went to the Made in Cambodia market, which had food and live Khmer music. Even the simple fair food stalls were delicious. Gina had the best fried rice of her life and I had noodles with vegetables and an orangish sauce. (sadly, I don't know what the Khmer name would be because the menu was in English). The market was exclusively higher-quality goods made locally, many of them by NGOs. Gina bought a bracelet and I bought a lotus ring, both made from brass melted down from bullet casings. I especially liked the organizations that supported and promoted women's handicrafts. It can be difficult for women to support themselves in this area, and learning a trade can be priceless.
We went down to Pub Street a few times, and to the Night Market down in that area, but to be honest that really wasn't our scene. It was like Cambodian Bourbon Street. Lots of American style bars and clubs, cheap souvenir stalls and lots of restaurants. There was lots of pestering for tuktuk rides, silk scarves, tarantulas on a stick, sugary cocktails. Like the nerds we are, we checked it out but wound up spending most of our time at a used bookstore before heading back to the room.
Our last night in Siem Reap we opted to see some Apsara dancing.
Kim had pointed out many, many carvings of Apsara dancing on the temple walls, so I wanted to see some for myself. It is delicately balanced and often rather slow and meditative, with perfectly arched hands and feet. We saw several different dancing a, from a romantic one between a man and a women in peasant costumes with baskets to more symbolic ones with women dressed as goldfish or princesses and men dressed and monkey gods. It was very interesting and I wish we were closer to my pictures showed the elaborateness of the costumes.
Overall we loved and were surprised by Cambodia. Granted, we only went to one spot that is increasingly accommodating to tourist needs, but the people were all very nice and the food was incredible. I found the ancient ruins much more moving than Macchu Pichu, and the overall costs were only slightly higher than Thailand (I'm assuming that was because we were in such a tourist area). Despite our later battle with Cambodian Angkor Air, which I may go into later, I would highly recommend this area to anyone who enjoys history and a bit of adventure.

Posted by Chloeah 08:48 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Angkor Who? Angkor Wat?

Prowling the ancient temples of Cambodia


Cambodia is the first country on this trip that was in no way on the original itinerary. To be honest, it wasn't even very high on my travel list (there's no place I really don't want to go, but varying degrees of desire apply). It made the list because it kept popping up on our radar, and it is super cheap and easy to access from Thailand. So Tuesday we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia from Chiang Mai, via Bangkok. It would have been much cheaper to take a bus but that would have taken 30 hours plus we had purchased flights anyways due to some mis-information from the Thai government. What're you gonna do.
Cambodia is still very much recovering from years of war and political upheaval. Following the coup of 1970, the tyrannical Khmer Rouge group committed mass genocide during that decade, and as many as three million people disappeared. There were more coups in the following decades, as power swung violently from party to party. Now things are relatively calm under the Cambodian People's Party (and their puppet monarchy), but there is still widespread poverty and corruption. One of their booming industries now is tourism, which used to barely exist here as recently as fifteen years ago, both because of the political upheaval and the state of the ancient sites. The region's heyday began in 802AD with the crowning of King Vayamarvan II and flourished for 600 years, before the "fall of Angkor", the collapse of the Khmer Empire. For the rest of history it lost much of its territory to neighboring kingdoms (later, countries), and was also ruled by them. The ruins, Cambodia's most famous treasure and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are all that remain of the great Angkor period. They are both Buddhist and Hindu in nature, according to the beliefs of whichever King was in power at the time of building. It was these that brought us to Cambodia, and that support the growing city of Siem Reap. Our mother asked us before we arrived why, if the ruins are so amazing and recently ranked #1 site in the world by Lonely Planet, she had never heard of them. It is because of the rough political and social situation of Cambodia for the last sixty years, and because restoration of the temples only began in earnest within the last fifteen to twenty years. The Siem Reap of today swallowed the sleepy town it once was, filling it with tour offices and crazy bars, souvenir shops and tons of restaurants. The temples, which were reduced to piles of stones with a few rough shapes, are increasingly restored and preserved as much as funds will allow. It was cool to see Angkor in the middle of this process--to see temples re-erected yet also clamber amidst the wreckage.
Wednesday was a bit of a lazy day in Siem Reap. I had knowingly selected a guesthouse with a pool and tempting lounge chairs, knowing that we would be exhausted after Thailand. Oh, Past Chloe. How wise you are and how well you know yourself and your sister. We did walk down to the Old Market, where we got a lay of the land and some delicious Indian food. We also spent forever with the poor guy at the tourism office trying to book a private guide for the Angkor temples the next day. After he made several phone calls with no success, he finally waved us away, saying he would email us by 5 to let us know if he was successful. And you know what, he not only emailed us later (to announce his success) but also stopped by our hotel in person (after his work day was technically over) to make sure everything was all set with the booking and that we had all the information we needed. Who does that? So you can see how we felt very personally taken care of in Cambodia. Tourism is a booming business there, and Siem Reap has simply exploded from it in the last decade. But the staff have none of the impatience and cynicism that you can often encounter in tourist-centric areas. We never felt herded or corralled, as sometimes you do at the world's popular tourist sites, but at times it did feel like there was a target on my head. Tuktuk rides, souvenirs, restaurants, tour guides, no thank you no thank you no thank you. Everyone is trying to get to you spend your money. You just have to be firm and buy only what you want to buy, and be ready to haggle with drivers.
On Wednesday, a pre-dawn trip out to Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise seemed like a good idea, but when our alarms went off at 3:30 so we could be ready and outside by 4:30, it seemed like the decision of a crazy person. But awake we were, and zooming along in a tuktuk by 4:35, bleary-eyed and sluggish. He dropped us off by the gate to Angkor Wat (a wat is a temple remember, so while the whole area of ruins is often referred to as Angkor Wat, it is actually one specific temple. The others all have separate names). We trudged with hundreds of other sleepwalkers to the edge of one of the courtyard ponds to greet the dawn.
It happened one finger of light at a time, transforming the dark smudge of the temple "pinecones" (as Gina called them) into a distinct and impressive silhouette centimeter by centimeter.
Then suddenly it is over, and the sun, which spent forever peeking shyly from between the palms, bounds into the sky with a final leap, and you are fighting for your life as the crowd disperses. It was then that we went to meet Kim, our tour guide who was waiting for us at the tuktuk, which we had also hired for the entire day.
Kim was roughly my age, a Siem Reap native with a weathered Yankees cap and a good sense of humor. He learned English from a Buddhist monk and we ran into language barriers with him only occasionally. Gina and I had weighed the pros and cons of hiring a personal guide but I'm so glad we did. Not just because Kim was a sweetheart but also because we now had an insider to lead us through the maze of temples and explain just what we were looking at. His services were $40/day, so it would have been cheaper to take a group tour for $15/day or rent a bike and buy a guidebook, but this was probably our one chance to see these ruins, and this was not the moment to be frugal. Plus his fee was flat, not per person, and since it was just the two of us we could stop when and where we wanted. Sweet deal.
Kim took us first to Angkor Thom, which means Big City. It is slightly north of Angkor Wat, and accessible only though tall, narrow gates through the city walls. Which were dotted with live monkeys, by the way. As if the ruins were awesome enough, there were occasional tribes of monkeys around, none of which complied with my attempts to take their picture.
The bridges are flanked by stone men tugging on a giant naga snake, but most of the men have lost their heads. This was not, Kim explained, an effect of time and weather. Remarkably, though some of the ruins are as much as a thousand years old, they were relatively intact until twenty years ago. Many of the roofs caved in and trees and plants toppled many of the walls and towers, but the carvings all survived. It wasn't until treasure hunters began decimating the ruins that most of the thousands of statues (including almost every single Buddha and Vishnu) lost their heads. Smaller statues were pried from their niches or hacked from the walls, and larger ones simply lost their heads or any other extension. Consider this. This is why you see decorative Buddha heads in Pier 1. Buddha was never carved as just a head--it is considered disrespectful (and illegal in Thailand) to represent less than all of the Buddha. When you see his head in a museum (and consequently, as a home decor item) it is because it was severed from the rest, usually by a treasure hunter. As soon as they realized there was a market, the "bad men" as Kim called them, cashed in their heritage for cold hard cash. And their threat is a continued one, and many of the surviving statues have been removed to the local museum or are patrolled by night police. How sad is it that they survived a thousand years of the elements and surrounding wars, only to suffer so irreparably in the last twenty? A THOUSAND YEARS!
I speak for both Gina and myself when I say that we were unprepared for how wholly awesome the Angkor complex is. It is easily one of the best and most amazing things I have ever seen, and this is my 22nd country. There is still tons of restoration to go, but as I said, I rather liked the romantic tumble of stones and twisting tree roots. They were reassembled just enough that you can see what they must have once looked like, but were definitely still ruins.
The faces are Brahma faces, looking in each of the cardinal directions. Often the temples would have traces of both Hinduism and Buddhism as successive Kings might reuse a temple but re-dedicate in his own preferred religion. A Brahma face is always smiling.
There are several temples within the Angkor Thom complex, of varying ages. I'm not going to get tangled up in all the names. We traversed them all. Kim patiently led us through galleries and up steep tower stairs, around piles of fallen stones and under long series of doorways.
Unfortunately, stones like these are all that remain of the royal palace. It was made of wood so it didn't last long after the city was abandoned. The temples survived because they are all made out of stone. The pitted one is the stronger stone and used to form most of the walls and structures, then the smoother sandstone was used to face it because it was much easier to carve. Fun fact: neither uses mortar. All of these are simply stacked with expert skill.
Oh and this happened. Unfortunately, they are very common....
There are missing pieces to the Angkor story, but they may never be filled in because the Khmer Empire didn't produce books. Some written records exist in the doorways of the temples, but the knowledge of the kings and their kingdom is rudimentary.
I loved this. The king and queen used to sit up here on the elephant platform to watch games, sometimes dancing, or other entertainments. There are six elephants here, depicted eating clumps of water lilies, and there is the remains of a giant lotus flower top center.
Cambodia has a lot of precious gems, including diamond deposits. The Khmer kinds were onto this, and the central towers of some of the temples are pitted with holes that used to hold huge diamonds. Picture it! This dark, square room with a tapered ceiling in the middle of a temple. Just a few slits of light, which just catch the walls studded with huge diamonds, which reach all the way up into the tower. How amazing that must have been! Of course, the diamonds are long gone. Those would never stay put for a thousand years.
Our favorite temple area today was Te Phrom. Easily. It's also referred to as the "movie temple" because it was used for shooting Tomb Raider. It is one of the more popular ones because it looks like something out of your imagination.
It's at just the right state of crumbliness, and the roots of the spung trees twist in and around the stones all over the place. The trees grow several stories tall, and serve as a testament to the determination and resourcefulness of nature.
Kim managed to find us some out-of-the-way spots, away from the throngs of people. Or, as the women selling cotton pants and guidebooks outside the temple called them, "Chinese and Korea." We even got to witness a tour guide throw some shade when two older women tried to cut in line for a particularly good photo op. He put them in their place and they got all out of joint but oh, dear readers, it was glorious. So often in these big crowds there are people who think that rules don't apply to them, or that there is no need for decency and adult behavior. So it is thrilling and so, so satisfying when these people get what's coming to them. Ahhhh.......
We finished the first day of temples at Angkor Wat. It was only about 3 in the afternoon when we were done but it was SO EFFING HOT and we were so tired that we were completely ready to cash in for the day. And Kim had timed it just right--we finished Angkor Wat just as the post-lunch crowds were descending on it.
We literally speed-walked away from them and towards the waiting tuktuk, all three of us giggling. That meant we had completed the Mini Circuit that day, which starts and ends at Angkor Wat and goes in a big circle. We saw Buddhist and Hindu temples, the fully restored Angkor Wat and the rubble of Te Phrom.

It's sad that so many pieces have been stolen, but awesome that professionals, locals, and foreign powers are all pitching in to restore the temples to some of their former glory. I loved the clusters of bottle-green dragonflies that always zoomed around the ruins, and the lotus-shaped crowns on the tops of the towers. It was magical climbing over the stones and ducking through the low doorways--all we lacked were our whips and some daring hats. I looked forward to doing it again the next day, but for the time being, Gina and I collapsed in our room and slept through the evening.

Posted by Chloeah 02:19 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Just a few more days in Thailand

Riding the shitbox to Chiang Mai. Oh yeah and Chiang Mai itself.


In a huge stroke of luck, we didn't have to hitchhike to Khon Kaen when we left the Mindfulness Project on Thursday. Volunteers at the project have been helping a neighbor and her daughter with their farm, and when the daughter Pom heard a bunch of us needed to go to town, she generously offered to drive us in their truck. Score. So we got one last ride in the back of a truck before spending quite a long day in Khon Kaen with Luca the Italian. He's also headed for Chiang Mai--Thailand's second largest city and about twelve hours northwest by bus--so we bought three tickets together, departing at 7pm. Unfortunately there was no luggage storage so we were saddled with all of our bags and couldn't go very far. We had some lunch though and spent several hours in a nearby park (which was lovely for the scattering of jasmine flowers all over, but less than peaceful for the herd of small boys setting off firecrackers). Roz from England was headed for Bangkok that evening too, so she waited with us at the station for a while.
We had been told that the VIP night bus to/from Chiang Mai was pretty swanky. We've seen a lot of huge buses trundle past with LED disco lights, swag curtains, and fully reclining leather seats. We were pumped. We were dirty, exhausted, and totally ready for a few hours of luxury. We were not prepared for the shitbox that coughed and wheezed its way into terminal 4 at 7:15. It said VIP on the side, but that was where the luxury ended. It was dirty and old, and a tv at the front blasted a Thai comedy show that plays absolutely everywhere. It's half sketch comedy and half obstacle course, and the whole thing is thoroughly punctuated by very loud, clownish sound effects. The hostess tossed us some prepackaged boxes of fried rice and a carton of soy milk before settling down to watch, and that was the last we saw of her. Gina and I tried to practice some mindful breathing (May all living beings be happy. May all living being be full of love and kindness) but it was hard not to let hostility rise in your chest like hot air. We jammed in our headphones in an attempt to down out the din, and after a few hours, fell asleep.
It was a twelve hour ride, but sleep was maybe a bit optimistic. The VIP shitbox broke down at least twenty times, usually in the middle of several lanes of traffic. At one point it wouldn't start again, and we sat somewhere in the woods for a good thirty minutes while the driver hammered at things in the vehicle's bowels. I sat there in the dark, mindfully breathing and trying to will the damn thing forward with love and positivity. If we had to get off this old bastard then it would be the third time in my life that my bus broke down in the dark in a remote area of a foreign country. After a half hour of hammering though it finally wheezed back to life, staggering back down the highway. It continued to stall and die at every application of the brakes, gas, or anytime anyone so much as coughed, but eventually we made it to Chiang Mai in the weak light of morning. We shared a truck taxi across town with Luca before bidding him goodbye and checking into the Shakara Gardens Guesthouse.
Chiang Mai is so, so different from Bangkok. Bangkok is pretty much what you would think it would be: loud and crowded, with skyscrapers scattered across the sprawling downtown and the huge sky train tracks always looming overhead. The traffic is crazy scary and there are people and stuff everywhere. It's fascinating. Chiang Mai is equally enjoyable but in a much different way. We didn't fear for our lives every time we stepped off the curb (indeed in Bangkok a Thai man warned us that we were still in danger on the sidewalk, as the buses regularly clip the corners and roll ride over the concrete) and there are no skyscrapers. There are still food carts and souvenir stalls all over, but with less of the pressure and intensity of the capital city.
Our guesthouse was situated on the north side of the old city, which was square and surrounded by a lazy little moat. It was not what I think of when I hear the words "old city", but nor did it have any of the malls, fast food, and huge modern buildings that surrounded the square.
So where do we start? Temples, of course. There's always more temples. These northern ones seemed more traditional though--heavy dark wood and deep carvings, simpler interiors--than the sprawling complexes of mosaic-encrusted Buddha palaces in Bangkok.
Wat Pra Sing looked like a lone little temple from the front. It had some lovely mosaic work, and the interior was filled with Buddhas and information and bowls for the monks.
This, however, freaked me out...
Doesn't it look real?? It's wax. I had to inch closer to the sign to see that. I saw people taking pictures of it and I was like hmm, that's pretty disrespectful, taking pictures all up in a monk's face. But it's wax. Modeled after an exemplary monk. And those eerie wax monks were in almost every temple we saw in Chiang Mai. Usually in glass cases near the feet of the Buddha.
Wat Pra Sing wasn't a lone little temple though; it had a huge gold chedi behind it, and several more smaller, more venerable temples.
As well as a courtyard filled with trees and little nuggets of wisdom.
Gina and I were wandering this courtyard when we were shyly approached by a pack of schoolgirls. They asked if they could interview us (presumably for school). We said sure and suddenly an iPad was in our face, videoing our answers. Aaaaaawkwaaaaard..... They asked us things like where we were from (and nodded sagely when we said "Kalamazoo, Michigan." Good luck spelling that, girls), what we thought of Thailand, and if we spoke any Thai. Then they tried to teach us a few Thai phrases before bowing to us and taking off, giggling. I shudder to think that our attempts at the Thai language have been recorded.
Then we cut across the old city to Wat Phantom Tao, a smaller, simpler temple on Soi Prappokklao.

And finally to the Wat Chedi Luang complex, which had a sparkling temple dedicated to a standing Buddha called Phra Chao Attarot. It had Western style crystal chandeliers and intricate, soaring columns.
The real draw at this complex is Wat Chedi Luang itself, built in 1441 and where the Emerald Buddha (of Bangkok fame) used to be enshrined. It was restored 25 years ago but is still quite fragile so you can go up to it but not climb it.
The biggest tourist draw in Chiang Mai though is the night bazaar. It's pretty massive, filling several large market areas as well as every sidewalk for blocks, and it took Gina and me hours to even wander half of it. We bought some art prints from a lovely elderly Thai man in one of the market areas. He couldn't speak much English Nd we certainly can't speak much Thai, but he pointed out the Buddha on my Mindfulness Project tshirt, and we managed to communicate that we had been volunteering outside Khon Kaen, and had learned some things about Buddhism. He was tickled and motioned for us to wait while he fished two bracelets out of a little box and gave them to us. The artwork is gorgeous-he said his family makes it all, and has for a long time.
We were disappointed to miss the locals' Saturday market (we thought it was Sunday as well) as the big night bazaar is solely for tourists, and we wanted to glimpse a little more local flavor but oh well. The night bazaar area is a few blocks outside the old city, and boasts a lot of tacky Western bars as well as plenty of massage chairs and street food carts. We pounced on one that sold rotee (also spelled roti, the western spellings never seem to be set in stone), which are thin pancakes cooked on a flat steel surface until they are crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. They are usually served folded over egg or banana (or both together) but we opted for the obvious and sinful banana Nutella option. There is no way for me to describe this heaven, so you're just going to have to picture the most delicious thing you've ever eaten and double it.
We had four days in Chiang Mai and we spent it rather lazily, wandering from temple to temple, market to market, indulging in one last $7 facial and forlornly eating our last Thai meals. Next we fly to Cambodia for our last week in Asia. I will miss our guesthouse though, with its lovely courtyard and sassy front desk staff.

Posted by Chloeah 20:33 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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