A Travellerspoint blog

Angkor Wat

And it's Temple-tastic surroundings

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I leave Phnom Penh behind me & take a bus to Siem Reap and the ancient temples of Angkor. As I get off the bus I get mobbed by moto drivers and pick a friendly looking one to take me to my hostel. In fact he's really nice and speaks good English, so I hire him to drive me round the Temples the next day. Angkor Wat was built in the early 1100s, but in all there are over 1000 archaeological ruins dating from around this period. Overrun by the temples & re-found in the 19th Century, even now the temples have been cleared and partially restored, they still lie in a beautiful setting. I get a three day ticket and start working my way round the different sites, each obviously related to the others but each different in their own way (Did I just quote High School Musical?!) They are stunning, just stunning.

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We started at Angkor Wat, which seemed like the right place to start, and crossed a large bridge to reach the impressive entrance way. Passing through dark stone hallways and emerging again into the sunlight we reached a well tended expanse of lawn and pools, with two stone buildings either side of a long stone pathway leading to the temples in the distance. It reminded me of English Heritage castles, but with better weather. As I walk towards them, the towers do get more impressive, towering into the blue sky. There are carvings everywhere, patterns at the base of pillars, dancing girls on the outer walls and running the length of a corridor the entire Ramanyara in exquisite detail.

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Next to be visited is the slightly more ruined Angkor Thom, a site with more than one temple and the excitingly named "Terrace of the leper king". Its entrance way is impressive; a dozen statues apparently playing tug of war with a snake and inside the three or four site ramble on into each other. I try to read a notice board on the history of the main temple, but give up when it starts to lapse into "Some historians believe the Buddha's sloping eyelids date to the Jayavarman VIII period, however the slight curve to the mouth would indicate they were carved in the Jayavarman VII and only altered within the Jayavarman VIII period". The Buddha carvings in question are massive faces on the peak of the temples turrets and are dramatic enough not to need such detailed interpretation.

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I cannot list in such detail the many other temples we visited in the two days, they were gorgeous monuments to a past time and the jungle creeping in gave them an atmosphere unlike anywhere else I have been. In some the trees have literally taken root in the stonework, in others you can clamber about and in some the steps are so huge and steep you wonder if they were created by a race of giants. At the end, however, I truly understand the meaning of the traveller's phrase "templed out"

Posted by Bimbler 02:05 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Phnom Penh

Toul Seng and the Khmer Rouge

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My hostel in Phnom Penh was basic, but the location was great. Beside the lake, with decking that stretches out over it, there you can laze in a hammock and watch the sun set over the far side. It is a pity that three diggers work day and night to fill in the lake, especially as apparently it's an essential part of the city's natural drainage system. But whatever!

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum - formally S21 prison, formally Chao Ponhea Yat High School - has been left as it was found when the Khmer Rouge were defeated in 1979. When the Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh in 1975, cheered by the populace as liberators, they ordered a full scale evacuation of the city to the countryside, claiming the Americans were going to bomb the capital. Once evacuated, the population was sent to work in labour camps and the city would remain empty for the next 3 and a half years. During that time, S21 was the main prison for enemies of the Khmer Rouge; enemies like teachers, doctors and anyone who wore glasses.

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As you enter the museum it still looks eerily like a school, despite the barbed wire mesh preventing escape over the balustrades. Signs around say no smiling, but the whole place is far too horrific for that anyway. School rooms have been converted into a dozen solitary confinement cells and those are still normal size have only been left so to accommodate medieval torture weapons. Outside stands a gallows and 2 large pots used to hang then dunk prisoners in human waste. This is a harrowing place to visit. Off 17,000 to be imprisoned here only 12 are known to have survived; two rooms are filled with boards covered in mugshots of the inmates, each one of them murdered. There are many children and their expressionless faces stare out of the glass and tear at your soul.

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Another floor has been more cleaned up & is full of information on the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. Tallies of remains found at 'The Killing Fields', mass graves found around Cambodia fill an entire wall; in one they found the remains of 510,000 different people. The level of inhumanity is difficult to accept, the stories ghastly and almost fantastical and it's no wonder the outside world at the time was reluctant to believe. Yet the evidence is here and it's horrifying.

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Posted by Bimbler 18:49 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Annapurna

Mountainous!


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Every day there was different scenery in the mountains. We started in the foothills walking up & around into spectacular valleys terraced for agriculture, the deep mud being ploughed with difficulty by a pair of water buffalo. Up and down over ridges, deeper into the mountain range. A day after the midway point we started to climb upwards towards base camp. We reached the cloud line & walked through clouds! The mist-filled woods, its trees wet and springy with moss, invited us in like a fairy tale with a bad ending. Further up, above the clouds and out into the sun once more the terrain had changed. Grass was yellow and coarse with tiny flowers dotted across it. Birds were vibrantly coloured in red, yellow and congo blue. Rocks and rock falls were everywhere. The peaks we headed for could be glimpsed, still far away but getting rapidly closer.

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We reached Macchrepucre Base Camp nestled high up in a bend in the valley. Surrounded by mountains, here it was cold. The weather could change in minutes as clouds blew past us, coming up from the valley at speed. The next day was a relatively short walk up to the pinnacle of our journey: Annapurna Base Camp. Clouds shifted across the peaks revealing only a little part of them at a time. We scrambled further along an ancient rock fall & from where I sat I could hear the cracking of the glacier, hidden under gravel, and the distant rumble of high up avalanches. It poured down a storm that night, the rain hammering on the tin roof of my bedroom.

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And then we turned around, and walked back dơn. Through different valleys, past different fields being ploughed & finally ended up in a small town where the streams came together to make a river. We visited a beautiful waterfall-filled pool where the churning water created a current so strong it was a fight to stay in the same place. The next morning we wandered down to where our bus waited to take us to Pokhara.

That afternoon we visited the Tibetan refugee camp in Pokhara. With TV images from the UN filling my head I half expected tents and queues for rice, but what was there was very different. A settled community with school, monastery, carpet factory and rows of neat, though tiny, houses. We were invited into the home of three brothers wearing sleeveless rock T-shirts and carrying motorbike helmets. Feeling intrusive I looked around their show home. Despite being born in this camp, on Nepalese soil, these three can never leave. Trips outside Pokhara have to be signed of by officials & if they were to return to their native Tibet they would face at least 2 years in jail just because their parents left. Despite this they have a good standard of living and their refugee status means they sell to tourists more easily than Nepalese. For now, it is the best they can do.

Footsore & a little more jaded

x X x

Posted by Bimbler 02:58 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Kathmandu and Beyond


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The city is dusty and bright, tarmacked roads are few and far between and dirt backstreets are the norm. Thamel, 'the backpacker's district' is exactly that, filled to the brim with shops, restaurants, travel agents and guesthouses. After dark strings of fairy lights twinkle across restaurant balconies and deafeningly loud live bands compete for the night air but only until 11 o'clock when everything in this capitol city shuts down. In the backstreets local food houses sell spicy fried water buffalo and Dhal Bat, the traditional Nepalese dinner. Its on my third visit to one of these eateries that I spot the rat; happily scurrying to and fro along the fluorescent light fitting and up into its well maintained hole in the ceiling.

Shrines, stupors and temples can be found everywhere in Kathmandu, and on every scale. From small Hindu Buddhist shrines on the roadside to large hilltop stupors and temple complexes. At the centre of Kathmandu lies Durbar Square and the home of living goddess, Kumari. The windows of the red brick building are clad with ornately carved dark wood. At the centre of the first floor is a golden window from which Kumari makes her occasional appearances. She is 4 years old and when she has her first period she will no longer be a goddess.

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Swayambunath Stupa (The Monkey Temple) is a Buddhist temple on a hill to the west of Kathmandu's centre. The 365 steps to the top are thankfully tree lined and shady, criss-crossed with prayer flags and flanked by shines and carvings. Sat on top a marshmellow-like white roundness, the golden top of the stupa gleamed in the sunlight as the monkeys raided offerings from the alters at its base. At a larger stupa we visited a Buddhist temple with bright, violent paintings on the wall and benevolent smiling Buddhas reigning from the head of the room.

At the Hindu temple we could not enter the sacred area, only stare at the haunches of an enormous gold cow before moving away from the door to walk down to the riverside on which the temple was built. As it is a holy river this is where the Nepalese in this area come to cremate their loved ones. There were 3 cremations ongoing as we arrived, the charred pyres smoking as monkeys played on the canopy above them. It was a deeply strange sight.

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With my tour group I travelled (in a wonderfully comfy mini-bus) to the city of Pokara. The water of its lake was perfect for swimming and we hired a boat to row out into the middle. On our return journey we would try this again, but as a storm blew in, swirling above as it battered against the mountains that surround the lake & driving rain into the water. This first time though, the sun shone and then disappeared over the distant hills. It was lovely.

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x x x

Posted by Bimbler 03:20 Archived in Nepal Comments (2)

Chengdu

Pandas!


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I arrived in Chengdu a little frazzled from my 24hour train journey & discovered my pretty little hostel in the middle of a reconstructed, sanitised hutong surrounded by fancy restaurants. Chengdu is a massive city - pollution levels that one expects of China, a huge (REALLY huge) and thriving shopping district and a reputation shared with the region for some of the spiciest food in China.

On my only full day here I took a hostel organised tour to 'Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding', getting up early to catch the Giant Pandas before feeding time. Sleep befuddled I fell out of the minibus and into the spacious, well maintained and lush park that makes up the majority of the breeding centre. The first glimpse of a panda excited my interest more than I thought it would & I shook off my sleepiness to spend the next 3 hours in earnest Panda watching. The huge bears lumber rather than walk and, as expected, spend most of their time eating bamboo and leaving behind them steaming piles of green fibrous paste as evidence of the huge quantities they have to munch through. The furthest they move is a couple of meters to a new section of their food pile and even this they do with such an air of resignment it really does seem like they're altogether tired and bored of the race for survival.

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We move on to the enclosure for the younger pandas, where the life-sickness does not seem to have set in yet. The 10 six month-old pandas are fluffy balls of black and white in a spacious enclosure with a log climbing frame at its centre. There is quite a large crowd gathered to watch the little bears a they clamber and scramble and have mass play fights which inevitably end in a few of them rolling down a ramp together in one big pile of monochrome fluff. One of them climbs a tree and gets stuck. It's all very cute. When the keepers come in to feed them their rough handling belies the love they obviously feel for their little charges and the pandas clearly adore them in return, chasing after them even once the food has been put down & clinging to the keepers' legs as they walk by.

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After three hours we grudgingly headed back to the minibus, passing squawking peacocks perched high in trees and raccoon like Red Pandas with their cute fluffy faces. We even made a brief foray into the 'Panda Museum'; proud owner of the worst preatoric recreation I've ever seen (The lion was clad in canary yellow fluffy boot fur). The Giant Pandas, having eaten, were already going to sleep. It was 11 o'clock.

That evening I lingered as long as was reasonable in the hostel I'd checked out of that morning & hailed a taxi around 11:30pm. As we headed out of the city and the street lights faded from existence the traffic shifted from cars to lorries. Speeding along a wide empty duel carriageway we came to a road block stopping our direction of traffic for roadworks. My taxi slowed almost imperceptibly and swerved to the other side of the road. Out of the darkness in front of us a pair of headlights appeared and my grip on the passenger seat safety belt tightened as I realised we were headed straight into oncoming traffic. Flashes of my most spectacular Need for Speed crashes skipped through my mind and my knuckles turned white as we passed two honking juggernauts. Finally we turned off the 'highway' onto a rough bumpy track through a pitch black field and through the jolting I seriously began to doubt ever reaching my destination. The lights of the airport appeared light a beacon around a corner of well tended trees and as the taxi dropped me off at Departures I had to literally unpeel my fingers from the seat belt.

I was asleep and snoring against the plane window as we took off from Chengdu. Apparently sleeping in Chinese airports is somewhat taboo & my book and I had been hassled into moving spots every hour or so as the night wore on. I pulled myself awake as we crossed Tibet; an endless expanse of beautiful mountains with village houses scattered in the valleys like grains of sugar. We landed in Lhasa and through the waiting room's windows I gazed on the sandy panorama & promised I would return.

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On the second flight we turned around the peak of Everest breaking through the cloud level. As the captain announced it every passenger rushed to the right hand side to look while I worried about the weight shift sending us into a death roll against the mountain. And then we were there.

Kathmandu from the air is unlike any other city I've ever seen. Its square houses sit higgledy piggledy across the cityscape & while none are more than 9 stories tall, none are less than 4. The shadowy concrete balconies gape inside the colourful walls & from a height gives the impression the city is made from Lego.

At the airport we are subjected to Swine Flu temperature checks. I'm deemed fine, but am handed a card with a number to call if I start growing a curly tail. An older man behind me is not so lucky & is handed a facemask of shame to wear whist in the airport building. I don't think the doctor’s call of "Good Luck" comforted either of us and we grumbled quietly about all the fuss as we queued up for visas. A few stamps later & I was reunited with my backpack before bracing myself & stepping out into the airport chaos of Kathmandu.

Phew, that was a long one!

Carol x x x

Posted by Bimbler 21:58 Archived in China Comments (1)

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