Preah Kahn & Friends

A few more temples to go! Here are some glimpses of Thommanom, East Mebon, and another personal favorite, Preah Kahn.

Dang, aren’t the names just cool in and of themselves?


Next Stop: The Pool

We came to Siem Reap for Angkor Wat. We stayed in Siem Reap for a break from traveling.

Spending an afternoon by the pool sounded like a good way to beat the heat. You can pay a few bucks to swim at a hotel pool, but we opted for a standalone pool/bar/restaurant run by an expat Australian.

Between swimming and lunching, Karen and I discussed the direction of Next Stop: World, now entering its sixth month. Long-term travel wears you down, and Karen in particular is feeling homesick. We talked about tweaking our itinerary, and we even floated (get it, floated?) the idea of coming home for a couple months after we visit China in May. That would give us a chance to recharge, catch our breath and research our European/Middle Eastern/Northern African destinations free of the day-to-day demands of travel.

We’ll see what happens. Throughout it all, we’ve tried to stay open with each other about what we each need to make this trip a pleasure rather than a chore. We haven’t always succeeded at it, but we’re trying!

Drinks by a pool sure help.



Legacy of Landmines

Ever since Karen and I walked the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh, we have been researching and learning more about Cambodian history.

How immediate are these events in today’s Cambodia? One morning on the hotel TV, we were startled to see images of Khmer Rouge security chief Kang Kek Iew (nicknamed “Duch”). The special court set up to try Khmer Rouge officers, which has been mired in political squabbles for years, finally got around to handing Duch a life sentence… decades after he oversaw the atrocities of Security Prison 21. More trials are set to begin soon, even as the defendants get old and die.

Although Pol Pot was driven out of Phnom Penh in 1979, the Khmer Rouge fought a guerrilla war for another two decades. Our tuk-tuk driver at Angkor Wat, Fickry, remembers his father building a bunker in the backyard. He recalls sitting in the bunker watching soldiers’ boots go by. “You never knew,” he said, “if they would turn around and come back for you”. The Khmer Rouge finally disintegrated with the death of Pol Pot in 1998. Whew, now we can move on, eh? Get this: many of the officials in the post-KR government had ties to the Khmer Rouge.

Then there are the land mines. Over the years, various armies tried to keep various people from going various places in Cambodia, leaving the landscape littered with land mines. And don’t forget that US President Richard Nixon (secretly) ordered over half a million tons of bombs be dropped on (neutral) Cambodia during the war in Vietnam. That left the country littered with unexploded ordnance, lying around in farmers’ fields, ready to go off if stumbled upon by a child or a farmer.

Made in Vietnam, China, the US and elsewhere, landmines and bombs still injure hundreds of people a year here. That’s down from 1,249 landmine casualties in 1998, thanks to an education campaign aimed at children.

Outside the tourist haven of Siem Reap, we visited the Cambodia Landmine Museum. There happened to be a free open house that weekend, so we were treated to an extensive tour and a screening of a new documentary, A Perfect Soldier.

The museum was founded by Aki Ra, who was present at the open house. Once, he was a child soldier for the Khmer Rouge, tasked with laying land mines. Now, he is an anti-mine crusader who has dedicated his life to making his homeland safe. At first, his methods were a bit unorthodox… as in, a stick and a screwdriver. There he was in the documentary footage, poking the ground with a stick, then unscrewing the underside of a live mine and cutting the wires. (I found myself holding my breath, even though I knew he’d be OK.)

More recently, he has gone legit, starting a non-profit that clears mines to international standards: no more defusing- now they use TNT to blow them up in place. As if on cue, this month’s National Geographic Magazine includes a lengthy article about Cambodia’s Healing Fields, prominently featuring Aki Ra.

Aki Ra

He didn’t stop there, also founding a boarding school for at-risk children. They live in dormitories, learn subjects as diverse as English and art, and do odd jobs at the museum. The oldest children are now reaching college age, and amazingly the non-profit is able to offer them scholarships to university. Fundraising got a boost when Aki Ra was named a CNN Hero in 2010.

A recently-built playground at the school
Aki Ra seems like a quiet, even shy, person. He hung around, smiled and posed for photos during the open house.

Cambodia is a troubled country, attempting to dig out from under the weight of history. That past might inspire only hopelessness and fear, if it weren’t for people like Aki Ra and his team. They are taking an active hand in writing the next chapter of Cambodia’s history.


Nature Reclaims Ta Prohm & Ta Som (if Angelina Jolie doesn’t get there first)

It’s one of the classic Angkor images: the tree that has grown right through a temple, asserting nature’s power and reclaiming the landscape from its former Khmer masters.

We saw that iconic image and more, at Ta Prohm and Ta Som. The former is enjoying newfound fame since appearing in Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider movie. The latter is nice, because there aren’t 200 Chinese tourists crawling all over it.


Sunrise at Pre Rup

For our second day of exploring, we got up insanely early to catch the sunrise. The guidebook suggested watching the sun come up over the lake at Sras Srang. As the first rays pierced the morning sky, I turned to Karen and said, “This is no good.” Sure, we were seeing the sunrise, but not over a temple.

To the tuk-tuk! After a quick scan of the map, we zipped over to Pre Rup, which came through on every level. It was an inspiring sunrise, and we had the whole place to ourselves for quite a while. Even after Karen finished exploring, I continued walking around inside, pursuing new camera angles and just sitting around reflecting on this crazy journey we’ve been on for five months. It was a good morning.


Angkor Wash

What comes after Angkor Wat…

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Angkor Wat- finally!

After Angkor Thom spent the whole morning blowing our minds, it was finally time to head over to its more famous brother, Angkor Wat.

Built by order of King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, it started as a Hindu temple and transitioned to Buddhism as the Khmer people did. The best-preserved temple in the area, it made its way onto the Cambodian flag and onto bucket list of countless tourists.

Fickry delivered us to Angkor Wat on our first afternoon of exploration. I also returned by bicycle one early morning, so I can show you the temple from sunrise to sunset…

To be honest, Angkor Wat left me a little flat. Part of it was seeing the amazing Angkor Thom first. And a big part of it was the crowds. My enjoyment of the temples was inversely related to the number of people there- my favorite experiences were wandering temples alone or nearly so.

That’s why I came back to Angkor Wat by bike- I wanted to wash away some of my memories of sunset mayhem. It worked, since many people watch the sun rise and then head back to their hotels, leaving fewer shoulders for me to rub. Overall, though, Thom beats Wat for me any day. And why not? Just because something is well-known doesn’t mean you have to like it, right?

Angkors Wat and Thom are the biggies, but there are plenty of other temples and wats in the area. Many of them would be world famous, if not overshadowed by their big brothers. More explorations to come!


Angkor Thom: Baphuon & Beyond

Imagine this: you’re on the Angkor Thom restoration team. There’s a slumping, overgrown pile of stones in the woods that used to be the Baphuon, an impressive temple. Your mission: restore it to its former grandeur.

You carefully number each stone, write down where you found it (this one goes on top of that one goes on top of that one), and move it to the side.

Then you level off the ground and start reassembling the temple. Block #1… Block #2 on top of that…

And then someone tears up your notes. Leaving you with this.

That’s basically what happened when the Khmer Rouge looted Phnom Penh and destroyed those precious notes. In 1995, work began anew on the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle. Luckily, one section had been left standing, and symmetry was very helpful in putting it all back together, exactly as it was. Maybe.

They must have done something right, because one day someone stood back, squinted and said, “Hey, is there a face hidden in those bricks?” Sure enough, a partially-completed reclining Buddha was embedded in the back wall of Baphuon.

The sights within Angkor Thom don’t end there- there are terraces and buildings and walls… whew!

Terrace of the Leper King
Terrace of the Elephants
Karen poses with pachyderms

It’s time for Fickry to tuk-tuk us over to the most famous Angkor of all: Wat. Meet you there.


Angkor Thom: The Bayon

With many tourists starting their temple explorations at Angkor Wat, our tuk-tuk driver Fickry suggested we start with Angkor Thom. Good choice. The largest complex in the area, it wasn’t overly crowded.

Approaching the south gate of Angkor Thom was an exciting moment for me. Those looming faces carved into that ancient stone- what treasures would we find within?

Begun in the 12th Century, Angkor Thom was the new capital of the Angkor Empire, built by the ambitious ruler Jayavarman VII. He was the first of the Angkor kings to follow Buddhism, leaving us to wonder about the faces throughout the temples: do they portray the Buddha, the spell-check-busting bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, or someone else? In any case, they’re way cool and one of my favorite elements in any of the temples.

The large Angkor Thom complex is surrounded by a wall (hence the gates) and once upon a time, a moat. There’s plenty to explore inside, starting smack dab in the center at the Bayon temple.

The Bayon is famous for its bas-reliefs, telling the tales of the Angkor Empire. They run all around the outside of (what’s left of) the building.

I didn’t know it yet, but the Bayon would turn out to be one of my favorite places around Angkor Wat. A half-restored temple like this fires my imagination more than a fully-restored one, allowing me to not only imagine the people who built it, but also the people who discovered it crumbling in the jungle.

But wait, there’s more to Angkor Thom! Like the fascinating Baphuon, coming up next time.


Whatcha Got, Angkor Wat?

It’s hard to say anything new about Angkor Wat. After all, people have been talking about it for nine centuries or so. People call it the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and dream of visiting. Heaps of those dreams become reality, judging from the throngs of tourists. Would we be able to hear echoes of King Suryavarman II’s footsteps in the stones, or would they be drowned out by the din of hawkers trying to sell us a Fanta?

Karen and I hiked to the similarly-hyped, similarly-touristy Machu Picchu in 2007. As amazing as the ruins are, hiking the Inca Trail and spending time with friends was just as important to our experience in Peru. At Angkor Wat, we knew to keep our expectations in check and our eyes open for unexpected highlights.

That "other" spectacular, mind-blowing, bucket list-topping ruin: Machu Picchu

Based on an online recommendation, we hired a tuk-tuk driver named Fickry to cart us around for three days. That’s common- having your own driver gives you the ultimate flexibility and only costs $15 to $25 per day, depending on distance traveled.

Our chariot.

Fickry was a great find for us. He’s studying English, with the goal of becoming an Angkor Wat guide (with the corresponding increase in income). He was happy to answer Karen’s questions about Khmer life, and she had plenty of time to ask them, while waiting for me to finish snapping photos of yet another temple. If you’re making the trip and need a tuk-tuk, let us know and we’ll put you in touch with Fickry.


Wait a sec, why would you need 3 days and a driver to see one temple?! While Angkor Wat is just one temple, “visiting Angkor Wat” has become a sort of shorthand for exploring the many Khmer temples outside Siem Reap.

It’s amazing to think that this poor, struggling country used to be the seat of the powerful Angkor Empire, which ruled for centuries and reached into modern day Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Malaysia. Now they can’t even get the garbage collected.

The intricate carvings of Angkor Wat, the grandeur of Angkor Thom, the crumbling remains of Ta Prohm. In their day, these stones conveyed heroic tales and engendered respect in the common man. It’s hard to imagine rising up against an empire that built this…

We're, um, here to see the, um, Wizard, sir.

There’s much to see and gazillions of photos to take- don’t worry, only the best make it onto the blog. Our tour of the temples of Angkor will continue in the next few posts. It all starts at the intriguing, sprawling, daunting Angkor Thom.