Since it took a day and a half to get here, I was pretty spent and dirty so took in all the comforts of Hotel 252--- wow, what a step up from the tea houses of Nepal. I loved it here- modern architecture, a good shower, pool, restaurant, helpful French owners, and best of all, a flushing toilet!!! ;-)
Go figure, the hotel was on 252nd St. Cambodia is clever in that very few streets have names--- everything is just a number (ah, reminded me of home!)
After a good night sleep I felt ready for the sidewalks of Phnom Penh, they just weren't ready for me. NO one walks here! I had one tuk tuk driver ask "lady, why you walking? tuk tuk cheap!" Haha!
The capital city is pretty small, so it seemed silly to take a tuk tuk until some random guy on a bike tried to grab me on the main street right outside the palace. He was obviously crazy and maybe just wanted a hug (Dad- was not threatening or scary), but opted to cross the street and ask a teenager selling counterfeit DVD's for help. He nicely put me on the back of his moped and whisked me to the National Museum unscathed (and he didn't even want a tip, but thought maybe it was best I didn't walk- so nice!)
The National Museum had a lovely courtyard and all sorts of Khmer sculptures, including a room full of Buddhas, some of which were rescued from Angkor Wat when the civil war broke out.
I had lunch at Friends, a restaurant run by former street children (and probably the best service I have had in a long time). Unlike the other countries I have been, Cambodia has all sorts of shops and restaurants to benefit their most needy citizens- women, children and land mine victims (of which there are unfortunately a ton, an estimated 40,000!). I now have all sorts of random crafts since I felt bad not buying anything at these shops.
Due to limited opening hours, I had to wait until after lunch to go to the Royal Palace, the official residence of King Sihamoni, and the Silver Pagoda. Throne Hall was nice and the Silver Pagoda, named for the 5,000 silver floor tiles, had a good Emerald Buddha made from Baccarat crystal and another Buddha bejeweled with 9,584 diamonds. It was no Grand Palace in Bangkok, but still nice.
One think I did learn there is that the Queen and the upper class women used to dress in a different color for each day of the week--- that is taking day of the week panties to a whole new level! ;-)
So much for opulence, the next day was devoted to the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, a topic I've been interested in for years. I first took a tuk tuk out to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where prisoners were sent for execution. At this site about 17,000 men, women AND children were bludgeoned to death (to avoid wasting bullets) and buried in 129 mass graves. Unbelievably, the Killing Tree still stands marking where children were murdered by smashing their skulls against the tree. By law, the sites of mass graves must have a memorial to honor Buddhist beliefs. The memorial stupa at Choenung Ek displays over 8,000 skulls arranged by sex and age.
Many of the victims of the Killing Fields had been transported from Tuol Sleng prison, known as Security 21 (S-21). This former high school became the largest detention and torture center in the country. Currently the museum houses room after room of pictures of the murdered, as well as vivid pictures of how they were tortured. Still amazes what people are capable of doing!
After the depressing morning I needed a nice long 2 hour/$10 Thai massage to make myself feel better (and the lemon tart from the patisserie down the street- the French have left one good thing behind!). I love the cheap spa treatments, which is why I get one almost every day. :-)
As I mentioned, the French owners of Hotel 252 were very helpful- they arranged my next hotel reservation and made sure I got on a bus to Battambang (in fact, they kinda picked Battambang as my next destination since there was no point going to the beach due to the typhoon in the Philippines). A tuk tuk driver was sent to buy me a bus ticket and then take me to the bus station- what service!
However, service plummeted at the bus station where they never announced my bus had arrived and it left without me. ANNOYED! But what can you do, but wait til the 3:30 bus and head to the nearby British pub for some comforting fish and chips?
Would you believe that upon my return at 3:04 the 3:30 bus had already come and gone? Yes, it's true! We all couldn't help but laugh since this was my second missed bus of the day! Oh, but those Cambodians are helpful- they put me on the back of the owner's motorcycle (with my backpack between his legs) and chased after the bus for 25 minutes. It was the best part of Phnom Penh--- still makes me laugh (the next 6 hours on the bus were less amusing).
In Battambang I was the only guest at a new eco-resort, which is a very strange feeling. I didn't spend much time in Battambang which is probably good since there isn't really anything to see there, just some old colonial architecture and what they think is the best rice in Cambodia (tasted like rice to me?).
The highlight was the 30 minute ride on the bamboo train, a 3m long wood frame covered lengthwise with bamboo and dis- assembled when a train is approaching on the single track from the opposite direction. The train took me through the rice paddies to a small village with friendly locals (and unfortunately a brick factory where kids seemed to work--- a fact that Human Rights Watch isn't pleased about per my driver).
There were a bunch of boys swimming in the nearby swimming/ mud hole who were super cute! Plus I got to try grass jelly drink, which is really very odd- tasted like honey, with gelatinous cubes- I recommend skipping it next time you ride the bamboo train (hurry, they are going to shut it down next year when they plan to upgrade the country's rail line).
I spent my evening at Phare Ponleu Selpak, an arts center for disadvantaged children. There I met Sampath who nicely gave me a tour and showed me his art (which I am now a proud owner, he was very shy about showing me). Once a week the center puts on a circus show which actually made me really nervous that someone was going to get hurt, but all ended well.
Battambang isn't the most touristy stop, in fact I didn't even know there were any others until the boat ride to Siem Reap the next morning. When I went to the dock (if you can call a steep flight of steps to the river a dock) I ended up having a long chat with a local teacher who was explaining to be about morality class--- hum, interesting subject.
"Cambodia's most spectacular boat journey" the next morning was needless to say a bit of a disappoint- ment. It took 7 hours on a tiny, questionably seaworthy boat, through narrow waterways where you occasionally had to dodge the shrubs scrapping the boat. Since this was the tail end of rainy season, it was interesting to see trees almost fully submerged and villages atop water. Our rest stop was an experience when the WC became submerged since too many people were weighing down the house.
The best part about the ride was meeting a charming British couple, Jonathan and Jenny, and an accident prone Dutch couple, Ton and Jessica--- my dinner partners for my entire time in Siem Reap, including our first night at the very post Abacus where we nearly toppled over (as we were doubled over laughing) in the tuk tuk on the super bumpy dirt road.
I joined Jenny and Jonathan (my social director) on the first day of temple touring to the far away temple of Banteay Srei, a 10th C. Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, cut from stone of a pinkish hue with deep, ornate carvings. The name means 'Citadel of the Women', believed to have been built by a woman since the carvings are too fine for the hand of a man. Gotta like that!
Banteay Samre was not too far away, so we paid a visit and met an elder who wished us all good luck, read a prayer for each of us (where again we had good luck) and gave us a red string bracelet for, you guessed it, good luck (I worry I lost my bracelet during another massage the next day).
We also met these very bright girls who listened to our tour guide and then addressed us by name, reciting our nations' capitals and presidents. Lynn wanted a guarantee that if I were to buy, I would only buy from her-- how could I resist her 50 cent dragonfly thingy? People accost you at every temple (Lady, lady, lady...) and don't take no for an answer very easily, which does get annoying, but these girls really won me over.
The other temples we visited the first day included the pyramid shaped Pre Rup and Ta Prohm, the temple made famous by "Tomb Raider." Ta Prohm was amongst my favorites since the jungle has totally taking over with trees growing all around the stone- amazing!
After leaving Jonathon and Jenny to a day without me, I headed to Angkor Thom where I ended up crashing the tour of a couple from Denver. The best part about the Angkor Thom area is Bayon, complete with 54 towers decorated with 216 enormous faces. Other temples were Baphuon, with a hard to find Buddha along the rear wall), the Terrace of the Leper King and the Terrace of Elephants, all covered with beautiful carvings.
I wanted to hit one more temple quickly, but ended up staying at Preah Khan much longer after meeting T, a teenager looking to make a few bucks by showing tourists the hard to find spots shown in the tour book. He was chock full of information and had me climbing all over the temple, including the roof to get a good photo- I am fairly certain this should not be allowed!
After two temple days it was time for a break, so I took Artisans d'Angkor up on their offer to tour their silk farm. This is again another organization helping train the disadvantaged. They are reported to produce some of the best silk in the country and it was very cool to see how it is done, from silk worm to scarf in the shop. Who knew?!
As I mentioned, the kids here are pretty savvy salespeople, selling books, bracelets, scarves and whatnot. We ran across one 14-year-old one night who proposed a game of tic-tac-toe, with rock-paper-scissors for the tie breaker. He didn't just want our money, he wanted to earn it by having us buy one of his books. Sadly he lost, and was very upset since it had been a bad selling day (they all appeared to be bad selling days).
Saving the best (reportedly) for last, I spent my last day at the famed Angkor Wat, likely built as a funerary temple of Suryavarman II in honor of Vishnu. Honestly, it was not my favorite, not sure why it is the most famous-- perhaps because it is largest? or because it was never abandoned to the elements?-- but it is certainly very impressive with its three tiers, intricate bas reliefs and beautiful grounds.