Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Inevitably, when you tell someone that you’ve been to Cambodia, they will ask you about Angkor Wat. But it’s with good reason. It’s the main draw for tourists both on the cheap or living luxuriously.

After taking that extra day in Sen Monorom at Tree Lodge, I started my two day journey to Siem Reap. Eager to avoid another long bus ride, I took a shorter ride to Kampong Cham, a highly regarded town just east of Phnom Penh. Regrettably, I wasn’t taken by what I saw of the city. Sure, the 30 Cambodians line dancing to the song Footloose was impressive, but I didn’t experience much else while there. I was there for only a day though, so perhaps I’m being a bit hasty in my judgements.

While there I ran into Maud, a trekking friend from Sen Monorom, and we discovered we were on the same bus to Siem Reap the next day. This was a great turn of events, as Maud is a wonderful person.  The only thing bigger than her smile is her love for children.  She also possesses one of the best laughs the world has to offer (as heard on the video on the bottom of this post).

We did two days of Angkor Wat, as the park is rather large. To be clear, Angkor Wat is a site of numerous temples over tens of kilometers. The most well-known temple is known as Angkor Wat, and is likely the image that pops into your head, or your google search, when the words Angkor Wat are mentioned. However, there is so much more, and in my uneducated opinion, so much better. We decided to go with a tuk-tuk the first day, followed by a bike ride on the second day. The first day we woke at 5am in order to be at the park for sunrise. We avoided the never ending mass of tourists at Angkor Wat and welcomed the morning sun while looking over a calm lake and temple site.

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Shortly thereafter we found ourselves at Ta Prohm, another famous temple known for the fusion of man’s creation and nature’s will. After years of being unused, mother nature has taken back her rightful place as master of this land. Massive tree roots swallow temple stones whole, and trees shoot up through many sections of the temples. The caretakers of this site do their best to maintain a balance in order to keep the temples intact while respecting the power of the trees.

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We planned our trip to Ta Prohm well, as we were one of only a few groups of tourists at the site. Normally swarming with visitors, our early morning excursion worked out perfectly for us.  We headed out for breakfast, munched on some chocolate pancakes, then walked through the Angkor Thom compound. Made up of many different temples and architectural areas of interest, we spent a few hours climbing and exploring this historical playground. The highlight of Angkor Thom is the Bayon Temple. This temple is one of the largest and most unique temples in the park, and a never ending amount of stone carved faces greet you at every turn.

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(Above: Me trying to blend in with a Japanese tour group. I think it worked. And yes, my hair always looks like that. I had a one dollar hair cut roughly 1 month ago in Chiang Mai, and I’ve been owning it ever since.)

After Bayon, we headed over to Angkor Wat. At this point we had been touring for about 8 hours, and were were a bit templed out. Angkor Wat, I believe, is the largest temple in the park, and is surrounded by a massive moat (one that I was thisclose to jumping into). Sadly, not many good pictures were taken at the temple. A lot of tourists, and nothing that really caught our eye.

We headed home, had a rest, met a new friend, and got ready for the next day.

As I mentioned earlier, Maud and I decided to rent bikes and ride around the park. That morning we met a fellow hostel mate named Kevin, an Irishman who was riding his bike across the world. He started in London, went across Europe, into Turkey, Iran, UAE, then a 30 day boat ride to Singapore, eventually making his way to Cambodia. It was his rest day, so he was planning on doing precisely that. A few words of encouragement later, the 3 of us were peddling our way to Angkor. I’ll spare you a lot of the details on various temples, but the bike ride itself was fantastic. Definitely go this route if you plan on seeing Angkor over multiple days. I would splurge for the good bikes, though. I was the lucky recipient of two flat tires during our tour. Kevin had a total of one flat tire in his round the world trip to date. Thankfully there were roadside “shops” where men filed, melted and patched my tires back together. All part of the fun.

Today I chased my bus down the street at 8am, sandals flipping and flopping, mouth crammed full of sugared street pastries, arms waving up and down like I’m trying to take off into flight.

I never made it airborne, but I did catch that bus.

Now I find myself in Kampot, a calm river town in southeast Cambodia. I plan on relaxing and swimming for 2 days before I head off to Vietnam.

I’m hoping some connections in Vietnam come through and I will have some local hosts or guides. Wish me luck!

Photo Gallery : Sen Monorom, Trekking in the Mondulkiri Province, Elephant Bathing

Yep, I’m at it again. Evidently, when given a choice to do things, I will almost always choose walking through forests and playing with elephants. So original…

I’ve been in Sen Monorom, provincial capital of the Mondulkiri Province for the last few days. I’m staying at a lodge run by a small family (including a 9 month old boy full of laughter and pee.) that has incredible views of the valley. I have my own bungalow/bathroom for only three dollars/night, plus the best curry I’ve had on my trip. No wonder I stayed an extra day. Instead of my usual long winded stories, lets get straight to the good stuff. Photo time!

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(Above: Walkway down to my bungalow at Tree Lodge)

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(Above: Babysitting the lil one.)

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(Above: Camera discovered, right before we almost dropped it)

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(Above: Waterfall #1 on our two night trek. Cold, but just what you want after a morning hike.)

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( Above: Rock/Tree jumping at the waterfall.)

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(Above : My trekking group. 2 guides (Toon & Tet), Ana,from Slovenia, Johan (misspelled I’m sure. Pronounced Joo-on), from France, and not pictured, Maud, from France)

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(Above: Maud and Toon. Toon loved having his picture taken.Seriously. He loved it.)

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(Above : Our beds for our night in the jungle. Comfy.)

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(Above: Cooking sesame in a bamboo shoot.)

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(Above: Waterfall #2, which was right next to our hammocks. Also shown :Ana looking slightly annoyed at everyone taking her picture.)

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(Above: Walking under another waterfall on our way to the elephants)

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(Above: Toon, leading us through some controlled burn areas on our way to the village.)

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(Above: Bathing with the elephants)

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(Above: Me staying far enough away so I don’t get stepped on when the elephant begins to stand.)

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(Above: Elephant emerging from the bath. Looking good, feeling good.)

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(Above: Roasting recently caught frogs for our lunch)

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(Above: Two of Toon’s daughters)

(Above: Language lessons in the forest. I’m not a quick study.)

Disclaimer : Most photos were taken by Maud. And when I say most photos, I mean all the good ones.

One Hundred Hellos

After the depressing day that was the Killing Fields and S-21, I needed a pick me up. I decided it was time to move on and grabbed the early bus to Kratie (Kra-cheh), a sleepy town known for critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, sunsets, and the Mekong River Discovery Trail. The 7 hour bus ride was…cozy. Side note, but I swear that in every possible opportunity, regardless of plane, train or bus, the people sitting in front of me immediately throw their seats back as far as possible, and don’t move until we arrive at our destination. So there they are on the bus, happily snoring away, and I’m doing my best accordion impression. After removing my knees from my nose, I chose the most passive aggressive approach (naturally) and started hitting their chair. Nope, doesn’t help. Now I’ve turned their seat into a massage chair from Brookstone. Next time I’ll just try asking them to move. It’s just crazy enough to work.

Anyways, I woke up the morning of the 18th, grabbed a quick bite, rented a bicycle and started peddling north on the Discovery Trail. It was 15km to the area of the river where the dolphins are known to live, and I was ready to enjoy the countryside. With the ever expanding Mekong River on my left and stilted bamboo huts and grain fields on my right, I rolled across the bumpy roads of Kratie Province.

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As I peddled, I would pass home after home. Many homes had a business stand out front, perhaps selling sugar cane or dried bananas. These stands, normally run by the matriarch of the family, were often surrounded by children as well. It was then I began hearing “Hello! Howareyu? Whaisyurname?” Grinning ear to ear, I answered each call with a big “HELLO! My name is Larry. What is yours?” and gave them a long wave. Hellos are contagious, and even more so, addictive. Soon I was the one yelling out “Hello”, regardless of age or situation. Old man sleeping in hammock? “HELLO!” Young couple driving by on a moto? “HELLO!” It really didn’t matter. I guess I was too busy spreading my greetings because I missed the dolphin site and ended up in the Kampi Rapid area, roughly 1km past the dolphins. I’m glad I did, because I’m not sure I would have even gone otherwise. I ended up spending just a short time there, playing with kids and listening to their music with them. One was very proud of his remote control car that played music.

I decided I would come back soon, but first I headed back to the dolphins. Hopping on a boat with 2 other tourists, we puttered out into the Mekong and were greeted with dorsal fins within the first two minutes. I had pretty low expectations because unless you’re in the water, it’s hard to get a good look at marine life. I was pleasantly surprised with the experience, though. Small pods were all around us, exposing their fins and tails, almost playfully chasing each other. Sometimes they would expose their rounded heads, at which point I could really understand these weren’t the usual dolphins I’m used to seeing. I believe only 7,000 of these dolphins exist in the world, a fact which wasn’t lost on me while I watched them surface all around me.

I tried to take photos of the dolphins, but I always shot too fast (that’s what she said). However, for your enjoyment:

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(Above : My crappy picture of an Irrawaddy Dolphin)

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(Above: A picture of an Irrawaddy Dolphin I took from the internet)

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(Above: A picture of Dolph Lundgren, actor and martial artist extraordinaire. I don’t think he’s from the Irrawaddy. Regardless, you’re welcome, ladies)

After the dolphins, I headed back north to the rapids, as it was actually a popular Khmer swimming hole. Huge stretches of shaded bamboo platforms ran out over the Mekong, and after picking up another tourist, Karin (I was still addicted to saying Hello), the two of us headed for a swim. The water was shallow, perhaps up to my waist, but quick moving. The cool water felt great against our scorched skin, and Karin and I floated and thrashed about for a short while. Karin’s stay was short lived (her tuk-tuk driver came looking for her), but I stayed for some time. A Cambodian family, roughly 30 in all, came to my platform and began talking with me. We had some fun, played in the water, and did our best to communicate. Soon I found myself sitting around large servings of curry, fish, sticky rice and watermelon, scarfing down food and learning new words. An hour later I said goodbye and headed back home through another smile inducing gauntlet of greetings.

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Tomorrow I might head over to Koh Trong, a 15km island in the Mekong, for a homestay. Either that or find a bus to take me to the Elephant Valley Project, an NGO which saves abused elephants. But first, I have a sunset to attend to…

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S-21 and the Killing Fields

This will be a short entry, more for me than any other reader. On my last day in Phomn Penh, I visited the Killing Fields (One of hundreds just like it in Cambodia), where roughly 10,000 men, women and children were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. The audio tour was informative and clear, and the stories from both former prisoners and guards alike were gut wrenching. It’s a must do if you are ever in PP. One of the most fascinating/disturbing facts is that bones,teeth and clothing continue to be unearthed to this day. After heavy rainfall, new pieces will be exposed and those responsible for maintaining the site will round them up and add them to displays. There is a large stupa in the middle of the killing fields that houses hundreds of skulls in what can be described as a stone/plexiglass tower. To see the skulls was powerful enough, but to see the cracks and holes caused by machetes and hammer blows…you just shake your head in disbelief.

Additionally, we visited S-21, a former school that was turned into a prison, mainly to interrogate political prisoners back in the mid to late 1970s. Equipment, cells and beds were kept in place since the Khmer Rouge fell, and you can’t help but get chills when you walk into the dank cell rooms. The Khmer Rouge even turned former workout equipment that the children used to play on into torture devices. The most devastating rooms were those filled with all the pictures of the prisoners. I believe I was the first one in our group to leave. I couldn’t handle much more that day.

No pictures were taken.

Catching up from Cambodia

My, my, time travels just a little too fast. It’s been over a week since my last update, and I’m officially 1 month into my trip/life change/life escape/best decision ever.

My last post left off with my hiking on Koh Tao and cutting up my hand a bit. Everything healed nicely, so it doesn’t seem like I’m going to get any bad ass scars. Oh well. Looks like I’ll have to rely on personality to make friends. Sigh…

So I ended up staying on Koh Tao for a total of 12 days, with the vast majority of those days made up of diving. I completed my Advanced Courses and can dive to a depth of 100 feet. I will say the Advanced courses were a different beast than the beginner Open Water courses. The Open Water courses are less “diving” and more “follow your instructor around and don’t die”, while the advanced course begins to delve into buoyancy control and navigation. I really appreciate the skill and control of an experienced diver because they make diving look so easy when in truth, it is everything but. My training also consisted of a night dive, and luck have it, it wasn’t a busy night at our site. Dropping down 60 feet into darkened waters would have been a nightmare a couple of weeks ago, but I embraced it with open arms. I felt a feeling of peace and heightened awareness as I slowly moved across the ocean floor. With only a flashlight to light the way, I was left to focus on only the small area I could see, and sea life that I would have missed in the daylight received the attention it deserved. Giant shrimp, blue spotted rays and illuminating plankton all captured my imagination. My night dive was only outdone by my final dive, which was, simply put, an embarrassment of riches. Blessed with sublime visibility, several blue spotted rays, pufferfish, moray eels and even a rare sea turtle came out to say goodbye. It wasn’t an easy goodbye. I’m not sure what was saltier, the ocean water or my tears.

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(Above: video from one of my dives)

I said a final goodbye to my friends and neighbors on Koh Tao and headed back to Bangkok for 2 days. I ended up in a wonderful guesthouse smack dab in the middle of a Thai residential area. The mornings consisted of snaking along a walking path through Thai houses and emerging in the middle of a breakfast market. You could get lost on the walking path, so make sure to follow these directions. Take an immediate right at the guesthouse entrance, take a left at the large iguana, make a right at the picture of the king, turn left when you smell food, and you’re there. Like Google maps, but better.

After a day and a half of lounging, eating, laughing, making friends and napping, it’s off to Cambodia. Word of advice for anyone in Bangkok…always go with a metered taxi when possible. It eliminates the haggling, it’s comfy, and it’s probably cheaper than bartering since you likely won’t know price points anyways. Unless it’s rush hour of course. Then, moto all the way!

I arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in the late afternoon on the 13th and looked for my taxi. I had pre-arranged for a taxi at the airport for two reasons. First, it’s nice not have to think when you get off the plane. No rushing about. Second, it makes me feel important to see someone holding a placecard with the name “Larry Kuechler” on it.

I hopped in the taxi with a couple of folks I met at the airport, settled into my hostel and headed out for some drinks. It was a carefree evening that lasted well into the night. In my limited experience, the Cambodian people have been extremely friendly. It seems that many are eager to practice their English, and I met plenty of walking partners during my nine hours walking around the city on the 14th.

I have yet to visit the main tourists areas such as the genocide museum and killing fields, as I’m in the middle of finishing the book “First They Killed My Father”, a personal account of a child living under the Pol Pot regime. I hope this book will help give me more of a feel and understanding of what happened during those years. It definitely opened my eyes a bit. When I look around the city and see the elderly, I can only imagine what they have been through. A bit of perspective.

On a lighter note (not that there are many heavier notes), I did make my way down to Olympic Stadium at dusk to watch people perform mass calisthenics. Hundreds of people spread out across the rim of the stadium, all waving their arms and legs with the sounds of Korean Pop music providing the necessary motivation. 8-10 instructors, almost as if competing with each other in a jazzercise battle of epic proportions, lead their hordes of middle aged Cambodian women through endless routines. Sadly, I left my sweatbands at home, so I didn’t join in. There’s always tomorrow!

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A couple other highlights were the National Museum showcasing Khmer artifacts, lunch at a Romdeng, a restaurant that employs street children in hopes to helping them improve their lives, seeing the Independence Monument lit up against the quarter moon, playing Jianzi with two 10 year olds under the Independence Monument (totally not creepy, I swear), visiting the monument for the recently deceased former King Norodom Sihanouk, and amazing fruit shakes.

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(Above: Pool for customers at Romdeng restaurant. You bet I went in)

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(Above: My Jianzi teachers. Jianzi is like hacky sack, but with something similar to a badminton shuttlecock)

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(Above Monument for the deceased former king)

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(Above: Independence Monument)