Trip Recap: Best of, Worst of …

Well, we’ve been back about three weeks now and the Round the World trip is fading into memory … What a fabulous journey. I feel so fortunate to have been able to do this trip – it was amazing. Even the (few) parts that weren’t so great were great (if you know what I mean). Time to recap the highlights and lowlights:

Best (non-urban) Beach

Hong Island, Krabi, West Coast of Thailand

Hong Island, the largest of the group of islands in Than Bok Thoranee Marine National Park, is beautiful: powder white sand, glorious green vegetation, turquoise-green water, and towering orange-tinged limestone cliffs. Two small bays are separated by smaller limestone clifflets, through a gap in which we could see boats come and go. See my original post here.

Best Beach (urban)

This is a toss-up between three very different beaches: Jomtien, Pattaya, Thailand, Cancun, Mexico, and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Jomtien, because the beach is decent, with great restaurants, a lively vibe, great people-watching, and very cheap transportation around the area.

Cancun, because the beach is long and wide, twenty six kilometers of sand. Playa Gaviota Azul, in Cancun’s Hotel Zone, was a favourite spot for us. The large, wide beach was often full of local families, with kids large and small enjoying the day. Because this area of the beach has a sand bar not too far offshore, a shallow pool of ocean water untouched by the big surf is created so it’s perfect for small children. Read more here.

Los Muertos beach in Puerto Vallarta, because it’s sandy, has big waves and great beach restaurants, and the weather was amazing. Read more here and here.

Best Accomodation (apartment/condo)

Our fully-equipped, nicely decorated 4th floor apartment 1/2 block off Los Muertos Beach in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, an incredible deal at Easter for $45 a night.

See my post here for more on Puerto Vallarta’s South Side.

Best Accommodation (hotel, B&B, hostel)

This is a tricky one – in the running, are: Merthayasa Bungalows in Ubud, Bali; Blue Star Bungalows in Amed, Bali; Sabai Mansion in Ao Nang, Thailand; and Hotelito Swiss Oasis in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. Each of these was great in its own way. We loved the pool at the Merthayasa and the price was right at 180,000 IDR ($19) a night.

The Blue Star, right on the beach at Jemeluk Bay, had wonderful staff, great snorkelling and swimming, and a pleasant enough room for 200,000 IDR a night ($21.50 – a special price because we didn’t use the air con).

Sabai Mansion was well-located 500 meters from the beach, with a great pool, a restaurant, and nice staff for 855 bht a night ($27.50).

And we also loved the Hotelito Swiss Oasis, 1/2 block from Playa Zicatela in Puerto Escondido, with a pool and small communal kitchen, for 450 pesos night ($34.50).

The Pool and Palm villa in Siem Reap had the best pool, large, beautiful, and clean, very refreshing in the heat of central Cambodia.

Best Recreational Activity (Land-based)

Bali Eco Cycling, a cycle trip beginning at a volcano, then riding downhill through a coffee plantation, village homes and temples, and rice fields, finishing with a Balinese food feast. Read all about it here.

Runner up: Cycling the North Head, in Manly, Australia: wildlife, artillery, ecological projects, golden chariot, cemeteries. Read more here.

Best Recreational Activity (Water-based)

Our private longtail boat trip to the Hong Islands, Krabi, Thailand, a great day out on the water visiting several different beaches, lagoons, and islands in the Andaman Sea. Read my post here.

Best Temple(s) Ancient

This one is no contest – Angkor Wat/Thom in Siem Reap, Cambodia is an epic, once-in-a-lifetime Must See for all you temple and archeological site lovers. Incredibly beautiful architecture and sculpture in a huge and beautiful park setting. See my posts here, here, and here.

Runner up: Uxmal and the Puuc route south of Merida in the Yucatan.

Wanting to see some of the less well-known Mayan ruins in the Yucatan while in Merida, but not wanting to drive ourselves, Ty and I decided to do a day trip with a driver from Yucatan Connect to the Lol Tun Caves and the sites along the Puuc Route, south and south east of Merida. Highly recommended – read more here.

Best Temple (Modern)

Bang Rieng, Krabi, Thailand, a mountain-top temple about an hour and a half’s driving north of Ao Nang along the road to Phuket. It sits atop Khao Lan or One Million Mountain, overlooking the Thaput countryside. The temple and grounds are spectacular, as is the view from the top; green hills and tended fields spread out in a vast panorama below the temple precincts, looking very much like central Italy. Read more here.

Best visual art scene

This category is a tie between Ubud, Bali and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Ubud has lots of great contemporary art galleries, as well as a couple of excellent art museums focusing on modern Balinese and Indonesian art. Read more here and here.

Puerto Vallarta also has a great contemporary art scene, with lots of commercial galleries, artists studios and residencies, and two weekly art walks in the old town and centro areas. Read more here and here.

Most Intriguing Cultural Performance

The Balinese Classical Legong and Barong Dance at the Ubud Palace was fascinating and beautiful. See a video of part of the performance here. Read more about Ubud’s cultural scene here.

Best Local Experience

While staying at the Blue Star Bungalows in Amed, Bali, the owner Iluh, a lovely woman, invited me to join her at a village temple ceremony. She showed me how the offerings are made, gave me her temple clothes to wear, and drove me there and back on her motorcycle – an incredible experience.

Read about it here.

Runner up: Nox’ tours in Levuka, Ovalau, Fiji

We did two tours around Levuka with local guide Nox, one exploring all aspects of the town and the other up into the surrounding hills to visit local plantations. Really fascinating! Read more here and here.

Best Food

This category is also no contest – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia has an amazing food scene and, remarkably, without even knowing it, we stayed in absolutely the best place for restaurants in KL, Bukit Bintang. Read my post here.

Best Nightlife

While Ty and I are not exactly nightlife junkies (and sometimes I can barely make it to 11 pm), we did enjoy the lively night scene in Ubud, Bali, particularly the great Spanish band at the Smiling Buddha and the jazz at Cafe Luna. Other nightlife options include Balinese dance, the Jazz Cafe, a gazillion great restaurants and bars …

Best transportation experience

The Pattaya/Jomtien baht bus, the song thaew pickups plying the roads in the area. Go anywhere for only 10 baht (30 cents).

And the tuk-tuks in Siem Reap, Cambodia: padded seats, beautiful fabrics, comfortable rides. Go anywhere around the town for $2.

Worst accommodation

None of the places we stayed were really terrible; some were just less good than the rest and a few were too expensive for what they offered. Sometimes the weather affected our view of a place – Fiji in the rain, for example. Janes Fales in Manase, Savaii, Samoa had a wonderful location right on a beautiful sandy beach, but the food was bad and we had a bad experience at their beach bar there that caused us to leave much sooner than we had planned. More info here.

Worst Food

Mostly, the food everywhere was good, if often not spicy enough for our liking. I guess the worst food I had was this terrible lunch at the Hornbill Restaurant in the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park – blecchhh. Read more about this day here.

Worst Beach

Surprisingly, particularly since the last time we were there it was lovely, the beach at Playa del Carmen was the worst we saw. Almost everywhere in the world erosion is a problem, as is high water and storm surges, all playing havoc with the beaches. One of the last days we were in Playa, after a rain storm, we could smell the sewage that had obviously overflowed the storm sewers and was just gushing out from pipes into the ocean, turning the turquoise water a dull dark brown in places.

Worst local experience

Nadi, Fiji. While in Nadi, we walked along the few rather decrepit blocks of the downtown area, asked for a restaurant recommendation, and were directed to a curry and seafood restaurant which, unfortunately, had bad food. The downtown area was pretty much deserted on a Friday night, which I found somewhat surprising, but the whole place seemed dreary, desperate, and depressing – we didn’t miss it when we left. Read more here and here.

Worst transportation experience

Wow – this is a tough category. Once again, it’s a tie, between the crazed maniacal minibus driver in Fiji, whose insane driving drove us out onto the road and into a school bus; the tweaking idiot in Bangkok whose meth-fuelled speed racer drive from Bangkok to Ayutthaya terrified me; and the overloaded and top heavy ferry boat back from Koh Laan to Pattaya, almost capsizing a couple of times along the way.

Most surprising place

Siem Reap, Cambodia, a lovely city with vibrant nightlife and proximity to the great Angkor temples and Samoa, a beautiful small country.

And Guanajuato, Mexico, a fabulous colourful hill-top town in the central highlands with loads of museums, haciendas, good restaurants, and a vibrant local scene.

For us one of the most surprising things was Semana Santa in Guanajuato – who knew that Easter would be so fabulous there?

Perhaps surprisingly, given how much we liked Bali, especially Amed, East Bali, our choice for retirement living in the sun when we’re old is, at the moment, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Why? Well, let me count the reasons:

1) It has a beautiful beach and a long malecon with sculpture and art.

2) It has a vibrant contemporary art scene, dancing, theatre, community centres with classes in language, art, yoga, tai chi, and the like. Lots of artists around the place.

3) It has great coffee shops and restaurants, especially in the Old Town.

4) Although there are lots of gringos, it’s still a Mexican town, especially a few blocks off the beach.

5) Great day trips to small towns and villages are easy by inexpensive local transport. For an example, see my report on Yelapa here.

6) Inexpensive accommodation can be had a few blocks off the beach

7) Rentals are pet-friendly. We can easily bring Brubin and the cat with us when we visit.

8) Easily and cheaply accessible by direct flight in only a few hours.

9) I speak Spanish, albeit not yet fluently.

Grand Tour of temples around Angkor Thom, Cambodia

Ty and I, sans guide, rolled out in a tuk-tuk headed towards the “Lady Temple”, a building which our driver enthused was a must-see. When we reached Banteay Srey, the hometown of our driver, we stopped for a bit to meet his family and drink a young coconut with them.

The driver’s sister pointed out the billboard across the street showing a man in a car handing a mosquito net to a young person and explained to me that her sister had gone up into the mountains without a net and was now very sick. Another billboard across from this one showed the old and new Cambodias; the old on the right had Khmer Rouge men with guns, blood, and corpses in the street, while the new showed a well-dressed happy family, complete with puppy, in front of a shiny new school.

We visited five temples in our Grand Circuit, so named because of the distance to be travelled between them.

Banteay Srey (late 10th c Hindu) “loosely translates as ‘citadel of the women,’ but this is a modern appellation that probably refers to the delicate beauty of the carvings. Built at a time when the Khmer Empire was gaining significant power and territory, the temple was constructed by a Brahmin counselor under a powerful king. The walls are densely covered with some of the most beautiful, deep and intricate carvings of any Angkorian temple” (Lonely Planet account). The temple’s relatively small size, pink sandstone construction, delicate almost filigree-like carving, and ornate design give it a surreal “fairyland” ambiance.

East Mebon (late 10th c Hindu) is a large temple-mountain-like ruin, rising three levels and crowned by five towers, dedicated to Shiva.

It has beautiful, well-preserved elephants sculptures in each of the four corners, as well as two guardian lions at each of the four stair cases to the upper levels.

From the topmost level we had a beautiful view out over the green and lush countryside beyond, some of which is not yet dried out from the recent mega-floods.

Ta Som (late 12th c Hindu) is a small monastic complex with beautiful carvings, a large gate topped by a stone portrait head, and is much like a smaller version of Ta Prohm, the “Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider” temple (as all the guides and tuk tuk drivers call it).

Neak Pean (12th c Buddhist) is a small island temple, the central building of which sits at the axis of a cross or lotus pattern of eight pools. Originally known as Rajasri, Neak Pean took its modern appellation, which means ‘coiled serpents,’ from the encoiled nagas that encircled the temple.

The area around this temple is still flooded; we accessed it along a wooden causeway over a swamp boiling with mosquitos. After snapping a few pictures, we quickly made our way out again, me covered up with a sarong to avoid getting bitten.

Finally, saving the best for last, we visited the magnificent Preah Khan (late 12th c Buddhist), a huge complex which originally served as a Buddhist monastery and school, engaging over 1000 monks.

For a short period it was also the residence of King Jayavarman VII. The name means “sacred sword” and the temple is dedicated to the King’s father. We approached the temple along a grand boulevard and bridge lined with gods and demons struggling, like the earlier bridge we’d seen into Angkor Thom. Here only one head remains; the rest had all been eroded away.

Once inside we were greeted with grey, green, and red walls sculpted with bas reliefs of apsara, warriors, firefly-Tinker Bell-like women along the top edges of inside walls, and huge fig and silk-cotton trees growing out of and into the building’s stones.

Each of the large temples in Angkor Thom is surrounded with a moat, signifying the oceans of the world. The bridge which crosses each moat, surmounted by nagas, represents the “rainbow bridge” connecting the underworld, earth, and paradise. Some of the bridges, as noted, are decorated with duelling gods and demons. All the temples have bas relief carvings of apsara dancers, each with a different headdress, and contain large open dancing halls in which the women would perform dances dedicated to the gods.

The pyramidal temple structures have five levels, representing the five “worlds” of Hinduism. Many of the towers are topped by gigantic stone lotus blossoms which originally would have been used as fire basins, lit when the apsara danced. Although most of the temples were originally Hindu, all were later converted to Buddhist with the addition of Buddha statues and sculptures to the extant Hindu decoration.

I loved my time in Cambodia; the weather was great – hot and dry – and the people are warm. Evidence of Cambodia’s dark past was everywhere in the form of land mine victims begging on the streets and playing music in small bands on Pub Street and at the temples. The country is not as wealthy as neighboring Thailand or Vietnam and most of the people in Siem Reap’s surrounding countryside still live a very traditional village life. Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are incredible; I’m already thinking about my next trip! And next time, I’ll be able to take it slow – five temples in one day doesn’t make for optimum viewing conditions …

See more pics here.

Temple Tour Two: “Small circuit” of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom

Cycling around the town:

The really rough road from the hotel to the downtown area is being repaired by road crews dressed in cotton balaclavas with added neck pieces to protect against the sun. It’s hot and dusty and the street is covered with gravel and  full of huge potholes, a menace at night but relatively easy to avoid during the day. Ty and I grabbed the hotel’s two rickety old upright bicycles to explore the town of Siem Reap. Because it’s flat here, the ride is easy as far as exertion goes, but the traffic takes a bit of getting used to. No-one obeys the rules of the road so we just had to go with the flow, never stopping at stop signs or red lights, just weaving through the traffic, accelerating when necessary to get out of a bigger vehicle’s way. We pedalled past the Old Market and along the riverside to Wat Preah Ang, a five hundred year old temple complex in the middle of town where an even bigger, newer temple is in the process of being constructed.

The temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom have made Siem Reap a very wealthy town, wealth which is very much in evidence at this temple where the ancient and modern coexist harmoniously. Extensive topiary gardens with sculptures, gold-covered chedis, several temple buildings with glittering decoration, and the seemingly obligatory kitchy statues of little deer, birds, and women adorning the gardens testify to the general well-being of the community. We watched for a bit as several men tiled the steeply-pitched roof of the new building in the blazing 35 degree heat.

We then crossed over the river and visited Wat Bo, also an old complex but not as richly appointed. The orange-robed monks looked at us with expressionless faces and the temple dogs came out barking and bristling as we were getting our bikes so we beat a hasty retreat – easy to tell when we’re not welcome!

From Wat Bo, we cycled along the river past the Royal Residence, then back again, stopping to look at the beautiful infrared photographs of temples by John McDermott installed at a gallery in the FCC riverside complex.

Temple-Touring!

We arranged for a two tuk-tuk convoy and a guide for the “small circuit”, beginning with the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Up at 4:30 am for a 5 am departure, we, along with lots of other people in tuk-tuks, cars, vans, buses, and bikes, made the pilgrimage out to Angkor Wat in the dark. We stood on one of the gate’s ledges for a bit as the sky began to lighten and headed down to the reflecting pool for the actual sunrise, a non-event with a fart of yellow and red sky between darkish clouds. Our guide told us that the sunrise had not been good the whole month … oh well, at least it got us up and out the door early for what proved to be a long day of temple-trekking. Our itinerary covered, as well as Angkor Wat itself, the main temples in Angkor Thom, the “king’s city”. (The source for much of the information below on the historical and cultural context of Angkorian temples is the Lonely Planet – our guide, while knowledgeable, spoke an English that was sometimes difficult to understand).

Angkor Wat (early-mid 12th c ce Hindu/Buddhist), the temple of the King, is a massive three-tiered pyramid crowned by five lotus-like towers rising 65 meters from ground level, representing Mount Mera in the Himalayas, the abode of the gods in Hinduism.

At the apex of Khmer political and military dominance in the region, Suryavarman II constructed Angkor Wat in the form of a massive ‘temple-mountain’ dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu. It served as his state temple, though the temple’s uncommon westward orientation has led some to suggest that it was constructed as Suryavarman II’s funerary temple.

Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat and an exterior wall measuring 1300 meters x 1500 meters. The temple itself is 1 km square and consists of three levels surmounted by a central tower. The walls of the temple are covered inside and out with bas-reliefs and carvings, including most memorably nearly 2000 distinctively rendered apsara (dancing women) carvings.

On the lower level the exterior walls display enormous bas-reliefs depicting stories and characters from Hindu mythology and the historical wars of Suryavarman II. Highlights include the mythological Battle of Kuru on the west wall; the historical march of the army of Suryavarman II, builder of Angkor Wat, against the Cham, followed by scenes from Heaven and Hell on the south wall, and the ‘Churning of the Ocean Milk’ on the east wall. Some of the carvings were quite hard to make out, while others were dark and shiny as a result of being rubbed over the years by hordes of tourists (it’s quite easy to tell which images interest people from their relative darkness; for example, the breasts of the dancing women). Some are also stained red with rouge, used as a protective covering.

At the upper-most level of the temple, accessed by a staircase guarded by employees who check for offensive clothing (shoulders and knees must be covered and sarongs or scarves are not acceptable, to Christine’s dismay), the central tower houses four Buddha images, each facing a different cardinal point. Although Angkor Wat was constructed as a Hindu temple, it has served as a Buddhist temple since Buddhism became Cambodia’s dominant religion in the 14th century.

After wandering around the vastness of Angkor Wat, we had a somewhat mediocre breakfast in one of the many temple restaurants, and then rolled onward to Angkor Thom through a huge parkland area of grass and trees.

Angkor Thom (Big Angkor 12th – 13th c ce Buddhist) is a three kilometer square walled and moated royal city and was the last capital of the Angkorian empire. After Jayavarman VII recaptured the Angkorian capital from the Cham invaders in 1181, he began a massive building campaign across the empire, constructing Angkor Thom as his new capital city. He began with existing structures such as Baphuon and Phimeanakas and built a grand enclosed city around them, adding the outer wall/moat and some of Angkor’s greatest temples including his state-temple, Bayon, set at the center of the city.

There are five entrances (gates) to the city, one for each cardinal point, and the victory gate leading to the Royal Palace area. Each gate is crowned with four giant faces and the one through which we entered had a bridge decorated with demi-god and demon figures playing tug-of-war with a giant naga serpent, representing the struggle between the forces of good and evil in Hindu mythology.

Within Angkor Thom we saw the following:

Baphuon (mid 11th c Hindu) a huge temple-mountain in the heart of Angkor Thom, currently being restored, which has a rear brick wall in the form of a gigantic reclining Buddha.

Bayon (late 12th c ce Buddhist), a temple with thirty-seven standing towers, most but not all sporting four carved faces oriented toward the cardinal points. Who the faces represent is a matter of debate but they may be Loksvara, Mahayana Buddhism’s compassionate Bodhisattva, or perhaps a combination of Buddha and Jayavarman VII.

Bayon was the Jayavarman VII’s state-temple and in many ways represents the pinnacle of his massive building campaign. The bas-reliefs on the southern wall contain real-life scenes from the historical sea battle between the Khmer and the Cham, as well as scenes from everyday life.

Phimeanakas (late 10th-early 11th c Hindu), a sandstone pyramid located inside the ancient Royal Palace compound, serving as the king’s temple. According to legend the golden tower crowning the temple was inhabited by a serpent, which would transform into a woman.

The kings of Angkor were required to make love with the serpent every night, lest disaster befall him or the kingdom.

Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King (late 12th c). The former is a two and a half-meter tall, 300 meter long terrace wall adorned with carved elephants and garudas that spans the heart of Angkor Thom in front of Baphuon, Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace area.

Nearby is the Terrace of the Leper King, named for the statue of the ‘Leper King’ that sits on top. Why the statue is known as the ‘leper king’ is a matter of debate. Some argue that when the statue was found, its lichen-eaten condition gave it the appearance of leprosy.

Others have suggested that it is a statue of the leper king of Khmer legend, or that the condition of the statue inspired its connection to the legend.

Ta Prohm (12th – 13th c Buddhist), a temple in the jungle intentionally left partially unrestored; within the walls massive fig and silk-cotton trees grow from the towers and corridors.

Dedicated to the king’s mother, Ta Prohm was originally constructed as a Buddhist monastery and was enormously wealthy in its time, boasting of control over 3000 villages, thousands of support staff, and vast stores of jewels and gold. It is now most well-known as one of the sites in the Angelina Jolie film Tomb Raider.

After an epic nine hour day, we were driven back to the hotel and deposited in an almost senseless heap by the pool to recover.

See more pics here.

Beng Mealea, near Siem Reap, Cambodia: epic jungle temple

Beng Mealea was built in the 12th century and is the same vintage as Angkor Wat; however, nothing has been restored here. Like Angkor Wat (for which it is thought to be the prototype) and the other temples here, it is surrounded by a large moat symbolising the oceans of the world in Hindu comology.

The temple is tumbled-down, with gigantic stone blocks as if thrown by gods hither and yon, collapsed gates, and broken walls and roofs grasped by tree roots and branches, reminding me quite a bit of Termessos in Turkey, a mountain-top ruin site that remained unconquered when Alexander the Great swept through Asia on his conquests.

Some of the relief carvings are still visible, with female figures, elephants and Vishnu/Garuda being the most common motifs. Our guide pointed out the most interesting carvings, sometimes almost invisible under fallen stone, and led us over fallen rocks, up through broken gates, around walls, up across wooden walkways and platforms, around the entire temple site. We saw four libraries in various states of disrepair, several galleries, and entrance gates positioned at the four cardinal directions.

When we first arrived there were only 4 others on site; as the time passed a few tour groups from China arrived. However, this temple is much less visited than the other, more famous, Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom temples much closer to the city. Our guide also pointed out the sites of exploded land mines within the temple compound, tapping on her prosthetic leg for emphasis.

After consuming a great Khmer curry lunch, we rolled back into town as rush hour was starting, joining the throngs of tuk-tuks, mopeds, trucks, tractors, bikes, and cars all converging on central Siem Reap. We had a swim and finished the day with a wonderful dinner at Touich, a top-rated out-of-the-way restaurant in the back of beyond, where we had a great chat with 2 French tourists and sampled a Cambodian Mojito and several rice based special desserts which we were asked to try out for the kitchen.

See more pics of Beng Mealea here.

From Koh Samui to Siem Reap, Cambodia

Friends Barb and Christine arrived this week, fresh from an 8 day tour of Northern Thailand, to spend a couple of days with us at our house in Bang Po, located on Moo 6 in a lovely local community just one hundred meters across the road from our previous chalet. We spent three days exploring the beaches of Chaweng, Lamai and Bang Po, as well as the town of Nathon and the Hin Lad waterfall and temple.

The day we spent on Chaweng, the longest and most upscale beach on Koh Samui, was a bit overcast at first and the waves were fabulous crashing rollers. We spent the afternoon on brightly coloured loungers for which we paid a pretty penny in food and drink from an indifferent restaurant staff. Later, after a Thai massage, we had a tasty Thai supper at the Infinity Restaurant on one of Chaweng’s side streets. The next morning, after negotiating a price for our own song thaew taxi, we hit the sights on the west coast.

After spending some time at the forested Hin Lad temple, and examining the elephants at the riverside trekking station, one of whom looked blind, Lamai Beach called to us and we enjoyed watching the beautiful red retriever dog fetch water bottles thrown in the waves from the sand in front of the Bikini Bar.

Thursday morning Ty and I were up early for our transfer to the airport, courtesy of Dave, and, rather than spend the night in Bangkok as we had originally planned, we decided just to keep on trucking, flying in to Siem Reap, Cambodia, after changing our airline ticket at the Bangkok Air counter in the Suvarnabhumi Airport. After a short forty minute flight, a line-up at the visa on arrival counter where a fleet of uniformed personnel passed our passports from hand to hand down the line, and a taxi ride of twenty minutes, we were ensconced at the Pool and Palm Villa just outside the downtown area of Siem Reap.

The hotel grounds have suffered from the recent floods, having lost much of their grass, trees and flowers to the waters that inundated Cambodia in the fall, but the place is very nice. Two wooden Kmer-style buildings, with very high ceilings and beautiful wooden furniture and fittings, accommodate guests, with a large pool and poolside restaurant on the back part of the property. Also a victim of the floods, the roadway into Siem Reap is badly chewn up, with enormous potholes that crews are in the middle of trying to repair. Some low-lying areas in the countryside here are still a bit flooded and only now starting to dry out.

The area around Siem Reap is very flat, with lots of cabbage palms and other deciduous trees interspersed with flat patches of yellow grazing land and brilliant green rice fields. Very bony cattle, lots of dogs and puppies, pigs, and chickens abound here.

The commercial buildings in this area are vibrantly coloured, with the newer hotels and villas reminding me of the ones I saw in Turkey. Downtown Siem Reap (the name meaning “Siam [Thailand] Defeated”) is lovely, with blocks of French Colonial architecture in multi-coloured hues, an Old Market, complete with chicken carcasses, fish, fruit, and multitudes of shoes, and a Pub Street, packed out at night with revelers and beautifully lit up, full of restaurants and bars. After a mediocre dinner at the Khmer Family Restaurant, we headed down the street to a bar with a nice outdoor seating area and met Dennis, a guy from Montana who’s here working on a project with a local school.

Our second day saw us up and out the door on a tuk-tuk bound for Beng Mealea, a jungle Hindu temple 60 kilometers east of Siem Reap. The tuk-tuks here have a different style than those in Thailand; here they look like 19th century horse carriages, with padded seats and sometimes luxurious fabrics, except instead of the horse, a guy on a moped pulls the carriage. Along the way we passed more road crews trying to fix things up post-flood, guys on mopeds with two live hogs tied to the back of their seats, houses on stilts (both shacks and fancy new digs), schoolgirls with long black hair and floppy wide-brimmed hats on old-fashioned one speed bikes, and tiny tractors with huge loads of logs. Two hours later we bounced in to the temple compound, paid our $5 US each for the entry tickets, tried to avoid the crowds of children scampering around our feet, and were swept into the orbit of a blue-suited, white-hatted one-legged land mine victim who became our guide through the ruin site (see next post for Beng Mealea). See more pics of Koh Samui and Siem Reap here and here.