As I was bouncing down a dirt road in Siem Reap on the back of a motorbike, the thought did cross my mind that my mother would kill me if she knew what I was doing. Luckily I knew that by the time I posted this adventure to the blog, she'd be en route to China, where she would be able to see in person that I was still alive (and then kill me).
Cambodians start riding motos pretty much at birth - we know this because Megan spotted a woman breastfeeding her baby while riding on the back of a moto. It is common to put several people on a moto at once - in fact the record that we saw at one time was five. However, if you're American and you've never been on a motorcycle of any kind - it takes a bit of getting used to to ride on the back of one down a dirt road.
But I'm getting ahead of myself, as that was the last thing we did in Cambodia - first we had to get ourselves from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, which was an adventure in and of itself. Because there were three of us, the best option was to hire a taxi for the four hour drive to the home of Angkor Wat. The ride went smoothly enough - except that the driver used his horn the entire time to signal to every other person on the road that we were approaching, or wanted to pass, or were passing, or had passed them. We though for a while that this was standard form - until we realized that he was the only one doing it. It was a rather long ride, but very worthwhile.
Upon arrival in Siem Reap, we checked in to our hotel, had a great khmer dinner and hit the sack so that we'd be ready for our 4 am wake up to watch the sunrise over the main Angkor Wat temple (luckily by the time we got up, the ringing in our ears from the horn had stopped). It was an early day - but totally worth it as we watched the sky turn from pitch black to daylight while slowly the giant temple appeared. We spent the rest of the morning visiting several of the other temples, including Ta Prohm, better known as the temple in Tomb Raider, where nature and temple wrestle for survival. The vines and roots intertwine with the stones of the ancient structure, and one can only imagine what it must have been like to "discover" these again after so many years of abandoment. Like other ruins around the world, its truly outstanding to see the skill and technical ability that went into creating these structures.
After a morning of temple hopping, we took a quick nap before heading out again with our guide to visit a floating village. We boarded a longboat and cruised down the river to the lake of Tonle Sap, passing houseboats and floating villages along the way. That night we caught some traditional Cambodia dancing before another early night - our best day was yet to come.
Thursday we had a bit later start (8am instead of 4am!) and headed out to the temple of Banteay Srei, also know as the Women's Citadel. Local lore says that this smaller and more detailed temple was built by women - though unfortunately the inscription on the temple itself counters that. Either way, it is another amazing structure which differs from the others in that it is built out of a beautiful pink stone.
Next we hit the road for another hour to travel to the abandoned temple of Beng Melea. Because Beng Melea is off the main circuit it is rarely visited by tourists, and for most of our time there, we were the only visitors. We had a great time climbing through the ruins, channeling our inner Angelina Jolie. It was a bit humbling that an older Cambodian woman in flip flops appeared to help us climb over the ancient stones and forest trees - reaching out to hold our hands each time. I'd like to think she was mainly there to help Megan, who was wearing flip flops - but I was very thankful everytime she grapped my hand and pulled me up the next step! It was great to have the place almost entirely to ourselves, and this was by far our favorite of the ruins.
After all the climbing we were hungry, so stopped on the side of the road for a local khmer lunch. Then it was time to board our motos (mom, you'll be happy to see I was the only one in the group who wore a helmet - I'm sure the people we passed on the road are still talking about it). The ride took about forty minutes and then we boarded another boat for a tour of the Flooded Forest. Here we saw another "floating village" but instead of houseboats the homes in this fishing community were built on stilts six to seven meters high. Again, we were the only tourists, and felt like we really got to see a unique side of khmer life.
Finally, it was time to go. After one last night out in Siem Reap, I bid farewell to Megan and Irene and boarded my flight to Singapore. I spent one more night with Christen, Tom and Nat, now I'm headed for Shanghai!