Tag Archives: elephant

Lots of rocks @ Angkor Wat….Siem Reap, Cambodia

 We left Banlung in a standard minibus, cramped and speeding down the road, in hopes of meeting our connection in Stung Trang, which should have been waiting on the side of the road for us. Well it wasn’t waiting, but it showed up a few minutes after we pulled over at a deserted intersection. We switched to the empty minibus, expecting the worst, to be put in a packed vehicle for the next 6-8 hours. But we were wrong and the rest of our trip to Siem Reap involved only 5 other people and few stops. Riki was even able to lie down in the back seat and nap. A far cry from our normal bus trips. We even arrived after only 5 hours.

We checked into our guesthouse, a recommendation from an American from Kansas we met at the crater lake in Banlung. A steal at $7 a night, but pretty much deserted as far as we could tell. That night we walked to the central market and tried to get our bearings. We had heard so many different opinions about what to do here and the order to do it in that we were a bit overwhelmed and hoped to meet some people who could offer more insight. We were delighted to find 50 cent draft beers and an American/Swiss couple who had done a quick one day tour of the temples, a bit too speedy for our liking.

The next day, we wandered Siem Reap and bought provisions for the upcoming marathon of temple-viewing. We had heard food near the temples was expensive and it was best to bring your own. Fortunately, we found a bakery and a giant grocery store (not a common sight here). Riki was even able to stock up on Goldfish, and if you know Riki, that is heaven on earth for him.

There are a few options for tickets to see the temples. You can get a one day ($20), three day ($40), or seven day pass (all of which involve getting your picture taken and printed on a paper card). They also all allow you to buy the day before, at 5 pm and enter for free to see the sunset, not counting as one of your days. We hired a tuk-tuk and for an astronomical $7 he agreed to take us to pick up our tickets, watch the sunset at Angkor Wat and bring us back. Angkor Wat is not highly frequented for its sunsets. Most people go there for the sunrise, as you can get a good silhouette as the sun rises behind the temples. So when we arrived at Angkor Wat, the tuk-tuk driver was a little confused why we wanted to stay there the whole time and not continue on to the hill where most people watch the sunset. But this turned out to be the first of a long list of good decisions we made this week. There were not very many people and the crowd thinned rapidly as the tour groups were ushered to the sunset hill. We were too late to climb the tower, but we wandered through the massive complex until we were forced to leave because it was closing. Dilly-dallying the whole way, we managed to be some of the last few to leave and Riki was able to snap some shots with little to no people in them (a rare thing we discovered).

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When we first arrived….Angkor Wat
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I broke out the extra camera for the first time, fortunately for you, none of my pictures are included in these posts as we “forgot” to upload them to the computer.
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As Angkor was closing and we were being herded out the door.

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The next morning at 5 am, we took our rented bikes ($2 each) and rode about 40 minutes into the park. It was pretty chilly and very dark, though the bikes had lights that were supposed to turn on when you started going fast enough. Riki’s worked and mine worked occassionally if you kicked it hard enough or went over the right kind of bump. Though commonly just called Angkor, the archaeological park is home to many many temples, some huge, most not. The Khmer kings a thousand plus years ago would each build a new capital, but not that far from the old ones. The temple part was the only part built of stone. The surrounding city was built of wood and thus did not stand the test of time. Consequently, the remaining stone temples are a bit spread out, with lots of walls, gates and towers remaining. It is possible to reach some on bikes comfortably, but the rest are a bit far and require a tuk-tuk, private car, or as we discovered, an e-bike.

The first temple we reached was Bayon, about 45 minutes before sunrise. The place was deserted and we clamored with our flashlights into the maze of stone. We had counted on being alone and only saw a quiet couple appear just as the sun was rising over the many giant stone faces of Bayon. The sun slowly changed the faces from purple to orange as it rose higher in the sky.

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Morning mist

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Like many of the temples we were to encounter, this one had never been fully completed. For almost an hour I followed the guide we had bought and read about the incredible bas-reliefs depicted in every corner of the temple. Incredible chiseled images of war and day-to-day life lined the walls, some twenty feet tall. And then, just as other people started showing up, having already seen the sun rise at Angkor, I was studying a particularly gruesome image of people being eaten by alligators and a tiger engulfing a man and engorging his claws into his stomach, I was startled by a movement to my right. An agile monkey (as if they aren’t all agile) scampered up the wall and sat right above the scene I was studying.

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Alligator
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Tiger eating a man

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And there were a lot more, coincidentally arriving just as the tour buses arrived from Angkor Wat. And that was our cue to move on. This was our second good decision. The temple complexes have become even more popular, with so many tourists that it can be overwhelming, especially when visiting a place that was meant to be pretty serene. Our itinerary became based on avoiding the crowds as much as possible, something I highly advise to future visitors.

Our second stop was Baphoun, just north of Bayon. It is a largely restored 11th century pyramid with a 16th century giant reclining Buddha at its west wall. Apparently, the very top tower was dismantled to make this Buddha, as they couldn’t find any of the top pieces when it was being restored. Many of the temples have been restored in the past hundred years or so when a French group re-discovered the area and started putting resources together to reassemble the temples. Some temples have been left largely in their dilapidated conditions, either because of lack of funds or just to show the state they were discovered in.

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Playing tour guide….or getting in the way of the shot. Depends who you ask.

The tour groups started showing up and we high-tailed it a little further north to the Terrace of the Leper King. This 20 foot tall terrace flanked the entrance to a Royal Palace and had two sets of carved walls, one inner and one outer. I overheard a guide tell his group it was because they wanted to expand the terrace, so they just built another wall further out and filled in the gap. It was later excavated so you can walk between the two walls and see both sets of carvings.

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We decided not to hire a guide for any of our three days and bought a book ahead of time to read up and be our own guides (see pic above). This didn’t keep me from following around the English speaking guides I came across though. I love the elephants with the supporting tusks and the five-headed horse. The Terrace of the Elephants, flanking the other side of the entrance, surprisingly had less awesome elephant carvings than that of the Leper King terrace.

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Next stop, Preah Pithu Group, oddly named Temples T, U, V, X and Y. These were a bit off the main route, almost deserted and really cool. I don’t think much is known about them, otherwise they would have better names.

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Lots of lichen

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We continued east, to guess what, the East Gate, or Victory Gate. Here, we got off our bikes and walked them up the dirt wall to the path at the top, where we rode south to the next gate, the Gate of the Dead. Apparently, if you came back from fighting your enemies and had won, you could come through the Victory Gate. If you had lost, you had to hang your head and come through the Gate of the Dead. Both were pretty incredible and remarkably similar for having such different purposes, in my opinion.

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Just outside the gates of Angkor Thom (which houses the aforementioned temples), we stopped briefly at two temples that have undergone extensive reconstruction. Thommanom was redone in the 1960’s and has interesting concrete ceilings.

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Ta Keo is being re-done by a Chinese organization. We didn’t even climb up this one. The reconstruction had too much smooth concrete, which made it unappealing to us.

This next one was my favorite temple of the day, though second favorite experience (after the sunrise at Bayon). North of Ta Keo along a sandy overgrown path is Ta Nei. It is not on the main route and is largely in its natural decay. The central area is cluttered with piles of stones and the outside is not much different. We sat and ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and encountered a guy and his guide looking for a lost brown wallet, no luck unfortunately. Probably one of the worst temples to lose something that would just blend right in or get stuck between the rubble.

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Giant tree we ate under
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Ta Nei inner area – all rubble
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Lunch spot

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Ta Prohm is known for being the place that Tombraider was filmed and it is HUGE. We arrived and immediately encountered dozens of tour groups. Having looked forward to this one because of its overgrowth and protruding trees, I gave it my best shot and sped for the far side, hoping it would be less crowded. It wasn’t and I made an executive decision that we would have to come back the next day before the crowds arrived. At this point, I had lost Riki (very easy when he is off photographing things). I headed for our meeting point and sketched until he came to the same realization as I had and returned, overwhelmed by all the people getting in the way of his pictures. Third good decision.

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Too many tourists

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Right down the road is Banteay Kdei. There were far fewer people, lots of lichen and is much smaller. A good one to end on as the view from across the road is nice out over the Srah Srang – a huge royal bath.

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Entry

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We returned almost 12 hours after we had left, exhausted and not sunburned. We took the next day off to do some shopping and catch up on some blogging. We also did some more research on the temples and rented e-bikes ($10/day), which are essentially electronic scooters with pedals that you aren’t supposed to use because it wastes more battery. Seemed backwards to me, but it was cheaper and less hassle than having a tuk-tuk driver hurrying us along all day. Fourth good decision.

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Rhinos, Tigers & Elephants, Oh my….Pokhara & Chitwan, Nepal

Leaving the dust behind, we took a short flight (after a long delay) to Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal. Riki and I had been here a week before for our trek so we knew our way around. It is much quieter than Kathmandu, but still has its fair share of loud dog gangs. A lot of treks leave from Pokhara, so there are many tourists and many outdoors shops.

We took a taxi to Devi’s Falls, which is pretty dinky until you go across the street and down into the cave to see where the falls ends. From there, we took another taxi up to the World Peace Pagoda. Riki and I had done the two hour hike up to it before in preparation for our 5 day trek, but we didn’t have that kind of time. The taxi drivers were not too pleased to go up and insisted on waiting up there to take us down. A good thing too because the road is very bumpy and no other taxis were waiting for passengers. We had lunch at the top and even got a few good glimpses of the Himalayas. That afternoon, we went to the Old Bazaar neighborhood of Pokhara. There was not much happening, but it did have some old architecture from the 1700s, similar to that of the Durbar Squares we had visited in Kathmandu.

 

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On Wednesday we took a van to Chitwan National Park. This was along the same “highway” we had taken the bus on from Pokhara to Kathmandu. We saw the remnants of an accident that had happened more than month ago – a giant truck and a tiny car had collided, caught fire and killed 5 people. Accidents are common along this road and you can often be stuck for hours waiting for an accident to clear, as there are no other roads to take. It is one lane in each direction and people pass each other along curves and uphills in the worst possible places. Many times you are right on the edge of a cliff too. But 4.5 hours later we arrived safely in Sauraha and had much needed beers overlooking the river.

Now this is where it gets awesome, in my opinion. We took an early morning canoe ride in a hollowed out tree trunk down the river. We sat in very uncomfortable little seats in a leaky boat. Pretty sure the sole purpose of our second guide was to bail out water. We saw lots of birds, including some kingfishers, black cranes and ducks from Siberia. When we got out of the canoes, we took a short walk through some forests and saw some large spotted deer. The culmination of this tour was a visit to the Elephant Breeding Center, where they have loads of mother elephants chained to posts and their babies roaming freely. They don’t keep any males here and rely on males from the wild to impregnate the domesticated females. There was a 2 month old baby elephant (already over 70 kg / 150 lbs) who was very playful. In the trees nearby there were three spotted owlets. We had to look hard to find them but once we did, we could very clearly see there big eyes watching us. Very cool. There was also a very friendly cat who followed me all the way around the center. Don’t tell Riki, but I petted it. It looked pretty clean and I can’t resist when they roll over on their backs to be scratched. Oh, and Riki got leeched! (On his stomach oddly enough)

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Elephant Rush Hour

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That afternoon we took a jeep far into the park. We had to take a short canoe ferry across the river – more uncomfortable little seats – and then all piled into an open-topped jeep for the bumpy ride through the park. Despite the noise from the jeep, we were able to get pretty close to two types of deer, two boars, two types of monkeys, peacocks AND 2 rhinos! We were very excited about the rhinos, having been told that we may or may not see them. It is all luck as to what you see. There are over a hundred tigers in the forest, but you rarely see them. One of our guides had seen 4 in the 3 years he had been a guide. We also stopped at a Crocodile Breeding Center, where they have perhaps the ugliest crocodiles. They have long skinny snouts, which are often damaged as they bite each other when competing for the same fish. Don’t worry, they grow back, but slowly. The Gharials are endangered so they have had this center since the 1970’s to increase their population.

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The next day was even better. We got up super early – because thats the best time to see the animals – and hopped on an elephant for a hike through the forest. The theory is that the wildlife is used to hearing elephants stomping around, so you can get closer to them than the jeep. And closer we got. We were within 20′ of a rhino.
It was a bit bizarre though because there were perhaps 30 other elephants all piled with tourists looking for the same things, so when we saw the rhino, all the elephant drivers hollered and raced toward him. He was almost surrounded, but seemed ok about it for the most part. Then we stomped off in search of other animals. There were a few elephants whose passengers were less than quiet, but our driver made a point to split away from them and find another path so we could spot some animals. I doubt those people saw much, as they were shouting to each other the whole time and probably scared everything away. We saw more cranes, deer and a monkey herding some deer.

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Three of the group headed back to Kathmandu and the rest us arranged for a long afternoon hike through the forest, in hopes of catching sight of more animals. The hike began by crossing a small river in our bare feet, which we were less than thrilled about as the water in Nepal is not very clean. But we made it across and were in an area where we would see no other people for the next 4.5 hours (except for one person, more later). The rule of the park is that you have two guides no matter how many people are in your group. We only had four, but we had one guide in the front and one guide in the back. I thought this was a bit excessive, until 10 minutes into our walk when the guide in front holds up his hand to stop and we hear loud rustling in the grass ahead of us. Turns out, about 50 feet in front of us is a mother rhino and her 6 month old baby. These are very dangerous as the mothers can be very protective. So we were ordered back and I’m picking out the closest tree I can climb in case things go wrong. But the baby catches our scent (good noses and ears, bad eyes) and goes tramping off in the other direction. Soon the mother does the same and we continue along our intended path. The guides take us to a watering hole, where they have once seen 14 rhinos bathing at the same time. We only see one so we get a bit closer to get a better look. We were up on a bank, so its pretty safe because the rhinos are slow in the water and when they are bathing, they are very relaxed and just want to bathe. Not likely to chase you. So we get closer and another rhino (large male) emerges from the water. The guides get very excited and then we see another one. A tiny baby! Maybe 2 months old playing in the water behind his mother. This was way more than we could have hoped for and we spent a significant amount of time taking pictures and watching the baby play with its mother. All the while, the second guide is checking behind us to make sure the other rhinos are not going to come up and surprise us.

After about half an hour, the mother and baby head back into the grass and we move on. We are walking through a flat, open area where deer come at sunset and I’m thinking about how I can’t wait to tell people about the baby rhino when we are stopped dead in our tracks by a very loud, very close, warning growl. The guide in front immediately signals us to be quiet and wait. I am straddling a log and thinking we are about to see a boar come running out at us. So I picked out another tree to climb. This wouldn’t have done me any good as what we heard was a tiger about 20 feet away. Apparently, we had woken him from a nap and he was making sure we knew he was there and wouldn’t disturb him. So we backed up and waited to see if he would come out. The head guide pointed to the brush where the growl had come from and told the younger guide to go check it out. He was kidding.  The young guy wasn’t amused. Tigers are not as dangerous during the day though. They are usually seen patrolling their territory during the day and mostly feed at night. He didn’t come out so we found another path and continued on our way. We went through some thick underbrush and appeared to go in circles for the next few hours.  At one point we heard wood cracking and the guide shooed us back as he thought it might be a wild elephant (can be dangerous).  Turns out it was a domesticated one with a rider collecting firewood, lucky for us. We saw more deer, two mongeese (mongooses?) and some peacocks. Riki got another leech, on his ankle this time. On our way back, walking through some tall grass we were again stopped in our tracks by the guide because just ahead in our path was a very large rhino. Our lead guide took a large and banged it against some grass and when that didn’t work he threw the stick into the grass in front of us to make sure the rhino went the other direction. He stomped off and so did another rhino, which was didn’t see, only heard. They are usually solitary animals, so it was a bit strange for there to be two together and not just bathing. We made it back to the river and removed our shoes again. My dad discovered a blood-soaked sock, as he had also gotten a leech and I found a red tick on my knee.

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Checking for wildlife
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Tiger meal

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All in all, a very successful few days. Tiger spottings are incredibly rare and we were lucky to have even heard one. We took the tourist bus back to Kathmandu the next day and proceeded to do all our touristy shopping (Mom & Dad have an extra suitcase for our stuff) in Thamel. We found a place that uses recycled trash to make all sorts of things. I got a purse made out of woven cotton and inner tubes and my mom bought some ornaments made from Ramen packages, whose profits benefit women. On our last day we went carpet shopping and picked out a green (shocking) hand woven Tibetan one that is small enough to fit in the suitcase. We had a goodbye dinner with the family who arranged a lot of our travel in Nepal and then booked it for the airport for a midnight flight back to Bangkok. The security is bizarre in Kathmandu – they barely look at your bags, but we got patted down three times.

And now we will begin our adventure where we intended to in September, going to northern Thailand and meandering around to Laos, central Vietnam to south Vietnam, and over to Cambodia. Suggestions for after that are greatly appreciated!