Should I go to India? (Rajasthan)

It’s difficult to imagine a country more diverse than India. With 22 official languages,  6 major religions and countless traditions and cultures, your experiences in India will depend greatly on the areas you visit.  Of the places we visited, Rajasthan was the most flaunting of their customs and traditions, and no matter where you travel there, you get a taste of the individual cultures that make up this desert state.

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Rajasthan is a state located in north-western India.  Although it is mostly famous because of its Thar Desert, Rajasthan has much more going on than just sand.  We visited 5 cities (and could have doubled that number if we’d had the time) and had some pretty awesome experiences.  Here are some of the highlights of Rajesthan.

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Palaces and Forts

Prior to its independence from England in 1947, India didn’t look the way it does today. Although it is now a democratic country, India used to be made up of several small city states, run by kings.  As a result, there is an abundance of history in Rajasthan and if you like seeing antiques and learning about the past, the palaces and forts in Rajasthan are excellent ways to spend your afternoons.

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Rajasthan’s forts speak volumes about India’s past.  The different colours seen here are because these two areas were built in different times and of different materials

The fees to get into some of these palaces were quite high, and from what I heard from other tourists, not always worth the money.  In Udaipur, we opted to skip the palace because of the high camera fee.  We were relieved to hear from a couple later on that it had been wise to skip it; there was little more than a few paintings to see.  In other places, like Jodpur for example, the forts (and attached palaces), are well worth your time and money.

Many of the hotels in Rajasthan are actually old palaces and government buildings from past rulers.  We stayed in several of these buildings, known as Havelis, while in Rajesthan…each had beautiful architecture and interesting rooms.

Architecture

Each city we visited in Rajasthan seemed to have a nickname.  Jaipur is ‘The Pink City’.  Udaipur is ‘The Lake City’, Pushkar is ‘The Pilgrimage City’, Jaisalmer ‘The Golden City’ and Jodpur ‘The Blue City’.  Each of these nicknames comes from the unique architecture and geography in the area.

Jaisalmer impressed me the most with its beautiful sandstone carvings.  Not only is the golden colour of the sandstone beautiful, but the intricate detail found all around the city is a photographer’s dream.

Similarly, Udaipur’s gorgeous hotels built along the lake are a sight to see.  The white buildings reflect on the lake, giving the city a serene atmosphere.

And if the cities themselves aren’t beautiful enough for you, the temples and other landmarks in India are also sights to behold.  After all, the Taj Mahal is just one of India’s famed buildings…there are many, many more!!

Markets

If shopping is your favourite pass-time during travel, Rajasthan is for you!  Every city we visited had markets where you can check out Rajasthan’s unique textiles.  And, for a state famous for its desert, you wouldn’t believe the colour you’ll see in these markets!!

Among the best cities for shopping were Pushkar and Udaipur.  While the shopkeepers in Jodpur and Jaipur were pushy and known to chase you down the street…Pushkar and Udaipur had a much calmer feel to them.  There was an abundance of art and textiles (bedding, scarves, clothing etc…) to see everywhere we visited in Rajesthan, you could only really peacefully visit shops in these two smaller cities.  We bought the majority of our souvenirs in Pushkar, where the prices were fair and where I was given the chance to try things on without people grabbing my arms and trying to drag me into different stores (a frequent experience in Jodpur!)

Of course, you do need to be careful when shopping in Rajasthan.  The prices aren’t nearly as inflated as they are in the Golden Triangle, but you will still be ripped off if someone sees the opportunity.  Pushkar specifically had an interesting scam that involved locals trying to push you into paying for flowers that are originally presented as being free.  A rule of thumb in Pushkar…people are really nice…just DON’T BUY THE FLOWERS!!!!  And, of course, be weary of anyone telling you that their products are 100% Kashmir or Pashmina…they most likely aren’t.  I paid 1000 rupees for a scarf that I saw for 400 rupees only a few days later in one of the smaller cities.  Be skeptical of initial prices and BARGAIN HARD!  (even when they try and make you feel like you’re ripping them off…it’s part of their shtick)

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I saw these table clothes for 500 rupees in the market.  We ended up buying 3 of them from a gentleman in Jaisalmer, who was selling them for some of the women living out of the city.  We paid only 100 rupees each and we knew he was STILL making good money on our purchases.

Wildlife and Landscape

Rajasthan is THE place to visit if you are interested in diverse landscapes and wildlife. From monkeys to cows, there won’t be a day you don’t see an animal while in India.  And because Rajasthan covers such a large area, the landscapes change a great deal as you travel around the state.

The farm life within the cities is astounding.  Not only cows roam the streets of Jaipur and Jaisalmer, but also goats, sheep, pigs and chickens…

There are monkeys all over the place in Rajasthan!  I’m always afraid of being bitten because monkeys can be so aggressive, but the zoom on my camera made it easy to get some good close ups of these cool little dudes…

 

And of course, I can’t forget about the friends we made in the desert

The most remarkable animals we saw in Rajasthan were the famed Demoiselle Cranes we saw outside of Udaipur.  These cranes are famous because they have the most difficult migration of any bird on earth.  Not only do they need to fly over the Himalayan mountains to get to their breeding grounds in India…but they get attacked and eaten by Golden Eagles along the way!  Don’t believe me?  Watch Planet Earth!   We watched the episode about Mountain Landscapes after we got home, just to see the cranes that we’d been lucky enough to see up close in Rajasthan!

Some Cautionary Tales

There are far more ups than downs visiting Rajasthan.  For Dave and I, the biggest downer was our driver, who was strange and actually pretty terrible at his job.  Look around for drivers that have good reviews before booking because you’ll be spending 35+ hours in a car with that person…and trust me…you don’t want a guy who plays the same 5 minute Ohm on repeat the entire time!  It can really ruin a trip!

Additionally…it’s a good idea to book ahead of time.  While it’s often better to book tours once you’re IN a country, you will be overwhelmed with the number of tour guides trying to sell you packages once you’re in New Delhi.  Many of them will lie to you to get your business (ours assured us that they were government run…they were not!) and they will all try and rip you off.  Check Trip Adviser before you get tied in with anyone in India.

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Also…make sure you’ll be being driven around in a decent car.  This was our driver and car…the driver was ok…the car was nice.  I can’t imagine how horrible it would have been to spend 35 hours in something without proper suspension!

Aside from drivers…make sure to look around before buying things so you get a feel for what prices are in markets.  Don’t believe anyone who tells you their scarves are 100% anything…they are lovely, and I wouldn’t discourage you from buying 1 (or 3…), but I would caution you to limit how much you spend.  Most of the time, the Kashmir or Pashmina scarf they’re selling you is mostly silk or even polyester.

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And, of course, I highly recommend that you make purchases at places like Belissima…shops that specialize in art and textiles being made by people in need…This particular shop helps women who have been widowed or who were never married.  (it’s located in Jaisalmer fort…there are signs everywhere so it shouldn’t take long to find!!)

So there you have it…Rajasthan is chalk full of things for every type of tourist.  From gorgeous landscapes to intricate architecture, you’ll find something interesting at every stop you make.  If I could do things differently, I would have taken 3 of the days we had in New Delhi and added them to our time in Rajasthan so we could have seen Bikaner or Rathambore.  Perhaps some day I’ll get the chance…

Hazardous Banares

Varanasi (also called Banaras or Benares), is easily the craziest place I have ever experienced.  If you take regular India, which is already astoundingly crazy, and add another factor of about 10, you have Banaras!

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This is the closest I got to the river.  I originally had plans to either go in, or to at least touch the water….those plans changed once I arrived and smelled the Ganges…

Located in the North Eastern state of Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi is the holiest sight in all of India.  3 million Indians and 200,000 foreigners flock there every year to see the holy Ganges and the many ceremonies celebrated there.  And it isn’t only the Hindus that find this place holy.  Jainism, Buddhism and Shiekism are all linked to Varanasi as well, and about 25% of the city’s residents are Muslim, so there is a great deal of cultural diversity.  Best of all, is that all these cultures seem to come together in a peaceful way.  That, in of itself, might be a miracle!

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Preparing to bathe in the holy river

We walked along the River Ganges several times, people watching, animal watching and enjoying the old buildings and colourful scenery.  Hindus believe that to die in Varanasi is very auspicious (lucky/holy) because it means that you will no longer have to reincarnate, and instead you will find Nirvana.  Many people die and are cremated here and certain Ghats (areas of the river with steps leading into the water) are specifically reserved for that purpose.  We saw several cremations taking place, which was both fascinating and a little horrifying for our sheltered western eyes.  To the locals, this was business as usual, and there were children playing cricket in the neighboring ghat, where the smoke from the cremations blew into…

Walking along the river at night was especially interesting.  In addition to the cremations, there is a ceremony every night where people send out little floating candle offerings.  This year hasn’t been great for tourism in India, so when we were there, there were probably more salesmen than tourists.  The big seller on the banks of the Ganges:  boat rides.  Everywhere you go, people will be asking you a 1 word question:  “boat?”. Depending who you speak to, a boat ride along the Ganges can cost anywhere from 100 rupees to 1000 rupees.   The official price is suppose to be around 250 (according to government regulations), but just like everywhere else in India, the salesmen in Banaras just can’t help but try and soak you for that extra money…

Plenty of people also tried selling us hash, opium and even Colombian cocaine (doubtful).  And of course, there were always beggars around, with various ailments..some real…some badly faked.  It is considered specially good to give money to beggars in Varanasi, but it’s very unwise to do so as a foreigner.  If you give to one…not only are you encouraging a practice that the government condemns, but you’re also opening yourself up to being mobbed by 30 other beggars in the area.  I had it happen to me in China, and it was scary!  It is very hard to give in when you are being asked by children…so hard…but it’s much better that they take on jobs instead of relying on begging.  Especially with India’s growing tourism industry and the jobs that are being created with further focus on sanitation in the country, there will be more and more jobs opening up for these people in the future.

There is also life away from the Ganges’ Ghats.  This densely populated city has a population of about 1.2 million residents.  When you add in tourism, there are some very full roads.  Varanasi is also quite poor, so the infrastructure leaves something to be desired.  In an alley barely wide enough to fit 1 car, you’ll find Tuk Tuk’s, rickshaws and cars all weaving around each other, while pedestrians and people on bikes try to get out of the way.  And of course, there is livestock everywhere as well.  We saw plenty of cows, goats, pigs, chickens and even a few horses walking the roads of Banaras.  Considering that the holy city is larger than the capital of my home province (Winnipeg, Manitoba), the variety of animals in the streets is surprising to anyone just arriving in India.

And if you think I must be exaggerating about the state of Varanasi’s roads, I will provide proof of the mayhem.  This is a combinations of several videos I took while visiting the holy city.

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A picture of the ‘back seat’ mentioned by the tuk tuk driver.  He insisted that he could fit all 3 of our suitcases…us…and him (plus 2 back packs).  Something tells me that wouldn’t have been a pleasant ride…

If markets and the River aren’t what you seek in Varanasi, there are also plenty of temples to see.   According to Wikipedia, there are an estimated 23,000 temples in Varanasi, ranging from small shrines to massive stone structures.  We didn’t go into any this time around  because we’ve seen enough to last us a lifetime.  Instead, we walked the busy streets and spent an afternoon at a small cafe near Assi Ghat.  Open Hand Cafe was wonderful…playing English music (the Dixie Chicks!!) and serving excellent coffee.  Best of all, they sell items made by disabled women and children, who are unable to otherwise create income on their own.  With fixed and fair prices, it’s an excellent place to make purchases.

In short, in Banares you will experience everything from fully visible cremations to near death experiences on the road to people claiming to be selling Colombian cocaine.  No matter what your interests are…Varanasi has something for you!!!

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And always remember…you may think you’re cool…but you’ll never be as cool as these guys!!  (they were probably about 14 years old…)

We’re home now…but don’t worry!  I’m not done writing about India just yet!  Stay tuned for my posts about the Taj Mahal, our night in the desert and our final days in Delhi!

 

Pilgrimage to Pushkar

Oh Rajesthan:  The contrast continues!

I am writing this post from the lobby of our hotel because the internet doesn’t work in our room (it also barely works here…I’ve resorted to typing this up in Wordpad and I plan to copy and paste it later).  The internet on our phones has been working beautifully, but I’m nearly out of data now so Wifi is becoming increasingly important.  It doesn’t seem that the hotels in India care to spend more than they have to on their guests, so the toilet paper provided is minimal, the internet is sketchy if it exists at all and the facilities in the rooms are minimal at best.  For anyone who isn’t well traveled, I can’t imagine India being a very enjoyable place.  For those of us who have stayed in the cockroach infested hostels of southern China though, it’s been bareable enough.  I’m happy to have read many blogs ahead of time and I came prepared with my hair dryer and we’ve been buying toilet paper in town when we start to run low.

 

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This is our 3rd stop in this desert province, and we are so far impressed by both its beauty and also by the unique characteristics that define each city.  Jaipur, the pink city, was buzzing with bazaars that are a clausterphobic’s nightmare.   Udaipur’s peaceful lake gives the city a much calmer feel, but as soon as you enter the street, you are once more overwhelmed by the shopkeepers and rickshaw drivers.  Pushkar, our current destination, is different yet.  It’s a sleepy town (as far as India’s concerned) and the fact that it is a pilgrimage destination gives both its cuisine and its tourists some different traits.

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On the surface, all Bazaars may look the same, but this was one of the most enjoyable I’ve seen.  It was much more relaxed with a lot less traffic than others we’ve seen in India

Pushkar is one of 5 important pilgrimage sights in India (we’ll be visiting a second, Varinasi, later in our trip).  People travel here to see the holy lake where Brahma, a Hindu god, was said to drop a lotus flower (India’s national flower).  Some of Ghandi’s ashes were also scattered in this lake, so it is definitely an interesting little stop

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Pushkar Lake

People are far less pushy in Pushkar and many of the prices in the bazaar are fixed.   Even when prices aren’t stated right upfront, the barganing is way less brutal, so we did some clothes shopping while we were there.  Without rickshaws everywhere, it was a lot less stressfull here than it had been in Udaipur.  I don’t think we’d have wanted to do more than 1 day in Pushkar, but overall, the time we spent there was very much enjoyed.

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One aspect of Pushar though, was not quite to our taste, so to speak.  Because it is such a holy place, meat is non-existant there, and it was even impossible to get eggs.  This wasn’t too big of a deal for me, because my stomach took a turn for the worse in Udaipur and I was mostly just nibbling on french fries, but Dave wasn’t too pleased!  As I write this now, we are in Jaisalmer, and I have to admit that after nearly a week of strict vegetarian diet, Dave and I were very excited to order meat for dinner tonight!!

We did make some animal friends though, so that made up for the lacking diet…

My absolute favorite part of Pushkar though was neither the markets nor the lake.   Our hotel had a very special tenant that made my stay in this small city…

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A Great Dane with floppy ears and a sweet disposition

We called him Frankie because we didn’t know his actual name (or if he even had one…) and not only was he friendly and incredibly sweet, but he was also an excellent judge of character!  While he adored us, leaning up against me and always asking for more scratches… he HATED our driver, Prama.  We don’t like him either, and I think Frankie could sense that because as soon as Prama came near us, this loveable dog would start barking at him until he left.  This dog stole my heart…

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The best part was that Prama was terrified of this goofball!!!  Gawd I love Danes!!!!!

Tomorrow we head out on our desert safari!  I’m very much looking forward to writing about it!  Until then, I’ll leave you with some pictures of the beautiful Rajesthani countryside.

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We have seen SO MANY monkeys!  These are Black Monkeys: just 1 of 15 species of monkey found in India
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Our driver made himself useful today and took us to a migration sight for Demoiselle Cranes.  They spend 5 months away from their home, in Russia, and they’ve chosen this spot in Rhajesthan because Jaine Monks were feeding them regularly.  Today we saw about 1000 of these birds.

Internet permitting, I’ll be back upon our return from a night out in the desert!!!

Culture in the Capital

Our second day in New Delhi was one of cultural discovery.  The day began with some very heavy smog, but that cleared up in the afternoon, so we considered ourselves grateful.  We also didn’t spend the first few hours of the day in a tuk tuk (which are open and very windy), so we were able to watch the city fly by fro the comfort of our hired car instead of huddling together for warmth.

After visiting this beautiful UNESCO world heritage site, we were brought to some shops where retailers tried to sell us Pashminas, paintings and Saris.  I left with a Kashmir scarf and some tea, which didn’t leave the salesman very happy, but I felt pretty good about my purchases!

After a tasty Indian lunch, our driver took us to the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial.  There, we learned about this national hero’s life and death, and visited the place where he was assassinatedIndian.  The country owes a lot to Gandhi, and it’s apparent from the time you enter the country.  His face is printed on all of their money and many buildings are named after the man.

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Where Gandhi was killed

Our final stop was at the National Museum, where we were able to see art that dated back to 3000BCE!  Having studied classical history in University, I was so excited to see some of the artwork, pottery, jewellery and weapons that have been found across India.  The artifacts provide crucial clues regarding the lives of our ancestors and without them we would know very little about the people who lived before written records were kept.  Through studying classical Greek history at the University of Winnipeg, I learned that what may seem like a pot to you, can actually tell an archaeologist a lot about the people who made it.

Tomorrow we head to Agra, the home of the famous Taj Mahal!!!  I can’t wait to tell you all about it!

Angkor National Park – Cambodia’s Treasure (Part 2)

We had limited time in Cambodia (7 days is hardly enough to experience an entire country, after all!), and had to pick and choose where we would spend our time during our May Holiday.  Although there were several places that we wanted to visit, Angkor National Park was our main reason for visiting Cambodia, so we decided to book a 2 day tour with  Happy Angkor Tours, instead of the 1 day tour that we allocated at all our other stops.

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After all, there are hundreds of temples to see in Angkor National Park. Even 2 days wasn’t nearly enough time to see everything we’d wanted to see.

Dave and I aren’t usually big fans of tours (mainly because we hate other tourists) but this one wasn’t too bad.  Our guide had passable English and knew a lot about the Buddhist history in all the temples.  He tried very hard to keep us happy, even in the heat, and ended both days a little earlier than had been planned because we were both dealing with pretty awful sun stroke.    This meant that we missed the sunset part of the tour we’d booked on the first day.  It’s too bad, as it would have been beautiful to see the sun go down behind Phnom Bakheng, but by the time we had finished at Bayan Temple, all either of us wanted to do was make our way back to our hotel to take it easy.  Looking back now, I’m kicking myself, but of course, in addition to the heat, we had spent the previous night on a bus and neither of us had gotten much rest, so the idea of an air conditioned room with a comfortable bed was more appealing than seeing the sun go down.

We stayed at Villa Medamrei while in Siem Reap.  The hotel was beautiful and the staff went above and beyond (letting us check in about 6 hours earlier than they had to so we could shower before our tour started).  If you're looking to stay in Siem Reap...I strongly urge you to check this place out.  Great pricing for a beautiful stay!
We stayed at Villa Medamrei while in Siem Reap. The hotel was beautiful and the staff went above and beyond (letting us check in about 6 hours earlier than they had to so we could shower before our tour started). If you’re looking to stay in Siem Reap…I strongly urge you to check this place out. Great pricing for a beautiful stay!

And it was a good thing that we got that additional rest, because Day 2 of our holiday started an hour before the sun came up…

Angkor Wat – Round 2

We woke up at around 4:30am, showered (we couldn’t do enough of that in Cambodia!!!) and met our tour guide outside our hotel.  It was still very dark out and there was nobody in the streets.  A half hour later, we were walking up to Angkor Wat again, though we couldn’t see it against the black sky.  Our guide found us a fantastic spot on the bank of the man-made pond, we bought some iced coffee from a vendor who was selling them to tourists who were there for sunrise, and we waited.

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At first, we could only see the beehive shaped outline of Angkor Wat

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As it got brighter and brighter we realized not only why it was worth waking up at 4:30am for this, but also that we were not the only ones who’d made this trip.  The gratitude I felt for our tour guide, who had gotten us here before the crowds, also multiplied as I looked around me.

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Eventually, the sun rose completely, giving us this spectacular view to start our day:

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Chong Kneas – A Floating Fishing Village

Cambodia has 2 seasons:  wet and dry.  The wet season runs from May to October and the dry season from November to April.  The Mekong River varies greatly between these two seasons, as Cambodia receives 75% of it’s rainfall in the wet months.  So believe it or not, this is the same river:

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The Mekong as we saw it
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The Mekong River at the height of the rainy season.

But human beings have survived for all these years because we are so adaptable.  As a species, we survive all over the globe in a variety of environments and conditions, and just like Canadians bundle up into layers of clothes to survive the winter, Cambodia has found ways to survive the rise and fall of the Mekong River.

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A Cambodian home in the dry season
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A Cambodian fishing village during the wet season

Entire villages are built on stilts to account of the rise and fall of the Mekong, and we were lucky enough to visit one of these villages.  Here, people don’t walk down the street.  Instead, they hop into a boat and row to their destination.  Even livestock is kept above ground.

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The type of boat we took to the village
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Us, in said boat
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This was a convenience store of sorts
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These fishing villages are quite multicultural. Many of the fishermen here are Vietnamese and this is a Korean School
A fishing trap used by locals
A fish trap used by locals
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We also got to see some of these traps outside the water. I honestly still don’t understand how this one works haha!
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This is Sap Lake. There are several fishing villages on it, including the one we visited. It is fed by The Mekong, which begins all the way up in Southern China and flows all the way into the South China Sea

Banteay Srei – The Lady’s Temple

Next, we set off to see another temple…and though I’d never heard of it, it is quite famous within Cambodia.  Unlike many of Angkor National Park’s temples, this sight was not built by a King of the era…it was built by a Hindu Brahman who happened to be the spiritual teacher of the king at the time.  He had the temple built in honor of the Hindu deity, Shiva, but today it is known as the ‘Lady’s Temple’ because of it’s most unique feature:  the temple is constructed entirely of hard pink sandstone.  It is truly a beautiful location to visit and I got some amazing pictures while we were there.

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The temple is also famous for its intricate carvings
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All windows had an odd number of pillars. This one has 5, but many have 7. Odd numbers are lucky in both Buddhism and Hinduism.

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So many beautiful structures in this “small” temple

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The pink sandstone was so beautiful! It made the whole temple glow 🙂

Banteay Samre – Our Final Stop

Our last stop of the tour was at Banteay Samre, a temple built in around the same time as Angkor Wat.  It was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and once had an impressive mote surrounding it, that would have made it something to see in its day.  The colour of these ruins was gorgeous.  Just like at Bayun Wat, I feel like we were too tired to truly appreciate how elaborate this sight is.  I guess we’ll just have to go back some day 🙂

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There were so many beautiful buildings at Bateay Samre
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Many of the towers are shaped in the same fashion as Angkor Wat
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This sight was restored quite effectively a few decades ago, though it hasn’t had any restoration for a while now.
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The spikes on many of the roofs are what stood out for Dave. I honestly hadn’t noticed them at the time but they definitely added a lot of texture to the buildings
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The back entrance to Bateay Samre

So that wraps up our stay in Siem Reap!  Next, I’ll be writing about Kratie…home of the Irawadi Dolphins!!  Stay tuned!!!

Angkor National Park – Cambodia’s Treasure (Part 1)

Around 7 years ago now, I decided to sit down and come up with a bucket list.  I decided that there would be 100 items on that list and I knew, even before I began, that a lot of those items would involve traveling.  In the last year I’ve been fortunate enough to cross 10 items off of that list, and I plan to be crossing off several more before 2015 ends.  One of the things I’ve accomplished this year was our trip to Angkor National Park, which was the main reason we traveled to Cambodia for China’s May Holiday.   Although I planned on finishing what I had to say (and show) about Angkor in 1 post, once I went through my pictures again, I realized that that would be impossible.  There’s just too much to see and too much to tell to do it all in one post.  So this will be part 1 of 2 on our stay in northern Cambodia, where we toured temples, met locals and visited a floating village.

We started our trip in Phnom Penh and then traveled to Siam Reap by overnight bus.
We started our trip in Phnom Penh and then traveled to Siam Reap by overnight bus.
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This is a night bus. It’s not the most comfortable way to travel, but it was better than the one I took in China. Also, it gave us the benefit of traveling while we slept…we only had 7 days to see 3 cities so time was of the essence
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Angkor Wat is so representative of Cambodia, that it is even on their flag

The Cambodian Empire

Angkor National Park is all that remains of the Kampuchea empire, which reigned for over South-East Asia for over 600 years.  Covering parts of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and even Burma, the Cambodian Empire was fierce and wealthy, and as such, its kings erected massive temples both in Cambodia and in its conquered lands.  The most impressive group of those temples is near Siem Reap (named after a defeat against Thailand at that location), which is where we visited during our stay in Cambodia.  Interestingly, during Kampuchea’s hay day, there was both Hindu and Buddhist influence in the area, so these temples vary quite a bit from one to the next, making Angkor National Park a fascinating visit.

The Cambodian Empire from the 9th-15th centuries...
The Cambodian Empire from the 9th-15th centuries…
Cambodia now...
Cambodia now…
A Buddha we encountered in Angkor Wat
We saw this Buddha as we entered one of the main buildings of Angkor Wat….
But saw these carvings depicting stories from the Hindu Vedas a few minutes later
But saw these carvings depicting stories from the Hindu Vedas a few minutes later

UNESCO World Heritage Site

Angkor National Park spans an area of over 400kms square and contains over 100 individual temples, ranging from Angkor Wat (an enormous temple with many buildings within its walls) to small ruins that are merely a wall left over from a previous sight that was destroyed.

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This is Krol Romeas, one of the smallest ruins left in Angkor National Park
Angkor Wat before sunset, Cambodia.
Angkor Wat Temple before sunset, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Written records weren’t kept at this point in history, and much of what we know about the 9th-15th centuries has come from Angkor Wat and it’s surrounding temples.  Carvings in the stone, as well as refinements of past culture still remain in these spots and they’ve told archeologists a great deal about South East Asian history.  As someone who studied classical Roman and Greek history in University, I found that aspect of the park to be enthralling.  Because of its cultural relevance, Angkor National Park was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is preserved and has been repaired as a result.  People flock from all over the world to see these sights, which are some of the most famous and awe inspiring temples in the world.

Apsara are relevant to both Buddhism and Hinduism. We got to see a traditional Apsara dance while in Phnom Penh.
Apsara are relevant to both Buddhism and Hinduism. We got to see a traditional Apsara dance while in Phnom Penh.  This carvings tell a story of the culture in ancient Angkor
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The entire interior of Angkor Wat is gorgeous…so many stone carvings
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In this carving, a king is shown being waited on by his servants.  It took 30 years to build Angkor Wat, and over 350,000 workers.  With the amount of detailed carvings there are in the temple, it does not shock me that there were that many people involved in its creation.
Some carvings tell stories about battles that were won (or lost) by the Khmer Empire
Some carvings tell stories about battles that were won (or lost) by the Cambodian Empire

Angkor Wat

Our first stop in Siem Reap was Angkor Wat, the temple after which the national park was named.  It spans 1km square and is the home to several libraries, halls and pools.  It’s fared well against the test of time and has been restored through the years, where needed.  We were lucky enough to visit Angkor Wat twice…I’ll be writing about our sunrise visit in my next post.  Our first stop was a very hot one (the temperatures in Cambodia during the dry season go up to 40 degrees celcius…and stay there…all…day….long…), but well worth the trip.  Our guide was  a decent photographer too, so we even got pictures of the two of us in  Angkor National Park, which was nice 🙂

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Dave and I outside one of the front pools. During the dry season (we caught the end of it), there shouldn’t be any water left in these pools, but apparently tourists were complaining on Trip Advisor that they couldn’t get reflective photos, so the Cambodian Government decided to fill the pools with hoses. Tourists complain too much, I think…
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These are just 2 of the many libraries at Angkor Wat. Although they are fairly empty inside now, I loved being in them. It’s some of the only refuge we got from the blistering hot sun.
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I dislike that our guide chopped off the top of this library. Otherwise it would have been an awesome picture. I still like it though…we both look so purposeful. For me, my purpose was mostly just to get out of the sun 😛
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Restoration was being done in some of the buildings.
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These were both taken at the exact center of Angkor Wat. Our guide decided to pop his foot into the picture too haha
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The ceiling here was beautiful.

 

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More intricately carved buildings.
The view from the top tower, which in its time, was reserved for the Royal Family alone.  Sadly, I was feeling pretty heat stroked at this point so I wasn't able to enjoy it as much as I would have liked.
The view from the top tower, which in its time, was reserved for the Royal Family alone. Sadly, I was feeling pretty heat stroked at this point so I wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as I would have liked.

The heat definitely played a factor in our enjoyment of Angkor Wat (along with our guide’s underestimation of the amount of water we’d need…we ran out early…),  but Dave was brilliant enough to make a video before we got too exhausted:

Ta Prohm

We left Angkor Wat and hopped into a nicely air conditioned van, where we enjoyed the rest of our iced coffees to cool down.  Iced coffee is AMAZING in Cambodia!!!  Instead of sugar, they use sweetened condensed milk, which gave it a nice flavor.  Plus, they get their coffee from Vietnam, which has some of the world’s best :).  My favorite part though…it’s served in a bag…

Yes...that bag is full of a bag of coffee haha!  (They put it in a plastic bag, put that bag into a paper bag and then put that one into another plastic bag....)
Yes…that bag is full of a bag of coffee haha! (They put it in a plastic bag, put that bag into a paper bag and then put that one into another plastic bag….)

Ta Prohm is, without a doubt, one of the coolest looking places I’ve ever seen in my life.   It was built in the late 12th – early 13th centuries and unlike Angkor Wat, which was built under a Hindu King, Ta Prohm was built primarily as a Buddhist school.  What makes Ta Prohm so interesting though isn’t it’s Buddhist ties.   The fact that the temple has been kept as it was found, wild and grown over by trees, makes it the perfect spot for photos.

The way the trees have grown over and through the temple is why Ta Prohm is so famous today
The way the trees have grown over and through the temple is why Ta Prohm is so famous today
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One unfortunate thing about Ta Prohm is that it is incredibly tourist. We had to wait almost 5 minutes just to get this photo because Chinese tourists kept cutting in front of us and hogging the area of selfie after selfie…our tour guide eventually told them off so we could get our 1 picture in haha!!

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Huge trees!
Huge trees!
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The outer walls are something to see. Most of the stone used to create the temples in this time period is either Lava Stone or Sand Stone. This is Lava Stone.

 

 

It's possible you recognize Ta Prohm from Lara Croft Tomb Raider.  This is where it was filmed :)
It’s possible you recognize Ta Prohm from Lara Croft Tomb Raider. This is where it was filmed 🙂

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Ta Nei

Ta Nei is one of my favorite spots we visited.  It was a long way away from all the other temples, (our driver had to go down some roads that looked like they were just walking paths in the middle of the jungle in order to get us there),  but once we arrived, we saw why it was worth the trip.

Not only were there no other tourists there, but the sight is gorgeous!  It’s definitely seen better days, and it hasn’t been restored the way Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm have been, but there is such a rawness to this old temple…I got some of my favorite pictures of the whole trip during this visit.

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A lot of what’s left of Ta Nei is rubble.

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And, like Ta Prohm, there are beautiful trees here
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Beautiful and enormous

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We loved this sight so much, we even remembered to take a video for it!  I love how beautifully quiet it was there 🙂

Bayun (or Bayan) Temple

Our last stop on day one of our Siem Reap Tour was in Angkor Thom, the last (and longest enduring) city of the Cambodian Empire.  Although there are several sights to see within Angkor Thom, Dave and I were suffering from pretty terrible heat exhaustion, so we only saw some of them from within the air conditioned vehicle.  Our tour guide wanted to save our energy for Angkor Thom’s greatest masterpiece:  Bayon Temple (I’ve also seen it spelled ‘Bayun’ Temple).

Bayon Temple from afar
Bayon Temple from afar

Built in the late 12th century, 100 years after the building of Angkor Wat (our first stop of the day), this is clearly a Buddhist temple.    From afar, it is a beautiful sight to see, but when you see it up-close, you realize how fascinating this temple truly is.

Every tower at Bayon Temple has a beautiful Buddha face carved into it.
Every tower at Bayon Temple has a beautiful Buddha face carved into it.

Each of Bayon’s 54 towers has a large face carved into each of its 4 sides.  That means that this magnificent temple has a total of over 200 faces.  It made for some incredible photos!!

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A photo taken from within one of the many halls. One of my favorites of the trip

I should add that these faces are enormous…here is Dave and I standing directly in front of what is considered Bayon’s most beautiful Buddha.

IMG_5714I was very happy to have a guide at this point, as he was able to point out some of the best shots.  There were so many faces everywhere that I could have easily missed shots like these ones:

IMG_5671 IMG_5721 He also got some great pictures of the two of us.  By the end of this part of the tour, we were both feeling like we did on our wedding day…tired of smiling!  But it was all worth it in the end!  I would have been devastated had I not gotten some of these pictures!!

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In of the Bayon’s beautiful windows
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Bayon in the background
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This Buddha was far behind us
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I like this one of Dave 🙂
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At the most famous entrance of Angkor Thom

So that was day 1 of our Siem Reap stop.  I’ll be back next week with Day 2, where we experienced Angkor Wat at sunrise, a floating fishing village and Cambodia’s beautiful ‘Lady’s Temple’.

Thanks for reading!!