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!

 

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!!