This final installment in our serial short film takes us on a rather hallucinatory journey through the final temple. Immortalized by the Tomb Raider films, Ta Prohm is an atmospheric, tumble-down wonder that can only be reached via a half-mile pathway through thick jungle.
Stax wanted to get across our total exhaustion, with sweltering 100 degree heat adding to mounting fatigue. The thickness of the heat and the cries of the jungle birds, along with the weirdness of the locale and a relentless stream of comically well-dressed tourists joined together to make this the most colorful of our temple experiences.
After our long journey by bus and tuk tuk, we find ourselves at the Happy Guesthouse, at the end of Street 20 in Siem Reap. Tons of other hostels and guesthouses surround it buty they don’t diminish its secluded and serene atmosphere: a yellow cement three-story structure with curved staircases behind a patio restaurant.
Because we’ve wandered in early, we wait for the room to be ready. Everyone at check-in glued to a small TV above the patio, upon which unfolds a supernatural Thai drama series that looks to have been produced with Sony camcorders in 1989. It has everything that is good: evil gangsters, gunfights, weeping waifs, ghosts popping up in the back seats of cars to exact revenge for their deaths.
The family who runs the guesthouse plays 6 hours of this show a day between serving food and arranging travel, with the other 6 hours devoted to a Chinese drama set in Confucian times. According to the historical records this show consulted, nobody ever smiled in Confucian times, not even once, and in fact always looked as if they had the beginnings of a migraine. The actors do a lot of standing motionless and glaring at each other from across rooms. It’s probably contractual, to avoid damaging the costumes consuming 90% of the show’s budget.
After check-in we discover we are not allowed to wear shoes or flip-flops inside the guesthouse. I’m not sure it’s a Buddhist thing or a hygiene thing (or both), but the family is serious about it. If we forget – okay, I’m the only forgetter, since Stax’ ancestors hails from islands that forbid shoes in the home – the housekeeping girls immediately notice and they jump up and exclaim something in Khmer (while still smiling of course) and point accusingly at your feet. This must have happened 20 times.
We see these two girls scurrying around daily doing laundry and cleaning rooms. At night they sleep in the corner of the ground floor below the guest rooms, on thin mattresses wrapped in mosquito netting. With obliterated backpackers stumbling in and tripping over them all night in the wee hours, it’s beyond me how the poor girls can work all day.
We heartily recommend the Happy Guesthouse, for two reasons:
1. You’ll never twitch a muscle figuring out transportation anywhere. Along with the ever-present tuk tuks and the mountain bikes they rent to get around Siem Reap, the front desk books long distance travel and skips the usual overcharge for commission. Plus they make decent eggs and breakfast baguettes.
2. The outdoor pool with swim-up bar right next door at Hotel 20th Street. For 3 measly dollars (as a non-hotel guest), you can spend the entire day swimming and lazing on the shady deck with iced coffee in your hand. In April (summertime in Cambodia) with miles of temples to explore, in 100-degrees-plus after having foolishly declined the A/C in our room, this pool comes in very handy. It’s so nice, some folks settle as long-term guests in the pricey Hotel 20th Street so they never have to leave it.
Now, while Siem Reap is best known for its proximity to the temple complex of Angkor Wat, its second claim to fame is the nightlife.
Street 20 lies 2 km (20 minutes walking, 10 minutes biking) from the famous Pub Street, where many backpackers stay in big hostels to be part of the action. We decide to cycle down the Siem Reap river and check it out despite our low tolerance for watery beer.
The sheer amount of neon light and overall noise level of Pub Street overwhelms. All through the neighborhood, European dance clubs, American blues bars, British wood panel pubs and Aussie dive bars flourish side-by-side. Music blasts from every door.
We walk into The Angkor What?, a rock club claiming to be the oldest pub in Siem Reap. Inside we encounter a dark square of a room with glow-in-the-dark art covering the walls, plus a musty, ingrained patchouli odor which pairs well with the decor.
All around us, expats and tourists crawl out of their shady holes in search of cheap beer, entertainment, shopping bazaars surrounding Pub Street, and food that doesn’t scare them (it boggles the mind that someone would travel across the world only to seek out the cuisine of their home country). They also come out for foot massages at the numerous parlors.
Stax, who has never to my knowledge turned down a foot rub from anyone, settles in for one of the massage sessions. She passes, thankfully, on another incomprehensibly popular Pub Street pastime: a bunch of dirty tanks full of gray water with swarms of little fish inside that eat the dead skin off your feet. “Fish can do massage”, the sign on the tank helpfully suggests.
I have some, ah, concerns about this procedure:
1. Why would you want a bunch of munching fish to deplete the protective layer of dead skin which shields your tender pink new skin from the blazing sun, bugs, manure and filth in the streets? What if said fish carry some hitherto-unknown disease?
2. The tanks themselves are plain unhygienic. I never see any of the women running the place changing the water. Furthermore, everyone plunging their feet in this rancidness has been walking around through the afore-mentioned filth of the streets for days with sweaty feet clad only in flip-flops.
While waiting for Stax to be done with her foot rub, I grab a beer at a place next to three farang guys (foreigners). They’re talking about, of all things, web marketing. Siem Reap would be more attractive for digital nomads, goes the consensus among these lads, if only the city could improve its infrastructure.
Choking down the flat last swig of my watery lager, I suggest that maybe Cambodia should improve their beer and then work up to luring coveted digital nomads with communications towers. Kind of like, if you beer them, they will come. The farang stare at me as if I was an alien.
I feel something suddenly squiggling on my flip flop and then a scratching on the top of my foot. Time slows. With a mounting horror, I swing my head downward. A gigantic, two inch long Southeast Asian flying cockroach is just sitting on my toes like it belongs there, antenna waving merrily, eyes flicking about.
I involuntarily lift my leg and kick, hard. The roach takes to the air, flying off to terrify someone else (or perhaps get a quick bathe in some poor chap’s tea – see below):
I spend the next 20 seconds squeezing my eyes shut and suppressing violent chills seizing my body.
Now, I can handle roaches and bugs generally if I know they’re around – jungle trek, what have you, fine and dandy. But when you’re a little buzzed on a city street, dead tired, and not expecting an insect the size and weight of a field mouse to dive down onto your foot..ahhhhh, can’t even think about it anymore.
So much for Pub Street. It has been a long, LONG day that had started at 4:30 am in Battambang. Tomorrow, we have nothing planned except a long swim and lie-around on deck chairs at the pool, sipping iced coffee and chilling.
We ride our rented bikes back up the river to the Happy Guesthouse and creep past the fitfully sleeping lobby girls wrapped in their mosquito nets. We spend the rest of the night tossing and sweating in our stifling hot room, wishing we had sprung extra for the A/C.
To the south lay the remote Cardamom range, to the north Tiger Peak, and farther still the distant Thai border. Tigers reportedly still roam this border, but you’re much more likely to catch malaria than a swipe from a cat’s paw there.
Below our feet are massive caverns that practically hollow out the mountain’s core. Each night at the same time, a swarm of 2 million bats shoot out into the sky – in a twisting, unbroken stream lasting 20 minutes, appearing as one sinuous organism – to feed on the evening insects.
Closer to the where we stand here, the so-called Killing Caves bear witness to a dark Khmer Rouge era. Buddhist monks perform daily blessings at the bottom of the 70 foot deep cave for the ancestors of the local people, thousands of whom died there – most by being casually tossed into the pit along with their children and babies.
Nearby the caves stand Russian-made artillery guns used to shoot at deserters 1000 feet below who were attempting to flee across the Thai border. Later we met an ex-soldier in Phnom Penh whose sister survived that run just 40 years ago.
On a lighter note, the kid in the tree is our self-appointed guide and protector. He lived at the temple you see in the video, and is calling to his friends across the canyon. He insisted on accompanying us, then became increasingly exasperated with our slow pace and frequent photo stops. Wherever you are, kid…sorry for our clueless farang ways!
After an obscenely early morning and an unusual bus trip from Battambang, we were ready to crash for the night at 2 pm when we pulled into Siem Reap. The weather made that simple aspiration laughable, though, as we hauled our bags out of the bus and directly into a monster pre-monsoon rain storm.
Our plan had been to walk a kilometer through the back-alleys from the bus station to the Happy Guesthouse. But with this downpour, even our water-resistant gear bags would get soaked, so we reluctantly flagged the first tuk tuk we saw.
Tuk tuk rule #1: Nail down the price first with the driver (in our case about $2 U.S.). Make sure he hears you and agrees, and then repeat it three or four times. This doesn’t guarantee you won’t be haggling at the drop-off – especially if you are in a tourist area (which Siem Reap surely is). But it at least reduces the chances.
Tuk tuk drivers in Cambodia aren’t generally a dishonest bunch – lying and cajoling goes against accepted cultural behavior – and they won’t get visibly disgusted or belligerent like moto taxis in Vietnam. But Cambodia is a poor country by most standards, and anyone would want to make an extra buck or two if they can.
We had just brought our bags into the covered carriage out of the rain and settled in for our ride when the downpour turned into a virtual waterfall. The noise of it became deafening. The driver, drowning on his motorbike seat, pulled over and cut the engine. He hopped off his bike. In a moment the flap of our vinyl carriage cover rolled up, and he joined us in our dry oasis.
“Need to wait out the bad storm,” he explained. “Can be dangerous.”
We accepted this logic. Spring squalls (unlike the summer monsoons) didn’t last long anyway.
The driver was super friendly and he made what small talk he could. We covered where we lived – New York, ah! He had a cousin there (every last soul in Southeast Asia seemed to have a cousin there.) What did we do for Khmer New Year? The Siem Reap celebration he described with fireworks and music sparked a twinge of jealousy. Though we dug the water fights and festivities at Ek Phnom temple, Battambang city proper doesn’t do up Khmer New Year, as most people there live spread out through the river villages and many don’t have electricity.
An awkward silence prevailed as we ran out of things to say. The driver smiled broadly at us. The rain pounded outside. Warm water began to leak in through the plastic seams on the windows and plop onto our legs.
Finally he got down to it. If we so wished, he could be our dedicated tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap for just $15 a day. He would wait outside our guesthouse in the alley if we needed him, take us to Angkor Wat or Tonle Sap – the vast shallow lake several kilometers to the south where American planes once dropped millions of pounds of unspent ordinance returning from bombing missions in Laos – and just be generally on call for us whenever.
This is a common scheme in Siem Reap, and we saw many groups of sunburned, elephant-panted backpackers taking advantage of it. If you’re one to frequent Pub Streets, descend into incoherent drunkenness and lose your bearings – or like many visitors to Siem Reap, you remain buzzed all times of the day and don’t know where you are most of the time – it’s great, because your drivers waits around outside of guesthouses or bars, chatting to other drivers and listening to radios and making their locations very obvious so that even their drunkest customers can find them again when they need a ride back.
It seems frankly mind-numbing for the drivers, but the stability of a daily rate probably beats constantly chasing down single fares in the competitive tuk tuk world. Which is why our guy was so insistent that we avail ourselves of his services.
But we weren’t sure when we’d be visiting Angkor Wat, had no room in the budget for drunken escapades, and were renting bikes to get around. Our refusal engendered quite a bit more salesmanship from our driver, but we wouldn’t relent, so he gave us his card and told us to call him.
The rain let up and we were back on our way. We tipped him a dollar extra for heaving our heavy bags over the deep puddles in front of our guesthouse. As we walked into the courtyard toward our guesthouse reception we saw him strategically park his tuk tuk down the street so as to better keep an eye out for backpackers from the hostel entrances.
Stax waved, and he waved energetically back, smiling so widely his face must have ached afterward.
(This film is a complement to our last essay from the Transfagarasan Highway in Transylvania, a route made famous by the UK’s Top Gear. Stax shot the driving footage (GoPro Hero Black 3 and Canon 60D) and Beej shot much of the scenery with his trusty Lumix GH2. Edited by Stax, who found very cool music by Brooklyn/San Diego duo The Fucked Up Beat and Brooklyn/Los Angeles duo High Places (both used via the Free Music Archive fair use license and attributed accordingly). The video was fun to put together and made the (very) cold trip worth it. Watch below and if you like it, Subscribe to our Youtube channel to get all our new videos!
Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu pushed through construction of the Transfagarasan Highway in 1970. By all accounts the construction was hellishly difficult and brutal. Legend said he was spooked by the Soviet invasion of the former Czechoslovakia and wanted to build a military route to head off any similar invasion by his “comrades” in Russia.
But more likely, Ceausescu wanted to add the conquering of an incredibly rugged mountain range in the independent region of Transylvania – an area often resistant to his 20-year autocracy – to his list of “achievements”.
The country can point to the road as a success in at least one way: it brings thousands of motorheads from all around the world every year to Transilvania to race along the its wacky curves and hair-raising cliffside tunnels.
The road calls adventure freaks like the Sirens called Odysseus (Stax and Beej would jointly be Odysseus in this scenario. And Carla and Megs, two adventurous Australian girls from the hostel in Sibiu, would be our trusty crewmates. Don’t worry, no one drowned. But at one point Beej did have be lashed to the hood.)
We took a driving break for Megs and Carla to say hello to a wandering Romanian sheepdog on the side of the road, probably on a break from guarding his flock. These sheepdogs are massive and resemble small bears (I thought it was a Romanian brown bear from a distance).
Our ascent of the Fagaras pass ended at the summit of the road, Lake Balea (2046 meters or 6712 feet).
At the lakeside we froze in high winds tinged with ice and just to warm our hands up, scarfed down hot -off-the-fire balmos or mamaliga (not really sure which – there are tons of iterations of these traditional corn cakes in Romania).
The balmos were crazy filling – thick flame-roasted corn cakes, much like gooey polenta, with mountains of sour pasty sheep cheese pooled inside. The cheese was so strong, I could barely finish the thing.
Along the way down we spied the towers of Poenari Citadel clinging to a rocky cliff high above the road. In this citadel in the 16th century, the real-life inspiration for Dracula (Prince Vlad Tepes, who ruled the South) actually lived for a time.
Now it’s a spectacularly crumbling ruin you can climb up to. Unfortunately due to time and being cold and one of our car-mates being sick with a migraine, we couldn’t hike to the top. Next time, Vlad Dracul. Next time!
After a windy descent through autumn forests and across glacial streams, we reluctantly parted ways with the Transfagarasan Highway at the massive dam on Lake Vidraru – an appropriately scenic send-off to one of the most transcendent stretches of road I’ve ever driven.
We’re taking a short break from project updates to share a video that Beej put together from our three day layover in Oslo, Norway!
By night we stayed with a great Norwegian/British couple, Per Kristian and Clare, in their flat in Oslo’s northwest district. By day, we made the most of the city’s incredible and surprisingly cheap public transportation, which includes an exhaustive system of ferries, subways, trams, buses and trains. The city of Oslo is completely charming and it won us over even in the short time we had.
The video has no narration, but locations are introduced in titles. There’s Holmenkollen mountain in the northwest, where a giant steel ski jump juts into the sky; downtown Oslo’s Royal Palace, parks and monuments; the waterfront harbor and the Alfred Nobel Museum, which honors Nobel Peace Prize recipients; the Oslo marathon in progress; and a ferry ride south to Hovedoya island, where we explored a ruined 12th century Catholic abbey while being stalked by a curious European Red Fox (don’t worry, he didn’t eat us).
The ancient ruins of Ek Phnom Temple are quiet most days of the week. Monks peek curiously out of their bare wooden stilt houses at travelers. Dogs sleep in the sun, leaves rustle and families from surrounding villages picnic upon giant blocks of weathered and chiseled sandstone. It is an impressive, but also defiantly local, attraction.
Thought to have been built by the Angkor Empire in the early 11th century during pre-Buddhist times, the original Wat still stands, but barely. It has been semi-demolished by hundreds of years of looters – especially the Khmer Rouge, as legend has it – and also by time’s steady hand.
Eighteen trees surround the Wat, rumored to have sprouted from saplings from the original Bodhi Tree in India (under which the Buddha attained enlightenment).
The temple is now a visually chaotic jumble of gravity-defying, crazily leaning archways, stone blocks and crumbling walls.
Its disrepair seems even starker next to the massive, gleaming new white and gold temple built just 10 years ago, and constructed (for some reason) directly in front of it.
When we motorbiked out to the Wat, it was busier than usual due to a local festival. We were there to film a large traditional wedding re-enactment put on during the festival by the people of the local villages along the Sangker River.
BUT…. the re-enactment didn’t happen. And nobody could explain to us exactly why. We made the most of the day anyway, with Stax in her finest people-watching mode:
What do they say about motorbikes? You’ve gotta get back on them? Or is that horses?
Even after all our failed attempts to reach Wat Banan, Stax and I aren’t willing to let ourselves be deterred by a minor life-threatening crash or two. No way, not us. We hop directly back on the motorbike the very next day, injuries and all, to explore the mountain realm of Phnom Sampeau.
A long and steep climb by motorbike – the same one we crashed the day before – up precarious cement pathways choked with weeds and potholes brings us finally to the top of this large block of limestone that dominates the view of the countryside just west of Battambang.
Wat Phnom Sampeau, meanwhile, is among the most spectacular- and peculiar – sites we will encounter in Cambodia. From the rocky peak, the golden spires of the Wat gleam over sheer limestone cliffs and caves, while to the north, Tiger Mountain rears up out of the flat ricelands and afternoon field smoke like some ghostly green monster rising out of a lake.
I should mention, we never would have found the narrow route to this viewpoint without the impromptu guidance of a monkey-like 9 year old kid with a dirty baseball cap named Than who starts walking alongside us as we approach the Wat. At first we don’t understand where he is trying to guide us. The narrow path he walks toward appears to simply dead-end at a sheer cliff.
He flashes us a look of annoyance, pointing again – these dumb Farang and their petty fears! – and we decide what the hey? Good thing. Along the cliff’s edge is a stony path leading to a steep wooden ladder someone has nailed into a gap in the limestone. Following the scrawny kid, who’s scrambled up and down the ladder three times already to see what’s taking us so long, we squeeze our way through the gap and scramble over the sharp rocks to a stunning overlook.
The kid gets bored waiting for us to marvel at the view and clambers down back to the Wat with his buddies, but not before signaling them of his whereabouts.
Inside Wat Phnom Sampeau, the scenes from the Buddha’s life and ministry are presented in absurdly vivid, almost Marvel comic-book style.
Outside the Wat lies a steaming primary deciduous forest – one of the only primary stands we will see in logging-ravaged Cambodia – filled with mischievous monkeys, barefoot children who run about the temples as if they live there, and colorful flora. We finally head down for the day with the sun sinking below the haze. But before we can turn onto the highway back to Battambang, one more surprise awaits us. Two million bats are poised to fly out of the pitch-black caverns deep below Phnom Sampeau and out into the sky to feed in a nightly ritual. (Sorry, cell phone video so it’s not great quality).