Last Few Days in Siem Reap

Flashback March 2016

It’s hard to leave Angkor Zen but more adventures await.

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The road back to Siem Reap’s city center. (c) Andrea Preziotti

My final two days in Siem Reap are a short tuk-tuk drive away. I chose to stay at the Golden Temple Residence, a hotel highly recommended by Trip Advisor and friends alike, located in the heart of the old town and a block away from the Night Market.

Over the top. It’s the only way to describe the level of service at the Golden Temple. From the stone Buddha at its entrance to the welcome ice tea and fresh fruit at check-in. The room is spacious, almost as big as my New York City apartment. The bathroom alone is triple in size. This transition is awkwardly decadent given my minimalist practice at the retreat center.

From the balcony I can see a view of the city, it also overlooks the area where GT performs the Aspara dance show. Interesting perspective watching the dance movements from above. The proof is in the detail, the turndown service included cookies and milk, and a bedtime story written on a card. Very nice touches. I am curious about the need for the amenities price list, essentially a cost for everything portable in the room–I’m guessing some guests at Golden Temple mistake it for a shopping mall.

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Bedtime story, Golden Temple Residence (c) Andrea Preziotti

An evening stroll through the night market. Not many ‘bargains’ to be had, although the prices were wickedly less $$ than NYC. I stopped for a mani-pedi (a whopping $6) and had dinner at a local eatery with live music. I an obsessed with the Alibaba harem-style pants and I may have gone a bit overboard with shopping tonight.

On my last day in Siem Reap, I made my way to the Angkor National Museum, a collection of ruins from the Angkor temple complex. There was a special exhibit of batik paintings from Pascal, an artist local to Southeast Asia. One, in particular, caught my eye, an interpretation of the apsara dance, and will be moving to Brooklyn. Next, we stopped in at the McDermott Gallery for a trio of black and white prints showcasing Phnom Bakheng in the clouds, ‘Monk in the Wind,’ and Apsara performers. Although my treehouse walls may be few they will be well represented with Cambodian art.

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Phnom Bakheng ‘in the clouds’ print

 

All that cultural art viewing calls for a snack at the Foreigners Correspondents Club in Angkor where I had lunch. I ran into the professor from UC Davis (we met at Borei Angkor previously), and we caught up on our travels over tea and ice cream.

The view from across the river is like a window back in time. Tuk-tuks remind me of horse-drawn carriages. There are bicycles and people on foot, and the occasional SUV or minivan bring me back to reality.

One last trip to the night market. This time the bidding war was fierce and now four elephants and two giraffe t-shirts are joining the ark to Brooklyn.

Next stop on the flashback tour: Vietnam 


Yoga, Cats, and Meditation

Flashback March 2016

Pickup from Siem Reap by tuk-tuk. I meet Dianne from Malta, an ER doctor in Preston, UK. Upon arrival at the Angkor Zen Retreat Center, she reacts skittishly to the dog, insistent that Cambodian dogs are the worst.

First impressions are tricky, and despite being skeptical about my accommodations I forge ahead. And I am so glad I did: a four-day retreat turned into five. It truly was an arrival into paradise, one greeted by a litter of yogi cats.

Yoga three times a day, meditation daily. A vegetarian meal plan that includes breakfast, lunch, tea time, and dinner. The food is surprisingly amazing for this carnivore and has swayed me to start thinking about vegetarian first. If only I could get my hands on their cookbook (they make everything from memory /scratch).

House rules are strict about connectivity, the idea is to disconnect digitally and reconnect spiritually. With the exception of a woman from Dubai, everyone is down to earth and real. Your free time is at will and can be spent in the pool, in town or in the communal living space. There are hammocks and Papasan chairs, communal tables for long conversations and then the yoga shala where your transformation begins.

The yoga studio is an open air shala. Thatched roof with Tibetan meditation flags hanging from its center. Tufted floor pillows for meditation and communal yoga mats: use, clean, repeat. The shala is open on 3 sides, facing the surrounding landscape. There is a monastery down the road and oftentimes you can hear the prayer calls and chanting. In the far left corner, there is an altar paying homage to Buddha and Ganesha. This is especially peaceful during meditation and practice. Inevitably one of the yogi cats makes an entrance and stakes claim on a mat or a pillow. Practicing yogis learn to adapt and create harmony in its space.

There are two yogis in residence. Katia from Colombia, strength training Vinyasa. Tammy from California, specializing in Hatha, meditation and alternative yoga practices like Laughter, Partner, Sound, among others. The cooking crew is a mix of local Cambodians, including the owner and Joy a Canadian. Angkor Zen has both resident cats and dogs. Cats with their diamond-shaped heads, stub tails, and sleek bodies. Dog. Singular. A labrador puppy who loves bread.

Tammy introduces us to partner yoga on my first day. The practice strengthens your poses by aligning with another yogi, using each other for balance to mirror the asanas. Federica and I are paired. She is an Italian living in London and works for an environmental agency on climate change. She travels frequently throughout Southeast Asia and is about to buy her first home in the UK. It’s hard not to bond while doing partner yoga, you learn to lean in to support one another. The Italian connection doesn’t hurt either. Over dinner, we plan to head into Old Market Siem Reap for lunch the next day. Dianne decides to join as well. We arrive in Old Market, on the hunt for a coffee (they only serve tea at Angkor Zen) and after a stroll through the day market, Federica and Dianne have burgers (shh, don’t tell) on the brain and so we stop for lunch.

Angkor Zen Gardens tranquility is the saltwater pool. Each day begins with vinyasa yoga followed by breakfast then Pranayama meditation. The Center has the added bonus of the best massage therapists ever. The top massage for my entire trip was my first Khmer massage (pure heaven) at Angkor Zen. There is a separate shala for spa treatments, located behind the dorms. Open air on 4-sides and covered in a canopy. Stepping stones lead to a bamboo bridge; lilies and orchids line the path. There are several meditation ponds on the grounds too, all of them filled with blooming lotus flowers.

I follow my massage with restorative yoga and twilight swimming. It’s nearly sunset and there’s a hammock with my name on it.

Over the course of those five days, I meet some remarkable women: Amber, mother to Herschel on a mommy adventure; Margarita, a Spaniard by way of Copenhagen now living in London; Nina, from Cologne on her own personal sojourn through Asia; along with Katia, Dianne, Federica, and Tammy. In that time over the course of dinner conversations, meditation, and yoga practice we connect on a deeper level. (And thanks to social media, we still keep in touch.)

It is on that last day before Amber leaves that we solidify our friendship over the mediation circle, learning how to let go. Tammy leads us in meditation, our first task is to find a natural offering in the nature around us. This is followed by a devotional and hugging meditation practice that involves an exercise on heart centering, followed by a walking meditation. Tammy’s wealth of knowledge for alternative yoga practices has been enriching and I’ve gained a greater appreciation for yogic meditation and its benefits.

Photo credit: (c) Andrea Preziotti


The Gateway to Angkor Wat Temples

Flashback March 2016

Banteay Srei, the Citadel of Women, is a 10th-century Cambodian temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Built largely of a hard red sandstone that can be carved like wood, the structure features detailed reliefs and carvings.

stone detail

The complex feels like the Brooklyn Botanical Garden with landscaped walkways and pools of water. As I stroll through the nature preserves, I revel in its simplicity. At the midway, I am accosted by a mother and her children pestering me to buy postcards or give them money. This is a common sight in Cambodia and all the tour books and guides warn against giving money to these children who have been pulled out of school to beg for their parents.

The ride to Banteay Samre passes through pastoral surroundings of rice paddies and local villages. One home was airing laundry on the fence of their farm, brightly colored flags in turquoise and amethyst. Sok stopped on the route to East Mebon for me to taste palm sugar, a sweet created from the sap of the palm tree.

East Mebon, another 10th-century temple is also dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and honors the parents of the king. The structure is filled with doorways metaphoric and real, framing images of the forest, where you can imagine parallel universes and time travel. There is one area that was once a causeway over a now barren moat, that feature faceless guards, who dare I say ‘had back.’

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Sok brings me to the Pre Rup temple last to view the sunset. The temple is undoubtedly majestic. The temple blocks are humongous in comparison to Angkor Wat, and it’s hard not to feel like a child climbing a giant’s staircase to the summit where hundreds of people have gathered to watch the sun’s descent. The temple’s name translates to “turn the body,” and refers to the Cambodian funeral rite where the body is rotated in east-west-north-south directions before being cremated.

Hundreds of people gathered for the sun’s descent. I overhear a group of senior citizens, their New York Jersey accent jarring in my head. I decide to climb back down and view the temple as the sun descends from below. I walk through the crumbled hallways and bask in the beginnings of twilight.


Siem Reap: Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm

 

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Bodhisattva/Buddha faces of Angkor Thom, Siem Reap (c) Andrea Preziotti

 

The road to Angkor Thom passes over a causeway lined with devas (gods) on the left and asuras (demigod/ demons) on the right. The gates lead to the last Imperial city, where Bayon temple –most noted for the smiling faces of Buddha–sits at its center. The bodhisattva statues should be one of the seven wonders of the world, the detailed and exacting efforts to create emotion and facial expressions through the placement of each stone a complex puzzle of shade and gradient are truly miraculous.

A quick walk through the Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper Kings both of which flank the Royal Square. After six hours of nonstop temple touring the only sign you need is the one pointing to the WC. I wish I had thought of a better way to signal my driver and guide. We had agreed to meet at the big tree on the crossroads but that proved way more difficult than anticipated at the high heat of the day, especially without cell connectivity. There must be a hundred tuk-tuk drivers under the boughs of the tree.

The last stop of the day: Ta Prohm, the forest covered royal temple monastery of Angkor. Two trees support the core of the structure, the silk cotton and strangler fig species both of which take root and work their way through the masonry. The site is maintained in ‘apparent neglect’ as an example of the natural state in which Angkor was discovered in the early 19th century.

 

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Ta Prohm, Angkor Wat Temple Complex (c) Andrea Preziotti

 

From a photo perspective, I’m not certain that any image capture can do it justice. The natural effects on the landscape are something to be seen in-person. And it is forever changing, as trees are affected by storms, as they flourish and then die.


Angkor Wat at Sunrise

Flashback March 2016

Day 3 begins at 4:45 am with a pickup from Sok Manea, a tuk-tuk driver referred by TripAdvisor and the web. We travel in the dusk to the Angkor Wat temples. The early morning air is crisp. The climate is duplicitous, I didn’t bring a shawl and should have. It’s cool in the morning, teeming with heat the rest of the day. I purchase a 7-day pass and two checkpoints later I am one of the swarming fireflies descending upon the temple grounds.

Imagine going to a SummerStage concert at Central Park, except you have to arrive in the dead of night to get the best seat. Everyone is moving in the same direction through the temple’s western gopura toward the terrace and moat, all to capture the iconic image of Angkor Wat reflected in the lotus flower pool. Hundreds of people are lining up with their handheld phones, tablets, and cameras positioned to click at the exact moment. One man brought a chair to position an expandable tripod so the image would be tourist free. Very few people were actually present in the moment.

 

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Angkor Wat Reflection – (c) Andrea Preziotti

 

There are no words that can properly express the feeling of entering Angkor Wat the first time. The temple is everything you can imagine and everything beyond what is imaginable. As you roam through its corridors and galleries, you can only feel the presence of the past, the spirit of its inhabitants, the greatness of this structure in its own time, and feel completely at peace. It helps of course if you are one of the first few to enter, as I was. The fewer people (aka tourists) around the better and more enriching your experience will be.

Wildlife in the complex includes dragonflies, sparrows and other small birds, cats, and monkeys. Gibbons and their offspring scale the temple walls and inhabit the surrounding trees. They are as tame as the squirrels back home but I would approach with care.

Walk through the temple from west to east and you find yourself in a peaceful garden sanctuary. It’s like walking into the pages of a fairy tale book.

 


Cambodia, A Sunset Tour

Flashback March 2016

Tonight I booked a sunset tour of Tonle Sap and the floating village of Chong Khneas with its houses, markets, villages & schools. I am solo, with a tour guide and driver. As we begin our journey, we stop to admire a landscape vista of lotus flowers, a deeply important flower in Buddhism and symbol of Southeast Asia. Next, a city built on stilts, where residents live in squalor surrounded by refuse and rubbish, glaringly visible in the dry season. Residents walk between the structures on the riverbed and build fires to burn the waste. Come wet season the area will be submerged in water, transport accessible by boats and baskets. Despite the lack of many comforts, i.e. running water and plumbing, connectivity and television access reign supreme. Satellite dishes are the highest visual point above the rooftops.

We drive onward to Tonle Sap Harbor and the floating villages. In the wet season, the lake is one of the largest freshwaters in Asia, swelling to an expansive 12,000 km. This is hard to imagine in the dry season, the water level is low and brown, resembling coffee milk. The brightly colored boats stand out a rainbow of red, blue, orange, and yellow against the shore. Tourist boats are everywhere. It makes me wonder how much of this experience is staged, how much of it is ‘real’. The color of the river deepens and is almost black the closer we get to the middle of the lake.

There are three floating village communities. Phom Kandal, is the larger floating village, home to ethnic Vietnamese displaced by both the Pol Pot regime and the Vietnam War. Chong Khneas is the smallest, inhabited by natural-born Cambodians. Motor boats and riggers are the main modes of transportation, and commerce thrives as villagers sell their wares and barter from the comfort of their barge. It functions as any city would making do with the resources at hand. There are a 2-story elementary school and a church nearby with a cluster of houseboats, anchored to bamboo reeds in the middle of the lake.

The lake feels like an ocean, the shoreline invisible to the naked eye. The stillness of the houses on the water’s edge brings back a childhood memory of launching newspaper sailboats on the rainfall streams running curbside to the gutter at the end of the street. A time when parked cars were few and streets were safe from unwieldy traffic.

The sun sets, its reflection shimmering on the water. The houseboats a silhouette against the blue-gray sky. The warm wind rustles nearby, boats come and go on the horizon. We stop for dinner at a homestay with a family of five: three adults, a young child, and a toddler. The youngest waddles over to the edge of the boat and instinctively knows when to stop.

The sun descends and melts into the sky revealing shades of purple, orange, and pink. The tour guide takes my picture, in every one my eyes are closed. The night is falling, the twilight witching hour has begun as the tour boats feverishly head back to the pier. It’s a frenzy as they jockey the shallow waters, waves water crashing against the sides. My boat hits a sandbar and we are landlocked amid the rubbish. I watch the water buffaloes graze the shore while the crew figures it out.


Cambodia, The Kingdom of Wonder

Flashback to #soulstrengthspirit tour, March 2016

Tuk-tuk to the hotel. The streets of Siem Reap are filled with color and dust. Orange cloaked monks ride sidesaddle on the back of motorbikes. A cart filled with natural weave baskets, golden yellow bicycles. We pass the city center, the royal gardens, a foot bridge with a 7-headed serpent (Naga). It is 90 degrees outside but motorbike riders are dressed for a NY winter. A common sight throughout my travels.

 

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Tea time at Borei Angkor Wat, Image Credit: @prez13

 

The sky view from the sunbed is blue, the sun hiding behind the clouds. Almost ethereal.

Food in Cambodia is influenced by neighboring nations. My lunch on the first day poolside at Borei Angkor Wat includes fresh greens and peanuts (it’s a good thing I’m not allergic), pork fried rice served in a bowl with a sunny-side up egg. Equal parts starch and protein, and a side of mixed vegetable salad. I learn later that there is a strong Thai influence to the cuisine, leftover from the first occupation before the Khmer Rouge took reign.

During the course of my trip, I will have many massage treatments and only two will cost more than $20. The first one is the (2) hour Mudita Signature Spa at Borei Spa, much needed after a 24-hour flight. Every massage in Eastern culture starts with a foot bath ritual, where a copper or ceramic bowl is filled with hot water, flower petals, and lime slices. This attention to the feet is rooted in the respect for the spiritual power of the human body. A centralized location of well-being, the feet are widely and deeply respected as part of the Eastern tradition. It is common practice to remove slippers upon entering temples and private homes. There is a respect for the feet as a reflection of our inner soul, and grounding for our body. If our feet are relaxed, then so are we. As your feet are bathed with a salt scrub then rinsed, it’s hard not to feel calm and at ease.

Jet lag adjustment, sunrise musings are easy. My hotel room, although set back, faces the road. Ambient sounds of the street: motorbikes, tuk-tuk drivers, I wake to monks chanting, incense heavy in the air. The hotel is large. You are greeted with a welcome drink, directed towards a couch where a cultural vignette unfolds beside you as musicians play.

They place me in a room at the far end of the floor next to a fire door. Not something that would happen in the West, especially as a solo female traveler. Life is different here, the threat of bodily harm and violence is almost non-existent. I have reason to believe the Cambodians have a very different perspective on how to treat humans after suffering at the hand of the Khmer Rouge genocide.

I love breakfast in Cambodia. A beef noodle soup with sprouts and greens. Very similar to Vietnamese Pho. And then there’s the coconut juice, served fresh from the fruit. Yum! One morning I share an outside table with a gentleman from California. Paul is a professor of agriculture at UC Davis working with local farmers to streamline the harvesting and planting process of the rice paddies. Typically rice fields get 2-3 harvests from one swath of land, and in Cambodia, much of the labor is manual which results in long-term physical injuries. That conversation will prove to be invaluable as I continue on my journey and observe rice paddies production in Viet Nam and Indonesia.

Backstreet Academy connects locals to tourists, an opportunity to immerse oneself into the local everyday culture of a city. I sign up for a lesson with a local Apsara dance performer. There is miscommunication, then a missed connection. Apparently, a local guide is supposed to accompany me to the performers’ home but we cross paths and never meet. There is confusion with regard to the location but ultimately the tuk-tuk driver finds his way.

 

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Backstreet Academy listing for Apsara dance class

 

Apsara is a traditional dance once performed only for the royal family, and now solely for tourists. The lesson is performed on a platform in the middle of a homestead. There are 2 half-built structures and in the front of the property a shala-like structure where men are working. There is a poster promoting Apsara and I learn that the young woman performs weekly at a local hotel. The instructor, a young woman of 20 speaks no English. She dresses me in a costume sarong. The lesson itself was a bit frustrating, not having a translator to explain the steps and movement and how it tells the story of the Apsara dance. We do our best at communicating. I’m amazed by how far the instructor’s fingers and legs can bend backward. The instructor’s impatience with my lack of flexibility to do the same shows on her face.