Day two in Cambodia started early. Very early. We left our hotel room just shy of 5:00am, the sky still dark. Though as evidence of the heat here, the air was still hot and heavy in what should be the coolest time of day! We were meeting our fantastic tuk-tuk driver, Bunly, for a ride to the central temple of the Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat, to watch the sunrise. With the most impressive details of this temple facing west, afternoons provide the best light for exploring this massive state-temple, and we planned to do so the following day. But the iconic silhouette makes for a dramatic dawn as the sun rises behind the distinctive towers, so we put that on our agenda as well.
We arrived at the site with the sky just beginning to lighten, along with hundreds of other visitors. People scattered along the central causeway or drifted off into the front lawn with cameras and tripods, ready to take in the shifting colors of the start of the day. The most popular spot for sunrise is in front of the reflecting pool, to get the scene doubled in the water’s surface. But as it is the end of the dry season, the pool was running a bit low on water and overrun with people. So, we shaded to the right of the causeway, in order to catch the spring sun rising directly behind the building. (At the equinox, the sun will rise from directly behind the central tower as viewed from the causeway.)
Over the next forty minutes or so, we watched a stunning display of color and light, with the dramatic silhouette of Angkor Wat, albeit with a bit of repair scaffolding visible, taking center stage.
What a fantastic start to the day!
We made our way back to our meeting place with Bunly and hopped back into the tuk-tuk. Our next stop was Banteay Srey, a Hindu temple 38km northeast of Angkor Wat. The journey takes about an hour in a tuk-tuk, and we ate the continental breakfast packed by our wonderful hotel, the Moon Boutique, along the way.
The drive to Banteay Srey was half the fun of the visit. We passed through village after village, watching farmers work the rice paddies and passed tuk-tuks loaded down with goods, like this charcoal shipment.
Local markets were already buzzing with the day’s trades, and tourist markets were just setting up to attract travelers with cold water, local goods, and sweets made from the sugar slow roasted from palms.
Along the way we stopped for gas at a typical Cambodian gas station.
Anyone who tried to swipe a sip of whiskey from these old bottles would be in for a surprise! Glass whiskey bottles and old plastic soda bottles dish out single servings of gas for the motorbikes and tuk-tuks.
We arrived at Banteay Srey early, but were far from the first ones there; the ruins were already bustling with tourists. This small temple is known for the beauty of its well preserved intricate carvings, covering every surface of the sandstone.
The classic Khmer artwork, carved in deep and dramatic fashion, is especially noticeable on doorways and archways.
The temple is rather small and it does not take long to visit the entire space. But there is also a nice nature walk available around the area. We wandered on a small boardwalk through a small forested area, with viewing platforms looking out over expanses of rice paddy, marsh, and rural homes.
While wandering around the paths, we caught glimpses of water buffalo working in the fields, several kinds of exotic birds, lizards, butterflies and many of the colorful dragonflies that flicker all over this country.
Having had a very full day of exploration the day before, and starting this day out so early, we were ready to call it a day. But on the drive home, Bunly suggested a stop at the temple-mountain of Pre Rup, another ancient Hindu site.
We climbed the old stone stairs for a great view of the temple grounds and the surrounding jungle.
Our exploration did not last long - we were pooped! We found Bunly and he took us back to the hotel for a relaxing second half of our day. That evening we had a wonderful meal at the intimate Tangram Gardens in Siem Reap and basked in our Cambodian experience thus far.
We had one day left, and the biggest temple of them all, Angkor Wat, left to explore.
One of the best ways to see and appreciate the unique landscape of Cappadocia is from the air. The region also happens to boast some of the calmest and most predictable air currents, especially early in the morning. So, hot air balloon rides are an extremely popular tourist draw, with dozens of companies offering sunrise flights over the ridges and valleys. I’ve always wanted to ride in a hot air balloon, and our hotel could set us up with Urgup Balloons for relatively cheap, so we jumped at the chance.
At 4:30am, the shuttle bus picked us up with the faintest hint of early morning light starting to creep onto the horizon. After a brief delay trying to find a couple at another hotel who had clearly slept through their alarm, we gathered at the company headquarters for tea and biscuits, then rode off to the staging site with the rest of our basket group just as the sun was coming up. When we arrived, preparation of the balloons was in full swing.
In the soft morning light, all around the valley floor we could see other balloon operators preparing their fleet as well.
I expected hot air ballooning to be such a quiet, peaceful operation, with no engine noise to spoil the scene. What I hadn’t considered was that firing up a huge tank of gas to produce all that hot air comes with a great roar! An entire tank of fuel was used just to fill the balloon before take off.
Once the balloon was full, the basket was flipped right-side up and we were instructed to board. The basket was divided into five sections - four corners which we loaded up with four people each, and a center area for the pilot and fuel tanks. While the morning air was crisp and chilly, once we were under that giant flame, our heads and shoulders were soon toasty!
Once we were all on board, our pilot turned the fuel on full blast and prepared for take-off. Around us, we could hear the hiss of other balloons doing the same. The herds of sheep scattered around us took no notice, apparently quite used to this morning ritual.
Slowly, the balloon handlers on the ground released the basket and we started to float upwards, steadily and gently.
It took a bit to get used to the sudden blasts of flame roaring up from the tanks to keep heating the air, but in between those blasts, it was the peaceful experience I had imagined. We had a fantastic pilot, and he was able to slowly turn the balloon as we floated so that everyone could see the view in every direction.
There is no steering a balloon, the pilot can only control how high up or down you go, based on how much heat they use. Our pilot, Cemal, was able to use this simple adjustment to ride the various currents and control the balloon with exquisite precision. Sometimes he rode the balloon high, up over 500m, to get sweeping views of the area.
And other times he navigated deep into the valleys to get us up close views of the old cliff-side villages and crazy rock formations.
Riding alongside one set of caves, we even spotted a fox peeking out from a crumbling doorway! Unfortunately he took off before I could snap a shot of him.
Cemal took us right into the heart of some of the cave cities, giving us the best perspective we had on the layout of these dwellings.
We could also see how much the rock has worn away, and why the government forced people to move out of these increasingly unstable homes. Cemal was able to pilot us so precisely, we got close enough that one of the other guests was able to reach out and pick fresh fruit off one of the trees! All the while carefully avoiding power lines and never once bumping into anything accidentally. It was pretty impressive.
As the morning wore on, we could see more and more balloons out exploring the caves and valleys filled with fairy chimneys.
By the end of our hour-long flight, as we started to descend to the landing area, the sky was just filled with hot air balloons - a beautiful sight!
We landed in a field quite a ways from where we started, and once the balloon was weighed down, we exited the basket and gathered up for the traditional post-flight champagne toast. They even presented us with official “flight certifications”…he he!
This balloon handler was such a nice guy, posing with Melanie and I, despite the fact I kicked him square in the gut as I vaulted out of the basket! The other handlers joked around, telling me what a tragedy this was…that he was most likely going to lose the baby now. :-)
Our first hot air balloon ride was an amazing experience. We had a tremendous pilot, and soared over truly unique and stunning landscape. Our entire trip to Cappadocia was everything I had hoped it would be, and more. This area will go down as one of my favorites throughout our whole trip…
As you can tell from the previous five posts on this blog, while on safari, the animals take center stage. But the amazing experience of being on safari comes not only from these encounters, but from being immersed in a unique and stunning landscape. All three parks we visited offered us something different, and all were special in their own way.
The awesome nature of the Tanzanian environment was presented to us before we even touched ground. While flying from Nairboi, Kenya, to the Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania, we flew right by the airport’s namesake, and got a great view of its snow-capped peak rising above the clouds.
We were so happy to see it from the plane as these low lying clouds obscured the view of the mountain from below the whole time we were in Moshi.
Our first park, Tarangire, was smaller and more forested than our other experiences. The park and surrounding area is famous for the distinctive baobab trees, with their huge trunks. (As it is the Tanzania winter, the baobabs were leafless, but not dead.)
To the west, Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a study in contrast. At the heart of the area is the vast crater, evidence of the volcano that erupted and collapsed in on itself some three hundred million years ago. The crater is enormous, at over 600m deep (2,000ft) with its floor covering 260 square kilometers (100 square miles). The view from the rim of the crater across the expanse, with the small saline lake in the middle, is impressive.
The land within the conservation area varies greatly depending on location. Within the crater is a wide, flat expanse of grassland, and there are very few trees (and thus no giraffes!)
On the east side of the crater rim, high on the hills surrounding these flat plains, the terrain becomes densely forested, almost jungle-like. Because this area receives so much rain, it is often draped in a thick blanket of fog.
The west side of the crater rim is completely different. Receiving much less rain, this area is scrub and grassland, speckled with trees. Ngorongoro Conservation Area is unique in Tanzania in that it not only protects wildlife, but also allows for human habitation. Particularly in this western region, you see many Maasai tribal villages, and their herds of cattle, sheep, and goats roaming the hillsides. Cultivation of the land is only allowed at subsistence levels, and the Maasai do not eat the meat of wild animals, so all are allowed to live in harmony. It is still odd to see herds of wild animals, like the ostriches and antelope below, sharing the scene with Maasai herders and in this case, a few donkeys.
Tarangire and Ngorongoro were very beautiful, but the Serengeti landscape is what will remain in my heart. The seemingly endless plains, the rock outcroppings known as kopji, the dramatic acacia trees, the sheer open freedom that exists in a wild area like this is intoxicating. I could not get the silly grin off my face as I popped my head out the roof of the truck and we drove around these dirt roads.
We entered the park from the Naabi Gate in the southeast. From atop this kopji, you get a stunning view of the plains extending out as far as the eye can see.
In the rainy season, these grasses would be green with new growth, and the land would be covered by the grazing herds of wildebeest, zebra, and antelopes that make up the great migration. As we visited in the dry season, the plains look empty. Look is the key word, however. As the previous posts have shown, there is still an abundance of wildlife roaming these golden grasses.
And all times of year, wet or dry season, water exists along the Seronera Valley, the verdant green backbone of the park.
With water comes life, and animals congregate along this valley in the dry season, which is also where we spent most of our time while in the park. Trees grow more lush in this valley, providing food and shelter, like this “sausage tree”.
The officially named kigelia tree clearly gets its nickname from the sausage-like fruit that hang from its branches. These fruit are toxic when fresh, but are used by humans when fermented into beer or for traditional medicines when dried. Baboons and a number of other animals are known to dine on them as well.
The tree-lined waters of the Seronera Valley are not the only animal hot spots in the dry season. The kopji outcroppings are home to many animals as they tend to trap water and provide shelter and shade. They are also stunning additions to the landscape, breaking the endless horizontal lines of the grassland.
While we were staying the Seronera Valley, park management was conducting a controlled burn of some underbrush on a nearby hill. The resulting smoke from these fires produced air conditions perfect for some strikingly colorful sunsets.
The lower the sun would get, the more the smoke would play with the rays, and every evening gave us a new show.
We would also get a repeat performance when the sun would come up in the morning, with some fantastic sunrises during our time at the Halisi Camp.
So when you take all this natural beauty, and then throw in exotic wild animals on top of it, well, you can see why I spent the entire safari with eyes wide open and sighs often escaping my gaping mouth.