Temples, Tombs, and Touristy Tipples – From Connemara to Cambodia

Whatever about budget accommodation and shared dorm-rooms, there’s nothing quite like being woken up to about 9 different phone alarms ringing from various corners and muffled covers of a 16-person hostel room, signalling a trip to see the sunrise behind the Angkor Wat temples. One after another, the Samsung and iPhone default alarm settings become the soundtrack to my morning in Siem Reap as I lay in wait for my own – because it surely can’t be 5am until my own device says so!?
It’s been happening all week, as our fellow travellers blindly seek their way to the bathroom in the semi-darkness to prepare for a long day of ‘being  tourists’, Siem Reap being possibly one of the earliest rising cities in the country purely for the fact that its main attraction is a daily naturally occurring phenomenon. Our turn comes on a day when I’ve already been awake for a short while; I’m an early riser anyway, and so the premature sunrise and subsequent sunset during the Winter in Asia actually came as a shock to me not so much because it always seems to be slightly earlier than you’d think, but because for once the entire population and world around me rises with me, instead of afterwards, and I don’t feel guilty or apprehensive for waking people up.

Ten minutes after I shamelessly pull the girls from a deep slumber by employing the age-old tactic of shaking them ’til they groggily tell me to stop, we’re swerving around a street corner in a rickety trailer attached to the back of an old an noisy motorbike, as our tuk-tuk driver silently traverses his morning commute down what appears to function as a one-way street before sunrise. We find ourselves unintentional participants in a rat-race of identical vehicles, all surging forwards akin to a playstation game where the goal is simply to get to the finish line first, in our bid to reach the entrance to the temples before the sun peeked it’s head above the eastern-most tower. I’ve never seen anything quite like the huge mix of families, backpackers, elderly couples, middle-aged wanderers and still-drunk party-goers who presumably haven’t slept yet but have impressively managed to find their way to the temples after pre-purchasing a ticket, all disembarking from the assortment of tuk-tuks and motorbikes that line the streets at the main entrance to Angkor. We join the throng of camera-clad sky-gazers shuffling along the pathway in the morning darkness as many drivers settle back into their vehicles with newspapers and smart phones, preparing to wait for their charges to take some pictures of a view they merely glance at as regularly as I see the Leapcard machine on Dublin Bus when I’m at home. This might not be a fair comparison, given that sunrise at Angkor Wat is ultimately slightly more picturesque than the interior of a Dublin Bus, but you get the idea.

8395b237-e786-4d2d-b312-c89462ba7086
We all stood and looked at the sky for a bit

It’s an odd sensation as this particular days’ visitors to the temple gather in silent expectation around the little lake outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of the reflection in the water as well as the black silhouettes of the 5 towers of Angkor Wat. I hold up my camera blindly and press the button several times. I do this every couple of minutes. I’d say everyone else does too. I watch the sky change from a burning orangey-red, to a slightly brighter pinkish hue, suddenly joined by flecks of yellow and an undercurrent of purple and blue. Around me, photographers of varying levels of seriousness watch it all through the lenses of cameras that probably cause more hassle than anything to carry around, my trusty Android providing me with pictures just as good (if not better!) than some of the pictures I’ve seen online.

cb1b843e-3e88-48c4-bf3c-7c97308c4fc0
Angkor Thom

Once the sun has properly made herself visible through the cracks between the Eastern towers, an anti-climactic trawl back through the crowds leads us to follow one of the many pushy vendors along the pathway inside to have breakfast at their ‘restaurant’ – various pop-up eating houses ridiculously named with the intention of enticing hungry foreigners to sit there. We follow ‘Nelly’ to his café area, passing Lady Gaga, Spiderman, Ronaldo and Harry Potter on the way, and unfortunately having to tell Micheal Jackson that we’ve received a better offer.

df75fdd7-3c68-4f49-b56e-b103a56f897d
Hurrah! Sun’s here

After this, it’s time to start exploring properly, and together with some Canadian friends we bump into that we’d made in Mondulkiri, we source a guide outside to bring us around the Angkor Wat temples for a cheap enough rate each, given there’s now a group of us. It proves an interesting and well-executed tour, but the heat of the sun now properly risen means that I have to cover up pronto, the lack of clouds having proven beneficial during the actual sunrise itself now frankly uncomfortable on my white freckled skin.

129c725d-4be9-4bd0-8a91-5893aac70718
Lilies and Lotus flowers in the lake

I spot various monks around the temples, some clearly sightseeing, others presumably local and going about their daily practices. One agrees to bless us and tie a red woollen bracelet around our wrists, taking specific care not to even graze the skin with the tips of his fingers as he does so – monks aren’t allowed to touch women’s flesh, the consequence of which would result in their banishment from the monkhood! Talk about extreme measures…. We finish the Angkor tour, and after a quick refreshment, this time from Harry Potter, we negotiate a tuk-tuk ride onwards to the next temple, Ankgor Thom. This one is by far my favourite temple, the stone faces and maze-like tunnels reminding me of The Road to El Dorado and providing both a fun and cultural way to spend the afternoon, not to mention plenty of photo opportunities!

12255488_1198573330156445_121572998_o-1
I had to stop myself calling him ‘Avatar’

Good intentions and map-reading aside, we get well and truly lost in the final temple, Ta Prohm, or ‘the one from Tomb Raider’, as it’s more commonly known.

d40985db-e94d-4a24-8214-370036e41060
Cringe, but a must – Tomb Raider pic in Ta Prohm

A combination of heat, fatigue, awful sense of direction and an array of nooks and crannies to explore meant that four or five times we backtrack on ourselves and have to extract directions to the exit fragment by fragment from a security guard with extremely broken English. It’s been a long day…..but it’s only 3pm! Naps are in order, and even the breeze of the tuk-tuk ride back to the Mad Monkey Siem Reap fails to wake us up properly.

**************

7a1c502f-fea3-46fc-93b0-81dfc48b77b4
‘beatnik speakeasy’ – my new favourite bar ever

We’d arrived in Siem Reap and spent the day exploring the city a day prior to undertaking Angkor Wat, and I have to say I liked it a million times more than Phnom Penh. Not only is it cleaner, less crowded, and more catered to visitors, but it’s actually fairly easy to navigate, and I’ve felt ultimately so much safer walking around here than I had in Phnom Penh. Everything is clearly labelled, from the ‘Night Market’, the ‘Day Market’, to the neon lights of ‘Pub Street’, meaning less time spent wandering around aimlessly searching for places even tuk-tuk drivers don’t know where to find. The “Beatnik Speakeasy” was an absolute gem of a find on Pub Street, my fascination with Jack Kerouac being clearly represented on the wall inside (the actual quote I’ve been using for this blog since I began it!) along with original beatnik-inspired cocktail concoctions, and we enjoyed a happy hour tipple or three here, for once completely surrounded by other Westerners and tourists alike, and actually feeling like we could relax a bit.

e1328f2f-187e-43cc-ab3c-051bf4eb1f1d

I’ve really become more comfortable with every aspect of this travelling thing now, our experiences before having felt more like pre-organised group outings, rather than independent and self-fulfilling navigation and exploration. We are so much freer to do and go where we please now, our decision to purchase visas to Vietnam being heeded on a whim and promising an unexpected twist for the next leg of our unplanned adventure.

2f0b6fcc-1de4-41e3-8629-de3de8d2aa16
Angkor Selfie (standard)

With a bus booked to Ho Chi Minh city the following morning, the few nights in Siem Reap were over far too quickly, and after an evening socialising in The Mad Monkey I hastily repacked my bag with the clean laundry (hurrrah!!!) I’d finally managed to get done behind the counter, and attempted to get some much sought-after sleep.

Next stop, Ho Chi Minh City……!

Seaweed and Martinis

Foodswings Reviews – The Meeting House

Burmese Cuisine in the heart of Temple Bar!

This place has been on my ‘must-try-sometime’ list of restaurants and bars in Dublin that I walk past regularly for a while now, although for no particular reason– it just looks very cool from the outside. Graffitied exterior and prime location off Meeting House Square in Temple Bar (hence the name) aside, as soon as you walk into The Meeting House it’s clear the place means business with it’s colourfully decorated and well-lit walls scattered with Marilyn Monroe-meets-The Joker quotes and pictures that are guaranteed to get even the most awkward of Tinder-dates talking.
That’s not all there would be to discuss, as every single option on the menu contained something we found very difficult to pronounce, and we mused for a good fifteen minutes over all the exotic looking choices. As there were 3 of us, we decided eventually to go with the menu option of 6 dishes for €36 (it was a Monday), as opposed to the 3 for €21 that would have suited just two. We were chuffed to discover that all prices were €3 cheaper on Sundays and Mondays, a fact which greatly influenced our decisions and indulgent sides!
I must point out here that all the portions themselves were quite small – think 3 tapas between 2 people, 6 between three – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, it was dinnertime!
20150914_181501

My choice, which was also to share (when it comes to tapas, I find things generally don’t get too heated so long as everyone is on mutual terms about the whole ‘sharing’ thing!) was a Fillet of Sea Bass with Stem Broccoli in a fish broth infused with Lemongrass, and the Crab Salad with strips of Mango and Peanuts. This was extremely tasty, however slightly small, and definitely would not have served as a full dinner.

20150914_181509

As we had all agreed we would try each others’ dishes, I also succeeded in tasting the Tuna Sashimi on a bed of seaweed, Prawn Tempura, and the Organic Chicken Coconut Curry, all of which were delicious – the chicken curry was probably the only dish big enough to be considered a satisfying full meal in itself, but we enjoyed picking and tasting, also ordering a side of Sweet Potato Fries because let’s be honest, who doesn’t order Sweet Potato Fries when they’re on the menu?!
20150914_181518

Although initially being refused entry as we had arrived ten minutes prior to opening at 5.30pm (talk about eager eaters!!), the service proved itself both speedy and cheerful, with our drinks order arriving promptly before the food, and being checked back consistently every 10-15 minutes to ensure our continued satisfaction.
A good selection of craft beers such as Brew Dog and Five Lamps Lager kept us chirpy throughout the meal, and instead of asking for a dessert menu we decided to indulge in some of the extremely attractive-looking cocktails following the 6 empty plates’ hasty departure from the table in the arms of the attractive waiter. The ‘Pornstar Martini’ came complete with half a passion fruit floating on the top, while the decision to sample a classic ‘Old-Fashioned’ really allowed us to channel our inner Don Draper from Mad Men, with a curled orange-rind and crystallized glass only partially masking the strength of the whiskey.
2015-09-17 16.13.49
Overall, our group thoroughly enjoyed the visit to The Meeting House, and our decision to move elsewhere for a final drink was only made because we felt another ‘Old-Fashioned’ would have sent us too far over the edge! The fact that it was a Monday and everything was a whole 3 euro cheaper (€6.66 for all dishes and drinks on Sundays and Mondays!!) really added to our cheerfulness as we bid farewell to the establishment, accidentally spilling some candlewax on the counter as we tried to read some of the other quotes written on the walls inside.

While we were lucky that our choice of day was in accordance to the cheaper menu prices, Tuesday-Saturday prices would still warrant a visit, with all dishes and drinks standing at €9.99. If you’re seeking a bigger feed however, you’d be better off ordering the 3 or 6 dishes deal, depending on the size of your company – Burmese Tapas would be a better description of the single menu options, but for light and exotic bites The Meeting House succeeds in every way. Overall atmosphere was extremely pleasant and welcoming, despite the rain outside, and the playlist was great. Will surely be returning soon – if only for the generous cocktail sizes!

Useful Links:
The Meeting House on Facebook 
The Meeting House Website

Adventures of the Sistine Cocktails

Once upon a grander time – an odd sort of scary free yet directionless time in between my thesis completion and induction into a full-time job – during a trip to Rome, I made the decision to visit the Sistine Chapel whilst still feeling the hazy after-effects of some very interestingly coloured (and flavoured) Italian cocktails from the night before. I’ve a feeling it was sometime close to the beginning of the holiday, as the use of the phrase ‘When in Rome’ had yet to be deemed excessive, although this night might well have been it’s undoing. In any case, in our absent-minded state, myself and a friend from college had found ourselves wandering the long and extensive entrance to the chapel, which actually doubles as a kind of walk-through museum, designed to cater for the miles of wide-eyed and sunburned wannabe pilgrims that turn up every morning in the hopes of skipping the ‘queue’, and getting in first.

I laughed at the eager beavers attempting to push ahead, and muttered cynically under my breath as a group of straw-hat clad old men gestured animatedly at the prices of the tickets at the desk. The place had been there for 500 years, I thought, it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon!!
Once inside, Emma busied herself taking pictures of the walls and the floors and windows and everything around us, while I nodded encouragingly, not fully comprehending where we were going or what exactly we were looking at. To be honest I remember blindly following the shuffling sock-and-sandel clad feet of an overweight American woman, half-annoyed at the fact that she was slowing me down, and half-grateful that her sloth-like pace and despicable pink polo-shirt required so little imagination or brain power on my part to follow whatsoever, as everything else around me seemed to demand. Don’t get me wrong, the artwork and intricate details of the ancient artefacts around me were visually stunning, and I appreciate even now their beauty and unique intrigue, but there was only so much one was going to achieve in staring at them for a prolonged period of time without starting to think too much, and my head wasn’t in a great place to be engaging in such deep thought just then.

When we finally made it through the maze of the museum-walk (a good hour and a half of ‘entrance’, may I add, presumably to draw attention away from the fact the whole building and ploy goes under the name “Sistine Chapel Tour’ when there is no actual tour as such, more of a signpost-guided stroll), and we entered into the actual ‘chapel’ part, the only thing that drew my attention was the fact that everyone was looking up. Maybe it was inappropriate, but I found myself preoccupied not with the ancient cherubs, half-naked men and women and chariots on the ceiling and walls, but with the faces gazing upwards around me, the people of today, and their wide-eyed, open-mouthed curiosity as they stared upon the ceiling and turned their heads this way and that in an effort to achieve an owl’s 360 perception of the gigantic hall. I have to say, despite the cynicism in these words, it is pretty impressive. Yet I still amused myself by assigning the humans around me to categories based on age, nationality, marital status, and enthusiasm for their current proximity to history – I don’t even feel bad about it now, it’s just amusing to think back on.

There were people with cameras taking cautious pictures (no flash allowed). There were elderly couples clutching one another in feigned (or genuine, who knows) awe at the images on the walls and ceiling, attempting to express some sort of artistic appreciation, even if they had none. There were students mildly appreciative of the artwork, yet thoughts clearly preoccupied with their impending lunch or dinner or tapas tonight; and there were also some children dotted here and there, confused and resentful of having been dragged along on a day-trip and robbed of games consoles in their parents’ feeble attempt at exposing them to some culture. Meanwhile we all stepped on one anothers’ toes in a fruitless effort to see more in those wall and ceiling murals than any of the millions of visitors who have come to view their magnificence since it’s creation have succeeded in seeing ever before.

The moment called for it, I felt, and I tried to snap a few sneaky pictures of the spectators gazing at the room around them – something which, had I succeeded, would surely have captured the true impact of the ancient artwork on the walls, far better at least than a fuzzy picture of the elaborate cocktail I barely remembered buying the previous night, yet had at the time declared a ‘work of art’ in itself.

As I raised my phone however, not to the ceiling, but vertically in front of my face so as to feign a Sistine-selfie, a lady wearing some sort of sharp heel trod down hard on my foot as she craned her neck to view the nearest depiction of Jesus tring to hide his modesty with a tattered piece of cloth. ‘Ow!!’ I couldn’t help but exclaim, and she jumped back, bumping into a bespectacled man beside her, who in turn lost his balance and grabbed hold of the shoulder of a young girl in front of him, her expression depicting this move as ‘extremely creepy’ on his part and sparking off a titter of judgemental giggles and stares between herself and her schoolfriends.
‘Screw this’, I thought, lowering the phone, ‘too many people’.

I wondered how much it would cost and how far in advance you’d have to book to get a private viewing of the chapel. Tom Hanks would have experienced it, I thought bitterly, an irrational jealousy for the actor blossoming in me as I thought of artwork and landmarks I’d seen already that day which had reminded me of scenes from Angels and Demons. It had been fascinating to see the sights and even better to be able to recognise them from many famous films I’d seen, and so my irritation did not linger as I allowed myself be herded along with the rest of the crowd, subconsciously yet obediently edging ever closer to the door, leading through to a souveneir shop and short exit-passage out into the promise of present-day sunshine.

unnamed-13