There were no roadblocks between Santa Teresa and Hidroelectrica, which in my mind earned Santa Teresa my support in form of paying for the hotel and the supper, and buying the water and the fruits – something I refused to do in Santa Maria, where the services were also available, but the town resorted to road blockages to make the lives of tourists more difficult, and with it, the trip to Machu Picchu one of the worst experiences I’ve had.
I didn’t however intend on staying in Santa Teresa more than one night, so as soon as I got up in the morning, I checked out of the hostel and headed for the Mercado de Santa Teresa from where depart shared cabs for Hidroelectrica – the nearest spot to Machu Picchu where it’s possible get with a car.
The local transport cabs, called “colectivos“, leave when full. When I arrived, there was only one more person waiting to go to Hidroelectrica so I had to wait until two more showed up for the driver to depart. It took an hour before the car was full, but eventually we departed.
The way to Hidroelectrica, much as the path to Santa Teresa from Santa Maria, is along a scenic canyon carved by the Vilcanota River and it’s not paved. The dusty roads are narrow and the drivers don’t appear to mind the hundreds meters long drops when two vehicles going the opposite way meet on it. With mere inches separating the beat up cars from deadly plummets, the experience of taking a colectivo to Hidroelectrica is an adrenaline filled, hair raising, and butt cheeks squeezing one. Good luck if you suffer from vertigo…
Even though the majority of tourists I encountered on the way between Santa Teresa and Hidroelectrica walked the trail on the steep canyon walls on foot, after a long walk the day earlier, I chose to pay for the cab to take me to Hidroelectrica the easy way – except for about a half a dozen of heart attack inducing passes that the driver took.
At Hidroelectrica, the drivable road ends and what continues on is a narrow rocky footpath alongside the railway tracks. The Peruvian government could easily pave a road all the way to Machu Picchu, and could have easily done that a long time ago, but by doing that they would permit the tourists to arrive at Machu Picchu without getting ripped off on the unbelievably overpriced trains, which are promoted as the sole means of access to Machu Picchu that doesn’t require strenuous walking.
The train ride, which costs the locals 10 Soles (less than $3 US), would cost a foreigner up ro $485 one way. That’s why the Peruvian government laid down the railway tracks, but refuses to lay down a road. Without road access, a tourist has but two options – shell out the insane cost for the train, or face a gruelling and complicated road with the mandatory hour and a half long hike on foot on a rocky trail.
Somehow, even though there are many much cooler and worthwhile places all over the world, the Peruvian government succeeded in pimping Machu Picchu as that super iconic place, and tricked the whole world into falling for it, thus generating massive profits for itself while ripping tourists off by refusing to create a road access to the place.
The road between Santa Maria and Santa Teresa is along a canyon and is incredibly scenic. The pavement ends in Santa Maria, so along other cheated tourists, from there onward we walked on rocky dirtroad.
We followed the canyon to where it narrowed a little and there was a bridge that got us across on the other side. Then it seemed like we literally backtracked along the same canyon, until the windy mountain pass lead us into the town of Santa Teresa.
We were losing daylight fast. Everyone from the group I walked with had a hotel booked in Aguas Calientes (ie Machu Picchu Pueblo). I was the only one who never books anything like that ahead of time. By the time we arrived in Santa Teresa, it was close to 6pm and the night began its relentless descent onto the area.
I separated myself from the group and having decided to stay the night in Santa Teresa, I popped into the nearest hostel to ask about the cost. Called Hospedaje Cajamarca and located on the corner of Plaza de Armas, the hostel had better rooms for 50 Soles upstairs, and cheaper ones without windows for 30 Soles downstairs. I was only there for the night, so I stayed in the more economical room.
Santa Teresa is small enough to cover on foot, and even though only a fraction of tourists heading for Machu Picchu seeks shelter there, it’s replete with hotels and hostels. And they’re pretty reasonably priced.
What’s not reasonably priced, is bottled water. Ever since I arrived in Peru I was baffled by the high cost of bottled water, and the fact that most of it is just purified tap water. I wouldn’t dare risk my health drinking right out of the tap in Peru, but the fact that that’s the water you pay top money for, with the sole promise that it’s free from pathogens likely present in the actual tap discharge, was mind boggling. Either way, I was dehydrated from the long walk because of the roadblocks, so I shelled out 5 Soles for a bottle of ozone treated tap water and went back to the hostel.
Other than that, Santa Teresa had a pleasantly laid back feel to it. It’s small so it’s not overrun neither with tourist nor the locals, but has all the conveniences you may need to enjoy a peaceful rest if you opt to drop in for a stay.
When I was charged for the full journey of being taken from Ollantaytambo all the way to Hidroelectrica, the roadblocks along the way that halted the traffic mid way through have been in place for a whole week.
During that entire week, the same travel agencies have been charging tourists for the full lengths of the journey, while lying them into their faces that they will be taken all the way to Hidroelectrica, despite being fully aware that none of the tourists who had bought that trip anytime within the week proceeding my trip got to the destination.
Similarly, the same vans have been taking tourists mid way, knowing full well that none of them will be taken all the way to Hidroelectrica, but lied to every single one through their teeth that they are getting to Hidroelectrica, even though they knew full well that the road blocks remain in place and none of the previous trips during the week have delivered tourists to the destination.
Had I been hinted by either the travel agency or the van operators that there have been road blocks for a week on the way to Machu Picchu, and there is pretty much no chance a vehicle can get to Hidroelectrica (the place nearest Machu Picchu that’s accessible by a motor vehicle), I could have easily postponed my trip until the protests have ended and the road become drivable again. But I guess it’s outlandish to expect honesty from Peruvians when they smell the dough.
Peruvians Hate Tourist, But Love Tourists’ Money
Peruvians love milking tourists on every step with entrance fees to every little corner that garners any kind of interest. But at the same time hate the tourists enough to make their life difficult simply for coming to Peru to spend money they earned abroad on the local economy.
Such was the case of roadblocks on the way to Machu Picchu. Knowing the road passing through their villages is the only access road to Machu Picchu, the communities of Amaybamba, Huyro, Huayopata, Santa Maria and San Pablo set up roadblocks in order to make access to Hidroelectrica by car impossible.
Hundreds of tourists who refuse to support the rip off practices of the Peruvian government who charges foreigners upward of $480 dollars for a train trip to Aguas Calientes (the town at the foot of Machu Picchu) for which the locals pay 10 Soles (about $3), opt to hire a vehicle to Hidroelectrica, from where it is a little over an hour on foot to Aguas Calientes, as the more economical, albeit more tiring option
of reaching Machu Picchu.
Even though the economy of every single one of these villages immensely benefits from the fact that they did nothing to deserve it, but are geographically close to Machu Picchu so the hoards of passing tourists often stop to buy a drink, a snack or cooked food from a restaurant, or stay a night in hotels where available, they are still ungrateful for it and their way to protest when they wish to demand something from the government is by making life difficult for said tourists.
Were their locations not so close to Machu Picchu, there would be nothing to attract so many tourists through their villages, so any kind of a road block would not have an impact. But hey – since they are close to Machu Picchu, who not make life for the economy supporting tourists difficult?
Can you think of a more unworthy people to spend your hard earned money on while traveling?
Long Walk to Santa Teresa
The van that promised to deliver us to Hidroelectrica dropped us off somewhere outside of Amaybamba. The driver simply told us this was the end of the trip for us, and we needed to get off his van and if we didn’t like it, we’ll have to bring it up with a travel agency that sold us the trip and sort it out with them.
The worst thing was, that whole area around Machu Picchu is infested with biting midgets. We got thrown out of the van and instantly got swarmed and attacked by these tiny, quarter of a fruit fly sized insects that rip a hole into your skin with their razor sharp jaws to lap blood as it oozes out. Unlike actual mosquitoes, these super-tiny insects are near invisible so you could be getting bitten by three dozen of them at the same time and never notice until it’s too late and your legs itch like mad.
Unfortunately, the van driver didn’t even offer us an option to return to Ollantaytambo. He just dropped us off in the middle of nowhere, none of us knowing where we were, and told us to help ourselves any way we could.
Another bad thing was that the locals not only demanded concessions from the government by making life difficult for tourists, but were also openly hostile toward tourists who had no other option but put their backpack on and cover the second half of the 4 hour long vehicle trip on foot.
I have never before visited Machu Picchu, and was thus under the disillusion that the place was worth it, but one way or the other I didn’t really have many other option, so I joined the rest of the confused tourists, and put my backpack on to keep moving forward on foot.
The slight positive at the time was the fact that the road from where we were, at least as far as Santa Maria, the first village on the way big enough to have hotels, was downhill. That was however only of relief for the day, because it came with the understanding that if the road blocks were not removed by the time I need to go back, then I will be walking the same distance up hill.
There were in fact many tourists we came across who walked the opposite way. Some of them got to Aguas Calientes before the roadblocks were set up, so they only had to do the extra walk returning, but even so, the return trip was vastly up hill which made it very strenuous.
What kept most of us alive at the time, was the deliberately misleading information that the roadblocks are only as far as Santa Maria, and that from Santa Maria we’ll be able to catch a colectivo (a taxi that serves as a local transport which leaves when full) to Santa Teresa, and then from Santa Teresa another colectivo to Hidroelectrica.
Of course, that would be an additional expense to get ourselves to Hidroelectrica even though we each have already paid for the trip all the way to Hidroelectrica, but hey… this is Peru.
Needless to say, finally arriving in Santa Maria after more than 2 hours on hiking with backpacks on on an open road without a shade as the intense sun kept blasting on us felt amazing. But the feeling was short lived.
There were no colectivos out of Santa Maria for Santa Teresa, because the road between Santa Maria and Santa Teresa was also blocked.
At that moment, I finally realized what I should have realized a long time ago – Machu Picchu is simply not worth it. I should have turned on my heel when the van dropped us off and somehow hitchhiked my way back to Ollantaytambo.
But by the time I arrived in Santa Maria, I was already way too invested in the trip to turn around and track back uphill.
In Santa Maria, the paved road ended, so the rest of the walk was on a dirt road covered with rocks. There was a fell tree used as a roadblock about a quarter way through.
That day, I was mentally prepared for an hour long walk from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes. Had everything gone the way it should have, I would have arrived in Aguas Calientes in mid afternoon, which would have given me enough time to find a room before dark.
But after arriving in Santa Maria, it became clear that I will not make it to Aguas Calientes by daylight. Luckily, unlike most other tourists stranded in the same way, I did not have a room booked beforehand in Aguas Calientes, so for me the option existed to either stay in Santa Maria or Santa Teresa.
When it all hit me about how unworthy Machu Picchu is, I played with the idea of staying the night in Santa Maria, and doing the 3 hour uphill walk back to the last road block to hitch a ride to Ollantaytambo with someone, but somehow got influenced by a disillusion that perhaps in the end, Machu Picchu will be worth it. So I carried on to Santa Teresa.
But whereas by the time we got to Santa Teresa it was already getting dark, if I were to make it to Aguas Calientes the same day, I would have to hike through the unlit forest trail at night, I made a decision to spend the night in Santa Teresa, recover a bit from the unplanned strain in the sun and do the hike to Aguas Calientes during daytime the following day. All other tourists from the group with which I walked however already had their rooms in Aguas Calientes pre-booked, so all of them carried on.
I ended up buying a van ticket from Ollantaytambo to Hidroelectrica for the following day. Hidroelectrica (hydroelectric power station) is as close to Machu Picchu as it’s possible to get by car. From there, one must walk around 6 kilometers down a rocky path along the railway tracks to get to the town of Aguas Calientes – a town set up at the foot of the mountain housing Machu Picchu for the purpose of accommodating the trows of tourists visiting the Lost City of the Incas.
I bought the ticket to Hidroelectrica from a woman with a small child in an agency with the office located just off the north-west corner of Plaza de Armas for 40 Soles (just over $12 US). I asked about all the various options they had on offer, and chose the one for 40 Soles because I was assured that this is the only option that will get me as close to Aguas Calientes as a car can get. All other options only went to the towns of Santa Maria or Santa Teresa, which were options for those who wished to explore said towns before continuing onward to Machu Picchu.
The van was scheduled to leave at 8am in the morning, so I headed back to the room in Inka Wasi in order to prepare for the morning departure from Ollantaytambo.
10 minutes before the scheduled departure I showed up in the agency as per the instructions I was given, only to find out that the woman who sold me the ticket was not there, and the guy who was, was too busy dealing with his own clients to pay me any kind of attention.
By the time 8am arrived, I was pretty nervous, but then the single mother showed up, along with her kid, and escorted me to the van. There were dozens of unmarked vans parked along the eastern side of Plaza de Armas. Each appeared to be full to the last seat. The last one in the line had one seat available. The single mother talked to the driver and told me to take my seat.
Everything about the situation seemed way too chaotic and disorganized, so before boarding the unmarked van, I very sternly insisted that the driver confirms to me that this van does goes all the way to Hidroelectrica. He assured me that I’m in the right van, and that we are definitely going all the way to Hidroelectrica.
The not so spacious van was stuffed with foreigners and their luggage. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride and it was to last 4 to 4.5 hours, according to what the single mother told me.
Ride to Hidroelectrica
Despite not being very comfortable, shortly after leaving Ollantaytambo the van ride became incredibly scenic. For the first hour, the road was winding up the side of a mountain. We kept gaining so much elevation, I kept my eye out for a sign mentioning the altitude.
Just before we hit the highest point of the mountain pass, there was a sign on the side of the road informing us that we are entering a cloud zone. As we kept moving upward, we finally reached Abra Malaga, where the sign said we were at the altitude of 4,330 meters above sea level.
From Abra Malaga, we started a descend, and had our first break at La Convencion, where there are a number of restaurants on the side of the road for passing travelers. Owing to its proximity to Machu Picchu, the prices for everything that was on offer were ridiculously overvalued.
After the 30 minutes long break, we got shoved back in the van and continued with our trip to Hidroelectrica, and eventually, Machu Picchu. Or so we thought.
The Worst Experience in Peru
After two hours of the estimated four to four and a half hour ride to Hidroelectrica, the van pulled over at a gas station and told everyone to get off and continue onward on foot.
We were all in shock, myself included. I paid for the ride all the way to Hidroelectrica, but was only taken half way there. The driver washed his hands clean off all the responsibility, and simply told everyone that we each will have to call our respective agency in order to sort it out with them, if we’re unhappy.
What pissed me off about this the most was the fact that I specifically asked for clarification if this van takes me all the way to Hidroelectrica twice – once when I was buying the ticket from the woman who sold it to me, and the second time when I asked the driver before I boarded the van.
Turned out, the locals from the villages on the way to Machu Picchu had a pet peeve with the government, and their way to gain requested concessions was by making the life difficult for foreigners who bring money they work hard for abroad to support the local economies of the protesters, even though none of the locals did anything to deserve it.
At the time of my trip, the road blocks were in place for a week, and both the drivers as well as the agencies selling the tickets knew about it, but lied through their teeth to everyone who paid for the trip that they would get us all the way to Hidroelectrica, while also charging for the whole trip all the way to Hidroelectrica.
And without a shred of remorse, they’d drop us off in the middle of nowhere, fully aware that this is exactly what would happen, and leave us there stranded and without options. Many of the tourists had their accommodation paid for up front (I never do that, so I was lucky not to be one of them), so for them not reaching Aguas Calientes on the day of the trip would represent significant loss. Especially if you consider how overpriced everything in Aguas Calientes is.
The trip to Machu Picchu was without a doubt the worst experience I’ve had in Peru, if not the worst overall in 10 years of traveling. In hindsight, I wish I would have turned around and given up on machu Picchu, because no part of it was worth the absolute crap I as well as all other tourists had to put up with because locals do not appreciate the support tourists provide to the area.
Unfortunately, I made the decision on the spot to walk the rest of the way, tricking myself into falling for the unworthy delusion that is Machu Picchu.
The town of Ollantaytambo is considered to be one of the most important towns within the Sacred Valley of the Incas. It is the only original Inca town that is still inhabited. Its stone streets preserve the Inca architecture combined with temples and colonial squares. Because it is on the road between Cusco and Machu Picchu, it sees a fair bit of tourists. However, Ollanta, as it is locally called, is more than just a mandatory stop on the way to Machu Picchu. The town has its own charms, and a fair bit of its own Inca archaeological sites.
Sacred Valley of the Incas
The Sacred Valley of the Incas (El Valle Sagrado de los Incas) is one of the major tourist attractions of the Andean region of South America due to its impressive landscape, its pleasant climate, its megalithic cultural evidences and because it offers diverse possibilities for adventure trip (including the Inca Trail).
The Sacred Valley of the Incas extends along the Vilcanota River (the same river that more downstream takes the names of Urubamba or Willcamayu). It covers the area between the towns of Pisac and Ollantaytambo.
The origin of Ollantaytambo is said to begin the legend of Ollanta, a commoner who was in love with the princess Cusi Coyllor, daughter of the Inca emperor Pachacutec, who opposed their relationship.
Pachacutec decided to punish his daughter by sending her to the house of Virgins. Ollanta tried to kidnap her but did not succeed and was forced to flee. With the passage of time, Ollanta decided to rebel against Pachacutec, causing bloody battles. the Inca emperor emerged victorious, but for his valor, decided to forgive the commoner.
How to Get to Ollantaytambo from Cusco
Vans bound for Ollantaytambo leave from a small terminal located on Calle Pavitos, three blocks due west from Avenida El Sol, down the road just a few meters up from Hostal Margarita.
The trip cost 15 Soles (around $4.50 US), and lasted 2 hours. The van does not leave until full, so if you travel with a large backpack, the trip may be rather uncomfortable.
The road through the Sacred Valley of the Incas is scenic and picture-perfect on every bend. Just before reaching Ollantaytambo, you will pass through the town of Urubamba. There isn’t a whole lot to do in Urubamba, so I decided to head straight to Ollantaytambo.
Ollantaytambo is located at the elevation of 2,700 meters above sea level, meaning it is some 700 meters lower than Cusco, so if Cusco was giving you hard time with altitude sickness, Ollantaytambo should offer a bit of relief.
Isvarapura, or Banteay Srei as it is known today, is an ancient Khmer temple located about 25 km north of Angkor Wat. Its “out of the way” location and insignificant size make Banteay Srei seemingly unimportant, however through inclusion in most tour packages, it sees a fair amount of visitors. Frequently referred to as “Citadel of the Women”, allegedly because it was the women who decorated it, its name kept popping up in most conversations I had with locals before and during my trips to Angkor. If the temple was completely off my radar before, soon after I started touring the temples of Angkor, the impression that Banteay Srei was a “must not miss” became apparent. From students whom I taught English at the Preah Prom Rath Pagoda, through my coconut friends at Angkor Wat all the way to the villagers from Sras Srang with whom I ended up spending most of my time in Cambodia, everybody kept asking me if I already paid Banteay Srei a visit. When I told them that I’d never even heard of that temple, everybody gasped for the air and insisted that I definitely include it in my plan. I had so much of the “citadel of the women” name enter my ears, I was afraid to look at the toilet paper after I wiped my butt off for fear that I’d see the name of the temple etched on it.
Road Trip to Banteay Srei
While all of the temples you would have heard of and wanted to visit prior to coming to Cambodia are located reasonably close to one another and can be visited in one go, a visit to Banteay Srei requires a detour that’ll eat a good chunk of the day on its own. Since everybody kept shoving that Banteay Srei hype down my throat, I decided to dedicate whole day to it and combine it with a road trip present for Ha and her daughter. I picked up Ha from the Temple Club after returning from a nighttime stay at Angkor Wat, made sure she gets good sleep and takes shower in warm water before leaving my air conditioned room the following day to see her daughter. As part of my surprise package, I started the day by giving Ha’s daughter a present, took a bunch of picture of the four year old girl wearing her new top and as soon as we were done, a we heard a tuk tuk pull over just outside of the room where Ha and her daughter lived. It was my student from the English class with whom I made prior arrangements.
I knew Ha didn’t have anything to do during the day, because she couldn’t score a job in Cambodia so there was zero risk of either her or her daughter being unable to go. So when the tuk tuk showed up and everybody kept wondering why it would come to that remote part of Siem Reap where no foreigners ever go, I simply told them to get dressed, because we’re taking a road trip to Banteay Srei. I had to explain to Ha that I didn’t know whether they’d be able to go inside the temple as all non Cambodians need an expensive entrance ticket, however should we fail sneaking them in as Cambodians, I’d just leave them in a nearby restaurant for a meal while I take off on my own to take a few pictures of the temple. The excitement was instantaneous. We picked up a few sandwiches from a store next to their hut and set off for an hour long ride to Banteay Srei on a tuk tuk.
It was a very, very hot day so a ride in a tuk tuk felt very refreshing. The movement of air kept washing sweat off our faces as we rode through Angkor and on to Banteay Srei. The excitement in voice and actions of Ha’s little girl was extraordinary. This was the first time in over a week that she got a chance to do something other than staying inside the shed her mother rented from her Cambodian uncle. It felt like family going on a family trip.
Banteay Srei Temple
In spite of its popularity, Banteay Srei is not as overrun with touts as temples in the main Angkor area. While area around Banteay Srei is as flat as elsewhere in central Cambodia, the immediate surroundings of the temple were rich in plant life growing out of well kept pools of water. Small exhibition hall with brief introduction on the temple can be found on the way to Banteay Srei from the parking lot.
Banteay Srei is the only main temple of Angkor that was not founded by a king. Its founder – Yajnavaraha – the grandson of king Harshavarman served as an ayurvedic medic and a priest during the reign of kings Rajendravarman and Jayavarman V. According to the stele inscription, Yajnavaraha had the temple completed by 967 AD and dedicated it to the Hindu god Tribhuvanamaheshvara (Shiva). The dedication to Shivanism is evident through intricate carvings covering the walls of the temple. Carvings in red sandstone are well preserved and seemingly the temple’s strongest tourist attractant. Many speculate that the fine art that these carvings represent could only be done by the hands of women, hence the temple’s title of the “Citadel of the Women”. Others however maintain that the name relates to the many reliefs of Apsaras (female dancers) found throughout the temple.
Banteay Srei Carvings
The most famous carvings on the walls and lintels of Banteay Srei portray the scenes from the life of Shiva, though parts of the temple were clearly also dedicated to Vishnu. In one of the triangular pediments above doorways, the demon Ravana is seen shaking Mount Kailasa above which Shiva is enthroned. In the same scene, Kama is seen arriving to disturb Shiva’s meditation. Other carvings portray “The Rain of Indra” or “The Killing of Kamsa” both of which are important stories from Indian mythology. Some of the carvings were moved to the Khmer museum in Phnom Penh and some are in Paris, France after being recovered from the hands of collectors who bought them from Cambodian looters. Apsaras stolen by French adventurer/thief André Malraux were also recovered and contributed to the popularity of the temple worldwide.
Thanks to vast funding from the Swiss government, Banteay Srei went through extensive restoration works so temple appears well preserved and carvings are in good shape. The Swiss government also financed the installation of a drainage system around the temple which prevented further damage to the structure by water. Despite vast investments from the Swiss, nothing could prevent the destruction of Banteay Srei by the locals who looted and vandalized the living bejeezus out of it. After the original statues were replaced with replicas, the locals vandalized the replicas. But their greed didn’t stop there. A typical Cambodian mindframe dictates that “if I can’t have it, at least I’ll destroy it”! As a result, after the statues of Vishnu and Uma were removed from Banteay Srei, they were assaulted by vandals while placed at the National Museum in Phnom Penh for safekeeping.
Banteay Srei – Conclusion
Banteai Srei is about an hour drive from Siem Reap town. It’s distance from Angkor proper (where most temples are located) makes a visit to Banteay Srei slightly inconvenient. It’s also a small sized temple so one would think that an extra long trip for this little would make no sense. Yet Banteay Srei receives more visitors than many larger temples on the Petit Circuit, including Banteay Kdei where my villager friends operate as touts. What makes Banteay Srei this popular are intricate carvings covering nearly every square inch of the temple. If elaborate, fine carvings are your thing, then made sure you don’t give Banteay Srei a miss.
The temple is also surrounded by nice water gardens which make the access to it more picturesque. I don’t know what they look like in dry season, but rainy season keeps them lush and rich, which offers great opportunities for photography. I am personally glad I went to visit Banteay Srei, but that was because I had 7 days to explore Angkor. If I only had a daily pass, I’d probably give this temple a pass. I’d likely pass on it with a 3 day pass also. However since vast majority of foreigners who visit Angkor do so on a single day pass and buy a tour package from their hotel, they do get to see Banteay Srei because tour companies have this temple included (and temples like Banteay Kdei excluded) in their packages. This is likely part of their marketing strategy. Through its red sandstone walls covered with exquisite carvings, a trip to Banteay Srei offers the visitors something different from majority of temples at Angkor proper. If I had wealthy clients, I’d take them to Banteay Srei too. Taking them to temples like Banteay Kdei, which are in more state of ruin and nigh identical to many other temples would be like showing them the same thing they had already seen.
BTW – both Ha and her daughter did get inside Banteay Srei even though only I had the pass. Being Vietnamese, Ha looks just as any Cambodian girl would and since she could speak a bit of Cambodian, we were able to fool the guard. It’s not like they would gain anything if they kicked them out and barred from from entering…
This whole road trip idea was planned out to be a surprise for Ha and her daughter. I knew Ha couldn’t score a normal job in Cambodia – being both Vietnamese (keep in mind that Cambodians are extremely racist – just ask any Vietnamese person who’s ever visited Cambodia) and illegal to seek employment in Cambodia, so the only option she was left with was prostitution in Siem Reap‘s night clubs. However, the more time she spent with me, the wearier she kept getting of this whole idea of selling her body for money. Since she couldn’t have an actual job, Ha would the daytime with her daughter, as there was simply nothing other she could do. If I didn’t go to Angkor, she’d spend the day with me, but I needed to take advantage of good weather after waiting the rain out so I spent three consecutive days exploring the ancient temples, leaving the girls alone in Siem Reap.
I bought a 7 day pass to have enough time for even the more remote temples, but things went pretty smoothly so after three days, I had all of the temples on the Petit Circuit and the Grand Circuit covered, leaving me with 4 extra days to do the remote ones. The Petit and Grand Circuits are within main Angkor area where all of the famous and popular temples can be found, so by covering them all, I virtually had Angkor explored and everything on top of that would be an added bonus. One exception to this rule was the temple of Banteay Srei.
Banteay Srei temple is located about 25km from the main Angkor area (the area with where all famous and all biggest temple can be found – aka the area where most tourists go), however even though small in size, its intricate and elaborate carvings on red sandstone make Banteay Srei visually appealing so many organized tours include it in their itinerary. As a result, Banteai Srei, even though much smaller and significantly further away from Siem Reap, sees more visitors that Banteay Kdei – the temple on the Small Tour (Petit Circuit) where I made friends with villagers. While this is mostly a marketing pull on behalf of tour organizing companies, Banteai Srei did also gain notoriety among budget travelers which landed the temple a title of the “Jewel of Khmer Art”. As such, Banteai Srei is very overhyped and attracts tourists like honey attracts flies.
Needless to say – after being to all of the main Angkor temples, Banteai Srei was next on my radar. I knew Banteay Srei was 25 kilometers north of the main Angkor area, which all in all, would add up to being well over 30 km from Siem Reap, but since this part of Cambodia is completely flat, covering such distance on a bicycle wouldn’t be a problem. Sun and heat would be the biggest challenge, with potential of hostility from locals being close second. Afterall, being so far away from Siem Reap, all tourists who make it to Banteay Srei get there either in a bus as part of an organized tour, or by Tuk Tuk they hired in town. Omnipresent Tuk Tuks and motorcycles are fast moving and don’t draw much attention to themselves. Significantly slower moving bicycle with a foreigner on it, in an area of Cambodia far away from police patrolled streets of Siem Reap or Angkor… that sounded like a straight up death wish.
So instead of going all by me onesy on a bicycle, I decided to make my trip to Banteai Srei a Road Trip with guests and kill several birds with one stone. I could definitely do it on a bicycle, but after I took all other factors into consideration, the idea of a road trip prevailed. The undisputed advantages were:
1 – Tuk Tuk Ride
The idea of covering a long distance on a bicycle didn’t scare me. I was fit enough and enjoyed bike riding to the dot, but there were things in Cambodia a wise traveler never lets to slip his mind. But there was one even bigger reason why I had to consider a road trip on a Tuk Tuk and it goes back all the way to me teaching English at Wat Preah Prom Rath:
I have only been in Cambodia for less than 24 hours and I already taught a lecture in one of the classrooms at Preah Prom Rath. I enjoyed this experience profusely and was more than happy to volunteer my time to that cause as the students who attended the classes at the temple were ones who did not have a sponsor who would pay for a semester at a posh school. With me being part of their classes, they got more out of their lectures than students from incredibly overpriced schools such as the ACE – Australian Centre for Education. ACE – despite its high cost, is one incredibly useless school. If I were a parent of any of the kids who paid an incredible amount of money to attend that school, I’d demand a refund and get my kid the hell out of there. Most girls from the Sras Srang village where I ended up spending several months of my stay in Cambodia did attend ACE after sponsors paid for them, but day after day were forced to ask me to explain the lesson to them because they had no idea what it was about after attending a TESOL certified teacher lead class. After I explained it to them, then they understood, but there wasn’t one time in 5 months when any of the girls would return from the class and understand the topic of that day’s lecture.
Back to my English classes at Wat Preah Prom Rath – unfortunately for me, I came to Cambodia with an open mind and a will to dedicate myself to good causes. At the time, all one could find on the internet about Cambodia were utter lies. It took me all together 5 minutes to realize that Cambodians were hostile and that knowledge stayed from the moment I stepped foot on Cambodian soil, to the moment I left it. However even after being in the country for hours and already having experienced much of their hostility, I still lied to myself that there must be some good in Cambodia and if I keep my mind open, I would find it. It was a foolish thing to think.
Unfortunately, this type of mindset set me up for traps from which I could not get out of in the future. The students from my class instantly took advantage of the fact that I offered myself up to them with all openness and used each lecture to pressure me with business solicitations. As days went by and I realized that Cambodians are NOT those nice and friendly people travelers who fear reality make them to be, then I started to build a protective barrier between myself and the locals and didn’t allow anyone to take any more advantage of me, but this wasn’t until a few days after my arrival. During this first lecture of mine, as well as a few subsequent ones, I opened myself up and my students, instead of being grateful that I donated my time and knowledge to them for free, they took advantage of me and swarmed me with business hypes disguised as friendly chats. I reciprocated what I believed was merely an intention to have a friendly conversation with an English speaker, only to be forced into listening to pushy sales pitches from Tuk Tuk drivers and as they kept pressuring me and getting more and more in my face, the only way for me to escape was to eventually say OK to something.
They tried to force me into buying their services, but I told them I wanted to go for a walk that night so I couldn’t use them. Their response was that they would take me to see a sunset over a lake tomorrow then. And then that they would take me to the temples of Angkor. And then something again and again and again and again. From every angle, voices pressuring me more and more and cornering me and getting in my face until I had no choice but to say – “OK, I’ll let you know if I need a tuk tuk, G%$amn it!”
It was truly foolish of me to think that Cambodians would merely care to have a chat with someone from abroad. It’s not the case. It’s never been the case and not even after 5 months in Cambodia it ever happened to be one. But I wasn’t prepared for this to be a fact when I just came there and once a Cambodian forces you into even remotely implying something, then they’re gonna remind you of it day in and day out. And so they did remind me of that time when I said “OK”. Surprise!!!
Tuk Tuk drivers are an incredibly awful lot. They made every minute of my stay in Cambodia outside of my room a nightmare. If I had Ha with me, I could not finish a single damn sentence without one getting in my face and rudely interrupting. As a result, I would not give any of them any business just on principle. If I needed to go somewhere, I’d rather walk in that heat than give a Tuk Tuk driver a penny. Needless to say, they would still bother the living crap out of me, but at least I wouldn’t pay them anything. So it was not easy to actually get one on my own terms and offer him a gig of taking me to Banteay Srei for a road trip. But since this would shake off one of the traps Cambodians caught me in when I was too trusty, I said – why not?
2 – Fun Day for Ha and Her Daughter
Hellz yeah – to Ha and her daughter, every day was a struggle to survive (as it was for me, but for completely different reasons) with basically no chance to do anything fun. To Ha, every morning started with thoughts of worry about how she was going to buy food for her little girl. When simple day to day survival becomes your #1 priority, you don’t have the resources to buy basic necessities beyond food, let alone take your kid on a road trip. And knowing darn well how much hardship Ha and her daughter already went through, I instantly realized that affording them a simple day of simple joy would mean the world to them.
And this was the main reason why I opted for a road trip on a tuk tuk, rather than a self ride on a bicycle to Banteai Srei. A tuk tuk can seat up to 4 people easily, so taking Ha and her daughter along wouldn’t cost me any more than going on my own. And even though had I not met Ha, I would still have gone by bicycle, despite pressure from my students, knowing that by taking Ha and her daughter out for a day of fun, I could visit an extra temple without risking a ride through potentially hostile territory, and I would shake off the obligation my students forcibly placed upon me, I saw nothing but pure WIN for everyone in this arrangement.
The only trouble was that the night prior to intended road trip I did not make it to the class, because I stayed at Angkor Wat for night photography. I already had my present for Ha’s daughter with me, but I really wanted to make the day when I give it to her even more special. I wanted to take them away from the worries they experience every day and set their mind on something positive – while they are together, and myself with them. So despite being exhausted and wet (it rained like all hell during my nighttime stay at Angkor and I rode back home in that rain), instead of heading home to take shower and relax a bit, I headed straight for Pub Street and started looking for a tuk tuk driver from my class. Since Pub Street is where majority of foreigners who stay in Siem Reap go after dark, that is where majority of Siem Reap’s tuk tuk drivers aggregate after dark. I knew I stood a decent chance of finding him there as ratio of tuk tuk drivers to foreigners in Siem Reap is rather unfavorable (more tuk tuk drivers than tourists).
Luckily for me – he was there, hiding from the rain under the roof of his tuk tuk. I made arrangements with him, told him when and where to come the following day and told him where and how many of us are going. All set and done, I was ready to go to my room, make myself human again and head over to the Temple Club to meet with Ha so I could take her home with me for a warm shower and comfy sleep. I told her not that I had a gift for her daughter and that after the gift, I was taking them for a road trip to Banteay Srei. I kept it a surprise until the last moment and it paid off big time. Not only did the girls have their first worry free, fun day in a long time, it was also the first time for the little girl in years to feel like she had a father. I may not have made her, but she was in daddy’s arms the whole time. I do not have the words to describe how much it meant to them and to me, but what I got back in child’s laughter and mother’s tears has made an impact you can’t replicate.
There’s nothing like Driving Through the Rockies. Sheer awesomeness of the mountains is unrivalled, magnificent scenery changes from breathtaking to eye-popping with each turn of the road and the traffic is light so you can fully savor each moment. I drove through the Rockies many a time and starting from Edmonton, I’ve always headed to Jasper first as it is the nearest and easiest to access point of the Canadian Rockies from my home town. This time around I’ve changed my plan and drove south to Red Deer where I took the turn to head towards the mountains through the Rocky Mountains House (that’s a name of a small town on the way to the Rockies). This access point offers new views of the mountains peaks that I have not seen before. It was spectacular.
This was my second driving through the Rockies adventure of the year and fourth in two years. I went all the way to Roger’s Pass in BC. Most of my previous visits to the Rocky Mountains consisted of exploring either Jasper or Banff National Parks, both of which are in Alberta. I once stayed at the Mount Robson Lodge which is located right at the foot of Mount Robson – the highest peak of the Canadian Rockies and is also on the BC side. But other than that I haven’t seen that much of the British Columbia’s Rocky Mountains.
Roger’s Pass is in the Glacier National Park and is surrounded by mountain peaks that are the most beautiful of all I’ve seen in the Rocky Mountains. Short hike took me on an excursion through the history of former Trans Atlantic Railway the remnants of which remind us of the immense power of area’s avalanches. I then drove back to Banff but first visited Takakkaw Falls and took a hike around Emerald Lake which wore me down well enough to be ready for a soak up in Banff’s Upper Hot Springs.
I stayed the night in Banff so I could visit The Cave and the Basin the following morning before heading off to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. This was awesome. I visited the area in May – only months prior to this road trip and Lake Louise was completely frozen which made it look like farmer’s field covered in Ice. This time around (August) it looked just like the picture perfect mountain lake it is. Moraine Lake was not even accessible in May but was in all of its beauty in August. The biggest difference was at Bow Summit – the highest point at the Canadian Rockies with paved road. When I got there in May, the upper car park was not accessible due to excessive snow so I had to leave my car far away and climb all the way up through waist deep snow. This time around the road was clear of snow so I was able to drive up to the upper parking lot and walk it easy to the lookout with magnificent views of Peyto Lake in the valley below.
I never get tired of Driving Through the Rockies. I’ve done it many times and will do it each time I get a chance in the future. During this three day road trip I’ve visited many great sites and took hundreds of stunning pictures. Unfortunately as soon as I have returned from this amazing trip, I had to take care of storage of items I still had in my possession and start getting ready for the big departure. I’ll try to get back to this Driving Through the Rockies trip at a later date and share all the stories and pictures as it’s without doubt worth it.
As I was doing my research on the best priced plane tickets to an interesting destination to start off my worldwide travel, I found out that due to new taxes imposed upon visitors to Alaska, cruise ships sailing that way will be forced to charge additional $50 per passenger, making this cruising option less attractive to travelers. Because of that, many of major cruise line companies made public statements that they will be discontinuing or limiting their Alaska cruises and will instead move their ships to the Mediterranean Sea where demand and income from have been continuously growing. This was supposed to take place at the beginning of 2010.
I’ve always wanted to visit Alaska so when I realized that many of the cruise ships that used to serve this area will not be there as of January 1st, 2010, it became clear that prices for Alaska cruises will go up. Those few ships that will still serve the arctic state will have little competition so they will be able to jack prices up plus there will still be that additional $50 per person fee imposed by the state of Alaska so if one were to take an Alaska cruise, they should do it before the end of 2009 or have to pay significantly higher price.
This prompted me to start looking into available options. I wanted to visit Alaska and take an Alaskan cruise before prices become too unaffordable. But at the same time I thought of combining it with other adventures to make it a roadtrip of a lifetime. I thought of doing the following:
Rent a car in Edmonton
Drive up the breathtaking Alaska Highway all the way to Anchorage – a 3,000 km long journey that would take about 4 days to complete
Enjoy the scenic views and make stops at interesting locations along the way, such as the Liard River Hot Springs
Enjoy the nature and scenery of Alaska for a day or two
Drop off car rental and board a southbound cruise ship sailing to Vancouver
Take a mesmerizing 7 day cruise exposing the beauty of Juneau, Glacier Bay, Ketchikan etc. while it’s still cheap
Spend a day or two in Vancouver, known as one of world’s most beautiful cities (which I have not visited in my life yet)
Rent a car to drive back to Edmonton
Drive across beautiful British Columbia enjoying the mountains
Make a stop at Frasier Canyon known as one of world’s most exciting white water rafting areas
Drive across Canadian Rockies
Drop off rented car in Edmonton and savor the road trip of a lifetime you have just finished
This seemed like the ultimate roadtrip, the ultimate adventure, the trip that combines some of the best and most coveted areas of the world in one go. And because time was against me, I could not put it off as prices for cruise ships were bound to rise significantly come 2010. So I started doing my research to make this roadtrip come true but hit a solid wall when I started phoning up car rental companies.
First of all, hardly any of the worldwide rent-a-car companies has an office anywhere in Alaska making it impossible to drop a car off there. Secondly, the few that do would charge an arm and a leg for drop off at a location that’s different from pick up location. I wasn’t quite aware of this fact prior to this research. I’ve rented a car many times before in different countries, but have always dropped off where I’d picked it up. But because many big car rental places have offices worldwide, I thought it was a no brainer that you could pick a car here and return it there. I was wrong. Unless it’s some kind of special, drop off at a different location will incur an extra cost – often multiplying your initial cost by a large factor. But if you intend to drive across the border and drop it off in another country, that’s when it starts getting ridiculous.
Alaska is a US state whereas I would be starting my roadtrip in Edmonton, Canada. That means I would be renting my car in one country, but dropping it off in another. Most of the time you can’t even do that. Rental terms and conditions restrict the use of a rented automobile to the same country. Crossing borders is not allowed, unless some special arrangements are made or it is a company that specializes in car rentals for people who need to drive internationally. Either way, after many phone calls and no luck finding a company with the office in Alaska, I was eventually able to trace some down, but dropping off a car registered in Canada in the United States state would make it an extremely costly venture. Similar extremes would apply to the car I would rent in Vancouver to drop it off in Edmonton. Vancouver is located in British Columbia, whereas Edmonton is in Alberta. Again – these are two different provinces, hence different license plates and registration cards. A lot of hassle involved so the cost of it would be very high.
The only other option I had was to rent a car for an extended period of time (3 weeks) in Edmonton, drive it up to Alaska, board the cruise ship and pay also for the car to get on board, then get off the ship in Vancouver and drive the same car back to Edmonton. This was an option that was priced a little better than the other one, because it eliminated high international drop off fees, but was still extremely expensive. Cruise ships are intended for vacationers. They specialize in sailing people, not cars. If you want to take a car with you, you’d be looking at a very high cost, which totally defeated the purpose of trying to get on the Alaska cruise ship before prices go up in 2010. And if I were to do it, I would have to shell out a big chunk of cash to have my rented car on board the cruise ship and while it is there, I wouldn’t even be able to drive it, but the cost of the rental for the time while I’m on a cruise ship would still count, hence I would be normally charged by a car rental company for those days whether I’m driving it or not.
In other words, while I’m on the cruise ship, I would not be able to use my rental car, but I’d be paying big bucks for each day of having it, plus I’d be paying super high cruise ship fee to have the car on board. All of that made the cost of my awesomely planned, but impossible to execute roadtrip sky high. The plan was top notch, but it was impossible to carry out unless your pockets are big.
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