It’s 10 p.m. and I’m walking on a sand bank. Ocean water gently licks my ankles as small waves roll in from each direction. Each footstep in the sand leaves a glowing footprint of sapphire sprinkles — a visual gift left by bioluminescent phytoplankton in the shallow water. Above me, every star pierces the sky, each of them begging for my gaze.
The Maldives is an archipelago south of India, surrounded by nothing but the Indian Ocean. As remote as it is, trust me when I say that travel to this tiny country was worth it.
And boy, was it a hefty travel day. From Taiwan my travel companions and I took three airplane flights, a seaplane, and two boats to get to our island.
Though we did spend one night in the capital city of Male, we took the unlikely route for 20-somethings and splurged on an all-inclusive resort on a private island called Kuredu. Since the conservative dress code in the Muslim country would have prevented us from fully enjoying the beaches, we opted for a stay at a private island. (I almost had a chance to tour the local Maldivian restaurants, but a violent stomach bug prevented me from doing much sightseeing on our last day.) Since we were so keen to dip our feet in the Indian Ocean for the first time and to see the bioluminescent phytoplankton, we inadvertently booked a beach vacation on an island teeming with honeymooners.
Even a novice traveler could see why it was such a popular getaway. Aside from the spectacular nighttime views, during the day the islands were a fantasy of perfection. Flying in via seaplane gave us a chance to truly appreciate the turquoise water that nearly lay still against the bone-white sand. From the plane we could see sandbanks lazily peeking through the brim of the water, creating several tiny islands whose bases you could see through the clear water.
But for me, the phytoplankton were the main draw. Other islands have phytoplankton that glow brighter than the ones on Kuredu, but even the dim twinkle we did see from the otherwise invisible creatures drew us back into the water every night. The phytoplankton emit the blue glow when they were agitated, so we stomped and splashed in the ocean in a silly, frantic dance lit by blue sparkles that was better than any blacklight dance club.
After a few days of visual bliss, it was time to fully rinse sand out of our hair and put on shoes for the first time for our flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Yet trading scenes of overwhelming luxury to humble poverty overnight was a shock. We were eager to experience a new world, but none of us seemed quite prepared to the immediate, drastic change.
Our shuttle from the airport to the guesthouse was in a tuk-tuk, which is like a golf cart pulled by a moped. Tuk-tuks dominate traffic in Siem Reap and cabs were nearly nonexistent. In the open-air tuk-tuk shuttle, as well as the tuk-tuk we rode in over the next few days, we drove by some of the poorest “neighborhoods” around the area. We saw shacks and huts standing 50 feet from the side of the dirt roads that housed full families. Children 5 years old or younger wore no clothes, and many of them playfully chased malnourished farm animals or stray dogs. Dingy, 20-foot banners advertising local beers or Coca-Cola hung above many of the shacks. I’m not sure why those banners were hung in those personal homes; perhaps those companies knew tourist tuk-tuks drove by and may have paid (apparently not much money) to those families to advertise there.
We arrived in a more bustling, tourist-laden section of Siem Reap and checked into a lovely guesthouse called Seven Candles with a kind, helpful staff. Seven Candles is a short walking distance from the Hard Rock and the party-hearty Pub Street, where we ordered alligator-topped pizza and beers for under $10USD.
Of course, the reason we went to Cambodia was to see Angkor Wat, and it did not disappoint. The Angkor temples were jaw-dropping in person and surprisingly different from each other.
Built during the early 12th century in the capital of the Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat is the most famous temple complex in the Angkor region and is the one featured on Cambodia’s flag. Although it is the most well-maintained, preservation and restoration didn’t occur until about 20 years ago. Graffiti coats sections of the ancient walls and sculptures and natural environmental decay is to blame for some of the crumbling statues. Even so, Angkor Wat has the clearest representation of what might have been the original form of the Angkor temples. It was first a Hindu and then a Buddhist place of worship, and the merging beliefs are etched into the stone murals.
My favorite section may have been the Bayon temple. Large stone faces of different Hindu and Buddhist deities and kings line this temple
— some only as tall as my shin, most one story tall, and others taller. It was built in the late 12th or early 13th century and has been augmented by subsequent kings, again blending different beliefs and styles. Perhaps it was my favorite because I liked the majesty of standing so close to such formidable structures, and I appreciated seeing the detail of age in the crumbling rocks so clearly.
One of the most popular Angkor temples is Ta Prohm, which is known in popular culture because it was the setting of a Lara Croft movie. Because of the centuries of neglect, the jungle consuming is this temple. Enormous, amorphous trees are growing over the structures underneath like claws gripping their prey. Crumpled piles of stone busts lie around the ground like an abandoned site of construction. Modern scaffolding is desperately trying to support some of the archways, but the awesome roots and vines of the trees make the plywood and aluminum supports look pathetic in comparison. Walking through Ta Prohm, even on the pre-ordained paths, felt like an adventure.
But one place without many pre-planned paths is Kbal Spean. Unless the other areas of Angkor, this is less of a temple and more of a collection of carvings. There were no plaques or clearly-marked paths other than the 15-20 minute trail hike up to the main waterfall. Without the museum-friendly plaques directing us, we felt like we were on a scavenger hunt to find any historical carvings. We slid through uneven rocks to hunt for Hindu carvings in the shallow stream beside us or above our heads on overhanging boulders.
On the last day of our Angkor explorations, our personal tuk-tuk driver, Iza — whom we hired via Seven Candles for around $10USD for several days — paused on the side of a road. There, we sampled local palm sugar cubes from women who sold them under tents. On the way back home, Iza let us connect our iPod to his tuk-tuk’s speakers and we blasted “Uptown Funk” in Cambodian traffic so thick we could touch the motorcycles beside us.
We visited the Maldives and Cambodia in the side trip, and pairing them together was an eye-opening contrast. The former is a perfect preservation of gorgeous natural beauty; the latter is an intense experience seeing neglected, crumbling remains of man-made religious structures. The Maldives resort of Kuredu was exquisite luxury (though the capital of Male was more humble) and Siem Reap, Cambodia was surrounded by poverty. Both were incredible experiences for strikingly different reasons. But certainly, the most eye-opening thus far was the Angkor temples in Cambodia.