August 10, 2016

Two days in Machu Picchu

As I sat on the train from Machu Picchu back to Cusco, sipping my mint tea, absorbing the vistas of the beautiful Andean valley, I thought about our last 2 days spent at Machu Picchu.

On the Vistadome train, writing down my days thoughts
We had arrived in Aguas Calientes 2 days prior by Perurail. Aguas Calientes is a small town at the base of Machu Picchu. The next morning, bright and early, we had got on the bus with our tour guide to go up the mountain where the citadel of Machu Picchu lies.

lining up for the bus
As the bus stopped and we started getting off, I felt my excitement levels rise ten fold. We were soon entering the citadel of Machu Picchu, and those stunning pictures that I've always drooled over would be forming in front of my eyes! Well, once we had stood through the long entrance line and got our passports stamped!

Passport stamped! This passport is expiring soon and I'll so miss it - it's my favourite passport, so beautifully bruised with all our travels <3
Upon entering, you already start seeing the many mountain ranges around. There's a trail to climb up some flight of stairs to get to the guard house. 2 minutes in, Umair and I started huffing and puffing. We had only been at high altitude for 2 days and were still experiencing some shortness of breath. Once at the top by the guard house, we finally saw this:

Just like that, it was right there in front of our eyes. The mountain ranges bracketing the lone standing mountain and underneath all that....the sprawling ruins of the Inca civilization from the early 1500s. 

It was as magnificent as I had thought it to be. And so very surreal. I choked up just a tiny bit and got slightly misty eyed. I've been fortunate enough to have seen some really stunning beauty that this world holds, but none have brought the reaction that Machu Picchu in that initial second did. It could be because the sight of Machu Picchu is overwhelmingly majestic. It could be because I was standing in front of a wonder of the world. 

Whatever it was, this was real. I was here.  

We spent the first three hours with our tour guide, who walked us around the ruins, giving us details on the life of the Inca civilization and how intelligent was their masonry and engineering. The Incas had the amazing ability to build walls of perfectly carved and matched stones in those ancient times. And what's more intriguing is that they would carry all these stones up in the high mountains where ever they lived. They lived in the mountains to keep themselves safe from enemies. The Spanish had conquered the Incas all around Sacred Valley but they never made it to Machu Picchu. That's how hidden this little world was. 

Agriculture fields around the ruins

the ruins. Imagine waking up to this view everyday!

After our guided tour and lunch, Umair and I entered the citadel again. We decided to hike the Sun Gate - which is where the Inca trail ends. It was roughly a one hour hike, with stony terrain going up. Because of altitude, we took a lot of breaks and huffed and puffed quite a bit, but finally managed to get up to these stunning views of the mountain ranges:

Once back down, it was already 4PM and we spent the next hour just sitting around the guard house, admiring more of the Machu Picchu view and enjoying the serenity that wasn't there in the morning. Most people leave around 3-4PM, so at this time there were very few tourists just lying around on the grass reading, eating or llama-watching. There was a certain calmness in the air, and I started imagining what beautiful views the Inca people must have woken up to every morning. 

Umair! I have a brilliant idea....since Toronto housing market sucks, why don't we be smart like the Incas?!

...I think this llama is staring me down...what were you saying?

The llama is not staring you down. I'm saying....why don't we be smart like the Incas and build our own house here on the mountains?!!

*blank stares from Umair*

So?? What do you think?

*more blank stares*

Sigh. Ok. 

We then caught one of the last buses going down to Aguas Calientes, knowing we had one more day to return. [One more day to convince Umair about moving to Inca land!)

Next morning, we woke up at 4.30AM to go stand in the bus line. We thought we were early, but the line up was already so long that our turn to get on the bus actually came at 5.45AM! This was the day I was going to hike the most glorious hike of my life.

the steep mountain the red arrow is pointing at is Wayna Picchu
Wayna (or Huayana) Picchu is the lone standing mountain seen in all Machu Picchu pictures (red arrow pointing at it above). When we booked our Machu Picchu trip back in February, we made sure to grab tickets to hike the Wayna Picchu mountain. Only 400 people are allowed each day and tickets sell out months in advance. We had heard how steep and difficult the hike can get, so I was a bit nervous. It was good to have hiked the Sun Gate the previous day to get some practice, but I was already getting breathless out of nervousness (and altitude) and wanted to quit before starting. 

But I thought you wanted to live like the Incas? Said Umair

This time it was my turn to give some stares.

The hike started off pretty OK - the trail is mostly made up of uneven stone steps. The first 10 to 15 minutes are actually simple, but then it began to get really steep. 

It starts off not too bad - stone stair trail

View of the ruins on our way up
At one point the steps got so steep, all of us were on all four limbs! For the most part, there is also no support to grasp on except for a flimsy rope. I don't know how the Inca people used to climb up and down carrying stones and other materials through these stony, uneven, crazy high trails.

Ok, maybe the Inca people were not that smart after all....going up and down and down and up the mountains all the time. Who does that?!

Umair, I don't think I want to live like the Incas. I announced, huffing and puffing.

Too bad, Umair replied and started climbing on his four limbs. I followed suit.

Got really steep after the first 15 minutes - look how high those steps are - and no hand support.
This hike is definitely not for those who have a fear of heights. At some points, there are large drops off the side. We're both ok with heights, but were stopping every 15 or so minutes to catch our breath. At 1,158 feet high, the hike was the most challenging physical activity I've ever done, especially considering we were already at almost 8000 feet above sea level. Oxygen was less, air thin, but our spirits were high. We kept pushing through.

It took us roughly an hour to get to the top. The last stretch was the toughest - we had to be on all four limbs to go up. we had to go under big rocks and slide off rocks at one point.

View of the ruins from the top.
But we made it to the top! Such an exhilarating feeling to get to the top and be able to get a bird's eye view of the ruins at the Machu Picchu. 

Ok, I may have changed my mind again and would like to live her-

No, you've maxed out on the number of times you can change your mind for the week. Let's see who gets to the bottom first. And off he went. Again, I followed suit.

Coming down was hard on our ankles but we somehow managed without spraining them so yay for that! Once out, we had no energy left to do anything else but to take the bus back down to the town and get ourselves a nice massage before catching out train to Cusco. 

February 28, 2016

Visiting the Lost City of Angkor, Cambodia

At 4 AM the alarm went off. We had barely slept for four hours. Even after being a week in SE Asia, our sleep patterns were whack. But I jumped out of bed as soon as the alarm went off, as today was the day I was going to cross an item off my bucket list. Today was the day I was going to see the sun rise behind the magical Angkor Wat!
Being Canadians, we debated keeping a cardigan since it was so early in the morning. However, as soon as we left the hotel to meet our driver who was already waiting for us, humidity enveloped us. 

We drove off towards the temples in the dark, stopping to buy tickets. It was pitch black where our driver dropped us, so we turned on our flashlight and started walking in the darkness towards where everyone was walking. We reached a set of staircases where we could hear a lot of chatter. We quickly found a spot right by the pond, so that no one could come stand in front of us obstructing our view. People started gathering as time went by; while we stared at complete darkness, with only flashlights here and there, mosquitoes humming, and an anticipation in the air.
I was finally going to see the Angkor Wat standing in front of me at the first light of dawn! This wasn’t a picture online anymore; it was actually going to happen. It was almost like a lucid dream – the darkness slowly fading away and the silhouette of Angkor Wat starting to form in front of our eyes. It felt like time was moving in slow motion, but also if you blink your eyes you'll miss the magic unroll. 
It was a cloudy day – so we did not get to see the orange hues of sun rising behind the complex – but it was still enchanting to watch darkness turn into light; obscurity turn into clarity. Of course, it wasn’t as romantic as I might be making it sound – there were tons of people behind trying to take pictures; pushing, shoving. We were lucky however to have had a good spot without any heads obstructing our view.

the three towers of Angkor Wat coming out of darkness

After taking fifty odd pictures, we walked back to our driver, who was going to take us back to our hotel so we could have breakfast, then get on with our Angkor ruins tour. I remember walking back; I felt a bit disappointed that the day was cloudy, that I did not get to see the sun rise. Can I even check this off my bucket list? I thought. Sun rise is what I wanted to see. But when I look back at that day, the feeling of finally being where I had wanted to be – right in front of the mighty Angkor at the break of dawn was a miracle in its own way.

After breakfast, we set out again with our driver and guide to visit the different complexes of the ruins. Some of our stops consisted of below:

Banteay Srei:

Our first stop, and one that is a bit further away from the main Angkor Complex. It was a 30 minute drive to this one. Banteay Srei is a 10th century temple and was built with red sandstone which gives the temple a gorgeous pinkish hue, which you won’t find in other temples. 
Banteay Srei was made from red sandstone!

Ta Prohm:

This temple, to many, might be known for Tomb Raider. Its uniqueness comes from the fact that upon discovery, this temple was not restored and instead left mostly in the condition it was found in; swallowed by the jungle. The gigantic ancient trees growing atop the temples provide us with an excellent visual example of unkempt nature and man-made architecture intertwining and blending flawlessly, albeit creepily. Both eerie and cool at once, Ta Prohm offers some visually stunning adventure to curious minds like me! It definitely is one of the most magnificent things I’ve seen so far in my travels.
gigantic roots growing on the temples

Bayon Temple:

Gate to enter Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom was an ancient capital city of Khmer empire; inside which the Bayon temple was situated. Once you enter the gates of Angkor Thom - on both sides of the narrow road are jungles that took over the city. I have this fascination for ruins...for its mysterious aura; trying to imagine a life existed where now giant trees are in abundance. Looking at all the temples, that are still intact with their intricate details,  but have lost their original opulence. What once was a civilization is now a tourist spot. 
Bayon temple was my favourite, mostly because it was quiet when we were there, but also the mystery in the air seemed to have multiplied there. Maybe it was due to the perfectly carved serene stone faces all around us. The architecture and intricacy of the Khmer people are to be admired about.

endless corridors around the ruins

Phnom Bakeng

This temple is popular to watch sunsets, because it is situated high up. We hiked up the temple late afternoon and waited around to watch the glorious sun go down. 

Our guide during our tour was so knowledgeable and amazing - and also very used to the heat. Which we were not. I kept asking Umair how is he not breaking into sweat in 35c + humidity?! Every time he started telling us a story, I wanted to tell him to lets move in the shaded area to talk but he was so unaffected by the heat. 
We spent our evenings in Siem Reap in the pub street area where all the expats and locals meet with tons of eateries. We were only there for 3 days but I absolutely enjoyed our time there and would love to go back one day. The people - our hotel staff, the guide, the car driver, our tuk tuk driver....everyone was just so sweet and hospitable; with the warmest smile on their faces. 

Angkor Wat grounds
Angkor Wat during the day