The Grand Finale

My very first glimpse of the Grand Canyon was squinting through the lens of my red plastic Viewmaster. I was seven or eight years old and highly impressionable. I have Viewmaster to thank for planting the early seeds of my travel bug.  Each Viewmaster came with themed reels; Wild Animals, Seven Wonders of the World, etc. You popped in a reel, peered in through the lens and with a flick of the wrist, presto – a 3-D image would appear. My memory puts the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and the Pyramids on the same reel, which I don’t think is correct, but I do remember being enthralled at the image of the Grand Canyon and finding out everything I could about it. My dream was to one day ride a mule down to the bottom of the canyon.  All these years later, we are here and nothing prepares you for seeing The Grand Canyon on the big screen. It is overwhelming.

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Both Stephen and I had imagined the Grand Canyon to be somehow smaller and more contained, I don’t know why. The Colorado River runs through it for 217 miles. The canyon is one mile deep and 10 miles wide, and because so much of it is visible from the 14-mile Rim trail, you get a tremendous sense of its scope. We met one gentleman who has been coming to the Grand Canyon for over 20 years; each year brings him a fresh perspective and a different adventure.

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I appreciated this apt quote printed on one of the interpretive boards: “No language can fully describe, no artist paint the beauty, grandeur, immensity and sublimity of this most wonderful production of nature’s great architect.” C.O. Hall, Grand Canyon visitor, 1895

Once again, Stephen’s perseverance paid off and we managed to grab a three-day cancellation at Mather Campground, right in the Park. It is a gorgeous campground, with loads of space and privacy and our very own resident elk population. We had been told that this is their birthing season, and if we were lucky we would witness a live elk birth.

When I asked where they might go to give birth, I was given a rather incredulous look. While I realize that wild animals do not have midwives, I thought they might seek out a bit of privacy and have favoured spots. However, we were also told we might see one of the magnificent California condors that have been brought back from near-extinction, but that is not likely, either.

Our closest wild animal connection so far (besides the elk) has been hearing coyotes howling a couple of nights ago.

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Back to the famous Grand Canyon mule rides I heard about in my youth. These days, you need to book months, if not a year, in advance and you have a choice – a one day or overnight trip. We passed fresh evidence that a mule train had already passed by on the way down on our hike and then these two cowboys appeared, leading more mules down to the bottom.

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We wondered what the difference was between a mule and a donkey and this sign explained it, as well as giving us a bit of a history of the use of mules in the canyon.

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So why the use of mules and not horses? According to a mule wrangler, “The difference between riding a mule and riding a horse is like the difference between riding a Cadillac and riding in a washing-machine. Mules are a whole lot smoother.” 

There are so many things about the Grand Canyon that will have to wait for another trip. Mule ride, Rim-to-Rim hike, overnight hikes – these are all essential GC experiences that require a bit of planning, different gear, and I’ll be honest,  a higher level of fitness than I currently possess. Stephen is like a mountain goat – he can climb up steep inclines without pause; I’m huffing and puffing, with my heart pounding and legs cramping. I take breaks and work through it and eventually it gets easier, but there’s work to be done.

Still, there are plenty of day-trippers in the Grand Canyon, and if a few hours is all the time you have, you can begin by visiting the Desert View Watchtower on the eastern edge of the park. This was designed by famous architect Mary Colter, as well as a number of other buildings within the park. She chose to build it “in the Indian spirit”, based on many examples of Indian architecture she had admired. It is possible to walk up to the top for a better view of the canyon.

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Our very first glimpse of the Grand Canyon. It choked us up.

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There are dozens of hikes within the Park – from easy 2-3 hour hikes to very strenuous multi-day hikes. However the 14-mile Rim hike, which follows right along the top of the canyon, and is quite flat and fully paved, is where every tourist sooner or later ends up. It is a linear hike, but can be done in segments and there is no such thing as a bad view.
We were on the South Rim, by the way, which is by far the busiest part of the Grand Canyon. The North Rim does not open until May.

Although we were there on Easter weekend, it was not nearly as crazy as we had feared. It was busy,  but bearable, although at times we had to wait for a space to clear to snap a photo, as cameras were in overdrive, capturing their loved ones from every imaginable angle.  My favourite.

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My second favourite.

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Every year people fall to their death at the Grand Canyon and sadly sometimes it is because they have taken a foolish risk to capture that Instagram-able moment.

These three young people were much closer to the edge before I snapped this shot. One of them had been sitting with her legs dangling over the side, looking backward for a photo. It took my breath away.

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But these two young women actually drew a horrified crowd. We watched while they posed and stretched backwards, just inches from the edge; clinging to one another like death-defying contortionists.
Are they “influencers” – that strange new breed of media stars who must always seek a better photo, a bigger thrill?

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We took one  three-hour hike down into the canyon, but not before reading the stern warnings about the potential hazards, especially between May and September, when canyon temperatures reach the 100’s.

Many hikers have to be rescued and every year there are fatalities related to heat and/or dehydration. Hikers are either poorly prepared, run out of water or underestimate the power of the intense sun and heat. Each year over 600 assists are required in the Canyon and over 150 helicopter rescues take place.

At a number of strategic locations, there are free water filling stations; a much-appreciated service, even for casual walkers.

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We chose the popular Bright Angel Trailhead; it offers several hikes and we went for one that lasted about  three hours.

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We descended about 1200 feet, which is a whole lot easier going down. However, we met up with a mother and son, who were concluding their 2-day, overnight hike from the south. They had camped in the rustic campground below and rose at 4:00 am to make their final hike back up. They were tired and hungry and looking forward to ice-cream!

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The trail is narrow in spots, but very well-graded and easy to walk. It was still early in the day when we hiked down, so most people we ran into were in quite cheery moods.

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Stephen, still cheery.
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Our little beacon on the trail – called Resthouse 1.5 – restrooms, a bit of shade and time to contemplate the long hike back – uphill.

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A view from another part of the Rim
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And…another view

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It’s not all about the hiking – there is quite a rich history here. The Village of Grand Canyon has about 1500 residents, swelling to 3000 in the summer. They are all park employees, and their work revolves around the various lodges, restaurants, gift shops, services and amenities that the village and the visitor centre and the market offer.

Most of the original buildings are intact and well maintained, such as the Mary Colter-designed El Tovar hotel:

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The Kolb Studio was the photography studio of the quirky and daring Kolb brothers, who began working in 1904 and became famous for their photos of visitors on mule rides.

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They were avid outdoorsmen and went to great (some said foolish) lengths to capture a shot.

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When trains began arriving in the Grand Canyon, they brought the first intrepid tourists and once the depot opened in 1910, a community began to develop.

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Train travel was very popular until the road from Williams was paved and tourists chose to travel by automobile. This depot closed in 1968, and only resumed again in 1989 when a clever marketer devised a package using a vintage train that included singing cowboys a Wild West shootout in Williams and a mock train robbery. Trains run twice daily and take two and a half hours, combining breathtaking scenery and corny, fun entertainment.

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The Grand Canyon was so much more than we had hoped for.  We only scratched the surface of what there is to do and see here, so it has been added to our “Must-return” list.

We waited this long to see it, which is less than a blink in its geological timeframe. This is an example of one of the oldest rocks in this area.

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From the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas – we are letting ourselves down gently! We will be back in British Columbia in about a week.

Overwhelmed in Angkor Wat

We were on a don’t-miss-it pilgrimage to one of the world’s greatest (and most-visited) sites, armed with some preconceived notions that had been reinforced by fellow travellers.   Many tourists skip the rest of Cambodia entirely, and hop over from Thailand or Vietnam to fit in their requisite one-to-three-day visit to Angkor Wat.

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In 1993 there were 7,650 visitors to Angkor Wat. Numbers for 2016 came in at just under 2.2 million visitors. The 400-sq.km. Angkor Wat Archaeological Park has become so saturated with tourists that many articles have been written advising on “best times to beat the crowds.” (Hint: at lunchtime, when everyone else is eating, but the noonday heat is enough to drive you mad).

There are many factors having a negative impact on this “bucket list” site. The structures are being weakened by the millions of footsteps that climb their sandstone steps and run their hands over their bas-relief carvings. The government is in discussion as to how to protect this priceless national treasure and control tourist visits in a sustainable way. It’s complicated.

We began our day at 8:00 a.m. and carried through to 3:30 p.m. We were picked up at our hotel by our tuk-tuk driver, Totiha (s?) He was with us for the entire day, taking us from temple to temple. All the tuk-tuks look like this – like little chariots – pulled on two wheels behind a motorcycle. They feel tippy but are remarkably maneuverable, and the biggest bonus for us was the fabulous cooling breeze we experienced after each scorching temple visit.

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Angkor Wat is just outside Siem Reap. After our hectic ride through the city, we landed on a long stretch of road leading to the temple complex. It was our first glimpse of the immense scope of the park.


The surrounding acreage is peaceful and atmospheric – jungle coming right up to the sites and wide lakes to cool things down a bit.

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On the advice of our hotel manager, we went for a 1-day pass, which made for a very long, very tiring day, but worked for us. In a move that was considered controversial for its potential impact on ticket sales, prices jumped dramatically on February 1.  A 1-day pass rose from $20US to $37 US, and a 3-day pass rose from $40 US to $67 US. Our first stop was the ticket booth, situated beside the tour bus parking lot.

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There were easily 100 tour buses – maybe 150, each with a capacity of 50 passengers. There were dozens of mini-vans. Tuk-tuks – too many to count. Motorcycles and scooters – well, you know already how many;  a few die-hard souls even rode bicycles.

I’m not a big fan of crowds and as we made our way through the throngs at the ticket booth, I felt quite crestfallen. We had skipped the sunrise start – were we already too late?  However, they’ve got the system down pat – we had our photos taken, passes printed and were back on our tuk-tuk within 10 minutes.

Before I go any further, may I tell you about the newly strict dress code at Angkor Wat. Since a percentage of the population does not understand the meaning of “skimpy attire”, and since another percentage of the population thought taking topless selfies of themselves in temples was a good idea (???), administration cracked down. Code of Conducts sheets are posted everywhere, and on many temples, women must cover their shoulders and their legs to be admitted.

For my temple visit I had chosen a light airy dress that hits below my knees, and planned on bringing a shawl to cover my shoulders when necessary. Our hotel manager told me that dresses and skirts were not allowed – I must wear pants, and a top with sleeves. While this information did not match with my research, I complied and went to the market to find a comfortable top. If you promise not to laugh, I will show you the result of my cobbled together outfit. We call the look “Travels with my fashion-victim aunt.”

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I bought the top in a hurry. This is what happens when one walks through a hot, sweaty market and harassed by market vendors to the point of distraction.

But the crushing blow is this – Angkor Wat was awash in tank tops, shorts, dresses, bra straps – I could have worn my respectable little dress and felt a lot more presentable.

Anyway…on to the main event. We began with the most important, most iconic temple, Angkor Wat.The entrance is as dramatic as every  photo you’ve ever seen, but the size and scope has to be seen in person. It is staggering and deeply moving.The outer walls stretch for 1.5 kilometres and are encircled by a moat. You cross a long bridge and walkway to approach the temple; as is fitting for a temple of its importance. It stands back and gives you plenty of lead time to admire.

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The distinctive lotus-shaped spires set Angkor Wat apart from the others.

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As we walked through the main entrance and came out the other side, a balloon was just rising over the structure.

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I won’t go into great detail about the history of Angkor Wat – that is all easily and comprehensively available elsewhere. But of all the temples, Angkor Wat was never entirely abandoned and forgotten – it has always functioned as a place of Buddhist worship.

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We expected the greatest crowds at Angkor Wat and there were times when things got a bit congested, but the site is so enormous that we frequently found ourselves all alone.
Visiting important ruins always elicits the same response with us – we are flummoxed by the effort required to build such spectacular structures, in ancient times, before modern tools were available. In this case, sandstone was quarried 50 kilometres away and floated downriver on rafts. It took 300,000 workers and 6000 elephants to complete. It was a pleasure to sit and take it all in.

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It is a reality check to be a tiny human speck, surrounded by massive stone structures. So many people walked this way before us, and so many will follow when we’re gone. What was this room? We’re imagining a giant swimming pool.
One disappointment about Angkor Wat was the dearth of signage. It would have been so helpful to have information to digest as we went along. I would highly recommend hiring a guide for the day – we “poached” a few times – pretending to take photos as we stopped to listen.

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Our next stop was Ta Prohm, the temples that are being slowly and photogenically swallowed up by the vast octopus arms of massive trees –  silk cotton trees and the aptly named strangler figs. Much of the complex has been propped with steel supports, but the jungle appears to be winning. This was my favourite of all the complexes.

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Stephen propped up at the roots of one of the trees.

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We fell into a sly vendor trap when we landed at a nearby temple where Tomb Raider was filmed. As we walked through, a friendly young man offered to show us the “exact  spot where the Tomb Raider poster was photographed.” We followed through and got our money shot.

 

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He kept following us, pointing out various things and it became awkward and apparent that he was after money. After 10 or 15 minutes, we thanked him and he asked for money in Thai baht! We gave him $5US, and he asked for $10, and at that point we politely parted company, feeling both naive and bit annoyed.

We visited a number of other temples, but as you are probably already feeling it – we were experiencing temple fatigue. Our last big temple – Bayon, in the middle of huge Angkor Thom – was the most surreal in every way.

The main feature of Bayon is 216 massive smiling faces that stare at you from every angle – they are strangely lifelike and powerful.

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We would have spent a lot more time wandering through, and examining the bas-reliefs that cover the outer walls, but for this obstacle course.

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Busloads of tourists had arrived, and there was nothing to do but follow the queue, and hope for a breather somewhere. Alas, it was not to be found.

I have to come to terms with selfies, they are here to stay. But there is a uniquely Asian twist to selfies that I’ve never seen anywhere else – they are choreographed and posed endlessly.

We watched this woman strike this pose in front of a statue, and hold it for numerous takes. Then… just as we were about to try and grab our own shot, another woman took her place, and struck the exact pose. It became apparent that we were unable to get our shot, so we left.
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Our final thoughts of our day at Angkor Wat and surrounding temples? Yes, it is crowded a lot of the time, but it is also possible to find your own quiet place to take it all in.

Trying to do it all in one day might have been a mistake, but we didn’t have the stamina to spread it out over two or three days.

The vendors are relentless – selling everything from guide books to scarves to elephant pants to artifacts, they are in your face in a really unpleasant and aggressive way.

It is hot – really, really hot, and there is very little shade. You need a broad hat, sunscreen and buckets of water to get through a day here.

There are lots of uneven stairs to climb, which require a  level of  attention and determination. I took a pass on two of them – I was so overheated at the time, but Stephen took them all on.

We wholeheartedly enjoyed our day, in spite of the discomforts and annoyances. We are at least a decade too late to see Angkor Wat the way it could be properly visited, but that is the way of many of the world’s top sites. That is not a reason not to go.

We left the park with this final serene memory.

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