A Trip around Southeast Asia
Summer 2007 (14 July - 17 August)
Part 1 – Cambodia and back to Bangkok
Version: Version 1.01
Date issued: 19 November 2008
Author: Thomas Harbour
File Name: SE-Asia_Trip_Report.doc
Table of Contents
List of Figures
C. Through the Forest, a Clearer View of the Needs of a People, NY Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/18/science/18prof.html?pagewanted=1, September 18, 2007.
E. Khmer Rouge Figure Is First Charged in Atrocities, NY Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/01/world/asia/01cambodia.html, August 1, 2007.
I. Rach Mieu Bridge to open new chances for Ben Tre’s investment promotion, http://www.bentre.gov.vn/english/index.php?Itemid=106&id=165&option=com_content&task=view, 04 May 2007.
J. Vietnam bridge collapse kills 42, http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/asiapcf/09/27/vietnam.bridge.ap/index.html?iref=newssearch, 27 September 2007.
N. Laos, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laos.
O. Cambodia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cambodia.
P. Vietnam, ISBN:1857289226, Spencer C. Tucker, 1999.
S. Trials in Cambodia Expose the Cogs in a Killing Machine, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/10/world/asia/10cambodia.html, Seth Mydans, 9 March 2009.
I was thinking about going to SE Asia for a couple of weeks and then a friend of Donna’s mentioned that they had taken a trip around Vietnam with IntrepidTours.com.
Checking the available tours at http://intrepidtours.com/, Donna found a month-long trip around SE Asia called "The Great Indochina Loop" which at AUD $1676 was 20% off the normal price with a start date of 30 July. So on 22 May, I booked a flight to Saigon, Vietnam with Air Canada. After a couple of weeks of considering this tour, the 20% off no longer applied to this start date so it was less attractive. However, on 4 July there was a 20% off offer on a trip that left Bangkok on 17 July so I booked it. This required changing the Air Canada flight from Saigon to Bangkok which was possible after paying a $50/ticket penalty.
Given the type of 29-day tour that we were going on around SE Asia, it seemed that backpacks were the best solution, so we each had a large backpack and a small daypack. However my backpack proved too small once we started buying souvenirs of any size and we had to buy a big suitcase in Vientiane. On our return flight we needed the two backpacks plus the big suitcase to safely carry all our stock. In retrospect it would have been better to buy a big duffle bag with wheels from Wal-Mart for $19 and tote it around until we needed to buy a cheap backpack in SE Asia.
Figure 1. "The Great Indochina Loop" via planes, trains and buses
This trip report is written to remind us of the trip that we took, the sights that we saw and why the places that we visited are of general interest. Without the later understanding, the sights are little more than interesting piles of stones that are unconnected to history.
I've tried to illustrate our trip mainly with our pictures, supplemented as required by other photographs freely available on the Internet. Apart from describing our experience, I've included the history of many of the sights. I hope that I've given credit to any material taken from the Internet in the list of references.
Figure 2. Trains, planes, automobiles and boats around Indochina
The Kingdom of Cambodia, formerly known as Kampuchea, is a country in Southeast Asia with a population of over 13 million people of whom some 95% of the population is Theravada Buddhists of Khmer extraction. The median age is only 20.6 years, with more than 50% of the population younger than 25! UNICEF has designated Cambodia as the third most landmined country in the world, attributing over 60,000 civilian deaths and thousands more maimed or injured since 1970 to the unexploded landmines left behind in rural areas.
The first advanced civilizations in present-day Cambodia appeared in the 1st millennium AD. During the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries, the Indianized states of Funan and Chenla coalesced in what is now present-day Cambodia and southwestern Vietnam. These states had close relations with China and India and following their collapse, the Khmer Empire arose and flourished in the area from the 9th century to the 13th century. (Ref O)
The Khmer Empire declined yet remained powerful in the region until the 15th century. The empire's center of power was Angkor, where a series of capitals was constructed during the empire's zenith. Angkor Wat, the most famous and best-preserved religious temple at the site, is a reminder of Cambodia's past as a major regional power. After a long series of wars with neighbouring kingdoms, Angkor was sacked by the Thai and abandoned in 1432. The Khmer kingdom alternated as a vassal state of the Thai and Vietnamese kings, with short-lived periods of relative independence between.
Cambodia continued as a protectorate of France from 1863 to 1953 and it was administered as part of the French colony of Indochina. After war-time occupation by the Japanese empire from 1941 to 1945, Cambodia gained independence from France on November 9, 1953 and it became a constitutional monarchy under King Norodom Sihanouk. As the Vietnam War progressed, Sihanouk adopted an official policy of neutrality until ousted in 1970 by a military coup led by Prime Minister General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, while on a trip abroad. From Beijing, Sihanouk realigned himself with the communist Khmer Rouge rebels who had been slowly gaining territory in the remote mountain regions and urged his followers to help in overthrowing the pro-United States government of Lon Nol thus hastening the onset of civil war.
Operation Menu, a series of secret B-52 bombing raids by the United States on Viet Cong bases and supply routes inside Cambodia, was acknowledged after Lon Nol assumed power. U.S. forces briefly invaded Cambodia in a further effort to disrupt the Viet Cong. The bombing continued and as the Cambodian communists began gaining ground, there were airstrikes on suspected Khmer Rouge sites until 1973. In the end, some two million Cambodians were made refugees by the bombing and fighting and they fled to Phnom Penh. An estimated 75% of draft animals were destroyed by the war.
The Khmer Rouge reached Phnom Penh and took power in 1975, changing the official name of the country to Democratic Kampuchea, led by Pol Pot (Politician Potential). They immediately evacuated the cities and sent the entire population on forced marches to rural work projects. They attempted to rebuild the country's agriculture on the model of the 11th century. They also discarded Western medicine, with the result that while hundreds of thousands died from starvation and disease there were almost no drugs in the country. Estimates vary as to how many people were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime with United Nations investigators estimating 2-3 million.
In November 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to stop Khmer Rouge incursions across the border and the genocide of Vietnamese in Cambodia. Violent occupation and warfare between the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge holdouts continued throughout the 1980s. Peace efforts began in Paris in 1989 and culminated two years later in October 1991 with a comprehensive peace settlement. However it is only in recent years that reconstruction efforts have begun and some political stability has finally returned to Cambodia following the 1997 coup d'état.
2.2 Day 23 (Thu, 9 Aug) – Public Bus to Phnom Penh
First thing in the morning, we took a mini-bus from our Saigon hotel to catch a large inter-city bus destined for Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. We passed through Saigon as it was gearing up for another day and saw some amazing sights like the densely crowded utility poles (left, Figure 3). After about twenty minutes as we were approaching the outskirts of Saigon, the bus noticeably slowed and it was obvious that the bus had suffered a significant problem. We limped along the side of the road and were trying to pull into bus yard when the bus finally broke down and stalled with its rear end out on the shoulder and smoke coming from its engine compartment (center, Figure 3). The traffic continued to stream past us on both the road and the sidewalk! After about an hour, we boarded another bus bound to Phnom Penh and lawn chairs were set up for the overflow of passengers (right, Figure 3).
Figure 3. Crowded utility poles (left), smoking bus & driver with hammer (center), bus lawn chair (right)
Figure 4. Forest of TV antennas (left), collecting passports (center), brand new casino at border (right)
Driving to Cambodia, we passed through a forest of TV antennas in a town outside of Saigon (left, Figure 4). The bus staff collected our US $25/person in visa money and passports (center, Figure 4) at the border with Cambodia. At the border, we passed a couple of brand new casinos that apparently are in a no-man’s land (right, Figure 4) and then we entered Cambodia, a poor country where some 50% of the population is 20 years old or younger.
In eastern Cambodia, we drove over a wide dirt road past endless fields on a vast flat plain populated with a few tall palm trees (center, Figure 5). The road was being worked on and it is supposedly going to be paved at some point using international aid funding. The bus stopped at a large garage-like building that served as a restaurant for many inter-city buses (left, Figure 5). The food was basic and the service was fast to facilitate the onward journey of the travellers.
Figure 5. Lunch stop (left), green fields (center), patriotic statue (right)
We arrived at the Neakloeung ferry to cross the Mekong River. While waiting for the one of the two ferries shuttling back and forth (right, Figure 6), we saw a number of scenes that brought out the poverty in the country. This included the garbage strewn everywhere, the poor older women (center, Figure 6) and buses passing us with riders on the roof (left, Figure 6).
Figure 6. Roof rider on bus (left), poor older women (center), Neakloeung ferry (right)
Figure 7. Decorative animals for sale (left), Bayon-like spires (center), house on stilts (right)
Once across the Mekong, we continued on the dirt road towards Phnom Penh passing by interesting sights such as a number of vendors of decorative statues (left, Figure 7); a Buddhist temple under construction that had Bayon-like spires (center, Figure 7); numerous houses on stilts (left, Figure 7); overcrowded trucks and vans (left, Figure 8); garbage collectors/sorters (center, Figure 8); and a large passenger ship named ‘Prince’ that was tied up along the Mekong riverbank (right, Figure 8).
Figure 8. Crowded van (left), garbage collectors/sorters (center), ship on Mekong (right)
Finally near 1400 hours, we arrived in Phnom Penh (the word phnom means hill in Khmer) and stopped at the bus terminus that was on the street (left, Figure 9) across the street from the Central Market (center, Figure 9). We then took a short van ride to our hotel, Indochine 2, near center of Phnom Penh.
Figure 9. End of bus line (left), the Central Market (center), Indochine 2 Hotel (right)
In the morning we walked around Phnom Penh to see the sights. We were going to go into the Royal Palace of the King (center, Figure 10 & right, Figure 13) and the king’s temple called the Silver Pagoda with its 5,000 silver floor tiles, but the entrance fee was a steep US$12/person and cameras were not allowed. Instead we walked away from the ticket booth and went pass the palace compound.
Figure 10. National Museum (left), guards at Royal Palace (center), wat near palace (right)
As we were walking around fairly early in the morning, we saw tens of monks moving about, including those classic scenes of monks with umbrellas and unexpected ones such as monks packed into a jumbo (Figure 11). As these monks were generally moving in the same direction, we decided to follow and find out where they were going.
Figure 11. Monks with umbrellas (left, center), monks on a jumbo (right)
Figure 12. Card-playing squatters (left), monk fleeing Donna (center), tomb workers staring (right)
We walked through a large park that contained a big golden bird statue (the mythological king of birds of the Khmers) which was the home base for some squatters (Figure 12) and then past the dreary Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument which was built after the successful Vietnamese invasion in 1979. Then finally we came to the quarters that housed a large number of monks and included a children’s school. This was one of the sources of the monks who were begging for their food. There was a team of workers finishing up what looks like a funerary vault in the shape of a stupa (Figure 12). These workers seemed quite curious about us taking photographs.
As we were walking back we passed a group of young Americans wearing purple T-shirts who appeared to be a Christian group. Oddly we met this group again at the Phnom Penh as we were flying on to Siem Reap and found out they were flying back home to the USA having completed a one month work sojourn in a Christian mission camp at Siem Reap.
We saw a sculptor making concrete sculptures on wire frames (left, Figure 13) and walked the grounds of the National Museum with its elephants made of topiaries (center, Figure 13). Carrying on to the Tonle Sap River, we had a good view of the end of Palace's Throne Hall with the four faces on each side of its central spire (right, Figure 13).
Figure 13. Sculptor (left), elephant at National Museum (center), Palace's Throne Hall (right)
Along the riverside promenade there were a number of pizza restaurants that offer “happy pizza” (Figure 14), i.e. a pizza topped with marijuana and on the river bank, the kids were jumping into the river.
Figure 14. Happy Pizzerias (left), kids jumping into the Tonle Sap River (right)
After lunch it was time to learn about the madness when nearly one-fourth of Cambodia’s population died, i.e. about 1.7 million people, under the Communist Khmer Rouge, who ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. The leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, desired a return to an agrarian economy and decided to kill anyone who was educated and might therefore oppose his policies. Those who wore glasses or who did not have calloused hands were by definition educated. Others who were forced out of the cities starved to death as a result of failure of the agrarian society and the sale of Cambodia's rice to China in exchange for weapons and munitions. As well Buddhist monks were killed as they were deemed to be leeches as they begged for food and did not work.
In the afternoon we drove over to Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh where at least 14,000 people died during the madness of the Pol Pot era. Coincidently, several days before our arrival in Cambodia, Kaing Guek Eav, 64, known as Comrade Duch, who was the commandant of the Tuol Sleng prison was arrested by the U.N.-backed Cambodian genocide tribunal (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), http://www.eccc.gov.kh/english/default.aspx).
The prison was a high school until 1975 when the Khmer Rouge converted it into a prison and interrogation centre known as "Security Prison 21" (S-21). The school buildings were enclosed by an electrified barbed wire and the classrooms converted into prison cells and torture chambers. The buildings at Tuol Sleng are preserved as they were left when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979 by the invading Vietnamese army.
Figure 15. Our guide in former school room used for torture (left), school building (right)
Some of the ground level classrooms contain only a rusting iron bed frame, leg-irons and instruments of torture, beneath a black and white photograph showing the room as it was found by the Vietnamese. In each photograph, the mutilated body of a prisoner is chained to the bed, killed by his fleeing captors only hours before the prison was liberated (Figure 15). In other larger rooms (Figure 15) there are makeshift cells and glass display cabinets filled with human skulls.
Many of the victims taken to S-21 were accused of being enemies of the revolution and forced through torture to confess to often fantastic crimes before execution. Researchers have found written orders by Duch regarding torture and killings. In a government interview in 1999, Duch called himself “an individual with gentle heart caring for justice,” according to a transcript quoted by The Associated Press. “I was under other people’s command, and I would have died if I disobeyed it,” the transcript reads. “I did it without any pleasure, and any fault should be blamed on the leadership, not me.” This rationale is eerily similar to the rationale offered by the people who ran the Nazi extermination camps during the Second World World.
Hardly surprisingly, the guards/torturers/executioners who worked for Duch take a similar position to his (Ref S). “We were victims, too,” said Him Huy the head of the guard detail at the Tuol Sleng torture house, who took part in the executions of thousands of people at a Khmer Rouge killing field. “I am a victim of the Khmer Rouge,” he said without hesitation. “I did not volunteer to work at S-21. “We were all prisoners, those who killed and those who were killed,” he said. “And in fact, for a lot of the staff there, the day came when they were killed, too. In the daytime we’d be eating together, and in the evening some were arrested and killed.” “Yes, I did kill people,” he said. “I did transport people to Choeung Ek. I did verify lists of people at Choeung Ek. But Duch ordered me to do all of that.”
Him Huy, now 53, joined the Khmer Rouge insurgency at the age of 12 and was transferred to work in the prison when he was 18. In an interview, Him Huy said that “At night, sometimes two or three times a week, he drove trucks full of prisoners to the Choeung Ek killing field, where he logged them in 20 or 30 or 80 at a time and then confirmed that they had been killed.” “I had no choice,” Him Huy said. “If I hadn’t killed them, I would have been killed myself.” He claims that he had personally killed only five people, as demonstrations of loyalty to his superiors.
The killing was normally done using an iron bar to save bullets. As the prisoners knelt at the edges of mass graves with their hands tied behind them, executioners swung iron bars at the backs of their heads, twice if necessary, before they toppled forward into the pits.
Like many of the perpetrators of the Cambodian terror, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Him Huy spent a year in a local jail as punishment for his role in the regime. He returned to his village, 50 miles south of Phnom Penh, and is now a farmer and the father of nine. Asked to describe himself, Mr. Him Huy said: “I’m not a bad person. I’m a good man. I never argue with anyone. I never fight with anyone. I have good intentions as a human being.”
Unfortunately Pol Pot died in 1998 and other leaders have died without being tried. In fact there has been little appetite to deliver justice to Khmer Rouge leaders since they are well connected in Cambodia. For example Norodom Sihanouk, the father of the present King of Cambodia repeatedly supported the Khmer Rouge (Ref F). However in 2003, the Cambodian government and the United Nations agreed to run the trials jointly and established the ECCC tribunal. As mentioned, the first arrest was of Comrade Duch in 2007.
After interrogation, the prisoner and their family were taken to the Choeung Ek extermination center (The Killing Fields), fifteen kilometres from Phnom Penh and that is where we headed after re-boarded the bus.
Choeung Ek is the best-known of the sites known as “The Killing Fields”. It is the site of a former orchard and Chinese graveyard where mass graves containing some 9,000 bodies were discovered after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Many of the dead were former inmates in the Tuol Sleng prison. It is a pastoral setting with the pits from which the bones were exhumed (left, Figure 16) surrounding a memorial Buddhist stupa which holds victims skulls on display (center, Figure 16). Sadly bits of human bones still litter the site, including the paths that we walked around on. Rather amazingly there is a souvenir shop at the entrance of the site (right, Figure 16) which says something about the desperate economic situation of Cambodia.
Figure 16. Killing Fields (left), Skulls in memorial stupa (left), souvenir shop at Killing Fields (right)
Figure 17. The Central Market (left), our tuk-tuk by the National Museum (center), at FCC (right)
Returning to Phnom Penh, we walked down to see the Central Market (Phsar Thom Thmei) with its grand market building that was built by the French in 1937. The building reminded me of something from North Africa. There were many outdoor stalls surrounding the market building (left, Figure 17). However, as it was close to 1700 hours, the market was winding up so we negotiated a $1/person tuk-tuk ride down to the National Museum (center, Figure 17). We actually wanted to be dropped off at the Phnom Penh Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC). However given the language barrier, it was easier to specify the Museum.
We walked over to the FCC which is a public bar and restaurant along the Tonle Sap River near its conjunction with the Mekong River. Interestingly we noticed that the Tonle Sap River was not flowing into the Mekong rather it was the other way around. We later learned that during the rainy season, the volume of water flowing in the Mekong is such that it causes the flow of the Tonle Sap River to reverse and greatly expand the surface area of the Tonle Sap Lake ( Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake).
There is a great view of the Phnom Penh riverside from its rooftop bar (left, Figure 18). We sat, drinking (center, Figure 19) and eating pizzas and French fries, watching Phnom Penh pass by underneath us until night had fallen (right, Figure 17). It was as if we were taking a break from covering the Vietnam War in a bygone era.
Figure 18. Drinks on the FCC rooftop bar (left), old French building next to FCC (right)
Our waiter was a young trainee (left, Figure 19) who was very eager to please but lacked both the language skills and experience to effectively deal with foreigners. Upon our departure, we tipped him a couple of dollars and walked back to our hotel along the riverside promenade.
Figure 19. Our trainee waiter (left), a fresh coconut drink (center), gecko on lamp globe (right)
Early in the morning we drove past the Central Market (left, Figure 20) and out to the airport to catch our colourful Bangkok Air ATR-72 (center, Figure 20) for the flight to Siem Reap. Once airborne, we passed over sights such as large factories churning out unknown products for the global market (right, Figure 20).
Figure 20. Central Market (left), Bangkok Air (center), globalization factory (right)
Since this was the rainy season, the rice paddies were flooded (left, Figure 21) as was the Tonle Sap Lake (center, Figure 21). After landing in Siem Reap at about 1030 AM, we first drove to the Angkor Wat ticket booth to buy our 3-day photo ID temple passes for US $40 (right, Figure 21) and afterwards to the Angkor Way Hotel on the edge of Siem Reap.
The Siem Reap area was the capital of the Khmer (Cambodian) empire from the 9th to the 15th century AD, a period that is considered the Classical Era of Cambodian history. The most imposing temples of the Khmer Empire are just north of the city. The name Siem Reap literally means "Victory over the Siam" which refers to a 16th century victory by the Khmers over the occupying Siamese/Thais. This occupation might explain why we saw a model of Angkor Wat in Bangkok at Wat Phra Kaew.
Figure 21. Rice paddies (left), boats on flooding Tonle Sap (center), Angkor Wat ticket booth (right)
We went into town for lunch with our group and afterwards we had the afternoon free so we decided to hire a tuk-tuk to visit Angkor Wat – I had always wanted to see Angkor Wat and had come too far to sit around and put in time until the group tour scheduled for the following day. In the market we saw a nice looking young tuk-tuk driver (vest #6492) who spoke no English and we hired him for the rest of the day for US $6 but no money changed hands at that time. Our first stop was our hotel to pick up our temple passes and then we headed off to Angkor Wat. We had to stop into the ticket booth to show our passes and then we were off and the excitement built as we neared the entrance to Angkor Wat. We parked in the parking lot and our tuk-tuk driver agreed to wait for us while we toured Angkor Wat (we had paid nothing yet).
Figure 22. Map of temples in the Angkor Wat area
In the Angkor Wat area are a number of magnificent temples (Figure 22) including Bayon and Ta Prohm which we visited later. These temples were built by the Khmer kingdom which reached its peak during the reign of Suryavaman II (1113 – 1152) who built Angkor Wat.
Angkor is a derivative of the Sanskrit word Nagara, meaning city. The Angkor Wat complex is surrounded by moat with the causeway providing access (Figure 23). Cambodia is the only country with a building, i.e. Angkor Wat, on its national flag (inset, Figure 23). As well, Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom’s South Gate are on its paper currency (right, Figure 59).
Figure 23. Angkor Wat showing the surrounding moat (Ref A) with Cambodian Flag inset
The Angkor Wat of today is impressive (right, Figure 24), but it must have been a stunning complex in its heyday (left, Figure 24).
Figure 24. Angkor Wat at zenith (left), Angkor Wat today (right) (Ref A)
Elephants were a critical part of the Khmer civilization for labour, for ceremonies and for warfare (Figure 25). Our guide told us that some 40,000 elephants were used in the construction of Angkor Wat.
Figure 25. Elephants in Angkor Wat procession (left), Khmer war elephants (right)
Once our passes were checked yet again, we crossed over the moat on the causeway (center, Figure 26) to the Angkor Wat king’s entrance which is a large structure itself. In the entrance was a shrine with a large statue of Vishnu that was tended by a Buddhist nun dressed all in white (left, Figure 27). The stone work of the entrance complex is of a very high standard and looks remarkably like that of the Inca in Peru (right, Figure 26). The temple side of the entrance is decorated with beautiful detailed bas-relief carving of apsaras (right, Figure 27) that are found on many structures at Angkor Wat.
Figure 26. Police & tourists on causeway (left), Angkor Wat causeway (center), tight fitting stones (right)
Figure 27. Buddhist nun at Angkor Wat entrance (left), temple complex (center), two apsaras (right)
An apsara is a female spirit of the clouds and waters in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. English translations of the word "Apsara" are "nymph," "celestial nymph," and "celestial maiden." Apsaras at the temples in the Angkor Wat area are divided into two types: depictions of figures who are dancing or are poised to dance, which are called "Apsara"; and depictions of figures who are standing still, facing forward, in the manner of temple guardians/custodians (guardian spirits/angels), which are called "devatas". Hence the stolid apsaras in the right pane of Figure 27 are actually devatas, while those dancing in the center pane of Figure 41 are apsaras.
Carved apsaras are particularly common at Angkor Wat, the largest of the ancient Angkorian temples. Scholars have counted more than 1,860 carved on pillars, on walls and high up on towers. A study published in 1927 by Sappho Marchal catalogued a remarkable diversity of hair, headdresses, garments, stance, jewellery and decorative flowers, which Marchal concluded were based on real-life practices of the Angkor period. Some apsaras appear with arms around each other and seem to be greeting the viewer. “The devatas seem to epitomize all the elements of a refined elegance,” wrote Marchal.
Once through the entrance, it was exciting to see the classic view of the Angkor Wat temple complex (center, Figure 27). However as can be seen from my sweat drenched shirt, it was uncomfortably muggy under an overcast sky that threatened rain. Walking along the elevated sidewalk to the temple, we encountered monks (center, Figure 28) going our way and a kitschy tourist opportunity to have one’s photograph taken while sitting on a horse (left, Figure 28). Once inside the temple, a monkey with an attitude defiantly passed by us (right, Figure 28).
Figure 28. Pictures on horse in Angkor Wat (left), monk walking to temple (center), mad monkey (right)
Figure 29. Extortionist monks (left), Buddhist shrine in temple (center), inner temple construction (right)
Over the eons, Angkor Wat has transitioned from Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu to a Buddhist one where Buddhists come to pray (center, Figure 29). We met and chatted with a pair of young Buddhist monks inside one of the galleries surrounding the four main towers (left, Figure 29). The older monk explained that he was studying English and I asked if we could take their picture. He agreed and afterwards I offered him a dollar but he stated that that US $5 was the appropriate amount. Since I had an old 5 dollar bill in my pocket that was not the type of pristine bill acceptable to the locals, I gave it to him and hoped that it would not be bad karma. Actually, I was shocked by the monks demand and came away with a bitter taste of my monk encounter at Angkor Wat.
Throughout Angkor Wat, the stone is decorated with stone carvings of a very high standard and of surpassing delicacy (left & right, Figure 30). Fortunately, this high standard of carving sandstone is not dead as witnessed by the souvenir apsara sandstone carving that I bought later in Siem Reap (center, Figure 53).
Figure 30. Beautiful apsara bas-reliefs (left), my apsara (center), carvings with exquisite details (right)
Leaving our extortionist monks and US $5 bill behind, we passed out of the galleries and into the courtyard (left, Figure 31) that surrounds the inner temple with its five towers laid out like the five dots on a die. The temple is a representation of Mount Meru, the home of the gods: the five central towers symbolize the five peaks of the mountain with the walls and moat symbolizing the surrounding mountain ranges and ocean. During the glory days of the Khmer Empire, the Khmer kings established their legitimately by building temple-mountains and the number of such temples in the Angkor Wat area reflects the power of this empire at its zenith.
At a corner of the base of inner temple part of the dressed stone is missing and one can see details of the construction (right, Figure 29). It looked like red volcanic rock was used for the inner structure with grey sandstone blocks used as a dressing layer.
Figure 31. Courtyard & inner temple (left), steep stairs to Mount Meru (center), Donna at bottom (right)
The stairs to the five central towers are very steep (center, Figure 31) and intimidating to some. While Donna waited in the courtyard (right, Figure 31), I climbed up to visit the central towers.
The four outside towers are connected together by galleries (left, Figure 32). The doorways inside of the galleries brought to mind those found in some European palaces given straight decorative carvings (center, Figure 32). There is not much decoration inside the galleries but the entrances to the galleries (left, Figure 33) have very intricate carvings on their pediments (center, Figure 33).
The tower themselves are heavily decorated with more beautiful carvings including more of the ever present apsara (right, Figure 32) and the popular monkey army theme (right, Figure 33).
Figure 32. Temple tower & galleries (left), inside gallery (center), carvings on tower base (right)
Figure 33. Inner temple gallery entrance (left), detail above entrance (center), on tower base (right)
In the base of each of the four cardinal points of the central temple tower are active Buddhist shrines which are used as places of worship (Figure 34). Although the shrines are superficially similar, they are in fact different.
While it was an overcast afternoon, the views from the tower bases were still good. One could plainly see the surrounding jungle (center & right, Figure 35) that would have been cleared when Angkor Wat was in its heyday (left, Figure 24). Looking back to the entrance, one could see the steady stream of tourists walking on the elevated walkway that connects the entrance to the temple complex (left, Figure 35). In the distance, just right of center in the left pane of Figure 35, one could see the top of the big yellow balloon that offers rides to tourists.
Figure 34. Buddhist shrines in the base of each of the four cardinal points of the central temple tower
Figure 35. View towards entrance (left), jungle view through tower window (center), view of jungle (right)
Since the dressing stone of Angkor Wat is sandstone, the temple has suffering greatly from weathering across the ages (left, Figure 36) and from the recent tread of tourists’ feet (center & right, Figure 36). Just 7,600 people visited in 1993, when Angkor was first added to UNESCO's World Heritage List and the Khmer Rouge were still active in the area. However since the area became safe from the Khmer Rouge and landmines cleared from the temples and environs, the number of visitors has skyrocketed as the temple has become a must-see stop on any tour of Southeast Asia. When we visited in 2007, one million tourists stopped at Angkor Wat. What is the future of these temples that draw so much money into impoverished Cambodia? Well it is not so bright as Soeung Kong, deputy director general of the Aspara Authority which oversees Angkor's upkeep told Agence France Press (Ref Q): "The harm to the temples is unavoidable. We are trying to keep that harm to a minimal level."
Figure 36. Eroded temple-towers (left), worn threshold (center), damaged stairway to Mount Meru (right)
As rain was threatening and it was getting towards the 6 PM closing time, we headed back to the entrance. I was heavily sweating due to the muggy conditions as we beat a retreat (left, Figure 37). On the way out, we witnessed an apparent tourist guide running after a young Cambodian and hit him about the head. I tried to shame him by walking towards him and taking a couple of photographs of him (center, Figure 37).
Figure 37. Sweating with back towards entrance (left), assailant (center), swimming at causeway (right)
Crossing back over the causeway to the parking lot, we passed by a group of Cambodian children swimming in the moat (right, Figure 37). When we reached the parking lot, we started desperately looking for our tuk-tuk driver as the rain started. We were unsuccessful when like an angel, our driver walked up to us and ushered us to his tuk-tuk. We reached it just as the heavens opened and the deluged started – it was a first rate tropical downpour. Our driver put down the plastic windows on our tuk-tuk, donned his plastic raincoat and drove us back to our hotel (left, Figure 38). The rain soon stopped and soon we started to overheat in the plastic covered tuk-tuk. Arriving back at the hotel we were so impressed with the service provided by our driver that we gave him a US $2 tip that pleased him greatly. He wanted to know if we needed him later on to go into town but alas we did not.
Figure 38. Plastic covered tuk-tuk (left), Dr. Beat Richner (center), dengue fever appeal (right)
We went to supper at the restaurant beside our hotel where we were served by a young man who was studying electrical engineering just like I had done 30 years before. After the good supper, we walked down the street to a conference hall in the Jayavarman VII Children’s Hospital to attend a concert and lecture by Dr. Beat Richner, a Swiss paediatrician (http://www.beat-richner.ch/), who runs a group of five children’s hospitals: four in Phnom Penh and one in Siem Reap. Dr. Richner alternated playing his cello and lecturing on the problems of providing medical care for children in Cambodian. In 15 years, his hospitals have treated some 8 million patients and performed 90,000 surgical operations. All these hospital are free of charge for the child patients with most of the funding coming from donors in Dr. Richner’s home country of Switzerland. Donna was so impressed that she organized her school’s Lent sharing project to raise $600 for Dr. Richner’s work.
2.5 Day 26 (Sun, 12 Aug) – Temple Touring (Angkor Way Hotel)
This morning we got up at 0500 AM to see the sun rise on Angkor Wat. We sat on the steps of the “Library” and some bought coffees to pass the time until the sun’s performance started (left, Figure 39). It was somewhat overcast but the sun did rise and Angkor Wat was reflected in the lily covered reflecting ponds (center, Figure 39). After the sun was officially risen, we walked back to the parking lot for breakfast at one of the small restaurants and saw the food being left for the ancestors at the restaurant’s shrine (center, Figure 81). Even at 0700 hours, there were children selling knick knacks to the tourists (right, Figure 39).
Figure 39. Awaiting sunrise (left), sunrise over Angkor Wat (center), children at breakfast (right)
After breakfast we walked back across the causeway to visit Angkor Wat with a guide. Passing through the entrance, we again saw the nun tending the shrine with the large statue of Vishnu (left, Figure 41) even though it was only 0745 hours – she puts in a long day! The apsaras were still there dancing (center, Figure 41) and there was a woman cleaning off the stonework (right, Figure 41).
Figure 41. Nun at tending shrine (left), apsaras (center), cleaning Ankor Wat (right)
Figure 42. Gallery of bas-relief frieze (left), two armies meet (center), war elephant in action (right)
We walked through the galleries containing very impressive bas-relief friezes (left, Figure 42). Two of the friezes illustrate the Battle of Kurukshetra and the Battle of Lanka. These scenes include foot soldiers, horse drawn chariots and war elephants (center & right, Figure 42). At the center of the frieze, the two armies, one from the left and the other from the right, meet (center, Figure 42).
Figure 43. Gallery of Sea of Milk frieze (left), asuras pulling serpent (center), Vishnu above turtle (right)
Turning the corner, we walked down the eastern gallery with the long frieze depicting the Churning of the Sea of Milk (left, Figure 43). The long frieze shows 92 asuras (demons) and 88 devas (demigods) pulling on the serpent Vasuki to churn the sea under Vishnu's direction with apsaras above the churning and Vishnu's turtle avatar Kurma underneath him. The goal of the churning was to produce the elixir of life (Amarit) and it’s one of the seminal creation myths in Southeast Asian mythology. This myth is illustrated in magnificent full colour, 3D detail in the sculpture found in the departure hall of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (Figure 93).
Figure 44. Stairs on east side of enclosure (left), lilies on reflecting pond (center), elephant gate (right)
After the frieze galleries at the east side, we walked up the wooden stairs (left, Figure 44) to the courtyard surrounding the temple towers. Again I climbed up the steep stairway to walk amongst the temple towers. Afterwards which we exited Angkor Wat past the lilies on reflecting pond (center, Figure 44) and exited out through the suitably gargantuan Elephant Gate (right, Figure 44) where the elephants used to enter the Angkor Wat area.
Figure 45. Map of Angkor Thom
We drove north to Angkor Thom which is a ruined citadel several kilometres north of Angkor Wat (Figure 45). Angkor Thom (thom is a Khmer word meaning great) encloses a rectangular area of nine square kilometres. At its peak, Angkor Thom may have held a population of over 100,000 whom lived in tiled or thatched houses. It was bounded by walls with five gates and bridges across a moat that is now mostly dry.
Figure 46. Naga used to churn Sea of Milk (left), milk churner (center), South Gate tower faces (right)
We entered Angkor Thom through the South Gate after crossing the impressive Naga Bridge with its depiction of the Churning of the Sea of Milk myth (left, Figure 46). Unfortunately the serpent used for the churning was broken by all the pulling (center, Figure 46)! The South Gate’s towers are decorated with four giant faces (right, Figure 46) which represent the face of Brahma (one of the three main gods of the Hindu religion), the face of Buddha and the face of the king.
Our guide (center, Figure 47) was very good and even offered us the use of umbrellas against the strong Oriental sun. She was from a small farm near the Thai border and she explained that as a girl, she had to fight hard against her father’s wishes to attend university in Siem Reap – in fact she only could attend because she won a district scholarship. Although she was only in her late twenties, she thought that she would be a spinster as marriage is normally at a younger age in Cambodia.
Figure 47. Elephant rides (left), umbrella and our guide (center), Terrace of the Elephants (right)
On our way to the parking area in the center of Angkor Thom, we passed by tourists riding on an elephant (left, Figure 47). This was appropriate as we parked in front of the Terrace of the Elephants (left, Figure 48). The 350m-long terrace was used by King Jayavarman VII as a grand platform from which to view his returning victorious army. As well it served as a base for the king's grand audience hall which has long since decayed away. The terrace was originally attached to the palace of Phimeanakas which we’d visit later. The terrace is named for the carvings of elephants on its eastern face (right, Figure 47).
Behind the Terrace of the Elephants (center, Figure 48) were some giant trees (center, Figure 48). The size of these monster trees can be gauged by looking at the couple of people past its base.
Figure 48. Terrace of the Elephants (left), giant trees (center), monk on Phimeanakas (right)
We walked by the Phimeanakas ('celestial temple') which resembles the step pyramids in Central America (left, Figure 49). The Phimeanakas was built in the shape of a three tier pyramid with a tower on top by Suryavarman II in the 12th century. There was a monk gracing a window at the top of the Phimeanakas whose colourful robe stood out against the grey of the stonework (right, Figure 48). While the rest of the group went on to the nearby vendor stalls for refreshments, I climbed up the blocks to the top (center, Figure 49) as the staircase was not used. Once on top I was sweating profusely (right, Figure 49) but had a good view of the area.
Figure 49. Phimeanakas temple (left), blocks to top (center), dripping sweat on top (right)
While stopping to view the Phimeanakas, a pretty butterfly landed on my toes (left, Figure 50) and I took it is a sign of good karma. Leaving the vendor stalls beside the Phimeanakas, we walked past the giant jigsaw puzzle known as Baphuon (center, Figure 50). This Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva was built in the second half of 11th century, around 1060 by King Udayadityavarman II at the center of his capital city. It was a three-stepped pyramid with hundreds of relief panels comparable to Angkor Wat. Unfortunately Baphoun was poorly constructed and has collapsed several times over the years and been reconstructed. This is the only temple that the French decided to restore in its entirety by numbering all stone blocks before dismantling. The restoration started in the 1960s but was stopped by the Khmer Rouge accession to power in 1975. Our guide told us that when the French fled the Khmer Rouge, the record of where the number blocks went was lost which has hampered the renewed restoration by the French (École Française d'Extrême-Orient). There was not much happening at the site which was apparently due to the fact that restoration only proceeds six months of the year because of the rainy season and it was the rainy season.
Figure 50. Butterfly bringing karma (left), rebuilding Baphuon (center), lunching at blocks (right)
Near Baphuon, we passed a group of Cambodians eating their lunch on what appeared to be a jumbled pile of interior blocks from Baphuon (right, Figure 50).
The last temple that we visited at Angkor Thom was the amazing Buddhist temple named Bayon (left, Figure 52) which because of its splotchy lichen covering appears to be a jumble of stones until one gets close enough to see the gigantic faces on the towers. The smiling faces range in size from 3 to 4.5 metres and radiate a peaceful feeling as one ponders them (Figure 51).
Figure 51. Serene Bayon faces
Figure 52. Bayon temple (left), builders of Bayon (center), goodbye to Bayon (right)
Bayon was one of the last temples built in Angkor and it is one of the few Buddhist temples in Angkor compared to the number of Hindu ones. Over 200 large faces adorn the 54 towers at Bayon (Figure 51), i.e. three or four faces per tower. In 1177, the Chams sacked Angkor in a suprise attack and King Jayavarman VII appears to have decided that the Hindu deities had failed, so he switched allegiance to Mahayana Buddhism and made it the primary religion of Angkor for the first time. After 20 years of construction, the Bayon Temple became his state temple (the empire later reverted back to Hinduism for a period). In the 13th century Bayon's towers were covered in gold but the gold was stripped by later conquerors. After several hundred years, it was abandoned to the jungle and excavated starting around the turn of the 20th century by the French.
Figure 53. Linga at shrine (left), my apsara (center), dancing apsaras (right)
In Bayon and the other temples that we visited there were carvings identified with the Hindu concept of the linga. The linga is associated with the concept of Shiva’s male generative organ that is worshipped in the form of a stone or marble column. Frequently the linga is missing but the stone in which it was set, i.e. the female generative organ, remains. The one that we saw in Bayon is now part of an active Buddhist shrine (left, Figure 53).
We also saw a bas-relief of apsara (right, Figure 53) which was very close to the beautiful sandstone carving with its water lily motif that I bought in Siem Reap (center, Figure 53).
The question of those face is represented on the tower remains an open one but the similarity of the 200 large faces on the temple's towers to other statues of the king has led many scholars to the conclusion that the faces are representations of Jayavarman VII himself. However, there are other contenders such as the various manifestations of Buddha.
Figure 54. Feeding monkey (left), monkeys jumping into Angkor Wat moat (center), at hotel pool (right)
The outer wall of the outer gallery features a series of bas-reliefs depicting historical events and scenes from the everyday life of the Khmer during the Angkor period. One of these scenes shows what appears to be that of the people who built the temples hard at work (center, Figure 52).
Exiting Angkor Thom again through the South Gate, we stopped to feed the monkeys (left, Figure 54) and watch they jumping off a tree into the moat (center, Figure 54). They were taking about a ten foot jump and making visible splashes (one entering the water is visible in the lower right corner of the center pane in Figure 54). We then returned to our hotel for lunch and some much appreciated relaxation by our hotel’s pool where we ordered French fries, Tiger beer and Coke (right, Figure 54).
Figure 55. Tomb Raider poster (left), tree roots inside temple (center), Laura Croft at temple (right)
About 1600 hours we headed out to visit the world famous Ta Prohm temple which is just one kilometre east of Angkor Thom. Today Ta Prohm is considered one of the most romantic temples due to the collapsed state of the ruins and the big trees with gigantic roots growing on its roofs and walls. In 2001, scenes in the Hollywood movie “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” (Figure 55) were filmed around Angkor Wat and most intriguingly at Ta Prohm and the latter’s notoriety exploded.
Ta Prohm, meaning ‘Ancestor Bramha’, is one of the major temples of Jayavarman VII (circa 1186). It was dedicated to Buddha and also honoured the King's mother. The temple's stele records that Ta Prohm owned 3,140 villages and that it took 79,36 people to maintain the temple including 18 high priests, 2,740 officials, 2,202 assistants and 615 dancers. Among the property belonging to the temple was set of golden dishes weighing more than 500 kilograms, 35 diamonds, 40,620 pearls, 4,540 precious stones, 876 veils from China, 512 silk beds and 523 parasols. While these numbers may have been exaggerated to glorify the king, it does indicate the staggering support required for these temples. After the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century, Ta Prohm was left abandoned and was slowly overtaken by the jungle.
Figure 56. Children at Ta Prohm entrance (left), front side of building (center), backside of building (right)
Unlike other temples at Angkor, Ta Prohm has been left as it was found, preserved as an example of what a tropical forest will do to an architectural monument when the protective hand of man is withdrawn. However since 2005, restoration efforts under the joint conservation project between Indian and Cambodia Government have aimed to keep the temple from deteriorating any further.
Roots of a silk-cotton (kapok) tree are draped over many of the temple buildings at Ta Prohm (right, Figure 56 & center, Figure 58). The other main type of tree reclaiming the buildings is the strangler fig tree (left, Figure 58).
Figure 57. Silk-cotton tree cloaking building (left), giant roots (center), sculpture engulfed in roots (right)
Figure 58. Tendril-like roots cloaking building (left), mandrake-like roots (center), giant trees (right)
After returning to our hotel to recover from the exertion of trampling around the temple ruins in the muggy conditions, we relaxed for an hour and then shared a tuk-tuk into town for supper with others in our group. We ate at nice basic restaurant (center, Figure 59) in an alleyway that had a number of upscale looking restaurants (left, Figure 60). During supper I was able to watch a gecko trying to have a Tiger beer (center, Figure 60) and listen to a couple of street musicians playing traditional instruments (right, Figure 60). The musicians were quite sympathetic and their oriental music was interesting so I gave them my money with Angkor Wat money (right, Figure 59) and a US dollar.
Figure 59. Group by roots/building (left), supper in Siem Reap (center), Angkor Wat on money (right)
Figure 60. Upscale restaurant (left), gecko having Tiger beer (center), street musicians (right)
Since we knew that the following day was free in the afternoon, we tracked down our friendly young tuk-tuk driver and arranged with him to be picked up at the hotel at 1300 hours and taken out to see the Angkor Silk Farm for US $8. Given the language barrier, we hoped that it’d work out as planned.
2.6 Day 27 (Mon, 13 Aug) – Temple Touring & Silk Farm (Angkor Way Hotel)
We left in the morning at 0830 hours for a half day of temple touring and passed by Dr. Richner’s busy Jayavarman VII Children’s Hospital (left, Figure 61). Outside Siem Reap we saw some interesting sights including the tourist balloon going up near Angkor Wat (center, Figure 61) and a motorcyclist carrying a basket full of pigs (right, Figure 61).
Figure 61. Crowd at Dr. Richner’s hospital (left), tourist balloon (center), pigs in a basket (right)
Since we were going to the Banteay Srei temple about 38km from Siem Reap, we drove through the countryside and had the chance to see how the rural peasants live. Some live in grass shacks with a motor scooter - no car in their “driveway” (left, Figure 62). The rural gas station is a vendor selling gas in old pop bottles (center, Figure 62). On the positive side, there are pretty lily ponds during the rainy season (right, Figure 62).
Figure 62. Grass shack (left), country gas station (center), lily pond (right)
We arrived at Banteay Srei which is one of the smaller temples in the Angkor area (Figure 63). In fact, it is one of the few temples whose size permits one to easily see the entire temple at a glance. It is 30 kms north east of the Angkor Wat temple and is built mostly from red sandstone. Due to the intricate carvings (right, Figure 64) and small size, some speculate that it was built by women especially given that the name "Banteay Srei" translates into "Citadel of the Women". However more likely is that the name refers to the delicate red sandstone carvings found there.
Figure 63. Small Banteay Srei (left), entrance way (center), effect of ground movement on wall (right)
Figure 64. Intricate pediment (left), boy in temple (center), detail of intricate pediment (right)
Leaving Banteay Srei we travelled a short distance southeast to the temple named Banteay Samré which is off most tourists’ itinerary. This Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu is located in a forest surrounded by a pastoral setting, was built during the first half of the 12th century by Suryavarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat, hence the strong resemblance of its towers (left, Figure 65) to those of Angkor Wat.
Figure 65. Entrance to Banteay Samré (left), view to inner temple (center), leaning high wall (right)
From the parking lot with its vendors and children, it was a few minutes’ walk to along a nice pathway in the forest to the temple. The problem with this temple visit was that given the heat and humidity, we were exhausted and templed-out and really we were looking forward to a break from the temples.
The outer walls are made from a rough red sandstone (right, Figure 65) while the inner temple is made of grey sandstone. It has ornate pediments (left, Figure 66), spool-like bars on its window openings (right, Figure 66) and decorations along its rooflines that look like spines (center, Figure 65). One of the more unusual carvings on its pediments is that showing a standing figure holding a kneeing figure’s head and forcing him to perform fellatio on him (center, Figure 66).
Figure 66. Inner temple with naga bench (left), forced sex act (center), inner temple (right)
There many temples in the Angkor Wat area so that many are only seen while driving to the temples that will be visited in the time available. For example on the way to Banteay Srei, we passed by the Eastern Mebon temple (left, Figure 67) once located on an islet in a large artificial water basin (the Eastern Baray) which today is dry. It was built during the reign of Rajendravarman II (944-968). It is a Hindu temple with five shrine towers representing the mythical Mount Meru.
Figure 67. Eastern Mebon (left), Jayavarman VII’s head on Children’s Hospital (center), Pre Rup (right)
Leaving Banteay Samré, we headed back to our hotel and on the way we passed by Pre Rup (right, Figure 67) which is clearly a 'temple-mountain' with five temple towers layed out in the typical representation of Mount Meru. It was built in second half of the tenth century (961) by the King Rajendraman II dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. The name Pre Rup refers to one of the rituals of cremation in which the silhouette of the body of the deceased, outlined with its ashes, is successively turned to different orientations. Some archaeologists believe that the large vat located at the base of the east stairway to the central area was used for cremations.
Finally we passed by giant Banyon-like head of Jayavarman VII on Children’s Hospital (center, Figure 67) and pulled into our hotel at 1200 hours. We had just enough time to get ready for our scheduled tuk-tuk pickup at 1300 hours. To our surprise and pleasure, our tuk-tuk driver arrived on time and we were off to the Angkor Silk Farm which is some 16 km west of town (left, Figure 68).
Figure 68. Riding along in tuk-tuk (left), warning about sex & children (center), another new hotel (right)
Figure 69. Rice farming in ditch (left), motorbike on pickup (center), water buffaloes & children (right)
While crossing Siem Reap we saw the large highway sign with the warning “Sexually Exploit a Child in This Country, Go to Jail Here or at Home” (center, Figure 68) and a large number of new hotels either abuilding or about to open to serve the expected large increase in the number of Angkor Wat tourists (left, Figure 68) including Chinese weekend trippers.
Figure 70. Pig on motorbike (left), village produce market (center), water buffaloes in ditch (right)
Once out of Siem Reap, we were driving along a potholed dirt road in the rural countryside with its fascinating sights: farmers growing rice in a flooded ditch along side the road (left, Figure 69) which would only be possible in the rainy season; an overloaded pickup truck carrying a motorbike complete with rider (center, Figure 69); a water buffalo in front of a roadside house (right, Figure 69); a pig stretched out on the back of a motorcycle (left, Figure 70); a roadside produce market (center, Figure 70); and water buffaloes wallowing in the flooded ditch along side the road (right, Figure 70).
After about 50 minutes we arrived at the Angkor Silk Farm and went to the reception area where a young woman took us on a tour of the facility. The farm has fields of mulberry bushes growing (center, Figure 71). The eggs from silk moths are collected (left, Figure 71) and mulberry leaves and the eggs are placed in trays so that when the silk worms hatch they can feed (right, Figure 71).
Figure 71. Silk moth & eggs (left), mulberry bushes (center), silk worms on mulberry leaves (right)
At maturity, the worm starts to spin a yellow silk cocoon around itself in preparation for pupation into a moth. At this stage the worms are placed into large wheels to complete the spinning of the cocoon (left, Figure 72). The mature cocoons are put onto large trays for unwinding of the silk thread (center, Figure 72).
Although the entire cocoon is one single silk thread, the cocoon has two qualities of silk: a fine silk which surrounds the pupating worm and a coarser thread on the outside of the cocoon. Of course the former is more valuable. To unwind the silk thread, the cocoons are put into boiling water to melt the glue holding the cocoon together. They grab the strand from each of the cocoons and spin them together to make a silk thread (right, Figure 72). Of course in this processing the moth is killed and it is edible. I ate one of the moths still warm from the boiling water (left, Figure 73) – no it did not taste like chicken, rather it tasted like chewing a wet, warm tea bag.
Figure 72. Cocoons growing on wheel (left), cocoons in storage (center), unwinding cocoons (right)
Figure 73. Pupating worm (left), chopping up dye ingredients (L center), dye ingredients (R center), dyeing (right)
The required dyes for the raw silk hanks are made from ingredients such leaves, tree bark and rust nails (center, Figure 73). The raw dye is mixed with water and heated to 90o C in pots and the silk hanks are dipped into the mixture (right, Figure 73) – the fumes from the dyeing pots must be harmful over time. To make the dyed silk colour-fast, the hanks are dipped into an acid solution prior to the rinsing, being wrung out and dried in the sun.
Once dry, the dyed hanks (left, Figure 74) are weaved on hand looms (center, Figure 74) into beautiful silk fabrics (right, Figure 74).
Figure 74. Dye silk hanks (left), weaving on hand loom (center), traditional Hol Lboeuk silk fabric (right)
Of course the tour ended in the Artisans d'Angkor gift shop (see the online catalogue at http://www.artisansdangkor.com). This shop has some of the most beautiful silk items that we saw in Southeast Asia. I had wanted to buy the traditional Hol Lboeuk silk scarf that I saw on the loom (right, Figure 74). Although the scarf was US $80, I decided to buy it. However when I pulled out my US $100 bill at the counter, they said my bill was dirty and wanted a new clean one. I was shocked and offended so I didn’t bother to look for another bill and simply said sorry. Donna did buy some silk scarves using clean US bills of lower denomination.
Figure 75. Butterfly on banana plant (left), banana blossom (center), villager with water buffaloes (right)
At the Angkor Silk Farm, we saw some beautiful blossoms on banana plants (center, Figure 75). We were lucky to see a very large butterfly alight atop one of the blossoms (left, Figure 75). After about two hours at the silk farm, we met our driver in the parking lot and headed back to Siem Reap. Along the way we again passed through a number of villages filled with fascinating sights such as a villager moving his water buffaloes (right, Figure 75).
Arriving back in Siem Reap we asked the driver to go to the bright yellow tethered helium-filled balloon near Angkor Wat (center, Figure 76) as we wanted to go up and see Angkor Wat from the air. It's pricey at $15 for a 10 minute trip, but it seemed like the proverbial “once in a lifetime” experience. Unfortunately the staff said that the wind was too strong so the balloon was grounded. It started to rain so our driver dropped the plastic sides on our tuk-tuk (left, Figure 76) and we were off for the return ride to our hotel.
Figure 76. Driver preparing for rain (left), Angkor balloon (center), saying goodbye to driver (right)
We arrived back at our hotel at 1700 hours and said a heartfelt goodbye to our nice driver (right, (left, Figure 76). We had agreed on US $6 for the trip but gave him US $10 as he was so good to us and provided great service despite the language barrier. He asked if we wanted to go somewhere on the following day but alas we had to tell him that we were leaving.
We relaxed from our journey and the heat and humidity by taking a dip in the refreshing hotel pool (left, Figure 77). That night we walked down the street to visit some of the numerous tourist souvenir shops, one of which had statues to allow tourists to instantly dress up as Khmer royalty of old (center, Figure 77). I was fortunate to find a clearance store that was just opening up – they were still setting out the goods. Amongst the goods was a carved sandstone panel of an apsara (center, Figure 30). Unlike all of the cast carvings that I’d seen to date, this was a real carving by a master carver. The details on the carving were minute and exquisite – as good as anything that I had seen on the apsara on the Angkor temple walls. The price was US $28.20 which I thought was odd but fair. However after a little bargaining, the shop owner accepted US $25 for it. This carving is my favourite souvenir from my trip to Southeast Asia.
Figure 77. Poolside (left), Khmer royalty (center), wide-eyed at supper (right)
We ate again at the restaurant beside our hotel and had the ubiquitous red hairy fruit called rumbutan for desert (right, Figure 77). It has a mild taste and the interesting part is biting through the fruit’s tough membrane that protects its juicy interior.
2.7 Day 28 (Tue, 14 Aug) – Drive to Bangkok (Grand Ville Hotel)
At 0830 hours we left Siem Reap for a 10 hour road trip to Bangkok where our trip would end. Four and a half hours of this trip were in Cambodia over one of the bumpiest and most potholed dirt road that I’ve ever been on. At times the driver was hitting the potholes so hard, that I thought that he’d break the suspension. It was amazing to see some vehicles that were so dirty from driving on the road (center, Figure 78) and to see all the expedient Bailey bridges along the way (left, Figure 78). It was encouraging that foreign donors are funding the Cambodians to improve this miserable road (left, Figure 78).
Figure 78. Road building (left), mud covered car (center), expedient Bailey bridge (right)
Along the way we passed a number of large roadside signs urging Cambodians to turn in their weapons and not to rape the environment (Figure 79). These are good sentiments in any country but particularly so in a country that suffered through years of war and mass murder under the Khmer Rouge.
Figure 79. Give us your weapons (left), “We no longer need weapons” (center), Don’t rape nature (right)
Figure 80. Overloaded pickup truck (left), pick up stop for pickup truck (right)
The main form of public transportation along this road was the overloaded pickup truck (Figure 80). These trucks would stop in villages and pickup people, motorbikes and goods. With their huge loads it was hard to understand how they drove over the rough road without either breaking their suspensions or having people fall off. Of course those who could not afford motorized transport had to rely on their trusty bike (center, Figure 82).
The vendors along the road sold some interesting goods in an unsual manner. For example there was a vendor of colourful house shrines (left, Figure 81) which Buddhists use to present daily food offerings to their ancestors (center, Figure 81). In the right hand pane of Figure 81 is a gas station that is not selling drinks in plastic bottles as I first thought, rather it is selling litres of gas for motorbikes!
Figure 81. Selling colourful house shrines (left), feeding shrine at Angkor Wat (center), gas station (right)
As this was the rainy season, the country folks were able to fish in the flooded ditches along side of the road (left, Figure 82) and the water buffaloes were able to wallow in the flooded fields (right, Figure 82).
The largest truck load that I saw on our trip around Southeast Asia was that carried by a truck just before we arrived at the border with Thailand (left, Figure 83). At 1300 hours we arrived at the Thai border (center, Figure 83) where we had to disembark from our mini-bus and load our luggage onto hand push carts manned by Cambodians who pushed the luggage to the Thai border control point. Unfortunately at the border our tour group leader had a melt down and snapped at us to hurry along. However, we tried not to let her stroppy attitude sour the rest of the day.
Figure 82. Fishing in flooded ditch (left), strawman (center), water buffaloes (right)
Figure 83. Largest load seen on truck (left), Thai border (center), Mickey Mouse on dump truck (right)
Like the Cambodian border with Vietnam, the border here had a number of large modern casinos (center, Figure 83). On the Thai side of the border, we had lunch and boarded a couple of modern mini-vans for the drive to Bangkok. The difference in the road on the Thai side was amazing. It was a thoroughly modern paved four lane separated highway that is as good as Ontario’s Highway 401. After four hours of driving, we arrived on the outskirts of Bangkok where we saw a dump truck decorated with Mickey Mouse (right, Figure 83).
It took about 1¼ hours to drive through the rush hour traffic to get to the Chinatown area. We drove through Chinatown’s heavy traffic (left, Figure 84) and at 1830 hours we arrived back at the Grand Ville Hotel, from whence we’d set out on our journey discovery around Southeast Asia 28 days before. After unpacking in our room we went up to the hotel’s rooftop restaurant for supper.
Figure 84. Chinatown traffic (left), from hotel rooftop restaurant (center), supper at end of trip (right)
3 Thailand II
3.1 Post-Tour Day 1 (Wed, 15 Aug) – Sightseeing in Bangkok (New Empire Hotel)
Our one night stay in the Grand Ville Hotel was over and we had to move in the morning about a mile to the New Empire Hotel in Chinatown where we were to stay for the last two nights in Bangkok. We tried to get a taxi from the Grand to the Empire but five cab drivers refuse to take us since they are metered and the trip was too short to interest them. After failing the audition for a taxi, we took a tuk-tuk. This cost us 100 bahts which is about three times what a cab would cost but what can you do? We crammed our four bags and ourselves into the tuk-tuk and drove through the diesel fumes to our next hotel (Figure 85).
Figure 85. Tuk-tuk ride Empire Hotel
After checking into the New Empire Hotel again we walked down to Pier 5 to catch the river boat to Pier 13 that is closest to Bangkok's legendary Khao San Road. In the 2000 film “The Beach,” Leonardo DiCaprio's character travels to Thailand and like countless backpackers before him, stays in a dingy guesthouse on Khao San Road.
Figure 86. Map of Khao San Road area
The road is slowly changing in addition to the rough-and-ready tattoo parlors and street vendors selling cheap banana pancakes, there are now also up-market amenities: a spa offering body wraps and salt scrubs, a MacDonald’s and even a Starbucks! It appears that you can get most anything you want on Khao San Road including fake IDs and university degrees (Figure 87).
There were several young men walking around Khao San Road without any shirts on as they were showing off the tattoos that they'd just gotten in one of the numerous tattoo parlours in the area.
Figure 87. Views of Khao San Road
3.2 Post-Tour Day 2 (Thu, 16 Aug) – Sightseeing in Bangkok (New Empire Hotel)
I was determined to find a pair of carved wooden elephants to act as rod holders to hand up a silk hanging so we went back to Khao San Road. However first we went south to the end of the Chao Praya River boat line. On the way we saw a number of very expensive high rise condominium building that are sprouting up along the river bank. Near the end of the line we passed by an ocean going freighter in from the Gulf of Thailand (Figure 88) before arriving at the terminus. At the terminus as we waited for the return boat to leave, I watched a pair of workers tuning a brass propeller used by the river boats.
We left on the returning boat and took it up to Pier 13 to get to Khao San Road.
Figure 88. Ocean going freighter (left), tuning a brass propeller (right)
I revisited the shop on Khao San Road that had some carved elephant heads and asked for price. I was stunned when the salesman said 700 baht and simply walked out as he said “make me an offer”. The price was so high that there was no point in bartering. After stopping for French fries and ice cream at the MacDonald’s, we visited other shops and Donna bought some scarves. After awhile, I found some shops on a small alley off Khao San Road that also sold carved elephant heads. After bartering with the owner I purchased two carved elephant heads for 350 baht in total and waited for a tropical downpour to end before leaving.
Figure 89. Seller of my carved elephant heads (left), man wearing traditional skirt (right)
Leaving Khao San Road we took a taxi to the Jim Thompson House near the large shopping centers like MBK and Siam Square. Jim Thompson was an American businessman who helped revitalize Thailand's silk and textile industry in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1958 he began a new home to showcase his art collection which was formed from parts of six antique Thai houses. Despite the name, Jim Thompson's House is one of the best-preserved examples of the traditional Thai house in Bangkok. Thompson, a former U.S. military intelligence officer who once worked for the Office of Strategic Services, mysteriously disappeared while going for a walk in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia on Easter Sunday in 1967.
Figure 90. Lunch at the Jim Thompson House restaurant (left), raining on restaurant’s fish pond (center)
The Jim Thompson House, now a museum, is the second most popular tourist attraction in Bangkok, surpassed only by the Grand Palace in visitor attendance. His home sits on a klong (canal) and once inside the compound, it’s easy to forget that you’re in a major city.
We decided not to pay the 100 bahts admission price to the house and instead looked at the high priced goods in the Museum Shop and then had lunch in the very picturesque Jack Thompson House restaurant. The food was a little pricey but it was some of the best that we had during our trip including excellent chocolate desserts. As we were lunching it started to rain so we could eat and watch the rain falling on the surface of the fish pond (Figure 90).
Following the memorable lunch, we walked over to the MBK shopping center (Figure 91). MBK (Mah Boon Krong) is one of downtown Bangkok's modern shopping malls that is popular with both tourists and locals. It has eight floors packed with 2,000 shops that sell everything from clothing, fashion accessories, handbags to electronic appliances and DVDs. Although it was built in 1986 in a style like many North American downtown malls, it has the air of a Thai market about it. However at the end of the day it’s just another mall so we flagged down a cab and returned to the hotel.
Figure 91. Shrine with pagodas and elephants at MBK shopping center (left), traffic by MBK (right)
Figure 92. The expert at the massage parlour (left), parasols in parlour’s hall (right)
As this was our last night in Bangkok, Donna went to an up scale massage parlour in Chinatown near our hotel. It was about US$40 for a two hour massage including a final manipulation of Donna’s sprained ankle by the parlour’s expert (Figure 92). While Donna was being massaged, I went into an Internet store next to our hotel where most of the twenty computers were occupied by young kids vigorously playing video games. An hour online cost me 20 bahts and I was able to send off emails and check on the status of our return flight.
3.3 Post-Tour Day 3 (Fri, 17 Aug) – Bangkok to Ottawa
We had booked and pre-paid 450 bahts to the hotel for a taxi back to the Suvarnabhumi Airport. When we went to leave the New Empire Hotel at 0400 hours, the man on the desk tried to charge us for mini-bar food that we didn't eat. I thought that it was an attempt to shake us down because we were trying to get to the airport in a timely manner. Anyway I refused to pay and he let us go.
The taxi driver drove like a bat out of hell so it only took us about 30 minutes to reach the airport. Thai Airways only has a single line for all their various flights so it got busy when they opened the check-in counters around 0600 hours. Again all our three items of checked luggage were checked through to Ottawa and we hoped that we’d see our Vientiane suitcase, containing all our souvenirs, on the luggage carousel in Ottawa.
Figure 93. Asuras (demons) in front of Gucci store (left), Devas (demigods) (right)
Once through the departure customs agents we came upon an amazing life-size sculpture of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk (Figure 93) which is shown in bas-relief on the walls of Angkor Wat (Figure 43). This churning is to produce the elixir of life (Amarit) and it’s one of the seminal creation myths in Southeast Asian mythology. The story is that the Devas (demigods) and Asuras (demons) are locked in a perpetual conflict but agree to cooperate to produce the nectar of immortality called Amrita. They churn the Ocean of Milk by pulling back and forth on the naga (king of serpents), Vasuki, which is curled around the mountain Mandara that is support on the back of a great turtle. The turtle is the god Vishu Kurmavatara (form of tortoise). After churning for thousands of years the Amrita is finally produced but the Devas trick the Asuras and acquire all the Amrita. Finally the Devas disperse the Asuras out of heaven to the underworld.
The sculpture was commissioned and funded to the tune of US$1.1 million by Suvarnabhumi master concessionaire King Power to give Suvarnabhumi a suitably grand Thai landmark.
Figure 94. Laos slowboat (left), Vietnam tourist boat toilet (center), Cambodia restaurant toilet (right)
Soon it was time to leave the Southeast Asia and its you-flush toilets behind (Figure 94) and head back to the land of lever-activated toilets.
We flew out on Thai Airways to Hong Kong where we were to immediately transfer to an Air Canada flight to Vancouver. However Air Canada was 1.5 hours late in leaving Hong Kong so we walked around the airport which has interesting views of Hong Kong (Figure 95).
Figure 95. Colourful aircraft tails (left), Israel and Saudi Arabia peacefully meet in Hong Kong (right)
Because Air Canada was late leaving Hong Kong, we couldn't make the 1130 hour flight from Vancouver to Ottawa so we had 4.5 hours to kill until the 1600 hour flight to Ottawa left. As Donna had never been to Vancouver, we used the time to catch a city bus to downtown and back. The nice city bus driver (left, Figure 96) let us on gratis and we met several nice and interesting people who talked about Vancouver as we went around on the bus.
The Air Canada portions of this trip reflected badly on the airline when compared to Thai Airlines. Carriers like Thai Airlines are in another class compared to Air Canada. The entertainment system on the 13 hour trans-Pacific leg was old and didn't even work for four rows in economy, i.e. they could see nothing. However more to the point, the cabin crew seemed disinterested in their work and the level of service was just adequate. On the Vancouver to Ottawa leg, the Air Canada cabin crew was selling food from the "restaurant" and even wanted two dollars for a pillow.
Instead of getting into Ottawa at 1900 hours, Air Canada got us in at 2400 hours after some 30 hours of waiting and flying (center, Figure 96). We took a cab home for C$60 and eagerly unpacked the self-destructing Vientiane suitcase (right, Figure 96) to see if our souvenirs made it home undamaged – fortunately all was well.
Figure 96. Nice Vancouver bus driver (left), home at last (center), deteriorating Vientiane suitcase (right)
We could have done this trip ourself but not in the time that we had and not without significantly more time and effort on our part to research what to visit and how to make the travel arrangements around Southeast Asia. We especially liked the fact that we rarely wasted any time waiting for transportation.
The itinerary was good except that it would have been better to spend fewer days in Bangkok on the tour and an extra day in both Chiang Mai and Saigon. However, overall we received good value for the price that we paid for the “The Great Indochina Loop” with Intrepid Tours.
Having a supply of drinking water at hand was always near the top of mind since the tap water is not potable at least to the tourist. Fortunately there was almost always a street vendor at hand selling water at a reasonable price. We always tried to carry a litre or two of bottled water with us. Due to the muggy weather, most of the water that we drank was processed out of our body as perspiration.
Throughout parts of this trip if I wasn’t wet from sweating, I was wet from rain. Although I had a good breathable raincoat it was simply too hot and humid to wear it in the rain as the choice was either to get wet from the rain or from sweating inside the raincoat.
This type of trip through SE Asia will be enjoyable if:
I’d also advise that you try and fly most of your trip on service-oriented airlines like Thai Airways rather than with the embittered cabin crew of Air Canada.
Given that the Vietnam War was such a dominant news item in my teenage years, it was fascinating to visit the areas that were the scene of this war. I came away with the impression that the Vietnam War so a pointless exercise of military power by the Americans that achieved little in the way of positive results and caused enormous suffering for millions of people either directly or indirectly at the cost of some US $130 billion dollars. The effects of this war still echo in both Cambodia and Laos although ironically enough, not so much in Vietnam.
At the end of this trip we were much more confident travellers and more knowledgeable about an important area of the world. Perhaps more US politicians should have made this trip in the 1960s.
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