Sunday, December 30, 2012


Siem Reap means "flat defeat of Siam" and is an appropriate handle for a city in a country that has been in conflict with neighboring Thailand for centuries.  There's still a conflict between the two countries over a temple that, in my opinion, clearly belongs to Cambodia.  But no one's asking me.

The city's population is about 175,000 and its economy depends almost totally on tourism.  A river runs through it--the Siem Reap River.  

There are no high rises here.  The streets look like this..

     Daytime in town.

The road leading into town

I'm not sure if the several bridges across the river were decorated for Christmas, or New Year's, or if they are always like this.  Here's a shot of a bridge--it's reflected in the river, too, and there are lighted lanterns floating in the water leading to the bridge.

I had dinner at this great little Khmer restaurant last night.

I sat at a table that was in an alley.

Directly across from my table was this vendor stall selling colorful scarves made of Cambodian silk.  

I love Khmer food.  It's very flavorful, but not spicy.  My favorite so far is a dish called Amok, a dish with coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal, garlic, tumeric, and a little bit of chili, and which can be made with fish, chicken, pork, beef, or tofu.  I also like the curries--again, very flavorful but not really hot like Indian curries.

Here's my dinner from last night--delicious crispy spring rolls, Amok with fish, and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.  I was able to eat only half the Amok, and it was the best I've had so far.
Total bill--$9.  This was a real bargain.  

The street vendors here are mostly organized into market areas (where in Bangkok they seem to line the sidewalks everywhere), and there are several market areas.  There is no possibility of casual window shopping here.  The vendors start selling as soon as you approach their shops, and if you pause to look, they are at you constantly.  It's very annoying.  The tuk-tuk drivers are the same way.  Even though it's obvious that you're not looking for a ride, they ask anyway.  And there are so many of them that you can't carry on a conversation.  If it isn't the vendors, it's the tuk-tuk drivers...never a moments' peace.

I'm not crazy about Siem Reap.  It's a dirty city.  At one of the more highly rated outdoor restaurants where Dolly and I had dinner a couple of nights ago,  I saw two rats scurry along a wall near our table.  There is litter almost everywhere, and everything looks old and dirty.  This country has been through a lot of bad stuff, so it's understandable, but still not pleasant.

Tomorrow, I'm off to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, where I will finally be able to COOL IT!


Cambodia is a very poor country of about 14 million people, 97% of which are Buddists.  People here are lucky to make a dollar a day.  And it’s U.S. dollars that are prized.  The prices here for food are higher than in Bangkok—for transportation, it’s about the same.  There are no metered taxis.   Instead there are hundreds, maybe thousands of tuk-tuks—carts pulled by motorbikes.  Since it’s also VERY hot here, driving in an open air cart is actually quite refreshing, but the traffic is pretty scary.  A mélange of bicycles, tuk-tuks, cars, vans, and buses sharing mostly two-lane roads.   Very exciting.

The temples of Angkor are pretty amazing.  I’m not sure who had the contest for “seven wonders of the world”, but they were a finalist and I can see why. 

I traveled here with Dolly, a woman I met in Bangkok, who is a university administrator there.

There were Christmas trees here, too.

We spent the first day on our own exploring the temples of Angkor for maybe 3 hours before we were prostrated by the heat.  

We had lunch at an interesting little restaurant that offered traditional table seating and a more relaxing venue.

The second day we hired a guide, and that elevated our experience by several notches, although we didn’t survive the heat much longer.  Even though I could understand only about 60% of what the guide said, I learned a lot.  He was very knowledgeable about the history of the Khmer empire.  The Cambodian people still call themselves Khmer, not Cambodians. 

Our guide, Bora, also told us also about his family’s experience during the Khmer Rouge, and it wasn’t pleasant.  It was a time when educated professionals and public officials in Cambodia were killed by the new Communist regime, and this country is still feeling the effects of a shortage of qualified leaders to forge a more prosperous future.  Some of Bora’s family members were killed in this purging, and his family was later separated when the Communist regime forced people from the cities to labor camps in the countryside, claiming that the U.S. was planning to bomb the cities.  The intent of the Communist regime was to transform Cambodia into an agrarian society.  Bora’s family was later reunited, but those years took a significant emotional toll on the people of Cambodia, and there are no mental health services here to assist the many people who still suffer from stress related  diseases.  

The temple grounds cover 500 acres where there are about 1,000 temples in various stages of ruin.  

This is our first view of Angkor Wat, probably the most famous temples here:

There are many restoration projects ongoing, sponsored by several different countries.   Some of the damage to the temples is due to natural causes—erosion, forestation, etc.—and some is a result of centuries of wars with neighboring countries.  The earliest temples date back to the 10th century, and it is kings who have built most of them, to “make merit” for themselves and their families.  The shots you'll see in this blog are from a few of the several temples we saw.

What I was most fascinated by were the carved stone murals that depicted the history of the Khmer people.  They touched on all aspects of Kymer life—wars with the Cham and the Chinese, market trading, gambling, royal life, religion, etc.  

Here's one that depicts a battle with the Cham, from Champa which is now Vietnam.  The guy with the pointed beard is Chinese.  China was an ally of Khmer in this battle.  The warrior with the elongated ears is Khmer, and the ones with the lotus hats are the enemy Cham.  

At the time, elephants and horses were the beasts of war.  This is a military procession.

This one shows a queen and her attendants.

And this one is a market scene.

These murals are in remarkably good shape.  The restoration work is focused mostly on cleaning them.  I took lots of pictures, but I think these give you an idea of how intricate the stonework is.

Ancient Khmer was a Buddhist empire, but most of the Buddha statuary was removed from the temples by conquering Hindu nations.  You see more Hindu gods depicted here than Buddhas. 

This is an example of one of the Hindu gods.

And here’s a reclining Buddha that’s not in such great shape.

There are also a number of towers that have faces like this on each side….

Some scholars claim the face bears a likeness to the king who built this temple…others claim that it’s the face of a Buddist “enlightenment being”

These faces look a little out of place, don't they?

The largest temple is surrounded by a moat and stone walls.  Here’s one of the entrance gates, which are identical.  The stonework on the gate and all the statuary leading up to it has meaning, but I didn’t understand what our guide was saying about it.

A view from a doorway of one temple to another.

I always prefered tall men.

Some ladies who are still in great shape after hundreds of years!

At one of the temples we saw, tree roots had grown over the walls, creating an odd marriage between the man-made and the natural.

Sometimes you need a person in the way of your camera shot to understand the enormity of the situation!

This is only part of a huge balcony that was attached to the royal palace that stood on these grounds.  The palace was destroyed by the Cham, rebuilt, and then destroyed again.  The lawn in front is where performances to entertain the royals would take place.

At one time there was a city of a million people that surrounded the royal palace and its grand temple.  Houses were made of wood, and they were all burned to the ground at the same time the royal palace was destroyed.  

The Khmer Empire was once the most prosperous region in Southeast Asia, but you wouldn't know it now.  But hints of its grandeur remain, carved in the stone walls of these amazing ruins.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


I really didn't want to spend Christmas Day alone, so I booked myself on a food tour to Ayutthaya, which is the former capital of a Siamese kingdom of the same name.  Ayutthaya was friendly toward foreign traders and the influence of Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians, Japanese and Persians and Portuguese is evident to this day in the architecture, the food, and the genetic makeup of the Thai people.  In the 16th century, this capital city was considered to be one of the wealthiest and biggest in Asia.  There have been many wars with Burma through the centuries, and it seems that Burma mostly won. During one of these wars, the capital city of Ayutthaya was thoroughly sacked and burned.  

The ruins of Ayutthaya are a UNESCO heritage site (I've seen a few of these, haven't I?), and my food tour included visits to a few of the temple ruins.

Ayutthaya is about 80 kilometers north of Bangkok, so I got to see some of the surrounding countryside, which is primarily rice fields.  This central part of Thailand is known as the Rice Bowl.  At one time, transportation was primarily by canals and rivers.  We, however, traveled in an air conditioned van on a toll expressway.  

First stop was for a breakfast of noodles.  Yep, Thais eat either rice or noodles for breakfast.  According to our guide, Olive (her self-selected nickname, because she likes them), most Thais don't cook their meals at home.  They eat street food, because they're too busy making ends meet to cook their own meals and don't have adequate kitchens anyway.  We had two noodle with beef...

And the other with chicken....

Both were delicious.  Unfortunately, I left my menu card in the van, so I can't tell you the names of any of these dishes, but they were aromatic and very flavorful.  You could add hot spices if you wanted.  That was true of most of what we ate, and I really appreciated having the choice.

Afterward we were given some Thai candy, which wasn't sweet at all.  It's made of bean curd and colored with natural ingredients.  It's pretty to look at, but not that good.

After breakfast, we went to a museum, where our guide walked us through a brief history of Ayutthaya.  She was very knowledgeable and spoke English quite well.  I understood about 80% of what she said.

Then we went to the ruins of a temple.

These are the two couples who were with me on the tour at the entrance to the temple ruins...

Colin (from Scotland) and Susanna (from Mexico)

John and Tonya from Maryland (near Washington, D.C.).  These two are world travelers...they don't have kids...they take two trips a year plus long weekends in places like London and Paris.  John was born in Ypsilanti, Michigan and lived there for his first seven years.  

There were lots of stupas at this temple.  We climbed to the top of one that had an open chamber room at the top where there were 6 sitting Buddhas.  My camera batteries failed me around this time, so I don't have pictures of the chamber.

On the way out, we passed this reclining Buddha (camera worked for two shots, then quit again)...draped in gold, which has sacred meaning to Buddhists.

Here, and in the chamber of the stupa, people bought little squares of gold foil, pressed between white paper, and rubbed them on the Buddhas.  This is apparently a way of showing honor to Buddha.  That's what all the gold is on this Buddha.

Time for a sweet snack.  

There were two young Thais hand crafting a kind of soft sweetish taco--one was a bluish color and the other was green--naturally colored with some vegetables, I think.  I was across the street buying new batteries when it was explained.

Then yellow or green spun threads of sugar cane are rolled into the "taco".

And you have a really tasty sweet snack.  This is our guide, Olive.

Time for Temple Number 2, traveling this time by riverboat.....which was very refreshing, because now it's close to 11 a.m. and it's getting hot.  Some shots along the way........

I liked this bright orange house.

We weren't allowed to explore the grounds here.  The large stupa houses the remains of a Thai king and the smaller ones some of his family members.  The larger one is an example of Cambodian style architecture.

Now we're off to lunch.  This hindu god--half human, half elephant--greeted us near the entrance to the restaurant.

Lunch by the river.....what could be more pleasant?

I think this is snakehead fish....not pleasant sounding, but tasty....with yam and green beans.

A very tasty curried fishcake.

A very tasty salad, and I wish I could remember its name, because I loved it.  It had shrimp and red onion in it, and you can see the egg, but I can't remember the name of the green vegetable, which was the main ingredient.

And a typical "Yum" soup with chicken and lemongrass and mushrooms.

Off to Temple No. 3.  More stupas and another Buddha.

And then to our last food stop, where we had these delicious river prawns.....

And also some very spicy hot soup.....forgot to take a picture of that, but I didn't eat it.  

Now it's 3 p.m. and very hot, and we head back to Bangkok.  A car hit a truck that was right beside us on the freeway into the city, but we were fortunately just far ahead enough to get by it with no delay.  Olive told us the government is encouraging people to buy cars by giving tax breaks to people who buy their first car.  I have no idea why anyone wants more cars on the streets of Bangkok!

I'm leaving Bangkok tomorrow.  I haven't yet commented on the number of old white guys you see here with young Thai women.  You hear about it, and then you get here and find out it's absolutely true.  Very sad.

Next stop....Angkor Wat, Cambodia.