The Wonders of Angkor: Afternoon at Angkor Wat

Me at Angkor Wat

Me at Angkor Wat

The layout of Angkor Wat itself is very symbolic, not surprisingly. It has three levels, representing Hell, Earth and Heaven. Pools abound. And nothing quite prepares you for the scale of the thing – it is enormous!

The first level of the temple has four different series of bas-reliefs, primarily covering a variety of Hindu stories. Sadly, you can see where people keep touching the stone, as it has changed color. (Granted, it can make it a little easier to see the contrasts!) Some of my favorite carvings were of the monkeys.

While that first level may be the most interesting artistically, there are breath-taking views everywhere.

Level three – Heaven – is at the top of the temple, and you can walk around the base of the five towers that make up Angkor Wat’s iconic silhouette. It’s no mean feat going up there, however, and while I made it up just fine, I had some difficulty going down. Let me put this in perspective. One “level” is many stories high, and the stairs, once again, are at about a 90 degree angle.

I made it up and down these crazy high stairs!

I made it up and down these crazy high stairs!

I wasn’t going to let something like a severe fear of heights prevent me from seeing something I’ve wanted to see for years! And thank goodness for my friend’s help – a travel buddy is a must when you need to face your fear.

We headed out of Angkor Wat, admiring more vistas as we left to kill some time with a beer at the foot of Phnom Bakeng, where we planned to watch the sunset. Unfortunately, several hundred other people planned on watching the sunset with us, so I didn’t get a very good photo of the sunset itself. But some friendly young monks posed for me, and I had a great view of Angkor Wat in the setting sun, so it was still worthwhile!

The Wonders of Angkor: The First Morning

My Park Pass

My Park Pass

I was a little worried that I would be disappointed when I went to Siem Reap to explore the various temples in Angkor Archeological Park, because I had such high expectations at the very least for Angkor Wat, not to mention the other temples. But it completely lived up to expectations! It really is as spectacular as all the hype about it, amazingly enough. Get ready for a lot of pictures, because even though I pruned what I decided to post, it was impossible to prune enough!

I had left Ho Chi Minh City for two nights in Phnom Penh, where I took the cooking class I wrote about earlier and met another American who was traveling to Siem Reap as well. We decided to share a guide and driver for our first day in Siem Reap, when we visited much of what is called the “little tour”, encompassing Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (including Bayon), Ta Prohm, and a couple of other shorter stops. Exhausting but fabulous!

Me at Ta Prohm temple

Me at Ta Prohm temple

We started out the day with Ta Prohm, the temple featured in all the postcards of banyan trees growing into or on the temple, and also known for its cameo in the Tomb Raider movie. Seeing the trees was amazing. Given how big they are, they must be incredibly old. Here and there, they are pushing the temple stones away, but in other places, it looks like they are supporting the temple. Ta Prohm also has some lovely carvings. Something you see throughout the various Angkor period temples (and on some of the earlier temples) is figures of dancers, called apsara. I was told the various poses of the dance reflect the steps of planting, growing and harvesting rice.

We headed towards Ta Keo, but unfortunately they were working on maintenance/restoration and had closed it off for the day. I was ok with skipping one set of super-steep stairs as I suspected there were many more to come!

Ta Keo

Ta Keo

Next we entered the Angkor-era royal city of Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom’s walls are well worth seeing, as the various gates consist of monumental stone heads representing the king or a god, and there are several terraces as well. Then within the walls lie a number of temples and royal buildings, the best known of which is Bayon. (Yes, that would be the monumental head temple – forty or fifty of them, I’ve heard.)

We entered through a victory gate:

and continued on to Bayon. Bayon is a bit of a contrast, because not only does it have monumental sculpture at the top of the temple, but it is surrounded by some of the finest carvings from the period. These carvings show scenes of going to and coming from battle:

But the morning wasn’t over yet! The next temple to explore was Baphuon. Climbing it was…interesting, for someone scared of heights. (The stairs are awfully steep!) There aren’t really major carvings with this temple, but a great view from the top.

Interestingly, the back of the temple itself forms a “statue” of a giant reclining Buddha. Can you see the curve of its face on the left?

We passed the ancient seat of the king, the only part of the palace to be built in stone, apparently. All of the other non-religious royal buildings were built of wood and no longer exist. I passed on climbing up this one.

We headed out of Angkor Thom through another gate and onto the Elephant Terrace, where the king apparently watched elephant fights eight hundred years ago. At this point it was time for lunch, before heading to spend much of the afternoon at Angkor Wat. We ate at one of the touristy restaurants across from Angkor Wat, nothing too great, but not bad Khmer food. Fresh coconut juice drunk directly from the coconut helped to fortify us for the afternoon – when people mention how hot Siem Reap is, they aren’t kidding! Very, very hot and humid.

Paris of the East: Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon

Lots of massive official posters around the city...

Lots of massive official posters around the city…

Once called the Paris of the East, Saigon has gone through a lot in the past forty years. I’ll admit that in spite of trying to not bring preconceptions with me, I definitely had certain expectations for Ho Chi Minh City. Arriving on the bus from Phnom Penh, the first of those subconscious ideas disappeared as we passed a huge Starbucks not too far from where I got off the bus. Now to be fair, I believe that Starbucks has only broken into the market quite recently, but I saw it as emblematic of the Ho Chi Minh City I got to see, which was much less closed to the West than I had realized. Apparently the past few years has seen a rise in the spending power of the middle class, while the trendy children of Party members don’t lack for Western luxury stores like Chanel or Louis Vuitton.


I stayed in District 1, and, apart from the Hunger Games-like nomenclature, it’s a great area for tourists to stay. The tourist sites are here, along with the previously mentioned luxury good stores. Architecture is a mix of very new skyscrapers, well-preserved French-style city and government buildings, some modern Vietnamese buildings, and not so well-maintained colonial buildings. Traffic, however, is like the rest of SE Asia – terrible and frightening for Westerners not used to different rules of the road. (OK, to me they seem like no rules of the road!)

I visited the city so that I could see an old friend of mine from university, and we had a great time! Sadly, two months wasn’t really enough time to visit Vietnam on top of Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, so the rest of the country will have to wait for another visit.

My friend Va and I spent my first evening in town eating and walking around. My kind of vacation!

District One at night

District One at night

The HCMC People's Committee Building (former Hotel de Ville de Saigon)

The HCMC People’s Committee Building (former Hotel de Ville de Saigon)

In fact, that was a theme for much of the trip, along with sitting in coffee shops and writing. (Yes, I am still about two weeks behind in my blog.) I really liked the architecture of the city. The Basilica de Notre Dame seems rather incongruous in SE Asia – almost as if it had been transplanted whole from France. The central post office (apparently open every day of the week) was designed by Gustave Eiffel. Newer buildings are, not surprisingly, designed by Vietnamese.

One morning, I took a Vietnamese cooking class. I really like Vietnamese food and was super excited that I would be learning how to cook caramel pork in clay pot, since caramel fish in clay pot is one of my favorite dishes. Sadly, my course was the worst that I have take on this trip, leaving me feeling like I was helping in someone else’s kitchen rather than being able to cook things myself. For example, for the caramel pork, they had already made the caramel sauce. How disappointing! At least I learned how to make a decent sweet and sour soup.

Luckily the day was redeemed by a combination of great street food (green papaya salad) and my friend’s persuading me to join her at her ballet class. I haven’t taken ballet in about, oh, eighteen years, so it wasn’t pretty. But it felt good! We celebrated after with some crepes, undoing all our good exercise but rewarding our tastebuds.

My friend Va and the fabulous papaya salad

My friend Va and the fabulous papaya salad

Fun at La Creperie!

Fun at La Creperie!

I did spend part of a day in the former Presidential Palace. It was sobering to visit the basement, which was essentially a bunker/command center. It didn’t take much imagination to put you back to the final days before the fall of Saigon. Walking through, there isn’t much sign posting, which I was fine with since I could figure out most things from the map. There is one room full of pictures detailing the history of the palace and the “glorious reunification” which was full of the expected Communist propaganda, so I was glad to have opted to bypass the official tour.

Va and I also ventured to Cholon, Chinatown. We tried to find some food, but to no avail, so visited one of the pagodas and hastened home to avoid the afternoon rain.

I was sorry to leave, even after having extended my trip by a couple of days.

Kampot Pepper and Kep Crab

A few days into my stay in Phnom Penh, I took a friend’s advice and headed south to Kampot. Because of the recent rains, the rice fields down by Kampot were a vibrant green, contrasting with the red of the dirt roads. It was absolutely beautiful!

It’s a little far to Kampot to make a day trip from Phnom Penh, so I planned on staying one night at an eco resort nearby. Stepping off the bus, I was swarmed by the most aggressive tuk tuk drivers I have met yet in Cambodia, who physically surrounded me. That made me uncomfortable, so I walked away and picked a single driver who followed quietly. One of the aggressive ones chose to dispute this, saying he had told me “I wait for you”, a pretty standard tactic. I ignored this and left with the non-hassling driver, but it wasn’t the most auspicious start!

The roads in the area are full of potholes, making the tuk tuk a fairly uncomfortable mode of transport. But all the potholes mean driving at a slow pace, which enabled me to wave back to the various schoolchildren on their bikes shouting “hello” and “how are you?” throughout the day. The kids were so friendly! It’s one of my favorite memories of Cambodia.

To get to the hotel, you have to go through a tiny Cham (a Muslim ethnic group) village, barely avoiding driving through someone’s sheltered “patio” under their second story house because the houses are so close together. Chickens, of course, abound.

I hired my tuk tuk driver to take me to Kep, on the ocean, and to a temple built around a stalactite in a cave. I had also wanted to see a pepper plantation, since Kampot pepper is a specialty. Back in the French colonial days, it was exported as a delicacy, and it is enjoying a resurgence now that the civil war is over. My hotel said the plantations should be on the way, but my tuk tuk driver had a set “tour” which included salt flats, Kep crab market, the temple, and a fishing village and he wasn’t too interested in being flexible. Oh well, I have seen a lot of fields on this trip anyway!

First stop were the salt flats, not too active yet since it was still rainy season and all the salt would keep getting diluted and washed away if they were to try to dry salt!

Salt fields without salt

Salt fields without salt

Next was Kep crab market, where I gently refused to eat at the restaurant my driver suggested and went to the one that had been recommended to me instead. Lunch was, of course, crab – steamed and with fresh Kampot pepper. Just sitting and looking out at the sea was really lovely.
Crab with Kampot pepper

Crab with Kampot pepper

Crab fishing

Crab fishing



Then back in the tuk tuk past the fishing village (looking over a group of men with boats getting their nets ready for the night’s catch, nothing too exciting) and on to the temple. What I didn’t know was that in wet season, tuk tuks can’t get to the foot of the hill the cave is in and you have to walk through some rice paddies and across a downed tree set as a bridge. Despite all my good intentions, I had to accept the help of a couple of local children as guides. (I was really reluctant to since it can encourage the families to send the kids to act as guides to earn tip money instead of to school.)

Through the fields, over the tree, up the hill, then down into the (mosquito-filled) cave. A bit of a trek! The temple was tiny, more a shrine, but really interesting for all that. It was a simple brick structure built around the cave formation.

Cave temple

Cave temple

Then back to the tuk tuk, where the driver made me clean off at least some of the mud caked onto my shoes from the trek over the dirt path. One of the kids had giggled that my shoes now weighed a kilo each due to mud, and she wasn’t far wrong!

An early night was in order, as I was just starting to get that horrible head cold. My eco resort had a choice of room types. I chose the tribal hut, a bamboo hut on stilts at the back of the property overlooking rice fields. I left my shoes at the bottom of the ladder up to my hut, as asked to make cleaning the elevated bamboo platform easier. I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of a wet season downpour, and debated going out to rescue my shoes. But they would have been soaked already, so I decided to stay snug and dry. In the morning, I shook them out and was a little bemused to see a toad plop out of one! image

The hot tropical sun dried my shoes over the course of the morning, which worked perfectly since I had decided to nurse my cold by reading my book at the hotel. Why else stay at an eco resort, after all, if it’s not also a good place to hang out?!

And then back to Phnom Penh!

From Kingdom of Wonder to the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge: Phnom Penh

Strange though this will no doubt sound, Phnom Penh for me was in large part cafe hopping. Not that I didn’t go see most of the tourist sites, but I was nursing a pretty bad head cold during most of my stay here and didn’t push myself to do much more than ingest lots and lots of fluids.

While Laos is very poor – I think poorer than Cambodia – it’s actually been Phnom Penh that hit me in the face with the poverty in Southeast Asia. So many people are so very thin. And whole families essentially live on the streets of the city, sleeping at night on a woven mat unrolled on the sidewalk or in a city square. The streets smell. Yet with all this, Phnom Penh still has more character than Vientiane.

Phnom Penh is a city flooded with expats, many of them associated with an NGO of some sort. Chatting with the employees at my hotel, I found a disturbing sense that, to them, to be foreign (or at least Western) is to be better, richer, smarter, more likely to solve Cambodia’s problems. And therein lies the rub for all worthy development causes. How do you make sure you are creating sustainable development? How do you prevent creating a client state dependent on foreign aid and initiative? Most of the NGOs I interacted with were Western, even if they had local partners or trained local at-risk populations. I’m certainly not saying that these aren’t worthy causes. I definitely felt like I was doing some good by how I was spending my tourist dollars in NGO shops or training restaurants. I just want to raise the issue.

From a tourist perspective, of course I had to visit the National Museum, which houses some amazing sculptures from Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. One of my favorites was of two monkey warriors wrestling. It’s a massive sculpture, much less fine and delicate than the Angkor-style bas reliefs. The figures remind me of Picasso’s large paintings of rosy women running, in how the contours of the figures are worked and the muscular power depicted.

Monks Outside the National Museum

Monks Outside the National Museum

A friend of mine who lives in Phnom Penh introduced me to the “best coffee in the city” at the Russian Market, after taking me on a bit of a walking tour.
Best coffee in PP

Best coffee in PP

We also went for “Khmer glamor shots”, where we went to a photo studio to get dressed up in formal Khmer clothes after about an hour of hair and make-up. (This would be done by locals for things like wedding or engagement pictures, so the shop no doubt thought we were bizarre.) It was a lot of fun!
Me in traditional Khmer clothes photoshopped to Angkor Wat

Me in traditional Khmer clothes photoshopped to Angkor Wat

I didn’t manage to go to Wat Phnom, as that side of the city was the gathering point for three days of protests. (There have been a lot of protests recently, and some violence, but these in particular were focused on protesting irregularities during the recent elections and called for an independent international investigation.) I was a good little traveller and stayed away from the large groups protesting, but I certainly saw the large military police presence and water canons in other parts of the city. Luckily, most of the time I passed the soldiers, they were sleeping in hammocks in the shade.

Of course, no visit to Phnom Penh is complete without a visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (former school turned detention and torture center S-21 during the Khmer Rouge) and the Killing Fields (merely one of many locations where people were killed and buried in mass graves, located outside the city).

The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, was a Cambodian Communist party that was in power for slightly under four years in the 1970s, renaming the country Democratic Kampuchea. I’m not sure where Pol Pot’s particular brand of communism came from, but it was particularly brutal. Pol Pot believed in the supremacy of the peasant, and in three days the Khmer Rouge resettled everyone living in Phnom Penh to the countryside to lead agricultural lives under near-starvation conditions. Education was essentially abolished. The mass relocations, hard working and living conditions, and killings of various groups of people led to between one to three million deaths in under four years. To put this in perspective, today’s Cambodian population is less than fifteen million people. What I didn’t realize is that the Khmer Rouge remained (at least nominally) the official government during the years post-Kampuchea under the Vietnamese and still exists as a party today, even as some of the 1970s leadership is being tried by a a special court.

S-21 is a peaceful place now. The sun shines in the courtyard. It’s a museum dedicated to education, with the hope of preventing future atrocities. Once you enter some of the rooms in the museum, it doesn’t take much imagination to see it as a detention center. One building still has the layout of the rough cells built in each classroom, barely bigger than a man stretched out lying down. Rooms full of “mug shots” of detainees make an impact, in part because the rooms just go on and on. I was most touched by the building which kept barbed wire on the balconies to prevent prisoners from committing suicide. Just standing behind the wire made me feel claustrophobic.

As for the Killing Fields, I had had mixed feelings on visiting. The monument to the dead there contains hundreds of bones, and I had heard that some people object to it as it doesn’t follow the rules of Buddhist burial. However, I did decide to go, to learn more and to honor the dead. The audio guide is great, and obviously heart-wrenching. If you didn’t have the guide, you honestly wouldn’t know that the site was anything more than a green area with oddly shaped pits (mass graves whose bodies were exhumed, so that the earth has collapsed). They are still finding bone and clothing fragments today, especially after the rainy season disturbs the ground.

The Royal Palace provides an attraction that avoids dwelling on the dark days of the Khmer Rouge. I hired a guide at the gate, though in retrospect I don’t think it’s at all necessary. It was interesting to hear a bit about his life though!

And for the foodie, Phnom Penh has a variety of good cafes and restaurants. I went to the Friends training restaurant (and their shop, afterwards!), which was really good. The Shop had delicious chocolate mousse. A cupcake shop made beautiful confections. My friend took me for tasty Khmer barbecue, where I bravely tried bee larvae. (Tastes like creamy honey.)

Of course I had to take a cooking class! I actually took it on my way from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap, stopping for the day in Phnom Penh to break the trip. We had a great group of people, and learned how to make fish amok, spring rolls, dipping sauce, banana petal salad, and of course a sticky rice and mango dessert. The amok we steamed in banana leaf boats – big impact with a few easy folds. As for the sticky rice dessert, it’s amazing how different the variations are in each country. Khmer food is on the sweet side, so for this dish, we made a caramel which we mixed into the rice.

A Quick Stop in Bangkok

Georgina and I stopped in Bangkok for a day before I continued on alone to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We intended to go on a foodie walking tour Peter (from Luang Prabang) had recommended, but a typhoon was coming through the east of the region and we got rained out. So we went to the Dusit Thani Hotel and consoled ourselves with some tea.


COPE, MAG, UXOs and Other Acronyms

Unexploded ordnance, or UXOs, is an ongoing and devastating problem in Laos, much like the better-publicized landmine problem of Cambodia. Estimates put the number of unexploded cluster bomb submunitions (the small bombs or “bombies” inside a cluster bomb) at 80 million – and hundreds of people have died and thousands more been injured over the past ten to fifteen years alone by these munitions exploding. This most frequently happens when people are collecting scrap metal, but can also occur when farmers hit and then detonate a bomb when they dig in their fields, or when children play with the often brightly-painted bombies.

You see a lot of evidence of the munitions in Phonsavan – and guidebooks warn against touching what you might see in a hotel or by a tourist office as there is no guarantee they’ve been properly defused. You can buy spoons made out of bomb metal, and while the symbolism of beating swords into ploughshares is great, the pervasiveness of these recycled bombs probably make children less aware of the true danger the bombs pose.

These were outside the Phonsavan Tourist Office:

I visited two NGOs in Phonsavan and one non-profit/government center in Vientiane that all deal with different aspects of how UXOs affect Lao life.

The UXO Survivor Information Center, run by the Quality of Life Association, works to give medical treatment and job retraining to survivors of UXOs. Their center highlights a few cases in the region around Phonsavan to educate people about their mission. This is a Lao NGO.

MAG is the Mines Advisory Group, an international NGO that works on training local bomb squads to clear areas of land. While they have had some notable success, there is, quite simply, a huge volume of UXOs that remain.

COPE is a broader orthopedic center in Vientiane which works on giving survivors custom prosthetics and the necessary physical therapy to use them.

Last Stop in Laos: Vientiane

We had heard about a direct 25 seater bus that would take us from Phonsavan to Vientiane more quickly than the tourist buses that go via Vang Vieng. It seemed like a good, authentic experience, so Georgina and I decided to give it a shot. We ended up on what a friend calls a “chicken bus” (due to the likelihood of locals with livestock). We were the only westerners on the bus, which sported a motorcycle amongst the other baggage on the roof. (And yes, Georgina spotted a crate of chickens, though luckily they didn’t share the interior with us!)

The "chicken bus"

The “chicken bus”

Sadly, we were practically the last people to arrive for the bus, so we had to sit on fold-down bucket seats for the eight to ten hour ride. It was somewhat bouncy, but chalk one up to experience, right?

The roads weren’t too bad before our lunch rest stop – in fact, they were fairly similar to our trip from Luang Prabang. Lots of interesting villages and winding roads to see. When we stopped for lunch, we even saw a crate of what looked like guinea pigs on steroids (they were HUGE) that I think went into the limited space of the trunk.

Then came the more interesting part of the trip. I swear we took a road that was labeled “dry season only” on my Lonely Planet map, as it was dirt mountain roads for a large part of the journey. At one point, a couple of guys had to get off and wedge rocks under the tires when we stalled on a hill. At another point, we passed a military checkpoint and a young soldier with a gun got on and slowly looked over the bus passengers. I was terrified! I was the only white person on the bus and stuck out like a sore thumb, and I was so worried that he would decide to use me to make an example – of what, I don’t know, since the guidebooks and Embassy website didn’t mention military checkpoints at all and I had no idea what he was looking for. What can I say, the military and police in non-democratic countries make me extremely nervous.

We made it through just fine, of course, not even succumbing to the motion sickness that plagued many of our fellow bus travellers. (It was bad enough that I played with calling this post “The Vomitous Road to Vientiane”.)

I had heard someone describe Vientiane as a city without a soul, and while that may be a little harsh, I can’t say I particularly liked it. It doesn’t really seem to have much of a character, and the air pollution is pretty incredible.

We tried to find a market for souvenirs like we’d seen in other cities, but all we could find was a huge market/carnival that seemed to be in place because of the upcoming End of Wet Season celebrations. Stalls blared music or ads for their wares more loudly than a club, and the electronics, cheap toys, and cheap clothes stalls went on for blocks. To be fair, there was also some amazing street food that made up our dinner one night: pork balls with chili sauce, grilled meat, bao, and our absolute favorite that we spent an hour trying to track down again on our last night, rice fried in egg and pepper on a stick.

What is there to do in Vientiane? Well, admittedly we had been so busy in the prior week or two that we spent a lot of time sipping cool drinks in coffee shops and cafes. But we did also see some sights.

One of the most interesting – and dare I say bizarre? – sights is located outside of the city center. It’s called the Buddha Park, and is a collection of Buddhist and Hindu statues collected by one man. It includes an extremely large reclining Buddha and a big apple-shaped, three story building supposed to represent Heaven, Earth, and Hell.

I have to say that I found the park a little bit creepy. With many of the statutes showing an underlying violence, I would hate to be there after dark!

The apple building is a bit eery as well. You can enter in the mouth of Hell and the center of each floor is a room filled with sculptures.

To add to the atmosphere, going to and from the park by tuk tuk is partly on a dirt road riddled with potholes. I’ve decided that riding on a tuk tuk in such circumstances should be a carnival ride. I’ve certainly almost bounced into a somersault at times!

We also visited Patuxai Arch, Vientiane’s “Arc de Triomphe”. A sign there proclaims it “a monster of concrete”, which is a tad harsh!

We duly visited a couple of wats, Sisaket Temple and Ho Pra Keo. Vientiane seems to have a number more that were no doubt also worth seeing, but it’s certainly difficult not to get overwhelmed by beautiful wats in Southeast Asia! (That means that at this point, we were “watted out”.)