A Travellerspoint blog

Ruins, Restoration, and Remaking

Visiting the temples of Angkor Wat

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Words like awesome, stupendous, inspiring, spiritual, moving, amazing, remarkable, and humbling, only begin to touch the tip of the iceberg for describing Angkor Wat.

We arrived at Siem Reap, Cambodia via s short plane ride. Given our limited time (2 ½ days) neither of the two other possible options were feasible since one involved 14 hour bus ride from Bangkok and the other was flying to Phnom Penh and then driving 4 hours. The process of getting our visa was quick and simple. We had our passport photos already and only needed to fill out the form and hand over $20 a piece. Minutes later we were out of the airport and saying hello to Mr. How our tuk-tuk driver from The Villa Siem Reap. I'll just mention to any one reading this for a recommendation that Villa Siem Reap was WONDERFUL. You can spend lots of money at any one of a dozen luxury hotels being built at Siem Reap, but this hostel is small, intimate, has lots of character and it's amazingly inexpensive cost doesn't skimp on quality.

This is only $24 per night for a 2 person room! Plenty of space and free WI-FI!

That night we went to a show to see Apsara Dancers. It was a great show and we loved the unusual instruments.

Apsara Dancers

We awoke at 4:30 AM and headed out for Angor Wat to see the sun rise over the main temple. After paying $20 each we made our way to a pond off the causeway leading to the entrance of Angkor Wat. It was pretty dark heading down the long walkway so we followed the other tourists like the blind leading the blind. We could barely see the building outlines but as the sky slowly brightened the lotus-shaped towers of the Wat came into view.

Sunrise was a little muted because of the clouds, but it was still dramatic.

We returned home for breakfast at the Villa and then headed out again with our guide to explore the temples. Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century by the Khmer king at that time. It served as the capital city and main temple which was devoted to Vishnu. The Khmer were the dominant ethnic group in Cambodia. The Khmer had built many temples before this one and were skilled in the use of sandstone blocks which were locked together by inserting a tab from one block into the hole of another. They used elephants and pulleys to move the blocks into place. What I didn’t notice from the many photos I’ve seen of the temples is that they are covered with bas-relief carvings. The carvings included the iconic dancing female figures (where the Apsara dance comes from), battle scenes and mythological scenes. One mythology scene we saw everywhere was called “Churning of the Ocean of Milk” which depicted a group of demons and a group of gods wrapping a snake around a mountain which would drain the sea and grant them immortality. This scene was at the Thailand airport as well as carved into a wall at Angkor Wat. Evidently the Thais took many art and mythology ideas from Cambodia.


A modern sculpture of the "Churning of the Ocean of milk" at the airport.

Buddhist Monk at temple.

There are over 1000 female reliefs at the temples.

We were treated to other temple highlights such as the Bayon Temple (this is the spelling at the temple site) which has the famous giant faces made out of large blocks. There are higher and lower towers with the four faces of the Buddha carved into each one. There are 216 faces in all.

Impressive giants

After visiting some other carvings and small temples we ended the wonderful Ta Prohm which is famous for the giant tree roots growing on top of the temples. Many parts of the roof had collapsed and it was fascinating to walk among the toppled blocks and wander through tunnels leading to a surprise Buddha statue here and there.
We were totally impressed by how Cambodia is running its tourist service from Siem Reap (a town that has gone from back water to fancy) and would highly recommend that people visit Angkor Wat.




Scenes from Ta Prohm Temple

On our second day we were taken out to Cambodia’s Lake Tonlé Sap to see the floating village. Our guide told us that the lake swells from roughly 2,700 square km to over 16,000 square km during the rainy season (June – October) making it a pretty massive lake. We found out later that the lake is also designated as an ecological hot spot by UNESCO. As the lake expands there is a ferry that runs all the way to the capital at Phnom Penh. As we rode along in the tuk-tuk we saw people living in the river that flowed to the lake. Yes, they were living IN it via houses on stilts. Small kids were in and around the water with little supervision which made us a bit nervous. We came to the lake and took a sputtering old boat out to the floating village. The village consisted of houses, restaurants, businesses, a school and even and a Catholic Church boat! Most of the country is Buddhist/Hindu but some Christian missionaries have moved into the area. The people were busy with fishing during the rainy season and when the water recedes in the winter time they will plant rice. We had mixed feelings about the visit because it many of the people living on the water were Vietnamese displaced by war as far back at the 1920s and again in the 60's and 70's. While some say this is the life they've chosen, we realized as an expat in China told us, "It's only a choice if you know you can walk another path and decide to stay on this one."

Houses set up in the river.


Vietnamese mother and children living on the water.

My favorite shot of the day.

I want to send my thanks to Jean Michel Giraud, my former boss at Community Council for the Homeless at Friendship Place for recommending I go to Angkor Wat. Thanks a million times over.

Posted by Aeren 19:58 Archived in Cambodia Comments (2)

Putting the “GRAND” in Grand Palace

One day in Bangkok

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Everyone we talked to that had been to Thailand (and wasn’t a Thai) said Bangkok is a way-station; a place to fly in and move out of quickly to get to another more beautiful destination. I can understand this as the inner city near the tourist sites was frightful…full of hawkers and garbage. We had some trepidation about going into the city, but there were a few sites we wanted to catch and so we selected a hotel that was walking distance to the Grand Palace. With this choice came interesting neighbors… ladies that lined both sides of the street sitting in the shade, fixing their hair and looking rather bored, so it was left up to our imagination why so many were sitting around. We booked a cheap tour guide from the airport who met us with driver at the hotel to take us to the Grand Palace. (By cheap I mean it cost 500 baht or just under $15 USD). I should have realized that when booking this kind of tour there’s the consequence of them wanting to do side trips to visit this factory or that factory. While our guide tried to rush us through the Grand Palace I was stubbornly taking my time photographing the splendor.

Scene of the upper terrace of the Grand Palace from the street outside.

As we approached the Grand Palace I was awestruck by the pure opulence. Building after building was covered in tiny gold tiles. The colors and designs were a bit over the top but came together in an interesting way. The palace grounds are on 218,000 square meters and are surrounded by four walls. Contained within is a royal temple open to the public for prayers. It is the home of King Rama IX, the current King of Thailand (although the residence is blocked off by a fence and guarded by some very efficient looking soldiers).

Entrance to Grand Palace.

We first entered the courtyard of the temple complex. The main building was the “bot” or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (which is actually jade, go figure). We walked around the back of it while our eyes were filled with the wild emerald, gold and ruby colors covering the buildings. Couple that with the fanciful creatures guarding the buildings and flaming peaks on the roofs and you have quite a visual spectacle. The grounds are enclosed by galleries with murals that tell the story of Rama and Sita, the first king and queen. We had seen this story adapted by an American animator in the movie Sita Sings the Blues, so we knew the general story. This movie depicted the Indian version of the story which ended with Rama rejecting Sita who died and become a heavenly being. In the Thai version of the story the couple lived happily ever after.

Grand palace bot. The only building open to the public for prayer.


After leaving the temple complex we moved into the main body of the palace containing buildings where Kingly ceremonies are undertaken. The building that stood out was a neoclassical white building with the flaming gold tops of the Thai temples. I think it was King Rama V (I lost track of who did what) that went to Europe and liked the neoclassical style of architecture so he returned to Thailand and had the building constructed. The people and other royals complained about the “plain looking structure“, so he added a Thai roof to it. It is now called the “Farang (foreigner) with the Thai hat”. There were other various buildings in the Thai style that are still used for various functions including a building used for famous people “lying in state” before they are cremated.

Chakri Maha Prasat neoclassical building known as "Farang with the Thai hat."

Jeannine standing in front of guardians.

After leaving the Grand Palace the guide got the driver and we went off to the “Ruby” factory where she said the experts would explain the different grades of precious stones and we’d be able to tell the fake from the real. Since we’d had a good experience at the Jade Factory in China we went along with it. But this time it was a 1 minute introduction of the type of stones they deal in and a quick push into the sales floor to try to sell us ruby or emerald jewelry. If you know Jeannine, you know that wasn’t going to fly! At our second stop which was jewelry of less quality, I put my foot down and told her I wanted to go back to the hotel. She explained I must take you to these places for my job. But I remained firm and said I paid for the tour and I dictate how I want to spend my time so she relented and took us back. “Caveat emptor“ may have been their motto but I wasn’t willing to play mindless sheep to this bait and switch trick. It’s a shame because the new airport was lovely and they are obviously trying to clean up their image.

In the evening we went out to get a bite to eat and walked over to an area known as the backpacker’s street. It was a crazy street with vendors lining both sides and people walking around trying to get you to buy a tailor made suit, a foot massage by fish that eat the dead skin off your feet, or any number of trinkets and street food. We tried to find a restaurant recommended by our guide book, but we just couldn’t find it past all the street vendors. We opted instead to go to another recommendation nearby called May Kaidee’s Vegetarian & Vegan Restaurant and Cooking School. We ordered the green curry tofu, vegetable spring rolls, and black sticky rice with bananas and mango for desert. Half way through our meal a rather regal looking lady glided up to the restaurant in a tuk-tuk. She entered the restaurant wearing a gold silk outfit and went around welcoming the customers. We realized this was May Kaidee and learned that her fancy outfit was because she was going to perform a dance later. We decided not to stay because we didn’t want to be out in the dark, but I bet it was great fun.

Posted by Aeren 06:48 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

The Towers, Rapunzel, Rapunzel!!

Visiting towers large and small.

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It was a cold, nasty day so we spent the morning resting at the hotel and left later in the day for the City Center. We ended up watching a bit of Chinese TV. It's all produced by the government and consists of either positive news about China, historical dramas or silly game shows. By historical drama I mean they are usually set during the late 1940s when the war between the Communists and Nationalists was going on. It’s odd to think of a daytime drama being set during a revolution. Our Chinese has not gotten good enough to understand what they are saying so sometimes I just made up dialogue to match the scenes on the TV. I kept Jeannine quite entertained with some of my storylines. I have to say though, that the acting (even if we can’t understand it) seemed to be good. By that I mean that the characters faces and emphasis of words were strong and clear I really would have liked to know what was being said.

On our second try to see the Bell Tower and Drum Tower we were successful. We knew there was a show at the Drum Tower because we had heard the music the previous visit. What we didn’t know was there was also a show at the Bell Tower. We were surprised to learn that the Bell tower was originally built two blocks west of its current location in 1384 and was moved in 1582. It is an enormous structure and must have been quite a feat. If the weather had been nice it would have provided a great view of the city, alas the weather was damp, dreary, and foggy so no good views were had. The bright spots of both towers came when we saw the performances. Each was unique to the tower in which they were performed. I recorded just a little to give you a sense of it.

Flute and Er-Hu (2 string violin) performance at Bell Tower

Musicians perform on drums and cymbals at Drum Tower

Jeannine’s favorite was the drum tower and the drummers’ performances and while I found the bell tower performance beautiful, the vibrations of the drums reach a deeper part of me. Besides the large selection of drums and some Ming era furnishings on the second level there wasn’t much else to see in the Drum Tower.


The Bell Tower.


Drums at the Drum Tower.


The next day we made our way to the south of the city wall to see the Buddhist temples there. The other bonus about finding Buddhist temples is that they have wonderful vegetarian food nearby. We went to the Daxingshan Temple and found the restaurant. We had misplaced our Chinese dictionary so we had to muddle our way through the order. We ended up with a wonderful tofu dish but two soups. One had a mushroom base and one had a veggie broth base so at least they were different. Adding a green tea to that made us feel very healthy. After we finished we wandered the temple grounds and then walked over to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.


A very happy Buddha at the Daxingshan Temple.

The Pagoda was built in 652 CE, during the Tang Dynasty. It was originally built to house Buddhist materials that were collected from India over 17 years. It is 211.6 feet high and has a staircase that winds to the top so one can look out over the city. Of course, with the rain and pollution the view would not have been good.


The Big Wild Goose Pagoda.


Buddha with a swastika symbol. Before the Nazi's caused the symbol to represent evil it was a symbol of good fortune in Buddhism. Svastika means "All is well" in Sanskrit.

Around the Pagoda was Da Ci’en Temple and some gardens. It was built to commemorate the death of a queen and only one seventh of the original grounds remain intact. Inside the temple area (which now houses Buddhist monks) were the Bell and Drum Towers (much smaller than the ones in the center city) and some other buildings housing Buddha sculptures. One building’s walls were covered with the story of Buddha Sakyamuni’s Enlightenment. The mural was made completely of different colored jade and was quite a masterpiece.


Buddha of colored jade.

As we exited the temple area from a different route we saw another gold Buddha sitting in a garden. Next to him was a board filled with wooden prayer requests to the Buddha.


Tomorrow we’re off to Bangkok where it is also raining! But hopefully we’ll be able to see the sky again.

Posted by Aeren 07:13 Archived in China Comments (1)

Clay Warriors, Imperial Gardens, and a Royal Tomb

Visiting the terracotta warriors.

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It boggles the mind to see the immense effort undertaken to restore and repair the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an. Each soldier needs about six months in the “hospital” before being placed back at its eternal post. It’s even more unimaginable that each one is unique, no two faces are the same. Emperor Qin wanted his beloved elite warriors with him in the afterlife, but didn’t want to sacrifice the real soldier for this (probably thinking that after he worked so hard to unite the seven states if he killed his elite soldiers China would fall apart again). The likely answer for the uniqueness is that potters used the real soldier making it easier to come up with distinctive faces, poses, and functions.


Building 1 site of the first dig.

Emperor Qin had a real army built, infantry, standing archers, kneeling archers, Mongolian horses with chariots, etc (although the wooden chariots have long disintegrated into the land). He even had them positioned correctly with flanking guards on the left and right. But he didn’t stop with just the soldiers, in other two other dig sites at the same location they found a headquarters (a command center) replete with a General, officers, planners, drivers, horses. This site has only about 200 soldiers. In another site they’ve found attorneys, teachers, artists, and even acrobats. The Chinese government is purchasing all the land in the valley from the Tomb of Emperor Qin to the area where the Terracotta Warriors were found. Farmers are being moved to new farms and new homes. The entire area is a national treasure and they want to preserve it.


Kneeling archer


One of the archeologists is walking among the repaired warriors. It gives a good idea of their height.


This is the only restored general. There were seven others found in the dig sites.

We picked up a guide at the entrance to get further explanation about the warriors. It was still a little crowded since it was the eve to the end of their national holiday, but with Helen (the guide) all was better because she could ask people to please step aside for us to take photographs without us having to push our way in. The walls between each soldier row are original to the site. They were probably used to hold up a roof that eventually collapsed. This land was farm land and the warriors were discovered by 5 farmers digging a well. At first they were afraid that they would have bad luck after digging up a burial site but now they are retired and living on a government stipend. We even saw two of them signing books about the warriors. Emperor Qin has really smiled on them!

Video of moving a repaired warrior back into place. It's a three minute video and I don't have editing software here so it takes a little time to load.

We made a quick stop at the burial mound of Emperor Qin which had a nice decorative entrance leading to some steps up the burial mound. The mound was covered in pomegranate trees (which are fruiting now) and flowers. The top would have had a nice view but it was too rainy and misty to see much. People must not go to the exhibits around the sides of the mound because they were dusty and neglected. We walked past at a sad diorama of the area that looked like it had been built in the 1970s and never touched since then.


Entrance to Emperor Qin's Tomb area.

After the tomb we were taken to the imperial Huaqing hot springs nearby. We thought it was just a swimming hole but Emperor Qin did it up right! He stayed there in the winter to enjoy the hot water and had several temples, gardens, residences and bath houses built. Even with the rain the baths were quite interesting. There were a few places where the hot water could be seen coming up from the ground and a couple of fountains where you could touch the water which was quite warm. Visitors flocked to these and were washing their face and head to try to capture some of the supposed medicinal properties of the baths. We entered the largest temple to read about the history of the use of the hot springs. On the first floor was the dreaded diorama of the area but the lights inside the temples would come on now and then so it wasn’t totally lame. I’m sure there was a lot of information that was not conveyed on the badly written English signs. There were illustrations and models of how the baths were used so that would have to do.




Scenes from the Huaqing hot springs.

After returning to the hotel we rested and then slogged though the rain to find a restaurant. It’s so hard to choose a restaurant in the non-touristy areas because all you see are a bunch of shops with Chinese signs (which mean nothing to us) and pictures of meat dishes (which are not what we’re looking for.) We found a nice looking place and sat down. We usually order a drink and hope the servers will step away so we can figure out the menu. These folks wanted to stay and wait so we chose stir fried rice and shrimp and told them “Women bu chi rou” (we don’t eat meat). They brought out fried rice with shrimp and ham mixed in so we sent it back. Finally they brought out rice with some egg in it and we went with that. We were too exhausted to explain further.

Posted by Aeren 20:41 Archived in China Comments (1)

Snack Street and the Great Mosque

Spending time in the Muslim Quarter

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We arrived in Xi’an on Monday afternoon. Our hotel turned out to be a little further out of the center of town than we planned, but it was a beautiful and spacious room. We can put up with the distance since a taxi into Xi’an city center is only around 20 RMB (about $3 USD) and we got a great rate for the room. However, in the morning the first question that came to mind was, “Are the fireworks complimentary every morning at 5:00 am?” Hopefully not, but after living in Guatemala and listening to the 6:00 am calling of the gas vendor every day we’re betting fireworks are pretty normal.

Our first impression of Xi’an was that it was a dusty as Sherry’s son-in-law told us it would be. There’s a kind of haze over the whole city. We set out today to the city center to go to the drum and bell towers. But instead of going inside them, opted to go have lunch first and visit the Muslim quarter. There’s a street there known as “Snack Street” just northwest of the drum tower. It literally is full of snack vendors with many making their products fresh in their stalls. They lined both sides of the street and in one section even had stalls down the middle of the street. It was a sight! There were tons of people because the Chinese are still on their 8 day holiday. We picked up some soybean cakes and toasted almonds. The almonds were a treat since our supply from the States had been exhausted for a couple of days and they were quite expensive in the grocery stores in Beijing.



Scenes from Snack Street. The Muslim vendors wear white hats.

While wandering around the Muslim quarter we saw signs for the Grand Mosque. The signs were plentiful, just not well placed. One sign actually sent us down a dark narrow alleyway. We decided not to go that way and instead went down a small shop-lined alley. As luck would have it the entrance to the Grand Mosque was actually off that street. A steady rain had begun to fall when we purchased our tickets to go in and see the mosque. There were just enough covered spaces to made the visit enjoyable.



Great Mosque scenes.

The opening of the Silk Road brought merchants from Arab countries through China in search of the woven gold. After a time they began to settle in China to further develop their businesses. With the settlements came their religion. Records at the Great Mosque indicate it was originally established during the Tang Dynasty around 742 AD and has seen restorations and enlargements during the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties. It currently covers 13,000 square meters (139,932 square feet). In 1988 it was recognized as one of China’s most important historical sites, this protective status is similar to being on the National Historic Register in the US.

The architecture of the mosque buildings was a blend of China and Islam styles. While the roofs had a distinctive Chinese style, many of the archways looked very much like Muslim architecture. Also there were Arabic characters carved into the various walls and pavilions. We dodged the rain as we passed through various arches toward the prayer hall. Its roof had blue glazed tiles (representing heaven) and inside the hall the pages of the Koran were carved into wooden boards on the walls.




Great Mosque details.

At this point we were drenched so we grabbed a coffee and green tea icecream at Häagen-Dazs and competed with 100,000 people to catch a cab. OK, maybe not that many but it seemed like everybody was out that night.

Posted by Aeren 05:01 Archived in China Comments (0)

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