Three flights and 30 hours are the small price one pays to
travel to the "Land of Smiles." Thailand and Cambodia are 14
time zones to the west. Somehow
the trip out did not affect us nearly as adversely as returning home did,
which might have been something to do with our excitement level.
Plans for this trip were made in August of 2000.
After the terrorist attacks in September 2001, well-meaning friends
and relatives cautioned us about traveling.
We felt that this trip definitely needed to be made in view of
supporting the USA as well as our President who urged Americans to
continue living their lives as normally as possible.
Although we usually travel on our own or with a small group of
friends, we knew that we would need help in countries where the alphabet
is totally unlike ours. Therefore,
we decided to take the plunge and join a small group tour where we knew
none of the participants. Overseas
Adventure Travel (OAT) more than lived up to its reputation of "good
value for money" and we would definitely travel with them again. (www.overseasadventuretravel.com
) Our group of 15
participants was from age 50 upwards. Many were extremely well traveled and willing to share knowledge
which was a delight for me.
November 18/19: Although we departed Denver very early on
Nov. 18, it was almost midnight on Nov. 19 when we arrived in Bangkok due
to crossing the International Date Line.
We were met and hustled off to the Rama Gardens Hotel (www.ramagardenshotel.com
) for a bit of sleep before continuing to Cambodia the next morning.
The Rama Gardens is a nice hotel near the airport - one we would
have liked to explore a bit more.
November 20: We were up and in the shower by 6:30 a.m., at
breakfast by 7:15 a.m. and on the bus back to the airport at 9:00 a.m.
Now would be the best time to speak of breakfast in the hotels - it
was usually outstanding! Buffets
with both Asian and western food - great choices, always lots of local
fruit, various egg dishes, bacon or western type meat, noodles, rice, fish
or chicken, soup, cereal, juices, various breads, coffee and tea.
It became very easy to eat too much breakfast!
(Actually, it became very easy to eat too much - period!)
Once we got through all the controls at the airport we were able to
mingle with our traveling companions while waiting for our Bangkok Airways
flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia, which is the town nearest to Angkor Wat.
And, of course, Angkor Wat is the main reason for visiting
Departure mid-morning and the flight was only 45 minutes, but the
staff of the new Boeing 717 actually served us brunch - quiche, broiled
tomato and spinach, fruit and ice cream. Just about blew us away as we are
accustomed to three-hour flights in the U.S. with only a packet of
pretzels and a soft drink! The
plane was colorfully decorated and the outside was painted with palm trees
and tropical fish. A
We were met by our guide Som, who was bundled up in a long-sleeve
shirt and a scarf around his neck due to it being "cold" (75
degrees F). We thought the
temperature was wonderful because we had read about how hot it could be at
this time of year. It took
about 30 minutes to go the 6 kilometers into town because of the condition
of the road. It was the main
highway, about one and a half lanes wide, filled with potholes and
traffic. Not much of the
traffic was four-wheeled; most of it was two-wheeled - bicycles,
motorcycles, - or four-footed, oxen and water buffalo.
Everyone we passed waved and smiled.
As Som told us later, tourism is the hope of Cambodia.
We were taken to a local open-air restaurant for a delicious
family-style lunch. I don't
think we had a bad meal on this trip. Some were more outstanding than others, but they were all
good. Usually meals were
buffets or a set menu served family style.
Many people are concerned about the spiciness of the food in this
area of the world where the variety of peppers is astounding.
We were always served a number of dishes and there were mild ones
as well as hot ones so it was not difficult to find something that
appealed to one's palate. The
interesting thing about the buffet meals was that there frequently was
spaghetti sauce to go on noodles and a small salad bar.
This was the lunch and dinner "bow" to a western-styled
dish. I ate salad but never did bother with the spaghetti sauce
because everything else was so delicious.
After lunch we headed to the Angkor Hotel (http://www.angkor-hotel-cambodia.com/).
Built recently but with beautiful wood carvings and chandeliers,
harking back to colonial times, the hotel did its best to meet our needs.
It is very difficult to realize that less than 25 years ago people
were blowing each other up in this area!
We were amazed at all the construction!
Hotels, roads, sidewalks ... it was fascinating to watch the road
and sidewalk construction because it was all being done by hand!
Given the afternoon to explore on our own or rest, we did a bit of
both because the jet lag was catching up with us, but by 7 p.m. we were
ready to meet Som for our evening adventure.
We were taken to a lovely outdoor venue where we had a delicious
buffet (yes, we are eating again!) and a marvelous show of traditional
dances and singing. After the
performance we took local transport back to the hotel.
This was our first time in a "tuk-tuk" and it was fun!
A Cambodian "tuk-tuk" was like a rickshaw for two except
that the driver rode a motorbike that pulled the rickshaw.
The night air was delightfully cool as we motored along at about 20
mph dodging those potholes. (The
tuk-tuks in Siem Reap were quite different to the ones in Thailand - more
on those later.)
A very nice ending to a day filled with new experiences.
Fell asleep with thoughts of Angkor Wat as we head there tomorrow.
November 21: Today is the day for visiting the ancient
capital of the Khmer kingdom which is the cultural and spiritual heart of
Cambodia - the area known as
Angkor. The word Angkor
means "Great" so we have Angkor Thom (Great City) and Angkor Wat
(Great Temple). After
visiting several outer temples, we approached the south gate of Angkor
Thom. The view of the fortifications is impressive.
The causeway is flanked by 108 large stone figures, 54 gods on the
left and an equivalent number of demons on the right.
In the distance, at the far end of the causeway, the southern
gateway bears four huge enigmatic faces aligning in the cardinal
directions. Passing through
this gateway, we headed for the Bayon in Angkor Thom, the capital city of
the Khmer rulers.
After Angkor Wat itself, the Bayon is possibly the most celebrated
structure. It is thought to
represent a symbolic temple mountain and rises on three levels.
It contains galleries with some of the most remarkable bas reliefs
at Angkor; they combine numerous domestic and everyday scenes with
historical details of battles won and lost by the Khmers.
The domestic scenes show details of fishermen, market scenes,
festivals, hunting, and so one. There
are also scenes featuring a military procession, elephants, ox carts,
horsemen and musicians. Parasols
shield the commanders of the troops who march in the procession.
After we viewed the galleries we climbed to the third level and
spent some time examining the vast, mysterious faces with their sublime
smiles. It is overwhelming to
contemplate how these structures must have been built!
We ended the morning at Ta Prohm which is dedicated to Buddhism.
It is a long, low complex of buildings all on the same level, with
a series of concentric galleries connected by passages that provide shade
in the heat of the day. What
makes Ta Prohm so special is that, following an unusual archaeological
decision, the jungle has been only partly cut back, so that the buildings
are covered with the roots of huge banyan and kapok trees which rise high
above the temple. Spectacular
roots bind lintels and crack vaulted passageways, while parrots fly in the
upper canopy and break the stillness with their sharp cries.
The weather wasn't as hot as I expected.
We didn't begin to really "glow" until mid-morning.
The bus had a cooler with bottled water and wipes for cleaning our
hands and faces, which were welcomed.
We returned to the hotel for lunch and a welcomed rest in our
air-conditioned room before going back to the site.
Angkor Wat, the main temple, was reserved for the afternoon and we
remained there until sunset to enjoy the change of colors on the walls and
spires. One may wonder, when
viewing the buildings of Angkor Wat, how such a magnificent temple could
have been constructed in those primitive years of the 12th century.
No matter how great the power of the Khmer kings might have been,
it is still amazing that the Khmers were able to gather such a huge amount
of building materials in order to create the structures.
This required a high degree of technological skill.
Basically two kinds of materials used in the construction still
remain. Though the wood used
in the roofing has long since disappeared, both the laterite and sandstone
are still in good condition. But
just what is laterite? It is
not a stone but it comes from a type of subsoil found in several
equatorial regions such as Cambodia, Thailand and India.
When laterite is still underground, it has a very high water
content and is quite soft in texture.
Once it is exposed to sunlight it becomes so hard that it is
extremely difficult to form or to carve.
Laterite is taken from the ground at least a foot below the
surface. The top section is
removed, exposing fresh laterite, which is smoothed and chopped with an ax
into blocks that can be easily handled.
It is thought that the technique for quarrying laterite was brought
by the Khmers from India. Once
the quarried blocks have been taken from the ground, they are shaped on
the sides and bottom and exposed to the sunlight for several days.
This sufficiently hardens the blocks and the rain washes off the
soft clay leaving only the hardened blocks of laterite.
By doing this the Khmers made an extremely durable material for
paving roads and making the framework for buildings.
The laterite was too hard to be carved decoratively so it was used
in the infrastructure of the buildings for strength and faced with
sandstone which could be carved. Both
red and blue sandstone was widely used during this time period, the red
was mostly used for Angkor Wat. It
has a high iron content and is more resistant to wind and rain.
Angkor Wat is quite well preserved.
Blocks of sandstone have no visible joints, having been constructed
without binding material, thought it is believed there are iron pins
inserted at strategic points.
There is still a question of where all the sandstone was quarried
and it is believed that it came from the rocky district of Korat in
Thailand and brought to Angkor by boat. This theory assumes that there was some type of canal at that
time which cut its way across the vast plains.
This is perhaps not an unreasonable assumption.
It was a French naturalist, Henri Mouhaut, who rediscovered the
ruins of Angkor Wat in 1861 and introduced them to the West.
Two centuries earlier in 1632, a Japanese interpreter from Nagasaki
visited Angkor Wat and drew numerous sketches of the area and brought them
back to Japan. But it is Henri Mouhaut who earned the distinction of making
the achievements of the Khmer empire (8th to 14th centuries) world famous.
The Great Temple is the highlight of any visit to this region - it
is simply unsurpassed by any other monument.
It has been estimated by authorities that the amount of stone used
in creating this massive edifice is about the same as that used in
building the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt, though Angkor Wat has many
more exposed surfaces, nearly all of which are elaborately carved in
Established as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Shiva, Angkor
Wat was also thought to have been envisioned as a mausoleum for the king.
Its orientation is different from that of most temples in the
complex as the main entrance is from the west rather than the east.
The westward orientation of the temple is supposed to be related to
the association between the setting sun and death, but it could have
simply been for convenience to open onto the main road into Angkor Thom.
The sheer scale of Angkor Wat is difficult to grasp in a single
visit. Just walking to the
central shrine across the moat and along the main causeway is a humbling
experience. The area of the
land covered by the complex is about 500 acres and it is surrounded by a
moat which is 650 feet wide! It
should be noted that somewhere back in time the temple shifted from Hindu
to Buddhist and presently there are Buddhist monks who serve there.
After viewing the Hindu legends which are carved in sandstone in
the colonnades around the temples, we climbed up the first of three levels
of stairs which lead into the towers.
Some of the group sat there while the rest of us went to the second
level. It opened out onto a
broad terrace upon which sat the highest temple on the third level.
Jim was the only one to climb to the top.
The stairs were extremely steep and there was no hand rail, but
being part mountain goat, the climb did not bother Jim at all!
The main tower of the temple rises 210 feet.
It seemed that all the people who were visiting the complex were
waiting, as we were, for the sunset.
We heard people speaking many European languages as well as
Chinese, Korean and Japanese.
Outside the walls and terraces lots of vendors and children hustled
for one last sale of the day... it seemed that everything was "one
dolla." We did not
change money into Cambodian riels. The hotel and meals were prepaid and the vendors only wanted
American dollars. They were
quite willing to bargain and the shoppers in our little group had a great
tonight! Shower, dinner and
fall into bed. Jet lag is
catching up to us!
Scenes from Angkor Wat (click thumbnails for
village, artisans in training, sad reminders, old Bangkok and a
III: A massage, a blessing, home life and temples
border, Laos, farms, indigo dye, dancing shrimp and Elvis
V: Thailand's birth place, full moon festival, the River
Kwai, the king's birthday, and farewell
VI: Social values and travel tips