Monday, November 18, 2013

Temple of Dawn & Cold in Seoul

We did so much in our first full day in Bangkok that we were a bit burnt out on the third and final day. We had already done so much exploring and seen so much, but we had saved a couple of things for the final day: we began by walking down to one of the many piers along the river and caught a boat across to the Wang Kang pier where a market was bustling. It was a fun one to explore, as it was a bit different (a bit more clothing and odds and ends and a bit less pig entrails). We did that until we grew weary and then caught a couple more boats south down the river. Each crossing of the river by boat is brief and cheap (3 Baht) and quite pleasant.

We arrived at our final destination: Wat Arun, which means 'Temple of Dawn'. It is one of the oldest Wats in Bangkok and is very interesting as it is decorated with perfect symmetry of design largely out of broken pottery. It also has steep stairs that one can climb about half way up the outside. It isn't too far, but the stairs were quite steep and seemed like a bad idea, given my sprained ankle from my fall at Angkor Wat. It was a beautiful structure though.

After that the afternoon sun was merciless and we hailed a tuk tuk back to the area around our hotel before killing a few hours languishing on restaurant patios, enjoying cold and fruity drinks, snacks and cigars, just killing time until it was time to go to the airport.

When we left (narrowly missing the lantern festival) the moon rose large and full over the city. 

After a 5 hour flight we arrived in Seoul, having had no sleep and realizing that it is winter here and the temperature was about 2 degrees celcius. We were still dressed for the tropical weather of Bangkok. I hadn't really factored this into my plans. We had a 12 hour layover in Seoul and when i have done this previously, it had been summer and perfect for walking. I had foolishly planned a wonderful walking route around Seoul to occupy us during our layover, but we arrived not only finding it wintery but windy. Canadian though we may be, we are just not that hearty.

We gave it a go though, taking the train to Seoul station and walking to Namdaemun market, where we had some breakfast bibimbap and tried to warm ourselves by browsing through the market shops, but we had to admit defeat. It was just freezing. We headed back to the airport, stopping ay Seoul station for coffee and looking around in a supermarket and various shops selling cute and confusing items.

No photos from Seoul this time. We were too icy and tired to even think of it.

Fortunately the airport in Seoul is extraordinary and we have had no trouble keeping ourselves entertained and catching up on much needed rest. We will be boarding our flight to Vancouver presently. The trip has been a great one. I hate to return home, but we are both badly in need of clean clothes and baths, so home it is.

Thanks for following.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Our first full day in Bankok was an active one. Betty Lou will tell you without any prompting that we walked for at least 10 hours. Fortunately, the weather was unexpectedly mild and pleasant.

We left our hotel after breakfast and walked a bit randomly, visiting a couple of stunning temples we stumbled upon. It was still quite early and they were empty except for us and a caretaker. Most of the temples we have visited here are more ornate than those in Cambodia, and there are fewer monks about. Just as lovely but different.

One temple was full of people making offerings and ther were tables laden with flowers, fruit, alcohol, small cigars, incense, and pig heads. The exterior of the temples were extremely ornate, with detailed designs and carvings of mythical and religious figures.

We then visited Wat Phra Kaewa nd the Grand Palace. The complex was simply amazing. It was brimming with temples and palace buildings and statues, all covered with detailed ornatmentation; it was such an explosion of color and sparkle and that all we could do was walk around in awe and daftly say "wow".

Following the Grand Palace and associated wats, we walked further south to Wat Pho, which was also lovely (although i must admit that at this point things started to get blurry - too much of similar, beautiful  things viewed in a short time can be exhausting). It was smaller and more manageable however and we enjoyed the ornamental structures.

The big site at Wat Pho however is the reclining Buddha, which did not disappoint. It is a large gold Buddha laying on its side, is covered in gold (except the soles of its feet which are mother of pearl design) and is 46m long and 15m high. Pretty amazing. The room was filled with the loud sound of people putting hundred of coins, as offerings, into metal bowls which lined the walls.

My plan after that was to walk down to Chinatown, but we became sidetracked by this amazing flower market. Apparently it operates 24 hours and it runs for countless blocks, in which people are surrounded by giant baskets, or in some cases, whole rooms of orchids, marigolds, and other flowers. Along the way, workers were fashioning the fresh flowers into decorative garlands, and ornaments on to which candles were to be placed before the flowers were used as offerings at temples, or more specifically in this case, used in a full moon lantern festival which was set to occur the next night (and which we would miss by a couple hours due to our airport deadline). It was really interesting and very busy.

In the evening we had a leisurely dinner on Rambuttri Street (near Khao San Road and our hotel) and then i smoked some shisha while we watched the endless procession of tourists. The place has a definite night life vibe, which carried on far later than we did. I was detemined to get up early the next day to pack in yet more sightseeing before our flight (lest there be one temple or market alley we might miss). It was a great day.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Crossing into Thailand

We arrived at in Bangkok after what was not a six hour bus ride but a twelve hour journey involving two big busses, one mini bus, and numerous waits at the border and at dirty bus stops where people were selling fried cockroaches. The trip was long, but relatively uneventful. Even the walk across the Cambodian/Thai border was fine.

The Thai countryside was unremarkble, but we were interested to note that they do drive on the other side of the road in Thailand. (Since our stop in Thailand was so brief i did very little reading ahead of time.)

Getting into Bangkok, as we did quite late, it was dark and the traffic was monstrous. The minibus dropped us off on the side of a busy road and we hailed a tuk tuk to our hotel...and proceeded to spend another hour sitting in traffic. (The tuk tuks here are a bit fancier than in Cambodia and have windscreens - unfortunately, they also have much lower roofs, making them less comfortable for tall people.)

We arrived at our charming hotel - the Lamphu Tree House - utterly fatigued, but we did walk along the canal a bit and had a late dinner at a pub.

Yesterday was a very full day, but we are eagre to get out so we wil post about yesteday later on today.
Tonight we fly to Seoul.

Thursday, November 14, 2013


Battambang day two.
We had arranged a tuk tuk driver to take us around to the various sights i wanted to see which were outside of the city. Our driver called himself "Dollar" and proved to be a terrific guide for the day. He was handsome, spoke excellent english and was quite willing ti talk to us about his life now and previously when he was a monk, as well as his mother surviving the Khmer Rouge and his dream of moving to New York. He also gave us a lot of information about the sights.

Our first stop was the bamboo train. Cambodia has no trains; they were all decommissioned some time ago, but there is in Battambang, in one of the rural villages on the outskirts, one remaining train...of sorts. The bamboo train consists of a low platform of bamboo slats through which the ground is clearly visible. The platform sits atop two axles each with two metal wheels/cylinders. The contraption is powered by a small motor which seems to be operated with a wooden stick. There are no brakes.

Apparently the thing can reach speeds of up to 40k per hour but we did not seem to travel that fast. We sat in the platform and were zipped though the countryside, leaves slapping our arms much of the way, past rice fields and over rickety bridges which cross muddy streams. The tracks are mostly even and mostly straight, but the ride is bumpy at times. It was great, like a really primitive amusement park ride. At the end of the line (after about 20 mins) we arrived at a "station" consisting of a few shacks selling water and bananas and some tshirts and scarves. There were a few children around who were keen to show us the brick making factory nearby, which was really two giant kilns that looked like beehives, in which they made bricks by burning the left over husks from the rice harvest. 

On the way back we passed numerous other trains coming in the opposite direction. There is only one track, so when another train comes in the opposite direction, the drivers decide somehow who should get off. One of the trains is quickly dismantled to allow the other to pass and then first train is put back on the tracks and everyone carries on their way. They whole thing was really fun and cost $5 for the ride.

We reboarded our tuk tuk and set off to our next stop. The dirt roads were incredibly uneven. It had rained the night before and heavily that morning and there were deep holes and furrows in the narrow road, which made the travel interesting and slightly frightening when we had to pass by another vehicle and drive perilously close to the edge of the drop off into the rice paddy. The bumpiness was just fun.

We next went to a small mountain and drove half way up in a jeep (your options are walking, motorbike, or jeep) to a temple, some golden shrines with buddhas, various monks, and some caves. The caves had been used by the Khmer Rouge to throw people to their deaths, but now a steep staircase has been installed and there is a shrine at the bottom with a large, golden buddha and glass boxes in which the bones of the dead are collected. The cave was somber and beautiful, but what made the visit less fun were the stinging red ants that covered the stairs and the handrail on the way down. I was mostly exempted from their wrath, but Betty Lou had them on her ankles, up her pant legs to the thigh and on the back of the neck. To her credit, she handled it well - far better that i would have.

After that the jeep took us to the top of the mountain to the temple Phnom Sampeau which was beautiful, but even more stunning were the views over the verdant landscape. While we were up there we saw one large, loner monkey walk out of the trees and right into someone's house.

Back at the base of the mountain at Dollar's suggestion we ate lunch at an outdoor restaurant in what was basically the yard of someone's modest home. Betty Lou had fried ginger with chicken, i had morning glory with rice, our driver had soup and rice and with water the whole bill was $7. And the food was delicious.

The next leg of our journey involved another stretch of insanely bumpy dirt road in the tuk tuk. The holes and furrows were even worse, but it was exciting and it afforded us some a wonderful look at rural life.

We stopped at a grouping of trees which were filled with hundreds and hundreds of giant fruit bats. They were mostly hanging upside down in the trees, but were very much awake, screeching and flapping their wings. Every few seconds a few would fly around, stretching their enormous wings (these are some of the biggest bats in the world). It was incredible. 

Next up was a stop at a tiny winery - a new thing in Cambodia (they do grow grapes here). We sampled the wine (not great, but drinkable), a brandy (not bad and very strong), grape juice (nice), and a honey ginger juice (delicious).

Finally we stopped at a local fishing village to see locals fishing from boats, using large nets.

The day was wonderful. We saw so much pristine countryside and authentic rural life. The weather was excellent and our host delightful. He charged $20 for the day and i for once did not haggle. (I'm pretty sure Betty Lou slipped him a 50% tip.)

The evening finished up with dinner at small corner restaurant where we watched a cat stalking a rat. More wildlife, up close.

It is now the next morning and we are waiting for the bus to Bangkok. They say it will take 6 hours. I have my doubts.

Siem Reap to Battambang

Our final day in Siem Reap was spent in town. Two full days of temples was enough to satisfy us and so we spent the fourth day shopping for souveniers in the market. There are so many beautful things, but of course one has only so much room at home and in one's suitcase, so we tried to limit ourselves. That being said, we have had to purchase a third bag to carry our purchases.

Betty Lou shopping the market amuses me greatly. Cambodia is a culture of bargaining. One never pays the first price and, while not mercilous, some haggling is expected. I enjoy this process; Betty Lou does not. While i play along with 'the whole, hesitate, walk away and name low prices as a starting point', she willinginly pays the first price, or, offen, she pays more. A shopkeeper asks $4 for a pair of earrings and Betty Lou pays $5, saying that they are worth more than the asking price. With this startegy in place, i am sure the merchants of Siem Reap were sad to see her go.

But go we did, after a couple meals sitting in the perfectly warm night air. The following morning we took a bus to Battambang. We were told the journey would be 3 hours and it was closer to 5, but the ride was very lovely, through the countryside. At one point we stopped for a break and we bought sweet rice and beans cooked in a bamboo stalk, which one peels back in order to feast on the contents. There were also roasted beetles and crickets for sale, but we took a pass on those.

Battabang is not a particularly nice looking city. It is dusty and the buildings are old and not particularly well maintained, aside from that though, there are some nice restaurants and cafes and some interesting, poorly kept french colonial buildings. The main reason for stopping here though is for the countryside, which is said to be some of the country's loveliest.

We checked into our Hotel (the Royal Hotel), which is unremarkable, but adequate, and very affordable. It is also right across the street from the market and steps from good places to eat.

One of the welcome things about Battambang is that it is so quiet compared to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Here people are not constantly trying to sell us stuff or offer us services. People are moslty just going about their daily lives. It is nice to take a look at a regular city in Cambodia.
The first evening we went for a bit of a walk and had some amazing curries; i also visited a temple and saw many monks chanting before i settled down at a local restaurant for a cigar and a bit of reading. The next day would prove to be action-packed.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Temples - Day 2

Today we again had our tuk tuk driver Mr. Lum take us to temples. Today we did the 'grand tour', which was a longer ride through thr countryside, past fields of rice, and villages of simple open air homes of wood and thatched houses on stilts, with families outside, chooping wood, cooking dinner, and selling fruit. We passed one street of women stirring large calrdons of what we discovered was palm sugar which they made into delicous sweets. The ride was wonderful, although in the morning we did contend with a downpour, which left us wet and muddy.

I hobbled though the temples, and climbed over stairs and tree roots with great caution. Betty Lou seemed delighted that for once i was not walking at too brisk a pace, and could only amble.

All of the temples were lovely and each a bit different than the next. One was only accessily by walking on a long bridge over a picturesque swamp, another was built in a pyamid configuration, and another, Bantay Srei, was a glorious pink color and featured impossible ornate and in tact carvings.

There were far fewer tourists at these tmeples than yesterday's, but there were still countless children and women selling palm juice, fruit, and souveniers, and groups of men with limbs lost to landmines playing haunting music.

We returned to the hotel fairly beat from the walking in the heat and me also from my stupid limping. We had a tasty lunch at an outdoor restaurant which included the most delicious lemon smoothie. We are staying in tonight. Tomorrow is our final day in Siem Reap and we have nothing planned aside from arranging our transport to Battambang and doing a bit of shopping. Right now i am sitting on the balcony of our hotel with a cigar and listening to the noise of the street.

Angkor Wat

On our second day in Siem Reap we hired a tuk tuk driver, Mr. Lum, to take us to the temples. The journey was not long but was wonderful, riding through the shady jungle streets in the tuk tuk, past troupes of monkeys, elephants, and roadside vendors selling coconuts, fruit and water.

We began by visiting Angkor Thom, of which the highlight is the Bayon temple, which is three levels structures with of dozens of faces, all of them huge and perfectly carved and identical to one another. It was spectacular to climb over the stones and in and around the temples' various rooms, some of which held buddhist or hindu shrines and were thick with incense smoke. There were many tour groups there, but it did not spoil our visit.

Let me say this of this temple and all that we visited so i need not repeat myself unnecessarily  all of the temples, are amazing. They bear many similarities: each is situated in the jungle and is surrounded by the forrest as well as counless smaller temples, statues, walkways, and pools, and everything is or was ornately carved with design and religious figures. All are about 900 years old, give or take a century. Some have been well maintained and others have let the jungle enclose around them, with vines and enormous strangler figs growing on and through them and slowly reducing them to rubble. Around each shrine or temple are locals selling drinks and souveniers and there are throngs of small children selling postcards and musical instruments. Our driver took us to each temple and we had more or less unlimited time to explore. It was a great way of visiting. Some people took bicycles to the temples, which seems like a great idea in the morning, but by the afternoon, the heat is oppressive and i did not envy them in the least.

Next we visited Ta Prohm, which is one of those temples where nature has been allowed to take over, it was amazing to see what will happen if the trees are allowed to grow as they please.

On our way out of that temple we saw what looked like a foot long twig but was the largest walking stick insect i have ever seen. Aside from its mantis-like head, it looked exactly like a stick. Incredible. We also saw a large, dead black millipede and some flying beetle the size of a big cockroach. There were also innumerable cows and several grazing water buffalo (at least that's what they looked like).

We visited numerous other temples, some of which involved climbling steep stairs to the top, which afforded wonderful views over the landscape. Betty Lou was delighted to find an artist from whom she bought a painting.

Our day of temples finished up at Angkor Wat itself, which is truly magnificent, rising above the jungle and approched by way of a long walkway bordered by carvings and a large moat.

We walked around the temple taking in the incredible bas reliefs and i was looking forward to climbing up to the high inner chamber when i fell down some stairs and badly twisted my ankle. Betty Lou spang into action, assessing the injury (not a break but a sprain) and fashioning a bandage out of her krama (traditional Cambodian scarf). The end result of that was that i can walk, limp, very slowly and my ability to climb stairs is somewhat limited, so i did not get to climb up to the inner part of the temple. It is painful and annoying but it shall not otherwise hamper my sightseeing.

In the evening we went out for a dinner of traditional Khmer food - i had a lovely curry and an odd dessert of cooked potato and tapioca - before going to bed, early and exhausted.