|Subject: Thailand Trip Part I (long)|
Hi, to all,
I have finally completed the transcription of my journal for the trip my
husband, Jim, and I took in Nov./Dec. to Thailand and Cambodia. I'm
breaking it into several parts so that posting and reading will be a bit
easier. I realize that many members of our list prefer to travel in Europe
so this may only appeal to a few. We had a marvelous time and I'd do it
all over again!
Thanks again to all who gave me encouragement when we were planning this back in the summer of 2000.
Ruth Marie Colorado
DISCOVERING THE LAND OF SMILES - TRAVELING TO THAILAND AND CAMBODIA November 18 - December 6, 2001
Even though we needed three flights and 30 hours to get there, it was well worth the effort to travel to the ALand 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.... 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, a number of 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 Agood value for money@ and we would definitely travel with them again. ( http://www.overseasadventuretravel.com ) Our group was made up of 15 participants from age 50 upwards. Many of them were extremely well traveled and willing to share their knowledge which was a delight for me.
November 18/19: Although we departed Denver very early on November 18, it was almost midnight on November 19 when we arrived in Bangkok due to crossing the International Date Line. We were met and hustled off to the Rama Gardens Hotel (http://www.ramagardenshotel.com ) so that we could get a bit of sleep before continuing to Cambodia the next morning. The Rama Gardens is a very 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 Cambodia.
Departure time was mid-morning and the flight was only 45 minutes, but the staff of the very 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 3 hour flights in the US with only a packet of pretzels and a soft drink! The plane was very colorfully decorated and the outside was painted with palm trees and tropical fish. A delightful flight.
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 Acold@ (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 4-wheeled; most of it was 2-wheeled - bicycles, motorcycles, - or 4-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 family-style lunch which was delicious. I don't think we ever had a bad meal on this trip. Some were more outstanding than others, but they were all good. Usually meals were either 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 Abow@ to a western-styled dish. I did eat 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.angkorhotelcambodia.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 Atuk-tuk@ and it was fun! A Cambodian Atuk-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 AGreat@ 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 Aglow@ until mid-morning. The bus had a cooler with bottled water and wipes for cleaning our hands and faces which were very 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 exquisite detail.
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 Aone 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 time.
Exhausted tonight! Shower, dinner and fall into bed. Jet lag is catching up to us!
November 22: Left the hotel at 7:30 a.m. to go to the Tonle Sap which is a fresh water lake caused by the backup of the Mekong River during the rainy season. A whole community of people live on floating houses in the lake. It was a fascinating look at a totally different culture. The vendor who sold vegetables (or whatever) just paddled right up to the floating homes. There was a school, a church, a couple of small stores and a bar/restaurant, even a small zoo where there were some birds in cages, also a python, iguana, and porcupine. I would never have expected to see those animals in a setting such as this! Since it was the beginning of the dry season, the water level was dropping and the settlements were moving toward the center of the lake.
After the boat trip we headed back into town and visited a very interesting school for artisans. The school is underwritten by the European Union and trains young people ages 18 - 25 in the local handicrafts of stone and wood carving, silk making and polychrome work. The students are chosen from small villages and given aptitude tests to see which type of work they are best suited for, but if they prefer one of the other types there is nothing to keep them from trying it as well. After they receive their training, they go back to their village and continue their trade. Their work is collected periodically and is for sale in the shop that adjoins the school. This way they become contributing members of their village and have a salable skill. We visited each of the work areas. The young man who took us around and explained the work spoke very good English with a slight French accent. In the shop, we bought a lovely little bird carved in teak.
Lunch at another open air restaurant. Delicious spring rolls and a lot of other things as well. Next door was a very posh shopping area. As you stepped into the show room, a young salesgirl literally Aattached@ herself to you. She asked questions very politely, and if you showed any interest in an article, she was ready with the sales pitch. Since I am not much of a shopper, my girl finally lost interest which was fine by me. Some of the others found it annoying to be hovered over while looking at merchandise. Obviously, private enterprise is alive and well in Cambodia. The people are working hard to get out of the desperate poverty they have been in for such a long time.
Before it was time to meet our flight, we went to a Killing Fields Memorial that was on the grounds of a Buddhist temple and cemetery. What a despicable person Pol Pot was! Millions were killed during his regime. Som, now 36 years old, was in his teens when this was happening. He feels that at least half the population of the country was annihilated. He said that the wealthy, the educated and the old were the first to go. Then the Khemer Rouge began killing shop keepers and workers. Finally, they began killing everyone. Because Som's family was made up of simple farmers, some of them survived. He told us about stumbling over skulls and bones in the field next to the temple when he was taking the family buffalo to drink. Jim and I were pretty much overcome by this memorial. It was the first time I shed tears of sorrow on this trip, but it would not be the last.
Another delightful flight with Bangkok Air. Again, they served a light meal on the 45 minute flight! It was while eating our sandwiches and fruit that we realized that today was Thanksgiving Day - and we have so much for which to be thankful!
After landing and passing through all the controls, we changed money before finding Note who was to be our guide for the remainder of the trip. He seems a personable young man, but a bit quiet for a guide. Not the commanding personality of Charlie Gomez, whom we came to love in Costa Rica, but polite, business-like and efficient.
Our bus was large, high up off the ground, with more than enough seats. It was bright red (we'll always be able to spot it!) and the curtains inside are bright pink! It came to be known as AThe Bordello Look.@
The traffic in Bangkok is formidable, to say the least! I actually fell asleep on the bus as we sat waiting for it to move. By the time we got to the lobby of the Regency Park Hotel ( http://www.bangkokhotels.net/location/bangkok/regency_park.htm ), I was asleep on my feet. It was all we could do to get to our room which was very nice. There was no way we were going to go out for dinner. We ate some of the dried fruit and nuts that we always carry, drank some water, washed out a few things and by 9 p.m. were in bed and asleep. Of course, I woke at 4:30 a.m. and could not go back to sleep but that was over 7 hours of sleep which made me feel much better!
November 23: Wonderful breakfast buffet right outside our door. We are on the third floor and that is also where the buffet is served - very convenient! This is the place where pad thai (a special noodle dish) was so very delicious. It became my favorite breakfast item from the Asian side of the menu.
Note met us at 9 a.m. for a briefing and then we were off to visit the Grand Palace and Temple Complex along with what appeared to be at least half the rest of the world. Great numbers of Thai schoolgirls (ages 10 - 13), many Chinese and Japanese as well as western visitors.
Made up of crenellated walls, gilded spires, fierce statues and ornate buildings, old Siam seemed to come alive as we followed Note about the complex listening to his explanations of history and religion.
All of a sudden Note realized that it was Half Moon and this was one of the reasons for so many eastern visitors. The Buddhist calendar is a lunar one so the most auspicious times to visit the temples are at Half Moon, Full Moon, etc. Because of this there was chanting in the Great Temple which is where the Emerald Buddha is kept. Actually made of jade rather than emerald, it is the most esteemed icon in the country and wears a different golden garment each of the three seasons. Because of the high esteem in which the Emerald Buddha is held, it is the King who changes the garments. The King is also held in very high esteem (more on this later).
The offerings both inside and outside the temple consisted of food and flowers. The most predominant flower was the lotus. They come in white and rose and are absolutely beautiful. They seem to be offered most frequently in a nosegay made up of 6-8 blossoms surrounded by their large leaves. I never tired of looking at lotus blossoms! Visiting the temple, we got our first taste of removing our shoes - it would certainly not be our last. My advice to anyone visiting the Far East: wear something other than lace-up shoes!
When explaining about the history during the era of King Rama IV, Note referred to him as AMr. Yul Brynner@ which instantly brought to life in our western minds what was happening in Siam at that time. When he spoke of King Rama V, he reminded us that this was Athe young prince@ in the movie, AThe King and I.@ Both AThe King and I@ and AAnna and the King@ are banned movies in Thailand because each of these movies indicate that there was an attraction between Anna and the King. The historians of the country prefer that this impression not be given: therefore, the movies are not available to the Thai people. Note said that he had seen a pirated copy of AThe King and I@ many years ago.
While on the complex grounds several of us were approached by groups of the aforementioned Thai schoolgirls. They were doing a school project and asked if we would be willing to be interviewed. I readily agreed. Each girl in the group had a particular question to ask, practicing their command of English as well as gathering information. Answers were spoken into a tape recorder, and afterwards they asked if they could make my picture. Jim took their camera and they stood surrounding of me for the picture. Some of their questions were: Where are you from? Is this your first visit to Thailand? What is your impression of our country? Would you return? What is your favorite thing in our country? They were so polite! It was a pleasure to help them out!
Leaving the Palace/Temple Complex, we headed to a riverside restaurant for a buffet lunch. Note encouraged us to try the chicken noodle soup. It was fantastic and nothing like chicken noodle soup a la Campbell's! It was shortly after 2 p.m. when we finished lunch and got back on the bus, but it was 4 p.m. by the time we made it back to the hotel! I'll say it again - the traffic is awesome!
By 4:30 Jim and I were out for a walk along the very large thoroughfare not far from our hotel. This very wide street was most easily crossed by using elevated crosswalks placed at intervals along the way. You would have taken your life in your hands to try to cross the actual street! We happened on a huge many-storied building, named Times Square, whose first three floors contained shops of all sorts. It was here that we found an internet establishment. We were able to get right on a machine and by using my Yahoo address were able to send a number of e-mails to let family and friends know that we were fine. The keyboard was fascinating because it could be used for 4 different languages. All you had to do was tell the attendant which language you needed and he made sure that you had the proper connection. I had been concerned about dealing with an extremely foreign keyboard but that was an unfounded worry.
Our hotel was located in Aold Bangkok@ and the streets were narrow, crowded and the sidewalks were dreadfully cracked and broken. So, walking was an adventure to say the least. It would have been foolhardy to not to watch every foot step...unless you wanted to end up on your face.
During our walk we had seen several miniature houses on pedestals outside large modern buildings. They were usually very intricately made and hung with flower garlands. We noticed that there were offerings of food at each of these shrines as well. They were spirit houses and sprang from the animist beliefs that when you disturbed the land by building on it, you were disturbing the spirits of the land and trees that were there before the buildings. These shrines gave the spirits a place to live.
Dinner was in the hotel that evening. We gathered around a long table with Note at one end. We had a set menu served family style and true to form, it was delicious ending with coconut ice-cream and diced fresh fruit. We were more than ready for bed again this evening. What a wonderful day it has been, but it is only the beginning and as we are to see, each day got better and better!
November 24: On the bus at 8:15 a.m. this morning and it is our turn on the front seat. We are rotating seats each day which is only fair with this many people. Note takes the front seat right behind the driver which is where the microphone is located and the rest of us rotate around him. There are several seats in the back of the bus which are not included in the rotation but are there if anyone wants to rest or stretch out. It will turn out that today will rank very high on the Aoutstanding@ list for me.
Never in my life have I seen a flower market like the one we visited! I could have stayed there all day just drinking in the beauty of the place. Orchids were everywhere; long stem roses were everywhere; flowering ginger of all species, lotus blossoms, jasmine, marigolds, heliconias, and more. The prices were too good to believe - two dozen roses were the equivalent of $2.50 and the nosegays of lotus were about $.75! Next to the flower market was a small food market which was fascinating as well.
This part of our walk took us to the Chao Phraya River where we boarded a boat which would take us to Wat Arun or Temple of Dawn. The main temple here is built in the Cambodian style with the decoration being made of porcelain pieces which came from China as ballast in the trading vessels in the 1800s. Cambodian style pagodas resemble an ear of corn standing on end, so they are always easy to recognize. There were also bronze statues which had been used as ballast in these ships.
>From the temple we continued on the river until we came to a turn-off into a canal. Note told us that as a boy he swam and played in the canals in this area because he had relatives living there. There were very nice homes as well as some more basic ones lining the canal. We were on our way to a home visit where we would also have a cooking class - right up my alley - that's for sure!
It was Saturday so the children of the family were at home to help their mother with the cooking demonstration and meal. Father, a customs official, was at work. The home was right on the canal and the ground floor contained the kitchen, the bathroom and an open air dining and living area which was quite large.
Our hostess Surajit Amphansaeng (Jin) introduced us to her children and explained their nicknames. Because children are given names in Sanskrit which are very long and flowery, they are also given a diminutive or nickname by which they are known. Usually the diminutive has something to do with the parents= occupation or desires or hobbies. Our guide, Note, is called Note because his father is a musician. Our hostess' 19 year old son is ABas@ because the father loves basketball; the 15 year old son is ABank@ because they hope he will be a financier; and the 13 year old daughter carries the diminutive of ABook@ because the mother read many books during pregnancy. Bank demonstrated how they use the mortar and pestle on a daily basis to blend the spices and seasonings into a paste. Everything is done fresh. No curry powder our of a little jar for them. After Bank made the red curry paste, his mother made Red Chicken Curry which was one of our lunch dishes, she also demonstrated a sauteed chicken with ginger and vegetables which I got to help with. Also on the menu was pork toast, an appetizer similar to shrimp toast, soup which was a clear broth containing cucumber stuffed with ground pork, jasmine rice to go with the curry and the chicken dish as well as mixed vegetables, one of which was loofa. Yes! Loofa, which we only know in the dried state as an implement used to scrub in the bath. But loofa is a type of squash and quite tasty! Then came fresh fruit which we assumed was dessert, but we were mistaken! Our dessert was extremely unusual and delicious - sticky rice with salted corn and sweet coconut milk. Yes, I know what you're thinking - AHow strange!@ but it was superb. Sweet and salty at the same time and amazingly delicious! Sticky rice is a glutenous rice which is quite different to the jasmine rice that is eaten with the main part of the meal. Jasmine rice is not flavored with jasmine. That is just its name.
After lunch, we were invited to see the upstairs part of their home. We removed our shoes and went up an outside staircase to two general purpose rooms which each measured about 14 feet by 14 feet. These rooms were sparsely furnished compared to middle class homes in the US. In the first room, there was a curio cabinet, a shelf which held a picture of the father's grandmother (who had given Jin and her husband the house on their wedding day) and a picture of them on their wedding day. Each of the children had a piece of furniture which was a storage unit with their name on it and there was a western-style organ and two traditional Thai stringed instruments which Bank played for us.
In the other room the parents had their storage units against one wall, a shelf held a picture of the King and Queen, and on the opposite side of the room was a Buddhist shrine. It was explained that each evening the family spends at least one hour in meditation together at the shrine. Sleeping pallets were stored in the base of the storage units. I wonder what they would think if they could see all the material possessions that end up in middle class homes state-side!
It was hard to say good-by to this wonderful family who had shared so much of themselves with us, but we were back on the boat to continue through the canals and a lock which brought us back into the river and a stop at the Royal Barge Museum. These are the barges that are brought out for state ceremonies and they are spectacular indeed.
After a couple of hours back at the hotel, we were taken to a wonderful Vietnamese restaurant for dinner but I won't impose on you the list of dishes we were served. Suffice it to say, they were very good. I will say that my beverage that evening was made of lychee juice in a very fine shaved ice - extremely refreshing!