Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

To my surprise I have discovered that Cambodia is very westernized, with many people speaking excellent English. Other than the occasional country person who still wears a traditional headdress, the clothing of the Khmer (Cambodians) is mostly western. The traffic is civilized. They have a good infrastructure, many modern conveniences, and their construction techniques are much more modern than I have seen elsewhere in Asia.

What Cambodia does have are the ubiquitous touts, scams, and pushy vendors that are so prevalent in other parts of Asia. They descend upon you like a cloud of hornets the moment you arrive at a tourist site. I have heard many people lament over this fact and indeed, it can be frustrating. When you have said no twenty times and they continue to dog your footsteps, insisting that you buy what they are selling, the temptation is to be rude, ignore them entirely, or raise your voice. However, when the vendors are children of seven or eight years old, I find it impossible to ignore them, much less yell at them or be rude. Perhaps I realize that selling something may be the difference between eating dinner that night or starving. Or maybe it’s because they are all so darned cute. Whatever the reason, I had to find a different way to deal with this dilemma.

The children of Cambodia all have the same spiel to get your attention and rope you into buying something:

“Hello. Where you from?” they call out.

“The US. You know the US?” I replied each time.

Every child replied: “Oh, US very good. Washington, DC, capitol.” In some cases, they added the fact that the US has 50 states – except for one little boy who insisted that the US had 52 states.

That’s when the pressure starts. Read More

Little did I know when I arranged to visit Cambodia that I would be doing so during the Khmer New Year celebration. While the crowds at the temple ruins are bad on any day, the traffic during the New Year is truly horrendous, so I have concocted a plan to avoid the worst of the crowds. I will rise at dawn and be at the site by 6AM, investigate the temples until 10:30 or 11 AM when the tour buses start arriving, then escape to my hotel and lay around the pool until late afternoon. Around 4:30 PM I will return to Angkor Wat to (hopefully) see the temple bathed in the golden light of sunset. This plan also has the benefit of keeping me out of the worst of the midday heat.

Bayon temple at the Angkor Wat complex

Bayon temple at the Angkor Wat complex

I began the day with a visit to the enigmatic Bayon ruin within the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom. Into each of the mythic towers of the Bayon four Buddha heads have been carved, one facing in each of the cardinal directions. The effect, unsettling at any time of day, is even more so at dawn, with mists rising and curling up into the towers, alternately hiding and revealing the 356 eyes that watch from the 178 giant carved heads. Read More

For a total of $34 US, I hired a tuk-tuk driver, who will be at my disposal for the next three days, carrying me back and forth between my modern, elegant hotel and the ancient temple ruins, located six kilometers north of town. Initially I thought the entire ruin complex was named Angkor Wat but I have discovered that Angkor Wat is the name of just one of the temples – perhaps the most famous one – in this massive city that was built beginning in 889 AD. The complex is so large that it requires a minimum of three days to see just the most important structures (frankly, a person could spend a year investigating these ruins, visiting a different site each day, and still not see them all). I have been told that there are countless sites yet to be excavated and, indeed, I did see numerous unexcavated mounds with carved blocks poking out from the surrounding dirt.

Motorcycle driven tuk-tuks carry tourists from Siem Realp to Angkor Wat ruins

Motorcycle driven tuk-tuk carried me between the hotel and the ruins each day

First view of Angkor Wat through an ancient stone doorway

First view of Angkor Wat through an ancient stone doorway

Because Angkor Wat is the best known among the temples, it was my first stop. My initial view of it was through the stone doorway of the wall surrounding the temple, its three signature spires punctuating the morning haze. It took my breath away. I stood stunned, unable to move, as I took in its beauty. When I finally got my senses back I stepped over the stone portico and onto the long stone walkway leading to the temple itself. Built between 1113 and 1150 AD, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and it is truly extraordinary. Although volcanic laterite blocks were used as underlayment to provide structural strength, the majority of Angkor Wat was constructed of sandstone blocks that were intricately fitted together to form the scalloped, pointed towers for which it is so famous. The sandstone, being relatively soft, proved the perfect material for the artisans of the time, who decorated the walls, ceilings, pillars – practically every available space – with breathtaking carvings of geometric designs, gods and goddesses, scenes from everyday life and scenes from both Hindu and Buddhist religious legends, such as this long stone mural (below) depicting the ancient Hindu legend of the Mahabharata.

Carved stone mural at Angkor Wat depicts the ancient Hindu legend of the Mahabharata

Carved stone mural depicting the ancient Hindu legend of the Mahabharata

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I wanted to go to Cambodia for one reason only – to see the Angkor Wat Temple Ruins in Siem Reap. Reputed to be among the most beautiful ruins in the world, Angkor Wat has been discovered by tourists in the last few years and each day they descend upon the complex by the bus load. The Cambodian government is doing little to protect the ruins and damage is occurring; it is only a matter of time until parts of the site are closed to tourists in order to preserve these valuable antiquities.

Most people who make the side trip from Bangkok to Siem Reap fly but the $350 airfare would have blown my budget. Instead I decided to take the bus between Bangkok and Siem Reap for $60 round trip, booking through the tour desk at the Royal Hotel where I am staying. The tour desk employee booked me through a company named Unseen Travel (should that have been my first clue that something was fishy?) and said the bus would pick me up at 7:30 a.m. in front of the hotel and that I would arrive in Siem Reap around 5 p.m I was dutifully waiting in the hotel lobby at 7a.m., but by 8 a.m. no bus had arrived. Finally, one of the hotel transport drivers called the company for me. Within a few minutes a short, round man with a Fu Manchu mustache and two-inch long fingernails arrived. Manchu grabbed my suitcase and headed across two major highways to the waiting bus, with me trailing behind. “Hotel street one way – bus not go,” he explained. An inauspicious start, but as long as I made the bus I wasn’t worried.

The Thailand part of the journey was without incident and around 12:30 p.m. we reached the border. That’s when things started to go wrong. Read More

Yesterday morning dawned clear and the sites outside my hotel beckoned, but I have been without a good Internet connection for days, so I just had to catch up on email and blog posting before hitting the pavement. It was noon before I finished. I grabbed my backpack and headed out the front door of the hotel, surprised to discover that the weather had tuned grey and drizzly. The tuk-tuk drivers and taxis love this weather – they figure no one wants to walk in the rain. But I was determined and shook my head “no” to their advances. I noticed a bookstore just down the street and I needed something to read, so I headed in that direction.

Crowds shelter under awnings in Bangkok Thailand

Crowds shelter under awnings, waiting for the rain to let up

I hadn’t gone two blocks when the rain began in earnest – and I mean it was a deluge! I ducked under an overhang to wait it out. At first I was standing there, shifting my weight from one foot to the other and not really thinking or paying much attention to what was going on around me. Suddenly I noticed the Thai Lottery building directly across the highway from where I was standing. A set of cavernous covered steps led into the building and as the rain continued unabated, more and more people collected on the protected stairway. There were shirts and umbrellas of all colors, softly muted by the falling rain as in a watercolor painting.
Watching this moving canvas of color brought me into the moment and I started noticing all the little details around me.

A tourist bus sped by, casting an enormous shield of water from its windshield that formed an arc around the front of the bus, as if shielding it from harm.

An open-air tuk-tuk putted along, the driver and passenger both hunched under the vehicle’s narrow metal roof. Read More

What a birthday I had this year! First, I was tickled that my family and so many of my friends wished me happy birthday by email or comments on the blog. Then, I arranged to spend the day of my birthday with my friend Monika, who lives in the south of Bali. I met Monika several years ago at a Yoga retreat in Thailand. At the time she was living on Ibiza, one of Spain’s Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean. Although we were occasionally in touch by email, I was unaware she had moved to Bali, so I was surprised when she offered to put me up while I was in Bali. Although I was scheduled to travel throughout other parts of Bali for the majority of my trip, I took her up on her offer on my birthday – it’s always nice to share special days with friends. Not only did Monika treat me to an incredible massage that afternoon, but she and her boyfriend, John, and John’s lovely daughter, Jacqueline, took me out to dinner that evening at a popular local restaurant, where I indulged in a “half-and-half” – half Gado-Gado and half Nasi Campur. Delicious stuff!

birthday cake bangkok thailand

Delicious birthday cake after a sumptuous dinner

I thought this was probably the nicest birthday I’d ever had. Little did I know there was more to come. I arrived in Bangkok the following day (April 7th). I have another good friend here – Leticia – and I recently emailed her that I was coming to Thailand. I didn’t think about the fact that all my emails have a signature line on them, which contains my blog address. Leticia clicked on the link to the blog and read my post about my birthday, then emailed me and suggested we get together the day after I arrived. She, her son, Ron, and Ron’s girlfriend, Bee, picked me up at the hotel. After lots of hugs and squeals, we headed for the car, where Leticia presented me with a homemade cinnamon apple birthday cake. Read More