Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

I’m back in Bangkok after an uneventful (thank God!) flight back from Siem Reap, Cambodia. This time I’m staying at the O Bangkok! Hotel, which is in the backpacker district, but a couple of blocks away from Khao San Road, so it’s not so noisy and crazy. This place is pretty nice. It was built only a couple of years ago, so it is fairly new, relatively clean and you can’t beat the price ($19 per night including breakfast, with 24 hour security and free safety lockboxes at the front desk). I think the third time might just be the charm, where hotels in Bangkok are concerned.

The best way to clean up from Songkran in Thailand? Get the fire hose out!

The best way to clean up from Songkran? Get the fire hose out!

You just never know what’s going to happen around here. I was sitting on the restaurant terrace of my hotel having breakfast this morning when I heard a really loud whooshing noise. I looked up to see an entire crew of workers approaching, clad in long pants, day-glo vests, and rubber boots. Closely following them were two tanker trucks filled with water. Fire hoses attached to the trucks were spewing a high velocity stream of water down the street. Between the fire hoses and the crew that was equipped with brooms and rakes, every bit of dirt and debris left over from the Thai New Year celebration of Songkran was swept away into the sewers. It was really pretty efficient, not to mention amazing to watch. I’ve been wondering how they get rid of all the dog poop. Read More

My driver insisted that I do something special during the three-day Khmer New Year and suggested that I attend a performance of the traditional Khmer Apsara dance before leaving Cambodia. One of the mini themes developing during this journey is that I find myself attending cultural performances unique to each country. In Vietnam it was water puppetry; in Bali it was Balinese dance. I saw no reason to buck the trend, so yesterday evening I went to a local restaurant that features a stage performance of Apsara every night.

Traditional Cambodian Apsara dancers

Traditional Cambodian Apsara dancers

Unlike Balinese dance, which focuses solely on religion, Apsara depicts both religious legends and scenes from everyday life. I especially enjoyed the coconut dance, where young men and women weave around each other in seductive courtship moves while clacking together dried coconut shell in rhythm to the music. Another one that delighted me was the cock fight dance. In every Asian country I’ve seen roosters, caged in loosely woven wicker baskets that have been turned upside-down and set along the edge of the road. In Bali I asked my guide about this custom. He explained that cock fighting is a huge sport in Asia and the caged roosters are being trained to fight. The baskets are placed by the side of the road so that the roosters become accustomed to people and noise. The cock fight dancers, with the aid of wicker basket props, were so convincing that I could almost believe they were roosters when they placed the baskets over their heads.

 Cambodian cock fight dance

Cock fight dance

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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