Category Archives: history

the awe-inspiring architecture of the Angkorian Empire

There are very things in life that are worth waking up at 5am to see especially if you’re not a morning person which I’m most definitely not. It’s not my fault, all down to the genetics, my cell’s circadian rhythms are primed for the twilight hours and not the dawn. It was still very dark outside when my phone vibrated itself off the bed and we had to crawl up, get dressed and stumble down the guest house steps to meet our tuktuk driver for the day, Mr Bross, outside. Half an hour later we were walking along the causeway that leads up to the temples at Angkor Wat, the most iconic and famous of all the ruins.


A little history

Khmer ladies at Angkor WatQuick smattering of history before I get into any lyrical waxing. The great Khmer civilisation that built the temples around Angkor arose in the last 1st century and flourished for the next 600 years stretching at times from Burma to Vietnam. They built huge temples, irrigation systems, canals, hospitals and libraries and at the peak governed around one million people. Sadly their success was probably instrumental in their decline. Over population and deforestation led to the silting up of their farming and agricultural irrigation systems and the empire suffered from the extensive and hugely ambitious building projects. What I found most intriguing was the echoes of the temples at Hampi and Maharashtra in India in the buildings around Siem Reap. Indianisation had occurred in Cambodia prior to the Khmer empire at the turn of the 1st century via trading ports along the coast. It was strange to come across Ganesh, Shiva, Yama and Vishnu as well as statues of the Buddha and even engravings in Sanskrit on the walls of doorways.

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat at sunriseThere were clouds gathered across the horizon so it was a while longer before a hazy yellow sun rose into view in the sky between two palms next to the towers of Angkor Wat. We were standing by the edge of a large lily pond inside the walls and caught the perfect early morning reflection of the whole structure. It is pretty damn cool! Angkor Wat is believed to be a funerary temple built for King Suryavarman I to honour Vishnu, it faces West, a direction usually associated with death. After the sun was up nearly everyone vanished to our surprise and the three of us were among only a handful of tourists that went inside to explore. There are long columned corridors, beautiful intricate carvings of stories and battles along the sides, engraved heavenly nymphs called Aspara and the mighty towers in the centre.

Angkor Thom, Bayon and Ta Prohm
Stone faces at BayonAfter Angkor Wat, and pancakes, Mr Bross drove us onto the large enclosure at Angkor Thom which was known as the great city. The central temple is called Bayon and it is not for the paranoid, each of the towers and entrances are adorned with over 200 huge stone faces with slightly cruel blank eyes and wide smiling lips gazing down on you. From here we visited a few other temples and a wide long terrace known as the terrace of elephants with huge stone trunks and tusks carved draped down the front and fighting elephants running along the sides. By now the wonderful coolness of the morning had begun to mature into the usual sweat-inducing humid Cambodian midday heat so we decamped to a stall for spicy sour Khmer soup and rice for an early lunch. Overgrown trees in Ta ProhmMy favourite temples of the day were those of the buddhist monastery at Ta Prohm, and not just because they were featured in Tomb Raider. The jungle had done a remarkable job of reclaiming back these Angkor temples and whilst they are being excavated the largest trees have been left to show how nature has run amok amongst the stones. Huge roots of Chann and Sprung trees have grown down, into and through the huge stone, splitting them apart in places and in others winding along and around the columns and walls like huge sandstone snakes. The walls and doorways seem to be buckling to withstand the pressure.

A few more temples including the dizzying vertigo inducing climb at Ta Keo and the lake stretching out from Sra Srang and we’d been temp-ling for almost eight hours. Our wonderfully stoic driver took us back to the guest house just as the clear day broke and the rain began to fall.

The long bike ride and the Roluos Group temples
Doorway in the Rolous templesIt may have been one of those days where Rob and Mika regretted me being in charge of the plan. I thought it would be a great idea to hire bicycles for the day (they don’t hire motorbikes to tourists in Siem Reap sadly) and ride out to a few temples around 13km from Siem Reap. The road was flat and smooth but the bikes were a little rusty, the brakes dubious and the day was a scorcher. The ride out was fine as we left just after 9am and huge trees once we got outside the town provided some welcome shade. We had to take the National Highway but the word Highway is really being used in the loosest possible way. In Cambodia that means it’s paved, relatively smooth reasonably straight. We got overtaken by shared taxis with people literally stuffed into the back, motorbikes carrying wicker cages of pink pigs, buses, trucks and tuktuks. All along the road were small wooden houses on stilts, more expensive cement multistory villas brightly painted, palm trees, skinny white cows and tiny roadside stalls selling cigarettes, drinks and fruit.

Bakong monastry ruinsWe arrived at the first temple just off the main road called Preah Ko, built in the late 9th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. There were six elegant stone halls, now sprouting tufts of earth and grass from they steeped towers but having kept much of the beautiful engravings around and above the doorways and the extensive Sanskrit passages on the inside. In front of the three front halls a small Nandi (sacred oxen) sat squatting looking up to the doors, just like the ones I’d seen all over India. After drinking our own body weights in water we cycled a little further on to what turned out to be the impressive temple of Bakong. We had to cycle along a red dirt track around two sides of the outer wall that enclose a green moat, another inner set of walls and within those the large central temple of Bakong also built for Lord Shiva. Rob’s sandal had mutinied once we arrived and broken so we had a brief interlude of buying chewing gum, threading the thong bit back through and sticking it together with the chewed gum. A brilliant brain wave of Rob’s that lasted long enough to walk around the temple but sadly gave up the gum half way home. By the time we got back to Siem Reap this afternoon Rob was cycling in bare feet and Mika was very red in the face. I suggested popping in to see the local miniature replicas of the Angkor temples and got two very exasperated looks in return so I swung by on my own and let the other two got back to sleep off the sweat!

Banteay Srei and beyond
Rob and I in Banteay SreiFor our final day of temples we wisely left the rickety bikes and employed the services of Mr Bross again for the hour drive through small local roadside villages out to a beautiful temple called Banteay Srei. It’s small and has the most beautiful carvings around the doorways and archways, they look as if they are made from wood as it seems improbable that so much detail could be fashioned from stone. After lunch in the baking heat we also stopped by a temple called Banteay Samre of which we’d heard nothing but proved to be pretty cool. Delicate carvings in Banteay SreiInside the structure steps lead down from the main towers into what would have been an inner moat, now dry, surrounded by engraved windows. A really lovely spot and more importantly some very nice shade! We came back into the main fold of temples to visit ancient pools, more towers, vaulted walkways and gateways overgrown with tree trunks, battle through the never-ending supply of women, children and boys selling guide books, scarves, water and postcards. Eventually by 3pm we were well and truly templed out, there is only so much stunning ancient architectural masterpieces the brain and the eye can take. They are amazing but after three days of Angkor glory I can definitely leave Cambodia with my historical needs well and truly sated!

More temple photos here…

Farewell to Team Token
Claire RobMika
I am flying to Kuala Lumpar tomorrow while Mika and Rob head on up to Laos so finally the token black, the token boy and the token American are parting ways. Well I have left them with a full itinerary for Laos so I’m sure they’ll be fine without me…

sweat and pepper

Kampot RiverCambodia is getting hotter and hotter. The locals have a remarkably simple way of dealing with this. They get up at the crack of dawn, eat and fuss about until about 10am when they disappear into shaded hammocks and enter a partially comatose state until 4 or 5pm in the afternoon when things begin to cool down. The three of us have not quite managed to emulate this skill. Generally by the time we are awake, up and breakfasted it has become the hottest part of the day so there has been much sweating and Rob’s arm got so burnt the other day that if he rolls up his sleeve it looks like a nepolitan ice cream!

Looking through the ruins at Bokor HillWe left Snookville and got a very small minibus to the riverside town of Kampot which is a very sleepy town with wide streets, palm trees along the river front, small restaurants and cafes, prowling night dogs, a militant ant population and absolutely no street lighting after dark. Standing overlooking Kampot ProvinceThere were some lovely old colonial buildings below the centre and a fascinating bridge in three mismatched parts (one French, one Vietnamese and one Cambodian) and two different heights. On our second day we took a trip up to Bokor Hill Station, a former retreat during French colonial times and used as a major strategic stronghold for the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge in more recent decades. The view from the top was pretty impressive, the station stands at 1080m and drops straight back down to sea level, we could see the coastline stretching out in front of us. All that remains now are burnt out decaying ruins including the former palace, casino, church and water tower. Walking through the abandoned buildings with the clouds rolling over the hill top outside the whole place was a little spooky, shades of The Shining and the water tower looked like a stage prop from War of the Worlds. After lunch we had a short,rather uneventful walk through the jungle on our way back to sea level and then hopped on a wobbly wooden boat which took us the scenic one hour route back down the Kampot river into town.

The three country bridge in Kampot

And as for the pepper, Kampot is known for its pepper, and I have to say, it is probably the best pepper I have ever tasted.

troubled past and the hedonistic present

In thought at Wat PhnomThe journey to Cambodia I think will go down in my memories as the hottest, sweatiest day of my life. Two cramped boat rides down the humid, sun soaked Mekong, a very efficient border check and then another boat ride and a final 90 minutes by bus to deliver us into the centre of Phnom Penh. I fell asleep on the bus with my forearm stretched out across my leg. When I lifted it up there was a wide sweaty damp streak underneath. Tasty!

The Nightlife of Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh reminds me a lot of Bangkok without the the huge shopping malls and Skytrain. It’s really quite at the moment as most places as closed over the Cambodian New Year, although despite that we’ve managed to find some excellent restaurants (how can I describe the wonders of deep-fried Mozzarella after months of Dairylea slices and plastic cheese) and some very entertaining late night bars. Yesterday we spent the day wandering around the centre, visiting a small sleepy temple called Wat Phnom at the top of a small hill and vegging out in a lakeside bar. We’d had dinner and a few drinks along the riverside strip and Rob refused to go home until we’d had one more for the road so we asked our tuk-tuk driver to take us one somewhere else. I think we ended up in what must surely be the only lesbian run bar in all of Cambodia. Seriously! I had my boobs poked by our very friendly bar woman who told us she slept with her girlfriends and didn’t like men. Needless to say it was a rather entertaining evening! Mika in the broken bed!We got back to the guest house about 3am and Rob and Mika both collapsed on their beds. I was marching over the three beds complaining that they were being boring whilst “Pretty Fly for a White Guy”was playing on the speakers. As I stomped my foot onto Mika’s bed the whole end of it crashed through onto the ground! I laughed until there were tears! We sort of fixed it but it will no longer support anyone’s weight. Oops. This, boys and girls, is why your mother tells you never to jump up and down on the bed.

The Killing Fields
Skulls at the Killing FieldsThis afternoon we went to visit the Killing Fields and S-21. These two sights represent the horrific regime of genocide that was implemented by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge between 1974 and 1979 in his attempt to create a Maoist-peasant dominated agrarian co-operative. The entire population of Phnom Penh was driven out of the capital to work on forced labour camps in the countryside, hundreds of thousands were executed and still more died of famine and disease. S-21, formerly a school was converted into the main torture and detention camp, also called ‘Tuol Sleng’ which means a posionous hill to keep those who bear or supply guilt. Photo of a girl at S-21About 27,000 men, women and children were detained at S-21 and then taken out to the extermination camp at Choeung Ek outside the city (the Killing Fields) and machete’d to death (they didn’t want to waste precious bullets by shooting the victims). Choeung Ek is now a rural, peaceful area, with bright flowers and the sounds of birdsong. There is a large stupa which houses 8000 skulls exhumed from mass graves around the area. Even so, it is hard to imagine the atrocities that took place.

S-21 I found far more upsetting. It still looks like a school with a leafy courtyard, white flowering trees, checkered floor classrooms and balconies; but the exercise bar was used to torture detainees and the classrooms were the cells for holding thousands of prisoners, administering lashes, electricity and other torture methods to extract confessions. The prisoners were mainly Cambodian, from all over the country and from all walks of life. It was not only the individual who was guilty, their whole families from the elderly to babies would be taken for extermination. Cells at S21The rooms now show the blank expressions of the men, women and children taken there. Some show the bloodied faces and emaciated bodies in horrific detail. There were rooms in which narrow brick cells had been built within the classrooms to keep certain prisoners in isolation. It was a very thought-provoking and very harrowing afternoon. All three of us were very quiet in the tuk tuk driving back.  As we passed through the streets we could see families lying around their porches in the shade, children running around on their bicycles, young guys posing by their motorbikes, girls with hilights and heels chatting on new mobile phones and groups of men laughing and playing cards. As we paid our driver he smiled and said “Happy New Year” before driving off. Whatever horrors lie in the recent past Cambodia seems, at any rate, to be positively rushing forward into the future.

cooking classes, Cua Da Beach & custom-made clothes

School girls in Hoi AnI am definitely falling victim to the infinite charms of Vietnam. This place is coming close to rivalling India for the sheer number of photogenic opportunities, whether it is farmers plowing rice paddies with huge horned buffaloes, the women in their cone-shaped hats paddling with one oar down the river, or the beautiful 18th and 19th century architecture in the town of Hoi An. Farmers near Hoi AnThe food is wonderful, the history is intriguing, Vietnam has, over the centuries fought off most of the big bad boys of Asia; the Indian Chams, the Khmers, the Chinese, and of course more recently the French and the US. I found this quote in the history section of the guide book that I particularly liked written by Le Loi who rallied the country successfully against the Chinese in 1428:

“Our people long ago established Vietnam as an independent nation with its own civilisation. We have our own mountains and our own rivers, our own customs and traditions, and these are different from the those of the foreign country to the north…We have sometimes been weak and sometimes powerful, but at no time have we suffered from a lack of heroes.”

Japanese bridge? Hoi AnJames and I arrived in Hoi An in the late afternoon after a scenic drive through the rice fields and along the sea front through the town of Danang. Hoi An is full of charms, full of restaurants serving white rose (shrimps wrapped in rice paper bundles), hot pot soups of sea food and spice, LaRue beer, cafes, bars, a river front lined with brightly coloured boats- all with ominous white and black eyes painted either side of the prow, markets, old women in pointed hats selling sticky slabs of sugary peanuts, the streets are lined with brightly coloured beautiful houses, palm trees, red and pink flowers creeping over tiled roofs, old ceremonial chambers with Japanese, Chinese, French and Vietnamese architecture all blended together, and most dangerous of all Hoi An boasts an incredible 400 tailor shops.

Hoi An riverW e were recommended a tailor shop called Peace by our hotel and we went around on our first morning. I planned to get one dress and maybe get a copy done of the top I brought in Brazil and have worn to death travelling. The women in our tailors are lovely, and the things they make are beautiful and lets just say that this is day three in Hoi An, James has one suit, two trousers and three shirts and I have a total now of one Vietnamese traditional outfit, two tops, one dress, a formal skirt and a winter coat. Whoops. I have told the owner if she talks me into getting anything else I will stop recommending her shop to people!

CuaDaBeachApart from popping into the tailor shop (which invariably involves the girls getting me to try some weird fruit or sample a local soy bean drink while we have a chat) we’ve been wandering around the old town, visiting the historical sites, sitting drinking Orangina in cafes, cycling down to Cua Da Beach and vegging out on the soft sands, eating incredibly well in the wonderful restaurants in the evenings and drinking ice cold beers while we play cribbage in the bars (I am still loosing)!

Cooking class HoiAn

Today I left James and went to have a half day cooking course with the Red Bridge Cooking School in town. We started off with a tour of the local market and I found out what a good deal of the unusual fruits and vegetables were, my favourite being a nobbly wrinkled green fruit which is a bitter melon. Tastes like crap apparently but is very good for the body! Unusually for someone who generally has the domestic leanings of a fruit bat, I ended up buying kitchen utensils! A very funky mutli-purpose blade that slides dices, peels and shreds, it’s actually very cool! River crabs, Hoi AnAfter the market we all piled into a colourful wooden boat and travelled down the palm fringed river to the cookery school pausing to watch a local fisherman expertly fan out his net into the water to catch fish. Well actually he wasn’t catching any fish just then, he was showing off for the cameras and then frantically paddled up to ask for some money!

The cooking course was brilliant, and our chef had a very dry sense of humour which is unusual in Asia, he kept saying the most amusing things in a totally dead pan tone:

“For this use lemon grass, or if you don’t have lemon grass use fresh ginger. If you don’t have fresh ginger in your country…move.”

We learnt how to make spring rolls, rice paper, seafood salad, Hoi An pancakes, Aubergine in clay pots and cucumber and tomato carving. We ate all the food we made and then had yet more for a late lunch, we were all stuffed as pot-bellied pigs when we climbed back aboard the boat back to Hoi An.

Hoi An Fisherman

where there’s a will there’s a Hue

Citadel, Hue I have no excuse for the blog title whatsoever, apart from the fact that it was too wonderfully cheesy to resist. James and I spent our day in Hue on a City Tour, all the obvious sights and sounds of the city in one hit and to be honest it was a pretty good day. We visited the Forbidden Purple City in the centre of the old citadel with its ornate ceilings, carvings and roof work. Citadel, HueIn typical Asian style if you an emperor of days past the done thing was to stock up on many royal concubines. Then build them a city that only you had access to and leave a substantial guard of eunuchs on guard to preserve their chastity and so you could be sure that your heirs were your own. Sadly for Emperor Tu Duc he was made sterile by small pox, so he concerned himself with ordering his tea to be made with the fresh morning dew instead! We also stopped by one of the traditional Madarin houses from the previous century. The Mandarins were the educated elite in Vietnam, those who held doctorates and were much involved with the politics and administration of the state. They were also not above, it seems, when they didn’t like a particular emperor or his heirs, bumping them off to improve the situation!

Khai Dinh Tomb, HueAfter lunch, we went to visit a few of the old tombs built to house the remains of 19th century emperors of Hue. The Tomb of Tu Duc set amongst pine trees with a beautiful wooden poetry house built on the edge of a large pond. And the impressive hill top tomb of Khai Dinh guarded by rows of stone mandarins. We visited the beautiful Thien Pagoda, the first built in Hue and learnt how to distinguish the ‘small monks’ from the ‘young monks’ and the ‘real monks’ based on their hairstyles and then took a brightly painted dragon boat back down the perfume river to the city. Dragon Boats, HueIn fact the only downside to an otherwise pleasant day was James continuing to kick my ass at cribbage. I have now lost the Thailand cribathon, got trounced in Laos and suffered three straight skunkings in Vietnam. Clearly the gloves need to come off!

stone jars and secret wars

James and I left Luang Prabang on a local bus to reach the eastern town of Phonsavan about 10 hours away. The day was overcast and surprisingly cold and torrential downpours and thick fog made the journey over winding hills through stunning, but cloud shrouded scenery, a little hairy. We nearly broke down leaving the town and a mechanic had to disappear under the bus to investigate some clouds of black smoke before we could leave. We passed two accidents on the hill roads and almost got stuck as we approached a jack knifed lorry across the road between the cliff face and the drop down the other side. We all got off the bus which managed to just squeeze round the side without toppling over and we were on our way once again.

Plain of JarsPhonsavan is a small, frontier style town nestled among low lying fields and farmlands in the East of Laos and is the closet place to the Plain of Jars, a series of sites that hold hundreds of giant sandstone jars believed to be anything from 2000 to 3000 years old. There are two current theories about the use of the jars, some believe they were used to store Lao rice wine and others believe they were used for cremating the dead whose urns were buried beneath the jars. This is hard to prove as hundreds of years ago Chinese invaders dug under the jars looking for loot and toppled many of them over. Others were blown up during the secret war but I’ll come back to that in a moment.  James in a JarWe spent a day on a tour with many of the tourists we’d met on the bus down from Luang Prabang visiting three sites of jars surrounded by gentle rolling hills, small villages and rice fields. The jars themselves are not spectacular in themselves but the large numbers of them strewn around beneath the trees on the hill tops and the history surrounding them, not to mention the comedy photo opportunities made for a good day trip. We also got to visit a village where they make the rice wine which we all had to sample. As local paint stripper goes, not bad. And we stopped by a rusted Russian tank next to a local village as well.

UXO in PhonsavanIn the town after we came back from the jars we went to visit a small display shop set up by MAG, the Mines Advisory Group. I was quite horrified to realise that up until now I was completely unaware that the most bombed country per capita in the world is Laos. In 1962 at the start of the Vietnam war, America signed a Geneva treaty to state that Laos was neutral territory and would not be targeted as part of the war. Then between 1964 and 1973 they dropped 2 million tonnes of bombs at a cost of $2.2million per day on southern and eastern Laos in an effort to prevent supplies reaching the Viet Kong and to cripple the burgeoning communism in the country. 2 million tonnes of bombs, the vast majority in the form of cluster bombs which break open in mid air showering down hundreds, thousands and millions of tiny fruit-like explosive devices called Bombies that fall onto the countryside like rain. They weren’t aimed at military targets, these were aimed at killing civilians; women, farmers, children. Thirty percent of the bombs that fell didn’t explode and have killed 20,000 people in the ensuing decades. Every time the country wants to build a new road, schools, hospitals the ground has to be checked and cleared of unexploded ordanance, UXO.  Bus ride to Vang Vieng from PhonsavanWhen farmers need to till their land, stake in Buffalo ropes or look to expand their farms they risk striking and exploding bombies and other UXO.  A third of deaths and casualties are children than come across the bombies and pick them up thinking they are toys or fruit. A group of ten of us watched a 50minute documentary about the war and the work that MAG is doing in Laos and were all very moved by the experience, more so for actually being in the country where it occurred. All the restaurants and guest houses in Phonsavan are filled with bomb casings as ornaments and bombies as ashtrays. It’s very bizarre. What is crazy is that Laos was never even declared war on, it is such a beautiful country and full of more warm and welcoming people than anywhere else that I have travelled. And yet they are still living through this terrible legacy. Even at a rate of clearing 100,000 UXO a year, the grandchildren of today’s generation will still be farming land where they run the risk of coming across unexploded bombs.  I consider myself a reasonably well read and well educated individual and in constantly horrifies and humbles me just how little I know about the world.