Bangkok: Chinatown, Wat Pho, and Ayutthaya

In Bangkok at the Lub-D Hostel in Silom area:

After a delicious morning cup of coffee and pastry (craving that!), Ty and I negotiated a price for a tuk-tuk out front of the hostel to take us to one of the ferry stops on Chao Praya River; he took us instead to a boat tour place riverside. Not wanting to pay for a private boat tour, just to get down-river to Wat Pho, we declined that option and, instead, decided to walk through Chinatown, have lunch, and then try again for a tuk-tuk to Wat Pho.

Most of the tuk-tuk drivers here do not want to take you where you want to go; what they want to do is get you to agree to a certain number of stops for shopping at “sponsors”, for which of course they get a kick-back. One guy told us that, because of Chinese New Year, Chinatown was “closed”. We got this same absurd story from another guy who wanted to take us somewhere in his taxi – ha. This scam is notorious here; wherever one might want to go, the driver assures her that “it’s closed today” and he will instead take one somewhere else “just as good” – which ends up being his brother-in-law’s noodle shop, his mother’s shoe store, etc, all “just as good” as the Grand Palace or Chinatown or Wat Pho … not. (I am reminded of the tour driver who took Tracey and I up to see the Getty Villa in LA; when we got there he said, “Just look at the gardens, the stuff inside’s not very good” … (!).

So, we wound up once again, just like the last time we were here, wandering around the 8th circle of Dante’s Hell in the vehicle engine and anonymous large machine part section of Chinatown, with nary a clothes or hair doo-dad or noodle shop in evidence.

As we passed through the cable link and rope section into the gem and mineral stalls, we realised that, yes, we were following our old path and, taking a right on a small alley, we at last emerged into Chinatown proper, complete with motorbikes, trucks, men with dolleys, bicycles, and pedestrians all competing for the same two inches of pavement space between the shops and stalls and street vendors.

The tables at every street food vendor station we saw were full; finally, we happened to be in the right place at the right time as two people vacated a tiny metal table and we grabbed two plastic ringside seats right next to the tiny alley passageway – huzzah! Two bowls of pork ball noodle soup later, we were off on a mission to find Wat Pho and finally got a tuk-tuk dude to agree to a reasonable price to take us there non-stop.

Just as we arrived, the heavens opened and it started pissing rain. This kept down the crowds a bit, but it was still packed in the main temple housing the gigantic 26 meter reclining gold Buddha, the main attraction at Wat Pho.

We wandered through the other satellite temples and pavilions, all containing multitudes of golden standing and reclining Buddhas, as well as stone statues of Chinese figures.

Wat Pho, right next to the Grand Palace (in which we spent a lot of time in 2009) is huge and beautiful, with a wealth of enormous tiled chedis as well as temple buildings. Our trip back by tuk-tuk was right in the middle of rush hour, a seething mass of humanity on wheels all trying to squeeze into the same tiny space of pavement between huge tour buses, our driver alternately cursing the crush and speeding down alleyways, zipping into impossibly small spaces, and generally wheeling his wagon around as if it were a Ferrari hot wheels car.

See a few more Bangkok pics here. See some pictures of the Grand Palace from our 2009 trip to Bangkok here.

Ayutthaya Historical City

Our second and final day in Bangkok was spent at Ayutthaya, the ruin site of the former capital of Siam, south of the city. I’d arranged for a car and driver to pick us up at 7:30 and, sure enough, he was there as, once again, it started to pour torrentially. Ty and I looked at one another and thought about cancelling but, hoping the rain would stop by the time we got out there, decided to go anyway. Halfway there, along the highway, seated white-knuckled in the back seat while our driver careened through the rush hour traffic at what I thought was break-neck speed, the rain stopped and by the time we reached Ayutthaya an hour later, it was hot and dry. From what is admittedly my ethnocentric perspective, many people here – like this guy – really do drive like maniacs, seemingly not caring about road conditions or visibility, just pedal to the metal, roar down the road and hope for the best. Interestingly, though, an editorial in the Bangkok Post today was based on the differing safety standards between western countries and Thailand; while noting that in the west we are obsessed with safety, the writer admonishes the Thai for being too indifferent to safety concerns and urges significant changes.

He dropped us off at a bike rental place, from which we obtained two old, crappy one speed bikes, and off we wheeled to the ruin site (which was not at all as I had imagined it). I thought Ayutthaya would be something like some of the ancient cities I’d seen in Turkey, or even like Angkor Thom on a smaller scale, ruins interspersed with trees and somewhat remote. Instead, the site is basically a park in the middle of a modern Thai city and a seemingly not very well cared for one (although this state may be the result of last year’s horrendous floods).

Ayutthaya was a kingdom in the Siamese empire from 1350 to 1767, when it was destroyed by the Burmese army, and the strongest power in the region for much of those years. Its kings were considered as the incarnation of various Hindu gods: Indra, Shiva or Vishnu (Rama).

From Wikipedia:

The king ultimately came to be recognized as the earthly incarnation of Shiva or Vishnu, and became the sacred object of politico-religious cult practices officiated over by royal court Brahmans, part of the Buddhist court retinue. In the Buddhist context, the devaraja (divine king) was a bodhisattva (an enlightened being who, out of compassion, forgoes nirvana in order to aid others). The belief in divine kingship prevailed into the eighteenth century, although by that time its religious implications had limited impact.

Our first stop was Wat Ratchaburanaj, with a very interesting large prang (Khmer-style stepped pagoda) surrounded by many large stupas, and fronted with the remains of a monastery. On the low walls surrounding these buildings, the remains of stone Buddhas sit; usually only the crossed legs and a single hand remain. Along with these, inukshuks have sprouted; Ty contributed his own small creation to those already there.

We were able to climb the steep stairs and enter the main pagoda in this complex, unlike the others, much to the annoyance of the pigeons who own the place now.We could also descend into the crypt via a steep set of stairs with helpful rope.

We also visited the ruin site of Wat Maha That, where a Buddha remains locked within the embrace of bodhi tree limbs and roots,

and the Ancient Palace, the grounds of the latter almost completely overgrown with uncut dry brush, looking as if no-one bothers to take care of it any more.  Throughout the park area, brick pathways wind around and through moats and pools, while the Chao Praya River runs around the entire ancient city site. We saw a few others on bikes and a few bus tour groups, but overall the place was pretty quiet, except for the bird song.

About the architecture:

“The prang was an important monument in Khmer and Ayutthaya architecture. Prangs can also be found in various forms in Sukhothai, Lopburi, Bangkok (Wat Arun). Sizes may vary, but usually the prangs measure between 15 and 40 meters in height, and resemble a towering corn-cob like structure. Prangs essentially represent Mount Meru. In Thailand Buddha relics were often housed in a vault in these structures, reflecting the belief that the Lord Buddha is a most significant being in having attained enlightenment and having shows the path to enlightenment to others.

In Khmer structures, of course, Hindu deities were housed in the center of the prang monument. The ‘cella’ or central (small) hall inside the prang, can be accessed through a porch, located in the east. With Thai (Sukhothai, Ayutthaya) architecture, the cella could often only be accessed by climbing stairs. Later on, the cella even disappeared in some prang structures, and was only suggested on the outside by niches (usually in the four important cardinal directions), where a Buddha image would be located. In Thai architecture, Garuda images were often present halfway [around] the prang in four positions. Later on, they were omitted from the structure.

Now, what are differences between Khmer and Thai prangs. Well, to start with, the materials used to construct them would often be different. Khmer structures often used sandstone and laterite, if available in the area. Ayutthaya prangs were mostly built with bricks, then covered with stucco. But the main visible difference is that Khmer built prangs taper off stepwise (in tiers of decreasing size). Ayutthaya prangs taper off gradually in a smooth way (without clearly visible steps)”. (http://www.thaiwebsites.com/prang.asp)

Along the way, Ty had two flat tires; the first time the back tire blew we walked the bikes back and got another one for him; the second time, I rode the flat-tired bike while he rode mine and we managed to limp along back to the store with them – not pleased. However, I guess we got what we paid for – they were $1.40 each for the day (none of the bikes here look like they’re maintained at all).

On the ride back into Bangkok our driver was a freak; obviously, he’d been off somewhere smoking, snorting, or shooting something, because he was tweaking – talking to himself the entire way back, constantly and agitatedly rubbing his knees, scratching himself, and rubbing his eyes. After just over an hour of watching him out of the corner of my eye to make sure he wasn’t going to go totally off the rails as we drove, I was delighted to say goodbye when we pulled up to the hostel – goodbye and good riddance.

See more pics here.

Grand Tour of temples around Angkor Thom, Cambodia

Ty and I, sans guide, rolled out in a tuk-tuk headed towards the “Lady Temple”, a building which our driver enthused was a must-see. When we reached Banteay Srey, the hometown of our driver, we stopped for a bit to meet his family and drink a young coconut with them.

The driver’s sister pointed out the billboard across the street showing a man in a car handing a mosquito net to a young person and explained to me that her sister had gone up into the mountains without a net and was now very sick. Another billboard across from this one showed the old and new Cambodias; the old on the right had Khmer Rouge men with guns, blood, and corpses in the street, while the new showed a well-dressed happy family, complete with puppy, in front of a shiny new school.

We visited five temples in our Grand Circuit, so named because of the distance to be travelled between them.

Banteay Srey (late 10th c Hindu) “loosely translates as ‘citadel of the women,’ but this is a modern appellation that probably refers to the delicate beauty of the carvings. Built at a time when the Khmer Empire was gaining significant power and territory, the temple was constructed by a Brahmin counselor under a powerful king. The walls are densely covered with some of the most beautiful, deep and intricate carvings of any Angkorian temple” (Lonely Planet account). The temple’s relatively small size, pink sandstone construction, delicate almost filigree-like carving, and ornate design give it a surreal “fairyland” ambiance.

East Mebon (late 10th c Hindu) is a large temple-mountain-like ruin, rising three levels and crowned by five towers, dedicated to Shiva.

It has beautiful, well-preserved elephants sculptures in each of the four corners, as well as two guardian lions at each of the four stair cases to the upper levels.

From the topmost level we had a beautiful view out over the green and lush countryside beyond, some of which is not yet dried out from the recent mega-floods.

Ta Som (late 12th c Hindu) is a small monastic complex with beautiful carvings, a large gate topped by a stone portrait head, and is much like a smaller version of Ta Prohm, the “Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider” temple (as all the guides and tuk tuk drivers call it).

Neak Pean (12th c Buddhist) is a small island temple, the central building of which sits at the axis of a cross or lotus pattern of eight pools. Originally known as Rajasri, Neak Pean took its modern appellation, which means ‘coiled serpents,’ from the encoiled nagas that encircled the temple.

The area around this temple is still flooded; we accessed it along a wooden causeway over a swamp boiling with mosquitos. After snapping a few pictures, we quickly made our way out again, me covered up with a sarong to avoid getting bitten.

Finally, saving the best for last, we visited the magnificent Preah Khan (late 12th c Buddhist), a huge complex which originally served as a Buddhist monastery and school, engaging over 1000 monks.

For a short period it was also the residence of King Jayavarman VII. The name means “sacred sword” and the temple is dedicated to the King’s father. We approached the temple along a grand boulevard and bridge lined with gods and demons struggling, like the earlier bridge we’d seen into Angkor Thom. Here only one head remains; the rest had all been eroded away.

Once inside we were greeted with grey, green, and red walls sculpted with bas reliefs of apsara, warriors, firefly-Tinker Bell-like women along the top edges of inside walls, and huge fig and silk-cotton trees growing out of and into the building’s stones.

Each of the large temples in Angkor Thom is surrounded with a moat, signifying the oceans of the world. The bridge which crosses each moat, surmounted by nagas, represents the “rainbow bridge” connecting the underworld, earth, and paradise. Some of the bridges, as noted, are decorated with duelling gods and demons. All the temples have bas relief carvings of apsara dancers, each with a different headdress, and contain large open dancing halls in which the women would perform dances dedicated to the gods.

The pyramidal temple structures have five levels, representing the five “worlds” of Hinduism. Many of the towers are topped by gigantic stone lotus blossoms which originally would have been used as fire basins, lit when the apsara danced. Although most of the temples were originally Hindu, all were later converted to Buddhist with the addition of Buddha statues and sculptures to the extant Hindu decoration.

I loved my time in Cambodia; the weather was great – hot and dry – and the people are warm. Evidence of Cambodia’s dark past was everywhere in the form of land mine victims begging on the streets and playing music in small bands on Pub Street and at the temples. The country is not as wealthy as neighboring Thailand or Vietnam and most of the people in Siem Reap’s surrounding countryside still live a very traditional village life. Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are incredible; I’m already thinking about my next trip! And next time, I’ll be able to take it slow – five temples in one day doesn’t make for optimum viewing conditions …

See more pics here.

Temple Tour Two: “Small circuit” of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom

Cycling around the town:

The really rough road from the hotel to the downtown area is being repaired by road crews dressed in cotton balaclavas with added neck pieces to protect against the sun. It’s hot and dusty and the street is covered with gravel and  full of huge potholes, a menace at night but relatively easy to avoid during the day. Ty and I grabbed the hotel’s two rickety old upright bicycles to explore the town of Siem Reap. Because it’s flat here, the ride is easy as far as exertion goes, but the traffic takes a bit of getting used to. No-one obeys the rules of the road so we just had to go with the flow, never stopping at stop signs or red lights, just weaving through the traffic, accelerating when necessary to get out of a bigger vehicle’s way. We pedalled past the Old Market and along the riverside to Wat Preah Ang, a five hundred year old temple complex in the middle of town where an even bigger, newer temple is in the process of being constructed.

The temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom have made Siem Reap a very wealthy town, wealth which is very much in evidence at this temple where the ancient and modern coexist harmoniously. Extensive topiary gardens with sculptures, gold-covered chedis, several temple buildings with glittering decoration, and the seemingly obligatory kitchy statues of little deer, birds, and women adorning the gardens testify to the general well-being of the community. We watched for a bit as several men tiled the steeply-pitched roof of the new building in the blazing 35 degree heat.

We then crossed over the river and visited Wat Bo, also an old complex but not as richly appointed. The orange-robed monks looked at us with expressionless faces and the temple dogs came out barking and bristling as we were getting our bikes so we beat a hasty retreat – easy to tell when we’re not welcome!

From Wat Bo, we cycled along the river past the Royal Residence, then back again, stopping to look at the beautiful infrared photographs of temples by John McDermott installed at a gallery in the FCC riverside complex.

Temple-Touring!

We arranged for a two tuk-tuk convoy and a guide for the “small circuit”, beginning with the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Up at 4:30 am for a 5 am departure, we, along with lots of other people in tuk-tuks, cars, vans, buses, and bikes, made the pilgrimage out to Angkor Wat in the dark. We stood on one of the gate’s ledges for a bit as the sky began to lighten and headed down to the reflecting pool for the actual sunrise, a non-event with a fart of yellow and red sky between darkish clouds. Our guide told us that the sunrise had not been good the whole month … oh well, at least it got us up and out the door early for what proved to be a long day of temple-trekking. Our itinerary covered, as well as Angkor Wat itself, the main temples in Angkor Thom, the “king’s city”. (The source for much of the information below on the historical and cultural context of Angkorian temples is the Lonely Planet – our guide, while knowledgeable, spoke an English that was sometimes difficult to understand).

Angkor Wat (early-mid 12th c ce Hindu/Buddhist), the temple of the King, is a massive three-tiered pyramid crowned by five lotus-like towers rising 65 meters from ground level, representing Mount Mera in the Himalayas, the abode of the gods in Hinduism.

At the apex of Khmer political and military dominance in the region, Suryavarman II constructed Angkor Wat in the form of a massive ‘temple-mountain’ dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu. It served as his state temple, though the temple’s uncommon westward orientation has led some to suggest that it was constructed as Suryavarman II’s funerary temple.

Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat and an exterior wall measuring 1300 meters x 1500 meters. The temple itself is 1 km square and consists of three levels surmounted by a central tower. The walls of the temple are covered inside and out with bas-reliefs and carvings, including most memorably nearly 2000 distinctively rendered apsara (dancing women) carvings.

On the lower level the exterior walls display enormous bas-reliefs depicting stories and characters from Hindu mythology and the historical wars of Suryavarman II. Highlights include the mythological Battle of Kuru on the west wall; the historical march of the army of Suryavarman II, builder of Angkor Wat, against the Cham, followed by scenes from Heaven and Hell on the south wall, and the ‘Churning of the Ocean Milk’ on the east wall. Some of the carvings were quite hard to make out, while others were dark and shiny as a result of being rubbed over the years by hordes of tourists (it’s quite easy to tell which images interest people from their relative darkness; for example, the breasts of the dancing women). Some are also stained red with rouge, used as a protective covering.

At the upper-most level of the temple, accessed by a staircase guarded by employees who check for offensive clothing (shoulders and knees must be covered and sarongs or scarves are not acceptable, to Christine’s dismay), the central tower houses four Buddha images, each facing a different cardinal point. Although Angkor Wat was constructed as a Hindu temple, it has served as a Buddhist temple since Buddhism became Cambodia’s dominant religion in the 14th century.

After wandering around the vastness of Angkor Wat, we had a somewhat mediocre breakfast in one of the many temple restaurants, and then rolled onward to Angkor Thom through a huge parkland area of grass and trees.

Angkor Thom (Big Angkor 12th – 13th c ce Buddhist) is a three kilometer square walled and moated royal city and was the last capital of the Angkorian empire. After Jayavarman VII recaptured the Angkorian capital from the Cham invaders in 1181, he began a massive building campaign across the empire, constructing Angkor Thom as his new capital city. He began with existing structures such as Baphuon and Phimeanakas and built a grand enclosed city around them, adding the outer wall/moat and some of Angkor’s greatest temples including his state-temple, Bayon, set at the center of the city.

There are five entrances (gates) to the city, one for each cardinal point, and the victory gate leading to the Royal Palace area. Each gate is crowned with four giant faces and the one through which we entered had a bridge decorated with demi-god and demon figures playing tug-of-war with a giant naga serpent, representing the struggle between the forces of good and evil in Hindu mythology.

Within Angkor Thom we saw the following:

Baphuon (mid 11th c Hindu) a huge temple-mountain in the heart of Angkor Thom, currently being restored, which has a rear brick wall in the form of a gigantic reclining Buddha.

Bayon (late 12th c ce Buddhist), a temple with thirty-seven standing towers, most but not all sporting four carved faces oriented toward the cardinal points. Who the faces represent is a matter of debate but they may be Loksvara, Mahayana Buddhism’s compassionate Bodhisattva, or perhaps a combination of Buddha and Jayavarman VII.

Bayon was the Jayavarman VII’s state-temple and in many ways represents the pinnacle of his massive building campaign. The bas-reliefs on the southern wall contain real-life scenes from the historical sea battle between the Khmer and the Cham, as well as scenes from everyday life.

Phimeanakas (late 10th-early 11th c Hindu), a sandstone pyramid located inside the ancient Royal Palace compound, serving as the king’s temple. According to legend the golden tower crowning the temple was inhabited by a serpent, which would transform into a woman.

The kings of Angkor were required to make love with the serpent every night, lest disaster befall him or the kingdom.

Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King (late 12th c). The former is a two and a half-meter tall, 300 meter long terrace wall adorned with carved elephants and garudas that spans the heart of Angkor Thom in front of Baphuon, Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace area.

Nearby is the Terrace of the Leper King, named for the statue of the ‘Leper King’ that sits on top. Why the statue is known as the ‘leper king’ is a matter of debate. Some argue that when the statue was found, its lichen-eaten condition gave it the appearance of leprosy.

Others have suggested that it is a statue of the leper king of Khmer legend, or that the condition of the statue inspired its connection to the legend.

Ta Prohm (12th – 13th c Buddhist), a temple in the jungle intentionally left partially unrestored; within the walls massive fig and silk-cotton trees grow from the towers and corridors.

Dedicated to the king’s mother, Ta Prohm was originally constructed as a Buddhist monastery and was enormously wealthy in its time, boasting of control over 3000 villages, thousands of support staff, and vast stores of jewels and gold. It is now most well-known as one of the sites in the Angelina Jolie film Tomb Raider.

After an epic nine hour day, we were driven back to the hotel and deposited in an almost senseless heap by the pool to recover.

See more pics here.

Beng Mealea, near Siem Reap, Cambodia: epic jungle temple

Beng Mealea was built in the 12th century and is the same vintage as Angkor Wat; however, nothing has been restored here. Like Angkor Wat (for which it is thought to be the prototype) and the other temples here, it is surrounded by a large moat symbolising the oceans of the world in Hindu comology.

The temple is tumbled-down, with gigantic stone blocks as if thrown by gods hither and yon, collapsed gates, and broken walls and roofs grasped by tree roots and branches, reminding me quite a bit of Termessos in Turkey, a mountain-top ruin site that remained unconquered when Alexander the Great swept through Asia on his conquests.

Some of the relief carvings are still visible, with female figures, elephants and Vishnu/Garuda being the most common motifs. Our guide pointed out the most interesting carvings, sometimes almost invisible under fallen stone, and led us over fallen rocks, up through broken gates, around walls, up across wooden walkways and platforms, around the entire temple site. We saw four libraries in various states of disrepair, several galleries, and entrance gates positioned at the four cardinal directions.

When we first arrived there were only 4 others on site; as the time passed a few tour groups from China arrived. However, this temple is much less visited than the other, more famous, Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom temples much closer to the city. Our guide also pointed out the sites of exploded land mines within the temple compound, tapping on her prosthetic leg for emphasis.

After consuming a great Khmer curry lunch, we rolled back into town as rush hour was starting, joining the throngs of tuk-tuks, mopeds, trucks, tractors, bikes, and cars all converging on central Siem Reap. We had a swim and finished the day with a wonderful dinner at Touich, a top-rated out-of-the-way restaurant in the back of beyond, where we had a great chat with 2 French tourists and sampled a Cambodian Mojito and several rice based special desserts which we were asked to try out for the kitchen.

See more pics of Beng Mealea here.

From Koh Samui to Siem Reap, Cambodia

Friends Barb and Christine arrived this week, fresh from an 8 day tour of Northern Thailand, to spend a couple of days with us at our house in Bang Po, located on Moo 6 in a lovely local community just one hundred meters across the road from our previous chalet. We spent three days exploring the beaches of Chaweng, Lamai and Bang Po, as well as the town of Nathon and the Hin Lad waterfall and temple.

The day we spent on Chaweng, the longest and most upscale beach on Koh Samui, was a bit overcast at first and the waves were fabulous crashing rollers. We spent the afternoon on brightly coloured loungers for which we paid a pretty penny in food and drink from an indifferent restaurant staff. Later, after a Thai massage, we had a tasty Thai supper at the Infinity Restaurant on one of Chaweng’s side streets. The next morning, after negotiating a price for our own song thaew taxi, we hit the sights on the west coast.

After spending some time at the forested Hin Lad temple, and examining the elephants at the riverside trekking station, one of whom looked blind, Lamai Beach called to us and we enjoyed watching the beautiful red retriever dog fetch water bottles thrown in the waves from the sand in front of the Bikini Bar.

Thursday morning Ty and I were up early for our transfer to the airport, courtesy of Dave, and, rather than spend the night in Bangkok as we had originally planned, we decided just to keep on trucking, flying in to Siem Reap, Cambodia, after changing our airline ticket at the Bangkok Air counter in the Suvarnabhumi Airport. After a short forty minute flight, a line-up at the visa on arrival counter where a fleet of uniformed personnel passed our passports from hand to hand down the line, and a taxi ride of twenty minutes, we were ensconced at the Pool and Palm Villa just outside the downtown area of Siem Reap.

The hotel grounds have suffered from the recent floods, having lost much of their grass, trees and flowers to the waters that inundated Cambodia in the fall, but the place is very nice. Two wooden Kmer-style buildings, with very high ceilings and beautiful wooden furniture and fittings, accommodate guests, with a large pool and poolside restaurant on the back part of the property. Also a victim of the floods, the roadway into Siem Reap is badly chewn up, with enormous potholes that crews are in the middle of trying to repair. Some low-lying areas in the countryside here are still a bit flooded and only now starting to dry out.

The area around Siem Reap is very flat, with lots of cabbage palms and other deciduous trees interspersed with flat patches of yellow grazing land and brilliant green rice fields. Very bony cattle, lots of dogs and puppies, pigs, and chickens abound here.

The commercial buildings in this area are vibrantly coloured, with the newer hotels and villas reminding me of the ones I saw in Turkey. Downtown Siem Reap (the name meaning “Siam [Thailand] Defeated”) is lovely, with blocks of French Colonial architecture in multi-coloured hues, an Old Market, complete with chicken carcasses, fish, fruit, and multitudes of shoes, and a Pub Street, packed out at night with revelers and beautifully lit up, full of restaurants and bars. After a mediocre dinner at the Khmer Family Restaurant, we headed down the street to a bar with a nice outdoor seating area and met Dennis, a guy from Montana who’s here working on a project with a local school.

Our second day saw us up and out the door on a tuk-tuk bound for Beng Mealea, a jungle Hindu temple 60 kilometers east of Siem Reap. The tuk-tuks here have a different style than those in Thailand; here they look like 19th century horse carriages, with padded seats and sometimes luxurious fabrics, except instead of the horse, a guy on a moped pulls the carriage. Along the way we passed more road crews trying to fix things up post-flood, guys on mopeds with two live hogs tied to the back of their seats, houses on stilts (both shacks and fancy new digs), schoolgirls with long black hair and floppy wide-brimmed hats on old-fashioned one speed bikes, and tiny tractors with huge loads of logs. Two hours later we bounced in to the temple compound, paid our $5 US each for the entry tickets, tried to avoid the crowds of children scampering around our feet, and were swept into the orbit of a blue-suited, white-hatted one-legged land mine victim who became our guide through the ruin site (see next post for Beng Mealea). See more pics of Koh Samui and Siem Reap here and here.

 

Koh Samui West Coast Day Trip: temples, waterfall, rocks, sand, and shopping

Temples, waterfalls, rocks, sand, mummy monks – the west coast of Koh Samui!

Ty, Maggie, and I were once more whisked off in Mai’s taxi down the west coast of the island to explore, cameras in hand. Our first stop, just past the “downtown” area of Nathon, the main administrative centre of Koh Samui and where the ferry boats from the mainland arrive, was Wat Chaeng, the elephant temple.

No elephants were in sight (perhaps the name is a throwback to the long lost days when there actually were wild elephants roaming in this area), but a large pack of temple dogs was.

As Maggie and I were wandering around the front of one of the temple buildings, we heard a huge hue and cry of barking and realised that the dogs were greeting Ty as he wandered out back.

These beasts, about twenty of them small and large, followed Ty as he explored the cemetery area behind the main building. While we were marvelling at the architecture, Mai took the opportunity to make an offering in the new white and gold temple. Wat Chaeng’s main function now appears to be as a school for elementary-aged children.

Further south along the main ring road, then a turn inland towards the mountain, through a residential area, found us at the Hin Lad waterfall and temple site, nestled in a forested area up against the hill.

Walking along a small bridge crossing the Hin Lad stream, we found a stark white temple building – very modern – and, behind it, the monk’s compound, a series of huts scattered throughout the forest.

Along with these dwellings are quite a few painted tile signs with various pithy sayings and proverbs hanging from the tree branches.

The only other place I’ve seen these before is the small temple on Koh Lipe, where hand-written wooden signs with similar injunctions were dispayed.

After a quick stop at Wat Khunaram for Maggie to check out the sun-glassed mummy monk and me to collect tamarind seed pods, we drove to the south coast to the extreme west end of Lamai Beach to see Hin Ta and Hin Yai, Grandfather and Grandmother rocks, so-called because they are the shape, respectively, of male and female genitalia. They’re part of a cluster of large rounded granite and feldspar boulders (so Maggie told me) that hug the edge of the south shoreline.

Read more about these rocks here.

Mai dropped us off at Lamai Beach and we made our way across the sand to the Bikini Bar for a feast of Jamaica jerk ribs (!) and then a little rest on the loungers next door.

The weather was changeable, though, and a couple of showers chased us under the grass palapas before we decided to head back north on a passing song thaew. The town of Nathon was the end of the line for that particular driver and we were deposited at the pier, from where we explored what turned out to be quite a nice little town.

Strangely, on a side street perpendicular to the pier, we found a shop selling all sorts of North American Indian paraphernalia, including carved wooden Indian heads, dolls with teepees, and a huge feather headdress.

It also sold alligator and snakeskin purses which were quite repulsive. Along the main drag here many of the shops have red Chinese lanterns hung out front, and golden Buddha replicas for sale, giving a really attractive look to the storefronts. We bought a couple of items, including some apples (which are very hard to find here), and rolled back to the ranch very satisfied with the day.

See more pics here.

Ladyboys and Temples on Koh Samui

Our next-door neighbours in Bang Po, David and Janet, had recommended a Ladyboy Cabaret in Chaweng and, when visiting friend Maggie expressed interest in checking it out, Friday night we were off down the road on a crowded Song Thouw shared pickup truck taxi to Chaweng, east coast party central on Koh Samui.

After a circuitous ride through the small crowded bustling streets of Chaweng, buzzed by the usual thousands of motorbikes ridden by bare-headed maniacs, we spotted the Burger King landmark (!) and hopped off and into the downtown beachside throng.

Although we were looking for Starz Cabaret, said to be next door to said Burger King, we didn’t see it and instead, after being encouraged by the gang of ladies outside, Maggie and I headed in to the Moulin Rouge Cabaret which was indeed next door.

We caught the last twenty minutes of the first show and the full second show, an extravaganza of high octane dancing, lip-synching, lights, and pulsing sound in a somewhat seedy down-market Vegas-like venue. Transformed by the glitter and lights, though, the stage looked good and the show was great.

Standouts for me were the Cher-alike, the gorgeous LB in blue glitter gown and peacock feathers,

the top-hatted person in silver (with a body that I would have sworn was female, unlike almost all the others who didn’t really pass),

and the full-bodied comic with a rose between her butt-cheeks, favouring a few select men in the audience with the pleasure of her buttock caresses.

The five male backup dancers were also great, especially one with an enormous smile who really seemed to be enjoying himself. The various takes on femininity were fascinating, ranging from LBs with very full breasts to those with none and from those with angular tall frames to those very petite. Because it was so kinetic and psychedelic, it was very difficult to get decent pictures of the show. See a few more here.

Saturday morning saw Maggie and I up and on the road with taxi driver Mai on a north island temple trip, taking in four of the Wats along the north coast from Mae Nam to Choeng Mon. Our first stop was Wat Na Phra Lan, a seaside temple complex at the east end of Mae Nam beach.

It had a beautiful elaborately decorated golden roof on one elevated platform, along with the usual assortment of temple buildings, and was deserted of visitors.

We saw only one orange-robed monk cutting the grass to the accompaniment of recorded chant music.

Next, still in Mae Nam, but on the far side of the Ring Road, on the hillside, was Wat Phukhao Thong, a temple and cemetery complex with, in addition to the usual, a highly decorated crematorium surrounded by burial chedis.

Being elevated, the site was shady and breezy and a pleasure to walk through. We also saw, on one of the elevated platforms, another decorated Buddha Footprint, this one about one tenth the size of the big one Ty and I had seen down south. This site was also bereft of visitors, with the exception of a local family picnicing under the gigantic shade trees and a crazy guy rolling in the dirt.

From Mae Nam we drove east to the most famous temple site on Koh Samui, the “Big Buddha” at Choeng Mon. Situated on small peninsula whose edges are eroding, the Big Buddha site contains what look like gigantic Hindu sculptures at the water’s edge,

as well as the Big Buddha and many, many smaller Buddhas, including one round smiling one (the “Fat Buddha”, a type I hadn’t seen in temples here before).

This place was surrounded with shops and small restaurants and had quite a few visitors, although not as many as I had expected to see, given its fame. The Big Buddha sits in state on a big lotus blossom at the top of a set of stairs and commands a beautiful panoramic view out over the Bo Phut Bay and the islands beyond.

Our final stop was the Wat Plai Laem, inland on a manufactured lake nearby. This place was almost hallucinogenic, with a giant fat Buddha

and a huge white Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion with nine sets of arms,

both occupying their own tiled platforms jutting out into the lake, along with other temple buildings on other platforms.

I felt like a cartoon character with eyes popping out of their stalks – the glitter, the gold, the mosaic, the tiles, the glass, all glinting in the hot Thai sun was finally too much and we called it a wrap, rolling back to Bang Po to rest our eyes.

Read more about the Big Buddha here.

Read more about Wat Plai Laem here.

See more pictures here.