Category Archives: Southeast Asia

Luang Prabang, Laos: City of Smoke and Mirrors

Buddhist monks out and about in Luang Prabang

He’s about four feet tall and looks like any one of a hundred classic poses of the Lord Buddha. He rests behind bars in an exterior open gallery with a twenty-something female guard sitting at a desk (no guns).  Photos are forbidden. Because Laos’ a Communist nation? No… the statue’s a cultural icon, it’s worth a zillion dollars and the Luang Prabang National Museum would like visitors to buy a postcard. The statue is THE Golden Buddha – the Phra Bang of Luang Prabang, and it’s 90% solid gold. For centuries it sat in an inconspicuous corner of Wat Ho Prabang on the Palace grounds in this city of over 40 Buddhist temples and monasteries until someone noticed it after the 1975 revolution.

the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Kahn Rivers
Royal Palace (Luang Prabang National Museum)

For nearly a thousand years Luang Prabang, in the northern highlands at the confluence of two great rivers, the Nam Kahn and the Mekong, served as capital for the kingdoms of Lang Xang, Luang Prabang and, finally, Laos. The French, under their “protectorate,” built the 1904 Royal Palace (now the National Museum) for the revered national hero Sisavang Vong, King of Luang Phrabāng and Laos for 55 years (1904- 1959). Ironically, in 1975, it was at the same palace that Prince Souphanouvong (the “Red Prince”) arrested his half brother, King Sisavang Vatthana sending him, the Queen and Crown Prince to die in a “reeducation camp.” Prince Souphanouvong became the first President of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. It’s a much more peaceful city today.

In 1995 Luang Prabang was rightfully declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and today is the most popular tourist attraction in Laos. The city is gorgeous, at least the old historic core and the stunning surrounding countryside. Luang Prabang is a classic Southeast Asian provincial city and one of the few remaining – villas next to woven bamboo houses, residents cooking in the alleyways on charcoal and wood, aging French colonial buildings and 600 year old Buddhist stupas with monks everywhere, backpackers from Australia and Europe, people in business suits in Toyotas and motor bikes and fisherman throwing nets in the river. For me the preservation of this wonderful collage is what I hope the UNESCO designation will maintain, although there are an increasing number of upscale hotels and amenities geared to the well-heeled Western and Asian tour bus crowd which could alter this reality.

Luang Prabang: people at work
novitiates at work on temple grounds

What to see? Wander into any number of the Buddhist temples and monasteries. At first sight “they all look the same,” but fix your eyes on each one’s decorations – gold leaf stencil on teak wood carvings and walls, enamel and mirrored murals depicting holy texts and everyday life, young novitiate students in saffron robes talking on cell phones while taking a break from temple chores, the beautiful sounds of temple drums and the monk’s devotional chanting several times a day.

(top left) Wat Xieng Thing, 1590, (bottom left) Wat Mai, 1788 (bottom right) Wat Ho Prabang

 Discover the hundreds of Spirit houses with individualistic statements – the elephant manifestation of the god Ghanish next to Japan’s “Miss Kitty,” sticky rice, glasses of water, incense and candles in trees, on walls – all of nature is sacred. Unfortunately, the much vaunted morning ritual of offering food to the monks at dawn has devolved into a mere tourist attraction/photo op. Local people now simply bring food or make cash donations directly at the Temples. (In other areas of Southeast Asia, especially in the rural countryside, this tradition is still strong.)

Temple details (note Miss Kitty in bottom right picture)
view from Mt. Phousi: fires to clean/clear forest combines with humidity

Climb the 350+ steps up Mount Phousie in the center of the Old City passing dozens of Buddha images – the seven daily Buddhas, a magnificent Sleeping Buddha – and a rusting anti-aircraft gun emplacement left over from the Vietnam War era – to the small 1804  That Choms – one of the city’s most revered sites. If lucky, the temple fortune teller will be present. It’s the highest point in Luang Prabang with a  panoramic view of the city and countryside, even if there is a humid haze in the air caused by late winter burning in the surrounding mountains (both controlled burning of underbrush in the teak forests and clearing land for Spring planting). You can purchase, for a pittance, flowers in cone shaped banana leaves, sticky rice and incense as devotional items to leave after your prayers. Women sell pairs of small live birds in bamboo baskets that you carry to the top of the hill and, after saying your prayer,  release from their cage. They will take your prayer to heaven.

That Chomsi (1804) at Mt. Phousi, (bottom left) temple fortune teller
ethnic set menu at TATC Museum

At the base of the Mount Phousie is the small but exquisite museum Traditional Arts and Technology Center. The artful displays detail the ethnic groups and spiritual influences that comprise Laos. The gift shop sells excellent and authentic handmade crafts and will advise as to the best shops in town. The café offers a stunning seven course set menu consisting of classic dishes from all of Lao’s ethnic groups. There were dishes I had not seen on any menu. The cost was $12.50 for 2 people – the menu doesn’t say “for 2,” the Lao’s assume no one person would stuff themselves (don’t even try to eat everything yourself).

Traditional Arts and Technology Center (TATC)

There are numerous eco-tourism companies that offer excursions into the beautiful surrounding hill countryside. The best is Tiger Trails – it seems every company slaps on the moniker “eco-tour” these days so make use of the internet and do some research. There are a host of “made for tourist” attractions in the area that are really not worth your time unless you’re in town for a few weeks – the “Whiskey Village,” the “Silk Village,” the Pac Ou Caves – and simply want a diversion. Whereas the Elephant Village – a non-profit that rescues abused elephants from the lumber industry – is a must see excursion.

scenes of the countryside surrounding Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a Mecca for well made high end silks, art, jewelry and furniture representing both traditional northern Lao and contemporary designs (prices are still a fraction of what they’d be in Europe or North America). The best shops are in the compact Old City, which is easy to navigate on foot. Do not purchase antiques since many “antique” stores sell fakes knowing full well it’s next to impossible to remove genuine antiques, and even contemporary fine art, without a difficult to obtain export license for each item.

Morning Market, Luang Prabang

There is the Morning Market (4:00am – Noon) that’s a serious food emporium. Discover hundreds of foods Westerners never would think could be used in the kitchen – I will detail this market in a future blog.  The lively Night Market (5:00 PM – Midnight), unfortunately like so many in Thailand and Cambodia, has devolved into a tourist attraction offering the same old cheaply made clothes, crafts and souvenirs you’ll find in any tourist shop – obviously factory made and, despite labels, probably not even in the country you’re visiting. Yet for prepared street food, the Luang Prabang Night Market is fantastic! One can feast on freshly grilled meats and fish, create a salad using dozens of greens, fresh herbs and produce or add them to savory soups and stews. Along with a refreshing Beer Lao you’ll have a banquet that will cost anywhere from a couple of dollars to maybe $5.00.

Luang Prabang Night Market's prepared foods
View Pavillion Hotel

Accommodations range from $20/night guest houses (many have A/C even at that price) to boutique hotels (fortunately – cross fingers – there are no large chain hotels) surrounded by lush gardens tucked away all over the Old City that range from $55 to $155/night. Many in the $55/65 night range are just as beautiful and comfortable as those at the higher end. It’s not always easy to find these gems on the Net. I did use a good booking site – Agoda – but since hotels subscribe to booking sites it’s hardly a complete list. TripAdvisor is another good source but since it lists only ones reviewed by members, it does not have a complete list as well. My advice for anyone traveling to Southeast Asia is to book a hotel for the start of your stay in each city through a booking site and then check out what’s available. If you are pleased with the booked hotel, inquire if they’ll extend your stay at the same rate – booking sites are always discounted. If not, you can just move down the street. We stayed at The View Pavilion at over $90/night but, although it had a terrific staff, the hotel needed maintenance from its absentee owners. (Following my own advice for a change, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, at The Rimping Village Hotel they willingly extended our stay at Agoda’s discounted rate after they proved to be a mini-paradise – more on that in another blog.) Lao courtesy and concern with customer comfort is so effusive they would be insulted if you did not ask them for help making dinner reservations, advice on excursions and making the arrangements as well as securing a taxi or tuk-tuk and negotiating the fare. Take advantage – it makes them happy.

Tamnak Lao Restaurant: Fish Amok, Purple & White sticky rice, Soup with Vine Leaves, Luang Prabang Salad, Water Buffalo sausage
Restaurant L'Elephant

Laotian cuisine is neither as sweet as Vietnamese nor spicy hot as Thai – although they still love their chilies. This allows the abundant use of basil, cilantro, mint, green onions, garlic, roasted vegetables and dozens of flavorful greens to shine through their masterful dishes complimented by grilled and steamed fish, pork, beef, chicken, frog, prawns and many other forms of protein. Like the rest of Southeast Asia, they use a number of vegetable/herb/meat pastes, freshly made with mortar and pestle, to add additional layers of flavor. Fermented fish sauce, which in my experience the average Westerner finds disgusting, adds subtle flavor to most dishes and was/is a salt substitute. Fish sauce – of which there are many varieties – does smell vile to the Western nose, but when added to food, that smell dissipates and actually results in a slightly sweet under taste. (I will be writing an article on a wonderful all-day cooking class offered by Tamarind restaurant.) Like most Asian dining, a number of dishes should be ordered – depending on the size of the party – with all diners sharing. We found, for our own dining comfort that for two people, three dishes – along with steamed or sticky rice – was enough. One cold salad, one fish/seafood dish and one meat/poultry dish was satisfactory. Soups are usually substantial consisting of noodles, greens and protein and can be part of a main course. It is easy for a vegetarian/vegan to eat well anywhere in Southeast Asia, but don’t expect this to be the norm among locals. Dishes will be served as they are ready not in a Western order (appetizers first followed by the main course, etc.) Two people in even the most expensive restaurants in Luang Prabang would be hard pressed to spend more than $40/couple, and it is easy for most meals to cost less than $10 – $15/couple. (Note: adding a bottle of wine will more than double to triple the cost, so don’t bother unless you can’t live without wine.)

Tamarind Restaurant: Lao appitizers, Pork/ginger/cilantro balls in lemon grass, steamed fish in banana leaf

My top picks for traditional and fusion Lao restaurants in the Old City are Tamarind and Rosella Fusion Café both on the Nam Kahn river front. The Australian/Lao owned Tamarind is probably the best in the city, and it is moderately priced serving imaginative dishes (lunch or dinner for 2 $15 – $30).  Reservations are essential for dinner. The young Lao staff of Rosella Fusion Café serve much better than average traditional Lao dishes at low prices ($10 – $15/couple) while you sit at attractive teak tables surrounded by orchids at the edge of the high banks overlooking the Nam Kahn. Tamnak Lao, on Sisavangvong Road (the main street) in a classic stucco and wood Lao structure offers tasty traditional Lao dishes, also at moderate prices, while Joma coffee shop on the Mekong side river road has great French coffee and imaginative thin-crust pizzas. Ignore most hotel restaurants. Although many are in attractive surroundings, they serve food geared to the tourist palate – mediocre – at high prices (unless you really crave your Angus beef steak).

Rosella Fusion Cafe: minced pork & cilantro, Luang Prabang salad, squid with chilies

There are excellent French restaurants in this Communist nation where road signs are still written in Lao and French, bilingual schools are common and the French government funds many projects. L’ Elephant is in an elegant art-deco building offering classic French and French Indochina cuisine at prices in the very high end. Unfortunately, it’s become popular with tour groups as well. Café Ben Vat Sene (my favorite) has the feel of a French bistro in the “colonial” tropics – which it is – and too small for tour groups. Under the slowly moving ceiling fans, sitting at rustic tables with brightly colored Lao fabric napkins and placemats, eating such classic French country fare as Pommes de Terre Savoyard (au gratin potatoes with smoked ham) and freshly made Tarte au Citron (lemon tart), don’t be surprised if you conjure images of Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham and Jean d’Estray at the next table enjoying an absinthe. Orchids, the tropical evening and fine food do that to you – give in.

Café Ben Vat Sene

The Three Reincarnations of Vientiane

Modern Laos - old and new

The baritone sounds of the giant drums resonate calling monks to prayer. Soft chanting can be heard in the stillness of pre-dawn. In the near pitch blackness dozens of men and women jog, walk and exercise on modern machines one sees in any American gym except these are free and in the park. In front of the Vientiane Times, men are stacking rolls of the daily newspaper on their motor bikes for delivery. French bakeries are opening for business. There is barely a car in sight on the streets at 6:00 AM. The air is still cool and moist before the sun raises the winter temperature to 90 degrees (F) by midday. Welcome to the reincarnated city of Vientiane, capital of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic

 

 

everyday life: fresh charcoal, knife sharpeners, bottle cap checkers, tuk-tuk cab, bocci ball and bamboo construction ladders

 

 

 

 

martyred Prince Anouvong (King Chaiya Sethathirath V: 1767 – 1829) last ruler of the Kingdoms of Vientiane and Lan Xang.

On the South Korean financed and constructed 2.5 mile long Mekong River Promenade/flood control wall (completion by 2013) stands the largest political monument in Laos – a Pathet Lao leader? A vitriolic monument to Western imperialism? No…it’s a memorial to an early 19th century national hero, the martyred Prince Anouvong (King Chaiya Sethathirath V: 1767 – 1829) last ruler of the Kingdoms of Vientiane and Lan Xang.  He led a failed war against their enemy, Siam (the Kingdom of Thailand) who had occupied Vientiane, and he died in captivity.

a small sample of Buddhist Wats in Vientaine (bottom center) prayer at That Dam - the revered centuries old Black Stupa - (bottom right) sticky rice offering on a protective naga (snake)

After 400 years as the on-again/off-again capital of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (Land of a Million Elephants), the city of Vientiane was utterly destroyed in 1827 by Thailand and remained a wasteland until the arrival of the French in the 1890’s. They rebuilt Vientiane as the administrative capital under their colonial “protectorate” and many structures retain early 20th century French colonial designs. Where are the memorials to the 1975 Communist revolution? They exist in only two places – the former Royal Palace (National Museum) and at the former American compound of the USAID/CIA outside of the city that became the home of Kaysone Phomvihane (1920–1992) co- leader of the Pathet Lao along with the “Red Prince” Souphanouvong (brother of the last King of Laos).  Thus is the complex history of this beautiful country with its stunningly friendly people, as well as an indication that modern Lao is still the traditional, conservative Buddhist culture that has been its history for over a thousand years.

Vientiane, like so many Southeast Asian cities, is undergoing an economic and building revival unheard of since the end of Western domination (the Vietnam War) in 1975. It still retains vestiges of a relaxed colonial town that has to deal with tropical weather which rarely gets cooler than 85 (F) on any day – and always humid. I was told that the number of cars has doubled in the last three years and building cranes can be seen in numerous locations. Chinese, Vietnamese, South Korean and European investment money is pouring into this Buddhist nation.

His Majesty Sisavang Vong, King of Luang Phrabāng 1904-46 and King of Laos 1946-1959)

Capitalism in a Communist nation? Let’s get real. Before the creation of the unified Kingdom of Laos, after the French withdrawal, under His Majesty Sisavang Vong, ( King of Luang Phrabāng 1904-46 and King of Laos 1946-1959) – another celebrated national hero –   the nation we know today as Laos – drop the “s” and say “Lao” – was a feudal society of several kingdoms who pledged loose allegiance to the Kings of Lan Xang and, later, to the Kings of Luang Phrabang. The monumental statue on the grounds of Luang Phrabang’s National Museum (former Royal Palace) depicts the King’s right hand in a classic Buddha position for peace and the left hand holding the 1946 constitution.

infrastrusture? Repair?
a few of the many Spirit Houses in front of shops, homes and a pizza restaurant

The current Lao People’s Democratic Republic is not much different, with many of the same families in power, except allegiance is to the Central Committee that resides in Vientiane. Over 90% of all Laotians are self-employed small business entrepreneurs and farmers and always have been. Buddhism and its teachings still remain the greatest cultural and political influence within the nation. There are more Buddhist temples and monasteries than I can count – independent of  government influence –  and travel within Southeast Asia for Laotians is unencumbered. The excessivly bureaucratic government is considered incompetent and government workers have decent middle class jobs – just like the former Royal Courts. There is a visible lack of infrastructure planning in this developing country.

Pets - which are not eaten

All of this makes Laos, Vientiane and the ancient northern capital of Luang Phrabang (a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and another blog) a fascinating country. Laos cuisine is wonderful. Less sweet than Vietnamese and with fewer hot peppers than Thai, the dozens of flavors from herbs, meats and spices shine. This will upset vegans who believe Asians are basically vegetarians and are eating more meat due to the influence of McDonalds, but Laotians have always been large meat/fish eaters. I was told by numerous chefs that currently more vegetable dishes are becoming part of the cuisine because of Western vegetarian trends! Laotians eat EVERYTHING – beef, pork, duck, frogs, rats, some dog, river fish, shell fish, all the innards and the blood – both liquid and congealed. (OK, please don’t stop reading – I won’t add recipes.) But they lavish love on their pet dogs and cats – they don’t eat their pets – unlike other Southeast Asian cultures (although this is rarely a part of the modern urban diet).

(Top) fresh roasted peanuts, smoked ducks, grilled fish in rock salt, frogs (Center) fish for stew, cockles, prawns and a variety of deserts (Bottom) produce, French bread, strips of Water Buffalo and an ivy-like vine leaves used for salads and soups

Life is on the street and in the markets – typical of Southeast Asia. The “morning markets” are primarily food (4:00 AM – to mid day.) “night markets” tend to be crafts, clothing and prepared foods and “weekend markets” are a great mixture. At any market you will find fresh frogs and the latest Apple I-Pod – it’s “one stop shopping” – the American dream…

La Silapa: Cream of Pumpkin Soup, White fish with Laos vegetables, salad with a lime dressing, tamerind sorbet, ginger cakes in creme anglaise

Inexpensive restaurants abound and spill onto the streets. Lunch or dinner for 2 will rarely cost more than US$15 – unless you stuff yourself. A large 3/4 litre bottle of Beer Lao – a pleasant lager – costs $1.25. A few outstanding restaurants exist. The best being La Silapa, owned and operated by a French Canadian with a menu that is an excellent fusion of French and Lao flavors. Lunch for two is less than $30. (Note: wines are expensive anywhere in Southeast Asia. Costs are frequently more than the entire meal.) Nos serves excellent sushi at prices that make a Westerner believe they were in a Sushi nirvana – about $.25/each with salad and miso soup. There are a number of pizza restaurants using wood fired brick ovens and make terrific paper thin crusts. For genuine Lao cuisine eat on the street. Look for the most popular, crowded street restaurants. The rapid turnover means the food is fresh and has not lingered in the heat – what, no ice to keep the food fresh? Get real – I’ve yet to get even the slighest stomach problem.

Nos

Poverty, as judged by Western standards, is the norm for most people – especially in the rural countryside – in all of Southeast Asia, but not starvation. For a visitor from the “First World,” luxury is quite affordable – beautiful hotels for less than US$70/night, restaurant meals for 2 with drinks for less than $25 (and this is the average high end.) A person/couple can travel for less than a third of that amount or waste money on  ultra luxury accommodations that will run in excess of $650/night. Yet if peace and stability remain in this fabled land they just might achieve the Lord Buddha’s dream of the Middle Path – neither lose one’s self in sensual pleasure nor deny one’s self the gifts of living.

The Floating Villages of Tonle Sap

A floating village on a lake, awakening each morning to the chirping birds and the dawn reflecting on serene water surrounding one’s dwelling. Casting your net to gather fish for breakfast and buying fruit from a passing market boat laden with produce – the dream of an unfettered life. Yet  the  Floating Villages on Tonle Sap  are less romantic as they are a last resort.

The great lake of Tonle Sap is the largest body of fresh water within Southeast Asia. Since 1994 it has been a UNESCO World Biosphere Site and a major world bird sanctuary. In Khmer, Tonle Sap means “large fresh water river” since it’s both a commercially important river system and an immense lake connecting Siem Reap in the north with Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh to the south.

It is the color of mud. On a typical hot, muggy day when the humidity shimmers in the air, both lake and sky meld on the horizon. I had the sensation of floating in a beige bubble.

The villagers are mainly Vietnamese – refugees from wars – and other displaced social outcasts from the Cambodian hills. They live in six floating villages scattered around the lake eking out a living fishing and selling trinkets to tourists like me. Comments from visitors in many travel guides and internet sites are either horrified at the “waste of their travel time” or, like me, stunned that life actually survives in such conditions.

Tonle Sap is teeming with life – alligators, dozens of fish, poisonous snakes and enough parasites to populate billions of human bodies. The water is fetid with raw sewage and we’re told to keep our mouths closed so that we don’t ingest spray from the boat’s wake while it’s in motion. We do as we’re told.

Yet this is home to thousands of people. Mini-market boats laden with everything from cans of Coke to fresh produce float past. A floating pen holds several fat pigs. The Catholic Church is a modest floating blue painted building. There’s a school and a huge floating gym complete with basketball court.

Babies are washed in the stinking lake water. Several floating gardens are anchored to the lake bottom and some houses have Martha Stewart touches with bright tropical plants in contrast to the gray/brown of the floating huts.

For tourists there is even a floating cafe, museum and gift store. Even before we dock, we’re surrounded by boats that look like they could barely float no less contain the mothers clutching babies begging for money and children wrapped in snakes for photo ops. It’s well rehearsed but genuinely wretched and dirty and smelly.

Exotic items are for sale – crocodile skins, bottles of  Vietnamese rice liquor with small pythons and scorpions floating inside  and crocodile jerky.

Rice liquor with python and scorpion – strictly a male elixir…

You can buy beer and ice cream as well. The museum contains displays of live crocodiles, large river fish, a mainstay of the Cambodian diet and quite delicious properly prepared, and ingenious fish and eel traps created over the centuries.

fish and eel traps
tourist boat

So why visit? Because you have to, not out of sympathy or prurient interest but human experience. Just seeing Angkor Wat or dodging the hordes of tourists and tuk-tuks in Siem Reap are not the totality of this ancient kingdom. Yet in contrast to the mud of Tonle Sap the lush green of adjoining rice paddies is soothing eye candy.

When you go:

It is best to arrange for  private certified guides for exploring Tonle Sap and Ankor Wat. Your accommodations will help with arrangements. Guides are well educated in the lore of the region.

Angkor Wat: A Millenium Symbol of Cambodian Resilience

 

Angkor Wat, constructed in the 12th century

Before French imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, before the uninvited American intervention during the Vietnam War, before “sainted” President Reagan’s support for the murderous Pol Pot, his reign of horror and the civil war he pursued for a decade after his overthrow in 1979 by Vietnamese forces, there was the glory of the Khmer Empire (9th – 15th century) and it’s capital the Royal City of Angkor Thom.

Hindu God Siva at Angkor Wat, artillery damage from recent wars

The greatest of the 292 temples that comprise Angkor Thom is the 12th century Angkor Wat constructed during the reign of King Suryavarman II (1112-1150) when the Khmer Empire was at its height dominating most of present day Southeast Asia. The temple complex covers over 200 acres making it the largest religious complex on Earth. It was built to impress. Its outer walls and outer temple are at the end of a 1,000 foot stone causeway over an equally wide 30 feet deep hand dug moat. The inner temple complex is reached by walking on another 1,000 foot raised stone causeway through the vast interior courtyard.

the three towers of the outer temple are on the national flag of Cambodia
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flag of the Kingdom of Cambodia

To attempt a detailed explanation of Angkor Wat, its architectural significance and the meanings of its intricate bas reliefs requires a text-book. Viewing any of the temples with out arranging for a private guide (US$45-55 for 8-hours, guide and driver) would be a waste of time. The bas reliefs of Angkor Wat are the largest in the world covering dozens of walls hundreds of feet in length and 12 – 15 feet in height. They are in stunning condition. Both carved into solid sandstone and covered from the elements over the centuries they tell the stories of Khmer glory and the religious texts of Hinduism in excruciating detail. Many are horizontal tryptics: royal life/battles top third, everyday life middle third and the ocean or hell on the bottom third.

(bottom center) punishment in hell, (bottom right) life in heaven

King Suryavarman II is depicted (picture below) riding in triumph on an elephant covered with the 15 umbrellas that signify his rank as god-king.

the God-King Suryavarman II

The Khmer Empire at its beginning was Hindu, but openly adopted Mahayana Buddhism in the 12th century. The Buddha, a Hindu prince himself, was not a religious monolith and therefore Mahayana Buddhism blends all of Hindu beliefs within Buddhist teachings – the divine trinity, heaven/hell (good and evil), the commandments. The result is a masterful melange of art and philosophy.

By the 14th century the Khmer Empire was under assault by its neighbors, especially the Kingdom of Thailand which succeeded in sacking Angkor Thom. The Royal Court moved south and the jungle slowly overtook 291 of the temples. Angkor Wat was, for the most part, spared that fate due to the diligence of the Buddhist monks who refused to abandon the complex even during the horrendous events of the recent Southeast Asian wars. Angkor Wat today is an active temple with two Buddhist monasteries –  it is “Mecca” for Mahayana Buddhist monks.  UNESCO World Heritage status and on-going restoration projects (currently being conducted with Japanese and German funding) once again are making the temple the focal point in Khmer culture it enjoyed in the 12th century.

Angkor Wat is a fitting symbol for both the Kingdom of Cambodia, which is enjoying its longest period of peace and stability (20 years) in centuries, and the resilience of the Khmer culture.

Buddhist monks and tourists at Angkor Wat

Royal Bangkok

The Emerald Buddha at Bangkok's Grand Palace

The 1951 musical, The King and I, is banned in the Kingdom of Thailand. The fictionalized script, based on the memoire of Anna Leonowens who served as tutor to the children of His Majesty King Mongkut, Rama IV, from 1862-1867, is highly offensive to both the Chakri dynasty and Thai society. Considering that the most onerous objection is the fictionalized portrayal torture and execution of Tuptim (who actually became one of Rama IV’s 36 wives) and His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, the 83-year old current monarch is a direct descendent of Rama IV, one might understand Thai sensitivity. When it comes to the monarchy, Thai sensitivity is high – it is a revered institution (with a capital “R”). Not only that, Rama IV started the modernization of both the monarchy and Thai society which is exactly the reason he hired Anna as governess to his children.

small section of the Grand Palace complex

Following the destruction of the great 14th century Thai capital of Ayutthaya in 1782 at the hands of the Burmese, the founder of the Chakri dynasty, Rama I, moved the capital 40 miles south and established Bangkok. King Rama I literally had the course of the Chao Phraya River altered along with the construction of numerous canals to surround the new capital with a watery moat. That same year, he began the construction of the half square mile Grand Palace complex on the river’s bank. At the center of the complex is Wat Phra Kaeo, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (actually solid jade and robed in rich garments that change with the seasons. The Emerald Buddha itself was a prize of war from present day Laos centuries ago.)

Wat Phra Kaeo: (top left) lotus buds used for blessing with sacred water, (bottom right) incense and offerings, part of the facade of the vast Temple of the Emerald Buddha

The scale of most structures is so vast that it’s difficult to capture with a camera, but the artistic craftmanship is nothing short of stunning.

Central Throne Hall, 1882

The Grand Palace complex today serves official functions only, as well as being Bangkok’s top tourist attraction. Admission to the complex is US$6.50. Photos are not permitted inside any of the few buildings open to the public, and shoes are always removed inside Temples and most Thai houses. Wandering the complex grounds is fascinating enough.

Vimanmek Palace, 1901

In the 1890’s His Majesty King Rama V found life in the Grand Palace too frenetic and moved the residence of the Royal Family to the Dusit area of Bangkok several miles inland from the river. There on a vast track of land that he personally purchased, he commissioned his European educated architect brother to design and construct the world’s largest all golden teak building, Vimanmek Palace (no interior photos, of course). The 72-room Palace would be comfortable as a mansion in any Victorian seaside town. Built in traditional Thai style there is not a single nail in the entire structure. Wooden pegs join everything including spectacular circular staircases.

Vimanmek Palace

 Unlike so many mansions, this was a home. It’s flooded with light and well ventilated with intricate wooden lace work topping all walls allowing air to freely circulate. It serves as a museum today for the royal collection of period furnishings and for both official and private functions of the Royal family.  Currently, it is now part of the extensive private compound of the Royal family including the Royal Elephant Museum and the Dusit Zoo. Admission to the Palace is included in the ticket for the Grand Palace and is valid for a visit within 7 days of the ticket’s purchase. One hour guided tours are conducted and, wearing no shoes, the silk-smooth teak floors feel wonderful on your feet.

Palace for the mother of Rama V at Vimanmek Palace

Bangkok: What defines a fabled city?

 

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What defines a fabled city? Age? Diversity of cultures? Tolerance of differences? Quality of life? Art and architecture? By using any of these terms I’m not sure if “fabled” is a moniker that can be applied to Bangkok. Fascinating certainly is proper terminology.

Bangkok is young and chaotic. Founded only in 1782 (Philadelphia, USA, is a century older) after the Burmese destroyed the truly fabled capital city of Ayutthaya, the site of Bangkok was chosen for strategic purposes – protection from the Thai’s arch-enemy the Burmese. Like Venice, it was marsh land surrounded by rivers. The king immediately constructed a system of canals creating a virtual moat around the city – and like Venice the elevation of the city is sinking.

It’s a city of contrast; not only rich and poor but architectural styles as well – condo skyscrapers next to river shanties, 19th century shopping districts and modern malls, dubious electrical infrastructure, scorching heat/ humidity (even in “winter”), cooling parks, trees, flowers everywhere and exquisite topiary.

Would you believe Bangkok’s a clean city? Believe it ! Trash on the streets is virtually non-existent despite the constant and lively street life. Legions of street sweepers and building maintenance workers constantly sweep up even leaves and fallen flower petals.

Sky Train and traffic

Traffic is horrendous! I spent one hour in a taxi to travel less than 4 miles – of course the fare was modest and the cabs are mostly new, comfortable air-conditioned Toyotas. Yet for less I could have taken a Tuk-Tuk – a motorcycle pulling an open air covered wagon – or, for even less, rode on the back of an orange shirted motorcycle “taxi.”

Yet, built within the past decade, the ultra modern, ultra clean and comfortable Sky Train elevated and the subway system will whisk one around the central core of the city (about one-third of Bangkok) for less than taking the average city bus in the USA. Despite the chaotic traffic I’ve yet to see a dented car.

(top left) shrine in a shopping mall, (center) Buddha statues for sale, (right) Holy Rosary Catholic Church, (bottom left) Temple of the Sleeping Buddha

There are over 35,000 Buddhist temples (Wat) in Thailand, 300,000 Buddhist monks, shrines everywhere – street corners, in malls, in front of every house, in parks, restaurants and hotels with burning candles, incense, flowers and food offerings. Just about every other world religion is present as well. In the Robinson Department Store just down the street from my hotel is a Muslim prayer room.

Shoes and hats are never worn in Thai houses of worship, or, for that matter, in any Thai home. The dirt of the outside is left outside. Floors are immaculate – not a speck of dust.

street life: (top left) eggs roasting on charcoal, (bottom left) street vendor dentures maker

Everything is available from street vendors, especially food. The Thai’s seem to eat constantly yet I have not seen a single person you could call even slightly overweight. For a Westerner, the cost of food is embarrassingly cheap. In the pictures below, the sushi and superbly grilled trout, plus a rice salad and miso soup in a small nondescript Japanese restaurant in a shopping mall cost  less than a Big Mac in the States.

In the three days I have wandered the city I have experienced nothing less than the utmost courtesy whether in a tourist attraction, on the Sky Train or the street. I have yet to see any public display of anger or bad behavior. The police are friendly and helpful – what a contrast to so many countries.

Children seem to be revered and the photos below sums up my impression of Thai friendliness – figures of laughing children are everywhere, especially in the gardens of the Wats (temples) and street the vendor’s baby in the crib is cooled by a battery-powered fan. Bangkok may be intolerably hot and humid, chaotic and perhaps not “fabled,” but it has a more valuable treasure – it’s friendly.

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