Tag Archives: UNESCO World Heritage Sites

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

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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43 Days: The Things I’ll Carry

 “The things they carried…P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits…they carried diseases…malaria and dysentery…lice and ringworm and leeches…and the land itself…the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intangibles…They carried their own lives.”

from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (Haughton Mifflin, 1990)

It’s been a quarter century since peace finally came to the  lands of Southeast Asia. For centuries it was part of the fabled “spice route” between the eastern and western worlds, yet in the 20th century more than twice the tonnage of bombs were dropped on Indochina than in all of World War II. I’ll be leaving Sunday to spend 43 days in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. I’ll have no worries or fears, unlike the brave but misled soldiers of that ill-fated war.

For me who narrowly escaped experiencing the horror of those past times, it feels odd that I’ll enjoy first class hotels, renowned cuisine, stunning scenery, cities and sites that have survived millennia of wars and legendary hospitality. From all my research of the past six months in preparation for this trip I expect to see, or even feel, little evidence (except in museums) of last century’s strife. As a chef, historian and travel writer I’m preparing myself for a flood of experiences that will test my ability to process this trip with all five senses – especially taste. Foods that few westerners ever have the opportunity to see, no less taste, await me, with fusion cuisine developed over centuries of east-west contact – durian cheesecake anyone?

Oddly, I’ll carry some of the same objects listed by Tim O’Brien – can opener (cork screw in my case), pocket knife, wristwatch, mosquito repellant, bottled water, sewing kit and malaria pills (one-a-day for 51 days). I’ll have to still be mindful of bed bugs – carrying bed bug repellant (fortunately I’m  already aware of what they look, and feel, like.) Lice, leeches, dysentery are all still present – this is the tropics – which means swimming in lakes and rivers is out. I’ll carry my ignorance of customs – no pointing either with fingers or, especially, with one’s foot. I’ll be ignorant of the languages. For the first time in my life as a traveller I’ll be hopelessly unaware of what anyone is saying (with the exception of tourism workers that speak English). Language will become music, much nicer than the karaoke sounds my research says is the favorite throughout all four countries.

The best thing I’ll carry? A sense of wonder.

My first blog, from Bangkok, will post Tuesday, 8 February.

Who Knew? Wyncote Historic District

Wyncote Historic District

 I travel to far away places to visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites and in the United States to experience regions of historic significance with little regard to the reality that National Historic Districts are, literally, in my back yard. Twenty-nine, to be exact, are within Montgomery County, Pennsylvania alone. The most recent addition, in 1986, is a 10 minute walk from my house.

The Wyncote Historic District does not honor any battles. It hasn’t particularly lived through any traumatic events – unless one counts the entire 20th century. It didn’t start as a community of hardship that developed into a national inspiration. Wyncote was a late 19th century Philadelphia suburban (semi) planned community for the wealthy. The Wyncote Historic District is a 108 acre area within Montgomery County’s Cheltenham Township ten miles north of downtown Philadelphia. Of the nearly 200 residential structures all but a handful were built between 1865 and 1934 – the golden age of Philadelphia’s industrial might – and designed by some of the leading names in architecture.

Angus Wade designs, 1890's

Prior to the 1850’s Cheltenham Township was a prosperous farming region consisting of land grants handed down by the Penn family in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even in colonial days, the area was a favored retreat from the city’s sweltering summers. Wealthy Philadelphians maintained country farm estates in this admittedly bucolic countryside or rented rooms and houses for the summer.  The construction of the railroad linking Philadelphia with the coal-producing regions of northern Pennsylvania induced newly wealthy entrepeneurs, such as the Widener, Elkins, Tyler families to purchase large tracts of land for the dual purpose of constructing country homes for themselves and selling subdivisions to their friends and others of their class.

Horace Trumbauer design, 1890's
Horace Trumbauer designs

By the 1890’s the Wyncote Improvement Association was formed to ensure building codes, minimum house costs and lot sizes.

All Hallow's Church, 1898, Frank Furness design
Jenkintown/Wyncote Station, Horace Trumbauer design

Frank Furness, nationally acclaimed architect (Reading Terminal, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) designed an exquisite little gem in 1898, All Hallows Episcopal Church. The then young Horace Trumbauer established his reputation with a number of  houses in the district, and the Jenkintown/Wyncote Reading Railroad Train Station (still a busy commuter depot). Later in his career, Trumbauer would design some of the regions most stunning mansions, public buildings and commercial spaces.  

Curtis Hall and Arboretum

By 1915  most development ended and Wyncote had the reputation as an exclusive community of wealthy residents. People from the managerial and professional elite of Philadelphia as well as indusrty heads lived in Wyncote –  the Proctor family (Proctor-Silex Electrical Company), Cyrus H.K. Curtis (Curtis Publishing, Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal) and the Lippincott family (book publishing). Mary Louise Curtis Bok, daughter of Cyrus, an accomplished musician and founder of the Curtis Institute of Music, constructed a private concert hall and arboretum on their Wyncote estate. The 45-acre arboretum’s landscape was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (New York’s Central Park). Curtis Hall and the arboretum were acquired by Cheltenham Township as a park in 1974.

The architecture of Wyncote illustrates the new and increasing role of university-trained architects in the design of turn-of-the century, upper-income houses in suburban America. The majority of architects working in Wyncote received their professional training in the new School of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.  Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Tudor, Craftsmen, Victorian and even medieval castles were all part of the eclectic mix coupled with rolling hills and large landscaped lots.

The 1986 designation as a Historic District was a major boost in preventing the decline and decay that take over so many older neighborhoods consisting of large houses that, let’s face it, require large maintenance costs. Pride in ownership is evident in the pristine condition of the district, despite high real estate taxes. This 1891 Craftsmen house with over 3,000 square feet, 5 bedrooms, etc, is currently on the market for $435,000 with annual real estate taxes over $10,000/year.

for sale: $435,000 (taxes $10,000+/year)

Wyncote has always been a nice area for walks and many a dog, including mine, use Curtis Arboretum daily. Yet how often does anyone think, “this might be significant?” Your own back yard – a heritage site? Who would have “thunk” it. Thanks National Register of Historic Places.

Published: 2 Articles/2 Journals

I have two articles on Argentine themes that are now published on-line by respected travel journals.

Rio Parana from Casa Quiroga & bamboo maze

Horatio Quiroga’s San Ignacio: Home to Madmen and Missionaries appears in the British journal Hack Writers  http://www.hackwriters.com. It has been publishing for 11 years and is associated with the University of Portsmouth, England.

               (I am posting some photos not printed with the articles)

 

(Top)model of San Ignacio Mini, stone carving detail (Bottom) ruins of church facade, on-going restoration work

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

(Top) native Guarani, ruins of mission housing (Bottom) irrigation canal, school and countryside

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Top) Quiroga's motor bike & first house, (Bottom) interior and exterior of second house)

 and

Global Writes, the 54 year old journal of the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association (http://global-writes.com/ ) published Sweet Fire in Ushuaia, my article on the incomparable food enterprise Dulce Fuego in Ushuaia, Argentina run by 20-something-year-old chefs.

staff of Dulce Fuego, grilled Patagonian Trout, and Ushuaia, Argentina (the southernmost city on Earth)

Colonia: Uruguay’s many reasons why

“Better to marry a neighbor than a stranger.”
Uruguayan proverb

Perhaps that is why Buenos Aires (Argentina) is fond of calling this Uruguayan city their “48th barrio.” It’s not imperialism or condescension, it’s 300 years of history. Founded in 1680 by Portugal, Colonia del Sacramento is a mere 50 minute high-speed ferry trip across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires. Colonia suffered a violent history for over a 140 years as it ping ponged between Portugal’s Brazil and Spain. Finally, with significant Argentine assistance, the former Brazilian province, known today as Uruguay, achieved it’s independence in 1828.

old town Colonia with lighthouse
oldest house in Colonia 1690

Colonia’s renowned historic quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the finest districts of 17th and 18th century South American colonial architecture. It is a popular tourist attraction for visitors from Buenos Aires especially during the summer as its position on the northeastern side of the Rio de la Plata provides a cooling breeze. The Barrio Historico de Colonia, within walking distance of the ferry terminal, contains portions of its fortified wall and the City Gate with its  still functioning wooden drawbridge. Original cobblestone streets radiate from the tree-lined Plaza Mayor. Shops, restaurants and intimate inns are interspersed among residential 18th century houses.

original city gate, drawbridge and fortified walls
“300 years of struggle and love”

I was visiting in late June which is the beginning of winter in Uruguay. Because of the country’s long Atlantic and Rio de la Plata coast line, Colonia was pleasant in the breezy 60’s (F.) The entire historic core is closed to traffic except for business owners and residents. Many visitors rent bicycles and scooters – many residents use similar vehicles – but it is an easy town for walking. In the summer season Colonia is as crowded as any popular historic waterfront town, especially with Argentines.

Casa del Almirante Brown

Among notable attractions are the Lighthouse and convent ruins of the 17th century Convent of San Francisco. The Basilica del Sanctísimo Sacramento was  constructed in 1808. The 18th century Portuguese Museum has Portuguese furnishings, jewelry, uniforms and old maps of Portuguese naval expeditions. The Casa de Nacarello, is an 18th century upperclass house museum. The Casa del Almirante Brown houses artifacts and documents of the city’s different periods and cultures. Of note is that the Irish-born Admiral William Brown was instrumental in gaining Uruguay’s independence, is regarded as the “father of the Argentine navy” and a national hero in both Uruguay and Argentina! The oldest church in Uruguay, Iglesia Matriz, dating from 1695, is found in Colonia as well.

Basilica del Sanctísimo Sacramento, Plaza Major

There is a new town to Colonia that is commercial and conveniently seperated from the historic zone. It continues the city’s traditional base as a trading hub between Argentina and Uruguay.

Top: new maritime terminal, historic train station Bottom: Buquebus ferry

Buquebus ferries make 5 to 6 round trips between Buenos Aires and Colonia daily from its new modern and efficient terminal at the Northern Dock in Puerto Madero (Buenos Aires). The trip takes less than one hour. Same day excursion specials are also available. From both Colonia and Buenos Aires, Buquebus ferries sail to Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital.

Cafes in Colonia (yes… that is a former windmill & a dining table in an antique car)

There are dozens of restaurants in the Barrio Historico de Colonia. It has always been my experience to avoid any restaurant that has waiters outside overly eager to “capture” a tourist – of any nationality – and explain their menu. I’ll make a generalization based on hundreds of restaurant meals in dozens of countries – this tactic sends up the proverbial “red flag” that the food is mediocre and overpriced. Colonia, especially around the Plaza Major, has many such establishments. On the other hand, I am partial to restaurants that have water views, even if the menu is not extraordinary. Simple food, well cooked and presented, acquires a special aura when accompanied by a beautiful setting. Uruguay, like Argentina, is known for the excellent quality of its grass-fed cattle and natural farming methods.  In recent years there has been an increase in vineyards devoted to organic grapes and wine production.

a profusion of flowering plants even in winter

Restaurant Dos Puertos filled that criteria. Set one block from the waterfront, the outdoor seating had a clear view of the sun dappled Rio de la Plata. Even though it was winter, the temperatures in the 60’s were fine for an outdoor lunch. My first course was their interpretation of what the menu clearly said was Caprese Salad – thick slices of tomato, fresh basil with slabs of Gruyère cheese. If you are very fond of Gruyère you would be in heaven – personally, I would have liked the fresh mozzarella a Caprese Salad requires. My entrée was grilled fresh Sea Bass, simply seasoned, accompanied by a vegetable medley that had obviously come from a freezer bag, but at least they were not over cooked. It was not a memorable meal, but the service was friendly and the view relaxing.

Restaurant dos Puertos

Like most restaurants, Dos Puertos is primarily a parilla, and stacks of aromatic wood were piled on the side of the building. Pleasant folk music was piped outside. Restaurant prices are slightly higher in Uruguay than in Argentina.  If you are just making a day trip to Colonia, use a credit card rather than exchange money for Uruguayan currency. You can use Argentine pesos in Colonia, but you’ll get a better exchange rate on the dollar with your credit card, even with the bank fee. (Note: Uruguayan currency is not accepted in Argentina.)

at rest in Colonia’s harbor

With the pleasant waterfront surrounding three sides of the Barrio Historico, Colonia is well worth at least a day trip from Buenos Aires with its history, charm, cafes, sailing, shops and galleries. For a longer visit, it makes a good base to explore the beautiful countryside of southwestern Uruguay.

(Note: All photos and collages will enlarge when clicked and very large when double clicked)

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