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Archive for May, 2008

Chiang Mai was a welcome change from Bangkok. It’s still a big city (170,000+) but the downtown is compact enough to navigate on foot and the weather was cooler. And there were hardly any tricksters. A big plus in my book.

chedi

Chiang Mai is all about wats. I forget the exact number, but they’re everywhere.

sleeping buddha

Lots of wats means lots of Buddhas.

wat doi suthep

Thousands of tourists and locals visit Wat Doi Suthep on a mountain overlooking Chiang Mai.

prayer

Candles, incense, prayers.

twins fan

I was stunned to spot this guy rocking a Twins shirt all the way up in the Golden Triangle. Wanted to get his thoughts on Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez, but I didn’t want to interrupt his prayers.

buddha tunnels

Located about 5km outside the city center, Wat U Mon is a peaceful forest monastery with some cool Buddha caves.

quote

Wat U Mon had these little philosophical placards posted randomly throughout the monastery grounds.

buddha head

16th century Buddha head at Wat U Mon.

parade

The first night I was sitting outside at a restaurant enjoying a cold beer and a bowl of massaman curry when this huge parade spontaneously appeared. I think it was for a Buddhist holiday (a real one, not a Bangkok-scam holiday).

parade

parade

night market

Sunday nights Chiang Mai’s main street shuts down for a massive night market. Thousands of people flood the streets for crafts (some authentic, some touristy) and loads of street food. I had spring rolls, pad thai, mango sticky rice and a coconut shake.

night market

More Chiang Mai photos here and here

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chinatown

I spent most of my second day in Bangkok lost in Chinatown. Normally I hate being lost, but this time it was by design. My cartoonish tourist map was worthless and trying to figure out which tiny alley I was on quickly proved impossible. So I scrapped whatever plans I had and just wandered through the labyrinthine neighborhood, taking photos and feasting on delicious street food.

chinatown traffic

Traffic was typical Bangkok until you ducked down one of the side streets.

chinatown

skewers

These were possibly the best chicken skewers I’ve ever had. 5 baht each.

dessert

Some sort of glutinous rice cake deep-fried and coated with sugar. Delicious.

corn vendor

Steamed sweet corn. Almost as good as in the Midwest.

conversation

Street conversation.

soi

Typical Chinatown soi.

fresh fish

Fresh fish at a market.

street beauty

Street beautician plucking facial hair using thread.

restaurant

Around lunchtime open-air restaurants spring up on the sidewalks, serving all kinds amazing curries, soups and noodle dishes.

lunchtime

restaurant

lunchtime

Rest of the Chinatown set here.

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bangkok skyline

Bangkok was an interesting experience. Not my most favorite city, but still very interesting. It’s a massive place, and I spent half my time walking around and waiting at bus stops for buses that never came. I made a point of never using tuk tuks and rarely using mototaxis since they all tried to rip me off. Haggling resulted in either a token reduction of 10 baht or the driver giving me the stink eye and roaring off. So I decided to walk. I usually love to walk when exploring new cities, but Bangkok is not built for the pedestrian. Besides the sheer distance between sights, one must contend with lack of sidewalks, epic traffic and aggressive con men (more on this later). Throw some awful humidity and belching exhaust and the occasional surprise rainstorm into the mix and you’ve got the recipe for a fun day on foot.

I still had a good time though. Some photos:

the king

Thais love their monarchy, and King Bhumipol is everywhere in Bangkok. Here’s an arch depicting the king doing normal everyday things like wearing suits, taking photographs of flowers and being happy.

waiting

Bored.

wat pho

Wat Pho. Bangkok’s temples & pagodas are very cool.

guardian

Chinese-style guardian statue at Wat Pho.

many buddhas

Many Buddhas at Wat Pho.

A word on scams. Bangkok has a problem with tourist scams. In fact, it’s a big enough problem that there’s a website devoted to them. Most are quite obvious and all guidebooks warn about them, yet it must be a lucrative career since con men are everywhere around Bangkok’s tourist attractions. They hang around outside these tourist hotspots and tell unsuspecting victims that whatever they want to see (Grand Palace, Wat Prah Kaew, Wat Pho etc) is closed for repairs or monks praying or Buddhist holiday or whatever. For these guys every day is a Buddhist holiday. However, they just happen to know some great temples that most tourists don’t go to, and they’d be happy to arrange a tuk tuk tour for just 20 baht. What luck! The tour consists of one or two of these temples and then a visit to a gem shop or tailor where the tourist is scammed into making purchases at grossly inflated prices. The tuk tuk driver gets a cut for bringing in warm bodies to the shop regardless of whether they make a purchase. There are variations on this scam, but they all begin with the friendly stranger.

I was walking towards the Golden Mount in blatant tourist garb (shorts & t-shirt, camera etc) and decided to sit on a bench to orient myself. I was poring over my map when a middle aged man sat down next to me and struck up a conversation (Thais don’t normally do this, an obvious sign the scam was on). I decided to play along for a bit.

Hello, where are you from?
United States.
Ah, United States. And where are you going?

I’m not sure. Just walking.
And how long have you been in Bangkok?
It’s my first day (never a good idea to tell these guys you’re new in town).
Ah. Very good day to be in Bangkok. Very lucky.
No kidding. Why’s that?
Today is Lucky Buddha Day. Buddhist holiday. May I see your map? Do you have pen?

I handed him the map and he proceeds circle various wats and temples, scrawling illegibly all over it and occasionally poking holes in it with the pen tip.

I am a student at the university (he looked a bit old to be a student, but I didn’t press him further). I know Bangkok very well.

He then tried to decipher his scribblings for me.

First you go to Standing Buddha Temple. Very nice. Then you go to Marble Temple and then you go to Lucky Buddha Temple because it is Lucky Buddha Day (lucky me). And here is the government garment factory. Very special deals here, only one day.

So this was the tailor variant of the tuk tuk tour scam. Off to my left was a tuk tuk where a driver watched our conversation with keen interest.

Government tuk tuk, only 20 baht today. Special deal for Buddhist holiday.

Quickly I folded up my map and stood up.

Looks very interesting. Thank you!

And I quickly walked away. He gave a startled grunt but didn’t follow. The driver scrambled to start his tuk tuk and pulled up next to me, pleading for me to get in, only 20 baht! But it was time to move on.

wily strangers

The tricksters were out in full force outside the Grand Palace. One guy strolled up and asked where I was going. When I told him Grand Palace he shook his head and sadly informed me that it was closed until 1 o’clock. I replied that the Grand Palace was always open and asked why he was lying to me. I think this caught him a little off guard because he gave me a “have it your way” look and walked away. There were at least four others working their way through various stages of the scam. I changed to the telephoto lens and took a few covert photos.

trickster

Sorry Grand Palace not open today…

I wasn’t covert enough. One of them confronted me and stuck a fat finger in my face.

Why do you take pictures?
Why do I take pictures? Because I have a camera. I’m a tourist. That’s what tourists do. Take pictures.
What you do you take pictures of?
That market over there.
Why don’t do go over there and take pictures?
Because I was already over there. Now I’m over here.

He gave me an icy Thai smile that suggested I’d better move on. Not wanting a smashed camera or worse I decided to see if the Grand Palace was open. And it was!

royal guard

Obligatory statuesque guard photo.

palace

Grand Palace.

changing of the guard

Guards marching around.

I stayed at a the remarkably peaceful Shambara Guest House near the Khao San Road backpacker ghetto. The room was a glorified closet with a bed, but it was clean and quiet and the price was right.

khao san daytime

Khao San Road by day…

khao san nighttime

…and at night.

Phra Sumeru

Phra Sumeru Fortress.

Rama VIII Bridge

Rama VIII Bridge.

Chinatown photos next.

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Overland from Siem Reap to Bangkok could’ve been worse. I’d read all kinds of disturbing stories about how bad the roads were and what sort of scum lurk around Poipet, a filthy Cambodian border town regarded by many to be the armpit of Asia. I don’t like spending time in armpits so I planned carefully. Not wanting to deal with a six-hour nightmare in a crammed minibus, I splurged and hired a taxi for the 3-4 hour drive to Poipet. The driver (I think he called himself Mr. P) showed up at the guesthouse promptly at 7:30 in one of those ubiquitous white Camry. Having traveled from Siem Reap to Sisophon a couple months ago I had an idea of what I was in for.

The rutted dirt road was so comically bad and Mr. P so completely wild that it was actually a thrilling experience. He was determined to get to Poipet in under 3 hours and wasn’t about to let giant trucks and some epic road construction slow him down. When we hit bottlenecks he’d constantly probe the smallest gaps in traffic. Mr. P’s favorite (and most effective) tactic was to lurch the Camry into oncoming traffic, then onto the left shoulder and fly past the slower traffic, scattering road workers and motos. We made good time. The road became saner after Sisophon, but things slowed down about 25km outside Poipet.

mud

Heavy rains the night before turned Route 6 into a churning mud soup. Mr. P was much more careful dealing with this stretch of highway.

mud

Poipet was a weird and confusing and awful place, and thankfully I spent all of ten minutes there. I wish I had more photos from there, but it wasn’t the kind of place one should wave a camera about. Our arrival was delayed briefly when a naked man meandered down the main drag and stepped in front of the Camry. I asked Mr. P about this but he seemed as perplexed as I was. The locals didn’t seem to care at all, and the man resumed his naked wandering.

Mr. P dropped me off in a traffic circle near the border where I paid and thanked him. I spotted the Cambodian passport control booth and took a spot in line behind some German backpackers. Touts worked the line trying to get people to pay some ridiculous amount for a so-called VIP bus to Bangkok, but we knew their game and ignored them. I got my stamp and walked down a wide boulevard towards the Thai border. Passport control here took about 20 minutes and then I was in Thailand. As soon as I stepped outside a dozen street kids with umbrellas swarmed around me trying to shield me from a light drizzle. I waved all but one tenacious girl away who insisted I needed protection from the rain. I relented. I also had no idea where to go next. I knew I needed to take a tuk tuk to the Aranyaprathet government bus depot, but directions were unclear and I didn’t see any tuk tuks around. I let the girl lead me in what I hoped was the right direction. My obvious indecision was like blood in the water for the VIP bus touts who bombarded me with “special offers” and “great deals” on transport to Bangkok. I paid the girl whatever token riels I had in my pocket and ducked into a bank to change money. It was pouring when I emerged. When I asked a tout how to get to the bus depot he (very reluctantly and with much head-shaking) pointed me in the direction of the tuk tuks. 80 baht and 2km later I was sitting in a small terminal waiting for the 1:30 bus to Bangkok.

The 5-hour trip was mostly smooth and uneventful, with one exception. About a half hour after departing Aranyaprathet the bus stopped and a Thai soldier boarded. He inspected the IDs of all Asian passengers and asked the driver some questions. Apparently satisfied, he left and we resumed our journey. As soon as the bus was underway the door to the toilet burst open and a family of six Cambodians tumbled out. As with the naked man, this didn’t seem to faze anyone. I, on the other hand, was very much fazed. I wasn’t so much shocked at the presence of illegal immigrant stowaways but the fact that six people could pack into a lavatory of that size. They spent the rest of the trip sitting quietly in the back as I pondered this feat of contortionism.

Door-to-door the trip took just over 11 hours. Not bad.

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6:20-8:00 Banteay Srei

Falling asleep on the back of a moto might seem difficult, but waking at 4:45 coupled with the soothing drone of the engine put me in a weird stupor, punctuated by sharp, panic-filled jerks whenever I tottered to the side or clunked heads with the motodop. Slapping myself in the face seemed to do the trick.

How did I get in this situation? I wanted to see Banteay Srei, a less-touristed temple 45-min north of Siem Reap on the back of a moto. I also wanted to see a sunrise on my last day in Angkor, but the weather didn’t cooperate (again). Banteay Srei was deserted for the first hour I was there, and then only a handful of people showed up. It was one of the more architecturally interesting temples I saw thanks to impressive restoration efforts.

banteay srei

View from across the moat

banteay srei

Detailed sandstone arch

banteay srei

Inside Banteay Srei

8:30-9:45 Banteay Samre

On the way back to Siem Reap I decided to make a detour to nearby Banteay Samre. Only a handful of people here as well.

banteay samre

Blue sky finally

banteay samre

Inside the courtyard

10:00-10:30 East Mebon

The sun was finally out and East Mebon was baking. A big tour bus pulled up just after I got there, so I made quick work of this temple.

east mebon

Looking up at the towers

guardian elephant

One of four guardian elephant statues

4:15-4:40 Ta Som

After the mandatory lunch/nap/photo upload session a huge storm rolled in, throwing a wrench into my plans. By 4 it had let up a bit, so I bought a ridiculous rain poncho, covered my gear with a plastic bag and took the moto to Ta Som. It wasn’t worth the effort. The rain miraculously stopped when I got there, but Ta Som turned out to be a small temple that paled in comparison with the giants I’d explored previously. It was also infested with mosquitoes, who didn’t bite but swarmed around my face trying to land on my eyeballs. I complicated things by accidentally plunging my tripod into an anthill. It wasn’t a pleasant place.

ta som

(ten billion mosquitoes not pictured)

divinities

Divinities

4:50-5:30 Pre Rup

Hoped for a magnificent sunset here but it wasn’t going to happen. Pre Rup was still very cool. For some reason every other person here abruptly left at 5, leaving the place to myself.

pre rup

Empty

pre rup

12 sec auto timer, really had to scramble for this shot

Rest of the temples here.

Next: Bangkok and Chiang Mai

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I took something like 500 photos over the past 10 days, and getting through the download/edit/upload process has taken a while. It was a great trip, and a rare one in that there were no mishaps or delays or inconveniences of any kind. Stress-free all around. No bungled room reservations, no bus breakdowns or delayed flights, no bad meals or lost luggage or scams at the border. I kept waiting for something to inevitably happen, but when I stepped on the plane in Phnom Penh and took a moto into town it dawned on me that the worst thing that happened was getting lost and walking an extra two miles in Chiang Mai. Not bad.

Enough gloating. The temples of Angkor was easily the highlight of the trip. I had a little over two days to pack them in, so I had to be efficient. Here’s how I tackled them:

Day 1: Angkor Wat

The bus pulled in to Siem Reap a little after 1:30, so after getting settled I hired a young motodop named Chiri (or maybe it was Jiri) to drive me around for the next couple days. I seemed only natural to check out the namesake temple first.

angkor wat

Around 3pm it was swarming with tourists, making it nearly impossible to take a classic picture without tiny figures scrambling around the base of the temple. Didn’t matter much though as it is still an undeniably impressive sight despite all the people and the unfortunate flat light from an overcast sky. In fact, for the two-plus days I was there the sun broke through the haze for maybe a total of 20 minutes. A little disappointing considering I planned my days around ideal sunrise/sunset spots.

angkor wat

Southwest tower inside the second set of walls

monks at angkor wat

A couple friendly monks hanging out watching the tourists

inside angkor

Inside Angkor Wat

apsara

Detailed apsara divinity carving. Rest of the set here.

Day 2: Srah Srang, Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm, Ta Keo, Preah Khan, Bayon, Angkor Thom

Such an ambitious schedule meant getting up at 4:45 and hitting the road by 5:30 to catch the sunrise and beat the heat (and crowds).

5:50-6:00 Srah Srang

Srah Srang was the former royal bathing pool and supposedly a good spot to catch sunrise. But there was no sunrise that morning, and the second I stepped off the moto I was accosted by kids selling all kinds things I didn’t need. Being the only tourist there meant they could focus all their early-morning hawking energy on me.

You want bracelet six for one dolla?
No thanks. I don’t need six bracelets.
Sir! You buy my coffee!
No thanks, I’m just here for some pictures.
No sunrise today!
I can see that.
Where you from?
Uhh, United States. California.
California! Capital Sacramento!
Yes! But can you tell me the capital of Minnesota?
I don’t know Minnesota.
St. Paul. Don’t forget
You buy my coffee!
Maybe later.
Hello sir you want buy t-shirt?
No thanks.
Why?
Why? Because I already have one.
If you already have one then you need two!


And so on. After running the gauntlet of kids I tried to set up the tripod and make something out of nothing, but I slipped on a slick lichen-encrusted rock and nearly tumbled in the water, much to the delight of the little salesmen. Time to leave.

6:00-6:25 Banteay Kdei

Banteay Kdei was the nearest temple and the closest sanctuary from the kids. It was entirely deserted and not especially interesting. The best was this huge face guarding the main gate:

banteay kdei

6:30-9:00 Ta Prohm

This was far and away the coolest temple at Angkor. And I had the place to myself (besides one friendly old guard who showed me the best angles).

ta prohm

The famous silk cotton tree choking the ruins

ta prohm

More roots

looted

Looted apsara carving

ta prohm

More of this outrageously photogenic temple here.

9:05-9:20 Ta Keo

By 8:45 the first tour groups showed up at Ta Prohm, so it was time to move on. Next up was Preah Khan temple, but Ta Keo looked interesting as we drove by so I stopped for a quick look.

ta keo

9:30-11:30 Preah Khan

Like Ta Prohm, this was another winner. Lots of places to explore, dark passages and collapsing walls. Could’ve spent more time here but it was getting hot and my granola bar breakfast just wasn’t cutting it.

preah khan

Ruins of Preah Khan near the entrance

preah khan

One of those fascinating trees again

divinity

Divinity carving somewhere inside the temple compound

preah khan

More Preah Khan here.

3:15-4:45 Bayon

After lunch and a much-needed siesta I was ready for more. The Bayon temple is famous for its massive face carvings, 216 in all. From what I’d read one of the better times to visit the Bayon temple was in the later afternoon when the light was decent and the crowds not as thick. Despite looking like a haphazard pile of rocks from afar, once you get inside it’s really one of the more impressive temples at Angkor.

bayon

Entrance to Bayon as seen from the library

apsara

Intricate, well-restored dancing apsaras carved in sandstone

sandstone carvings

Impressive sandstone carvings adorning the library

dancer

Traditional Khmer dancer doing her thing inside the temple complex

bayon

Faces…

bayon

More faces…

bayon

So many faces

bayon

Dark corridor beneath the temple

bayon

Bayon set here.

After Bayon I checked out some minor temples and ruins nearby, but I’d seen enough for the day. Day 3 recap tomorrow.

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more holidays

Man, I love these Khmer holidays. I’ve got 11 of the next 16 days off, so I’m heading up to to Siem Reap to check out Angkor. Every Cambodian I meet asks me if I’ve seen the temples yet, and I’m tired of disappointing them. Three nights in Siem Reap, then Thailand (Bangkok and Chiang Mai) for the rest of the break. Photos to follow.

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