Bangkok snippets

For a ten day trip, it didn’t feel like we did a lot of truly touristy stuff in Bangkok (which is probably because I smashed a couple of days in Cambodia into the middle of it)… but some of the highlights were 1) Gamer booking us a fancy dinner at Aksorn – a really nice Michelin star restaurant that does traditional Thai food in a small rooftop, open kitchen restaurant. The food was amazing! Red duck curry has now been officially ruined for me for life – as the insipid pathetic offerings that pass for red duck curry in Australian restaurants is truly dismal in comparison. *sad face*. There was a fair bit of wine twonking as Gamer is fond of international wines, whereas I am mostly familiar with boutique Australian vineyards.

Afterwards, we went to some weird tropics bar where everyone was ordering weird umbrella encumbered cocktails served in carved out baby pineapples (Thai pineapples are a fraction of the size of the ones we usually get at home – and much much sweeter)… at the time I remember thinking, ‘Why the fuck are all these highly intelligent people choosing to spend their time and money in an OUTDOOR venue when it’s stinking hot and humid?!? Where’s the AC people?’ As it turns out, I should be thanking them, the guy I was sitting beside and chatting with, tested positive for Covid like two days later! Yay, hot and sticky outdoor drinking, I guess? *shrug*

Another interesting stop we did was to the ICONSIAM shopping centre which to me if more affectionately known as the Brand Whore Mall – there was everything from Armani and BVLGARI to Burberry to Yves St Laurent and Zegna, plus every expensive twonky thing in between. Floors and floors of huge, largely empty but over staffed luxury brands everywhere. The most interesting area of the centre though was the ICONSIAM Floating Market that was built in the bottom of the shopping centre, which was less ‘floating market’ and rather more, ‘we build a fucking fish pond and plonked some colourful Thai-looking boats in it’! Totes for the tourists… but cute enough. I think we probably dropped a grand total of about $20 there grabbing a bite to ear. Not so exciting imho… but I’m not their target demographic; my clothes and shoes are chosen 100% for comfort and preferred colour, not name brands, and I’ve been using the same $90 nylon cross body handbag for probably close to 8 years now. 😛

We did manage to go visit the HUGE temple complex at Wat Pho which is the home of Bangkok’s famous Reclining Buddha. The temple has loads of funereal monuments all over the place and seems to be a rabbit warren of monasteries and smaller temples covering an 80,000sqm complex. From what I could find, not a lot is known about the origins of the temple being on this site – they don’t know exactly who founded it and aren’t exactly sure when construction started. It is thought to have been built and heavily expanded on during the reign of King Phetracha, (1688–1703)… hmm never heard of him; oddly enough Thai rulers were never covered in my various history lectures at uni.

Cool statues lined the outside of some of the temple buildings… Yale for scale:

The Reclining Buddha is HUGE! And of course, being such an internationally recognised monument of Bangkok, we ran into a line of people waiting to go in… a line that was slowed down by the need to take off shoes. Now, I travel a lot, and in no small part due to my experiences in Japan, I often travel in slip on shoes – Sketchers are perfect for this sort of light walking in fair weather – and I tend to carry a reusable shopping bag in my purse that can be used for throwing my shoes into in a pinch… seems that this sort of thing isn’t common practice. There were soooo many people with either lace up boots on, or stupid strappy sandals, that needed to sit down in order to take their shoes off and my god did it clog up the entrance and exit areas.

But once we got inside it was spectacular, and not just the statue of the Buddha itself, but the intricate artwork on every single interior surface of the building.

There were several small shrines in between the columns that supported the enormous roof that houses the 46m long Buddha, but I couldn’t find any information on what these particular shrines were dedicated to. I find this so frustrating – the main reason I love to travel is to learn about different cultures and traditions, so when you visit a place which is obviously set up to cater for tourists (and you know they are because there’s a fucking cash register selling tickets on the way in!) there should be information readily available… and I don’t mind if the info plaques aren’t in English – Google Translate is so good these days, you can just take a picture and import it and get the general idea. Grrr.. spoiled much?

As we all slow marched down the length of the Buddha and tried not to lose an eye to some oblivious selfie stick wielding tourist, I found myself more fascinated with the artworks on the walls, and columns of the building – they are extremely intricate and no doubt are full of religious iconography that I (as an exceedingly lapsed Catholic type) am really unfamiliar with. These painted frescos are certainly worthy of consideration as artworks in their own right, but 99% of visitors were walking past them either with with their backs to them, or if they did turn to face them, they were looking at their phones and trying to compose their 43rd selfie in that spot! lol. The walls are covered in these beautiful artworks…

Also, for reasons I am not quite sure of, I did find myself somewhat obsessed with the Buddha’s enormous and very precisely crafted feet. They appear to have been made of ebony and mother of pearl and must have taken a huge amount of man hours. I had seen many, many pictures of the Reclining Buddha before – but don’t recall seeing images of his feet! They were enormous and very impressive.

A detail of some of the designs painted on the columns… it seems depictions of Buddha’s life were on the walls of the building and the columns were all adorned in repeating patterns of floral motifs.

On the way out behind the Buddha, there was a place to make a donation to the temple – you could just give them you notes I guess, but instead there are 108 bronze pots lining the wall as you exit. I took a photo of the sign entreating donations, which I translated later. Apparently the 108 pots represent the 108 auspicious characters of Buddha. Visitors trade their notes for a cup full of coins and walk along dropping coins into each of the bowls as it is believed to bring good fortune. The donations also assist the monks in the day to day maintenance of the temple complex – so yes, tangible evidence that putting money into the pots at least brings someone good fortune!

It really is an unusually designed temple complex with beautiful and creative architecture.

I gotta say though, walking around Bangkok in the Outside is not my cup of tea. I’m from Brisbane where we have heat and humidity and I found it draining – I can’t imagine how your average tourist from Manchester in the UK or Minnesota in the US would handle this sort of heat. ‘Feels like 43C, more like!’ At 6pm!

Another very cool stop we made was another rooftop restaurant! There seems to be a bit of a running theme for this trip. We made a booking to go to Akira Back, one of Bangkok’s best rated Japanese restaurants… had to be done. There is only so much Michelin Star Pad Thai Poo that a short blonde can consume in a week! Google it.

The ambiance was really kinda cool, from the muted lighting of the lift lobby that was also somewhat surprisingly adorned with what looked suspiciously inspired by Shibari rope work…

… to the ladies room with the fully glass wall that was sheer drop 28 floors down! It was so freaky I had to call Yale in to investigate. (After making sure the bathroom was empty of course!).

We opted for the Omikaze menu, which weirdly only came with a wine flight, not a saké flight, so we skipped that and bought a nice bottle of saké to go with our dinner, and the food was delicious. Even though I find myself becoming increasingly disappointed with Japanese fusion restaurants adding fucking truffles to Japanese dishes… to me, truffles are a really over powering flavour compared to a lot of the subtle but complex flavours of high end Japanese cuisines. There seems to be a fashion for adding truffles nowadays, it’s happening at home in Australia too.

On the menu was tuna carpaccio with, you guessed it, truffles. Hakodate scallops served with kiwi and strawberry and jalapeño salsa and a garlic and citrus soy sauce, miso Black Cod with yuzu saké foam, special crab miso soup, hot stone grilled Kagoshima Japanese A5 wagu steak with Ishiyaki sauce, shrimp tempura on a Bubu arare cucumber roll, with a grilled eel sauce, and a desert that looked like a banana and a lump of ice cream but which was actually a banana shaped cheese cake! It was obviously designed to be some sort of signature Instagrammable desert, but it was kinda fun – the yellow ‘skin’ of the banana was banana flavoured chocolate and inside was made of a light vanilla style cheesecake, and the usual crumb base seemed to run through the centre of the banana with a slight caramel flavoured syrup. Very novel and fun. All up – was a fabulous dinner out, even with the disappointing truffles. lol.

For special torture, Yale told the restaurant that it was my birthday – and they gave me a fabulous little chocolate cake as a gift…yay?! Chocolate! Bleurk… but Yale was happy, and thankfully they didn’t sing to me.

The view from the restaurant was also just simply amazing…

The only other stand out weirdness that night was a pair of Chinese girls who were beautiful young women, dressed to the nines in fancy designed clobber, dining together who – like me! – were taking photos of the beautifully presented food, but they were celebrating one of their birthdays. I say ‘one of their birthdays’ because for the life of me I couldn’t tell which was the birthday girl – they had provided the kitchen with a very photogenic cake (I mean, it must have been there was soooo many pictures taken of the damn thing) and a large bouquet of tightly arranged pale pink roses – probably two dozen put together like a tight bridal bouquet. Seriously – there’s nothing special about this cake – or this bouquet of flowers…

And they both seem super excited when the cake came out (even though they bought it with them) and the phones were clicking away like mad, and lots of taking each others photos with the cake, and then lining up the flowers in front of the cake and one of them, flowers beside the cake and one of them, flowers behind the cake… and so on. You get the idea. As it happened I had glanced at my watch just as the cake was arriving, and I was enjoying my meal, but also kind of distracted by the over the top, weird arse, photo shoot going on directly in my line of sight. No shit, they must have taken 500 photos EACH of this ordinary looking cake and a possibly pricey bunch of flowers – they were at it for a full 45 minutes. I shit you not. Then, OMG, then… they asked a staff member to some photos for them. Fucking wannabe influencers, man. Give it up! How many pics can you take of a cake and some bloody roses!

Tourists huh? They’re the worst! 😉

Overall, I had a great time in Bangkok, and 10/10 would come back for another visit – though would definitely never want to be visiting in high summer or monsoon season! That shit sounds like it’s for Other People!

Side Quest: Cambodia Part II

Got up bright and early this morning in the hopes of getting a head start on both the heat and the bulk of the large tour groups who might be heading to Angkor Wat today. Angkor Wat has been on my, ‘Things to do Before I Die’ list for a long time, and while Bangkok is roughly 5-6 hours away, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to try and come see it while I was here. I had a dreadful night’s sleep, mostly because I had my alarm set for 06:30 but for some reason I could hear chirping birds at around 02:30 and at 04:21 and at 05:17… and it sounded exactly like the bird chirping alarm Mr K uses on his iPhone. Either they got weird arse birds here that chirp all night, or the air conditioning system has some weird-arse rattle that sounds like birds chirping. Doesn’t really matter which… the result is the same.

Anyway, popped down for a quick breakfast and to grab some more $$$ from the ATM (stupid thing wouldn’t give me what I wanted last night), and then waited to meet Mr Rolex and Long. They arrived a few minutes early and we were on the road out of town heading out to Angkor Wat by 0:720.

The weather was thankfully overcast and barely 29C (but ‘feels like 35C’, already) which made for some lovely moodily lighting conditions – mind you I couldn’t help but think there’s no way I would want to live in a place that has heat haze at 07:00 every day and it’s not even full summer!

The Angkor Wat temple complex is a mixed Hindu and Buddhist temple that covers and enormous space in the ancient Khmer city of Angkor. It’s like 400 acres or something, so there was no way anyone can see it all in one day. It used to be at the centre of a busy and populous city, and was originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god, Vishnu. A King named Survavarman II started the construction on Angkor Wat in the 12thC and it is understood to have taken 37 years to complete. Much of what is known about the early life of the temples comes from information etched into stone dedication plaques. Towards the end of the 12thC it was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple, and there are many places where the motifs of the two philosophies exist side by side.

While never totally abandoned, the temples of Angkor Wat were left neglected by the end of the 15thC as people left the city that surrounded and supported the temples. Suggestions are that this exodus was caused by extreme and lengthy drought conditions or unrest between the Khmer and their constantly warring neighbours, the Siamese. Archeological finds have never uncovered the usual domestic items that are ordinarily found in a populous city area, so it seems more probable that people left in an orderly fashion. These exquisite ruins were largely unknown to western explorers until well into the late 19thC, when they became of interest to French missionaries, naturalists and explorers and this directly led to the French forming a protectorate over Khmer. To gain control over the land and this important archeological site, the French invaded Siam (Thailand) and then remained in control of Cambodia from about 1863 for the next 100 years. Having said that, no one here seems to identify much with the French language or culture anymore, so that particular colonisation effort doesn’t seem to have taken much root.

These colonnades that cover provide privacy screens over many of the temple’s window areas look like they’ve been done on a lathe they are so uniform and perfect. However Long tells me they were more likely all hand carved without the use of an any type of spinning rig.

Throughout the complex are multiple representations of devatas, which Long described as nymphs… I swear we had a two minute conversation before I understood the word he was trying to pronounce was, ‘nymph’ as his accent is thick and he sometimes has a tendency to put emphasis on the wrong syllable making ‘nymph’ sound more like ‘ninephf’. There are depictions of ‘vanadevatas’, which are forest spirits or nature spirits, ‘gramadevata’ which are village or domestic spirits and gods, as well as devatas of river crossings, caves, mountains etc… I had him write these ones down to avoid confusion! Carvings of the devatas are scattered along walls throughout the inner buildings of the complex an each carving is very intricate with the devata adorned with individual jewellery, clothing, and facial features making each of them unique.

The early 20thC is when the ruins started to see some restoration and reclamation from the trees and jungle that had started to encroach on these ancient and magnificent buildings. In the modern imagination, the romance of the old temples fighting to stay upright among enormous tree roots is part of what draws people to visit, so Long was saying the restoration committees were constantly balancing the desire to maintain the structural integrity of the buildings, with the unusual aesthetic of the buildings having been encroached upon by the jungle.

Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953 and has had proper control over the Angkor Wat temple complex since then. In 1992, UNESCO named it a World Heritage site. Restoration work has continued on the site since French and German archeologists took an interest in the late 1800s. The work was disrupted though during the Cambodian Civil War and when the Khmer Rouge had a stranglehold on the country in the 70s and 80s.

Apparently these two war theatres didn’t actually cause that much damage – the invading armies stripped the temples for timber and there are some bullet holes evident in the stonework and bas reliefs here and there, but the bulk of the vandalism and damage evident in the complex is the result of Thai art thieves during the ‘80s and ‘90s – they stole nearly every head off every statue and much of it is presumed lost or sold into private collections.

Along either side of the main temple walls are 94m long bas relief friezes. They have the most inordinately intricate carvings depicting various Hindu gods battling diverse demons. Long was able to name many of these gods and demons and tell me stories of several of their encounters that were depicted, however it was an awful lot to take in and probably requires significant reading to jog my memory on which stories he was referring to. As a piece of art, it is absolutely stunning and I doubt I’ve ever seen a more significant or labor intensive piece in all of western culture.

It was so hot, even in the shade, but we must have spent 20 minutes walking along this frieze with Long keeping up a fascinating commentary with stories of the gods riding their chariots, dragons and peacocks as they went to fight the in-fant-orry of the monkey demons.

The second area we visited was the Tonle Om Gate which is one of the major entrances to get to the Bayon Temple. It is lined on the right with demons and on the left with gods. The demons with their twisted gnarly mean faces make quite the contrast with the smiling, serene and calm visages of the gods.

From here we went to Bayon Temple. This temple was built in the 13thC by Jayavarman VII, so it is a younger construction than the main temples of Angkor Wat, however it was built in only six years and the workmanship appears to have been less sturdy than the major Temples of Angkor Thom. This temple is believed to have been built to honour the memory of the King’s mother, his wife and his son.

There is much more stone laying around in this temple – archeologists having been unable to restore constructions to their original situations due to the more severe deterioration. It’s like a massive jigsaw puzzle that will probably never be finished. All these temples were constructed without any mortar or cement type processes, which makes them especially impressive. Great piles of stone have been gathered and stacked up in a mish mash of walls and middens they make no sense and will unlikely ever be able to be replaced in their original spaces but they make gorgeous textural installations in their own right.

After this we made our way around to the most famous part of the Angkor City temple complex – Ta Prohm. This is Angkor Wat as it sits in popular imagination thanks to films and documentaries. Long was repeatedly telling me that ‘this spot’ or ‘that spot’ was where something was filmed in the movie “Tomb Raider” – but I have never seen it, so it was neither here nor there to me. He also informed me that the studios paid USD$10,000 to flood the site for the filming so that the large moat areas would look like they did when they were originally built. A paltry sum for Hollywood to use a UNESCO World Heritage Listed area as a playground, in my opinion.

This place is absolutely spectacular – it is now so inexorably intertwined with the jungle that they couldn’t possibly attempt to remove the trees that are providing support for the temple in many parts. The preservationists are having to work with the trees that are hundreds of years old to maintain stability in the structures, and there are many areas that are roped off as unsafe for visitors.

I took so many photographs that I totally lost track of what I had and hadn’t captured. There was just so much to see – and it’s a strange sort of paradise. Thankfully the place was also rather quiet compared to some major tourist sites and I managed to get quite a few photos without too many people in them. This is absolutely the Angkor Wat of National Geographic magazines and tourist brochures and was just as spectacular as I had anticipated!

On the way back out to the van, there was a group of musicians set up playing for charity – on closer inspection, it turns out they are a band of landmine victims raising money and awareness for families and others impacted by land mines. Cambodia still has a major problem with land mines, particularly in the rural and border areas. This is the unhappy legacy of over three decades of war in the late 20thC… there are over 40,000 amputees in Cambodia, and over 1000 mines are still being found every year, which is one of the highest rates in the world.

After visiting Ta Prohm, it was time to head back to town to grab a bite for lunch, and then start my transit back to Bangkok. It was at this point, when I joined Mr Rolex in the minivan, that I could feel my knee absolutely throbbing from the bashing I had just put it through with all these steps and on so much uneven terrain. Long managed to get me some ice to put on my knee for the drive – which amusingly was just one huge chunk, but it helped!

So it was time to say ‘goodbye’ to Long, and hit the road with Mr Rolex and go hurtling back towards the border. I had taken some extra cash out of the ATM at the hotel to give to Long – without his excellent English and steady efforts to make sure I understood him, I doubt I would have learned as much on this little side trip, as I have. I may have given him the largest tip I have ever given to a guide (or anyone for that matter), and handed him an envelope with USD$200 in it – which will make very little difference to me, but possibly make a huge difference to him and his family. I Googled later and discovered that the average tour guide in Cambodia before Covid was earning around USD$300-400 a month, so I gave him a couple of week’s pay and suggested he spend it on English lessons for his sons – he had told me at the floating village that he was determined his boys would be fluent in English, as it was the key to a better paid life in any field in Cambodia.

Mr Rolex and I had our drive back to the border in a more easy silence this time – it was quite unnerving yesterday being driven into the unknown with someone whom I was unable to communicate effectively with! But today it feel far more comfortable, and Mr Rolex picked me up a refreshing ice cream when he stopped for fuel… normally I’d avoid this much sugar, but after this full on day hiking the temples in the heat (it got up to 43C!), I totally felt that I had earned it!

Part way through this drive, Mr Rolex made a stop so we could use the toilets… and I was like, good plan – I’ve been hydrating like a MOFO all day. At least I thought it was a good idea until I saw this:

Oh noes! I’ve never had trouble with squat toilets before, but I’ve never tried to use once since I tore the meniscus in my knees and was subsequently diagnosed with ‘sever osteoarthritis’ which runs in the family apparently. Le sigh… and then of course I have totally and utterly over done it today. Ended up having to do the world’s weakest hover pee. lol… but what do you do? 🙂

Then it was back to the border and back through the process of being handed from one stranger to another until I was collected by another driver to head back to Bangkok… and of course this driver spoke almost zero English also! My years of learning French and German were of zero use to me on this adventure, and even Google translate wasn’t of much use for some reason… and he was hopeless! Mr Rolex was a very safe and even handed driver – this guy, whose name I didn’t catch at all was all over the place! He was changing lanes constantly, braking late, talking on his phone, watching a video on another phone that was mounted on the dash, all the while making this weird sucking on his teeth noise, and he got totally lost once we got back to the city taking at least four wrong turns each of which added to our arrival time according to Google Maps in the back. Oh, and drinking beer while he drove… nice!

We did eventually get back to the Shangri La in once piece – oddly this guy didn’t get a tip from me. Hmmm. Wonder why? I’ve never been so relieved to walk into the hotel lobby to hear someone singing the Beatles’ “Hey Jude”, very off key with a thick Asian accent! What a crazy day!

Side Quest: Cambodia Part I

So I’m in Bangkok for a week of mostly work and as I am someone who likes to wander, I decided last week that I’d try and get to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat while I’m (loosely!) ‘in the region’. Logistically this was going to prove a little challenging – I could book some short flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap and see nothing of the countryside, or I could find a way to go via public transport, which would end up taking way too many hours away from work, or I could find some tour operator to help get me there using private vehicles and drivers.

Given the time constraints and my longstanding, well known desire to ‘see new shit’, I chose the latter option and found a tour operator who could help me with the transfers from Bangkok, to the Cambodian border, across to the other side an another driver to get me to Siem Reap… in with this was a English speaking drivers and a tour guide, entrances to the temples at Angkor Wat, a visit to a floating village and they booked me a local hotel in Siem Reap. Sounds pretty streamlined and well practiced, yeah? We shall see…

I’m up early Wednesday morning for a 0630 start and waiting out the front of the hotel for driver number one… who is nowhere to be seen. By 0700, I’m on the phone calling the organiser and asking where they are. Apparently the driver went to the wrong hotel entrance and about 15 mins later finally appeared. At this stage, I was getting a bit ‘Hmmm…’ which became immediately apparent in the messages I was sending to my family chat. 😛

Happy, smiling, setting off on an adventure photo…
Read: ‘Please take note – this person and a conveniently place image of their vehicle registration, was the last person I was seen with before I went radio silent and are possibly dead in a ditch somewhere.’

We set off at crazy speed heading out of the city for the Thailand – Cambodian border. It seems Thai drivers only know one way of driving. Full throttle red-lining it, or hard on the brakes, there is no in between. Once we hit the highway, I asked how long it was to the border and it was then that I discovered this driver most certainly didn’t know any English past, ‘Hello. Are you Robyn? How are you?’ Oh dear, what have I gotten myself into.

We make it to the border and I was handed over to these caricatures, err I mean, characters – Super Refelctive Sunnies Man and Crazy Make Up Lady – and they told me to wait while someone would come to take me through the border shortly.

So I waited for about 20 minutes and eventually a teenager came along, Grubby High Vis Shirt Guy, and he said, “You follow me, Madame.” I looked at Crazy Make Up Lady, and she motioned that I should follow him. So I did. *Shrug*, and off he loped without looking back to see if I was following. At this point I’d just been in the car for 3 hours, and my longstanding busted knee wasn’t going to keep up with him, so I didn’t bother even trying. He had crossed the street and was half way up the road before he noticed that I wasn’t behind him! I could see him in his grubby high vis shirt, but I wasn’t up to dodging the traffic like he could! He gave me a slightly sheepish and apologietic look as I eventually caught him up and he then walked at a more moderate pace until we got through the Thailand exit. Here I was handed to another person, Long Pinky Fingernail Guy who, bless his ugly striped shirt and official looking lanyard with a Pokémon card in it, spoke some English. He took me up two flights of stairs (le sigh… escalator broken; permanently I suspect), and we found ourselves at the end of a very long queue of foreigners waiting to get visas to enter Cambodia. I told Mr Long Pinky Fingernail that I have a bad knee and can’t stand up very long, and he said he could get, ”Fast lane for USD$40.”

I had previously been informed the visa was USD$30 so figured this was a negotiation, and I responded, “I was told the visa costsUSD$30.” Whereupon he promptly winked at me and said, “Fast lane is USD$40”. Oh dear god, we are bribing border guards already. Alright, let’s get on with it – it won’t be the first time. I went to open my bag to get him the USD$40 and he literally, said, “Not here! Not here!”, and led me to a lift (why did i just walk up two flights of stairs if there is a functioning bloody lift!!!), and took me downstairs to an air conditioned waiting room, took my passport and my money and disappeared. Less than ten minutes later, he reappeared with a grin, my passport and visa all stamped and proper and ready to escort me to my next driver on the Cambodian side of the border! Fucking fun so far.

Sadly, my next driver didn’t’ even have enough English to tell me his name. So we sped off into Cambodia towards Siem Reap in a silence that was only broken when I attempted to ask for a bathroom break! Thankfully the word ‘toilet’ seems to work nearly everywhere in any language. I gotta say, at this point I was pretty concerned that I wasn’t going to get what I wanted out of this little adventure. I was coming because I want a glimpse of the history and culture, and I particularly wanted the perspective of the country’s turbulent and complicated recent history from a local – not just some bullshit I could read on Wikipedia. I was crossing my fingers that the actual guide I wold be spending time with later had much better English skills than these drivers and border assistant guys.

We drove through the countryside where the abject poverty of being one of the UN designated ‘least developed nations’ was abundantly clear. Children not in school, raggedy clothes, people with no shoes, beggars, beat up cars, tonnes of unsafe looking overhead powerlines, trash just everywhere, houses with plastic for windows, a layer of dust dirt and filth over everything. To me, it felt like a cross between the outskirts of Fez, Ankara and Quetta, thought unlike Pakistan, people were smiling and the children were waving.

Before I knew it, just like in Pakistan the sharp contrast between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ came into sharp focus as we neared the hotel where I would be staying the night and where I would meet the guide that afternoon.

Phew! Managed to make it here safely, and had a couple of hours to chill before meeting the (OMG I hope he speaks English!) guide in the lobby that afternoon. Quick shower and kersplatt!

Met Long, my guide for the next couple of days in the lobby and I was so relieved to find out his English was strong. Now this is going to sound a bit weird considering how far I’ve come and how many people I’ve been handed off though – this, is when I was supposed to pay for all these providers! When I booked all this, though a Cambodian travel company, I tried to pay for it through PayPal and the payment wouldn’t go through. I contacted them to let them know their PayPal links were failing and I was told that ‘PayPal is not currently allowed in Cambodia, and you can pay when you get here.’ Now I took that to mean, when I was collected in Bangkok, but apparently it meant when I met the guide in Siem Reap. Additionally, I was told that I could pay by credit card when I got there… but what they meant was, there was an ATM that I could get a cash advance from! Urgh – I could feel the incoming sandy lube exchange rates from a hotel ATM a mile away. Oh well, it is what it is at this point.

Long was pretty casual about it and said I could fix him up later, but that we had to get going to see the sunset on the floating village. So we jumped into the van with Mr Rolex – yes, I finally found out who had been driving me for the previous stretch from the Cambodian border to the hotel, and his name was Mr Rolex. No explanation. We drove out towards the enormous lake, Tonlé Sap, which is some 200km long by 100km wide during the wet season and a massive part of the Mekong River system. All along the river and on the way to the river were huge stilt houses built by the river – they reminded me of the houses at the beginning of the film, SlumDog Million. Calling them ‘houses’ is generous to say the least, they are ramshackle dwellings held together with tarpaulin and twine with multi-generational families living in poverty.

Long told me the people who could live on the river were ‘safer’. When the water rises in the wet season, their houses rise with it, but those living on the water banks are living a precarious life on unsteady, very tall, stilt houses

The community out here is predominantly Vietnamese. Cambodia has a complicated history with their Vietnamese neighbours and for whatever reason this Vietnamese diasporic community chooses to live on the river. Long claims it isn’t because they aren’t welcome to live on the higher land with the Cambodians, but many of them are used to this sort of river lifestyle. Anyone can build a boat and come live on the river – there are no council rates, no property taxes, no real estate per se but very little in the services apart from what the community decides to create together. Some of the houses are barely better than rafts with a tent over them, some are very well designed and built to be shops, meeting places, restaurant/cafes, and there’s even a a church and a school.

The local school: the kids either get driven to school by their parents or they swim to the school each day. School only goes from 1pm to 5pm daily. In the morning, the children are usually helping the family with the fishing business.

Early each day the fishermen set out, get a daily catch and take it back to a fish market closer to Siem Reap so there are loads of long fast boats getting about billowing exhaust fumes, making the entire area smell like fuel rather than river.

The light at this time of day was really crazy… there was a heat haze rising off the land and a lot of evaporation, you could turn one way and see a thing, go behind it and it looked completely like something altogether different. A photographer’s paradise, and me here with just an iPhone. These channel markers were pretty cool – the water is only about 1.5m to 3m deep at the moment, but when the wet season comes it will be 10m-12m deep. Which is what makes living on the river banks so precarious.

We stopped at a floating restaurant/cafe and gift shop where I had a chance to eat some local frog* – but after my hectic day of travel I wasn’t feeling particularly adventurous so opted for a cold coconut and some fresh mango instead. (Should have tried the damn frog! InstaRegret!). There was some crocodile pens here – they make jerky out of them so they were just fattening these ones up apparently. Also for sale was eel jerky, turtle jerky, and various other fish jerky which I also avoided. They were also selling lots of touristy crap here – cheap clothing, little Buddha statues, crocodile skulls, t-shirts and keychains etc. None of it looked like something I wanted to take home.

We took our drinks and mango and found a nice spot to watch the sun going down. Long told me about his family (married with three sons), his aspirations for them (teach his kids good English so they have a chance to work in business or tourism), and how the Cambodian outlook is currently quite positive in spite of their current one party communistic government… from the way he was telling it, the people are happier not Happy (TM), but happier and feeling more positive than they have in generations.

The TL;DR on Cambodian history is that the Angkor Empire, which started in around 900AD was dissolved in 1432 and brought a very politically unstable period to the region. During this time many local ruling administrations were established, and they were variously the Vietnamese and Siamese (Thai) ethnic groups who continuously fought and struggled for dominance over the region. Long said that Cambodia, which was placed under French protection in 1863 (placed by whom, I don’t know?), and didn’t gain independence from the French until 1953 – we don’t particularly like the French here anymore and no one seems interested in learning French or anything to do with France, except they’ve kept the croissants and macarons! 😉

The more recent political history of Cambodia has been shaped by developments in neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam again, with the added mass destruction of the Marxist dictator Pol Pot who was effectively Cambodian Hitler trying to commit a genocide of the entire Cambodian people (he was ethnically Khmer-Chinese and considered the Cambodians to be a sub-human race. His efforts in mass slaughter and mass starvation contributed to an estimated 1.7 to 2.3 million deaths. Tens of thousands of mass graves scatter the country as his destructive Khmer Rouge regime ruled Cambodia between 1975-1979. Like, that is not so long ago, I can remember the fall out always being in the news in the ‘80s.

As a result of the fuckery continuing in the region even after Pol Pot was rolled, a United Nations transitional authority was established in 1991. The Kingdom of Cambodia was created in 1993, and the country has been governed by a constitutional monarchy since then. The current King, King Norodom Sihamoni, acceded to the throne in 2004. It’s all so recent. In the most recent general elections, held in July 2023, the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) won all the seats in the National Assembly, with nearly 80% of the vote – which is kinda what happens when you have an uneducated public and only one party to vote for. But still people aren’t worried about being rounded up and slaughtered like their parents were back in the 70s, so in spite of the abject poverty everywhere, they’re remarkably optimistic of their future.

The history lesson was interesting, and the sunset made it all seem even more poignant somehow…

On the way back to the jetty, I couldn’t help but find myself thinking about the people here and how little they have and yet they feel hopeful and happy… I took a picture of this kid jumping around in the water, (water that would probably kill me if I ingested any of it!), just after sunset and he just looked so joyful and carefree. It’s a blurry mess of a picture given the low light and I’m using a phone… but it shows so much imo. We all need food, water, shelter to survive… but what do we actually need to be happy?

After our little river cruise to the Chong Kneas Floating Village on Tonlé Sap, we made our way into town. Long kindly offered to take me out to dinner and show me some local spots because, ‘You don’t want to end up in a tourist trap!’ About 50% of the population make their money on tourism in Siem Reap and they’ve all been hit fairly hard by the Covid pandemic so there’s a lot of price gouging going on – he says that it can costs up to USD$10 per person for a nice meal with an alcoholic beverage, which is ridiculous apparently! So we head to the famous Pub Street and have a bit of a wander through to have a look at all the pretty lights they’ve put up to make a festive atmosphere for the tourists and then promptly head away from the glitz to a small family restaurant serving traditional Cambodian meals.

Pub Street is pretty cool – but it is sooo obviously touristic. Menus all in English everywhere, shops all filled with the same souvenir and clothing items to buy, they even have the old line up the old white men for a bath of fish biting pedicure with a side of life long fungus available! But we found the quiet little restaurant and Long translated the menu for me and I opted to try a traditional fish curry called ‘Amok curry – it was a fragrant green curry with coconut and lime flavours, light on the coriander! Long chose a prawn and pasta dish and a beer. My meal was absolutely delicious – possibly one of the best curries I have ever tasted, and it paired quite well with the lychee daiquiri that I chose off the cocktail list. 🙂 Long was right – dinner was only USD$7 a head… and I think I did his mind a little a bit, by paying for both our meals and rounding it up to USD$20 anyway.

Oh and I found out after dinner why Mr Rolex was asking me if I wanted Krud… apparently the Aussies that come here just love it.

I was planning on spending a bit longer in town, but was absolutely stuffed after such an early start, a few stressful and tense encounters with randoms, and then a long afternoon out in the sun… so opted to head back to the hotel for an early night so we could get a jump on tomorrow’s Angkor Wat itinerary and with a bit of luck beat the large group tourists.

Long found me a tuk tuk and rode back to the hotel with me, and I was smiling as I watched him make the tuk tuk driver clean the seats and remove some water bottle so it would be ‘clean enough for Madame’. He’s a fairly quiet, well spoken, very friendly man and so far proving to be very open minded good company – ie: he’s doesn’t seem exasperated by all my questions!

Bangkok Muay Thai Night

I’m not sure whose idea it was exactly, but someone decided we should go see some fights while we were here and I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. In my imagination, Muay Thai / kickboxing was a grimey, dirt floor, sweaty, bloody, Jean-Claude van Damme type affair. This was something else all together!

We found ourselves at a small modern stadium outfitted with a state of the art sound systems and big screens with professional videographers capturing the entire event. It was loud and glitzy and suitable for American television and nothing like the traditional fight environment that I had pictured. We had ringside seats and there were fighters from all over the world – Canada, Finland, Norway, Australia and of course plenty of locals. There were plenty of people coming around selling drinks and food (overpriced for Thailand but great prices once you factor in the exchange rates, and the guys wasted no time in double parking their beers.

But first… we were to please stand for the Royal Anthem of Thailand; for the first time ever, I discovered Australia doesn’t have the most mournful dirge of a national anthem.

Yes… I’m here with a large group of guys all wearing matching t-shirts. You’d swear we are on a cruise tour or something. 😉

Each fight started with an introduction and an attempt to hype up the crowd… “‘”In the Red Corner is some guy whose name we can’t pronounce and won’t remember! In the Blue Corner is a guy in blue shorts who will do a little dance in a moment! Give it up radies and gentlremen!!!”

It was weird. But there was indeed, dancing. There is obviously a wildly different focus on the spiritual and ritual aspects of this particular cultural phenomenon as all the fighters who entered the ring in the blue shorts (all attached to a specific training school/style/protocol from what I gather) did an extended dance to the spirits before their fights. Their opponents in the gold shorts (Red Corner) were from a different philosophy which seemed to be a bit more ‘Hulk smash’ and a bit less ‘praise Buddha’.

Some of these guys had amazing tattoos – we are pretty sure we saw one dude with a thigh sized Hello Kitty! LOL.

The dance they performed involved a fair bit of hammering the ground, before visiting every corner of the ring and bowing, as well as some hand waving and light prancing? I don’t know what you’d call it – it wasn’t vigorous like a Māori war dance, and it wasn’t ballet… probably more interpretive dance of some sort.

Then the fighting began and they tried to knock each other out. The first round was two small guys of barely 110lbs and they seemed quite evenly matched, but the fear in one of their eyes when he saw his opponent take the mat gave the immediate impression that his head game was blown and the other guy was going to win – and that’s exactly what happened. Poor fearful looking guy was knocked out and they had to help him out of the ring… by hanging onto the back of his shorts so he didn’t fall down the steps!

Most of the rounds seemed fairly evenly matched and the tournament moved at a fairly brisk space with some interruptions for Kiss-cam and a Chug-Cam moments… they put a guy in a tux on the big screen skolling his beer and then the camera swung around the crowd to people encouraging them to down their drinks. The ‘drink responsibly’ bit of the alcohol service provisions are possibly non-existent here?

The guy in the gold shorts above was Australian George – we looked him up, he’s from Sunnybank in Brisbane! He was pretty good and won his match handily. Long way to come to see someone from around the corner. Then (below) was this Finnish guy who had a Dolph Lungren ‘killer’ look about him fighting this local dude and the Finnish guy was really good.

Towards the end of the rounds, someone finally ended up a bit bloody, but again this whole thing was no where near as grimey and bloody as I was expecting – it was super sanitised for TV and tourists, I guess.

Towards the end of the evening there was the obligatory throwing t-shirts to the crowd moment and the presenter threw one square at my face – probably because I was the only one in white blouse in a crowd of guys wearing black t-shirts… I managed to defend myself, and Yale caught the shirt, but like the kind hearted sweetheart he is, he gave it to this cool kid who was near us who had been dancing around in a sparkly sequinned Pikachu shirt all night. The kid was super excited with his new acquisition – totally worth it.

After the matches, it seems the Red Corner and the Gold Shorts had won the day and we decided to all head back to the hotel. This is where the transport fun began! It was crazy outside. Cabs everywhere no one wanting to take anyone on a metered ride. We eventually decided to jump a cab and pay their exorbitant 300BHT price to get back to the hotel… and as soon as we head off down the street, we could see many others in the group had decided to jump in tuk tuks for the trip and were goading their drivers on to beat the others back! They were offering them more and more money to overtake their friends. I’m not so sure tuk tuk racing through he streets of Bangkok while drunk as a skunk is a good plan – but there you have it! It was madhouse… as soon as our cabbie figured out we knew everyone in the tuk tuks, he decided to join in as well and we drove at breakneck speed back to the hotel.

Thankfully everyone arrived back safely – no idea who ‘won’ the race or whether the drivers got their promised bonuses, but we all stumbled down to Jack’s Bar (near the hotel) for some more drinks and snacks. Eventually made it to bed around 11:30pm which was a good plan as we all have to work the following day.

Bangkok Canal Tour with Mr Tee

Found ourselves with a free morning to do some sightseeing before the work all starts up tomorrow, and decided to book a canal tour. Bangkok is divided into east and west by the Chao Phraya River, and connecting to this ‘lifeblood of the city’ river are myriads of canals that weave through heavily populated areas of the very wealthy and very poor alike. The canals are used extensively for general transportation, with various sized boats zooming down the canals carrying locals, construction workers, city sanitation services, tourists and who knows who else. The water is a murky filth pit – filled with floating rubbish, and the occasional floating dead fish… thankfully the breezes on the river are strong and kept the odours away – being as it was high tide probably helped too! We had about five hours pottering about on the canal with multiple stops and I took plenty of photos, but some of this felt like slum tourism (which I absolutely hate!) so sorry, but there’s very little photos of the run down decrepit and falling apart houses that some of these residents are living in, right next door to palatial marble clad homes with private water slides going into their private pools.

We started off our canal trip meeting at a temple. This statue outside the first of many temples we came across today, honours the King from the King And I, King Mongkok of Siam, who is very famous and was responsible for trying to modernise his country.  Our guide Mr Tee set the tone early by cracking jokes and asking us where we were from – he is far more familiar and comfortable using Aussie ockerisms than I am! Probably didn’t help that Shannon (one of Yale’s colleagues who was with us) almost immediately started pumping him to improve his Thai naughty/dirty vocabulary.

Right alongside the statue to this most illustrious king was a small shrine to Buddha with this huge pink water buffalo… our guide Mr Tee, like I said, full of jokes and quips, was unable to tell me why there was a pink water buffalo placed seemingly out front to protect Buddha, so this is destined to remain a mystery.

Oddly, I took plenty of pics of the canal boats, but failed to get a picture of the one we were travelling in. It was a small boat as we were on a private tour for just three pax, but it meant we were able to get into some of the smaller canals. It isn’t suitable to go into the Chao Phyara River as it wouldn’t survive the wakes from the larger vessels.

We went past so many small temples which seemed to line the canals. According to Mr Tee, every community has their own temple because no one wants to have to go pray too far from home. Bangkok has over 700 temples, and Thailand has over 35,000 temples – so they are literally everywhere. Small and modest and huge and ornate… just dotted all over the place. All of them are built with community funds, and in the great tradition of religious monuments, churches, and temples the world over – it’s mostly all donated funds given to aggrandise certain families, communities or even just individuals. Small funereal monuments here can cost approximately USD$1000 which is a LOT of money for the average Thai citizen. As such, cremation is popular and urns are kept at home or put into a community funereal monument (some pics of those a bit later).

Below is someone who lives onto the canal who cares enough, and has the financial resources, to maintain their home. This Angry Bird House is a bit of a local landmark apparently.

This community near the Morning Markets has beautifully tiled facades with the tiles all donated by local families – much like plaques are used in other religions to show patronage. Some of the temples are covered in beautiful work – though some of the super shiny, opalescent, or mirrored tiles feel a little over the top to our Western aesthetic sensibilities.

We did go for a wander through the Morning Markets after visiting this little temple, but the experience was underwhelming. Mr Tee said that the government had outlawed street stalls on Mondays (???) which meant the markets were remarkably quiet on Mondays. There were vendors there selling fresh food, fruits, seafood, spices, pre-made curry and chili pastes, loads of coconut products and general groceries – but the place wasn’t bustling like I’ve seen markets in Marakecch or Seoul or China. It was sedate and kinda sleepy with about 4 out of every 5 stalls empty. I could have done without the trip through the fishy part of the market – it fucking reeked. First time I’ve been in a fresh fish market like that which smelled so bad.

Anyway, I’m off topic – in the temple grounds and in many people’s private properties, you will see these little spirit houses that are placed to protect the home and its occupants. Some homes have two, one for the house and one for the people, but many have just one.

Beside is a small altar space where small offerings are left – food, tokens, flowers, idols and incense seem to be popular. I have no idea what they’re snakes are about.

Not only are the temples lavishly and brightly decorated, but the canal boats that are ferrying many tourists about are also festooned with bright garlands to ask the spirits to protect the vessel.

Below is a funereal monument built to acknowledge and commemorate one particular monk who was very well known in his community. Mr Tee told us that when people in the community die, they can have their ashes interred into these established monuments and depending how important they are is how high up the monument their ashes will be placed. It’s not a ‘being closer to heavens or the gods’ thing, it’s literally how important you were considered to be in this life – importance that seems to be gauged by wealth and status rather than godliness from what I could make out?

The design of these funereal temples is a combination of a round structure of Ceylonese influence, a corners cut in with those wedges shapes, which is the Thai/Siamese influence, and the upside down ice cream cone which stems from Cambodia.

A short walk from this little funereal temple, we got our first look at the Big Buddha.

Towering nearly 70 meters above the ground, and roughly the height of a 20-story building and at a width of 40 meters, it is the city’s biggest Buddha image… and it is situated directly across the canal from what is now called ‘Small Buddha’ but which was called, ‘Big Buddha’ until this enormous monument was finished a couple of years ago. Construction started on this Big Buddha in 2012, but was hindered somewhat from completion due to a total shut down of works during the Covid pandemic so it was only completed about two years ago. It’s huge and impressive but the scale is hard to capture in a picture like this.

Near the Big Buddha are some other small temple buildings, novice schools for monks in training and a huge funereal temple which houses a museum-like collection of religious artefacts.

Leading to the temple/museum is a walkway that has a schedule of all the upcoming funerals being held at this temple. Seems it is one of the most popular places now to have your funeral.

The temple itself is also quite high – about five stories tall. You can walk all the way up to the roof via a wide marble staircase, but there is also a lift inside (to the right of the entrance staircase) which only operates on weekdays.

Shoes off, once inside the temple there was over the top decorative arts as far as the eye could see – elaborately carved and gilded timber columns, each column with a mother of pearl inlaid grandfather clock beside them, hand painted ceilings in lavish red and gold paint, and cabinet after cabinet of displays of everything from money, to medals, to watches and old photographs.

Many of the displays here were set up in huge dioramas, but unfortunately, I couldn’t translate any of the information panels.

Then we went up the lift to the fifth floor to see the ‘main attraction’. We were told this temple cost USD$23,000,000 dollars to build. And this floor alone was half of that expense. The elaborate paintings that encircled the jade glass temple in the centre of the room were all painted by one artist who was commissioned to do them all so that they would be identical.

I totally didn’t expect to see this inside this temple at all – there are some benefits to planning a trip at the last minute and not researching the hell out of everything! Also helped that for the first time in forever, someone else planned this particular outing.

The photos don’t do justice to the sparkling way the light bounces around in this elaborate space – there are crystals embedded into the high domed ceiling that catch the light and make it look like a striking twinkly sky. There is also an observation deck on this floor where you can go outside the temple and walk around to see the surrounding area. You get a great view of the BBB (Big Buddha’s Booty!) from up here, as well as the Small Buddha across the canal (Big Buddha as it once was).

Apparently not many people go visit the Small Buddha anymore – and we weren’t going to be any different as our short tour didn’t allow time to go across the canal and check it out. Poor neglected Small Buddha – will have to see if we have some spare time later in the week for that.

Meanwhile, downstairs one level on the 4th floor is a huge pile of gold plated statues made to commemorate many famous monks throughout history. They are all behind glass, and the one that is in it’s own glass box is make from 112kgs of gold. Which is just mind boggling when you can look off the roof here and see the most heartbreaking poverty. :/

Back in our boat, we said goodbye to Big Buddha and set off for a loop around the canals before heading to the Artist House…

Some average canal front properties on our route…

Mr Tee twice told us that Bangkok is all islands and is known as the ‘Venice of the East’… why, I do recall a St Petersburg guide once telling us that St Petersburg is the ‘Venice of the North’ – seems to be a popular moniker to want to adopt.

I just love these bright coloured garlands that are adorning the front of the canal boats. I hope they make the spirits as happy as the people seem to think they do; but even more entertaining than the garlands is the engines that are on these things…

All these canal boats are running on 150hp truck engines. They are noisy and dirty, but powerful and do the trick. The long propellers are because the canal waters are, at maximum during high tide, 3m deep and the boat drivers usually only put the propellers in about 1m deep to avoid damage and getting entangled in water plants etc. This gives them a fair bit of speed and manoeuvrability.

The Artists House seems to have been the place of a thriving art community prior to Covid, but is now turned somewhat touristic. Rather than artisans working here and showing their skills, it is a come and DYI place to make beaded necklaces and bracelets or to paint ceramics. There is even one shop here which has the tourist market covered by the clever use of … air conditioning! The shop is the only one with AC, and they charge ‘crazy prices’ to come in and work in their art shop but the tourists’ dollars go a long way here, and now the shop owner ‘is gotten too snobby for his boots’ so the local community don’t like him anymore. lol

In lieu of making Swiftie friendship bracelets, we chose to feed some fish – you could see them breaking the surface of the water the whole time we were cruising the canals, but because the water is so murky, couldn’t really seem them. Noted, fish feeding: ok. Bird feeding: not ok.

Someone forgot to tell Shannon, the food is for the fish. God I hope he didn’t actually eat any. Once we did chuck some fish food into the water – it was like watching piranhas in a tank under a suspended Adam West’s Batman c.1975! Vicious looking little fuckers fighting for the pellets – carp and catfish live quite happily in the brackish water of the canals.

I have no idea what this orange man was about – and didn’t hang around long enough to find out as we found a coffee shop so the guys could get an iced coffee.

I think this bright coloured crispy looking shit is meant to be edible? But seeing as it looks like food coloured packing peanuts, we stayed the hell away from it.

Mr Tee making himself comfortable on Shannon’s lap while playing more Thai dirty word bingo over coffees.

After our visit to the Artist House, we went back to our original meeting point near the Skytrain so we could ride back to our hotel. I wanted to take a cab because I’d already twisted my already fucked up knee getting in and out of the boat all morning – but the train was ‘right there’ so off we went like fucking idiots. Big mistake for me. The Skytrain is a fast, efficient, clean, air conditioned elevated rail system… love everything about it. Easy to understand, pleasant to rid. Not always user friendly… the station we got on at had a lift and it takes you about four stories above the ground to get to the train, but then the station we got off at – did not. And I found myself limping down about 8 flights of stairs. Le sigh… at least I got myself a Rabbit transit card.