Angkor Wat: Favorite Temples

If there’s anything that deserves two posts, it’s Angkor Wat. In the past, I avoided writing about really touristy places; that’s why there’s no post on Borobudur. I’ve changed my mind now. I know there are probably a million blog posts on trips to Angkor Wat. But only I can write about my impression of Angkor Wat. That’s part of the beauty of a place like Angkor: no one has the same experience.

My favorite temple was the Bayon.

The Bayon

I liked it because of the carvings of everyday 12th-century Cambodian life, which I mentioned in my last post. Each panel was so different from the last- they showed people going to war, preparing a feast, giving birth, or anything else.I also really liked the gigantic stone faces that stare enigmatically down at visitors. Our guide told us that no one is sure who it’s supposed to be, but it’s probably the king who commissioned the temple, Jayavarman VII.

They're always watching...

Bob’s and Lissa’s favorite temple was Prah Khan. When we went, it wasn’t very crowded- it’s not one of the must-see temples, but our guide took us there because she really likes it and thought we would too. The temple Ta Prohm is famously known as the “jungle temple,” because there are trees growing throughout the temple complex, and it’s been only partially restored. Prah Khan is similar but hasn’t even been restored as much as Ta Prohm.

Outside of Prah Khan

I asked Bob and Lissa why they liked this one the best.

Bob: It was the most jungle-y temple.

Bob at Prah Khan

Lissa: It was in the middle of the jungle and all to ourselves. I liked climbing on it.

Jungle explorers at Prah Khan

My dad’s favorite temple was Angkor Wat. I don’t have any direct quotes from him, because he hasn’t responded to my email, but if I can remember what he said when we were there, he thought that this one was the grandest and most impressive.

Just after taking this picture, Gary climbed up that tall tower behind him!

He was especially amazed at the extent of the carvings: almost all the surfaces were covered.

Apsara carving in a doorway, Angkor Wat

We only spent one morning there, but our guide told us that she sometimes gives 10-day tours of the temples. When she does that, she takes her tour group to Angkor Wat alone, for three entire days. There’s just that much stuff to see.

The art will amaze you... and dwarf you


A Beginner’s Guide to Angkor Wat


A chat with my sister, February 2011
do you want to go to Angkor Wat?
lissa: i don’t know what that is, but ok
me: google earth it

We had some visitors! My dad and sister flew out to visit us for eight days. It wasn’t much time, so we decided to spend just two days in Bangkok and the other six days in Siem Reap (visiting Angkor Wat) and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I’ve been wanting to go to Angkor Wat since… I don’t know, probably since the first time I ever heard about it. Lissa, on the other hand, didn’t know what it was. But we both had a great time.

The Temples

For those of you who might be in the same boat as Lissa was: “Wat” means temple in Cambodian, but Angkor Wat is not only one temple. It’s a collection of dozens of temples, big and small. Angkor Wat is the most famous of them all, so the entire area is usually referred to as “Angkor Wat.”

Angkor Wat itself (under repair when we were there)

The temples were built between the ninth century and thirteenth century, by a succession of kings, for various reasons. Some are devoted to the Buddha or a Hindu god. Some are devoted to the kings’ parents, and some are funerary temples. Interestingly, some temples are Hindu and some Buddhist. Southeast Asia has been a cultural melting pot for a long time, and Cambodia is no exception. The ancient empire of Angkor was influenced by both India and China, Hinduism and Buddhism.

The Art

These temples are very old and historically significant, but I think the real reason they’re such popular tourist attractions is because of the art they contain. The kings were not content to just to build temples; they commissioned artists to carve intricate bas-reliefs over most of the exposed surfaces. Due to our limited time, we decided to hire a guide to take us around the temples. The bas-reliefs all tell a story: some carvings depict stories from the Ramayana, some show historical events, and some show scenes from daily life. Our guide was able to tell us what meant what, as well as point out things we wouldn’t have noticed on our own.

A scene of 12th-century daily life (people cooking a feast) at The Bayon

The Effect of Tourism

Almost every single traveller we’ve met in Southeast Asia is planning to go to Angkor Wat. I guess if you’ve flown all the way here, why not go? According to my incredibly unscientific study, it is one of the top cited must-see destinations in Southeast Asia (the other one nearly every backpacker mentions is Vietnam.) This is a good thing in many ways: Cambodia sure could use the money, and temples don’t get restored for free. However, we were constantly surprised by the number of people we saw touching the carvings. Over time, some of the carvings have gone from rough to smooth, and now appear shiny. Our guide told us that she’s also seen people breaking off pieces of the rock, to take home as a souvenir. I worry about this laissez-faire attitude towards preservation. The good thing about Angkor Wat is that there are no unsightly signs that say “Don’t touch.” Unfortunately, maybe they need them.

Bas-reliefs made smooth and shiny by too many people touching them

My dad and I agreed that if these temples were in America, the bas-reliefs would be behind glass. I had that same thought at Borobudur (in Indonesia) as well; those ruins predate Angkor’s but receive far fewer visitors, so the reliefs are still in fairly good shape. I think that in the future, both Cambodia and Indonesia will have to do more to protect their ancient temples, and that probably means Plexiglas, at least over the most popular carvings. Go now, while you can still see them up close!

Fun Things to Do at the Temples

  1. Dance like an apsara, or heavenly dancer (in Hindu mythology)

    Look at the carvings on the column on the left to see the real apsara

  2. Thump your chest in an echo chamber

    Lissa tests to see if the effect is real

  3. Touch your nose to a giant’s

    Bob at The Bayon

  4. Pretend to be Vishnu and have people worship you

    Gary plays Vishnu (with help from Bob) while Lissa and I worship him

  5. Look for Cambodian wedding parties taking photos

    Cambodian wedding party at Angkor Wat

  6. Take a hundred photos in different windows and doorways

    Doorway at Ta Phrom

    Lissa at Phra Khan

Seven Tips for Traveling on a Budget

Things we’ve learned, after six months on the road:

  1. Keep a diary of expenses. This is the most important tip I have. It works in two ways: first, I’m less likely to make impulse purchases because I know I’ll have to write it down. Second, and more importantly, it’s crucial to keep tabs on our daily expenditures.

    Our spending during our first week in Malaysia

    I might think that we’ve only spent $35 in one day, but invariably I forget about random bottles of water, snacks, museum admission fees, or other purchases without receipts. Every so often, I total it up, just to see how we are doing and if we need to be more judicious. If I didn’t do write everything down, the money would dry up a lot more quickly.

  2. Price-check EVERYTHING. As I walk down the street, whether I’m hungry or not, I’m always checking restaurant menus. Many places offer the same kinds of things. Whether it’s fried noodles, a souvenir keychain, or a bottle of beer, I always try to find the best deal. A few cents may not seem like much, but when I make these decisions several times a day, every day, it adds up. It’s also handy when bargaining, which leads me to…
  3. Bargain! I know a lot of Americans are used to fixed prices and don’t like bargaining, but in much of the world, it’s a way of life. My technique is to first price-check at the fixed-price shops, then go back to any vendor and say “At another shop, I saw that for $3….” Hesitation as well as buying more than one item also helps. I also always bargain for a room whenever we’re staying more than one night or if it’s low season.
  4. When possible, avoid shopping in tourist districts. Everything comes at a premium in those areas. Venture to the local supermarkets to buy postcards; try eating in small, local restaurants instead of chains; or go to a suburban mall for shopping. Think about it: at home, everything costs more in the big cities, especially in the touristy areas. Same goes for the rest of the world.

    Nightly street market, Pai

  5. Seek out university areas. Students the world over don’t have much money, and the shops around universities reflect that. This is usually the best place to find cheap eats and sometimes other services as well. In Yogyakarta, Indonesia, the going rate for one hour of internet access at an e-cafe in the tourist district was 9,000 rupiah per hour: that’s about one dollar. Cheap, but that’s pricey for Indonesians. We walked over to a university district and the price dropped to 2,000 rupiah per hour, or 22 cents.
  6. Cook. This is what saved our budget in Australia and New Zealand. Both countries are on the expensive side, especially when it comes to food. We stayed at both campgrounds and hostels, which provide fridges and kitchens. We carried our own cooking oil spray, salt, and pepper, and we were able to cook dinner nearly every night.

    An enterprising taxi driver in Bali

  7. Walk, whenever possible. We mix it up- subways, buses, an occasional taxi ride- but walking is the most economical way to see a place. I prefer it, honestly, because taxis and buses move too quickly for me to take in my surroundings. Plus, you can price check while you walk!

Days Gone Pai

When we first arrived in northern Thailand, we didn’t really have any idea of where we wanted to go. We knew we wanted to go somewhere else besides Chiang Mai, but we hadn’t yet made up our minds on where that might be.

So many choices....

That’s no problem in Southeast Asia, though. You can pretty much get anything you want, anytime, for a very reasonable price. The tourist infrastructure here is easy to navigate, and it’s everywhere. Some people complain that it’s hard to get off the beaten track, and I sympathize. The endless rows of guesthouses, travel agencies, massage parlors, and hybrid Thai-Western restaurants gets really monotonous. And if I need a taxi, I will find you. But you can’t deny that’s it’s really convenient.

We kept meeting people who had just been to or were going to go to Pai, a small town near the Thai-Burmese border. It’s popular with both Western and Thai tourists. To be honest, we had no idea what was there, or where it was located on the map- but we were intrigued, and it seemed like the universe was pointing us towards Pai. So one day, we went into a travel agency, bought a ticket, and within two hours, we were on a minibus, heading towards a town that was a total mystery to us, but knowing that we’d find cheap accommodation and food at our destination.

Bungalows along the riverside, Pai

What is there to do in Pai? The town is so small that there’s no public transportation (only public long-distance buses to and from Pai) so the first thing many travellers do is rent a motorbike. Bob and I are experienced cyclists, after three years in Japan without a car, but we’d never driven a motorbike before. We were nervous. Our friend Adam, who’d been to Pai a couple of years ago, said that it wasn’t too hard, but he did note that he had seen several foreigners walking around town with bandaged limbs. Hmmm.

So the first and second day, we stayed near the city center. We relaxed by the river, sketched a temple, watched the sunsets, visited the night market, and after dark, checked out the many bars featuring live music. Our favorite place was called “Edible Jazz,” which not only has good music but also an effusive owner named Tom and a gaggle of friendly dogs.

No "Hotel California" here

The third day, I decided it was time. No more fear. Motorbike rental is ridiculously cheap in Pai- we paid 100 baht, or about $3.30, for a 30-hour rental (helmet included.) Plus, the traffic round Pai is really light. Conditions don’t get much more perfect than that. I reasoned that if we just couldn’t get the hang of it, we’d return the bikes and go back to relaxing by the river.

The rental agency asked if we had ever been on motorbikes before. We said no. They gave us automatic bikes, 110cc, and then got two of their staff to take us out to a quiet road where we could practice. Our cycling experience proved to be handy. It was like riding a big, clunky bicycle, without having to pedal. The only problem I had was that my palms were sweaty (due to both my nervousness and the heat,) and kept slipping. Other than that it was actually pretty easy.

Kids playing in the waterfall

We went up to the Yunnanese village, where some ethnic minorities from the Chinese province of Yunnan reside; then went to one of the many waterfalls in the area. The Yunnanese village is very touristy, but it was a nice place to take a break and have some lunch and tea. Due to the Thai kids currently being out on summer vacation, the waterfall was packed with families and school-age children playing in the water, but we were able to find a peaceful, secluded spot. The best part, though, was the mountain scenery. The whole area is quite mountainous (this is the foothills of the Himalayas, after all) but the area directly surrounding Pai is in a valley, so the riding was all pretty flat. There were more attractions we could’ve gone to, but we decided that was enough for one day, plus we didn’t want to be biking at night, so we took the motorbikes back.

Hey, Mom!

Check us out!

Eating Thailand

It’s really hard to find bad Thai food. Our first meal in Thailand was on the train. We weren’t expecting much, to be honest. But I once read (in Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) that wherever you go in Italy, if that establishment serves food, the food is the point. Train food, airplane food, museum food- in America they’re all pretty inedible. The Thais, on the other hand, are much more like the Italians. They don’t abide bad food. My meal of green curry chicken and Bob’s meal of red curry with duck were not just edible, they were very good. Wherever we went, we found really good food.

Actually, one of my main reasons for wanting to go to Thailand was to eat the food, and also to learn how to cook it myself. I spent four days in Chiang Mai under the tutelage of Vannee and Meo at Classic Home Cooking School. This school was fantastic. Rather than pre-selecting the menu for her students, Vannee lets everyone choose individually what they would like to make. Her list of dishes to choose from was quite long (more than 50!) and since I was coming for more than one day, she allowed me to choose dishes that were not on the list.

Every day before class started, we took a trip to a local market near Vannee’s home. She shops there every morning, buying ingredients for her class as well as her own groceries. In class, we pounded our own curry paste every day (using mortar and pestle,) but for the lazy, you can buy curry paste at the market:

How many kilograms do you need?

You can also pick up some coconut cream or milk. One of my classmates referred to this as the “coconut cow.” The vendor cuts off the brown shell and grinds up the coconut into tiny pieces. Then she pours the shavings into this machine, along with some water; the machine presses out the moisture. The first pressing results in coconut cream and the second in coconut milk.

The milk comes out underneath, just like a cow

Finally we got to see some more unusual ingredients… for example, this local delicacy:

Can you guess? Yes, they're ant eggs! Great in stir-fries.

Chiang Mai is in northern Thailand, and the cooking styles and ingredients are a bit different there. The Burmese and Indian influence is more strongly felt than in the south. I tried to take photos of everything I made, but unfortunately some of it was so delicious that I forgot to take a picture before digging in. My favorite Thai dishes:

Pronounced like "tom yum" soup, because it's so yum

Tom yam gung soup: this was actually pretty difficult to make. First, I had to prepare a chili paste, similar to red curry paste or green curry paste. I used a pestle and mortar to pound it till it was completely smooth. Trust me, that is not easy when you’re working with ingredients like lemongrass or galangal (a tough Chinese ginger.) After that, I brought some chicken stock to a boil, added my chili paste, then some vegetables (tomato and onion) and finally, the shrimp. It’s garnished with cilantro.

Mmm, spicy!

Jungle curry: Every day before preparing our curry pastes, Vannee would ask if we wanted our pastes mild, medium, or hot, and adjust the number of chili peppers accordingly. On the day I made jungle curry, she said I had no choice; I had to make it hot. Unlike other Thai curries, the broth is not thinned with coconut cream or milk. To tell the truth, I was scared. But it actually wasn’t that hot. The ingredients for the broth (curry paste, lime juice, sugar) were so perfectly balanced that I found it easy to eat. The other ingredients were chicken, spring onion, baby corn, and straw mushrooms. It’s garnished with fresh green peppercorns.

The most perfect dessert

Mango with sticky rice and coconut cream: This was my favorite thing that I made. I made it on my third day, and I seriously considered making it on my fourth day as well, just so I could eat it again. And it was surprisingly easy to make. The sticky rice is cooked in a steamer for 10 minutes (the steamer is lined with cheesecloth so the grains don’t fall through.) After it’s cooked, sugar and coconut milk are added to the rice. The coconut cream, on top of the rice, has cornflour added to it (for thickening) and salt (to offset the sweetness of the rice and mango.) The mango doesn’t need anything- it’s just a perfect, ripe, delicious Thai mango. I thought the addition of the salt was weird, but eaten together with the rice and fruit, the entire dish was perfect. And I know I said “perfect” three times. I can’t think of any better way to describe this dish.

Thailand’s Temples

In Southeast Asia, we’re trying to travel overland as much as possible. To that end, we took a train all the way from Butterworth (in Malaysia) to Chiang Mai, Thailand, which took 36 hours, with a change of train in Bangkok. The train ride was a lot of fun: we chatted with the people sitting nearby, ate the Thai train food (surprisingly good) and were actually able to get some sleep! It was both of our first time on a sleeper train. The beds were really comfortable- maybe even more comfortable than some guesthouse beds.

Chiang Mai is a city that I had skipped on my last trip to Thailand, and I was really excited to go. I was not disappointed. Chiang Mai is like the Kyoto of Thailand: it has a long history, plenty of religious sites to visit, and best of all, Thai culture is very accessible there. It’s possible to take classes in Thai language, massage, cooking, etc. I signed up for a four-day Thai cooking course, but before my classes began, Bob and I had a few days to explore the city. We wandered around the old, walled city; called in to several temples, and gorged ourselves on cheap Thai food.

I’m pretty familiar with Buddhism, having lived in Japan, but the Buddhism practiced in East Asia is different from the Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia. Theravada Buddhism, which is the type practiced in Thailand, emphasizes only the Buddha’s teachings and is an older form of Buddhism than Mahayana Buddhism, which includes other teachings and doctrines that did not come directly from the Buddha. Also, in Theravada Buddhism, making merit is very important. Ways to make merit for yourself (thus ensuring a better rebirth) are to build temples or stupas, donate Buddha statues to a temple, become a monk for a short period of time, give alms to a monk… there must be more, but those are the only ones I know. The first thing I noticed in the Thai temples were that they were much more ornate than the Japanese ones. The altars, in particular, were chock-full of Buddha statues. In Japan, you typically find just one.

Statues of Buddha as well as offerings and photos of illustrious monks

Golden stupa at Doi Suthep

Stupas are also a lot more important in Thai Buddhism, it seems.One temple complex usually contains a main temple buildings, some smaller subtemples, and a stupa. They’re usually to enshrine something inside; in Southeast Asia, many temples claim to have a strand of the Buddha’s hair inside. A dead ancestor’s ashes might also be put inside, to make merit for the deceased person. At Doi Suthep (right,) there is supposedly a broken piece of one of the Buddha’s bones inside. On the other hand, the stupa at Wat Chedi Luang (below,) was built by a 14th-century king who intended to inter the ashes of his father.

One of the cool things you can do in Chiang Mai is take part in a “monk chat.” Different temples hold these at different times; we chatted with a monk at Wat Chedi Luang, which is drop-in style. It’s one of the more popular temples among tourists due to its gigantic, crumbling brick stupa (it was damaged in an earthquake 600 years ago.)

Broken 600-year-old stupa at Wat Chedi Luang

So many foreigners visit the temples in Chiang Mai but probably don’t know much about Buddhism, so English-speaking monks are on hand to answer questions. We ended up talking for an hour. The monk we spoke with was 24 years old and has been a monk for the past 11 years. It’s very common for boys in Thailand to become a monk for a few months, but not many stay for that long. He didn’t say so directly, but I got the impression that he was from a poor family, so attending a temple school was the only way for him to continue his education. Temples in Thailand don’t just focus on religious education, they also teach the usual school subjects like history and foreign languages. He was really good at English; he said he’s studying to be an English teacher. He said he gets a lot of respect in the classroom because he’s a monk.

Check out the dogs on the stairs

Another interesting thing that we learned is that in Chiang Mai, there are twelve temples devoted to the animals of the Chinese zodiac. They believe that when you die, your soul goes to rest in the temple of that animal. I didn’t find the ox temple, but Bob found his temple (he’s year of the dog.)

The outsides of the temple buildings are pretty fabulous as well. They’re extremely colorful and ornate. The eaves are the most unique aspect. I have heard (though I haven’t had confirmation on this) that the reason the eaves always point upwards is so that they’re pointing towards heaven.

A pretty little temple at Wat Chedi Luang