Southeast Asia: Three Favorite Things

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I wouldn’t say that we’ve been *everywhere* in Southeast Asia, but over four separate visits, totaling five months spent in the region, we’ve seen and done a lot. At this point, we’ve been to nearly every Southeast Asian country (we’re only missing Brunei and East Timor.) So what did we like the best?

Three Favorite Cities

  1. Luang Prabang (Laos)
  2. Chiang Mai (Thailand)
  3. Yogyakarta (Indonesia)

Each of these cities has a laid-back, fun-loving atmosphere, and days spent here flew by. We tend towards the smaller cities; Bangkok and Jakarta are not among our favorites (though we love Kuala Lumpur and would choose that as number four.)

The Luang Prabang main drag

Three Favorite Places for Neat Architecture

  1. Bali (Indonesia)
  2. Singapore
  3. Yangon (Myanmar)

Balinese traditional architecture is a blend of different styles, and it is like nothing else in the world. I particularly admired the Hindu temples on Bali, but ordinary courtyard houses were also beautiful. Both Singapore and Yangon have some fabulous old British colonial buildings, as well as Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, and (in Singapore) Malay-style architecture. The different neighborhoods were fascinating to walk around.

An old British building overlooking People's Park in Yangon

Ruins of the historical center of Sukhothai, the old capital of Thailand

Three Favorite Attractions

  1. Angkor Wat (Cambodia)
  2. Bagan (Myanmar)
  3. The old city of Sukhothai (Thailand)

Hmmm… these all turned out to be sites of ancient ruins. I guess you can tell where our interests lie?

Three Favorite Experiences

  1. Snorkeling in the Perhentian Islands (Malaysia)  The most fish I have ever seen in one place… plus turtles and sharks.
  2. Watching a water-puppet show (Hanoi, Vietnam)  So what if it’s touristy? It’s a really cool show.
  3. Touching a tiger (Chiang Mai, Thailand)  Do I have to explain the appeal of this one?

    Awww!

Three Favorite Foods

  1. Pad thai (Thailand)
  2. Adobo (Philippines)
  3. Banh mi (Vietnam; similar ones in Laos)

We tried making adobo when we got home... it was good, but not as good as on Boracay Island

Pad thai may be an obvious choice, but we never ever got tired of eating it. In the Philippines, each adobo we tried was better than the last. I don’t know how they do it. I asked one waitress about her restaurant’s version; she just shrugged and said “It’s Filipino food.” Which explains… nothing.

Runner-up: Roti canai (Malaysia and Singapore), which we ate for breakfast nearly every day in those countries.

Three Favorite Drinks

  1. Teh tarik (Malaysia, Singapore)
  2. Local coffee, sweetened with condensed milk (Vietnam, Laos)
  3. Watermelon shakes (anywhere there are backpackers)

Teh tarik… how can I explain teh tarik? It tastes like plain ol’ black tea with sugar and lots of milk (think Japanese milk tea) but the process of making it is special. Before serving, it is poured back and forth between two glasses several times, which makes the top nice and frothy, and in my opinion, makes the drink creamier.

Breakfast of champions: roti canai and teh tarik

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

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A chat with my sister, February 2011
me:
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