My New Year’s Trip of 2008
—Siem Reap, Cambodia and Bangkok, Thailand
“8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1—HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!”
The TV in the hotel was flickering the countdown celebration on CCTV-4, one of the state-owned TV channels in China, while it was actually 11p.m. of December 31st, 2007 in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I earned an extra hour of 2007. And I had two countdowns this new year. I had an uneventful flight to the mysterious land—Siem Reap, Cambodia. Upon my arrival, I saw there were already many Caucasians or Japanese waiting in line at the border. Siem Reap is now a favorite destination for tourists around the world. During my next three days’ visit, the impression had grown deeper and deeper.
We were lucky to arrange an airport pickup service with the hotel. My Cambodian acquaintances once told me to be aware of the motor snatchers at night in their country. Indeed, there wasn’t any night life on the way from the airport to our hotel. All I could see was darkness surrounding our car. With the help of the dim light coming from other vehicles, I saw motor cyclists were enjoying their “Happy Hour” on the side of the road. The Hindu god statue at the crossing of the road reminded me of Bali, Indonesia. But apparently the road in Siem Reap at night was darker than that in Bali. I was told Hinduism used to be in practice before Buddhism came to Cambodia. As a result, I could find the Hindu relic here and there in this little town, Siem Reap. Our driver Sim was a very useful guide during our visit in Siem Reap. If you are planning to visit Siem Reap, I highly recommend you to look him up. His contact info is
Through Sim, I learned a lot about Cambodia, about how hard it was to make a living during the civil war in Cambodia; about how popular US dollars are now in this used-to-be war-ridden country; about how busy today’s Siem Reap is as two million tourists visited Cambodia in 2007, a big boost to the local economy. From restaurant dining to tuk-tuk transportation (a local motorbike rickshaw), almost everything in Siem Reap is related to tourism and measured by greenbacks. I have not been to the United States, but the consumption experience with dollars in Siem Reap was comparable to that in the US.
For instance: two hand-made bamboo flutes for US$1; one set of postcards for US$1; one can of diet coke at Angkor Thom for US$1; one tuk-tuk ride from the Old Market area to our hotel for US$3; ten hand-made fragrant soaps for US$10; three-day itinerary ticket at Angor Wat for US$40; and the most unbelievable scam is every visitor has to pay US$25 as service charge at the airport before leaving the country. Due to the fact that everything in Siem Reap is in dollars, which is 7.5 times more than the RMB in China’s currency, I have a very good control with money while shopping.
Other than the popularity of the US dollars in Cambodia, the lovely children I saw during my visit really held my attention. Because of the civil war, there are many orphans and homeless children in Cambodia. Seeing these children playing so happily on the street, in the temples, and near the garbage dumps, I was sentimental and my heart became greater. “I really want to help them,” I said to myself, “helping them to be sheltered, to be fed, and to be educated.” My compassion came out of nowhere but prompted me to have mercy for these children. I believe I would do something for these kids if I stayed longer in this country. I was sorry to see a 3-year-old little girl in a shabby dress and bare feet, begging tourists to buy her postcards in the temples. My mind just can’t get rid of her big eyes and lovely face. The war has destroyed countless things, one of which is the lively and ingenuous childhood of every single kid.
With the guide of the driver Sim, we got to Angkor Wat in the morning and Angkor Thom in the afternoon in order to avoid the crowd. As our car approached to Angkor Wat nearer, my heart beat faster. What a world wonder am I gonna see? “There it is!” I exclaimed. My excitement was comparable to that of the adventurists on Mt. Everest. Standing in the center in front of this grand architecture, I couldn’t take my eyes off this wonder. It was totally breathtaking. Angkor Wat certainly has its unique wow factor. The exterior layout had overwhelmed me. As farther we go in the 21st century, it becomes more precious to be close to the ancient civilization. A touch of the historic heritage had made me proud—I couldn’t believe I would be at Angkor Wat in person after a visit to the wonders of China, the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors. To me, almost every corner inside Angkor Wat has an unfinished story, arousing visitors to imagine. The carvings on the wall are magnificent. Something worth mentioning are the trees in the temples area. They are as old as the architecture and seem to be an army of soldiers guarding the age-old temple while witnessing the change of history. I don’t see such thought-provoking trees elsewhere. (My Day 2 visit will tell you more.)
Brief intro: Khmer kings built a profusion of temples to honor various Hindu gods to ensure prosperity in this world and a safe passage on to the next. Angkor Thom is surrounded by a wall and wide moat and contains a royal palace and a series of temples. The centerpiece of Angkor Thom is the magnificent Bayon Temple with its rising mound of gigantic stone heads, surveying all cardinal directions. Other sites in Angkor Thom include ancient Baphuon, completed sometime around 1060 AD; the Terrace of the Elephant named for the elephants that decorate its walls; the Terrace of the Leper King with its hidden passageway lined with underworld nagas and demons meant to symbolize the subterranean slopes of Mount Meru, Phimeanakas within the Royal Palace and Prasats Suor Prat, 12 small towers that stand in a line facing the Royal Palace.
In the afternoon we went to Angkor Thom which is famous for the four-face Buddhas at Bayon. My curiosity and bravery had pushed me to climb up to the top. What surprised me was when I looked up in the sky, there were four-face Buddhas one mound after another smiling to me. I thought I was in my dizzy dreamland that different Buddha faces were swirling above my head. I walked a circle on the top level and nearly got lost. Of course, I had a good sense of direction and I found the way which I came up. Then I followed the map and visited the Terrace of Elephants. It was a spectacular view. I could not believe all of these in front of my eyes were created by human beings nearly a millennium ago. Delicate carving could be seen on the wall. As the sun set, more visitors were gathering at Ankor Wat for the spectacular sunset scene. And more monkeys came out of the woods for food as tourists tended to feed them on their way home. It was a very harmonious picture with human and nature together in the sunset.
At night, our driver helped us to book a table at a local restaurant and we watched the traditional Apsara Dance. Similar to the Baron Dance in Bali, women played an important role in Apsara Dance. Their costumes and accessories were shining and beautiful. The posture and hand movement were amazing. Most of the audience were tourists and they were fascinated by the dance.
Sim drove us to Preah Khan and Ta Prohm on the second day. They are located outside of the central Angkor Thom. Preah Khan, namely Sacred Sword in English, is a large monastic complex, built in late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII and dedicated to his father King Dharanindra in 1191. This temple is like a toppled maze to me, which partially reclaimed by the jungle. I walked along the main entrance and the deeper I went, the more gates I found. Eventually I gave up and made a U turn back to where I came in. Preah Khan is noted for its numerous sanctuaries, each devoted to a particular deity. It is an eclectic mix of tradition embracing Buddha, Shiva, Vishnu and countless local spirits.
Our next stop is my favorite temple—Ta Prohm. Sim said the locals called it “the tree temple.” Indeed, the age-old trees in the temple have drawn the attraction of writers, film-makers, photographers and numerous visitors. The abandoned monastery of Ta Prohm is visually arresting with its towering silk-cotton trees whose giant roots have invaded and overwhelmed the ruins, ensnaring and toppling vast blocks of stone. This was one of Jayavarman VII’s early building forays and the temple was dedicated to his mother. If you visit this temple for the first time, remember to bring extra films or batteries as it is the most photogenic site. I was inspired by every spot of this site.
We were kind of templed-out in the afternoon. Sim suggested us take a boat ride to Tonle Sap, which is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. Sim said in the rainy season the water would submerge the fields, the main road and the huts on the bank of the lake. Local people had to live on floating houses. Tonle Sap receives several tributaries as well as the floodwaters of the Mekong River. I was told that it would take five hours by boat from Tonle Sap to Phnom Penn. I happened to get there at low water where it was little more than a reed-infested swamp, with channels for fishing craft. On the boat ride I saw numerous floating fishing villages and floating communities with a floating school, floating market, floating hospital, floating church; you name it! The boatman was proud to introduce the scenery on both sides of the channel. As we got close to the big wide lake which looked like sea to me, we saw more Vietnamese in the floating villages. Apparently Vietnamese are big on fishing. The boat ride helped me to understand more about the countryside of Cambodia. Again, I saw kids everywhere having fun with water or working like a little boatman.
I spent an hour or so at the Old Market where both souvenirs and local goodies are on sale. I was a bit intimidated when walking in the wet market section where peddlers were selling take-away snacks in the open air and Cambodians were bargaining for veggies and stuff. It was quite a scene but as I don’t understand their language and they don’t speak English either, I was totally lost in translation and feeling out of place.
After saying goodbye to Sim, we flew to our next and last destination—Bangkok, Thailand. I had already missed Siem Reap before I got on board. Indeed, my experience in this little town was unique and unforgettable. I guess my loving for Siem Reap had a lot to do with my great loss last year emotionally. Siem Reap is a great place to get a peace of mind as well as to recall the history of the past.
On my arrival of Bangkok, I realized what an international metropolis it is! The brand new airport is so posh and full of Thai culture. As I stepped out of the airport, oh my, I was roasted. No wonder the tour guide said, there are three types of weather in Bangkok, that is hot, very hot, and super hot. The Chao Phraya River is one of the highlights in Bangkok. The river goes all the way to the Gulf of Thailand. It is Thailand’s principal river which is important for the transport of the country’s exports and also forms a highly productive agricultural valley. If you are tired of the huge traffic jam in Bangkok, taking a ferry is a very good alternative. In fact, it’s more relaxing and time-saving too. My first experience in Bangkok was taking a ferry from hotel to the business hub. I realized my dream to see the sunset above water, too.
In the morning we took a city tour by bus. There are a number of Buddhism temples in Bangkok. Our tour guide took us to three of them. One buddha statue was completely made of gold; one was the reclining Buddha (Wat Pho); and the last one was quite near the Thai King’s palace. I found some Chinese resemblance in Thai temple architectural style. The Thai temples are quite grand and beautiful from the exterior. I wish mom could see them from my eyes.
Something bothers me during my visit in Bangkok is I have such a poor memory to remember the Thai names. No matter if it is a location name or a person’s name, it is usually too long to remember. I even have problem pronouncing them. So it was quite an adventure for me to tour the Grand Palace by myself. I took a ferry excursion to the Grand Palace, hoping to see the inside décor. However, it happened to be the third day after the Thai King’s sister passed away and a ceremony was going on at the Grand Palace, no admission for tourists. The Thai King has a high reputation among Thais. Although the King’s 80th birthday had passed, I could still see his portraits and slogans of “Long Life the King” everywhere in Bangkok. I remember Sim used to tell me that if the Cambodian King came to Siem Reap, not too many people would welcome him with applause; but if the Prime Minister of Cambodia came, there’d be a three-day big celebration on the street beforehand. Well, in Bangkok, it’d be a different story. The importance of the Thai King is superior to the Thai Prime Minister.
It was a beach day. We took a one-day trip to Pattaya. The long coastline with clear turquoise blue water was captivating. We went by speed boat for 30 minutes to the Coral Island. Wow, it’s like a little paradise. No wonder this island was occupied by many Russian holiday goers as a sunny escape from the frigid cold. Yet the facilities on the island were pretty primitive—what it offered to visitors were some squat toilets. It was not a problem for tough Chinese but not for the Caucasians who were spoiled by modern facilities. It has always been my dream to meditate by the beach. The cool water brushed my feet. I had a great time walking by the coastline, leaving my footprints behind. If only sadness could be washed away like my footprints by the waves. Although I got tanned, the experience was worth it.
In the morning, we took a boat ride to the floating market. There are numerous waterways going through different alleys. On the way we passed by many houses on both sides of the waterway. The canals were more or less like those in Venice. Yet the water was quite filthy with tons of water lettuce and rubbish floating above water. Some families tended the flowers beautifully at their balconies. And kids were feeding the fish by the water. A couple of peddlers were riding small boats to us to sell food and souvenirs. After zigzagging for quite some time, we eventually got to the small floating market. It is actually a floating restaurant. People were eating all sorts of delicacies, mostly BBQ seafood on a series of floating boats. I wondered how much this would pollute the river.
Soon my holiday came to an end. Before I left the Bangkok airport I was racking my brains to spend the rest of Thai money. Gosh! I never wanted to be rich again. Just kidding! At last I didn’t not use up all my Thai money. I saved it for my next visit.
You are amazing if you’ve read till this far. Travel can be addictive but it has really broadened my horizon. I hope more adventure to come this year! Bravo!