Siem Reap & Angkor Wat

Siem Reap is a a MUST visit for every traveller to SE Asia and it’s been on my hit list for a while. We decided to give it a full four days by spending half term there with our friend Carol.

Siem Reap is the north eastern province of Cambodia near the border with Thailand so only a short flight away for us. This is also the name of its major town where the ancient temple complex of Angkor is located. The name Siem Reap itself is interesting as it literally means ‘Siamese (Thailand) defeated’ and was named in the 1500s after a major war with its neighbour. There’s nothing like bragging on a geographical scale!!! I wonder how the Thais feel about this!?!

Siem Reap was originally a little village until the discovery of the well preserved temple complex by French explorers in the 19th century. Now it is dubbed Asia’s Costa-de-Culture. The city itself has some interesting pagodas, a royal palace and an old crowded, noisy market.

We dedicated a whole day to Angkor Wat though and opted for the sunrise tour in the somewhat vain hope that some of the tour might be cool.

Built in the 11th century, Angkor is the old Khmer name for their capital and it means ‘city of temples’, the most famous and best preserved of which is Angkor Wat. it is also the largest ancient religious site in the world and it is so important that it features on the Cambodian flag

Unusually for a Hindu temple it was built facing the west. There are a couple of theories about this, one is that the temple was originally dedicated to Vishnu, the supreme god of the Hindu pantheon who sits facing the other gods. So this temple faces him. Alternatively it could have been designed as a mausoleum for king Suryavarman II and indeed many of the bas reliefs run counter clockwise which also indicates ancient funeral rites. Whatever the reason it was splendid to see it at sunrise

And if you visit on an equinox then the sight is even more stunning

(Photo courtesy of our guide)

The site has now been converted to Buddhism and some of the buildings are still in use

I was delighted to discover that the whole vast complex was filled with carvings and statues of women. It is one of the largest collection anywhere in the world of female religious iconography.

Originally these women were thought to be dancers for the entertainment of the gods or some speculated that they were the imaginary wives of the gods and just there for decoration. I have to admit that many of the accessible breasts were shiny indicating centuries of fondling!

Recent research suggests that these Devatas or deities were actually temple guardians. Sort of ancient Lara Crofts. If that is the case then Go Girl Power! I’m impressed.

The site itself is amazing and very atmospheric

I particularly liked these serene smiling faces, 47 in total, who represent the governors of the ancient provinces. The size of the face denotes the relative prosperity and importance of that province. What a way to be immortalized.

Kevin climbed to see the Buddha’s at the top. Carol & I we’re put off by the steepness of the steps. Apparently they were cut so narrowly to encourage worshippers to continue onwards and upwards facing the god. If you were able to stop and sit on a step then your bum would be towards the god which was disrespectful.

Kevin climbed the tourist stairs in case any of you were worried

Still pretty steep though

Carol and I made donations and received a friendship bracelet, a blessing and a generous sprinkling of holy water

But the piece de resistance of the day was the visit to the ‘ Tomb Raider’ temple, made famous by the Lara Croft film. Here we saw enormous tree roots intertwined with ancient crumbling temple stones.

This temple was originally home to more than 12,500 people including 18 high priests and 615 dancers. The temple was abandoned in the 15th century and nature has taken her course. I loved this little face peeping out between the roots.

And this is the tree which the action heroine climbed in the film.

For all my friends in HE this photo below is the one of the oldest university buildings in the world. it was constructed in 1186 and served as a Buddhist university.

By this time the of the day we were exceedingly hot and sweat soaked. Our skin was slick and all items of clothing stuck to us. Standing in the shade made no difference whatsoever. It was a fascinating tour but I am very glad that we only did the short one.

And if you ever venture this way you too might have the

(Gotta love the translations)

Our jungle treehouse adventure

Thanks to the new king’s coronation there was a surprise extra public holiday for everyone this Monday. We decided to take advantage of the additional long weekend and have another last minute adventure.

Kevin booked us into a jungle tree house in the Khao Sok national park. We flew to Surat Thani (very) early on Saturday morning. The flight took just over an hour. Then a 2 hour taxi journey into the deepest, darkest jungle. Ok, so maybe not that deep or dark but it is reputedly the oldest rainforest in the world. Get that! This is because Thailand has remained in a similar equatorial position for the last 160 million years. Quite an achievement.

Our accommodation is amazing and the hotel/ resort prides itself on being eco-friendly. Our treehouse is called Gingah which means ‘chameleon’ in Thai. Inside there is no room fridge or air con, just a fan. Fortunately the temperature here has dropped to a merciful 27 degrees and it’s only sweltering rather than sweat drenchingly sweltering!!

This is the first room I’ve ever been in where you get to refill your own bottles with water rather than being given plastic ones. The owner has calculated that they save 10,000 bottles every year this way.

The views from our treehouse are magnificent and with no tv or WiFi we sit listening to nature. The room is open to the environment so we have to sleep under a mosquito net but it all feels very rural & intrepid. As the resident mozzie magnet I do have to report that I was bitten a bit even under the nets.

We booked to do a half day hike through the jungle with a guide. I find myself fascinated by some of the shapes in nature.

And look how enormous the leaves are! It’s like being at the top of the beanstalk in giant land. Kevin is shown here for size!

Thailand has lots of diminutive bananas and this was the first time I have seen them growing with the flower attached.

The Khao Sok national park is like a miniature Halong Bay as the river and lake are surrounded by 600 foot high Karsts. They started as deposits of shell and coral 250 million years ago then they rose up as mountains when the tectonic plates collided 3 million years ago forming the blocks of limestone cliffs that we see today.

Our guide told us fascinating information about which leaves and mushrooms are edible (we did try some) and felt very Bear Grylls chewing away on leaves! Here he is preparing a mushroom which is apparently quite a delicacy in upmarket restaurants.

but NOT these. They are definitely poisonous-avoid at all costs. They do look pretty though.

We hiked for 7km some of it along lovely wide tracks through bamboo groves. This is do-able I thought. Even for someone who not that long ago was recovering from ME. Then he took us off-piste and down barely traversable tracks, clambering over fallen branches and across muddy leaf strewn paths. He carried a small knife and used it machete-like to lop off spiky bits of undergrowth. It made me feel quite intrepid and adventurous! I came over all David Attenborough! I do have to admit to being quite nervous about all the creeping crawling things which might bite, sting or poison me so I kept my eyes glued to the ground at every step. And when we had a pit stop by the river I wasn’t all that keen on sitting on the rocks for too long… just in case!

I really wanted to see the Rafflesia – the world’s largest flower which grows only in this park. The blooms can be up to a meter in diameter and smells like rotten meat to attract insects for pollination. But we were out of luck though as they only bloom between December and March.

Shame, but we can’t have everything and I reckon that we are extremely fortunate to be here experiencing this at all!

Animals which live in Khao Sok include sun bears, tigers and Leopards (which we didn’t see but I’m glad they are here)

Having a Jungle guide meant that he was able to show us things which we would have just strode past. Like the

Long-tailed tree monkey and her baby high up at the top, just visible here between the leaves.

As we walked we disturbed clouds of beautiful little iridescent butterflies but they moved too quickly to photograph. This beauty stayed still just long enough for me to capture. It was enormous, probably about the size of my hand.

Kevin even had a go on a vine swing. Which demonstrates just how strong these creepers are! I think he was channeling his inner Tarzan.

We were given some instructions on how to remove any blood-sucking leeches using your finger nail. Top tip: if you spray them liberally with insect repellent they are not keen on hanging around either. Fortunately we didn’t encounter any.

But the thing which scared me the most was this …

This innocent looking hole in the bank is in fact the home of a female tarantula!!!! Yep, that’s right. One of the very things which I hope NEVER to get up close and personal with EVER! And yet here I was right outside the front door of one!!!! The guide assured me that they are nocturnal but it sure put me on edge for the rest of the hike. I kept my eyes firmly peeled.

I am happy to report that we emerged from the jungle suffering nothing worse than some mosquito bites. Our guide was so helpful that when he saw mine he applied some red ointment which is basically double strength tiger balm + chilli! It wasn’t hot, it was scorching. I no longer felt any itching as all I could feel was a burning sensation. It was drastic but I guess it worked.

Actually after the hike I really fancied a siesta (I am partial to them at my age) but we had booked to go to a craft village. Village was perhaps an overstatement as where we ended up was in a house. For the next 2 hours Kevin and I learned how to make banana sticky rice, mango jam and then we carved our names on bamboo cups.

Once again although we had booked a group activity there was only us there! The mango jam tasted out of this world. And our host turned out to be a Man U fan so they talked football the whole time then he made kevin a special souvenir

This evening there was a thunderstorm which was extremely loud with heavy rain but mercifully that has kept the biting bugs at bay! It is very calming listening to the sounds of the raindrops falling from the canopy high above us. Khao Sok has the highest rainfall in Thailand due to its high mountains. When it rains in Thailand it is heavy but short and sharp. I have to say that this rain is like being back at home (only warmer, of course)

We didn’t see the monkeys who live near-by. We were warned not to have ANY food in our treehouse as they are good at breaking in and messing things up. They are also particularly attracted to toiletries (we kept everything in our bags just in case)

Whilst we couldn’t see them clearly we did see some bats. The local ones are the Lesser False Vampire bats. It must be tough being called a ‘false’ vampire bat but to be the ‘lesser’ of all the false vampire bats must be soul-destroying.

If any of our friends fancy a jungle experience I would recommend Our Jungle House. You can also do overnight trips to sleep on a raft on the lake (in a sort of pod/capsule) which sounded great fun but we didn’t have quite enough time to fit that in.

And then it’s back to Bangkok for a rest on Monday

Happy Yellow Day!

This weekend sees the coronation of Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun as Rama X of Thailand. This is a once in a lifetime event (Last one was 69 years ago) and has aroused much national pride here which it is a privilege to be part of. And, if you thought that Britain excelled at pomp and ceremony… well Thailand can gives us a run for our money.

As the eldest son of the much loved ‘father of the nation’ Bhumibol Adulyadej, Maha technically succeeded to the throne on 13th October 2016 but he asked for time to mourn. Everyone wore black for a year and the funeral of the late king was held last October amidst an massive outpouring of grief.

Now the country is ready to put all that behind it and move forwards as the new king is being formally crowned. The process follows ancient traditions and is quite interesting.

There are hundreds of small ceremonies and events all over the country which led up to the main coronation but the two most important are:

1. Purification. Water was gathered from all of the 77 provinces in Thailand by officials and specially blessed by monks in local temples before being brought to the temple of the Emerald Buddha in the Grand Palace for mixing together and more blessings. The king was bathed with the water symbolizing all the land which he presides over. This picture shows the ewers where the water was stored.

2. Anointing. For this ceremony the king sat on an 8 sided throne made of fig wood which represents all the points on the compass.

This ceremony began on Saturday at 10:09 am because 9 is an auspicious number in Thailand.

He then processed to his golden throne which was under 9 canopies (umbrellas) representing the 9 realms, which as king he has ascended to becoming a living deity. He he is given 5 Royal objects:

  • The great crown of victory (although this is a recent addition from 1782 that was copied from us Europeans!)
  • Slippers
  • Fan & fly whisk
  • Sword of Victory
  • Sceptre

Thailand is a Buddhist country so at the time of the actual coronation ceremony monks in 41,000 temples will simultaneously chant prayers.

After all that the king officially took up residence in the Grand Palace (not his actual home) in what is fondly called the ‘housewarming party’. This is a private ceremony led by the women in the Royal family who took in trays of grains to represent abundance, a golden key for ownership and rather bizarrely , a cat! Rumour has it that the cat is to chase away evil spirits. We had cats for many years and never once suffered from evil spirits so it must be true.

The whole country has been encouraged to wear yellow both during the coronation weekend and after as this is associated with royalty as well as being the colour for Monday, the day of the week on which Maha was born. So doubly auspicious. Pretty much everyone does and businesses and shops everywhere are bedecked in swathes of yellow and white material and yellow flowers.

At school on Friday we held our own ceremony in recognition of the event. Everyone looked splendid as we gathered for words, music & flag waving.

The junior choir sang a song in Thai composed by the late king which loosely translates as ‘the impossible dream’ I managed to capture part of the rehearsal here with the solo being sung by a remarkable 10 year old who has the most amazing voice.

There was an air of festivity all day which was expressed rather eloquently by a little girl in Year 2 who skipped into the library with her class and greeted me saying, ‘Happy yellow day Mrs Toner!’

On Sunday a Royal barge procession sailed down the Chao Phraya River with 56 barges and 2200 rowers all resplendent in red.

In a surprise move a couple of days before the coronation the king married his partner of 16 years meaning that she is now recognized as Queen Suthida.

She is his fourth wife and was formally a flight attendant with Thai airways before being promoted to be head of his bodyguards. Interestingly no one can now call a baby by a similar name as hers and defamation of her can result in 3-15 years in jail. Be warned!

Then on Monday we all had the day off. Yay!