Angkor Wat & Other Temples

Three o’clock in the morning is early where ever you are in the world, and there are few things I will get up to do at that hour, but visiting Angkor Wat is one of them.  It was a short drive, only 5.5 km from Seim Reap.  We did bring a flashlight for our trip, however at that hour, we didn’t think to bring it with us!  It was dark when we arrived at the temple, and it would have been good to have the light  on the uneven grounds, and walks.  Either way, made it to the pond where we would sit to wait.  We listened to the monks near by chanting, and the birds were waking, it was a beautiful and serene time of the day,  I was so pleased we went that early.


I have used this photo below so you can see the magnitude of this complex.

Photo source

Angkor Thom which means “Great City”  was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer Empire. Within this city are many temples, with  Angkor Wat Temple being the most famous, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the largest religious monument in the world at almost 163 hectares. It was built by a Khmer King, Suryavarman II in the early 12h century as a Hindu state temple, but was later changed to a Buddhist temple nearing the end of that century.  The temple was built with 5 to 10 million sandstone blocks, each weighing approximately 1.5 tons. It is believed  they used elephants and rafts to haul these  blocks along rivers and canals from Mount Kulen,  over 40 km away. The moat obviously was built by hand, which was a huge endeavour on its own.   Each and every surface, including the beams, columns and roofs are covered in carvings  of  winged dragons pulling chariots, warriors, unicorns, dancing girls, elephants with men atop, and warriors.  One gallery wall has over 1000 sq. m. of carvings. Much of the scenes and carvings include the  7 headed snakes, adopted from the Chinese by the Khmer. In 1860, a French explorer discovered the temple(s) that were being eaten up by the thick jungle.  The view from the top of the temple was spectacular. Photos never do justice.

Much work was needed to restore Angkor Wat, and the other temples.  Vegetation had taken over and it had to be removed meticulously. During the time  the Khmer Rouge were in control, work ceased and they actually used remaining wood from the temple for firewood as they camped in the area. There is a also damage from a stray American shell, as well as bullet holes due to the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge having gun fights in the area.  However, it wasn’t until after the wars that the real damage began.  During the period of the late 80’s and 90’s  thieves entered the complex and knocked off, and stole most of the  statues heads.  Unfortunately many of the treasures from all the temples were stolen.    There are many temples  here, and we did see several.  The gates to the temples, and the bridges crossing the moats are all pieces of art as well, with the same intricate carvings, works of ancient  beauty all over this area.

The Bayon Temple, just north of Angkor Wat, is  a spectacular temple. There are  four faces carved on 54 gothic towers and  each tower is topped with a lotus flower, which is common in Buddhism as the lotus flower represents purity, spiritual awakening and faithfulness. Each of the faces looks in a different direction – north, south, east, and west. Charity, compassion, sympathy, and equanimity are the four states of Buddhism, of which each face represents. The 54 towers are said to be a representation of the Lunar Calendar having  54 days , and I don’t think it was acoincident that the Khmer Empire of King Jayavarman VII had 54 provinces.

The temples seem all the same, yet are so different in so many ways. The last temple we visited was the Ta Prohm.  It was made famous in the Tomb Raider movie,  we hadn’t seen it.  It is a great example of how the jungle can take over the beautiful architecture that man has made, totally destroying anything in its path.  We also made a quick stop at the Terrace of the Elephants.  Much of this was made of organic material, so has long disappeared, however the retaining wall and the foundation platforms remain. The wall is over 300 meters long.  Bas-relief sculptures of elephants, horses, beautiful dancers, and of course warriors.  It was used by the King to watch his army returning from battle, as well as  parades and religious ceremonies were held on the grounds.

Touring all these temples was fantastic.  I know there are many more, and we did get the chance to go to others, but for today, it was enough, and time to head back into Phnom Pehn as we had tickets to go to the Phare Circus that evening. This circus is Cambodia’s answer to Cirque!   I highly recommend not missing this event.   Without a doubt one of the most amazing shows I’ve ever seen!  Without words, only music and acrobatics they told the story of a young girl growing to an old woman through the horrific history of Cambodia.   There are many videos on Youtube, and you can check out the trailer to the show we saw, Sokha   here. 

It was another successful day in Cambodia, a great deal learned as we toured through temples and the streets of Seim Reap.  Tomorrow another day in paradise, and a tour of a silk farm.


Cu Chi Tunnels & More – Saigon

The Cu Chi Tunnels are approximately 50 Km away from Saigon, and travel time, taking traffic into consideration is about one and a half hours. The scenery is great, and the highways/roads are in good shape, so as long as you have air conditioning, its a wonderful trip, well worth the time.  Again, this tour seems to be a little one sided about the ruthless Americans, however they fought back with what they had, and seemed to take great pride in the ingenuity of their people. The tunnels were originally started in the 1940’s during the war with the French. However, as the Americans moved in quickly during the 1960’s they expanded the tunnels to be used as not only shelters, but as army command posts, hospitals, kitchens, sleeping etc. The tunnels are tens of thousands miles long strung out between Saigon and the Cambodian boarder.  Life in the tunnels was miserable, sharing the tunnels with poisonous insects, snakes, rats and bats. Disease was rapid to spread with malaria being a major challenge.   During heavy bombing missions the Viet Cong would stay in the tunnels for extended periods of time.  They would only leave the tunnels under the darkness of night, to gather food and supplies and for active battles, then would  disappear beneath the jungle floor to evade the enemy, disappearing without any trace. Once the Americans discovered the tunnels they tried countless ways to destroy them, and their occupants, to no avail. The VC used  numerous types of traps in, and out of the tunnels.  Many of the traps were not designed to kill, but to injure or maim the soldiers.  I can only imagine finding a comrades in such traps would only infuriate the young soldiers, and add to the hate and animosity they felt towards the  VC  as the war continued.

Walking through the area where the tunnels are, you saw signs of the war, the termite hills which were easy to dig through, and often were places for trap doors into the tunnels and great places to have smoke dispersed into the jungle  from the underground kitchens. There are many articles regarding the making, and the history of the tunnels on the web.  The Americans, and Australians were many months discovering the tunnels, and only then it was by chance.  As the story goes, an  Australian Sargent sat down, and thought he had been stung by a scorpion, only to find he sat on the edge of a  trap at the entrance to a tunnel!

It was a great experience to go through the tunnel, although not recommended for anyone that might be even a little claustrophobic!   Unfortunately Gary’s old knee just wouldn’t let him do the whole length, but he did about 1/4 of the way.   I was looking for an excuse as well, and almost had regrets after going past each exit. There are  tunnels that appear to go off to the left and right as well.  The main tunnel does have lights, but they are extremely dim, and if they are around a corner or someone leaned up against one, you found yourself in total darkness!  I know the photo shows it looking relatively big, and bright (flash on camera of course) however as you move through the tunnel it does get a  tighter, and past the second to last exit, it got to the point where I was on bent hands and knees and barely fit, then found there was about a meter drop, and getting maneuvered to ascend  was impossible as I couldn’t get my feet around to the front of me to get down, so slithered down on my belly, hands first and continued to the end!  Yup….even though it was the tunnel made for big westerners, it was tough, and the size is  relevant to the VC using the original tunnels!   Yes the VC were tough, they were tricky and they were fighting for their lives, and duped the enemy in more ways than one with these tunnels. I found a very interesting article written by Tibor Krausz  in the  Washington Post of his visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels,  gives a great description here.

On our return to Ho Chi Minh, we had time to go visit the Reunification Palace/ Presidential Palace. There were three presidents that served in this building between 1966 and 1975, with the likes of Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and other persons of importance visited during the short lived history of South Vietnam. It had extensive damage done to it during he war, and the building is basically used as a tourist attraction now.   I have included some old photos from this website.     It shows the similarities with the then, when the North Vietnamese troops seize the presidential palace in Saigon April 30, 1985 – ending the war, and now, 2017.

We went down into the palace bunkers and saw the war rooms, complete with maps on the wall, radio rooms, presidential residence etc.  The architecture was stunning everywhere in he building, it was so grand. The wood work throughout was just stunning and all the carpets, colors and décor was straight out of the 70’s, a vintage decorators dream! There was always a Hue helicopter sitting waiting for the president, the heliport had been repaired several times due to bombings.   The Palace was complete with its own theater as well, and the projector was definitely from that era.  The kitchen was huge, as were the pots, pans and woks!   On the very  top of the building there was a room which the first president had designed as a “thinking” room, where he could meditate, however, another President moved in, thought it would be used better for entertaining.  Had the floor redone in hardwood, a bar, a piano and lounging seats added.  After going  up and down all those stairs, getting lost a couple times we were hot and tired, we decided to have a beer break!

Its been a long, hot day. It was time to head back to the hotel and meet up with the rest of the group to have a  s’long dinner for two of our travel partners leaving the tour.  Victor was heading back to Toronto, and Daniel was going back home to Ireland. It was also a Welcome dinner for Dirk,  joining us from Germany, and Frederica from Italy (living in London).  Once again our CEO Minea’s choice of a restaurant was spectacular, yet again with the stairs to the dining floor I wasn’t sure!

Mekong Delta in the morning…
















Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

(I’ll likely refer to it again, but I’ve written a great deal and have not complimented yet who was responsible for this wonderful experience we’ve been having.  Hats off to G-Adventures  for not only making arrangements for our travel guide (CEO) Minea but also, local guides in each of the places we visited. Our CEO went out of her way to make our trip very memorable.  Impressed beyond words with the whole experience).

February 24/ day 8 of our tour, we flew from Da Nang to Saigon. The City of Saigon  officially had its name changed to Ho Chi Minh City in 1975, and was named the capital at that time, taking that honor away from Hanoi.   It was named after the North Vietnamese Leader, and most citizens still refer to the city as Saigon. We flew via  Thai Air…and although it was only an hour long flight, it was clean, and great service . As we arrived  relatively early in the day, we checked into our room at the Hong Hac Botique hotel, freshened up and met the group in the lobby for 15 minute walk to the War Remnants Museum.  We only had about an 1.5 hours at the museum before we would meet up with our Cyclos  and as it turned out, it was not enough time to see all that we wanted.  We made tentative plans to return  to see the rest.  The Museum is definitely worth seeing.  This is one of the most popular museums in Vietnam, with well over 1/2 a million people visiting each year.  The yard is filled with military equipment, tanks, planes, and unexploded bombs, which have been defused and or charges removed.   There are several buildings within the walled compound that house all the exhibits.  One has to take much with a grain of salt, as it is very one sided, and the authenticity of some photos (and there are thousands) have been questioned.  There are hundreds of Anti-American propaganda posters and newspaper clippings, and many more articles regarding protests against the Vietnam War from around the world. There was a great deal of reading to be done. Each and every photo had a caption, some long, some short.  One photo, and caption we read were the exact words Gary  had heard back in the late 70’s.  We were in the Yukon at the time, and a pilot had come up to do a job, and was talking about some of the things he saw while in Vietnam.  It was impossible to believe at the time.  But there was a photo, and a caption telling the exact same story Gary had heard. Possibly the reason we were not able to see the whole Museum , there was just so much to take in.  One building called the Tiger Cage was a replica of the prison where the South Vietnamese kept political prisoners. The cells were dark, they were small, and the prisoners were shackled to cement beds. They were tortured, dismembered, beaten and at times kept in cages lined with barbed wire.  It was very gruesome, and again a vivid reminder that war is devastating and that the aftermath follows us for centuries. As I said earlier, what we saw was very one sided, and unfortunately as close as it was to our hotel, we didn’t get back to see the 3rd floor.  Although I feel I saw enough to last a life time, I think it would have been important to see the “American” floor, and how it was portrayed.  It is a very somber place to go, and one can not help but think about the photos and the exhibits in the days to come.  We did not take many photos here, and none of any photographs that are displayed, however, there are literally thousands posted on the web.

As scheduled, we met our CEO  at the gate to the museum and she escorted us across the street where we met up with our Cyclos.   I wasn’t sure what a Cyclo tour was, but got a quick education. You ride in front of the bike, on a nice comfy seat, while the driver peddles you around the city.  Again, the traffic was my main concern, and it was getting to be late afternoon, so the traffic was a bit chaotic, but…out we went to see the sights.  All the vehicles seem to be cautious when traveling close to the Cyclo’s, and make way for them to maneuver through the busy streets, although I did seem to get a guy that liked to be in he lead weaving unnecessarily though the mass of vehicles and people! Each time we went passed a landmark, he would tap me on the shoulder, explain what the significance of the landmark was.  I would acknowledge him, but that wasn’t good enough! He would slow down, and keep pointing, and explaining until I took my camera out and snapped a picture, then he would race up to the beginning of the line again!  I learned quick to just keep my camera out, and snap a picture when he started talking to me!  Made things much smoother!

Saigon is a very large city with over 8.4 million people. It continues to grow each year with new highways, beautiful buildings, sky scrappers, parks  and of course people.  But in the midst of it all,  there are reminders of the wars, the suffering and how it effected the people of not only this city and country; but the world.  Photographed by Hubert van Es,  the black and white photo below was in newspapers around the world showing the helicopter evacuation of 22 Gia Long Street April 29th , 1975.  The color photograph, a little different angle, but of the same building Photographed by Gary on February 24, 2017. 

One other stop we made at the Cyclo tour was the Post office.  It looks as though it were a train station, or something much “larger” than a post office, but what a spectacular building to have always been just a post office.   A Catholic church was also reason for my driver to prompt me for yet another photo as well as the Opera House.  A woman on the same tour ahead of us went to the Opera, and explained it was not as we see operas, but more or like a cirque du solei performance!  Maybe next time we’ll partake in that as an activity outside the included ones.

The next stop on the Cyclo tour  was at the corner of Cach Mang Thang Tam Blvd & Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street in central Saigon. There a beautiful monument sits surrounded by greenery, flowers and lights. It is here to honor the Monk, Thich Quang Duc who, on June 11th, 1963 burned himself to death at this intersection. For those who remember the 60’s, this is just one more reminder of sacrifices that were made in order to make a change in a troubled country. It was his way to  protest  the South Vietnamese Diem regime’s discriminating against the Buddhist Religion. The car that took the monk to that intersection, is now in Hanoi, and we did view it there.  Malcolm Brown, the photographer that captured this iconic event on film did an interview with the Times.  You can see this interview  here .

The Cyclo tour was just about over for the evening.   This city loves their lights, and as dusk approached the streets are light up with brilliant lights of all shapes and sizes, some moving, some stationary, but all spectacular, unfortunately my camera would not focus well at night.  Still very busy on the streets, which of course added to the light shows.

We had a few blocks to go before saying good bye to the cyclo drivers, and head into dinner at the Street Food Market. Here we likely would not have gone on our own, but with our CEO, we found another wonderful place to eat.  Was good ’till the last drop!

Cu Chi Tunnels tomorrow – I think I can do it!