Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam

I went on a whistle-stop tour of South East Asia in May of this year. Because it was such a quick trip, I didn't really do anything that wasn't in the Lonely Planet, and I don't have any stories that you won't have heard before.

I could write something educational about Tomb Raider, of course, but that's already been covered by other sources, notably The Archaeology of Tomb Raider, whose article on Angkor Wat I recommend if you are so inclined.

I did, however, take some nice pictures.

This is the view from the Lamphu Tree Hotel, where we stayed in Bangkok. I mention it because it was a really nice place and the staff were extremely helpful and accommodating, so please consider this a recommendation.

In Bangkok, the streets are filled with brightly-coloured taxis and the Grand Palace complex is filled with brightly-coloured umbrellas.

Within the Grand Palace's walls is the Wat Phra Kaew complex, home to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The temple itself is bordered by Garuda.

As with most temples, there is no photography inside Wat Phra Kaew itself.

Fortunately, committing the topiary outside to digital immortality is fine. The entire complex is surrounded by intricately painted murals.

They depict the Ramayana, and are refreshed frequently. You could get this information off Wikipedia, of course, but I'm just making life easy for you.

The excellent topiary continues outside Wat Phra Kaew, in front of the Grand Palace itself.

We left the complementary umbrella in the hotel wardrobe, thinking we wouldn't need it since it wasn't raining. Seriously lacking shade as a consequence, we seek refuge behind a wall. As we drink some water, some men in robes pass. We decide that the digital cameras are a sign that they're not real monks.

Outside the palace grounds is a roundabout that looks like Dumbo's fever-dream. In a good way.

Over the road is Wat Pho, home of the reclining Buddha and some excellent statues.

The reclining Buddha is magnificent... large, you cannot fit him all in one photograph.

The soles of his feet are inlayed with mother-of-pearl.

There is far more to see in Bangkok of course, but this is a whistle-stop tour.

Next up is Siem Reap, Cambodia, home of the temples at Angkor.

Like most cities in South East Asia, Siem Reap has a tourist district packed with places to eat. This one is called "Pub Street". However, in order to be at at 4am the next morning to catch sunrise over Angkor Wat, we did not sample its delights for long.

Here is Angkor Wat itself. This is actually sunrise, but the clouds make it rather less spectacular than most of the other "Angkor Wat sunrise" pictures you may care to search for. Still, it is Angkor Wat and not even a cloudy sky and a little UNESCO tarpaulin can lessen its splendour. 

It is here, of course, where Lara Croft began her first expedition as a trainee archaeologist alongside Werner Von Croy, except when she did it she didn't have to wait for all the other tourists to pass before she took her photos. Before we went inside I took a comfort break and made some friends.

Look Stella, chickens!

My new friends don't have tickets, so they don't follow us inside.

Here is the view from inside the temple, looking north across the Cambodian jungle. Angkor Wat is unusual among Khmer temples in that it faces west as opposed to the more usual east. This is possibly because the temple was dedicated to Vishnu, often associated with the west.

The highest tower still bears magnificent engravings.

The Bayon at Angkor Thom originally had 216 faces, but time has whittled their number down. Those that remain are serene despite their age.

Further into the jungle, and the trees begin to take over.

The larger roots belong to the silk cotton tree. Later, smaller, stringier roots abound, and those belong to the strangler fig. We head inside the famous Ta Prohm, where the first Tomb Raider film was shot.

Almost all of the sites at Angkor looked similar to Ta Prohm about twenty years ago, but they are being painstakingly restored by UNESCO, no easy task considering that in many cases, the tree roots are now the only things holding the stones together.

But Ta Prohm is so spectacular that the decision was made to leave the trees as they are. Although it looks untouched, the balance between keeping the trees alive and the temple standing is actually being carefully maintained.

Here's the Tomb Raider door...

...and a similarly overgrown one.

The heat is ferocious by this point, so it's back to town for a nap.

Then some pool at Pub Street. This is the bar where I first discovered Adventure Time. It was being projected onto a wall while the music (metal, mainly, hurrah), played over the top. We thought it was some really obscure show and that by "discovering" it, we were cultural travellers as well as physical ones.

Nope, turns out Adventure Time is an enormously successful cult hit and we were pretty much the last people ever to see it.

This pool was once part of a hospital.

I am very pleased with these pictures because I was one of thousands of tourists, and waiting for them to pass behind a pillar so I could take a good shot took some patience.

In the commentary for Tomb Raider: Anniversary, Toby Gard (Tomb Raider's original designer) talks about how the inspiration for the game came from visiting ancient ruins and just wanting to clamber all over them.

I know how he feels, but can only assume he did not visit Angkor Wat in May, it is 40° in the shade.

This is one of the gates to Angkor Thom, an ancient Khmer City.

Since vast temples and palaces are not part of my daily life, I find it hard to imagine what they might have been like a thousand years ago.

But a gate is something I can get my head around.

Dating from around 950, East Mebon is around 200 years older than Angkor Wat itself, making this elephant exceptionally well-preserved.

Here's a view of Siem Reap from our hotel balcony.

The city is really only there because the temples are there, so it's still fairly small. However, there is a specialised children's hospital which you can learn about here. There is a lot to say about Cambodia and its people that I learned even in the three days I was there, but this picture-focussed blog post isn't really the place.

This is much the same view as the last picture, just at sunset.

We spent the next night back at Bangkok. Like almost all other major cities, Bangkok has a Chinatown.

This is where I ate one of the best meals of the entire trip.

Although the seafood and green peppercorns look like they could give my crab a run for its money.

After dinner we wandered around the night market...

...then found a bar overlooking Wat Arun across the Chao Phraya River.

I chose my camera because the box said I could drop it and it wouldn't break, and I know myself. This was honestly more of a consideration than the quality of the photos it could take, so I am always pleased when it helps me take a tricky one.

The next day we flew to Hanoi. It was Bangkok Airways' 45th birthday, and one lucky passenger on our flight got a prize!

Up until this point I had been priding myself on my ability to travel light, so if that little aeroplane didn't have such a sweet face I would have left him at the Hanoi baggage claim, where he might have caused some serious delays because, my goodness, Vietnamese bureaucracy is something I was not wholly prepared for.

I wasn't prepared for the mopeds either.

Or the totally genuine Apple store, hosting one of Apple's famous "Crazy Sales".

Or the wiring.

Or this lamp.

We didn't have much time to sample Hanoi's singular delights because the next morning we took a four-hour drive to the famous Halong Bay.

Lara Croft has never been to Halong Bay (get it together Lara), but the drive there reminded me of the motorbike sequences in Tomb Raider: Legend.

We sailed around the North East of the Halong area, Bai Tu Long bay.

Fishermen putter around the limestone karsts that stand majestically above the emerald waters.

I think the green might be a reflection of the foliage clinging to the limestone, but it could be a mineral in the water.

I spent a great deal of my childhood on boats, so this view was oddly familiar to me. Still, these boats were on the Solent.

This is a working fishing village, subsidised by both the government and the travel company. In exchange for a steady stream of paying tourists, it maintains a high standard of cleanliness and keeps pollution to an absolute minimum.

We were taken out on a fishing trip with some of the villagers. First the nets were laid, with the boat being powered only by tiny oar strokes so as not to scare the fish. Then, the deck is hit with wooden rods for about ten minutes to herd the fish into the nets before the nets are pulled in. Once the nets are back, the painstaking process of untangling the fish from the nets takes place before the whole process begins again.

The whole thing is incredibly hard work, and this shouldn't be forgotten when padding gently around such a beautiful setting on a sunny day.

We spent the evening on the man-made beach outside Thien Canh Son cave, which is magnificent.

These pictures are not the camera's  fault. They are mine, for not using the flash.

Oh dear.

You should probably just google some pictures.

This is the sort of sunset you don't forget easily.

The next day we returned to see more of Hanoi than just the mopeds, though of course there were a lot of those too.

Hanoi is beautiful, but it takes a while before you stop waiting for sound of mopeds and horns to pass.

It is perpetual.

However, the non-stop activity is what gives Hanoi its character.

In Hanoi, life is lived very much on the streets. The incredible street food is served to anyone and everyone who sits down on one of those tiny stools you can see there. Sit down and you will be given a bowl of something wonderful. What is it? Never mind. It's delicious.

Oh, and it probably costs about 30,000 dong. Vietnamese currency exists in enormous denominations and is called the "dong". I will let you think up your own dong jokes, because I think I've spent all the time on it that a person really should.

The next day we visit Uncle Ho.

The mausoleum complex also contains the Presidential Palace, but Ho Chi Minh is more well known for inhabiting the far more humble stilt house in the back garden.

Next up it's the war museum.

There was no plaque or description next to this, but I have just been informed that it is an SA-2 missile...

There wasn't one next to this either, but I'm not sure it needs one.

On the way out, we pass a monument to Vietnam's illustrious communist history.

Oops, no, not that.

I mean this.

If they sold miniature versions of that monument I would definitely have bought one.

The Lonely Planet described Temple of Literature as "tranquil", but on the day we visited there was a school trip in progress, which meant that once identified as English speakers, we answered about twenty questionnaires about tourism.

That tree probably won't cause any problems in the future.

In the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake, there is a small pagoda.

I tried waiting for a people-free shot of this pathway, but gave up.

Other activities in Hanoi included the Water Puppet theatre, lots of pool tables and discovering that our hotel had Cartoon Network, and that we could use it to watch...


On the drive back to the airport we could see the pillars for a future suspension bridge in the early morning light. Spectacular.

This is the view from our taxi on the two-hour drive from Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport to the ferry port at Rayong, where we transferred to Koh Samet for a couple of days.

Being so close to Bangkok, the island is a favourite weekend spot for city-dwellers. It was also a very relaxing place to come after Hanoi.

On the first day we went snorkelling, but despite being practically bulletproof, my camera is not waterproof, so I don't have any photos and you will have to take my word for the fact that I saw a clam the size of a dishwasher.

This is not a flattering photo, but it is one that expresses my sheer joy at having fulfilled such a large number of Tomb Raider fantasies in the last couple of weeks.

When we rented the quad bikes they told us how to start them and how to make them go faster. They did not rent or suggest helmets, they did not tell us to stay out of the way of oncoming traffic and they slapped a sticker over the safety instructions.

Lara would definitely have approved.

Koh Samet is not large, and we drove down every single one of its roads that day. It has a large number of beaches, some selling ice cream and inflatables, others offering nothing more than a hammock and a view.

The island is apostrophe-shaped, and the southern tip is thus rocky and rough.

Stella look! A cockerel. Apparently chickens naturally inhabit woods.

This beach was fashioned by hippies. Stone-balancing of this nature is something I've only ever seen before in Ottawa, so I wonder if they were Canadian hippies.

Our room was air-conditioned, so my camera was cold. This meant that when I tried to take a picture of the sunset, the lens kept steaming up due to the humidity, so this is the best you're going to get.

The ferry trip back to the mainland saw us pass several squid boats, which are covered in lights (that you can't see in this picture). They must look spectacular at night.

The final day was spend lazing around Bangkok. We wandered around streets where Thai people shop...

...and streets where western people drink.

Then we went to the MBK mall because we couldn't think of anything more cultural to do. My only disappointment on this trip was the fact that photos were not allowed inside the mall. This mall had "THE WOMAN SHOP". It had a T-shirt store called "BRAND NAME". It had a shop selling nothing but framed insects. It had things that were so amazing I have repressed the memories of them to shield myself from the crushing regret of not having been able to take pictures.

Never mind. We went to the cinema to see Fast and Furious 6 because nothing helps you prepare for a return to real life like The Rock chasing down a jumbo jet with a tank or whatever.

There were only about 20 seats in this cinema and every one came with blankies.

On the last night we ate curry on the Khao San Road, soft landing for nervous newbies and tired explorers alike. Bangkok is something of a gateway to the region for many travellers, and as such its main tourist street has spawned many imitators.

You could argue that it's not "real" Thailand in that it does not reflect daily life for most Thai people, but then Leicester square with its Routemaster teapots, vast amusement arcades and ticket touts does not reflect much of England either, and yet it's an unmissable part of a London visit.

There are very few "untouched" places left in the world, and the fact that somewhere has grown up with a booming tourist trade doesn't make it somehow inauthentic. Industry shapes the culture and geography of a place, whether that industry is tourism, fishing or finance, and if you think there's nothing of interest in a place just because someone else has got there first, you'll never be interested in anything.

Suvarnabhumi's central feature is a beautiful "Churning of the Ocean of Milk" statue.

I hope I have time to go back to South East Asia and spend more than a few days in each country. It is incredible that we live in a world where you can see all of these things in three weeks, but it would be nice to travel between them by train, and see a little more (and eat a little more) along the way.


  1. Looks like a fantastic trip! Happily enough I went to most of those places earlier this year (much easier now that I'm in Hong Kong) and it brought back some great memories. I do remember wondering when I was in Angkor Wat if you had been there or not, I guess the answer now is yes!

  2. Brilliant photos, Mary! Looks like you had a great time!

  3. Wonderful! :Thanks so much for posting this. It looks and sounds like you had a great trip. Don't know if I could have withstood the heat. You're far braver than I am! And I can't believe you remembered my bizarre affinity for poultry. :D

  4. Looks like you had a wonderful holiday, Mary. Halong really reminds me of the coastal Thailand levels of TR: Underworld (wrong country but the landscape looks remarkably similar). And the temples at Angkor are all so beautiful. I really hope to visit them someday. My travel wishlist grows longer by the day so this may take a while... :-)

    And thanks for mentioning my blog. The article you talked about was actually written by Anya, one of the guest bloggers, but I'm glad you enjoyed it. It's interesting to see how much influence the first Tomb Raider film has had on Cambodia's tourism and Siem Reap's local economy, though I wonder whether mass tourism is something of a double-edged sword. While it brings in a lot of money to a fairly impoverished country, I suspect it's beginning to take its toll on the monuments. Perhaps this is something I'll explore in a future blog article. ;-)