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Entries about tourist sites

Angkor Wat

Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat, is a boom town with new hotels springing up overnight, though one wonders if they will ever fill up all the rooms despite the two million farangs who come here each year. We have met people from China, Korea,Japan, South Africa, New Zealand, Britiain, Singapore, and a few from the States, some of whom are teaching in international schools in China.

The ruins are vast and we were lucky to have the services of Bon, our indefatigable tuk tuk driver who accompanied us everywhere, knew some of the history, and even told us where to eat lunch.


In the main temple area there are archways upon archways opening into each other, and creating a sense of perspective that suggests infinite space. We have been told that it symbolizes the beginning of the universe with Mt. Mera, a sacred peak, at the top. There is also a blending of Indian and Khmer influences, Hindu and Buddhist, that have been built up over successive generations. Unfortunately a number of old stone heads and other artifacts have been stolen by private thieves and museums, and of course, Pol Pot did his best to destroy the place. But no matter, Angkor has survived all of these things, and continues to impress with its sense of timelessness. I am bigger than all of those of have tried to destroy me, it seems to say, and I will be here long after you are gone




While the architecture is Khmer, some of the carvings are clearly Indian in origin.


One of my favorite places was the temple of Bayon, with its enormous 30+ feet high Buddhist heads. It is part of Angkor Thom, which is even older than Angkor Wat, dating back to 800-900 AD.



In Ta Prahm, the jungle is taking over.


Even in three very full days we did not see it all.

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We continue to be amazed by the Cambodian people. Yesterday while we were at the ruins, we were approached by a ten year old girl trying to sell us postcards and water. Nothing unusual about that. Then she asked" Where you from?"

" New York", I said.
"Where in New York?"
"Near New York City," my standard response.
Then she said, "Capital of New York not New York City. Capital Albany."
"That's where we live." I said.

This of course, was quite impressive, but she then proceeded to rattle off the names and capitals of all 50 states, something not many ten year olds could do in the states.

"How did you learn all that"?
" Oh, she says, "Just talking to tourists like you."

Just to give the full picture, this was not a well off educated kid, but basically a street kid living by selling things at Angkor. Whereever we went, just about everyone spoke some English, essential I guess to trying to get ahead. Even the tuk tuk drivers, are studying English dictionaries when they are waiting for their customers. What spirit.


Of course, there are always two sides to getting ahead. Yesterday we got into a long conversation with the cook at our hostel, who happens to be the niece of the owner. She told us all about her uncle, Kim, who runs the Okay guest house in Pnom Penh. As the oldest brother, he is the family patriarch and determined to become wealthy and help out his extended family. Based on what we saw, he seems well on the way to doing this. Kim has already helped a different brother buy a guest in another part of Siem Reap. This makes three owned by the same family. Mostly they are modest places, but as business picks up I'm sure they will go on to purchase more upscale hotels. At the same time, our tuk tuk driver Bon, who we pay $15 a day, hardly sees any of this. He works for the the guest house, and they only pay him about $20 a month, plus he has to help out in 'the restaurant after driving all day. We have grown quite fond of him and tried to help out as best we could by giving him a big tip, and also showing him how to use the internet to create an email address. He got a big kick out of this, but unfortunately we never heard back from him.

We fly to Luang Prabang tomorrow afternoon.

What they say around here is that the Cambodians plant the rice, Thais sell the rice, and the Laotians listen to the sound of it growing.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:55 Archived in Cambodia Tagged postcards tourist_sites Comments (4)


And the Return of Dr. Myint

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We took a long car ride to the airport, and then a short, cheap flight to get here, saving us many hours on the bus. In this most famous of Burma's ancient sites, we were met by Yu Yu's cousin, who we first thought was her brother. Yu Yu, for those just tuning in, is one of my English students in Rensselaer, New York. Through the efforts of her cousin and several of his colleagues, all of whom work on a 10 year hotel construction project near the ruins, they had borrowed a company car, and took turns showing us the pagodas. As each of them gets a total of one day off a month, this was no small sacrifice, and yet they acted really pleased that we had come to see them. Bagan is huge, much like Anchor Wat, and takes several days to see. It is comprised of hundreds of pagodas, and temples, many of which date back 1000 years, as it was the site of number of ancient empires. The buildings are mostly made of red brick and stone.

In the morning and early afternoon we viewed some of the oldest, though they didn't always look it, because many had been restored after a major earthquake hit in 1975.


A Sense of Scale

Not appearing very impressive at first, the ruins really come alive as the sun settles lower in the sky, and the bricks reflect the warmer oranges and pinks of the afternoon sky, instead of the white heat of mid-day.


Rebuilt and Old Pagodas
Photo by Nanette

It is dry here, even more so than Mandalay, and dusty in this period before the rains begin in June. Bagan has had a serious drought during the last several years, and the Irrawady lies low on its banks. We were told it increases in flow and size many times during a normal rainy season.


In the afternoon we took a dip in our hotel pool. It is a relatively upscale place with air-con, a welcome change after the rigors of the monastery. Late in the day we were again picked up by our new friends to look at more pagodas, and also the construction site, of which they all seem very proud. When it finally opens, it will be the fanciest and most expensive place to stay in Bagan. It is hard to imagine that it doesn't have some government connection, though they told us it was privately financed.

At sunset we climbed up the narrow stairs of a nearby pagoda to watch the sun set over the river.


Then it was back to company headquarters to meet the family. They served us cold drinks and Burmese appetizers.

Left to Right: Cousin, his Daughter, Work Colleagues, Cousin's Wife, Another Spouse

We switched to a company van so that everyone fit in, and drove to some of the other pagodas and zedis that were lit up at night. It felt quite special.


On day two we took a horse drawn tuk-tuk because the company car was not available. Once again the engineers took turns acting as tour guides. It was an adventure, as the narrow dirt roads were rutted and bumpy, and the cart was small for three people. At one point I lost my grip and almost bounced out.


Power Rangers appeared out of nowhere and ran after us, grabbing hold of the back of the buggy.


We narrowly escaped by ducking behind some of the many Buddhas.

Above by Nanette




Cousin's wife had prepared a lunch of mohinga after we said how much we liked it. They served us in their simple home at the construction site, and in typical Burmese fashion everyone sat around and watched while we ate the bowls upon bowls of spicy noodles, and then more bowls of fruit. They seemed grateful to us for our interest in them, and for the opportunity to talk to foreign visitors about their lives and culture. We too felt grateful for their incredible generosity and openness.

After lunch, more pagodas.


Inside Mural

Temple Detail

At the end of the day, we clip-clopped on the paved road to town, in order to deliver the third and final letter from our Burmese student at home. We were told it was for someone fairly well known locally, but were it not for the efforts of our engineering friend, we never would have found Ki Ki. He seemed a bit suspicious when he saw us, checking up and down the street to see if anyone was watching as we handed him the envelope. As it turned out, his suspicions might have been justified. When we returned to our hotel, Dr. Win Myint (our erstwhile spy,) was talking to someone in the lobby. Oh no, we thought, not him again. We were hundred of miles from Yangon, and so this could hardly be a coincidence. We became more convinced than before, that he was a government agent.

"Dr Myint, what a coincidence. What brings you to Bagan?"

"Oh, I'm here to meet a Swiss tour group," he said nonchalantly.

"I see."

"When do you return to Yangon?" he asked. "Nanda (the Burmese monk we had met in Bangkok) wants to know."

Hmmn, I thought, why wouldn't Nanda email us directly, as he had done in the past? I was deliberately vague with my answer. " We're not sure about our itinerary, so I don't really know."

We rambled on with small talk, and then I realized that Dr Myint obviously had his own ways of finding out where we were. I should have asked to take his picture, but didn't think of it at the time. It would have been interesting to see his response.

The next day we rented bikes on our own to explore more of the nearby ruins, and spent much of the day relaxing by the pool. Luckily, we did not run into Dr. Myint again. In the end, I suspect luck had nothing to do with it, but we were thankful nonetheless.

When we left at dawn, our Burmese friends insisted on driving us to the airport, and once again, we were showered with gifts and souvenirs. How could we refuse? Of course we didn't, knowing full well we would have to leave some of our stuff in Bangkok and buy an extra bag to to lug it all home.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:03 Archived in Myanmar Tagged tourist_sites Comments (2)

The Sights Around Mandalay

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After a couple of days at the monastery, we were ready to go to some of the nearby villages to see the "tourist attractions." Ni Ley accompanied us, as we set off in one of the tiny, 50 year old, blue taxis that dart around the city. Dart is not an apt word here. Plod is more like it, as they don't move very fast and they are certainly not comfortable. Nevertheless we hired one for the day and it was off to Amarapura, site of the royal capital in 1841 or so. On the way we stopped to see what appeared to be a thousand or more monks, lined up with their rice bowls to receive their last meal of the day, lunch. They were a lot of foreign tourists as well, anxious to get the best pictures.



We continued to U Bein , a long footbridge over a shallow (in the dry season) lake. More than 200 hundred years old, and made of nearly indestructible teak, it is is one of the most famous sites in Burma. After walking across and back in the mid-day heat, we were glad to stop at one of the lakeside restaurants.



From there our bone-jarring ride took us to Sagaing, where we had to climb the many, many steps to get to the top of the hill. Thankfully, a shade platform covered most of them. There is an impressive Buddha here, and views of another 500 pagodas and monasteries on the hill overlooking the Irrawady River.




Taking a Much Needed Rest at the Top

Next was Inwa, which served as the capital for 400 years before Amarapura. To get there we had to cross a bridge built by the British, take a boat across the river, and then a horse drawn cart to view the spread out ruins. We didn't have enough time or energy to see all of it, as we had to get back for a visit with Yu Yu's uncle.



On another day we climbed to the top of Mandalay Hill, located right behind the monastery.

Palace Wall With View of Mandalay Hill in Background

There were nice views of the city spread out below.



And as always we were accompanied by a contingent of monks.


That evening, we went to a nearby tea house for dinner, once again with Ni Ley who didn't eat of course. I asked what led up to his becoming a monk, 11 years earlier at the age of 15.

"I was very happy during the time I was a novitiate, and made many friends. At the time, it seemed like monks could do many things, but not now. I am unhappy now, and worry about my family who are poor farmers, and have to support me. What it will be like when they get older? I want to leave Burma so I can find a way to help them, but don't know how. What should I do?"

We discussed getting a passport and a visa, perhaps first for Thailand. We said we would sponsor him to come to the US, and would check into the process for him.

He said that in the past few months he thought about crossing over the border illegally. He was worried about what might happen in the upcoming elections in October. Perhaps there would be more crackdowns on monks.

We told him how to apply for a passport, and that a legal visa for Thailand was not difficult to obtain. We reiterated that we would speak to our Burmese friends in the states to find out how they managed to obtain their visas, but that this would have to wait until our return.

Silently, I wondered whether this was realistic. How likely was it that he would ever get visa for the US?

Another example of the desperation people feel.

Posted by jonshapiro 12:57 Archived in Myanmar Tagged tourist_sites Comments (2)


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The Panda was an interesting hotel, not at all like the usual backpacker places we often stay. At $30, by Yangon standards it was somewhat upscale, and seemed like it was full of Chinese businessmen. This is not really surprising when you consider that China is Burma's major trading partner, followed by North Korea for their weapons. We were the only westerners in the place, and I'm not sure what the staff thought about us. Why did these farangs keep getting so many calls from locals? And the concierge often got stuck translating for us on the phone. It seemed like each time we went out there was another message from a different relative of one of our English students. They all seemed to know when we were arriving, and they were coming out of the woodwork to meet us and show us around. And yes, we did have three sealed letters in Burmese to deliver to people in various parts of the country. We assumed they were personal messages for friends and family, but what did we know? Maybe they contained clandestine information. EVEN I WOULD HAVE BEEN SUSPICIOUS. No wonder DR. MYINT was following us. And where was he today? Was he going to show up again on our doorstep and invite himself to lunch this time? I was almost looking forward to another encounter, but I digress.

Late in the day we went with Aung Myint to Shwedagon. Having trouble keeping track of who's who here? Welcome to Burma where everyone, as previously mentioned, has the same name. As a reminder, Aung is the younger brother of one of our students, and not the aforementioned illustrious spy.

Shwedagon, as some of you may know, is the holiest pagoda in all of Burma. It is not just one pagoda, but a self contained city of pagodas, high on a hill overlooking the city. Some say it is more than 2500 years old while others claim it was built in the 5th or 6th century. No matter, it is breathtaking, especially at sunset, as the golden dome gleams in the fading light. There are major entrances at the four compass points, with long steps guarded by enormous lions.


Looking Out Over Entrance From the Top

Views of Main Pagoda



One of Many Small Pagodas On Main Plaza
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There are Buddhas and Arhats of all shapes and sizes, mythical beasts and elephants along with mirrored and tiled halls, many with commanding views of the city bellow. We wandered here for a couple of hours, awestruck by the dazzling beauty and opulence of the place, which stands in such contrast to the poverty all around.

Monk with Nanette and YuYu's Mother with Buddha Looking On




There were many tourists here, Europeans, though plenty of Burmese as well, thrilled no doubt to be in this holiest of places. There were monks of course, one seemingly near death as he simply stared at the pagoda while tourists obscenely took his picture. Others were old, and hobbled on canes as they shuffled across the wide open tile plazas. Still more, children really, 8 or 9 years old, hid between the gold and white columns giggling and bumping into each other as I took pictures.

A Rare Serious Moment

The setting sun created brilliant light and long shadows in between the domes and spires. We stopped our perambulations to sit and listen to a group of chanting nuns, as it dropped below the horizon. The lights slowly came on, illuminating the main pagoda, the military apparently making sure that the electricity worked here.

As we started to leave, the monks prepared to light, by hand, seven thousand oil lamps surrounding the dome.

Shwedagon has a shimmering, unreal quality to it, hovering over the city below with its dirt and despair. Here that seems far off, as the faithful genuflect in front of the many Buddhas, wishing for a better existence, or perhaps an end to all existence. Nibbana.


Another, smaller pagoda, built by General Ne Win ( father of the current regime) to improve his karma, seems to wink at us as we clamor into a taxi, exhausted after a very long day.

Posted by jonshapiro 08:12 Archived in Myanmar Tagged tourist_sites Comments (5)

Las Cataratas de Iguazu

Located in the tri-corner area where Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil meet, the falls, more than 200 in all, are famous the world over. Our last major side trip was to fly up there for a few days. Certainly they are beautiful, but to be somewhat of a killjoy, they didn't blow my socks off. Maybe I have gotten jaded after all of the geological wonders of the past months. They are a bit like Niagara, though far less commercial and more extensive. At least on the Argentina side, they have done a nice job keeping away ugly commercial development. The wooden walkways are tastefully done and well placed, enabling you to get up close to the thundering water.


By spending as much time there as we did, I was able to take photographs at all hours of the day.

The Devils Throat


Looking Toward the Brazilian Side

Some "arty" black and white shots:




And a some close-ups.



Located in a jungle area there is a lot of wildlife around. The not so wild coatis (at least in some ways), are everywhere. They would rather eat your lunch then find their own, and seem to have a talent for stealing it if you look away.

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For birders it is heaven. All kinds of tropical birds abound, including these guys, plush throated jays.


But there are many others:



We took the boat ride, their version of Maid of the Mist, except we were the only customers.




CLOSER, we shouted, until it felt as if the boat might capsize and we were drenched.


We spent time at the falls with a couple from LA.


George is originally from the US, whereas his wife, Saraphina, is Bolivian. Although he doesn't look the part, George had a few adventures of his own to tell us about. It seems that a few years earlier, without knowing a damn thing about it, he and a couple of buddies went prospecting for gold in the Mato Grasso of Brazil. They spent several months without finding anything to speak of, and then towards the end one of them discovered a large nugget that turned out to be worth about 30 grand. I envisioned a scene from Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but apparently that didn't happen. They didn't kill each other and split the money. It paid for their expenses with a little left over, but did make a great story.

Posted by jonshapiro 23:02 Archived in Argentina Tagged tourist_sites Comments (3)

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