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Indochina

“A Grand Tour”

February 2007

Now settled back into the normal everyday life: work; traffic; bills etc, it’s time to recall my holiday before the memories become too hazy. Two and a half weeks touring around Thailand, Cambodia and Laos were just an excuse for my trip and the real reason for my excursion was to explore Angkor, the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire and one of the ‘Wonders of the World’. Angkor ranks alongside the pyramids in Cairo, the Taj Mahal in India, and Macchu Pichu in Peru.

 

Thailand

A Brief History

Thailand is the only Southeast Asian state to have avoided colonial rule. Historically, the Thais migrated from their ancestral home in southern China into southeast Asia around the 10th century. The Ayutthaya Kingdom dominated the region in the mid 14th century. Its first ruler King Ramathibodil, who ruled from 1351 to 1369, established Theravada Buddhism as the state religion in a region that was predominantly Hindu at the time. The Ayutthaya influence spread from the Malay Peninsula to Burma and into Cambodia. In 1767 the Burmese invaded and the Ayutthaya Kingdom fell after reigning for more than 400 years.

 

The Rattanakasin Kingdom was the next ‘major’ power that rose to prominence towards the end of the 18th century. Its first ruler, King Rama I, moved the capital from Ayutthaya and founded the new capital of Bangkok. During the years of European colonization of the neighbouring countries in the 19th century (the heirs of Rama I), through their vision and diplomatic skills, were able to avoid the colonisation that befell most of Thailand’s neighbours.

 

In 1932 a military coup took place changing Thailand’s government from an ‘absolute monarchy’ to a ‘constitutional monarchy’. A series of military regimes, including a Japanese invasion in 1941, controlled the country for the next 50 years. From the mid 1980’s, apart from a period of military rule (1991 to 1992), Thailand was being run democratically. In September 2006 this democratic rule was briefly interrupted by yet another coup; a general election in December 2007 restored a civilian government.

The Journey

The first visit on my itinerary was Bangkok - the capital of Thailand. This vibrant and brash city is a role model that everywhere else in the region aspires to. The city centre is a mixture of ancient temples and modern skyscrapers. As well as being business orientated, Bangkok attracts vast revenue from tourism. The beach resorts of Phuket, Ko Samui, amongst others, now attract the British away from their previous favourite destinations such as ‘Benidorm’ or the ‘Canary Islands’.

Bangkok’s public transport system includes a clean, regular and efficient Skytrain (a sort of metro that runs on elevated concrete tracks). Getting around Bangkok is cheap with the average journey on the Skytrain costing around 30p. There’re also river taxis, tut tuts, buses and regular taxis whose prices would not put too large a hole in your pocket. The city is a shopper’s paradise where you can indulge in retail therapy to your heart’s content. Popular tourist purchases include: made-to-measure suits and shirts; fake cds; dvds and Rolex watches - and that’s just for starters. Bangkok is also famous for its reputation in the sex industry.

 

Sitting adjacent to the banks of the Chao Phraya River is the former home of the Thai royal family - the Grand Palace. This is Bangkok’s premier tourist attraction with buildings dating back to 1789. The most impressive structure is Wat Phra Kaeo, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha - arguably one of the most stunning pieces of architecture in the whole of southeast Asia. The building houses Thailand’s most sacred image - a small jade statue of the Buddha. On the other side of the river is Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, whose glittering towers rise 104 metres above the river; affording wonderful views of the city below. Built in the Khmer style the temple is an eclectic mix of Hindu, Buddhist and Chinese images and statues.

Wat Po, built in the 16th century, is Bangkok’s oldest and largest temple. The main attraction of this temple is the giant Reclining Buddha, measuring 46 metres long and 15 metres high.  This statue represents the dying Buddha in the position he adopted in order to attain ‘nirvana’. Other notable sites are Wat Traimit, Bangkok’s Chinatown district and Patpong. Wat Traimit houses the largest Buddha image (made of solid gold) in the world – it stands 3 metres tall and weighs 7.4 tons. Bangkok’s Chinatown is an intricate system of alleyways lined with markets and temples that invite exploration. Patpong is the district to head to if you’re seeking out nightlife. As well as the usual clubs and bars it boasts a thriving night-market giving the area a unique atmosphere. A river taxi trip on the Chao Phraya River is a brilliant way to travel between many of these city sites.

 

After a day and a half in Bangkok it was time to move on and my group caught an internal flight to Chiang Rai in the north of Thailand. This was to be an overnight stop before crossing over the border into Laos.

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Laos

A Brief History

Laos is an ancient country with a sophisticated culture whose early peoples migrated from Burma around 800AD. It has yet to embrace the rampant commercialism and tourist culture of its neighbour, Thailand. The most significant of the early dynasties in Laos was the Kingdom of Lan Xang (One Million Elephants); at its peak from the 14th to the 16th century. By the mid 18th century, with the country in fragmentation and decline, large parts of Laos were absorbed by its powerful neighbours - Thailand and Vietnam. By the early 1900’s Laos was under French colonial rule despite declaring itself a constitutional monarchy in 1947. For 10 years between 1963 and 1973 Laos was the hidden arena for a secret war that most of the world knew nothing about. Officially, Laos was a neutral state - in practice this neutrality was ignored by all. The first Indochina war was fought by the colonial French in neighbouring Vietnam.

The North Vietnamese used Laos as a springboard to attack the French in South Vietnam in the first Indochina war. The North Vietnamese continued to maintain a heavy military presence during an ensuing American conflict. Large areas of Laos were crisscrossed with networks of hidden trails – the most famous of which was the "Ho Chi Minh Trail".  This trail was used to re-supply the communist units in Cambodia and South Vietnam. The Chinese also had personnel stationed in Laos; they engaged in an extensive road building program seriously undermining the powerless Laos government. The USA was equally active; American technicians were training up the Lao Army to fight against the North Vietnamese. By the end of the war the Americans had dropped almost 2 million tons of bombs on this ‘neutral’ country. The loss of life in Laos was immense and in the end it was all to no avail ... history tells the story. After the North Vietnamese victory in South Vietnam in 1975, the King of Laos abdicated and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was inaugurated.

The Journey

History aside, my tour of Laos began with the usual border formalities and we boarded a boat for a relaxing two-day journey down the Mekong River.  Along the way we stopped off at various hill-tribe villages as well as the Pak Ou caves. These caves are cut into cliffs and are famous as a point of pilgrimage for Buddhists; who come to pray to the thousands of Buddha images within them. Our boat trip ended at the World Heritage town of Luang Prabang. This town has a similar feel to Kathmandu - a town crammed full of many temples and holy sites. The most important building in Luang Prabang is Wat Xieng Thong - the Golden City Monastery. This monastery is typical of a local architectural style utilising low-sweeping roof profiles and intricate decorative carvings. Built in 1560 the interior is decorated with gold leaved carvings and contains numerous golden images of the serene Buddha. I recommend a visit to the shrines on top of Mount Phu Si (a bit of a strenuous climb but worth the sunset view). Back on the ground, an early start is required in order to see the many hundreds of saffron robed monks receiving alms. As usual, I recommend shopping in the town’s night- market. Just as a matter of information, a full Thai massage for one hour costs the princely sum of £1.50; an absolute must at the end of a hard day’s touring.

 

Vang Vieng (our next stop) is surrounded by beautiful limestone karsts (hills) and set on the banks of the Song River. Vang Vieng is a backpacker’s haven with many activities available: water sports; climbing; trekking; sitting in bars and watching premiership football - to name but a few. In my humble opinion, Vang Vieng has embraced tourism to a greater degree than anywhere else in Laos. However, my lasting memory of the town was watching the sunset whilst having dinner in my hotel on the bank of the Song River … drifting away.

 

Our final destination in Laos was Vientiane - the capital of Laos. This wonderfully sleepy capital is the opposite to the brash hustle and bustle of Bangkok. Vientiane is a mix of French colonial houses, modern Lao buildings and many temples and shrines. The Patuxai, built in 1969, is strikingly similar to France’s ‘Arc de Triomphe’ and it is Laos’ war memorial. The view from the top of the Patuxai lays out the entire city of Vientiane before you. Vientiane is home to the shining golden dome of the great stupa (a Buddhist temple) of That Luang - the emblem of the Lao nation and the country’s most important monument. The multi-levels of the stupa represent the various stages of Buddhist enlightenment. According to legend the breastbone of the Buddha was placed on this site by missionaries in the 4th century BC. The stupa was constructed around 1570 and was completely renovated in the 1930’s.

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Cambodia

 

Onwards and upwards as we catch a flight that takes us to Phnom Penh - the capital of Cambodia.

 

A Brief History

The earliest recorded inhabitants moved into the Cambodia region around 2000 BC. The first civilisation to appear was the Kingdom of Funan which flourished from the 1stto the 6th century AD; almost nothing of their civilisation remains today. By the 9th century the Angkorian period of Cambodian history had begun. During the reign of King Yasovarman I (889 – 908 AD) Angkor was Cambodia’s capital; this period was known as the ‘Golden Period’. The Kingdom of Angkor flourished for more than 500 years and its capital was once the greatest city in the world with over one million inhabitants. In the early 15th century Angkor fell to the neighbouring Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya. In 1863 Cambodia became a French protectorate and in 1866 a new capital was established in Phnom Penh. In 1953 Cambodia gained its independence from the French colonialists. Any historical record of  Cambodia would contain references to its recent tragic history; the ‘Zero Years’ between 1975 and 1979 when Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge decimated the country in a despotic reign of terror - the effects of which still linger. The instability caused in the region by the Vietnam War resulted in Pol Pot’s Cambodian Communists overrunning the capital Phnom Penh in April 1975 - unleashing a reign of terror. In 1979 the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and overthrew Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. In 1993 general elections were held eventually installing a coalition government.

 

The Journey

Phnom Penh is a wonderful city: whether touring the Royal Palace; taking a boat ride on the Mekong; sipping a cocktail in the Foreign Correspondent’s Club or just strolling up and down the tree-lined boulevards and soaking up the atmosphere. The Buddhist temple of Wat Phnom is probably the most important building in Phnom Penh and is the namesake of the capital. Wat Phnom, although dedicated to Buddhism, has various shrines dedicated to Confucius, other Chinese sages and numerous Hindu deities.

 

Phnom Penh’s main tourist attraction is The Royal Palace built in 1866. It is set amongst extensive grounds and consists of many buildings including: a Royal Throne Hall; a Royal Residence for the King; a Royal Treasury and a pavilion donated by Napoleon in the 1870’s. My favourite building within the Palace was the Silver Pagoda, built in 1892. It contains a priceless Buddha figure made out of 90kg of pure gold and is encrusted with 9,584 diamonds. The floor of the temple is lined with more than 5,000 solid silver tiles weighing over 5 tons. During the ‘Zero Years’ of the Khmer Rouge a local school in the city was turned into a torture and interrogation centre. This was known as S21 or Tuol Sleng and the visit here is a sombre and reflective experience - a seemingly never ending display of photographs of the dead, torture cells, torture equipment, and the knowledge that tens of thousands of people were tortured to death - the feel of the place was akin to my trip to Auschwitz. After this we visited the poignantly named Killing Fields, a memorial site at Choeung Ek just south of Phnom Penh. As you walk around this area bones and clothing are still exposed as the rains wash away the top soil.

Moving from the past’s horrific experiences to dietary ones; a 6 hour bus journey to Siem Reap was briefly broken at a place called Skuon. This small town is famous for its local delicacy - deep fried tarantula spiders. No!  I most definitely did not try any.

 

Siem Reap, situated in the north of Cambodia, exists purely as a hotel ‘dormitory town’ for visitors to the Angkor site. We stayed for three days and during that time we only scratched the surface in exploring the area. The ‘Golden Age’ of Angkor extended from roughly the 9th to the mid 15th century. These dates mark the pinnacle of Khmer artistic and cultural achievement. At its peak the Khmer empire extended across all of present day Cambodia, parts of eastern Thailand, southern Laos and the Mekong Delta area of Vietnam. During this period Angkor was home to around a million people; at a time when London would have been a mere fraction of the size.

 

The vast Angkor complex is a short bus journey from Siem Reap. Around 5 to 10 years ago Angkor was relatively un-crowded but today the main temples are busy with large groups of Korean and Japanese tourists. With a little effort it is possible to venture off the beaten track to find tourist-free temples to visit - well rewarded hassle-free photography. The various temples of Angkor were built by successive kings and through the years the capital became more powerful as it expanded its borders. The temple complex is a collection of Buddhist and Hindu monuments embellished with exquisite statues, carvings and bas-reliefs depicting scenes from the great Hindu epic, the Ramayana. In Hindu mythology the holy Mount Meru sits at the centre of the universe and is a five peaked mountain. It is surrounded by six other mountain chains and oceans. This is repeatedly reflected in many temples’ architectural layouts in which moats surround a multi-tiered pyramid which is peaked by five towers. An impressive example of this is the Angkor Wat complex; which is architecturally and artistically breathtaking. It is a massive three-tiered pyramid crowned by five towers rising 65 metres from ground level. Stand in front of this temple and you are in photographic heaven.

 

The temple complex of Angkor Thom is surrounded moats that are 100 metres wide and defensive walls that are 8 metres high. The causeway across the moats is flanked by 108 exquisite carved stone figures. The Bayon Temple is yet another spectacular complex amongst the many here. The galleries of the Bayon temple are a repository for the most remarkable bas reliefs in Angkor; they depict everyday life and highly detailed battle and Hindu mythology scenes. At the top level of the complex, carved from the rock, are a collection of huge mysterious faces with sublime smiles; a sight that truly takes your breath away and in my case they sent my camera into overdrive.

After the collapse of the Khmer empire, in the 15th century, the Angkor complex was reclaimed by the jungle. It remained lost and forgotten to the outside world until 1860 when a French botanist, Henri Mahout, re-discovered it. The temples are in various states of repair; some have been renovated and restored to their former glory whilst others still languish in the grips of the jungle undergrowth. The roots of silk cotton and strangler fig trees are intertwined; splitting apart the temple structures and paradoxically holding the delicate structures together.

 

After our 3 day adventure at the magnificent Angkor complex we caught a flight back to Thailand. We have thirty six hours left in Bangkok, which we shared between visits to more temples and monuments, indulgence in retail therapy and some well earned pampering on the massage table.

 

There ends my grand tour. A magnificent experience! A wonderful way to spend two and a half weeks.

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