Posts Tagged ‘temples’

SOTM World Tour – Cambodia’s Temple History

Friday, February 28th, 2014

Angkor Wat is big. It’s famous. It’s so revered by Cambodians, it’s on the country’s national flag.

But is it any good?

I think it’s ok. It is worth visiting, but not for too long. Bits of it are impressive and as it’s regarded as probably the world’s largest religious structure, it demands respect.

The temple is actually part of the Angkor Archaeological Park, which contains the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire that date from the 9th to the 15th century.

It’s the most famous site on the park, so we stopped there first. But really it’s just a huge temple complex, with many plain parts, and with lots of faded carvings which overwhelm by the sheer force of their numbers and lose their impact the longer you are there.

To give an example of its architectural splendour, Angkor Wat itself has more than 3,000 apsaras, or heavenly nymphs, carved into its walls, each one a unique design. There are 37 different hairstyles shared between them, also.

Now archeologically, that is remarkable. But seriously, how long do you want to stand around, looking at wall carvings? And while each might be unique, the differences are very subtle, so they don’t immediately strike you as individuals. While these are lovely carvings, how massively different do they look?

The carvings are superb, don’t get me wrong. You’ll note the faces of these ones are scratched out – that’s probably because the Khmer Rouge abolished religion and would often deface or behead any Buddhist imagery.

1461721_10153628956845241_1004384247_nAs I said, Angkor Wat is worth looking around for a while. Here’s some of what I saw.

This corridor was covered with carvings, depicting a variety of scenes, and as such this was a good place to linger and take it all in. Here’s a close up.

And here’s some of those lovely nymphs. Hello, ladies…

Here’s the best looking nymph of them all.

It was blisteringly hot that day, so any shady spot was highly desirable. I never noticed this before I posted this first photo, but check out the living Buddha on the left side.

The grounds are worth a quick look, but the best thing about what’s there is that it’s all so big and sprawled out. Otherwise it’s nothing special.


You can get up high in Angkor Wat and check out the view.

575443_10153628966215241_455528629_nWhich looks like this.

And this.

But after an hour, an hour and a half max – push off. There are much better sights to drink in, just down the road.

When we left Angkor Wat, Adventurous Kate and I hopped back into our tuk tuk, driven by the excellent Mr Mean.

Friendly, always laughing and smiling, handing out bottles of chilled water, you’ll struggle to find a nicer chap than Mr Mean.

I liked saying his name a lot, because it was so at odds with his demeanour. (It turns out you pronounce his name Me-An, but he introduced himself as Mr Mean, so it stuck). If you ever go to Siem Reap, visit New Angkorland hotel (a very decent place to stay and quite reasonably priced) and ask for Mr Mean as we booked him through its reception, so they should have his details.

He took us down the road to Bayon, part of the city of Angkor Thom and on the way you pass these fellows on a bridge with a once-grand entrance, making you feel like you’re entering a secretive, lost city which could count King Kong among its residents.

Now this place is more like it – smaller, and largely crumbled, it nevertheless has much more personality than Angkor Wat.

There are carvings here, but not so many that you become blasé about them.

There’s so much charm about this place.

Bayon is a Buddhist temple and has 37 towers, most sporting four carved faces.

1465214_10153628981530241_155999281_nThe many faces to be seen at Bayon are similar, but located in different parts and positions around the temple, making them very photographable. They’re thought to be of Loksvara, Mahayana Buddhism’s compassionate Bodhisattva, or perhaps a combination of Buddha and Jayavarman VII, the king who built the temple.

My money’s on the latter. You know kings and queens and authority figures everywhere – they give, but they like to be recognised for having done so.

1486833_10153628983875241_1211641003_nAfter a spot of lunch, Mr Mean expertly took us to my favourite part of the temple complex, the brilliant Ta Prohm.

I’ve a three-temple maximum, as I’ve previously mentioned in other blog posts. This was the third of the day, the best and one of the most remarkable I’ve ever seen.

1456061_10153628994570241_2080326739_nThis temple complex was abandoned for centuries, and as a result has been overgrown by giant trees, who have dismissed man’s feeble attempts at making a mark on the land, simply pushing their way past mere stone.

1461860_10153629012040241_179151178_nIt now looks like where Indiana Jones would go for a weekend break, and actually the first Tomb Raider movie was filmed here. Closest I’ll ever get to Angelina Jolie, probably, although I did used to live on the road where Lara Croft and her game was created, in Derby.   

Someone should tell the CIA that the FBI are now running overseas operations. And on a tight budget, clearly.

The place is quite eerie.

1497452_10153629002245241_1159445123_n

It made me wonder, again, what the world would look like if human life vanished from it.

These roots were so big, they now have to be supported.

I spotted this woman having her picture taken in one of the roots. This is clearly a theme of hers, but whatever it is, that dinosaur is quality.

What remains of the inside of the temple still has much to offer.

1456793_10153628999755241_91411417_nHere’s another Buddha to be found inside Ta Prohm.

Finally, Mr Mean took us to Banteay Kdei, a monastic complex which is in poor repair but is slowly being restored. Now this did break my three-temple rule, but despite feeling a touch of temple fatigue, I enjoyed seeing this one also.

The late afternoon light played happily with what is left of this mainly ruined site, and made for some interesting shapes.


This site may be ruined but it’s still worth a visit.

This kid was curious to see what was in the Big Blue Box parked near the temple’s entrance, but sadly for him there didn’t seem to be anything in there.

While inside we came across this Buddhist shrine. I was told that the Buddha’s head is new, because the Khmer Rouge beheaded it and destroyed the original.

The nun you see here gave Kate and I a blessing and tied coloured string round our wrists. I wondered if they’d last the week, but more than a month later, it’s still on both our wrists!

So if you go on the hunt for Cambodia’s temples, these are four that you should definitely check out, and you can do them in less than a day.

Finally, as we left Banteay Kdei, I bought a Coke for Kate, Mr Mean and me. The woman who sold them was a charmer – look at that smile!

That’s all for my time in fascinating, if occasionally frustrating Cambodia.

SOTM World Tour – Chiang Mai and Pai

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

995008_10153694685995241_2112312177_nChiang Mai proved memorable for two reasons.

Firstly, it’s the closest thing Thailand gets to being trendy in the Western sense, at least. It’s got American-themed burger joints, cute cafes run by Americans, sports bars that show Premier League football, and places to hang out in and listen to live blues or jazz.

Chiang Mai is the cool, trendy kid at school, the one with the best trainers who doesn’t have spots and gets the latest gadget the same day it’s released. But it’s also friendly, lets you come round and borrow its computer games, and makes you wish you were cooler, so you could have an excuse to spend more time together.

Secondly, it’s got great temples, but while we did do a bit of temple-hopping, we didn’t do too much. My three-temple maximum depends on how many days the temples are seen over, and how long we spend in each one. And, as I’m interested in Buddhism, whether or not Buddha is the main feature of the temple in question.

The highlight of Chiang Mai’s temples is the remarkable Wat Phra That which is located near the top of the mountain known as Doi Suthep. Consequently, people often call the temple Doi Suthep also. The top image was taken there.

Its location is interesting – among the many legends attached to this place, the strongest one is that a white elephant was given a religious relic to carry. It then walked up to this lofty spot, trumpeted three times, and died. The temple was built on the spot where it passed away.

You get up to it via a twisty, windy songtao taxi ride, and then you have to make the final part yourself, via the Naga Serpent Staircase.

The serpents look like this.

And the 300 steps they flank each side are like this.

At the very bottom I went back for a closer shot of these girls.

At the top is a fairly small area stuffed with gold-coloured Buddhas and other religious symbols. This stupa dominates the skyline.

There’s so much to look at, it’s quite overwhelming at times.

1506059_10153694592730241_1866804112_nThese bells are commonplace, and it seems as though you can write your name on the hearts that dangle from them. A variation on the theme of love locks, I suppose

People frequently make candle offerings and pray at various points around the temple.

1530389_10153694691380241_2130669176_nAnd you can be blessed by a monk in at least a couple of the smaller temple buildings on this site. My nephew Thaisaac, (Thai-Isaac, geddit?) who was still on his odyssey in Thailand with us at this point, and we were both blessed by another monk.

I grabbed a hip-height and therefore blind photo of this blessing. These people had bought a basket of goods from inside the door, and offered it to the monk, who then blessed them. Note the monk’s many tattoos.

1509059_10153694593680241_1620425049_nSpeaking of monks, we spotted them often, of course. Whether it was doing their daily chores…

996092_10153694566795241_317958591_n…or conducting their daily prayers, which I captured using my iPhone…

…or readjusting their robes…

1545865_10153694533480241_1118502188_n… or chatting to skinny white boys, they were everywhere, as you would expect.

1470249_10153576652560241_57563880_nThis chap gave an interesting insight into the life of a monk, at something called a “monk chat” where anyone can come do as the title suggests. The holy men get to practice their English and the foreigners who attend get an insight into monastery life. Several monasteries do this, apparently.

Our monk told us that he didn’t have all the answers to Buddhism, so he entered the monkhood to try and learn them. “I’m still learning,” he said.

He also said he shaved his head once a month, didn’t eat after noon, went to bed early and got up very early in the morning to pray, and missed being able to play sports, which he did prior to his life as a monk.

Disturbingly, he also told me that while on a trip to London, he’d visited the Emirates football stadium, and therefore supported Arsenal. I fear for his chances of enlightenment with allegiances like that.

Here’s more monks at prayer in one of Chiang Mai’s many temples. They are worth a look because they’re small and very beautiful, crammed with ornate decorations but you can be done with one in about 15 mins, so temple fatigue won’t set in too quickly.

Another site worth seeing in Chiang Mai is Wat Chedi Luang.

1530460_10153694538055241_829827194_n

It’s ruined, but still worth a look and there’s some Buddhist items of  interest around its periphery.

This was my favourite – an image of Tan Pra Maha Kajjana who was a monk so handsome that people mistook him for Lord Buddha. Once, an enlightened monk became corrupted because of thoughts he had upon seeing Tan Pra Maha Kajjana.

To stop all the trouble he was causing for being too handsome, our hero turned himself into a fatter, uglier monk so that no-one would fancy him.

Here he is, post transformation. I think he looks rather jolly.

While at Wat Chedi Luang, I saw a series of beautiful golden Thai Buddhas gleaming in the sun.

But I was more taken with the shadows they were casting, and I’m mindful of the fact that you can keep taking pictures of Buddha until the day you achieve enlightenment. It’s worth trying to think of different ways to photograph a similar subject. I liked how this one turned out.

Chiang Mai is also famed for its markets. Here’s Thaisaac and I at one, in which we bought some Christmas goodies for the folks back in England.

1557520_10153694699685241_1172688202_nAnd I managed to get some SOTM action in there as well, thanks to the excellent Michael Dewey, who blogs as Wanderlust Mike.

An American living in Thailand, he organised a meet up at the Focus Gallery, a coffee shop and bar, which was well attended. Thaisaac and I set about the crowd and we got a number of shots between us.

Here’s Michael’s SOTM.

31122013After Chiang Mai, we popped briefly to Pai. This was via the notorious 762 curves that the minibus you take has to negotiate on the journey from Chaing Mai.

This is during the two-and-a-half hour journey, so it’s a lot in a short space of time. Thaisaac was worried about yakking in the bus, but we were all fine, except for one lady who threw up in a bag.

Apparently, there’s always one.

When in Pai we hired motorbikes. Thaisaac was a bit wobbly at first, understandably, but the roads around Pai are good quality and quiet, so we were all able to ride around safely.

I’d never driven a bike myself until I was on Koh Lanta island a few weeks ago, but since then have fallen in love with two wheels, having never been much of a fan of bicycles. I now dream of getting a red Vespa when back in England.

While in Chiang Mai we met fellow travellers Josh Haftel and his lovely wife Natasha. Josh is a tour de force, and with the best beard this side of the Mississippi. His story comes from his time at the Burning Man festival, held in the Nevada desert.

I must also mention the trip Thaisaac and I took to the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai. It rescues and cares for elephants who are often abused by their owners.

There is nothing, quite nothing like seeing a happy elephant.

1521421_10153707330765241_2000555735_nWell, would you want the job of scratching an elephant’s inner thigh?

This baby was hugely entertained by this loop of cord.

1525072_10153707162065241_1649450966_nThis is one of the elephant mahouts. Each one has a human assigned to it, and they spend all day with their animal, keeping it out of trouble. Occasionally, however, the elephants get rumbustious and the mahouts bear the brunt of this.

One had just been put in hospital for two days after it was thrown about by its elephant.

This chap was carving out an elephant as a group of them frolicked about nearby.

While babies always stick close to their protective mums, they also have aunties, other female elephants, who keep a close eye on the little ones. I mean little in the elephantine sense, of course.

1526910_10153707166305241_1462027427_nElephants eat a lot.

1535393_10153707171340241_2075628184_nWe got to feed them ourselves, and it was oddly addictive to have their nimble, fast, wet-ended trunks snuffle around your hands and whisk the fruit chunks away.

One part of our visit saw us wash the elephants in the river by chucking buckets of water over them. They seemed to love it and we certainly did.

1549279_10153707230790241_1227808019_n

1551609_10153707290690241_1642943795_nAnd finally – while in Pai Kate and I finally did something we’ve joked about for a while. The Korean Thing.

You see, in South Korea couples who have been dating for 100 days are allowed to dress the same. And I mean the same – exactly matching outfits. Shops will even sell his ‘n’ hers t-shirts, trousers, shoes etc. It’s taken very seriously and only after 100 days would a couple be ready to take this next important step in their relationship.

Pai seems to have cottoned on to this, for some reason. Maybe it’s not just a South Korean thing, although I was led to believe it was. But in Pai you can also buy his ‘n’ hers t-shirts.

So Kate and I bought a couple, which don’t exactly fit us but what the hell. Best 500 baht we’ve ever spent.

That’s all for this time. Next time I’ll do a round up of my time on some of the Thai islands, which includes time with Swedish girls, happy dogs, cheerful cats and beautiful sunsets.

SOTM World Tour – Japan

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

DSC_0279Our arrival in the land of the rising sun was delayed a little after the China Eastern Airways plane we were on broke down in Kunming.

This left us stranded for 24 hours in China, but the airline put us up overnight and a day later than planned, we were in Tokyo, baby.

Japan quickly became one of my favourite countries, and Tokyo one of my favourite cities. There, I’ve said it. The landscape is everything you expect it to be – Bladerunner without the pollution or missing simulants.

DSC_0039The environment is spotless – while you frequently struggle to find a bin, you’ll find it harder to spot discarded rubbish in the street. Just doesn’t happen. I recall being in Seoul and seeing a young guy there toss his cigarette packet wrapper into the road, and thinking how that would never happen in Japan.

Also, people there bow. A lot. I mean, really often. If you buy something from a convenience store, the chap might well bow to you. There were department stores we popped into and there would be a fellow by the door, greeting us in Japanese and bowing. Seemed to be the main part of his job.

The society is as painstakingly polite as you expect it to be. And it’s also not massively tall – hence I banged my noggin every day I was there. On doors, buses, trains, roofs. Once I drew blood and saw stars, I cracked it that hard on a door-closing mechanism. No wonder I don’t have any hair.

One of the highlights of the city is the fascinating Shibuya crossing, a series of giant zebra-coloured paths in the beating heart of Tokyo, mimicked by the recently revamped crossing at Oxford Circus in London.

DSC_0248If you want to people watch as they scurry from one side of the thundering traffic to the other, then this is the place to be.

DSC_0057Just around the corner we had incredibly tasty noodles in soup, and the chap serving us agreed to pose for me. I really like this image, not least because I was keen to capture his wellies and feel like I got something of his personality in the shot as well.

DSC_0319Kate and I were both quickly taken with the amount of vending machines dotted about the place – while we disappointingly didn’t see any knickers on sale, which I’m told is true but never managed to verify for myself, there were drinks available everywhere.

In the record heat that Japan was experiencing during our stay, those easily available beverages came as both a relief and necessity.

DSC_0004After a few days we popped over to Kyoto on a train which cost more than many of the flights we’ve taken so far on this trip. Eye-watering.

Having said that, it afforded more leg room than any transportation I’ve ever been on and departed/arrived at the exact minutes it was supposed to, despite those times being some hours apart.

Kyoto is a splendid city, and while the amount of temple-hopping we did in Japan made me introduce a three-temple maximum in any city, the ones we saw will linger long in my memory.

I’ll also never forget the 100 degree heat in which we sweltered. Apparently it even reached 103 in Japan when we were in Tokyo, a record for the country’s recorded temperature history. Bet those vending machines were doing a roaring trade.

The Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji, is a delight. On a brutally hot day, it appeared before us even brighter than the sun.

DSC_0187You can pay your respects by leaving incense at one of the temples at the Golden Pavilion’s complex.

DSC_0217But my favourite temple was the leafy Daitokuji complex of temples.

One of them in particular was silent, its thick foliage fought bravely against the invading waves of heat, and it was everything I wanted a temple to be – small, intimate, thoughtful.

DSC_0347It was such a relief to be in a cool garden that day, with the temperatures again close to triple figures.

DSC_0468This large water bowl was brought over from Korea.

DSC_0360And if you look round temples in Japan, you’ll frequently find spruce cemeteries which are very reverential to those who have passed away.

DSC_0375These chaps look old but are still clearly used in rituals by relatives of the dead.

DSC_0380While in Kyoto I was put in touch with the charming Fumi, a very sweet lady who made very excited noises when I told her I worked for the BBC, doing no harm to my ego at all.

It was, as she explained in her SOTM story, her dream to live in Kyoto, even if her friends queried her decision.

While we were in Kyoto, Kate and I made friends with a charming couple, the lovely Miu and dashing Micheál. They helped out with a couple of Japanese SOTMs that I picked up in a bar they took us to, and they also posed for their own. Micheál chose a very thoughtful story, and this is Miu’s photo.

05092013As always with any SOTM photo on this blog, click on it to see the original post and see the story behind those words (and the translation).

Kyoto is a charming city, quite like a dream.

DSC_0392Now for one of the highlights of our trip, a rather fishy experience.

Miu and Mike took us to a seafood restaurant which had all manner of creatures slithering around in tubs and buckets. I felt like I was Sebastian Crustacean at one point.

Then, it turns out we had ringside seats for a mahoosive tuna that was due to be carved up by a chap who apparently is a bit of a celebrity chef.

Here he is – and check out the guy’s face bottom left. Maybe he thought tuna slices are born in a can.

DSC_0511The chef really made a show of cutting up that fishy beast, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

tuna2The monster from the deep was hoisted onto the table by these two chaps. Apparently it was worth about 1 million yen (£6,300, $10,000).

tuna1Expose a giant tuna to a chef’s cleaver…

tuna4…and this is what happens.

tuna3But this wasn’t the only thing I ate that night. Oh no. We all got given what’s known out there as Japanese turban shells, also called the horned turban, a species of sea snail. I ate mine, despite it not looking exactly like all the others served to our table, raising both my suspicions and alarm.

Mine was longer, greener, and looked even more alien than the other examples of how this unusual creature usually appears. In eating it, I felt quite like I was doing something to an extra terrestrial’s nether regions which I’d certainly regret in the morning. But down the hatch it went.

I can only describe its taste as “of the sea”. This photo further explains what I thought of the whole experience.

foodDuring all the evening’s palaver, especially when the chef was wielding his expert cleaver, there was a table of young women who were as impeccably dressed as you’d expect – Japanese women begin the most fashion conscious, and attractive, in the whole world. Seriously.

These ladies loved having their picture taken and posed every time I took a shot. The chef also played up to them and gave them slivers of fresh tuna, which he also did us (as the only token foreigners in the joint).

Finally I got in on the action myself. They all squealed when I sat down and posed with them, and I definitely think I was in there (Kate nodded sympathetically when I told her this).

girlsAfter that we popped off to Kobe, as Kate was insistent that we try the Kobe beef. There didn’t seem to be much else going on in this town, at least in the short time we were there, but we queued for a place which served beef that has since hit top spot on the list of “Best Things I’ve Ever Put In My Mouth”.

beefAside from drooling over this delicious dish, I discovered something interesting about Kobe beef. I’d been told by a number of people that one of the main reasons it is so good is that the cows are fed alcohol, are massaged and are played soothing music.

Aside from hearing it on occasion myself, I recently heard this from two travel bloggers, one of which was informed by a Japanese man who was “a serious foodie”, lending it some credibility.

But frankly I doubted this theory – if that’s all there was to it, why weren’t farmers in East Anglia employing the same methods? So I looked it up.

After about four minutes of searching I found the official Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association, which oversees the export of Kobe beef around the world.

It has a Q&A dispelling all those techniques as pretty much a myth, very rarely executed and certainly insignificant to the quality of their cows’  meat. The real reason for the meat’s legendary quality is actually down to years of careful cross-breeding.

Chalk that one up under “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”.

We also went to Osaka, which is incredibly futuristic in its appearance and fascinating to stroll through.

DSC_0718Its streets are a maze that you’ll really want to get lost in.

DSC_0745When the sun sets, the neon signs come out to play.

DSC_0771This woman’s expression captures the essence of Osaka. I don’t know what caused her to raise her hand to her mouth, but it might be the light-bulging splendour of the city’s fluorescence. It really does look like a post-apocalyptic metropolis designed by Psy.

DSC_0782Speaking of which, I think I found his brother.

signAfterwards we headed back to Tokyo one more time, until our departure. It was during this time that we found my favourite part of Japan – a tiny splodge of narrow streets called Golden Gai, which is home to around 250 tiny bars. And I mean three-to-six seat tiny.

DSC_0874The doorways are like a lucky dip – you really don’t know what you’re going to find out behind each one.

There’s a bit of a steep cover charge for most of the places, and some are local joints for local people, but it’s definitely foreigner friendly. We ended up in an American-themed bar run by Captain Ken, who loved Americana.

With Kate suddenly the celebrity guest, we toasted America and Shinji Kagawa, the Japanese footballer who plays for Manchester United and is a big star in his home country.

I loved Golden Gai. It’s clean but shabby, chic, cramped, like a work of art that sells booze. So much is crammed into this small labyrinthine spot that you could return again and again and still find something, or someone, new each time.

DSC_0954After Japan we went to South Korea, where I had an encounter with some schoolgirls. I don’t mean that in an Operation Yewtree kind of way.

Find out more next time.