Five Nights in Bangkok

Bangkok, Oriental Setting…

We spent five nights in this fascinating city in April.  Our travel plans have moved so fast and furious that I have not yet posted any photos from the Thai capital.  This was a business destination for Andy but we still managed to see a few highlights as a family.

A View of the Grand Palace

I was last in Bangkok fourteen years ago. The city had been my first Asian destination.  I remember the streets being so crowded with cars, tuk tuks and even an occasional elephant.  Now the city has more public transportation, a flashy monorail zooms overhead Louis Vuitton stores.  The traffic is still thick but there as fewer tuk tuks, and no elephants were seen.

The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew are a highlight of any trip to Bangkok.  They were beautiful in 1998 but appeared more stunning this recent trip.  Certainly as Thailand has gained wealth, some of the money has gone towards restoring the beautiful landmarks, paintings and mosaics.  It is also likely the scorching 104 degree day with fantastically blue sky helped add a glisten to everything.

The Emerald Buddha  in Wat Phra Kaew is the most revered Buddha in Thailand.  Despite its name it is actually made of a form of jade.  It was under scaffolding during my last visit, so I was happy to see it beautifully displayed now.

There are many wonderful details around the complex.

We had a fantastic guide hired at the entrance of the palace grounds.  He would tell the children facts they appreciated about the structures.  Did you know this is a good demon?  You can tell because he is wearing a ring.

Sydney loved the paintings and the story of the Ramakian.  What 2-year-old is not moved by epics involving princess and monkey gods?

Here our guide instructs us how to sprinkle water on our heads with a lotus flower before entering the Wat.

Bangkok is famous for it debauchery and nightlife but I find the people overall very devout.  Many boys spend time as Buddhist monks.  The saffron robes are beautiful and easily visible throughout the city.  

The women are known for their beauty and it is not lost on Aidan.  The dreamy look in his eyes is priceless.  I night be tempted to blame it on mild dehydration from the insanely hot day but I know my son better… I am in serious trouble when he is a teenager.

The grand palace was a stunningly wonderful introduction to Bangkok.  Another time I will share what we did on the other days…

Nikoi Island: Paradise So Close That Feels So Far Away

We have travelled often during our time in Asia and it is difficult for me to choose a favorite destination.  One place that was fantastically beautiful and relaxing lies just 53 miles southeast of Singapore- Nikoi Island, Indonesia.

The island is small only 42-acres in total or in “Nikoi-time”, a 15 minute walk for side-to-side.  It is privately owned and there are only 15 “rooms” – all open-air bungalows.  It is reached by a boat from Bintan Island, Indonesia, which is easy to get to from Singapore by a ferry service.

The resort is an eco-lodge with bungalows that are constructed with driftwood and there is no air-conditioning.  It is also very quiet.  When we arrived, I asked for a key to the room and the staff told me keys are not needed on Nikoi. Wow! Here are some photos of our place which was Bungalow #15.

The resort was very “kid-friendly”.  Many fellow travelers had children.  There were two dining areas one for those with families and one for couples only.  I loved not having to worry about my kids’ antics ruining someone’s romantic night out.  Every night dining featured one set menu of whatever was fresh and local.  

Beautiful Pink Dragon Fruit

One lunch the preschool crowd tumbled around the tables.  Sydney was the ringleader and ended up covered with sand after her adventures.

The pool area had a friendly staff that always provided bananas.  Sydney amused everyone by the amount she could polish off herself. I guess acting like a monkey inspires a similar appetite.

The bar nightly screened a movie for the children while the parents relaxed.  The kids loved Alvin and the Chipmunks and Andy and I liked the quiet time.

Aidan “Jams” with the Bar Band

The island teems with natural beauty and wildlife.

The water was so clear and snorkeling was easy right off the beach.  Aidan was a thrill to watch snorkeling for the first time.  We saw many fish, coral and even a small jellyfish.

We heard a group of Americans rented the entire island the week before we arrived.  How amazing would this place be for a group of friends and family to spend time together!  Hmmm… I do have a big birthday coming up this fall  (hint Andy).  Alas, come next week I will be so far away from this little paradise.   A woman can dream though, can’t she?

Hanging With the Natives on Bali

One day we hired a guide to show us some interesting highlights of central Bali. The first stop was the Taro Elephant Safari Park. This was a hit with the kids, especially Sydney, who has wanted to ride an elephant for months.

We were able to get up close and personal with the pachyderms.

The kids loved to feed this guy. However, he was quite picky and would refuse all but the freshest pieces of bamboo.

Of course the highlight was actually riding on an elephant. Sydney and I sat high atop “Boris.” Andy and Aidan rode the spunkier “Ramona” who stopped a few times for greenery along the trail.

After our safari it was time to see some temples. We stopped at a small lovely place near Taro.

Religion permeates every aspect of Bali life. Offerings are given frequently and everywhere I found myself taking care everywhere not to accidentaly step on them.

Sarongs are worn to honor the religion even by foreigners. Sydney looks very peaceful at this moment in hers.

Aidan who as a child technically did not have to wear the clothing kept asking Andy why he was wearing a “skirt.” We reminded him it was a “sarong,” but I am not sure he appreciated the difference.

Aidan was hungry and short of patience for temple sights so we headed to our next stop the famous suckling pig restaurant of Ubud.

Pigs have been roasting daily here for years. You must get there early or the best cracklin’ is gone.

The food is delivered in a traditional way.

A short walk down the streets of Ubud led us to the aptly named Monkey Forest.

The monkeys were rascally and would steal objects so you had to hold tight to your belongings.

Visitors were not to feed the monkey unless directed by the staff. We were given some bread and taught the proper technique – hold your hand with bread above your head with a startled child by your side.

We enjoyed our outing so much. Unfortunately, we were so relaxed in Bali it has been hard to break our lazy habits. Poor Andy who works the hardest is still trying to get this monkey off his back :).

Trains, Tuna and “Two-Tots” in Tokyo

Traveling with children adds many new variables to any journey. Of course there are challenges, but there are also lots of rewards.  Some of my favorite times are when the kids become very excited about the journey.

Aidan has loved the thought of traveling to Japan for months.  He adores sushi and trains.  Japan happens to be famous for both and that is enough for him to consider it the “promised land”!  Andy and I were actually anxious about having the country live up to his high expectations.   Where to begin the adventure?  We chose to head to the place where most sushi starts-the Tsukiji Central Fish Market.

If it lives in the sea it is probably for sale here.

Scallops

Shrimp

Sea Cucumbers

Tuna

They actually don’t just sell tuna sell a multitude of cuts and grades.

The main warehouse market is lively and chaotic.  About 2000 tons of fish and seafood, worth US$18.5 million is sold here daily which amounts to US $5 Billion annually.  There are vehicles buzzing about moving heavy tanks so it is potentially a dangerous place.  Young children in strollers are not allowed so Sydney and I waited outside while Andy and Aidan took a quick look.   Fortunately there is plenty to see in the area surrounding the busier main market.

Baskets of small dried shrimp and krill

Wasabi

We even saw a small parade with beautifully dress women in kimonos…

And the most adorable fisherwoman ever.  She made a nice catch.

All of the touring made us hungry.  We of course had to sample the wares.

After the market tour, we took a train to nearby Ginza.  The subway was exciting in and of itself but when we exited the Sony building there was a surprise which could not have been more perfect for a train-obsessed preschooler.

A whole area of Thomas trains!  We honestly had no idea this was here and there was no better ending for a first morning in Tokyo for Aidan.

He literally jumped up and down and shouted “I Love Japan!”  Yes these are the times that make traveling with children truly special.

Angkor Thom: Ancient Khmer Capital

On our last day we toured the spectacular Angkor Thom whose name translates into the “Great City”.  This last and most enduring capital of the Khmer empire lies about a mile from Angkor Wat on the right bank of the Siem Reap river.

The city was heavily guarded, fortified by a moat, wide embankment for solders and guard towers. Enclosed were the residences and administrative centers of the priest, palace officials and military. The first sight as we approached  Angkor Thom was the  imposing face of the 75 foot high tower gate.

The bridge is still a very functional entrance for an assortment of transportation vehicles be it tuk tuk…

or other…

Angkor Thom was first founded in 899 but a majority of the structures were constructed by Jayavarman VII who reigned from 1181 to 1220.  He was also the ruler who built Ta Prohm which I explored in the previous “tree temple” post.   Andy called this man the “Cambodian Donald Trump” which given the amount of buildings attributed to him seems accurate.

The ornately decorated Bayan was the official state temple and stands in the center of Angkor Thom.  From a far it looks chaotic especially when compared to the stately and symmetrical Angkor Wat.

Once a top the terraces the beauty of the Bayon expresses itself magnificently.  Especially impressive are the stone faces that look out in each direction from the towers in all there were 216 present.

In a Playful Moment Aidan Goes "Nose to Nose" with one of the Ancient Men

The temple was originally dedicated as a Mahayana Buddhist shrine, later rulers altered it to Hinduism and later back to Theravada Buddhist before being abandoned back into the jungle.  Today there is again some evidence of its religious importance.

This shrine was in a corridor of the Bayon

This impressive Buddha was located adjacent to the temple

The Baphuon is a temple located northwest of the Bayon.  It was built in the mid-11th century not by  “J VII” but by another ruler whose building style was not as sturdy.  By the 20th century most of the structure had collapsed but in April 2011 after 51 years it was reopened.  Unfortunately it was deemed to steep for children under 12 so we viewed it from afar.

However, nearby was Phimeanakas which was also quite steep but deemed accessible for adventurous 5 year old boys.  Aidan was more than happy to climb to the top while poor Sydney had to look on enviously from below. Legend has it that the King had to lie with Nagini, the girl with a serpents body, every night in this temple before going to his wives and concubines.  If he failed to perform this duty even one night the kingdom was doomed.  Hmmm-maybe that is why Andy offered to trek to the top while the girls stayed below…

Allegedly the view from the top...no oversexed Serpent Ladies

Sydney would scream with delight at each passing pachyderm…

I preferred the stoic Elephant Terrace with its spectacular carvings.

At the end of our tour we finally took a photo with all four of us.  Usually the photographer is left out.

Once again the vastness, expanse and intricacies of the Angkor Complex are overwhelming and stunning.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the most famous complex in the Angkor Archaeological Park which stretches over a massive 150 square mile area.  The temple was built but the Khmers or the traditional people of Cambodia for king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century.   A remarkable amount of the structure remains 900 years later.  Partially due to its importance  to Khmer people and also because of its surrounding  moat which provided some protection from the encroachment of the jungle.

We did not take this photo but I think it shows the complex well

Angkor Wat – the “Capital Temple” – is so much a part of Cambodia that it has been on every version of the Cambodian flag since 1863, the only building to appear on any national flag.

The temple was originally Hindu dedicated to the god VIshnu.  Later it was converted to Theravada Buddhism which continues to the present day.  The statues show elements of both religions.

The structures up close are wondrous.

The carvings are intricate and beautiful.

Ok some of the carvings are interesting and a little frightening.

Tourism is relatively new in Angkor.  The area was given World Heritage Site designation by UNESCO in 1992.  However throughout the 1990’s lodging options were very limited and it was still very dangerous to visit.  As recently as 1994, a western tourist was killed by a presumed Khmer Rouge member near the Wat.

A Man Sells Goods Around the Temples Periphery

Today things are very different over 2 million people visit annually and besides the shouting of tour guides it is a very serene peaceful place.

Aidan Plays in the Dirt by Onlookers Watching the Sunrise

When the view is so beautiful I do not think you can keep people away.

I just hope the preservation can be done in a way to sustain this view for the next millenia and beyond.

Holiday in Cambodia?

When Andy and I travelled to Thailand in 1998, we first saw a few advertisements for trips to Cambodia. The country, which was so decimated by civil war and genocide in the 1970’s, received a UNESCO world heritage designation for Angkor Wat in 1992 and with the help of outside aid the temples were being restored. For fourteen years, Andy has been fascinated by the possibility of seeing the structures in person. The flight to Siem Reap, the now developed tourist town near the wat, happens to be less than 2 hours from Singapore. Travel to Cambodia was planned soon after our Singapore tickets were booked.

I must admit I was very apprehensive about our journey. Cambodia holds a infamous place in very recent history. The Khmer Rouge’s insane desire to take the country back to “year one” which they deemed a time before any Western influence killed 20% of the population or about 2 million people between 1975 and 1979. The targets were first anyone with education, teachers, doctor and even those with eyeglasses (they assumed this made you literate) then they moved on to just about everyone else. The country is still one of the poorest in the world. The Angkor Wat looked beautiful but did I really want to take two small children there.

Recently I did begin to notice many positive reasons to visit. Many people in Singapore had been and had wonderful things to say about their time in Cambodia. Travel and Leisure magazine last July ranked Siem Reap as one of the “World’s Best Cities”. It was in fact ranked seventh which is one spot above my all time favorite city Sydney. I did a bit more reading and my apprehension faded.

My experiences in Cambodia will take a few posts to document but I want to share some of my impressions.   Cambodia, at least in Siem Reap, is easier to navigate than other developing nations I have visited.  The infrastructure is very good.  There are wonderful restaurants with English menus and fabulous food.

Travel is strikingly inexpensive. This reflects the general low wages of the citizens.  Many Cambodians live off of $1 income  a day.  Our guide said that as an English teacher in a respected high school five years ago he earned only $80 a month. Tuk-tuks which are a motorcycle pulling a rickshaw are a popular form of transportation. A ride to town five to ten minutes away costs $2. The driver will wait the two hours while you eat dinner and then drive you back. If you give him $5 he is very pleased. The kids loved the tuk-tuks. Sydney would protest when we had to ride in a car.

When traveling around it was striking how few elderly people I saw.  This was confirmed when I read that 70% of the population was born after the Khmer Rouge lost power in 1979. As of 2010 the life expectancy for a woman is 65 years old. This may not sound great but as recently as 1999 it was only 46!

Modes of transportation like this does not help the mortality rate.

There were many children but very few that have blue eyes so our kids once again became celebrities. At a store near our hotel where we often went to buy juice, Aidan was so fawned over and kissed by the lovely young Cambodian women that you could have inserted George Clooney and never know the difference. They were also popular photo accessories at the temples.  I think this is a role they could get way to used to.

There are few visible remnants of the civil wars. Most notably there were a few victims of land mines asking for money. On a more positive note, we encountered a group of amputees playing beautiful music for their cause. Sydney and Aidan danced and did not seem to notice their injuries. Our guide told us an estimate 10 million land mines were likely installed of which 4 million have not yet been found.

I kept looking for bitterness in the people about what they had been through but all I saw were smiles. I am certain some scars run very deep.  There is finally now a tribunal in place to attempt to bring some healing to the Cambodian people. Ironically the first and only man who has been convicted had his sentence extended from 30 years with 13 of them already served to life. The appealed decision was handed down the day after we arrived. This man/monster oversaw the S-21 detention center in Phnom Penh where an estimated 17,000 people went in and only 12 survived. Justice for Cambodia seems to be slow but at least there are some visible signs.

The Khmer Rouge attempted to abolish religion but today 95% of the population currently practices Theravada Buddhism.  We saw sign of this throughout our travels.

I have to give a special thanks to the kindness of the staff at the Le Meridian hotel where we stayed. The general manager Gregory personally sat with us for at least a half hour upon our arrival and gave us tips for enjoying our stay. He had a seven year old son and was especially cognizant of what young children might enjoy. Three days later when my daughter, who still cannot stop putting everything in her mouth, developed an inevitable case of vomiting and diarrhea I called him to find out if medical was available if she became dehydrated. He told me if she needed care there is a wonderful hospital ten minutes away run by a world class Bangkok group. He would personally drive us there if needed. In the meantime the staff laundered our clothes at no cost and returned them in two hours. The chef sent broth and toast and the housekeepers helped me throughout the night with bed changes. Fortunately she improved and we did not need medical help but the reassurance it was there was comforting.

Sometimes in Life You Have to Jump In

Overall our stay was a wonderful experience. I will tease you with a bit of beauty from Angkor Wat but the remaining photos will be posted another time soon.

Sunrise Over Angkor Wat