More on toilets!

  I can’t resist- there is so much weirdness and we encounter it every day!

Most toilets we see, like the one in our apartment, are Western-type with a hand-held nozzle in place of toilet paper. In public places, like a bus station, there are some squatties as well.  

 Oooh- a squattie with a flush!

Of course, squatties are the norm for a lot of people around here, which is why an explanation of western toilets is necessary (see first photo above). If you squat on a western toilet, things may not end well for either of you. Don’t be like this poor hippo! 

 At the other extreme, at a particularly fancy mall we frequent called Terminal 21, there are the Japan-style automated toilets which have more options than one would think possible for this most basic of human acts. 

   
I embraced the Japanese-type toilet experience until an unfortunate interaction with one over enthusiastic bidet, which I rather felt should have taken me to dinner and had my consent beforehand-ahem-it was then I decided it was time to go back to good old toilet paper.  

 Toilet paper, of course, is not always available, or (see above) free. We try to bring it with us. 

Now check this out:

 In other toilet news, we have had the honor of using the Best Public Toilet of the Year (2012)! You can’t say we didn’t take advantage of the best Bangkok has to offer. The Terminal 21 mall is where we saw this commemorative plaque and it really does have amazing restrooms! There is at least one on each floor of the multistory, travel-themed mall and each has a theme such as a rainforest, Americana, glamor:

 Or public transportation: 
 Or fishing: 

 The view out the giant window from the fishing bathroom:  
These are really over the top. There are bathroom attendants, too, who I swear clean each toilet after each use. BTW, there is an amazing, budget food court at this mall as well, so between that and the bathrooms, it’s like a second home. We eat and pee there frequently and with enthusiasm.

*addendum: I am proud to say that during our last few days in Bangkok, we found the time to visit every bathroom at terminal 21. I highly recommend this unusual, self-guided, free activity! Several, including the Istanbul, Caribbean, and Japanese pop art ones, I had not seen. We all agreed that the Roman one-complete with statues, marble columns, and a massive circular hand washing sink- was most impressive!

Bangkachao, Pra Padaeng District, Thailand, January 2016

  The lung of Bangkok? Yes please! We spent a day in Bangkachao, as seen by NASA about a year ago here. I had heard of it, but only through kinda pricey bike tour companies that charge for bike rental and a guide. We did it on our own and I wanted to write this stuff down so it’s easier for others to check out this delightful green space just across the river from bustling Bangkok.  

  The hardest part was getting to the Bangkok pier. The taxi driver wanted to drive us all the way to the area, which is unnecessary and less fun. The bike rental place wrote this for me to show the taxi driver “next time”. 

 Also, here is a map with pier shown: 

 There are bike rental places on both sides of the river. There are also other piers to reach Bangkachao, but I believe this was closest for us. We took a taxi from the Phra Kanong BTS station to the Khlong Toey Pier. From there, we took these long tail boats across the Chao Phraya River.  

  

  

 Once there, we rented these adorable, sturdy bikes from a small rental place that had only been open 3 months and was eager for our business.  They even loaned us baseball caps since we had forgotten ours. Oh, no helmets were available BTW.

 Bikes were just 90 baht ($2.51) per day. The Bangkok bike tour places charge 700-900 baht per person for a guided 3-hour tour, so this worked better for us.

 
   

We headed off onto small roads with almost no car traffic. 

   
There are wats to see, and something called a fighting fish gallery but we mostly just biked along, enjoying the quiet, green surroundings. We stopped at this lovely park, Sri Nakhon Khueankhon Park:

 

The paths here were even nicer than the ones outside the park. There were bridges and wooden walkways, and this amazing  Nipa Palm everywhere. Apparently it has many uses for food, roof material, and fencing.

    
 

We also checked out the birds from this viewing platform.  

   
The bird songs were a wonderful background to our day. 

Following a random path, the kids found this little barge to cross a small river: wow!!

    
 We had an excellent lunch out of someone’s garage, or so it seemed.    It was a mom-and-pop place which seemed delighted to see us. Thais in general love kids, and our friend K, 11, is half Thai and fluent in the language, so with all 5 kids we got a lot of love!

   There were a few homey little places like this for lunch. It was a weekday, so some things- such as the floating market- were not open. It was a quiet, sleepy little area with people waving to us now and then as we biked along.

 We biked to the other end of the area and found another pier, this one with a larger ferry and larger bike rental shop. 

   

Not too far from there was the eco-hotel we kept hearing about, the Treehouse. It really is a neat design. 

    
 After that, we went back to the pier. We went down a few of the elevated cement pathways we had been seeing. 

  

Some are a little scary since they are a few feet off the ground but have a rail only one one side, or no rail at all.

 

When we returned the bikes, the rental shop owner gave us all these cute handmade key chains.  

 On the way back, the taxi driver took us to the Phrom Phong BTS station, which he thought was closest. There was a lot of traffic at this time of day, around 5pm. It was a shorter ride than in the morning, since it was easier to describe where we were going. We were a little tired, and we headed home. What a great day!! 

 

Our last few weeks in Bangkok, January 2016

  Bangkok, you’ve been good to us! Homeschool community, easy transport to beaches and Cambodia, some income, a nice apartment, excellent field trips. I’m not sure what comes next, but it will be hard to beat the past few months. Anyway, here are our last few Bangkok weeks.

We spent a nice afternoon at the Bangkok Arts and Cultural Center, right off the Siam BTS station. The building is so sleek, all white and modern, and there is so much natural light. You can walk up a spiraling ramp to the top floor! 

 

The admission was free for all of us, and we saw the two large exhibits in the galleries (photography by the popular Thai HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and Thai abstract artist Ithipol Thangcholok) well as a hallway exhibit of adorable Czech children’s book art. The kids spent most of their time coloring beautiful coloring pages in a nice area set up for just that. 

   

We ended up at the Museum of Siam kind of by mistake. A tuk tuk driver brought us there despite our  request to “turn RIGHT!” in two languages several streets before. It was so hot and the museum had been on our radar anyway, so we went with it. It is an interactive museum about Thai history and identity. Only 200 baht each for us parents, the kids were free.  

   It is housed in a beautiful 19th century building that used to be the Ministry of Commerce. The exhibits seemed very modern and possibly even recently installed. There is an introductory video with several silly, engaging characters that reappear in monitors as one tours the museum. I think we learned a lot!  I especially liked this exhibit on the diversity of ships and people that shaped Ayutthaya, the ex-Thai capital whose ruins we visited last month.

 The kids liked the 19th century dress up clothes mixing European and traditional Thai styles. 

   

We went back to the vegan food court, took DH this time, and spent some time at the boisterous Chatuchak weekend market again, with its 15,000 vendors. It was very hot and crowded but we knew we didn’t have many more chances to go. Afterwards, I could persuade only Cleverly to continue adventuring with me, and we went to the Thailand Tourism Festival at Lumpini Park.  

 I am so glad we went! It is a 5-day festival in which they make the park into a mini Thailand, with 5 areas representing different regions of the country. There are even little roads to direct you among the regions.

 We saw traditional dancers that brought to mind the apsara dancers carved on Angkor temple walls. They moved slowly and posed with precise hand and foot movements to recorded traditional music.

   
  

We also saw a performance of all men dancers accompanied by live music including a choir! They had elaborate costumes and performed in front of a traditional style house erected for the festival.

     
 It was wonderful to watch, and the music was haunting. It was all in Thai so we didn’t understand the story. At one point, there was a king riding a golden elephant. 

 Aside from the performances, there was so much else to see. We saw a ‘floating market’ on land with traditional boats housing the vendors. 

 

There were also modern rock’n’roll musicians, regional crafts like fabric art, and a lot more things we didn’t see.

A few weeks ago was Children’s Day! We had heard about one in Japan years ago and the kids felt ripped off. “Why don’t we have that here???”. The standard adult response of ‘every day of children’s day’ is not very satisfying. Anyway, in Thailand it meant kids riding free on the BTS, free entry and special activities at some government buildings, and Ponies at the mall:

 And we also went to the teak mansion Vimanmek Palace on Children’s Day. It was built in 1900 by King Rama V, used for such diverse purposes as royal residents and storage until 1982, then renovated that year by the current Thai Queen Sirikit. These are not my photos; we had to check our bags and photos are not permitted on many places so I don’t have any of my own. It was a gorgeous building.

   

I had a day by myself and I went to the National Museum. I’m glad I didn’t bring the kids so I could geek out on all the artifacts at my own pace. It’s not interactive or very modern, in fact it’s almost shabby in places and had a dusty forgotten feel at times, which only made me love it more. I did not take a ton of pictures but I couldn’t resist taking some of the funeral chariots. There have been used in very elaborate processions going back centuries and even current times, see photos and video from a 2012 funeral here

   
The place had maybe 15 buildings, some under renovation during my visit. The artifacts go back to prehistory and through different manifestations of Buddhist culture such as Lopburi, Sukhothai, Bagan, and the Khmer of Angkor Wat fame. I became interested in Buddha footprints, which we had seen at shrines here.

    
 New to me was the Wheel of Law, which often had a sitting deer statue nearby.  The deer represents the location of the Buddhas first sermon at a deer park.

  
 They had a nice stone Ganesh, flanked by two smaller ones. 

 
And there were smaller statues of various other  dieties, like the 12th century Kali goddess below. A statue I saw of a kneeling Buddha statue looked so lifelike, I kept looking over my shoulder to make sure it hadn’t moved. 

 

This post is getting long, more to come in part 2!

Day-to-day life in Bangkok, Nov-Jan, 2015

 Every day must be thrilling because we are traveling around the world, right? Well, not so fast. There are still laundry (above), dishes, sibling disputes, homeschooling, differences of opinion on how to spend time or money… you get the idea. Once, I looked back on the previous six days and realized we hadn’t done anything we couldn’t have done a year ago, so we immediately planned a tourist day, but still. I decided to write about our behind-the-scenes life traveling long term.

Search for a pool

It is so hot here, even though it is the dry/cool season. We don’t have a pool where we live so we have spent a lot of time looking for places to swim. We never found one close by, so most days we did not swim. Our excellent landlady let us use the pool at her apartment building, which was nice. 

   
We have been to several rooftop water parks at malls. None are close to where we are staying, but they have been nice with excellent views!  And the water slides go right out over the city!

    
 

Malls

I’ve been to more malls than I care to admit. The malls are actually very nice- clean, nice bathrooms, a/c, interesting lights and displays- but I did not come here for the malls darn it! That said, we end up there for one reason or another more than once a week. The malls sometimes have waterfalls, ponds and fish:

    
Live entertainment:

    
Many Christmas displays and an occasional parade:

 Illuminated meerkats:
  
 Looooong escalators:   
Weird sidewalk art outside:

  Enthusiastic doormen: 
We also have seen a few movies at the malls. I personally saw Star Wars and the epic Thai historical drama Panthai Norasingh that clocked in at over 3 hours long (fascinating story of a Thai moral hero during the time of Ayutthaya). Movies cost under $3, a bit more for 3D and 4D, the latter of which involves moving seats and getting sprayed by water, etc. here are the kids with friends and 3D glasses:

 

Massage

A definite perk about Bangkok is the affordable massages. For about $6 usd, you can get an hour massage. There is nothing sleazy about it; it is part of the culture going back thousands of years. Some temples we have seen have wall paintings about massage, and several temples have massage schools onsite. Massage businesses are at malls, small and large stores, and they are offered by wandering practitioners at the beach. For solstice, the kids and I all had foot massages! 

   

Homeschooling

We joined a wonderful group of homeschoolers who meet weekly for classes and socializing. Here’s part of the group at an ice-skating activity that also happens once a week: 

 and here is the Christmas show the homeschool co-op kids put on: 

  

I already mentioned the English library in another post; we go there about once a week. 

    
 

Our Neighborhood: 

There is a shrine and also these random statues we see here and all around Thailand:        

More homeschooling

We try to get it done in the mornings, with varying success. I won’t lie, Mr. Fantastic does the bulk of the homeschooling. He does a great job and I try to help out.

 

groceries

There are enough western-style grocery stores for cereal, pasta, canned goods. They are usually in malls, so we go when we are there.  

 Our local outdoor market has great produce, fresh tofu at times, and many herbs and spices I am at a loss to identify. 

 And lots of flowers! These are everywhere for the garlands they make to decorate shrines, statues, taxicab rear-view mirrors…
  
And in the mornings, you can buy food plates for monks, and you can get a blessing as part of daily alms-giving.

 

Christmas

We had a mosquito-net ‘tree’ and homemade decorations. I loved it! The kids initiated a ‘secret Santa’ gift exchange so we wouldn’t get bogged down with stuff in our backpacks.

   
We went to a buffet on Xmas day with another traveling family we met.     

  

It was at an Indian restaurant, complete with karaoke and Santa in sunglasses!

 

Little random things:

People bow here- there are different ways to bow that have different meanings, and I didn’t get them all but I did bow and get bowed to, which I really liked.

You can buy cold towels for those really hot days in the refrigerated section at the 7-11. BTW, there are 7-11s all over Bangkok, sometimes two on the same block!

 

We have a mildly eccentric next-door neighbor who walks around shirtless (very rare here) and feeds street cats. He actually has litter boxes out for them as well. This results in much cat drama on our roof and outside our door.

Speaking of cats, the kids found a place called the Cat Cafe where you can pay 50 baht (about $1.40) for a drink or piece of cake and time in a room to play with six healthy cats. They said the local young women love to do this and take many selfies with the cats.

I have a love/hate relationship with the sky train BTS. It is a beautiful, clean, efficient way for us to get around, but it eats a lot of our budget. The kids get no discount, so we usually spent over 600 baht (close to $20) just getting to and from somewhere. An interesting part of riding the public transportation here is that people are so polite about giving up their seats. The twins usually get seats from this polite custom  which extends to children, monks, pregnant women, and the elderly. Thais seem so eager to give up their seats, it seems they take a seat just so they can graciously give it away. Must have something to do with Buddhism merit, or just a sense of decency I seldom see in the US.

Angkor Wat, New Years 2015, part 4

  Ta Som was next. Jayavarman VII built this one, too, again in the 12th century. He dedicated this temple to his father, Dharanindravarman II (I love these names)who had ruled for 10 years. Jayavarman VII himself ruled for over 30 years and is considered to have been the most powerful Khmer monarch ever to have ruled. He sounds like a good guy- a Buddhist, which was unusual for his time and position, and a great supporter of public works. It is said he ordered the construction of reservoirs, rest houses for travelers, and 102 hospitals for the growing population at the time. Anyway, this was a nice ruin to explore. It had a Bayon- style entrance:

 
And some beautiful details. Look at the dancers’ adornments!

   
   

It had an otherworldly doorway at the east entrance. 

     

     
   
A short ride away was East Mebon. This 10th century temple was originally situated in an artificial lake and accessible only by boat.  It was built by King Rajendravarman, who dedicated it to his parents.

  

It had some incredible sculptures!

  
   

Pre Rup was our last of the Angkor ruins. Another 10th century King Rajandavarman production, dedicated to shiva and on a site that is said to have been an ashram. I actually didn’t take pictures here, but it is a lovely five-tower temple, popular for viewing with its reddish brick that glows in sunset. Not my picture: 

 We were starting to get temple fatigue so we called it a day!
 
  

Angkor Wat, New Years 2015, part 3

  We were on our last day of our 3-day passes. All six of us went in the tuk tuk to the further of the two popular ruins clusters and we explored five ruins.

Preat Kahn/ Preah Kahn (I have seen both spellings) It is a 12th century temple built by King Jayavarman VII on the site where he defeated the Cham (indigenous groups that occupied what is now coastal south Vietnam) invaders. 

    
      

This temple had so much beautiful detail.

           
We walked through the structures to the other side, where there was a large body of water. 

    
 I thought it might be Tonle Sap, the remarkable body of water that encouraged civilization in this area. Tonle Sap is the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia and increases by over three times in size, taking in water from the Mekong, in the rainy season. It provides over half the fish consumed in Cambodia. I wanted to see this lake and I thought I might be looking at it in dry season, but no, this appears to be called simply Preah Kahn lake. It was nice, shallow with clear water for watching little fish darting around.

Neak Paen was next. This temple is on a sort of island surrounded by four human-made ponds. It is believed to have been constructed for health or medical reasons and that the ponds symbolized the four elements of earth, water, fire, and wind. 

  

Visitors cannot walk on the stone path to the temple, so we viewed this temple at a bit of a distance. If you look close, you can see the stone horse statue in one of the ponds.

  
   
We walked on a long boardwalk to reach this temple. 

   
 So many photos! I’ll continue in another post.

Elephants World, January 2016

Don’t get me started on elephant places in Asia. On second thought, do! I’ve put a lot of time into this. 

 Some Elephants World residents 

I really wanted to have an ethical elephant experience with the kids, so I looked around online quite a bit. As it turns out, there are many sanctuaries, more trekking companies, and even more rides and shows.  

 Elephant statue at Angkor Wat Elephants are all over Thailand-as part of the royal imagery and on souvenirs, working and performing in shows, and, increasingly rarely, in the wild.  They are the national symbol and have a long history entwined with the culture here.  

   
 
 They are also abused and mistreated terribly. After researching briefly, I learned that riding on a howdah- a canopy seat for 2 or more people to ride on an elephant’s back- hurts the animal and can cause permanent damage. I had suspected this in the US and never allowed the kids to ride elephants at carnivals and the like. Even riding bareback on an elephant’s back is bad for the elephant. The best way to ride is on the shoulders, though it is widely agreed that it causes them stress to give rides at all, with the possible exception of their lifelong caregiver known as a mahout (‘ma-HOOT’). So, somewhat disappointingly for the kids, I decided we would not ride elephants. I do think this was explained well when we were at the sanctuary. 

   
 I looked into visiting and/or volunteering at several sanctuaries, which cost about $70-$150 per person per day- it costs a lot to feed these creatures, and sanctuaries need to cover mahout and other staff salaries and often turn a profit as well. It is a relatively recent phenomenon for visitors to seek an ethical program as opposed to riding the elephants or watching them perform, and some places are moving towards the former while hopefully phasing out the latter. It is a work in progress.
We went to Elephants World about 100kms west of Bangkok near the town of Kanchanaburi. We took a neat old train to get there, similar to the train we had taken to Ayutthaya.

    
 We stayed a night there and we were picked up the next morning to go to EW. I had signed us up for a 2-day program. I would like to have stayed longer, but the budget was stretched. DH was working and was willing to miss the experience, so it was just the girls and me.  

 We had a brief orientation then fed the elephants some fruit and vegetables. There are 22 elephants at the sanctuary, most female and most with quite sad stories of being abused and overworked in logging (now illegal but still being done), performing/begging in cities (also now illegal), and/or carrying tourists in howdahs at trekking companies. Even worse, we heard that elephants are sometimes drugged with stimulants to make them work harder logging, or with depressants to help them with the overstimulating city environment. Most elephants at this sanctuary are older but there are three youngsters ages 3,4, and 8. 

    
   
It was amazing to be so close to them. We could touch their muscular trunks and wrinkled skin. 

  

 After their breakfast, they went to the river. We walked with them to the beautiful River Kwai that runs through the property. 

    
 Next we made sticky rice for the toothless older elephants. We learned that in the wild, elephants lose their last set of teeth around age 65 and die soon after from malnutrition, being unable to eat enough to sustain themselves. In captivity, they can be fed soft foods and can live to over 100! So the rice was puréed food for the toothless older animals. 

    
   
Bananas were mixed in with the rice for more nutrition. The guide told us cooked squash are also used in season. 

   
The rice was set to cool until later in the day. The elephants had some time in their ‘spa area’ where there is dust and mud and some rough trees for scratching. 

    
   
Next we had lunch and afterwards, the elephants had a mud bath. There is a viewing platform so you can have a good look. 

    
Watching the two ‘toddlers’ (the 3 and 4 year old) was so entertaining! They played like puppies, with their adoptive mother Nemochi nearby. We heard that when the babies arrived, there were serious discussions among the older elephants about who would act as mother to them. Nemochi was chosen and she looks like a great mom! I am not sure why they are not with their biological moms. We learned that elephants have strong family units, a similar lifespan to people and they should remain with their mothers until adolescence at around age 12 or 13.

    
   

Up on the viewing platform, Truly got mud splashed on her from all the activity! 

 We harvested cornstalks next on a different part of the property.  

    
 After that, we fed the stalks to the elephants. They knew the routine and reached into the truck to grab the stalks themselves! They loved eating but they were always gentle.

    
    
Next we finished making the rice. We added vitamins to the mixture as we rolled it into balls. 

    
 Then it was time to feed the old ladies!
    

The middle elephant below isn’t supposed to get the rice balls but she always butts in and tries! She got one from an unsuspecting child this day!
   

We got to wash the elephants in the river next. So much fun!! 

    
   
That was the end of the day program, and the beginning of the even more fun for us! We stayed in a beautiful new building near the river and near where the elephants sleep. We had a large room with five beds! There was a terrace where we could watch them.

    
 

We walked around the newly-quiet grounds after the day visitors had left. We had dinner, then watched a silent film from 1927 called Chang. It was filmed in northern Thailand and showed indigenous people living and dealing with challenges of living in the jungle- namely tigers and elephants- not always ethically, in fact they kill tigers and mistreat elephants. But it was a different time, so it’s somewhat forgivable I guess. It was an interesting film by directors who would go on to make King Kong a few years later. Afterwards we went back to our room and went to sleep. 

   
We got up early and with binoculars and books, went birdwatching. I’m not much good at this, but I liked seeing the sunrise and hearing the birds. We saw quite a few but I could not identify them. Beautiful! We spent the morning walking around with three elephants, their mahouts, and a guide named Sarah who was just wonderful. We went through jungle mud and different parts of the river. It was my favorite part so far, just walking around with the elephants. I didn’t bring the camera but just enjoyed it all. After lunch, we watched the elephants playing in the mud as we had the day before, which is such a joy. After that, we took a truck ride upstream and floated down the Kwai for almost an hour with life vests on for flotation. This did not involve elephants, by the way. Just beautiful views, a quiet river, and floating peacefully. Bliss! We were with Sarah, a mahout, a young Australian couple and two young women from Germany. Everyone was such nice company and we chatted as we floated along. Not long after that it was 4pm and time for us to go. What a great experience!

Here are some thoughts:

* Definitely stay two days if you can. All the sanctuaries I looked at online offer similar day 2 experiences to what we did, and it was so lovely, as was staying overnight. You could also opt to participate again in the day program, go hiking, get a massage, or just wander the grounds, which could also be fun.

*We learned some fascinating things about elephant psychology. They are one of only eight animals (like humans, dolphins, and primates) who recognize themselves in a mirror. They have been known to stand watch by injured humans until help arrived. They mourn their dead, moving bones at times and visiting these ‘graveyards’. The sanctuary had a moving story about the death of a resident elephant who died at an old age. Somehow the death was communicated to nearby wild elephants, believed to have known the deceased, who came to the river as the elephants and staff commemorated her passing, to witness and mourn their friend.

* These sanctuaries may offend some animal rights folks. You may see chains, ropes, mahouts using bull hooks, and elephants being commanded to do things. This is not a preserve of wild elephants as we experienced in Africa. These places are in different stages of improving the lives of working elephants and their mahouts, and it is not always perfect. Some places are for profit. Some give elephant rides in howdahs for part of the day, even as they educate about this causing harm. EW only recently stopped giving rides (they used to allow shoulder rides while the elephant was in the river) when visitors and volunteers requested it. 

*Mahouts have a long and interesting culture going back at least 900 years. They use words in communicating with elephants from an ancient form of the Khmer language. They are sometimes paired with an elephant when they are around the same age, under 10 years old, and remain together for life! They are usually, but not always men. Mahouts have been socially high class through the ages, such as when elephants were used in warfare and when the royal family kept elephants.

Angkor Wat, New Year’s 2015, part 2

   
  When the alarm went off at 4:30 on New Year’s Day, it was still night outside and I was disoriented. Wha..? Oh yeah, Angkor Wat. Sunrise. The tuk tuk driver would be here at 5. I’m the early riser in the family, so rousing the troops fell to me. We stumbled into the tuk tuk in a surprisingly cold world and off we went. There were many other vehicles heading to the same place, another surprise since so many revellers had been out ringing in the new year. But watching the sun rise over the Angkor Wat towers is a beautiful thing, so we joined the crowds.

    
People actually cheered as the sun came into view. Happy 2016!

 We didn’t stay too long but rather returned to the hotel for a nap. Afterwards, the kids were delighted to swim at a nearby hotel while we parents were at least as delighted to rent a motorbike and head off on our own! 

 It was just $10 and we had it until 8pm. Now we could go to far-flung temples and see more of the countryside.  I absolutely loved it!

    
   
We went to Prasat Kravan first. This temple, built in 921 and dedicated to Vishnu, is smaller than others we had been seeing.  

 It is known for its unique brick bas-reliefs of Vishnu. I learned that these are difficult to see later in the day due to the sunlight, so I am so glad we went before noon. 

    
 Next we went to Banteay Srei, 20 kms away,which was a bit of a drive. We had been aiming for a closer temple but missed a sign and decided to continue to follow the signs we did see. We ended up at a highly recommended temple, built in 967, possibly by the tutor of King Jayavarman V. Interestingly, it is known as ‘Citadel of the Women’ and said to have been built by women, since the carvings are so intricate. 

    
    
     
  We made the trip back and went to Banteay Samre, a Hindu temple built in the early 12th century and named for the Samre people of early Indochina. We had originally been headed here. It is off the beaten path, but not far from it.

    

I liked taking photos of meditating figures, since so many had been chopped off and removed by looters. Those that remained were so soothing.
    
 

We went by Angkor Wat for the sunset, since it was on our way back and we hoped for smaller crowds. It was still fairly crowded, still gorgeous in the fading light. 

    
 
That was day 2!

Angkor Wat, New Year’s 2015, part 1

 Cricket trap in daylight at center, burnt field behind. 

We arrived at night in Siem Reap after a three-hour drive from the border. We had driven past fields with glowing tubes of light- they are traps to lure crickets, which are eaten as a part of several dishes here and generally in SE Asia. The land was flat, with an occasional hill in the distance. When we made a brief stop, we could see a sky full of stars. We found a hotel and slept after a long day of traveling. 

Angkor and nearby
 

Angkor at sunrise on New Year’s Day

 
Our first day was fairly long-about 7 hours- and we went to the biggest, most popular ruins. We saw Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Prohm. 

Angkor Wat is the largest, main temple complex and was built as a Hindu temple in the early 12th century by Khmer King Suryavarman. It was his state temple, capital city, and mausoleum. Over the next century, it became a Buddhist temple and over the centuries  endured the fall of the Khmer empire, yet remained an active religious site. It is entered by walking across a long causeway across the large (800′ wide) moat that surrounds the complex.  

   Once inside, the crowds disperse in the enormous complex, and one can find a quiet moment to contemplate. 

    
   The inscriptions and artwork are stunning.

    

   
Though time, wars, weather, and looters have ravaged the place, it’s grandeur endures.

   

  

   
 
We went to Angkor Thom next. It was built about a century after Angkor Wat and is known for Bayon with its large faces on many towers. We started at Bayon, marveling at the serene, gently pleased giants. Bayon has really stayed with me- those faces really impress me still.

   
    The complex is entered through this majestic arch. 

 Next, we went to Baphoun, a temple built to honor Shiva in the 11th century. Cleverly was not allowed in due to her shorts (knees must be covered, though this was rarely enforced) and neither were the twins (no one under 12, possibly due to steep inclines).  The rest of us could climb the structure, but no one was permitted inside.

  

  

Steep steps!

  

 Nearby is the Elephant Terrace, a wall with carvings of elephants, monkeys, and mighty bird creatures. It was built for the viewing of public ceremonies in the large spaces there.
    
   
Another part of Angkor Thom was a wall of beautiful carvings. It had been partly protected with a cement wall to the right below.

    
 Ta Prohm was next. This temple was purposely left in a state similar to which it was found, due to its picturesque entanglement with the jungle. It has been cleared for visitors, and we liked it quite a bit. We had been looking for that ‘Indiana Jones’ experience, and we found it!

    
     

    
    
 
Part 2 to follow!

Angkor Wat trip-thoughts and logistics

   Truly surrounded by backpacks at the crowded border

The Thai-Cambodia border at Poipet is hot and dusty and it smells like fish. The kids wait in front of me in an excruciating line on the Thai side as we cross our fingers that we can make it back to Bangkok in time for Mr. Fantastic’s new online teaching gig, which we are destined not to do. We are in the first line for about 40 minutes and the second one for nearly two hours. We are returning from a visa run and a trip to the famed ruins of Angkor Wat. 

After being scammed at the border a month ago, and now with this particularly inconvenient border crossing, I am not heartbroken to say goodbye to Cambodia. But we have had a wonderful time! I think it comes down to the fact that I am not a great tourist. I would rather work and live in Cambodia, learn the language, make a friend or two, and measure my time in months or years instead of days. But that will have to wait until I maybe join the peace corps again someday or come up with something else. 

This time I am part of a family of six, and we came because we had to renew our Thai visas and we wanted to see the ruins. We accomplished these things, but perhaps our timing was a bit off. It worked out that we were there during the New Year’s holiday and the crowds were large. It is high season anyway, so I’m not sure how it compares to a few weeks earlier or later. We did have the benefits of dry, relatively cool weather, and some amazing lighting displays in Siem Reap.

I remain frustrated that I don’t know how much things cost in Cambodia! I know you’re supposed to bargain in most cases but it gets confusing when I don’t want to be unfairly frugal or spend too much. And I’m always working in three currencies- Cambodian riel (4,000 to $1), US dollars (preferred), and since we are staying in Thailand, Thai baht (36 to $1). As far as scams go, though, we’ll call it even. Last month I was bamboozled into buying Cambodian visas through a service- expensive and unnecessary- as I staggered out of the four hour minivan ride from Bangkok on my own with the kids. This time, I had Mr. Fantastic by my side and a printout in my hand. The printout was from the Cambodian government website and their free-visas-for-kids-under-12 policy was highlighted in neon yellow. Yes! The twins got in for free. I bargained for a taxi to Siem Reap for $45, I’m still not sure if we overpaid but it was dark out and we are six people (seven with driver) in a car for five, and we felt OK about the price. (It only cost us $30 in the return trip, but that was in a minivan that seats 14). Three hours later, we arrived in SR and the taxi driver took us to a budget hotel as we requested. They quoted me $30 for a three-bed room, and as I walked out to consider, they changed it to $20. We took it and ended up there for four nights. It was perfect for us and when we walked around to compare, nothing came close: no vacancies or much higher prices. Cleverly bought four t-shirts for $6 after an original price of $20. I agonized over a rice-paper rubbing of a stone carving at a temple- original price $45, I paid $20. The tuk tuk driver who took us to the ruins charged anywhere from $13- $30 per day over three days of varying time and distance. We are sure $30 was too much and we complained to the hotel for that one. And it feels petty now, since it was only $5-$10 too much to a hard-working man in an impoverished country while we privileged Americans travel the world. 

It was all confusing but I think it turned out ok. I am especially proud that we found a way to avoid buying too many disposable plastic water bottles. Trash is a problem everywhere we have been, yet drinking water clearly is a necessity. We were able to buy a returnable 15-liter water jug for $6 including deposit, fill our bottles for two days, and return the jug, retrieving the $5 deposit. So just $1 for the water and no extra plastic bottles in the trash! That was a success. 

Another success was our scheduling. We stayed four nights and had three full days for the ruins. I am satisfied with what we saw, though it was far from seeing everything. That would take much more time. The first day was about 7 hours of seeing ruins. The second day we watched the sunrise over the Angkor Wat temples then, after a nap, let the kids swim all day while we parents rented a motorcycle and saw some of the further away ruins on our own. The third day we were out for about five hours then the kids swam again. 

Our hotel location was great. We could walk to the night market and Pub Street across a short bridge, but out street was quieter than those areas. We were able to swim at a nearby hotel for $3 per person, which included a can of soda, and the kids were thrilled. We checked at a few hotel pools and chose our favorite; all allowed non-guests to use the pool for $3-$5 per person. We ate at the night market or a restaurant near our hotel. We had smoothies, Indian food, baguette sandwiches, Thai food, and local noodle dishes. Eating was easy with low prices and plenty of western/backpacker crowd food.

I think that’s all I wanted to say about our non-ruins experience at Siem Reap. I hope it helps other budget-travel families as they negotiate this amazing, sometimes overwhelming, magical place with its history, beauty, and mystery.