Suvarnabhumi Airport Opening Video (2005)

My gateway to Southeast Asia.

It’s the nicest, most organized Airport that I’ve experienced.  Easy in and easy out.

I don’t feel like I’m entering or leaving a Nazi concentration camp as when entering or exiting America.  There is organization and a flow to this airport that does not exist in any of the Muslim countries of the Middle East and Central Asia.  And unlike entering and exiting the Middle East there aren’t thousands with their hands out for tips and bribes.  It’s much less hectic than the European airports through which I’ve flown.

As soon as I touch down at Suvarnabhumi, a smile creeps onto my face and a lightness enters my step.  I’m happy.  I’m home.  I feel more at home in Bangkok than almost anywhere on this planet.

I am entering the land of smiles.  And the land of smiles is the gateway to the East.  The true east.  Not the dirty and violent Islamic Middle East.  This is the enchanted land of myth, silk, smiles and exotic Asian mysteries.  Angkor, Luang Prabang, Sukhothai, Saigon, Phnom Penh, Xi’an, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Mekong, Lhasa and Katmandu, the Taj Mahal and the Ganges.  Ancient histories.  A region shrouded in myst and legend.  The home of the the great conqueror Genghis Khan and the religion and philosophical enlightenment of the Buddha.

It’s also home to the most beautiful beaches and women in the world.

Every time I land at Suvarnabhumi International, these thoughts run through my head.  My next adventure awaits me.  I’ll swim the Mekong and climb the Great Wall.  Explore ancient temples or dance all night at RCA.

I love this place.  Thailand uber alles.

The Temple Club and Apsara

The first time I visited Cambodia, I went with a small tour group. I flew alone from Bangkok to Phnom Penh and met up with my guide at the Airport. In Phnom Penh (P-nom Pen), it was me and the guide. He drove me around Phnom Penh. We stopped took photos of the various sites there. The National Museum. The Silver Pagoda and National Palace. Wat Phnom. After my tour of Phnom Penh, I was driven for 4 hours to Sihanoukville where I overnighted. I spent that night with an Irish guy and 5 Cambodian gals drinking beer with ice in a Karaoke Bar that doubles as a Brothel. The next day–early, my guide picks me up at the Inn and takes me back to Phnom Penh for the flight to Siem Reap and my first visit to Angkor Wat and it’s 1,000 Apsara.

I arrive in Siem Reap and am taken to the Angkor Sokha Hotel. It’s an incredible hotel with 4 bars and a swimming pool with a 20 foot waterfall. I get about 4 hours to hang out and do as I please so I get the hotel Tuk Tuk to take me to the local market. I like to buy a Buddha statue from each country that I visit in Asia. (I must have over 50 Buddhas by now.) Later that night, I’m picked up by the tour guide. We are joined by two German gals. We are taken to a Dinner Theatre and I see my first Apsara dance show. I like to think that I’m an artsy type. I can enjoy a bit of culture with the best of them. The Apsara. I loved it. Absolutely. Beautiful Costumes and gorgeous, spritely Cambodian women dancing and moving about gracefully on stage.

Since then, I’ve seen several iterations and interpretations of the dances. The video shows the Temple Club Apsara show. It last about 90 minutes. I find it fascinating. I can watch it all night. There are many dances showing various aspects of Khmer mythology and life. My favorite, though, is the mermaid dance. It is also called Khmer Classical Dance. Khmer Dance of the Ancient Style is the official Cambodian title.

The Apsara, in mythology, are minor deities who entertained the Gods. They were also caretakers of mythological heroes. Their province was gaming and gambling. So if you wanted to win and win big, you’d better have these gals on your side. They were sky dancers, river dancers. Like the Greek sirens, they lured men to their deaths. They cared for Khmer heroes at the behest of the Gods. They were lovers. They brought with them favor and intrigue. You can read of them in the Hindu texts of the Rigveda and the Mahabharata. An interesting note on costume. The original Apsara of the court danced topless. Unfortunately, they do not use this practice in Siem Reap today.

I’ll be going back to Cambodia in either February or June/July. I have a Sony HD digicam now. So when I go back I’m going to record the Apsara in High Definition. I’ll post it here. You can see here well enough. There are better shows. Better productions of the Apsara. We saw the Cambodian National Opera dancers in an open air theatre on one visit to Siem Reap. There was a Korea/Cambodian friendship Expo in town. My batteries died on me that day so I couldn’t get them on video.

Needless to say, I think this is one of the most beautiful dances that I’ve seen anywhere. I find it utterly fascinating. On my second trip to Phnom Penh, I met a former Apsara dancer. Srey Neang. She had broken her arm and could no longer make the hand and arm movements. She loved seeing the shows and it was nice to have someone to interpret the dance for us.

Apsara dance as seen in Cambodia today is said to have originated during the Khmer civilizations in the 800s to the latter part of the 13oos. At that time, the Khmer were conquered by the peoples of what is today Thailand. Thailand was known as the Kingdom of Siam. Khmer and Southeast Asian cultural experts

Khmer people, in general, love this dance and the stories and mythology behind it. Pol Pot, monstrosity that he was, attempted to end the tradition by murdering all Apsara dancers and teachers. I can’t imagine why someone would want to erase from human memory such a beautiful tradition. The monstrous ideals of communism. Thankfully, it survived. Khmer girls start studying the dance as early as age 4. There are dance troups that girls can join at very young age. Of the shows that I have seen, I would say that the girls on stage range in age from 14 to 26.

Enjoy the video. I have always enjoyed seeing the shows live. I hope this gives you at least a glimmer of the joy that visiting Siem Reap and seeing the Apsara has given me. If you ever get the chance…

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Ta Prohm

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Ta Prohm is magnificent. Walking the path back to this Temple is a journey to the past. You walk down a wide, well trod path through dense jungle. Though the path is full of tourists (mostly Japanese), you still get a sense that you journey towards another world. Another time. At the end of the path, you come upon a stone bridge spanning a moat. An ancient tree has ripped through the middle of the bridge. All of the larger Angkorian temples are surrounded by moats and walls. Some of these larger structures of Angkor seem more fortress than temple. Ta Prohm and the surrounding area was actually built to support some 12,000 inhabitants. This group included the royal family and the royal retinue, priests and guard force and the usual group of royal eunuchs, concubines and servants.

Once across the bridge, you enter the Temple grounds through a small portal. Just wide enough to allow two people side by side. The portal is leaning and looks as if it may not last long enough for you to pass through to the other side.

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Some of the Wats (temples) of Angkor have signs like these that provide the visitor with background information. Many of them are written in English that is so confused and mangled that it’s difficult to determine the intended message. This was one of the more accurate signs that I saw in Cambodia. The aerial photo-map was a great addition. The third picture is the bridge of which I wrote earlier. Notice how the tree has grown through the middle of the moat bridge.

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The West entrance is dilapidated. Leaning to and fro. It was a bit intimidating as I felt as though I were walking towards my imminent death and entombment as the walls look as though they might collapse at any moment. The Wat has been left mostly as it was found. It is a great effect. It is as though you are discovering it for the first time. It’s a little dangerous if you wander from the tourist path, though, as can be seen from the warning in the photo below. I wandered off anyway. It’s more fun and there were fewer of my fellow tourist clogging the way.

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The roots of these magnificent trees wind their way at will in an effort to reclaim the jungle from the grasp of men.

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The Wat is fairly large with many corridors leading you to recently emplaced Buddhist shrines. The shrines are maintained by locals for the most part. You’ll also see some of the poorer local Khmer on the inside. Strategically placed in their attempts to sell small charms or water and soda.

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Above is one of the shrines mentioned earlier. This particular Buddha, I was told, is part of the original Wat. The trees have made the temple grounds their own. Those roots have ripped apart walls that are 12 feet thick. One of the local tour guides said that one of the reasons that they left Ta Prohm as they found it was that to repair it would most likely mean destroying it. My personal opinion is that it would be a great disservice to remove the jungle. This particular Wat is made more beautiful, more majestic with natures touch.

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And, or course, there are always the children. This particular part of your travels through Cambodia will leave you with feelings of great joy and deep sadness. Such overwhelming poverty. Parents and others who use children to earn the families money. Many of these children are so, so cute. That is exactly what the parents and the more decrepit element count on. Empathy and kindness of the tourist leads to many of these children going uneducated. This perpetuates the problem of the lack of education of the majority of the Khmer peoples. It’s a catch 22. Most of the local tourist guides will advise you to not purchase from the local children. Purchase from the souvenir and drink stands in the markets around the temples. Purchase from the handicapped adults that are all around the various sites and in town. But do not finance and encourage the abuse of the children. It’s difficult to follow through on that course of action. Especially when one of these beautiful little children are holding your hand and looking into your eyes like a sweet little angel. My friends and I would more often buy food for the children and let them sit with us and eat. We found that a better way to aid them. It was our own small way of helping.

Quotation from Maurice Glaize:

Ta Prohm should be visited either in the afternoon or the early morning, and crossed from west to east according to the itinerary that we have traced on the plan. This precaution will prevent the visitor with limited time from becoming disorientated, due to the relative simplicity of a clearly marked route. In contrast, those who wish to spend several hours exploring the monument will find here the potential for an adventure – but without danger of ever getting lost, since the main axis is clearly defined from place to place by an uninterrupted line of rooms and vestibules, almost always made inaccessible by their collapse but providing nevertheless a good point of reference. We would advise, however, not to wander but with extreme caution in the areas of crumbling vaulted galleries remote from the normally frequented passageways.

Maurice Glaize was the conservator of Angkor from 1937 to 1945. His book, The Monuments of Angkor Group, was published in 1944. It is still used by thousands of visitors each year as a guide to the Angkor Temple Complex.