Money!

I’m not a numismatists or serious collector of coins and notes.  Not by any means.  Even so, I usually grab a few notes and/or coins when I’m traveling.  The part that is cool for me is to find old money that is still in circulation.  The old Mao notes in China.  Older notes in Thailand that have an earlier version of King Bhumipol.  The notes in Cambodia that highlighted the various peoples and ethnic minorities or have varying versions of Angkor Wat and other sites. The notes used in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, the Civil War and the Taliban eras.

These notes convey a sense of history to me.  They’re part of the fabric of the history of these lands. That fascinates me. I’ve monies of varying sorts from nearly every country that I’ve visited plus a few other notes that were gifts from the homelands of folks whom I’ve met out on the road.

These are a collection of items from Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.  The Lao and Khmer notes, I picked up in Luang Prabang, Vieng Vang and Vientiene (Laos).  The Thai notes were given to me by Unny’s parents.  She was telling them that I had a crazy fascination with money so that brought me some from her Grandfather’s house.  Some of the notes are pretty old with the oldest dating to the 1920s.

The coins are all Thai with the exception of the old French Indochine Piastres.  They are probably fakes, but, they were too cool to pass up.  I tested them as I have been instructed.  The ring test and the obverse/reverse line test.  They actually passed those test.  Even so, they were much to cheap and felt too light to be solid silver coins of that size.  Perhaps, I’ll have them checked one day.  I don’t care if they are real or not.  They look cool and that’s all I’m interested in at this point.

A few pics from a recent trip

awgreenWat Arun and Angkor Wat in dramatic repose…

plus the silhouette of my beautiful girl.

I shot the Angkor Wat photos at dawn and then took the one above and photoshopped it a bit to obtain the pink, green and blue effects.  Just thought it looked cool.

The Wat Arun photos were taken at dusk.  I spent a night at the wonderful Arun Residence.  Just across the Chao Phraya from Wat Arun and only a short walk from Wat Pho and the Grand Palace.

These are just a few shots of some of my favorite places in Asia.  Hope you enjoy.  If you like ’em, leave a note.

Angkor and Siem Reap: The American Guide

I had been planning and putting off going to Laos since 2005.  I’d even booked a flight boarded a plane and been diverted by a cyclone.  Wound up going to Chiang Mai instead on that trip. This trip.  I hadn’t intended to go into Laos.  My intent was to stay in Cambodia a bit longer and travel upriver to Battambang and see a bit of the countryside away from the usual tourist chatter. This time, though, I decided that it was time.  I’d waited long enough for Laos and Avin decided to go with me.  But first, Angkor…

Amy, Rey and me at Bayon Temple

On my last holiday (July 2008), I had come to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh and two of my friends from the capital city had come up with me so that I could give them a tour of the Angkor temples.  A bit of a twist there.  An American giving Cambodians a tour of their own cultural treasures.  I’ve been there 6 or 7 times by now.  So I guess I know them as well as anyone.  I’ve almost seen all of the temples around Siem Reap. On these next few trips, I plan on branching out a little further and seeing some of the sites near the Thai border.  But that’s for the future.  Amy, Rey and I toured the temples.  I took them to all of the major sites.  Angkor Wat.  Bayon.  Ta Prohm.  Bakoung.  The Elephant Terrace.  The Leper King.  By that time, the unrelenting Cambodian sun had taken it’s toll.  We returned to our hotel to rest during the heat of mid-day. During the summer months of Cambodia, you have to get out of the heat at mid-day.  That sun will cook you.  I’ve stayed out in it.  But I’ve not many Cambodians who will endure it for long by choice.  I like being out at this time because there are fewer tourists out at this time.  I can be alone in the temples.  Get great pics.  Take my time.  Afterward, we went to the Temple Club.  We watched the Apsara Dance Show and had a few drinks.

The funny part of this night came after we left the Temple Club and it’s Apsara.  We walked up Pub Street to a rooftop bar at the end of the street.  Before we went up, I noticed neon lights a little further down the street.  I asked the girls if they wanted to check it out.  They agreed to come along.  When we got inside, it turned out that the bar was a Khmer version of a strip club.  No  nudity.  But dancers on a stage in skimpy outfits.  These girls were acrobatic.  I don’t think any American girls could compete with the way these girls dance.  I sat down and ordered a drink for myself.  Amy and Rey ordered a beer.  I looked around a bit uncomfortable.  Not for myself, though.  I was fine in there.  More than fine.

I need not have worried.  Amy and Rey loved the place.  They danced to the music.  They talked about the girls.  Asking me which was sexiest and prettiest.  Compared the dancing.  They applauded at the end of each dance.  We sat there and carried on and had fun.  A little later, we invited our favorite over for a drink.  I was thinking the girl would have a beer or a whiskey and coke.  She ordered a Soy Milk.  I almost fell over laughing.

It was an interesting trip.

The girls left the next day and I met Avin…

That’s another story.

Sukhothai — Wat Saphin Hin (and the attack of the gnats)

sundown at Wat Saphan Hin.

On my last trip to Thailand, my buddy Becca and I visited Sukhothai. It is a city and national historical park about 450 km north of Bangkok. It’s a small slow town that is a bit off the beaten path for most travelers. I had read much about the city and the park and was eager to visit the famous and rather large Buddha at Wat Sri Chum. Sukhothai is considered the cradle of Thai civilization. The name means literally “Dawn of Happiness.” The city was founded in 1238 by two Thai princes who seceded from the Khmer Empire. As a kingdom, Sukothai grew to be larger than modern Thailand. It lasted only 120 years before is was co-opted into a new Thai kingdom.

Sukhothai is now the provincial seat for the northern province which bears it’s name. The city itself is divided into old and new Sukhothai. Old Sukhothai is a large historical park with ruins dating back to the original kingdom. The ruins have heavy Khmer influences. At times, the ruins have an Angkorean feel to them and there is actually one temple that is attributed to Jayavarman VII.  Jayavarman VII is the builder of Bayon and several of the Angkor Temples. He is the famous Buddha King of Cambodia.

There are hundreds of ancient buildings and Wats or Temples in old Sukhothai. Hundreds of statues of Buddha throughout the park. Wat Saphan Hin is one such Wat. It is located about 7 miles outside of the old city on a hill top. The Wat houses a Buddha which is some 40 feet tall. I was very much looking forward to trekking out to this particular Wat even though it was so far out.

Everyone to whom I spoke and all the I read prior to visiting Sukhothai recommended renting bikes as the best way to tour the old city. Traffic is light in Sukhothai. The people are friendly. Sukhothai is not large as far as cities go but the ruins and temples are spread out. Too far to walk and not far enough for a car or Tuk Tuk. Renting bikes was an excellent recommendation. Becca and I rented bikes from our hotel. Mapped out our sight seeing trail. Then started out to see the magnificence that are the nearly 1000 year old ruins of Sukhothai. We spent most of the morning tooling around the ruins in the main part of the park. The noon sun came up and started to beat down on us. So we decided it was time to get some shade and a cold one. Grab a bite to eat and plan the rest of the afternoon. We stopped at a local restaurant and ate. I drank a couple of beers. Had a whiskey or two with our waitresses. One of whom was cute as a button. So I snapped a couple of pictures of her. We rested a bit. Then decided to head back to the hotel for a mid-afternoon nap. The 85-90 degree sun had drained us a bit and I was a bit sun burnt from being out all morning.

After resting for a couple of hours, we realized that we had missed Wat Saphan Hin. No way i was going to miss that. We decided to go back out and find the hilltop Wat and it’s massive Buddha statue. It was nearing 4 PM. The park closed at dusk. We figured sun down was a good three hours away. Plenty of time.

We headed out.

We stopped near the entrance to the park to view the foot print of Buddha that we had missed earlier. Then we headed out to find our Wat.

We biked out on the main road that should have taken us about half way to Wat Saphan Hin. When we came to the walls of the old city, I was comfortable enough that I knew where I was heading. We exited the old city. Turned down a road which ran parallel to the northern wall. About two hundreds meters up that road, we found our turn off. This road took us about half a mile into what looked to be a farm neighborhood. Lots of barns and cows and such. I had a map of the park with us. Even so, somewhere along the way, I must have confused a road or two as they weren’t marked with any kind of real signs that I could discern.

We pedaled for about 10 minutes up the country lane. It was time to ask direction. I saw a friendly looking Thai fellow. So I pulled out my map and asked for directions to Wat Saphan Hin. We were on fairly familiar ground as I remembered passing near to this location earlier in the day. We were near Wat Sri Chum and the huge seated Buddha.

After a series of failed attempts at Thai, unintelligible grunts on both of our parts and several directional gestures based on the map and our location, our Thai friend sent us off in the general direction of Wat Saphan Hin.

We pedaled back to the main road and turned right towards our destination. I thought that it would be a few hundred meters down the road. Oh no! It took another half hour to get to the road that would take us to our Temple. By the time we hit that road, the sun was fading off into the distance. The road to the Wat was closed and barred. But we bravely stayed on course. I wanted to see my Wat on the Hill. I’d be damned if a mere unmanned barrier was going to keep me from my destination.

It was another 10 minutes or so down that road when we finally reached the Temple.

Wat Saphan Hin.

We made it. Barely enough light to snap photos. But we were able to get some great sunset pics and then night photos of the Temple.

It was a beautiful site. It was also exhausting walking up the steep, rocky hill to the Wat. Especially after a long day of pedaling around and climbing on and exploring all of the ruins in the old city. Well worth the climb, though. We took our pictures. We rested a bit. And then realized that it was pretty damn dark and we were far outside of the city.

Time to go.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been out in a forest at dark. I had forgotten the bugs. The bats. All of the flying insects that would be on the road.

Becca and I started back. It was still a bit light out. So it wasn’t bad at first. As we got to the main road, it started to get dark pretty fast. Absolutely no street lights in the old city or in the area we are biking. Another thing that I didn’t take into account. Although, LonelyPlanet.com did warn me of this. Obviously, I forgot the warning.

I start cruising down the road as fast as I can pedal.

“What the hell was that!”

BAM!

BIP!

WHAP!

BAP!

WHACK!

SPLAT!

I start getting pelted by bugs. Large flying insects popping me in the forehead. Small bugs flying into my eyes and nose. Any time I open my mouth to yell back at Becca, I swallow a pound of nats, flys and mosquitos. I start laughing because I hear Becca scream once or twice. I think I was buzzed at least once by a bat. I saw something swoop down and nearly hit me on the head. At one point, I’m fairly certain a small bird landed in my hair and attempted to make a nest.

I start pedaling faster and doing that forward lean as if I were rolling against a strong headwind. All the while getting wind blasted by all manner, all sizes of insects and small birds. lol

We rocketed through this thick mass of nasty bugs for a good 30 minutes before it subsided as we came to the edge of the old city. I had dead bugs on my glasses. There were bugs in my hair. Bugs stained my shirt. Bugs crawling out of my nose and ears. I couldn’t help but laugh. So we rested there for a second as we picked small bugs and bird feathers out of our teeth and hair.

We stopped at the edge of the park for a bit. Then proceeded on to the restaurant at which we had eaten earlier. We sat and ate a bit. Drank a few beers and then returned to our hotel. I had every intention of getting out and experiencing the Sukhothai nightlife. But, apparently, the day was too much. Our adventure too great. I decided to take a quick nap and didn’t re-awaken until after midnight.

The next morning, we left Sukhothai and returned to Bangkok. We awakened early so we could see the ancient ruins at Si Satchanalai Historical Park prior to our flight. More on that later…

Angkor Thom — The Bayon Temple

Angkor Thom is a huge Complex that includes a series of gates with Buddha facing in the four directions, the Hall of the Leper King, the Elephant Terrace and Bayon. Bayon is the primary temple of the Angkor Thom complex. The first thing you notice when you approach the Bayon Temple is the faces on it’s towers. The 200 faces of the Lokesvara which is (and I’m simplifying the concept here a bit) the Compassionate Buddha. There must be hundreds staring back at you. Looking out in every direction actually. All smiling. Welcoming. Enchanting. Captivating all who gaze upon them. Beckoning the visitors to come for a closer look. The walls of Angkor are covered with bas-relief depicting tales of war and heroism and everyday life of the Khmer. There are also tales from Khmer and Hindu mythology. The walls of Bayon speak to the history and beleifs of the Khmer people. Their mythology. Their lives. Who they were and who they have become as a civilization.

One of the wonders of Angkor Thom is the visitors ability to explore. Angkor Thom is a huge complex with many structures and much jungle territory to explore if you are adventurous enough. It’s as if you are Indiana Jones or Lara Croft in search of ancient treasures and artifacts. Much as Indie and the Tombraider braved the elements, you will likewise battle heat exhaustion, sunburn, torrential downpours, dehydration and most of all the crowds of tourists in order to catch an inspirational glimpse and be awe stricken by these ancient and eternal monuments to Khmer civilization. The best time to view Bayon is early morning. 5 or 6 A.M. As the sun breaks the horizon and turns to gold the beautiful smiling faces on the towers. Sunset is a wonder to behold on the steps of Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. These are cherished memories. One will never forget. These are moments and vistas that defy description.  Getting out early will not only let you beat the heat and sun but the thousands of tourists who will be out a few hours later.  2nd best time to catch any of the monuments is Noon when most of the tour groups are taking a lunch break.

Jayavarman VII established the Angkor Thom in the late 12th century. It was the last great city of the Angkorean Khmer. Thankfully, when the Ayutthayan centered kingdom of Siam conquered the area, they did not destroy everything and left us these beautiful Khmer monuments to awe and inspire us for ages to come.

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The Children of the Khmer


Cambodia is probably the poorest country that I have visited. It’s much more of a backwater than even Afghanistan. Their only industry is the silk trade. Silk crafts such as scarves, table cloths, clothing, etc. Not much else in the way of industry. Handicrafts such as statuary. Precious and semi-precious gems. Tourism must be one of the, if not the, largest industry for Cambodia. Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Siem Reap are the primary destinations of most tourists. Eco-tourism in the more remote areas for the more adventurous souls. It’s a country stricken with extreme poverty. High illiteracy rates. High birth rates. High crime.

A great part of the tourist industry is Siem Reap and the Angkor Temple Complex. Within this complex and in the three major cities of Cambodia, the children are exploited in order to make money off of the sympathies of tourists. It works. These are children of the Khmer. The children of Cambodia. The children of Angkor. Some. They’re simply adorable. You want to pick them up and hug them and make it all better someway. Anyway. Some will annoy the hell out of you. They’ll make you want to scratch your eyes out. Scream at the top of your lungs for them to get away. So many I wanted to adopt. Take home to my Momma or Sister to give them a good home. I have come to believe that every child deserves a good home. Children deserve a chance. These children are severely handicapped. Not physically. Socially. Economically. In many cases, emotionally. They didn’t ask to be born. But birthed they were. Brought into existence in a world of abject poverty and near hopelessness. My heart went out to these children. Many of whom are loving, adorable, huggable. Eminently lovable. You’ll see just what I mean in the above video.

Most, if not all, of the children seen here work from 7 or 730 AM to 9 or 10 PM. I’ve seen some of them out with their mothers begging or selling food ’til 1 AM. Not the life for a child. When do they get to just be children?

Another strange experience for me were the “beggar costumes.” The faux beggars. It must happen elsewhere. But I don’t think they are as brazen as what I witnessed in Cambodia.

Srey Mao and I had finished our day exploring the Angkor temples for the day and headed back to my hotel room. While passing Angkor Wat, we stopped to grab a beer and watch the sun go down over the great temple. As I did, a mother and 3 children approached us looking completely destitute and pitiful. They were filthy. So I bought some food and gave it to the mother. They went off to eat. The sun went down. I continued upon my path feeling good about having done something nice for someone.

I dropped Srey at the Banana Bar on Pub Street where she is manager. Then returned to my hotel. Grabbed a shower. Dressed and found my way back to Pub Street. By this time it was 9 PM. I sat and drank a few beers with Srey. Then walked over to the Temple Club for a few games of pool with the local gals. The Temple Club is one of the best places in Siem Reap to catch a game of pool. It’s also a great place to watch the Apsara Dance. (I will put some videos of this on the blog at a later date.) Each visit to Siem Reap, I find my way to the Temple Club. I love watching those beautiful little Khmer ladies re-enact the dance of the Gods. And I love to play pool with cute little Khmer women. I played pool for an hour or two and proceeded to get fairly well sauced on the old standby Jack and Coke.

Back in Kentucky, I’m a Kentucky Bourbon man. Rarely drink anything else. I’ll hit Jack sometimes in Kentucky. But usually only when I am first returning from overseas. It’s a habit. Overseas. No one knows Kentucky Bourbon. There is one bar that I have found from Beijing to Kuala Lumpur that serves Maker’s Mark and I once found a bottle of Elijah Craig at a liquor store. Both establishments are in Saigon–Ho Chi Minh City. I guess the communists like good bourbon.

At any rate, I finish playing pool and walk over to the Banana Bar to pick up Srey Mao. She and I return to the Temple Club and sit out on the patio.

That’s when I spot her. (Reminds me of Prince and Raspberry Beret. lol)

The little girl from our “sunset and beer” viewing of Angkor Wat. She is cleaned up and changed into a different set of clothing. I just start to laugh. Rolling up directly behind her is her little sister. Finally, here comes brother. By this time, I am laughing loud and hard. I can barely breath. I realize immediately what I’m seeing. What I saw earlier. The scam that these kids mother plays out every day. Srey looks at me like I’m insane and asks what is wrong with me. Why am I laughing? I point out the kids. She sees it and starts to laugh as well. So I tell Srey to call them over. I ask them to join us and I’ll buy them supper. Srey and I start to poke and prod our way around the subject of their little subterfuge. Whose idea is this scam? Why are they doing it? How long?

So we slowly pull the story out of them. They tell us that their father abandoned them and moved on to Phnom Penh and disappeared. Mom has them dress down in rags to look destitute so they can beg for money. Apparently, Mother can barely write. In typical Khmer fashion she is uneducated. No job. No prospects. It’s either beg or starve. So they ditch their good set of clothes in an alley. Put on rags. Beg for money for food and clothing. Trying to save up money for a simple room to live in.

Honestly, I can’t begrudge that. It may have been an over-dramatization. Even so, these kids were so happy to be eating that I can’t see how it could have been an act. Afterward, I felt so sad for these children that I purchased food for about half the kids on the street. They all shared. No one fought. One little girl came up and held my hand for the longest time. I wish that I had my camera to take a photo. She was adorable. I left that night like most nights in Cambodia with a new appreciation of the life with which I have been graced. Fortune by birth. This old Kentucky boy has traveled to many a place about which many can only dream. I’ve had experience after experience that has enriched my life. Made possible by the simple accident of fate by which I came to be born American.

I know that some of my fellow Americans enjoy poking fun at those who say that America is the greatest nation on earth. But the simple truth is that everyone born in America is blessed. We have the means to lift ourselves up from our modest roots. Our destitution if that is our lot in the beginning. We have the tools to overcome our challenges. Much of the world does not.

To have been born in America is truly a blessing.

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