Serbia is a landlocked country in the Balkans. It shares land borders with Hungary (north), Romania (northeast), Bulgaria (southeast), North Macedonia (south), Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (west), and Montenegro (southwest), and Kosovo.
Serbia has about 6.6 million people.
Having loved our (240 km and 8 hour) bus ride into Bosnia and Herzegovina we decided to fly out for a 40 minute puddle jump into Serbia, more specifically Belgrade.
Belgrade is the capital and largest city of Serbia. It is located at the junction of the Sava and Danube rivers with a population of around 1.6 million. Belgrade is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world with the first dated records of habitation going back to the the 3rd century BC.
Our accommodation saw us perched between the old and new town directly opposite the old main railway station and associated park.
The park is amazing with an incredibly impressive monument to Stefan Nemanja (over 20m high).
He was a medieval Serbian nobleman who together with his son Sava (who the big church is named after) are considered the fathers of the Serbian Orthodox Church).
As it was early enough we dropped off our gear and headed out on a walk to see the sights. We chose to hit the ones that were away from old town, where we would be spending most of our time the following day. So we turned the corner from our hotel and started our way up the hill aiming towards St Sava Temple.
But within two blocks we had already landed upon the railway museum, which was incredibly impressive in its own right.
Half a block up and across the street we came upon the Government of the Republic of Serbia building.
This was built in the 1920s and was the first public building built in Belgrade for the purposes of the public administration of the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.
Next came the Department of Defence, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Belgrade city museum, public health department. And they were all housed in amazing soviet era architecturally designed buildings that were incredibly impressive.
Anyway, we did eventually make it to St Sava Temple which again, blew our socks off. The church is dedicated to Saint Sava (son of the dude with the big statue opposite our hotel), the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church and an important figure in medieval Serbia. It was built on the location of St. Sava’s grave.
The next morning we were up and off to the 160 acre Belgrade Fortress. For many centuries the entire town existed within the walls of the fortress. It sits at the meeting of the Sava and Danube rivers.
As with all of Europe, the warring tribes saw this piece of land change hands many times over the millennia. The romans had their turn and according to wiki “in the period between 378 AD and 441 the Roman camp was repeatedly destroyed in the invasions by the Goths and the Huns. Legend says that Attila’s grave lies at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube (under the fortress)”. In the following centuries the fortress suffered continuous destruction under the Avar sieges.
The name Belgrade was first mentioned in AD 878 by Bulgarians. The fortress kept changing its master as Bulgaria had it then the Byzantines and then Bulgaria again, in the 11th century it was given to the new Serbian state as a wedding gift. In the 15th century it was conquered by the Turks (with short periods of Austrian and Serbian occupation), but it remained under Ottoman Empire rule until 1867, when the Turks withdrew from Belgrade and Serbia.
From the fortress you got a fair view of the Gardoš Tower or Millennium Tower.
It was built and opened in 1896 to celebrate a thousand years of Hungarian settlement in the region.
Within the walls is St Petka’s Chapel which was built in 1417 and was allegedly erected over a sacred spring. At one time it held the holy relics of St Petka. With all of the destruction of the fortress over the years, the exact location of this chapel is not known so a replacement was built on the grounds in the 1930s.
The amazing thing for us was that to visit and walk through the fortress and associated grounds was 100% free.
There was one odd children’s playground area with dinosaurs in it that had a small fee.
But as we did not want to play on the playground, we avoided that cost.
From the fortress, you spill out into the remainder of old town and the main tourist and shopping district of Belgrade. This part of town is full of funky old buildings with tons of character.
As you wander through you come upon the Cathedral Church of St. Michael the Archangel or simply St Michael’s Cathedral. This is a Serbian Orthodox church in the centre of the old part of Belgrade. It was built around 1840, on the site of an older church dedicated to Archangel Michael.
The Historical Museum of Serbia is currently in this building but it has been granted the building opposite our hotel (the old main railway station) as its permanent home and will be moving soon.
The Stari Dvor or old palace was the royal residence of the Obrenović dynasty (1800’s).
Today it houses the City Assembly of Belgrade.
Novi Dvor or new palace was was a royal residence of the Karađorđević dynasty (late 1700 & 1800’s)
Today it is the seat of the President of Serbia.
House of the National Assembly was built in 1936 and has served as the seat of parliament for the Parliaments of Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro and since 2006, Serbia.
For the most part, Serbia has been great. The food is good (if not exactly heart smart), the prices are reasonable, the beer is well-priced, and there is plenty to see and do (mostly without charge). I would certainly not hesitate in coming back.
The Golubac Fortress is somewhere that looked amazing but sadly (at about 120km from Belgrade) we could not get to. It was a medieval (fortified) town on the Danube 4 km downstream from the current town of Golubac. The fortress was built during the 14th century and has ten towers. Most of these started square but evolved to get many-sided reinforcements to accommodate modern firearms.
OK so let’s be honest here, I had never heard of either of these two places and trying to remember them has been no easy feat. My early attempts at even trying to pronounce them have been less than stellar. The early attempts resulted in a very unhappy and uncomfortable item of poultry and a very happy local inhabitant.
Important note…the transport here from the airport to town is atrocious. We flew in via Bangkok and two plane loads arrived at the same time. Every cab in town (about 15 of them) was there to greet the plane. They filled (with the people with carry on only) and left for the 8 km journey to town, but almost none returned.
At this point I really need to stress the importance of getting, downloading and using the grab app.
From this point on you had to order your own car from the Grab or Uber apps, despite the fact that another 200 people odd are waiting to get to town. Cabs arrived and searched for the person who called them. There is no line, no queue, no order it is mayhem. We were off virtually first (seated in row 2), had our bags first (priority luggage) but were virtually the last two to leave the airport. They almost turned the lights out as we fought to get a car to town.
We finally got a car using the Grab app and got to where we wanted to be. First impressions…OK we are in the backblocks now. Phitsanulok was founded over 600 years ago and was one of the provincial centres of the Khmer Empire. Today it serves as a major transportation hub for the region with planes, trains and busses all routing through here. While this place may be a transport hub, it is a truly Thai town and there is not too much for tourists to do here.
Don’t get me wrong, it is nice but the food vendors sell food to and for locals. In plastic bags, designed to be taken home and eaten. There are very few if any tables (even the little plastic numbers) where you can sit down and eat your meal. In addition, if you have not eaten by 8pm you will not eat. Everything shuts up early and people go home. Oh, and as you head south…it gets hotter. This place is noticeably hotter than both Chiang Mai and Rai.
As you would expect, Phitsanulok has its fair share of Temples and Wats.
Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat was built in 1357 and is home to the Phra Buddha Chinnarat. This is meant to be one of the most beautiful and revered Buddha statues in all of Thailand and serves as the official symbol of the Province. I get that I am a bit of a heathen, but I truly cannot tell what makes this one more beautiful than any of the thousands of others that we have seen.
The Night Bazaar, Chan Royal Palace Historical Center, and the Buddha casting factory are all nearby and if you are hunting for things to see and do then they are available.
Sukhothai and the area around it were part of the Khmer Empire until the early 13th century. When the Khmer Empire began to decline, the local population (called Siam) revolted and assumed power under the leadership of King Si Inthrathit. they called their new empire Sukhothai which literally translates to “the dawn of happiness”.
This Kingdom lasted for 200 years (1238-1438) and is credited with the invention and development of many of the unique identifying characteristics of Siamese (Thai) culture. It was the birthplace of the Thai language and where Theravada Buddhism became Thailand’s state religion. Many of the advancements have been attributed directly to King Ramkhamhaeng, who is considered the Founding Father of the Thai Nation.
Sukhothai Historical Park is the UNESCO listed) home of most of the historical elements of the early foundations of Thai culture. It is divided into 5 zones (N,S,E,W and central) with most of the elements in the central zone.
Sukhothai Historical Park covers 70 square kilometers and contains over 190 ruins which are pretty well spread out.
How much, how long and how
The cost to enter each zone is 100 Baht per person, so going to each of the 5 zones will cost a couple 1000 Baht ($50). The central zone contains most of the more impressive ruins and can be navigated on foot in a few hours (this will get your 10,000 steps up). There are options to hire bicycles and (very cool looking) electric golf buggies (that will reduce this timing) and will allow you to get to all five zones within one day.
We chose to spread our visit out over two days rather than power through and exhaust ourselves. Part of this had to do with the fact that our hotel was absolutely lovely (Foresto Sukhothai Guesthome) and warranted a bit of extra time.
So day one was on foot and took in the central zone with a day off before tackling the outer zones.
Wat Si Sawai
With this place containing the remains of Khmer rule and the onset of Thai rule, the architecture reflects this pretty well. You can clearly see the Khmer influences when you enter Wat Si Sawai with its three corncob shaped towers (prangs) and being surrounded by a wall.
This temple was the most important royal temple in the Sukothai Kingdom. It is located right in the middle of the central zone. It is the largest of any in Sukhothai Historical Park and includes an incredibly large number of stupas, prangs (Khmer originated conical towers), and Buddha figures.
Wat Sa Si
This temple is on a small island and features a very impressive white sitting Buddha backdropped by a large chedi. And was infested by some annoying French tourists who took selfies for what seemed like forever.
Wat Sorasak is a bell-shaped stupa on a brick base. The base of the temple is surrounded by 24 elephant heads (with torso and front legs). The remains of an assembly hall are just east of the stupa. Wat Sorasak was built about 1417 A.D.
The outer zone of temples
We had a day off from sight seeing and then got back into it to do the outer ring of temples. Due to the distances in between them walking was not a reasonable option so we invested $1.50 each to hire bicycles for the day so that we could get around to them all. As you may expect, $1.50 does not rent you a top of the line bike in terms of either, speed, gearing nor comfort.
To circumnavigate the outer ring it is about a 15-20 km loop. It is fairly safe to say that, while there are 190 different ruins, many of them are little more than piles of bricks and are not really that impressive. Having cycled this distance on a very dodgy bicycle, it is also safe to say that my arse hates me and I hate non-motorised bikes.
Despite the spiel about the different zones having fees, we only found ticket booths at the north and central zones. The rest of the time you can get about freely. We came across a school group being taught by some crazy dude dressed in a safari-style outfit which was fine but we did notice the shirt that one of the teenage girls was wearing. Not sure if the meaning (or inference) of this was known – but I’m not sure that you would not get away with this shirt in the Australian schools that I went to.
Is this the death of the tuk tuk?
Heading to the historical park the guest house owners told us to grab a tuk tuk and that it should be 150 baht one way…which it was. To return we hailed a tuk tuk and could not get a price cheaper than 200 baht despite trying to negotiate and haggle. So we rejected this, jumped on the Grab app and found that we could order an air-conditioned car that arrived within a few minutes and took us to our hotel for 130 baht.
The tuk tuk drivers (in every country) have a long history of ripping off tourists and charging ridiculously more than the locals. In India, the tourist price was about 250% the local price with some shady characters trying to charge much more, but with online apps, this world may well be changing. While we are happy to support the locals we are not happy being bilked in the process.
Apps such as Grab will tell you how much it will cost for you to get to your destination in the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle. Surely any lesser options than these (such as tuk tuk) must be cheaper. They certainly should not be 50% more expensive, which was our experience trying to get home from the historical park.
Important note – If you are heading this way (Asia generally) the Grab transport App should be linked to alternative banking solutions (such as Wise or Revolut) so as to avoid huge bank fees and exorbitant exchange rate charges. In fact, these two are a much better way to avoid a multitude of bank fees charged by the usual banking suspects.
Chiang Rai was a name that we had heard but never really paid attention to. It kinda followed Chiang Mai as places to see but never really struck us as a place to go. When you are doing your planning and do a quick what’s there search you will find the White Temple, The Blue Temple and the Black House Museum.
From there if you click through to images the White temple will blow you away. From that point alone we figured that we had to go.
The two cities are only a 3 hr drive apart and as such a general search of things to do will roll the Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai attractions together. In fact, there are return day trips from both cities to see each other’s attractions – albeit a pretty long day.
Getting to Chiang Rai
This bit was pretty easy as from Chiang Mai there are loads of options. We opted for the bus. We paid top dollar for the first class bus 300 baht ($15 each) but the bus was delayed and then merged with another route so we got downgraded to a lesser bus and was refunded 100 baht each as we boarded the bus. Either way, the bus we got was perfectly reasonable so sit down, stare out the window and 3 hours later you are being delivered to the heart of town.
You could have paid more and taken a private car but the time would have virtually been the same and the air-conditioned bus was comfortable enough for such a short trip. That said I don’t think I would want to go much further in a bus.
Chiang Rai Central
Our first 5 minutes in Chiang Rai put us back in the Thailand we remembered – right in the midst of the girly bars. This is something we did not see once in Chiang Mai ( I did google it later – they were there we just didn’t see them). But within 300 meters of our hotel there they were, scantily clad and asking all of the usual questions. As it turned out this had more to do with where we were living as really this scene in Chiang Rai is fairly small. Oh yes, and the weed is still everywhere.
The center of Chiang Rai is actually pretty small and it is easy to get around just about anywhere on foot (notwithstanding the state of the footpaths). There are some Wats, some lesser-known and smaller attractions within easy walking distance and some a few kilometers from town that may warrant a tuk-tuk. Things like the clocktower, hilltribe museum, Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park (see temple artifacts, botanical gardens, and traditional teakwood houses) the Oub Kham Museum (artifacts of the Thai royal family).
The clocktower is at the centre of a roundabout near the heart of town. It was built in 2005 by a local artist to honour Queen Sirikit. This thing is seriously ornate and the street is lined with ornate railings. If you come at night there is a light show that starts on the hour (7pm, 8pm and 9pm) and goes for 5 mins.
The Night Bazaar
The night market is a lively place just behind the bus terminal. It has a variety of options for eating and drinking with the usual tourist trinket fare available for purchase. There are lots of shops around that sell everything from clothing, hats, toys, shoes, glasses, etc. There are even a few breakout areas where you can sit and listen to music and have a drink.
The White Temple – Wat Rong Khun
Well, this is the main reason for everybody coming to Chiang Rai and I must say, it does not disappoint. It is phenomenal. The masses of people are a challenge but that aside, this place deserves its place as the top tourist attraction.
By way of background this place was getting pretty run down so in the late 1990s a local artist from Chiang Rai (Chalermchai Kositpipat) bought it and decided to completely rebuild the temple and fund the project with his own money. Most of the symbolism blurb below has been drawn from the tourist spiel that is available everywhere.
The main building at the white temple is reached by crossing a bridge over a small lake. In front of the bridge are hundreds of outreaching hands that symbolize unrestrained desire. The bridge proclaims that the way to happiness is by foregoing temptation, greed, and desire.
Next to the lake stand two very elegant Kinnaree, half-human, half-bird creatures from Buddhist mythology.
After crossing the bridge, the visitor arrives at the “gate of heaven”, guarded by two creatures representing Death and Rahu, who decide the fate of the dead.
Having been judged, you cross the bridge representing “the cycle of rebirth”. This is meant to signify the crossing over from the cycle of death and rebirth into a state free of suffering. It symbolises the way to happiness by overcoming worldly things as temptations, greed and desire.
From here you enter the temple (no photos allowed) and are then free to tour the expansive grounds. Where you will find all sorts of interesting features many of which will be highly unexpected. The area adjacent to the temple is intended to house, the centre of learning and meditation and help people benefit from the teachings of Buddhism.
Around the temple grounds are several concrete “trees” with thousands of medallions hanging down from them (Bohdi Leaves). For 30 Baht you can add yours with your name written on it. With all of the visitors that have done this, it has now spilled out from the trees and there is a long walkway the ceiling of which is made up of these medallions.
All around the grounds of the white temple you will find an eclectic mix of paintings, sculptures and murals that depict modern representations of good and evil.
The best game that can be played is to try and find and identify the sculptures representing good and evil. We found many but I am certain that there were many more that we never even saw.
Even hidden in a waterfall you will find a heap of these figures and sculptures. Figures like Batman, Spiderman, Elvis, ninja turtles, the predator, venom – villains and superheroes from movies and comics.
But you really need to look or you could miss them
One of the most heavily photographed buildings there is this golden pavilion. Swarms of people are constantly posing in front of its beauty. Believe it or not…it is just the public toilet.
The Blue Temple – Wat Rong Sear Tean
Like the White Temple, this temple is totally different from almost every other that you will see throughout Thailand. It is about 4km from the heart of town, so a short tuk tuk ride – but in our case a fairly decent walk. Unsurprisingly the Blue Temple is blue a colour symbolically associated with purity, wisdom, and the lack of materialism that Buddhists aspire to. The name translates to mean the temple of the dancing tiger.
It is truly stunning this place. We have been in and out of Thai temples and they are all very lovely, intricately carved incredibly ornate and all very much similar. But even though you know it will be different this place takes it to another level. An absolute must see.
The Black House Museum – Baan Dam
The museum covers an area of about 40 acres and has over 40 different structures scattered around the site. The artist who designed and created the Baan Dam Museum (Thawan Duchanee) wants to turn this into a national arts and cultural learning centre. A bit like the white temple the place is covered in art and installations.
It gave me more of a sense of an old-school furniture shop more than a museum. Except that the furniture had been made from dead animals (notably water buffalo horns and skulls) and taxidermied animals such as crocs, snakes and even a wolf were used as table runners.
Everything is painted black and deep brown with big, intimidating-looking doors. The walls, floors, and even ceilings of the buildings are covered with paintings, sculptures, installations. But mostly there was just a lot of furniture made from animal skins, bones, and horns.
The big buddha – Wat Huay Pla Kang
While everyone calls it the big buddha it is not a buddha but actually a 23-storey high white Guan Yin or the Goddess of Mercy. In addition, there is a 9-tier pagoda (temple) guarded by golden and green nagas and of course… there is a ridiculously long staircase to get to it. And Hello Kitty busses to ferry the tourists who don’t want to walk.
Chiang Rai Flower Festival
Ok, so this was sheer dumb luck. It just so happened that our journey coincided with the Chiang Rai flower festival. We were headed to the 75th anniversary flag and lamp park (built for the king’s 75th birthday) when we found that the park was in the midst of the flower festival. Orchids, tulips and many more perfectly sculptured flower displays were sprawled out all over the park. Add to that some strategically placed dry ice in water to make an eerie mist and it was lovely. As I am not really a flower guy, I will just shut up and show you what we stumbled upon.
Much more interestingly for someone like me is that they had turned the nearby walking street (an occasional market) into a huge nightly market (with seating) with a massive selection of food that was so cheap that it almost rivalled Cambodian prices (bearing in mind that everything in Thailand is about 2.5x more expensive).
Chiang Mai was much better than I expected. Most people come and do an overnight here but as you can see from above there is much more to see and do here than that. We were here for 7 days which gave us plenty of time to see what we wanted without busting a gut.
Things around that we didn’t do
Wat Tham Pla- the Fish Cave Temple or Monkey Temple
I will state upfront we did not go here and the couple of photos are not ours. This is a Buddhist temple at the foot of the Doi Nang Non mountain range. This is the same mountain range where the soccer team had to be rescued from a cave a few years back. The entrance is guarded by a massive staircase 7-headed Nagas (mythical serpents) and the temple is basically the same as all others – but in a cave.
The main reason we did not go here is that it was 50km from town and the temple was infested with monkeys (northern pig-tailed macaques to be precise). Even the official websites tell you that the temple is overrun with monkeys and reviewers tell us that they are quite menacing and are known to jump on unsuspecting tourists and snatch their things – so visit at your own risk!
Visit the remote Karen Hilltribe Village
Karen hill tribe villages are scattered all across northern Thailand and can be found in just about every province. Many traditional villages can still be found in remote areas of Thailand. They tend to dress in traditional clothing and live in primitive bamboo stilt houses.
As we had seen and got photographed with them in Myanmar, we chose not to do the 50 km trek to see them again.
Visit the golden triangle
This is the tri-border area of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar once renowned for the opium and heroin trade. Having been to all three countries already we passed on seeing the sign.
Ignore my earlier advice about taking a tuk tuk when it comes to visiting the further out temples. The distance between them is far enough for air conditioning to be effective and much more importantly, the roads are so bad that you will relish having effective suspension in your vehicle.
Is a 10th century temple that is considerably smaller that each of the ones in town. Because of this you can get around it a lot easier and the fact that it is made out of red sandstone means that some of the reliefs and carvings have held up a bit better making it a nice spot to visit.
Firstly let me say that the Cambodian people are lovely. There is always a smile and a wave and as at early 2023 they seem not to know how to lie and cheat (YET). With the exception of the markets, there is no bartering, the price for something is the price. English is widely spoken and even more broadly understood. The usual dramas that you get throughout Asia you do not, yet, get here in Cambodia. As the disgusting hordes have not fully descended on the place, in many ways it remains (at least partially) untouched. Yes there are massage joints everywhere, and yes they are seriously cheap ($10-12/hr) but for the most part they are offering massages and not the special happy ending types that seem to abound in places like Bali, Vietnam and Thailand. Don’t get me wrong, I am not naive enough to think that if you asked for the extra service that it wouldn’t be available or easily found but it is not in your face like it is elsewhere in SE Asia. There also is not the preponderance of old fat white guys with young Asian women, holding hands and making smoochy faces. This fact alone is refreshing in this part of the world.
But it is still a poor country and the people are doing what they can to get by. You will be asked constantly “tuk tuk sir” or “you want souvenir” or in my case the less than flattering but sadly accurate “we have big sizes”. If you brave the markets you must expect to be besieged however if you are walking down the street a light wave of the hand is usually enough to dissuade the approaches. This is not the case in the markets surrounding the temples, especially later on in the day. These guys can be quite forceful and persistent. That said, it is possible that they have not made a sale yet that day and that these are desperate attempts to earn money to feed their family.
Begging…this is a new thing since last time we were here. Begging was not a thing in Cambodia in any of our other visits, however whether it is COVID, the downturn or simply desperation it is a feature that is creeping in – especially in the early evening at meal times. Gangs of wheelchairs traverse the street food stalls begging for change. In addition there are gangs of children stalking the tables. The children for the most part are looking for recyclables such as aluminium cans however on initial glance do pass off as beggars.
Siem Reap Food
First thing to know about food in foreign countries – eat local. Local food uses the local ingredients, techniques and has been tried and tested to be good and more often than not cheap. You will invariably see signs that offer you the sorts of food that you are used to, grew up with or are just your favourites. With very few exceptions…these will be terrible. I have been caught out in this regard so many times it is not funny. Pizza and pasta seem to be my personal main failure points. The longer you are away from home the more you will be tempted to order something familiar. But it will invariably be bad, expensive (comparatively), poorly executed and will leave you feeling disappointed.
Second thing to know is that we are fairly adventurous eaters and are not (normally) afraid of the street food stalls. These tend to offer the best and most authentic foods at the cheapest prices. Lets be honest here, I am a little more likely than Jill to get into the weird and wonderful things but she is certainly not afraid and once she gets a taste for something there is no stopping her. That said, there are some things she will just not come at.
Albeit you do often end up eating on tiny tables while precariously perched on a plastic stool that was designed for toddlers.
Either way I am certain they are not rated for my XXL frame. So each time we go, I gently lower myself onto one of these plastic kindergarten chairs and hope and pray that I do not have the embarrassment of coming crashing down mid meal.
So far so good…
Cambodian food is simple but great. Typical of the region, soups, noodles, rice and BBQ sticks are the order of the day. There are the two most famous Beef Lok Lak and Fish Amok. Our first time here we did a cooking class and learnt how to make these along with some spring rolls. The fish amok is a mild coconut fish curry that is steamed in banana leaves, while the lok lak is a stir fried beef typically served with a dipping sauce of salt and pepper with fresh squeezed lime juice. Fried rice is of course available everywhere as is a range of noodle, meat and vegetable dishes.
If you are anything like us when it comes to food in a foreign country you tend to pull up at small side of the road stand or restaurant and stare at the pictures on the menu pointing at things that seem vaguely recognisable or at least inoffensive. If this is the case Kuy Teav is the staple for both breakfast and lunch and you have probably had it without even knowing that you have. It is a kind of rice noodle soup with random acts of stuff thrown into it. Num Banh Chok is kinda the same but it usually uses a fermented noodle. These two are available virtually everywhere and is so common it is usually just referred to as Khmer noodles. If you didn’t have one then it would have been the other.
Num Pang is a local Cambodian version of the Vietnamese Bahn Mi or traditional Cambodian sandwich.
These usually involve a crispy bread roll (demi-baguette) that comes with pork and a pickle mix of carrot and daikon often added to by some local salad like cucumber, tomato, fresh herbs such as coriander, and an optional chilli sauce. This has become a quick lunch for us and for between $1.25-3 we get 2 rolls and our lunch is sorted. Jill dodges the chilli while I dodge the cucumber and coriander.
The interesting thing about ordering the Num Pang is that I have been to the same stall on 3 different days, I have been served by the same woman, and I have received the same item, but I have paid a different price every day. To be fair, if I were comparing a Banh Mi with a Num Pang the Vietnamese do a better version. But the Cambodian Num Pang is still very tasty and for about a buck, you cant do too much better for lunch.
Other lunch and dinner specials include: Bai Sach chrouk (pork and rice), Num Kachay (chive cakes), Nhoam svay kchai (green mango salad) and Lap Khmer (Beef salad). The food is simple and basic but also tasty and (as long as you avoid the tourist strip) cheap.
Cambodia, like other places in Asia, has a culture of eating the creepier, crawlier and slitherier types of protein sources. While I have taken great pleasure over the years of dipping my toes into these waters, for the most part it was to say that I have. They were not particularly pleasant culinary experiences and fit more into the category of bragging rights or interesting future dinner conversations. Very few of these I would choose to repeat.
Cambodia has many dishes made from insects/bugs and roving tuk tuks will have trays of various such bugs for your culinary pleasure. Typical offerings are either laid out on trays or have been skewered for your convenience and can include: snakes, scorpions, crickets, silkworms, grasshoppers, cockroaches, ant eggs, spiders, beetles, and bamboo worms. On a previous trip to Cambodia the boy and I had an evening at the night market sampling the various weird collections of food on a stick. These included snakes and the particular Cambodian delicacy of deep fried Tarantulas.
On other trips to other countries I have had virtually every type of bug that is available for sale (I really need to stop drinking before hitting the night markets). As I have grown older (and supposedly wiser) I tend to eat less of the freaky stuff and stick to tasty local delicacies. For the most part, once you have eaten a scorpion you don’t really need to keep eating them everywhere you go. As such, my current intake of bugs and creepy crawlies has dropped off significantly. I am still more than happy to try new things however do not intend to retrace ground already covered.
As with almost everywhere in Asia there will be drums with fire and there will be various meats and vegetables on sticks ready and waiting to be grilled. Some of these items will be identifiable while others will not. For the most part this is where flame meets meat and at this point very little really can go wrong. Stare at something that looks good, point at it, raise the number of fingers that you think will be enough, and wait. A few short minutes later you will be a couple of dollars poorer and have had a meal. Our most expensive foray into these BBQ’s this trip was the $2.50 for the quarter chicken.
As can be seen from the photo above the options of things that can go on a grill are almost endless. Random sausage type things abound, mystery meats and odd looking balls are always regulars on the table as is a usual nod towards tofu and some vegetables. Pick the ones that work for you, point at it and then just dig in.
One of Jill’s personal favourites that fits both the weird and the BBQ categories is the barbeque bullfrog. I think the first time we had this was on a street food tour in Vietnam. We then found it again in Laos and have now also had it now here in Cambodia. The Cambodian version involves covering the bullfrog in a tamarind sauce before grilling over the ubiquitous charcoal drum. We got three bullfrogs for our serving size and tucked in accordingly.
This was neither difficult to find nor considered particularly unusual. It was just a normal item on the menu.
Desserts are an interesting concoction here in Cambodia, fruits and juices abound and a bunch of tuk tuk attached stalls have plenty of options for you to choose from. The first night we found the pancakes for a dollar. These involved the thin crepe type batter being stretched and folded and fried in front of you while any number of toppings were an option, the go to certainly seemed to be banana and chocolate. Cambodian bamboo sticky rice (Kralan) is traditional and is cooked with coconut milk and soybean in a bamboo tube, however these tended to be available as you travelled to the outer temples and I haven’t seen too many in town. The next one we tried was the Fried ice cream. This is not really fried and is only notionally ice cream. It is fruit and cream mixed together on a cold surface in front of the tourists to extract some ($2.50) of their money. And the winner is…coconut crepes, these thin crepes are made on the streets and are sold for 25 cents. These eclipse the others by so far it isn’t funny.
Motorbikes and Monster trucks
Motorbikes and tuk tuks are commonplace throughout Asia in fact motorbikes are so ubiquitous that it is virtually impossible to go a few seconds without seeing (or more likely dodging) one. Every evening the streets become choked with parked bikes making even the simplest of walks into an exercise in maze running.
But a new feature on the landscape within Cambodia is the introduction of monster trucks. It seems that almost every second vehicle (excluding bikes and tuk tuks) is a monster truck. It starts with the generally very big trucks like the Ford Rangers, Mazda BT50’s, Toyota Hilux’s and even the odd Nissan Navara. Now these are pretty big trucks to be driving around the narrow streets of Asia however from here things start getting ridiculous with the REALLY big trucks coming into play.
Things like the Toyota Tundra, Ford Raptor, Dodge Ram, and Chevrolet Silverado’s. These are truly massive vehicles and really seem out of place trying to park within the centre of Asian cities. But they are everywhere.
Markets in Siem Reap
Markets are the lifeblood throughout most of Asia. There are two main types of markets to be found the tourist markets and the local markets. The tourist markets are usually hellish spots as touts harass you to buy useless trinkets and souvenirs. For those on short stay trips these make for the perfect spots to buy things for those left at home in a feeble attempt to make them feel like you were thinking about them. In Siem Reap the old market along with the night markets (both noon and Angkor) cater to this type of thing perfectly. If you are looking for something a little more authentic then the Made in Cambodia market may be for you. Focussing on local products and artists things are a little less cheap and tacky and a little calmer.
And then there are the markets for the locals. We saw the biggest one as we drove past it on our way to visit the Roulos Group of temples – Phsar Leu Thom Thmey. We tapped Mr Thou on the shoulder and asked what that market was and could we stop and visit it on the way back. He happily obliged. Phsar Leu sells real items for the local consumers – but be warned this place is both huge and a maze and once in you may never get out. Here there are huge number of stalls selling everything you could imagine. There are gold stalls, fresh fruits and vegetables, food, footwear, clothing by the acre and the ever present wet markets. Butchers and fish mongers abound as live fish flop about in shallow buckets. This place is truly an assault on the senses, but it is pretty commonplace for those who live here.
And importantly as a tourist you can walk through without getting harassed.
Our previous forays into Thailand saw us in Bangkok and in Phuket, neither of which really appealed to us at all. The food has always been good (with the exception of the coriander) however the general feel of these two areas have been too touristy and aggressively in your face for our liking.
So this trip we thought that we would head north, up into the mountains near the Laos and Myanmar borders. Another area with lots of old temples and hopefully some great food options. Myanmar was one of our favourite countries to visit, however, the current political situation has made it an international no-go zone, we figure we will be close enough to the border that some of the culinary offers may have leaked through the border.
About Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai was founded in the 13th century (1296) and is set high in the mountains. It was the capital of the Lanna Kingdom (18th and 19th century) where it was (and remains) the religious and cultural centre of the region. The old part is a walled city with 4 gates.
Within the walls of the old city, the narrow streets are filled with shops, bars, restaurants, markets and more temples than you count. In the centre of the Old Town are the temple ruins of several temples along with many brand new and functioning ones. In fact there are over 300 wats scattered throughout the city and surrounding countryside.
Dead centre is the Chiang Mai arts and cultural centre along with the Three Kings Monument with the Wat Inthakhin Sadue Muang Temple just to the left as you look at it.
The Temples (Wat)
The sheer number of temples (known as Wat) within the walled city is amazing, you virtually cannot walk a block without hitting at least one, often times more. The other thing that is fair to say is that one Thai temple is remarkably similar to the next and the one before.
The anatomy of each Thai temple is pretty similar, there is the Phutthawat which is the area devoted to buddha. It can contain several buildings but would typically include a Stupa (Chedi) the bell shaped tower, prang (a tower), an ordination hall (bot), shrine/s (wihan), and several pavilions (sala) for receiving religious education or merely for shade.
The Sangkhawat contains the majority of the working parts of the temple including the kitchen and the monks living quarters, there may also be pavilions in the sangkhawat.
The roofs usually are split into 2-4 tiers and the bargeboards are ornately decorated with a serpent style carving known as a lamyong.
Things to do in Chiang Mai
Our early research showed the abundance of temples, bars and of course food. The Three Kings Monument is in the heart of Old City in front of the arts ad cultural centre. The statue portrays the three founders of Chiang Mai, in the 13th century – King Mengrai, King Ramkhamhaeng and King Ngam Muang.
The Chang Phueak (Chang Puak) Gate faces north and is in very poor condition, however it is the site of the best street food markets virtually every night of the week. Head to the gate, take your life into your hands crossing the road and turn left. There are stall after stall selling almost anything you want for not very much…and it is all good.
The tha phae gate faces east and is the best, most preserved (renovated) and most tourist friendly of all of the gates of the old city. Because of this it is always busy and has developed an unusual tourist attraction – the pigeons. Groups of roaming touts feed masses of pigeons to get them to cluster then charge tourists money to take photos of them after banging and yelling loudly to get the pigeons to fly. The end result is a lot of noise and some photos of people with birds fluttering about them.
The Chiang Mai gate faces south and is in a reasonable state however due to COVID many of the businesses in the vicinity are closed so many of the shops are not operating.
The Suan Dok gate is to the west and is possibly the second best preserved of the gates. However similar to the south gate many of the businesses are not currently operation (early 2023).
At the north-eastern corner of the city you will find the Si Phum Corner. This is the site of the original unrenovated wall that is slowly crumbling into the canal that surrounds the old city.
The temples around town
As mentioned before, the sheer number of temples in town is staggering and there is no way that I am going to list or visit them all. But here is a sample of some of them and a bit of an idea about each.
Wat Chedi Luang is at the centre of the city and is commonly known as the big temple. Wat Chian Man is the oldest of the temples in Chiang Mai built around 1296-97. Wat Saen Muang Ma Luang (also known as Wat Hua Khuang) is one of the most beautifully maintained and grand looking temples
Wat Inthakhin Sadue Muang was built over 700 years ago and literally translates to “temple of the city navel”, due to its location in the center of old city. Wat Umong Mahathera Chan is not as ornate and is basically a collection of brick stupas for monks to meditate inside.
The Sunday night market (or Sunday walking market ) is the most famous and the most popular but there are night markets oevery day of the week if you care to look a little further afield. As mentioned above in the gates section we regularly hit the night food markets outside the northern gate but it was just for food and not really for shopping.
The Sunday walking market is essentially the one for the tourists and is the most popular with them. It has a wide variety of the expected local art, craft, music. The thing it does possibly better than the others is the incorporation of food stalls (and ore importantly somewhere to sit and eat them) in more than one location. In addition, the various massage vendors are there and on hand to offer a foot massage should it be needed.
Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is probably the largest of the markets with hundreds of shops in one place and it is open every day.
It is outside the old city on the eastern side. This night bazaar offers virtually everything including shoes, bags, clothes, handicrafts, artwork, sunglasses, and electronic items. The Anusarn Night Market, Ploen Ruedee Night Market and Kalare Night Markets are all in the same vicinity and as far as I could tell they would be indistinguishable as to where one stops and the next one starts. But they are all open each evening from 6pm.
The Wualai walking street and Gate markets are situated at or just outside the southern gate of old town while the Wororot markets can be found in the heart of Chinatown.
I got my shoes resewn here for the ridiculous price of $3 as I had a blowout – probably from all the stairs.
Getting Around in Chiang Mai
The local preference and probably easiest for getting around is the Songthaew – pronounced song tail (aka Road-Daeng, Red Taxi or Red Truck). It is basically a converted ute with two rows of seats in the back. The most common one used in Chiang Mai is red and all you need to do is hail one down, tell them where you want to go, ask the price and if it is in the general direction they are heading then they will take you. If not, try the next one. As a guide about 30 baht ($1-1.30) will get you almost anywhere in town. If you don’t want to share your ute with the locals then you can pay more and hire a private one (similar to a taxi).
Tuk Tuk – is the second most common transport however is more expensive than the Songthaew with the rates starting at 60 baht for a short trip and 100 to 150 baht for longer distance.
Taxis – There are actual taxis that exist however they tend to park up at the airport, railway station, bus station, malls, and hotels.
Ridesharing – is available and they generally use the apps either Uber or Grab. In fact if you are planning on spending any significant amount of time in SE Asia it is probably worth downloading the Grab app as it is widely used in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Bus – the Smart city bus was introduced in mid 2018 and for a flat rate of 30 baht you can get on and get around. Coins can be used as can the rabbit card that is used in Bangkok for use on the MRT or the BTS Metro Systems. Two tourist card options can be bought that will give you unlimited riding for 180 baht for one day or 400 for 3 days.
Samlor – this is the traditional Thai rickshaw – powered by some skinny old guy pedalling you around. I cannot tell you the prices as I can not bring myself to order one. The thought of a 70 year old, 40kg Asian dude struggling to peddle my fat ass around is something that I will just not do.
Rent a motorbike – this is very cheap at about 100-200 baht for 24 hours that will get you a 100cc motorbike and 2 helmets with the more powerful 110-125cc bikes with automatic transmissions costing more. Beware some places will want to keep your original passport as collateral. Also as a westerner you will be stopped frequently by police to check that you have your helmet, international licence and that the bike is not too powerful (read here that you will need to bribe your way out if you do get stopped).
And of course car rentals and tours are always available.
Things to do around Chiang Mai
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
This is the most famous and most frequently visited of the temples in the region It is easy to get to (about 15 km from town) with most of the transport options (explained below) getting you there with very little fuss. It was built in the early 19th century and is set atop a hill with amazing views over Chiang Mai.
Upon arrival you are met with the usual tourist stalls before you find the stairs (306 of the buggers) to the temple. The stairs are lined by the seven-headed serpent statues (naga) – there is a funicular if you really are not up to the stairs.
Once you have made it up the hill you will find the temple where a golden pagoda sits that is said to contain a bone from buddha’s shoulder. On the terrace you will find a statue of the white elephant that allegedly carried the bone to the temple. As usual for this sort of place you will also find the obligatory shrines and monuments. For those willing to pay the money there is also a night tour available.
If you are willing to pay a little more and take a private trip, there is a night tour available.
Bhubing Rajanives Palace was built in 1961 as the king’s residence when he came to stay in Chiang Mai. It is about 22 kms from old town on Buak Ha Mountain. The gardens are perfectly manicured with extensive plantings that would send a gardening nut into fits of rapture. From my side…it was very pretty.
Doi Inthanon National Park is the highest point of Thailand and home of the beautiful King and Queen pagodas. There are tours heading here all the time and many of them will include some of the items listed below as well. This is a truly stunning spot and well worth the visit. While there are a ton of stairs to get to the Pagodas they have thoughtfully considered us old buggers and put an escalator (up only) to the top of each side…very civilised.
Chiang Mai Zoo and aquarium is a is a 200-acre zoo with over 400 species of animals that includes a 133m aquatic tunnel and they have a night safari. Oh Claudia, if you are reading along…they have pandas.
Elephant Sanctuary – The Meaklang Elephant Sky Camp is reported to be an ethical Elephant Sanctuary where the elephants are taken care of very well. The ads recommend that you bring spare clothes and a towel for if you join in to the elephant bathing.
As we have done numerous elephant sanctuaries in Sri Lanka and Laos we chose to skip this but those we met spoke highly of the experience.
Wachirathan Falls is one of the largest and most beautiful waterfalls in the country at over 80 meters tall the waterfall creates a mist that feeds the surrounding vegetation. Sirithan Waterfall is a stunning 50-meter cascade, fed by the Mae Klan River. Paths all around this one gives you many angles and photo opportunities.
Chiang Mai Street Art
Similar to Penang, Chiang Mai has a thriving street art scene that has not been advertised and is rarely written about. So much so that we didn’t even know to look but Jill kept stopping and taking photos of these amazing scenes or funky pictures. The same sort of thing exists in Penang but somebody has put it together as a tourist attraction as a sort of hide and seek for the artworks.
The same thing could easily be done here. I am certain that we have missed a heap of these and a google images search assures us that we have, and we saw others but parked cars ruined photos. The bottom line is that if you care to look there are amazing artworks often hidden down tiny alleys or side streets and if you are willing to roam patience is required to find these hidden gems.
Long story short – here is a business opportunity for anyone willing to make a map and add it to the tourist agenda. A complete list of the artworks and a treasure map of where to find them would keep people amused for hours and would add greatly to the local tourism scene and things to do list.
This bit surprised me a little given all that we Aussies have heard about Thailand’s tolerance of drugs – or lack thereof. Cannabis can be bought simply and easily almost everywhere through old town and beyond. The smoking of weed is totally legal at home or in private places but not in public.
WARNING – Fines for smoking weed in public are about $1000-1200 Australian and 3 months imprisonment.
This was either unknown to the backpackers or they just didn’t care as it didn’t seem to stop them smoking away as they walked down many of the streets and alleys late at night.
Well after several years of having our wings clipped, we finally got ourselves offshore again. The first major port of call was somewhere that we knew well and had enjoyed – Cambodia. More accurately Siem Reap. Our first foray here was back in November 2013 with a subsequent visit with the boys a year later in November 2014. The place and people are lovely, it is cheap and the food is great. A good way to ease ourselves back into the world of global nomadding again.
Before we get too carried away lets get some of the basics down to provide some context about what is going on here. Between the 9th and the 15th century Khmer or Ankorian Empire existed within SE Asia and at its peak was said to be larger than the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine) which existed around the same time. Kicking off in the early 800’s the empire the grew to be one of the largest going and satellite images show that at its peak it was the most extensive pre-industrial urban complex in the world. Long story short, there are about 50 Buddhist and Hindu temples dating back to the 8th-12th century in the vicinity of Siem Reap. Many of the structures have collapsed or been swallowed by the jungle but the structures that remain and the carvings in place make the are a must see and listed by UNESCO.
Touring the temples
Step One – buy your ticket. The prices are in USD and they range as seen on the right (prices correct as at Nov 2023). Note that these tickets are for the main temples etc and they do not give you access to all things. If for example you wanted to go to the Kulen Waterfalls then another ticket would be required.
There is an inner loop (ie the ones close to town) and an outer loop of temples that can be done. The inner loop takes in the big ticket items of Angkor Watt, Angkor Thom, the Bayon temple and Ta Prohm Temple (which became famous in the tomb raider movie and game with its image of the tree growing out of the wall). The inner loop can be easily done in a day but does involve a lot of walking and a lot of stairs. The outer loop takes in the temples requiring a little more driving and are generally a little less impressive or less well preserved. These too can be done in a day but there is more tuk tuk time and fewer stairs. From here there are the far away temples. These are considerably further from town and individual negotiations would need to take place on both price and type of vehicle required.
What to wear when visiting the temples
Dress is simple. You are off to visit temples and holy sites so dress accordingly. This means that your legs and shoulders should be covered for the period when you are inside the temples. For such a simple concept this still continues to confuse the majority of the women that attend these sites. The innate need for short skirts and strappy tops is obvious…so too is the absolute requirement to show as much skin in your influencing photos and videos. However, the inability to throw an overshirt or the ubiquitous elephant pants on for the few minutes you are in a temple seems too impossible a task to muster. And guys the world will be able to survive for the few minutes it takes while you put away the gun show – especially those northern European (glow in the dark) biceps.
How to get to Siem Reap temples
You you can hire virtually any type of transport that you want to take you around and through the temples. You can have a bus all to yourself if you really like. There are private cars, motorcycles, bicycles and tuk tuks. If you take the private air-conditioned car or bus, you will find that the short distances between temples means that you have arrived at the next temple before the air conditioning has had a chance to kick in.
You can ride a bicycle, but that would mean that you would have to ride a bicycle. Motorcycles mean that you are either on the back of a local’s bike or that you have hired your own and would need to know your way around the various temples.
Tip Number One: Take a tuk tuk. The tuk tuk is cheap, easy and has great air flow, especially if you choose one of the more open types rather than the more enclosed versions. This means that you are cooling down immediately after having hiked up and down the temples, rather that sweltering looking for relief. We had the one on the left (below) driven by the lovely Mr Thou and it was fantastic.
Angkor Wat is clearly the most famous of the temples and is the main attraction for the region. It was built in the 12th century to worship the Lord Vishnu (a Hindu deity) and allegedly served as the funerary temple for the bloke who commissioned it, King Suryavarman II. It is set on 402 acres and surrounded by a 5km moat which contains an outer wall of 3.6 kilometres. Once inside there are three rectangular galleries and the main building. At the centre of the temple stands the five towers (that google tells me is called a quincunx – not a word that typically lives in my vocabulary but hey lets go with it).
The five lotus towers are 65 metres tall and are decorated with around 2,000 stone carvings of Apsaras (celestial dancers). In all reality, virtually all of Angkor Wat’s surfaces are carved. There are kilometres of carvings that include battle scenes, fictional animals and all sorts of other things that give credence to the legend of the day.
Once you leave Angkor Wat you (typically) head across for a bit to Angkor Thom or Big Angkor. It is the largest site in the Angkor Archaeological Park and contains a number of smaller temples and archaeological sites. Our first stop was the south gate (one of five 20-metre-tall gates that surround Angkor Thom). The gates have intricate stone carvings of elephants and the 4-faced Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, while the bridges leading up to the gates are lined with carvings of devas (gods) on the left and asuras (demons) on the right. Both the gods and the demons appear to be playing tug of war on a snake (Naga). You tend to come through the south gate as the vandals have stolen the heads off many of the statues on the other gates so they are considerably less impressive.
There are 8 metre high walls and a moat surrounding Angkor Thom. The faces on the entrance gates were added later than the original gates and they reflect the faces that can be found on the Bayon Temple (also contained within the walls of Angkor Thom). Within Angkor Thom is a range of smaller temples that include Baphuon, Phimeanakas, Prasat Suor Prat and many others however these have and are falling into great disrepair. Notably you will see the terrace of the Elephants and the terrace of the leper king that are prominent and are both currently undergoing considerable preservation and restoration works.
The Bayon Temple is probably the second most recognisable after Angkor Watt as it features approximately 50 stone towers with intricately carved faces. The blurb tells me that the faces are the 4 faces of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (not really sure what that means but hey, I can go with that too). Bayon is in the midst of Angkor Thom and it too was built in the late 12th century. Each of the stone carvings of faces are 4 metres high and oriented toward the 4 cardinal points. It is surrounded by long walls that have some seriously intricate carvings of battlefields, markets, and religious rituals.
Ta Prohm is the famous a Tomb Raider temple. Very large trees with impressive roots have grown out of, through and amid the various walls and roofs of the temple.
The other temples
Needless to say, there are 50 of them. They are too numerous to mention and they are in varying states of disrepair but here are a few of the more common ones to look out for. The Preah Khan (Sacred Sword) temple complex is notable as it is surrounded by a moat and the roads are lined with sculptures on the way to the temple. The Roluos group of temples is about 13 km east of Siem Reap and was the original head of the Khmer empire from the 9th century before being taken over by the main ones in the 12th century. Thought to be the first capital the group of temples include Bakong (largest temple in the Roluos Group), Lolei, Preah Ko (temple of the cow) and the smaller Prasat Prei Monti.
Ba Phuon (newly restored and reopened), Phnom Bakheng (sunset hill), Prasat Banteay Srey (citadel of women), Koh Ker (about 90 minutes away with around a dozen temples dating around the10th century), Baksei Chamkrong (Temple pyramid near the South Gate of Angkor Thom).
Kulen National Park
Phnom Kulen (Mountain of the Lychees) is a national park around 40 kilometers outside of Siem Reap. While it is not that far, the state of the roads make it a 90-120 minute trip and it must be done in a car or even a 4WD in the rainy season. It is said that Phnom Kulen is the birthplace of the Khmer empire and was even the site where King Jayavarman II declared independence (around the 9th century). Much of the stone used in the temples of Siem Reap was mined here and transported to the temples. But today it is the site of a couple of really nice waterfalls, a reclining buddha and the river of 1000 lingas (phallic symbol of the Hindu god Shiva – so I am going for the river of 1000 dicks).
The first thing to note is that the temple ticket that you have does not count for this area…so you have to pay for another one. We ended up travelling around 40 km out of town, we spent 3 times the price on transport to that paid for seeing the temples. In hindsight I don’t think it was worth it. The waterfalls were lovely and there was a nice outlook spot that we stopped at on the way that provided a different kind of view of the area. The buddha had seen better days but was still ok and the River of 1000 dicks was at best disappointing. If you have plenty of time then sure go ahead but on a limited time this one could be skipped.
Cambodia during covid
The Cambodian ticket site has some pretty amazing stats on exactly what the COVID pandemic did to tourism in the region. Prior to the pandemic the temples of Angkor were receiving 2.6 million visitors per year and generating nearly $5 billion in revenues. These revenues were employing people and paying for the renovations, restoration and upkeep of the various temples. However border closures and travel restrictions dropped visitor numbers down to about 300,000 and knocked Cambodia’s income from tourism down to just $184 million last year.,
It is clear that money was expended on the roads as these have been upgraded well and some of the major temples still saw some of the renovation and renewal budget. But some of the lesser temples (especially within Angkor Thom) have paid a significant price for the drop off in available funds. Recent months have seen a significant upturn and within 2 months there is expected to be easing of the Chinese travel restrictions that may see numbers and dollars flying back in.
We stopped here in Pursat cos we had a little time to kill before we were due to meet friends who were joining us in Siem Reap. So we popped into Pursat for a couple of days to get a sense of what Cambodia was like away from the tourist hordes. This place is off the tourist route, so much so that when Jill asked the hotel in Phnom Penh to get us a bus ticket to Pursat…they asked…really, are you sure. And again afterwards when heading to the Battambang hotel they kept asking if we were coming from Siem Reap or Phnom Penh…when Jill said Pursat they said “no really, are you coming from Siem Reap or Phnom Penh”.
So we hopped a bus and did the 200kms to Pursat, which was quite a calm and uneventful journey. We got delivered at a rest stop about 2km from town and started to walk to our hotel but the heat of the day, and a vacant tuk tuk got the better of us (mainly me) and I paid a buck to get driven to the hotel rather than lugging the backpacks in high heat and high humidity.
Jill had us booked into the flashiest joint in town…4 stars…had it actually been 4 stars. It was actually on a par with the 2 star place we stayed at in Phnom Penh. The main difference was that this place had a very nice swimming pool, a feature we used regularly over the 3 days. We went out on the first evening and poked around town (such as it is) and ended up eating at a little roadside joint. A nice meal and some Angkor beer for under $10 for both.
The next day we hit the tourist sites…20 minutes later we were finished. A temple, a market and a garden. We were back to the hotel for a swim and we found the only restaurant listed on trip advisor. It was a pizza joint of all things…and the pizza was good. Not Cambodian good…actually good. We have dipped our toes into the odd western dishes intermittently on this trip and have been disappointed every time…until now. This place served good pizza and the owner was lovely as she hung out chatting while we waited for our food. We found out she was a school teacher by morning and a restaurant owner in the afternoons and evenings. At the end of our meal she offered to give us rides back to our hotel on the back of her motorcycle…but we assured her we could make the 700m walk. In all honesty after a big feed the walk was welcomed.
Our hotel managed to get Jill into a rage as she sought two bus tickets to Battambang…4 requests and 2 days later still no tickets. She ranted, she raved, she swore, she asked for the manager (who had conveniently gone home)…and we walked down to town (5mins) and got the tickets ourselves…from a woman who spoke zero English…but could still provide better service than the hotel. The next day we took our $3 bus ride to Battambang.
We were picked up from a dirt patch opposite the servo (which passes as the bus stop) by Bodan (pronounced Bowrain) who was to be our personal guide and tuk tuk driver for the next few days. He dropped us at our 2 star joint which was immediately better than our 4 star one (but minus a pool). The owner was waiting to greet us and could not do enough to help. We locked in a 4pm trip to the Bamboo train and dinner afterwards.
The bamboo train is a series of small bamboo rafts, for want of a better term, that sit on two railway axles, powered by a law mower engine that run along the out of service railway tracks. Originally this was for transport and goods movement but is now almost entirely for the tourist. There is one track, so if a competing raft comes in the other direction one or other must cede the track. To do this, both drivers pick up the raft, dump it on the side of the tracks, move the wheels and after one has passed then ( hopefully) the other driver will help the raft that ceded back onto the tracks.
WARNING: Jill’s video may induce epilepsy
This was fun. Jill has developed a love for all things train and this was yet another experience for the train journal. As we left our hotel at 4pm this was designed to be a sunset trip with a 30 min tuk tuk ride followed by a 20 min bamboo train ride to a village manned solely by stores (grass huts more than stores) for tourists and a 20 minute bamboo train ride back (pausing for some sunset photos across the rice paddies). I repeat…this was fun.
The next day we locked in with Bodan for a day exploring the southern areas around Battambang. This included the odd temple, fishing village, bat caves, winery and Wat Banan a run down group of 5 temples atop a hill with about 500 stairs that needed climbing. The best bit was cruising around the real Cambodia in the back of a tuk tuk. The day saw us heading about 50k out of town so we passed actual villages and villagers going about their daily business (not the tourist version at the end of the bamboo train).
The highlight of the day (other than the general immersion in the local lifestyle) was the visit to Phnom Sampeu. This is a series of hilltop temples, a monastery and two Buddhist stupas. The other thing of note was that it was the location of three Khmer Rouge killing caves, which is exactly what you might imagine (especially after reading the Phnom Penh post). These were deep crevasses where people were forced to kneel at the top, were killed and were kicked into the crevass. The one I went into was one where over 10,000 bodies were found.
The next day Jill booked us into a local cooking class run by a young Cambodian guy, French trained, chef in his own business (Coconut) that was staffed by his family. A classically trained chef being aided/overseen by his mother (who at times takes the mortar and pestle off him) is funny to watch. He may have all the skills but mum still sometimes knows best. We made 3 different local dishes (spring rolls, Fish Amok and Beef Loklak) and a desert and they were all incredible.
From here Bodan picked us up and we went touring the north of the city to Wat Ek Phnom an 11th century temple that is hanging on by its fingernails. This place will be rubble before too long. On the way we stopped at some local village businesses like the rice paper factory (underneath somebody’s house) and the fish sauce and fish paste factory. It is said you should never let people see how laws or sausages are made…this goes triple for fish sauce and fish paste.
These items have distinctive smells…but at the factory (a shanty shed with no walls) watching the filthy conditions, the man kicking the fish into piles, the vats of compressed (by big rocks) salted fish, the 15-20kg catfish having their heads chopped off (to be sold to the crocodile farm down the road), the shrimp, the ass fish that were too small to be eaten. Some things you just never needed to know…this was one of them.
I had very little knowledge about Laos prior to this trip…the little that I did know left me uninspired but hey…it was right next door and we would be crazy not to go. We hopped off the plane and cabbed it to a really nice hotel where we settled in for he next few days. Now Laos was a former French colony and (at least in Vientiane) it has benefitted from this in the usual manner. Waterfront esplanades, cafés, coffee shops, baguettes, cheese and some pretty damn fine architecture.
Possibly one of the first things we should mention is that Laos has more western tourists than almost anywhere else we have been so far. Everywhere you look. Vientiane has a small town feel about it rather than that of most of the other Asian capitals. We relaxed through the heat of the day and headed out to the Mekong riverfront esplanade and markets for a lovely stroll followed by the hunt for a local restaurant for dinner. A few beer Lao’s, a bowl of soup and some spring rolls, all for next to nothing, our introduction to Laos had begun.
So the next day we plotted our course on the map and set off on the journey to hit the usual tourist haunts. The heat was high…about 38 degrees… but unlike the last few places, the humidity was low. So despite high temperatures it was quite pleasant walking around doing the tourist schlepp. We hit the usual haunts, temples, monasteries, museums, markets, stupas and yet some more temples. Possibly the most impressive was the Laos version of the Champs Elysees on the street leading up to the Palace. Having blitzed the town we found we had done 90% of the tourist thing in about 4 hrs…there really isn’t too much here.
The things they call museums are really just old things…the actual museum was saved for the next day. We found the local delicacy on day one and went back the next two days for more. It was a baguette filled with pate, cheese, vegetables, mystery meat and mystery sauce and cost a total of 10,000 kip (about $1.30). The next day we hit the actual museum which enlightened us to the war history of Laos…something that I at least was unaware of. These guys have been systematically smacked by almost everybody. Starting with the Chinese, then the Thai’s, the French, the Brits, the Japanese and then the French once again.
While there was not massive amounts to see or do, there was a relaxing atmosphere about the place. The traffic was calm, there was no honking, the esplanade alongside the Mekong river was nice, the food was pretty good and was cheap. We hit the esplanade for a sunset walk along the banks of the Mekong river and just generally relaxed taking in the sights, sounds and smells of a new country.
Vientiane did spark the conversation of who was the rudest nationality when it came to tourists. It came down to a split decision between three different nationalities and this varied entirely depending upon the circumstances. What we did determine was the factors that made a rude tourist…this was essentially those that are ignorant and arrogant, ignoring those around them at all costs. I am sure that using this criteria the First Nation that pops to mind for most of you will be he USA…but they do not rate in out top three as there are many worse examples of ignorant and arrogant tourists, ignoring those around them.
Our pick of the worst three tourist nationalities that we have come across are… The French, the Russians and the Israelis. The French seem to have a sense of colonialism to them where they seem to think that this is still a colony and the locals are here entirely for their subjugation, and that other tourists are irrelevant to their particular needs and wants. The Russians have had their tourist doors closed for too long so a Russian tourist is (generally) either oblivious or totally disregarding of other people trying to experience the same things.
The Israeli tourists you tend to meet are all around 25 years old and have just finished their national service. They are young, brash, fit and cashed up. They will drink, dance, party and listen to their doof doof at any volume they see fit, at any time and to hell with anyone around them.
Our three favourites would have to be the Dutch, the Germans and Canadians. These three are generally quiet, reserved, respectful and genuinely interested to learn about and experience other countries and cultures.
A short flight from Bagan to Mandalay and we were off on our next leg. Tiny airports really do add a whole new level of interest to a journey. We were on a baby prop plane that required the weighing of everything that went onto the plane. We were originally booked Air Bagan but were changed to Asian Wings airline…but still had to check in at Air Bagan. There was no assigned seating…just first on, first seated. Despite all of this it was a relatively uneventful flight. We arrived and ended up in a share taxi to town… And on to our accommodation which was really nice…and our taxi resembled a passenger vehicle…no ute taxi this time.
Mandalay is the second-largest city and was the last city used as the royal capital. The palace was originally the former royal palace of Amarapura which they dismantled and moved here by elephants. The palace is at the centre of a 1020-acre citadel surrounded by four 2,032 m long walls and a moat 64m wide, 4.6m deep (thanks wiki). The walls originally had three gates on each side, and five bridges to cross the moat…at present there is one bridge per side.
We were staying about 2km South-west of the palace so decided on an early start to avoid the heat of the day. We walked the 2k to the corner, then the other 1k to the bridge…only to find the south gate was closed to foreigners. So we walked the 2k to the east gate, to find that they no longer accepted US$ but only the local kyat. So we walked one K to a big hotel, changed our money and walked the one k back to the gate. Having paid we walked another k to the palace where we poked around for a while.
Buddhism reigns supreme here and about 15km out of town in Amarapura Township is the Mandalay Swedaw pagoda celebrating the tooth of Buddha. Not the actual tooth because we saw that in Kandi, Sri Lanka…but a replica. This is one of four such temples in Myanmar…celebrating the replica of the tooth of Buddha and they are all high atop hills and mountains, this one was on Maha Dhammayanthi Hill. Needless to say we did not attend.
Having seen the palace we headed back the 1k to the east gate and headed north for the 1k walk to the bottom of Mandalay Hill (anyone keeping count of our little amble…god knows I was). From the bottom of the hill we started the climb up the covered staircase (called saungdan). At the top of the hill is the Sutaungpyei (wish-fulfilling) Pagoda. The guide book told us that for those who are fit to make the climb, it is considered a rewarding experience and a meritorious deed at the same time. What it also told us…in fine print…was that it was a holy site so the shoes came off and we did a 45 minute stair climb barefoot.
For those that have been following…my darling (mountain goat) bride did the 1200 stairs to get to the Great Wall in Mutyanyu in 15 mins…this climb took 45…admittedly I am certain I slowed her pace…buy hey…just a bit of context here. Did I mention that it was barefoot. Any guesses as to what the local dogs do on the staircase…yep…a new degree of difficulty. Anyway up we went. We intermittently hit plateaus with pagodas or temples on them. The most impressive was the hermit U Khanti’s dazaung hall. This was about one third of the way up and was spectacular with views over the palace complex and the religious sites below. This hall once held three fragments of bone of the Gautama Buddha (a different Buddha to the toothless one) but they were moved in the 1940’s.
The stairs went up…so…so did we. We climbed hitting the odd plateau of religious (or commercial) significance. As we neared the top we popped out onto a road as taxis ferried those tourists who were not interested in rewarding experiences or meritorious deeds in 37 degrees and 80+% humidity. We kept climbing and passed some Germans who were looking ragged but un-sweaty who warned us that there were many more steps and there was still a long way to go. On we went…as it turned out there was only about another 200 stairs and they weren’t that tough…these Germans were clearly not doing the meritorious deed.
Having reached the top we found that the view from the top was actually considerably worse than the really good one we had 1/3 of the way up. We later learned that the road dropped tourists off at an escalator which in turn had a lift to take you to the pagoda at the summit. Anyway…we took some pictures and headed back down the stairs.
When we hit the U Khanti’s dazaung hall, 1/3 of the way up we saw a shiny gold pagoda surrounded by hundreds of white stupas. We found at this was the Kuthodaw Pagoda, and would be our first stop upon reaching the bottom of the hill. Upon reaching the bottom we found that this was the site of the worlds largest book. Surrounding the pagoda were 729 kyauksa gu or stone-inscription caves (not the stupas I thought that they were). Each of these contained a marble slab that was 5 foot tall, 4 foot wide and was inscribed on both sides with a page of text from the Buddhist holy text…impressive.
And our Mandalay visit was over…I was tired so we hopped a cab (back of a ute) back to the hotel for a shower and a crash before we woke for a day of killing time waiting for our train ride to take us to the next port of call…Bago.
Having gotten off our nightmare 20 hr train journey to get here we were greeted with 37 degree heat and the usual Burmese 80+% humidity. We hopped our cab to get us to the accommodation. Now when I say cab…we sat in the back of a ute on a thin mattress and bounced around until arriving at our booked place. Our booked hotel was pretty good… considering. It was $25 a night for both of us which included breakfast of eggs, toast, fruit, pancake and coffee. The TV had a total of 4 channels none of which were in English and despite advertising wifi… We could not get any internet for the entire time we were here. That was not just the hotel but also included every cafe, coffee shop and restaurant along the entire main drag.
Between 1044 and 1287, Bagan was the capital as well as the political, economic and cultural nerve center of the Pagan Empire. Over the 250 years, Bagan’s rulers and the wealthy citizens constructed over 10,000 religious monuments (approximately 1000 stupas, 10,000 small temples and 3000 monasteries) in an area of 104km2 in the plains. About half of these remain today and so Bagan is today home to the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world.
Jill read in her planning books that the best way of getting around to the sights was on a horse and cart…so this was in her head as the way we must travel. Totally ignoring the motorbike hires, the air conditioned cars…nope…horse and cart it was. Fair is fair, it was a great way to get around to all the ruins, temples, pagodas and stupas. A car would have been annoying as the distances between each was quite short and the air conditioning would have no time to kick in, the busses were just packed and wrong, and motorbikes and bicycles would be in high heat on sandy tracks. The horse cart gave us a breezy, shady ride with minimal exertion and views 100% of the way.
This was a great day. It was another of those days where our photograph count went through the roof as we snapped away at each of the relics. Each one is individual and unique in its own right, add to this the extreme detail on each one and then add the fact that each angle opens up new views and aspects. There is nothing you can do but to snap away and try (and fail) to capture some sense of just how good this place is.
Once you have snapped away at the ground level temples etc you hit a few that you can climb up. From these high vantage points atop the pagodas you get a sense of just how vast the Bagan plains are. You basically have 360 degree views of the whole place and in every direction all you see is trees and temples. We tried to do some panorama style shots to give you guys a sense of what it was that we were experiencing. Once again they will not do it justice but hey…it’s what we’ve got.
As we were here just after rainy season the place was lush and green, making the contrast between the red bricks of the pagodas, or the white or gold of the stupas really stand out against the green of the foliage. The area is quite hot and dry so I imagine that it could be brown at other times of the year making the contrast less defined. Either way, we had an incredible day cruising around the relics.
We have been to several of these sorts of things so far and still have a few to go. It will be an interesting recap and comparison of these ancient sites once this leg of the journey is over. So far on this trip we have been to Hampi in India, Bagan in Myanmar, Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka and we are yet to do but are heading off to Siem Reap in Cambodia and Luang Prabang in Laos. While the funds will not allow it on this trip, and we will have to go home and be adults for a while…we have the intention of saving our pennies and doing a similar journey to South America which will hopefully add a bunch of ancient Incan cities and ruins to further add to our comparisons.
Three Years on…
So again here we are three years after our last post and I thought that I would just follow on from the previous post and give a sense of what has changed and my thoughts on the place as it stands. On a positive note…Bagan still rocks…the temples, the weather, the people and the prices. Everything about this place screams as a fantastic destination.
Once again the tourist numbers were way up on last time but the hotel prices were also well down. We moved ourselves to a new hotel that was much closer to the restaurant strip and we are so glad that we did. The last place had crappy wifi and was quite the trek from any restaurant worth eating at. This time we were in the heart of it all in a hotel with a little less crappy wifi.
The biggest change that you notice is the abundance of e-bikes…these things were not here the last time and they are a blessing. For between $5-7 a day you can hire these whispering assassins and explore the temples of Bagan at your own pace and leisure. To be honest, on your first day of exploring the temples I would still recommend doing the horse cart…it is just one of those things that you will talk about for years to come.
So on day one we hit the usual trail and snapped about 3000 photos of temples, stupas and pagodas. And it was fantastic (again). The first trip we bought a couple of the sand paintings but as it was towards the end of our BIG adventure we were a little cash poor and were certainly luggage challenged. This trip however we were cashed up and had plenty of room for souvenirs (that said we only bought 2). So on day one we checked out what was on offer and the sorts of prices that you could expect to pay.
This is possibly the biggest tip of all for travellers and will be obvious to most…but never buy on the first day. By day 2 or 3 you have walked away from so many touts and have heard how low the prices can go and therefore are more likely to grab a bargain. We were wandering the temples on day 2 and heard some Americans bartering to pay between $18 and $20 for the same pair of pants we had been offered the day before for $5. So day one was the usual suspect temples and the local cuisine and of course for those of you who have been following along…those damn stairs.
So day one done and the photos taken it is off to the local restaurants. Now while we ate Asian with a smattering of Burmese last time we did not really immerse ourselves into the local fare. Something that we absolutely did this time around. Jill found and incredible little lunch joint for the next day called Myo Myo. It was a lonely planet special recommendation and involved about 30 tiny local dishes that you grazed upon as it suited you and you only pay for what you eat. This was lunch time of day two and the pair of us ate like champions and had change from $10. But the dinners were equally as tasty but were a tad more expensive as they were washed down with icy (and I do mean icy) cold beverages.
So day one over and we hopped on the e-bikes and off we went exploring at our own pace. We saw it all. Days two, three and four allowed us all the time in the world to check out anything that we wanted. We spent an entire day when we went off the reservation and found ourselves in random, out of the way villages. We found ourselves amid a cattle drive, and 30 minutes later were surrounded by goats. We were in the villages where all of the lacquer-ware was actually made. While commuting we came across a little market garden come restaurant. It was lunch time so we stopped.
We ordered some local Burmese salads, a bean salad, vegetable salad, tea leaf salad and a tomato salad…and we were blown away by them all. As we were the only ones there…a conversation ensued. As this was so far off the beaten track very few tourists happened upon the place and even fewer ate the local fare. So we asked about what made the food so nice…long story short…we came back the next day (quite the effort finding it again) and had a private cooking class with his wife in their dirt floor kitchen in the middle of nowhere.
The number one thing on the menu that I wanted to learn to make was the local boiled egg curry…and of course work out what was in those damn salads to make them so good. So back we came…everything that we needed was in the garden or in a small collection of powders and sauces. And off we went…the truest and most authentic experience you could ever have. He spoke very little English and she even less. The ingredient interpretations took some doing but we got there and after about an hour we had a feast on our hands.
We ate, we washed it down with cold beers and when we tried to pay the comment was that it was their gift to us…now obviously that was not going to cut it…so we guessed at how much it would have cost for the food and drink and multiplied it by 4 and paid that. We thanked them for their time and their hospitality and for the sharing their knowledge with some interested travellers.
And on the way out we happened across a local wedding…The bride and groom sitting atop an elaborately adorned oxen cart…so we snapped away.
So the verdict is that Bagan is fantastic and a must see for all. We have been twice now and it has not disappointed either time. Put this one on your bucket list.
Travelling the world in a pre and post COVID state