Friday, December 30, 2011

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Chang is island, a beer and a Klingon played by Christopher Plummer in Star Trek VI. But let's start with the island.

This was my final destination in South East Asia, so I was determined to make the most of it. By doing as little as possible. It was nice. Here are my photos of absolutely nothing.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Preah Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan

Admiral Kirk's least favourite Khmer temple. Right, that's the rubbish pun title over with. Come on, I know it's another Cambodian temple, but at least it's one of the nice overgrown ones and not another of those pyramid ones. You know you've visited too many temples in too brief a time when the prospect of clambering over a 1,000-year-old pyramid loses its appeal.

Preah Khan was the last temple I visited on my Cambodia trip, and is probably the one I'd least mind getting trapped within forever as some sort of malevolent spirit, doomed to haunt its crumbling passageways for eternity, or until someone builds a car park over it. The fact that I managed to muster some enthusiasm after feeling seriously templed out must mean it's something special.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Templed out

Cambodia's ancient temples are my favourites I've seen in South East Asia, and second only to the monuments of Ancient Egypt (it's all downhill once you've seen the pyramids. My life since November 2010 has been a pointless postscript). But I'm glad I signed up for a second day of templing to make the most of my limited time in this country, though ideally this second day would have taken place about two weeks later in Earth time, so I could have appreciated it more and felt less fatigued.

On the way back to my hotel, after two days of tramping around ancient ruins, we passed a temple that I thought would be particularly nice to visit, and I felt a mixture of sadness and relief that the tuk tuk continued and didn't stop. Then I wondered if I'd visited it the previous day after all. Then I realised it was the Bayon - probably the most distinctive temple there is, but one that my historical architecture appreciation glands were incapable of processing due to overload. I didn't even recognise some of my photos when I looked back at them.

Thanks to the wonders of post-dated blogs, I was able to forget all about Cambodia for a few weeks and clear my head before doing these write-ups. Except now I can hardly remember what was where and why it was wherefore. I'm not even sure what the first pyramid temple here is called, except I'm pretty sure it's not Ta Keo (that's just the closest match I've found). To get the full benefit of the following blog post, you may wish to deprive yourself of sleep for a couple of nights and watch an Open University lecture on enumerative combinatorics so you haven't got a clue what's going on.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

If it's broke, don't fix it

'Dilapidated' has always been one of my favourite words (I'm a writer; I have those), as well as my all-time favourite state of deterioration. It's why I prefer the dingy Nostromo from Alien to the sanitised Discovery from 2001, the run-down Red Dwarf from Red Dwarf to the sleek UFOs from UFO, the gritty Battlestar Galactica to the U.S.S. Enterprise. And probably some more varied examples that aren't sci-fi spaceships too.

I like walking around historical ruins, but I want them to look old. Not just lived-in - I want them beaten down hard and not given the chance to get back up. I was never interested in visiting the extravagantly maintained Edinburgh Castle when my bus used to drive past it every day, but I always jumped at the chance to spend a night in dangerously ramshackle castle ruins out in the Scottish wilderness (there's another one: 'ramshackle').

So as you can imagine, I was pretty enthusiastic to explore some Cambodian temples that really hadn't been very well looked after at all. If these jungle temples were children, their parents wouldn't let them stay up late to watch The X-Files and Cracker until they'd cleaned that bloody mess up. Contrary to appearances, some of these places have actually been pretty extensively restored - but that didn't include chopping down the trees, clearing the vegetation or evening out the exploded brickwork. They know decent dilapidation when they see it.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

That one with the big faces

The 216 identical giant stone faces gazing serenly out of Prasat Bayon will already be familiar to anyone who's ever walked down any tacky party street in any city in South East Asia and seen cheap fibreglass imitations adorning gaudy clubs unfailingly named 'Angkor Wat.' These establishments are presumably run by the same people who think the Sphinx is in Cairo, that every establishing shot of Britain needs to have Tower Bridge in it and that Frankenstein's monster was named 'Frankenstein' (when we all know 'Frankingstein' is the correct pronunciation).

There's no need to get too pedantic about this arguably trivial distinction between two ancient cities located a short tuk-tuk jaunt from each other that were abandoned more than four centuries ago, but I've made the thankless effort to label these photos correctly so you're going to bloody well learn something.

Visiting the compact and creepy Angkor Thom directly after stomping around its broader and more famous relative really hammers the differences home. Which is what I'm going to attempt to do here. With real hammers.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

You Wat-n't like me when I'm Angkor

This is the big one - the 12th century Hindu/Buddhist/Hindu-again/Buddhist-again-and-let's-all-get-along-now temple/city complex at the heart of the Angkor Archaeological Park, with its five distinctive towers that have worked their way into all non-harrowing imagery of Cambodia in recent years (it's not that one with the big faces though, that's another one).

It wasn't my favourite temple in Cambodia - not by a long way - but it was a great starting point. Even if my tour group's actual starting point (arriving around 9AM) was possibly the worst time for taking photos. I hope you like blindingly bright backgrounds and obscured details.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Let's do Cambodia properly

I saw more than just the border this time, at least. Even if I still spent less time in this kingdom than I have in any other country (Brunei excluded), at a disappointing 72 hours - abandoning some of my remaining principles and booking a despicably lazy package tour from Bangkok.

These are my last few weeks in South East Asia, and I didn't feel like spending too much time and effort getting to grips with a new culture, a new currency (not that they even use their own currency as it turns out) and some new phrases to half-heartedly learn and be too embarrassed to use, for fear of pronouncing them like an idiot.

But even after just two days out in Siem Reap, I was pretty templed out and ready to go back to easy-peasy lemon polka-dot Thailand.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sufferin' Sukhothai

Like the high-profile temples and tombs of Egypt (and pretty much all the temples in Bali), much of what you see in the Sukhothai Historical Park has been reconstructed in the last few decades, in the interest of nicer photos and not getting sued by clumsy American tourists falling over stuff.

Would you rather walk around crumbling, perilous, dilapidated ruins? I would, actually. That sounds great. Fortunately, you can still find plenty of these when you stray from the pack into fields of overgrown grass and barbed wire.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Crime and gunishment

Dave curbs his enthusiasm at meeting Uncle Tow

When I was a kid, I loved dungeons, haunted houses and the Chamber of Horrors section of wax museums (I still know the sequence of torture instruments at the Brading Wax Museum on the Isle of Wight like the back of my severed hand). I'm happy to report that I've never grown out of this.

It's no so much morbid curiosity or a disturbing gore obsession as the amusement of someone putting hard work and care into creating dummies and dioramas to really scare the shit out of children - especially when they contain more gore than is strictly necessary (Haw Par Villa in Singapore is the best example I've found in the world, so far).

I've been trying to find 'unusual' attractions in Bangkok on my most recent visit, so I was delighted to find out that there are a few museums devoted to death and suffering in various forms. Excellent! I was going to categorise these next few blog posts as The Dark Side of Bangkok, but then I remembered there are much darker things around here than that, which I have no interest in seeing. No matter how often tuk tuk drivers make the sales pitch.

Monday, December 5, 2011

They're grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr-good

Not Photoshopped

I'm very glad I finally got the chance to visit Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno Forest Monastery (popularly and slightly misleadingly known as the Tiger Temple) on my day out in Kanchanaburi.

Not only for the unique chance to recklessly hang out with these dangerous predators as if they were just oversized cats (though really it's the other way round), but also because I'd read mixed things about the ethics of the place, and needed to see it for myself.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Kwai-t a nice bridge

After the unpleasantness of the floating market, I needed to lift my spirits somehow - which meant a trip to Kanchanaburi to see the iconic landmark Bridge 277 of the Burma Railway, constructed by slave labour, POWs and Alec Guinness under the occupying Japanese during the Second World War.

Or the Death Railway, as the more sensationalist history books like to call it. Or the Bridge on the River Kwai, as tour companies are only too happy to inaccurately call it.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Like a rubbish Venice

That was my market-weary verdict when I arrived at Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, the most famous floating market in Thailand (or at least the closest one of any significance to Bangkok, for the lazier sightseers) and apparently the most popular tourist attraction in the country (again, probably due to laziness).

Don't you like spending sleepless, uncomfortable nights on long-distance buses where the staff go through your bags and steal anything of value? What's wrong with you?

Anyway, spending an hour and a half in this floating tourist tat trap didn't do much to change my opinion, though I could at least look forward to the better things coming up later on my package day tour. (Who's the lazy one now?) The floating market was just the reluctant extra - like all those damn butterfly gardens in Malaysia.