Miss Amy vs me

Pronto se cumplen mis primeros seis meses en Tailandia y en general, estoy bastante contenta porque he conseguido reconstruir mi vida bastante rápido y adoptar nuevos hábitos como ir al gym por las mañanas antes del trabajo, darme algún masaje de vez en cuando y bailar en Domingo, que me ayudan a mantenerme sana tanto física como mentalmente. Me pena no estar estudiando Thai, ni viajando tanto como cuando Enrique y yo estábamos en Japón, pero mi realidad es muy diferente - tengo más responsabilidad, viajo bastante, trabajo overtime por defecto y algunas noches o findes si la situación es lo suficientemente crítica, con lo que hay que priorizar. La salud, es siempre lo primero.

Hace casi 6 meses, conocí a la señora Amy. De hecho, el mismo día que visité mi condo por primera vez. Imaginad a Isabel Preysler Thai, manos cubiertas de diamantes, Vuitton colgando del brazo, piel nívea, peinada y maquillada, de una apariencia tan impecable como sus refinadas maneras y su acento Británico. En aquella ocasión, la señora Amy se presentó y trató de llevarme a ver uno de los muchos apartamentos que posee y alquila en mi barrio, Ari. Pero tenía a unas amigas y al final no fue posible.

Me volví a encontrar con ella, de nuevo en la recepción de mi condo, el día que me mudé aquí. Muy amable, se alegró de que hubiera encontrado casa y me ayudó a contratar el servicio de limpieza, haciendo de traductor espontáneo con los que trabajan en recepción.

Entre tantos viajes, no la volví a ver hasta el Sábado pasado, cuando salí de casa a dar un masaje mientras estrenaba pantalón de finde chillax, en amarillo me encontré con ella de nuevo, como no, en la recepción de mi condo. Andaba sorprendida "porque hacia mucho que no me veían los de recepción, a los que pregunta por mi" y le expliqué que había estado de viaje, enganchando inesperadamente las 2 semanas en España con otra en Singapore. Como siempre, me dijo que me veía muy guapa y me halagó, por llevar "un color tan acertado" para este mes.

Al notar mi sorpresa, que crecía mientras procesaba su blusa (también amarilla) con microplisado a la Pleats Please by Issey Miyake - marca que por cierto, tiene una notable popularidad en Tailandia - procedió a clarificar la situación:
En Julio, nos vestimos de amarillo para honrar el cumpleaños de nuestro rey.
Sonreí y seguí mi camino.
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Siem reap - Il Forno

Siemp reap italian restaurant
When you see the bright lights of temple street, turn around and dig deep so you can find the fountain of  reasonably priced food with excellent quality.

Il Forno [WEB] is hidden in a small inner alley, where several good looking restaurants are tucked away from the noise in a relatively small yet welcoming space. We picked it because of its good rating and high probability to deliver on my veggie expectations.

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Angkor VIP tour - Angkor Wat「អង្គរវត្ត」

Angkor VIP tour, Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat「អង្គរវត្ត」
  • Date: Early 12th century
  • Style: Angkor Wat
  • Highlights:  Angkor Wat literally means 'the city which became a pagoda'. It is the World's largest religious monument, apogee of classical Khmer architecture built by king Suryavarman II as capital and state temple dedicated to Vishnu, complete representation of the Hindu universe featuring a broad moat, towers in temple-mountain formation and carvings extremely rich in detail. Dedicated to Vishnu, symbol of Cambodia featured on the National flag. Save for the last of the first day, its W orientation provides gorgeous lightning during the golden hour.
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Angkor VIP tour - Le pit stop

Angkor snack, coconut shake
Back off b**ches - he mine.

I've expressed my sincere coconut romance along innumerable occasions - from my local Bangkok joint through Bali sunset drinks down to PR's cocotazo I haven't yet managed to find time to write about - but here comes another one. We hardly ever eat lunch during our tropical escapes, blame the love for humongous breakfast combined with the heat, fact is the only thing that goes through my throat for as long as the sun shines has to be liquid & chilled - as my friend Jorge calls it "la puleva".

I don't know about other Cambodian street foods. We both drank a couple of those during our short stay in Siem Reap and had no tummy issue. They are about 5$, widely available and a perfect option to refuel without risking it much in terms of flavour or calories. Now that I remember... We also ate some boiled eggs our driver bought for us - completely confused by our consistent refusal to eat lunch whenever he offered the possibility to stop - no tummy issue either!

Definitely one of the best things about South East Asia is the ubiquitous availability of freshly cut fruit to go and fruit based smoothies. It is very common for people to have them as afternoon snack in office, quite funny when they all come back from lunch with a tiny little bag featuring transparent fruit and a wooden little stick that serves as minimal fork. With this, I encourage you to give it a shot!

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Angkor VIP tour - Bayon「ប្រាសាទបាយ័ន」

Bayon temple, ancient Angkor
  • Date: Late 12th to late 13th century
  • Style: Bayon
  • Highlights: 49 towers with 4 faces of Lokesvara, bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. Extreme clutter with towers and architectural elements compressed and place irregularly, seems to indicate change of construction plans after the start e.g. it is believed that the central tower was originally not planned for to respect Ta Prohm and Banteay Kdei but eventually placed there. The charm is ruined by the extreme amount of tourists.

To understand the relevance of Bayon and the reason why it is so compressed, it is important to consider that it was located at the exact centre of Angkor Thom which you see in the map below. Roads lead to Bayon directly from the gates at each of the city's cardinal pointsthe last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire, where only temples were built out of rock, reason why there isn't anything left in terms of palaces or daily life - which was all built on wood - and we can only account for temples, city gates and walls.
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Angkor VIP tour - Baphuon「ប្រាសាទបាពួន」

Baphuon temple, ancient Angkor
  • Date: Mid 11th century
  • Style: Bapuon
  • Highlights:  Intricate carvings, huge size, temple mountain with varied elements that combine Hindu with surprise Buddhist elements. One of our favourites.

Baphuon started as Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva 'the destructor' just like Elephanta Caves, which are reachable from the Gateway of India in Mumbai - that I never really found time to visit despite spending 3 weeks there.

Hinduism also has a trinity:
  • Brahma the creator, often depicted as 4-faced man, like towers in Bayon.
  • Vishnu the preserver, often presented as a 4 armed man, but also appears incarnated in 10 different avatars, that we have met in art or previous trips like Kurma the turtle who churns the sea of milk; Rama, the star of Ramayana loved from Thailand to Bali; Krishna who rights wrongs and brings happiness to the world; Buddha at least for Vaishnava Hindu who belief the human ascetic Gautama Buddha to be an avatar), he rides the Garuda
  • Shiva the destroyer, by no means a negative force - with his dance, Shiva ends a kalpa and begins a new one, often wearing Vasuki snake on the neck.
Baphuon it is the archetype of the Baphuon style with intricate carvings covering every available surface. The temple is huge 120mx100m at its base and stands 34m - estimated 50 with the tower which is no longer there, adjoins the southern enclosure of the royal palace. Its appearance apparently impressed Chou Ta-kuan, an envoy from Yuan dynasty of China during his visit from 1296 to 1297, who said it was 'the Tower of Bronze a truly astonishing spectacle, with more than ten chambers at its base.'

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Angkor VIP tour - Ta Keo「ប្រាសាទតាកែវ」

Ta Keo temple, ancient Angkor
Ta Keo「ប្រាសាទតាកែវ」
  • Date: Late 10th century
  • Style: Khleang
  • Highlights:  This giant temple-mountain stands out for being the first one to be built entirely of sandstone, a stone used exclusively by Khmer builders taken from the nearby Kulen mountains. Sandstone made it possible to create elaborate carvings and bas-reliefs, despite its tendency to flake when used for upright supports (against the way its layers were laid down). Together with Pre Rup, Ta Keo is a temple-mountain, with 5 sanctuary towers arranged in a quincunx (like the 5 side in a dice) built on the uppermost level, with one central gopura higher than the rest as symbolic depiction of Mount Meru - home of the gods, surrounded by moat that represents the sea. It was left unfinished as carving had just begun when the works stopped, hence the lack of decorations in many of the blocks.
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Angkor VIP tour - Ta Phrom「ប្រាសាទតាព្រហ្ម」

Ta Phrom temple, ancient Angkor

Ta Phrom「ប្រាសាទតាព្រហ្ម」
  • Date: Early 13th century
  • Style: Bayon
  • Highlights: Initially named 'the Royal monastery' founded by the king as a Mahayana 'greater vehicle' Buddhist monastery and university, this half-collapsed huge flat temple site where strangler ficus and silk-cotton trees grow at ease is one of the major temples in Angkor. Chosen by the École française d'Extrême-Orient to be left it its 'natural state' as an example of how most of Angkor looked during its Western discovery on the 19th century, Ta Phrom has not further collapsed but keeps the romantic appeal of imperial decadence. Maybe because of this, it was picked as a location in the film Tomb Raider which took visual liberties with other Angkorian temples, but kept Ta Phrom scenes quite faithful to its actual eerie qualities.
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Angkor VIP tour - Banteay Kdei「ប្រាសាទបន្ទាយក្តី」

Banteay Kdei temple, ancient Angkor
Banteay Kdei「ប្រាសាទបន្ទាយក្តី」
  • Date: Early 13th century
  • Style: Bayon
  • Highlights: Just opposite to Srah Sang, delivers a contrasting view of ruined temple where the shades of nature alternate with the changing colours of the stone. Completely ruined but at the same time well preserved. One of our favourites.
The Khmer Empire lasted from 802 to 1431, the religion changed. It started under Hindu beliefs up to the end of the 12th century, when it turned into 'lesser vehicle' aka Theravada Buddhism. This last period was a time when temples of grandeur came to be built, like Bayon or Angkor Wat.

The closer an Empire comes to its end, the larger the constructions it dares to build.
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Angkor VIP tour - Srah Sang「ស្រះស្រង់」

Srah Sang temple, ancient Angkor

Srah Sang「ស្រះស្រង់」
  • Date: Mid 10th century
  • Style: Bayon
  • Highlights: Srah Srang stands for "The royal bathing pool". Its baray (artificial lake) was a square dug to 700m x 300m during the Hindu period, set amidst large trees, able to deliver turquoise blue waters all year round. The approaching steps to the water edge are flanked by two stone statues of lions with ornamented nāga-garuda balustrades. The pond was reserved for use by the king and his wives. A stone base seen at an island in the centre of the pond once housed a wooden temple where the king did meditation. The water from the lake is now used for rice cultivation by farmers of the area.

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Angkor - Tales of the Mandala

travel guide to a weekend in Angkor, Cambodia

I spent my early teens amazed by the mysterious Tomb Raider landscapes. In a way, I was fascinated by Khmer architecture without having come to the realisation of its very existence in the real world.  When I visited Wat Arun (for 2nd time) 3 years ago, I spent some time reading about Khmer amazed by the similarities of the pastel hued Bangkok stupas and the typical Angkor Wat picture wondering how could one style influence another so heavily?
One empire during 700 years, related mandalas for thousands.

Maṇḍala मण्डल is a Sanskrit word that means "circle". When used to describe political power it draws a comparison with the mandala of the Hindu and Buddhist worldview, emphasising the radiation of power from each power center, as well as the non-physical basis of the system.

Ancient entities in Southeast Asia did not conform to classical Chinese and European views of a territorially defined state with fixed borders and a bureaucratic apparatus. In fact, they diverged considerably in the opposite direction with a polity defined by its centre rather than its boundaries that could be composed of numerous other tributary polities without undergoing administrative integration. The emphasis on personal relationships is another defining characteristic of the mandala system. The tributary ruler was subordinate to the overlord ruler, rather than to the overlord state and the overlord-tributary relationship was not exclusive e.g. a state in border areas might pay tribute to two or three stronger powers, creating buffer zones.

I used to mentally associate mandala to Tibetan monk sand art which is also captured in the intricate patterns of some Hindu inspired adult colouring books, when it turns out to be the recipe for business success in South East Asia and one key concept to understand its historical development.

Angkor, the site of the capital city during the zenith, is the greatest legacy of the Khmer Empire. Its majestic monuments bear testimony to their immense power, wealth, art, culture, architectural technique and aesthetics achievements in relation to its multiple belief systems. But like all great empires, its splendour came to an end and the nearest neighbour was ready to take over...

Cambodia - Thailand history

As the power base shifted to Thailand, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya was established.This was not a unified state but rather a patchwork of self-governing principalities and tributary provinces owing allegiance to the king of Ayutthaya under the mandala system. As shown in the map, Ayutthaya intersected other mandalas - Lan Xang, Lanna, Sukhothai, Khmer and Champa.

Lan Xang - precursor of modern day Laos - existed as one of the largest and most powerful kingdoms of South East Asia from 1354 to 1707, but was eventually torn into pieces by adultery, committed by the crown prince with a palace attendant - forcing the King to order him dead. King Sourigna Vongsa died in 1694, leaving 2 grandsons, 1 nephew and 2 daughters behind all with claims to the throne. Lan Xang was then divided into 3 (Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champasak).

On the Thailand side, things were calm but not for long. The Burmese-Siamese war broke in 1765, with Taksin playing a star role in it.

Taksin - the only Thai king of blended Chinese-Thai ascent to date - was born on 1734 in Ayutthaya. His father was a tax collector from China, his mother was Thai. The Prime minister was impressed by the boy, adopted him and changed is name to Sin (สิน) meaning money-treasure. The 7 year old boy was assigned to a buddhist monk and educated in a monastery. During the time Sin and his friend Thong-Duang were Buddhist novices, they met a Chinese fortune-teller who told them that both had lucky lines in their hands and both would become kings. Neither took it seriously, but eventually they both did - first Taksin, then Thong-Duang betraying his old friend to become Rama I.

Taksin worked his way up, from royal page into armyleader in the liberation of Siam from Burmese occupation and drove the unification of Siam after it fell under various warlords. In 1767 he established the city of Thonburi (modern day Bangkok) as the new capital because Ayutthaya had been destroyed by the invaders. While his reign was short and intense in war (repelling new Burmese invasions, subjugating the northern Thai kingdom of Lanna, the Laotian kingdoms and Cambodia), he paid a great deal of attention to politics, administration, economy, and the overall welfare of the country. Under his rule, foreign trade and relations with China, Britain and the Netherlands were fostered. He invested in arts and infrastructures. In recognition to his contribution to the Thai people, we know him as Maharaj "The Great".

The strain took its toll on the Taksin, turning him into a religious fanatic who in 1781 believed himself to be a future Buddha, expecting to change the colour of his blood from red to white. Meanwhile, the economic tension derived from war was serious. Famine spread, looting and crimes were widespread. Corrupt officials were reportedly abundant. It took his long-time friend General Chao Phraya (born Thong-Duang) to devise a coup d'etat, take him down and assume the throne.

The Rattanakosin Kingdom (1782-1932) was founded by General Chao Phraya, the first member of the Chakri dynasty, which has since ruled Thailand. The most remarkable achievement is that Siam managed to remain the only Southeast Asian nation to maintain its independence from Western Colonial Powers while all the neighbours fell under Britain or France. It ended with a revolution and the abandonment of absolute monarchy in favour of the constitutional monarchy we have today.

Cambodia - Thailand history

Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire and largest pre-industrial city in the world, with an elaborate infrastructure system connecting an urban sprawl of at least 1,000 square kilometres (390 sq mi) to the well-known temples at its core. Its ruins are located in Siem Reap (Cambodia), easily accessible from Bangkok:
  • Visa on arrival is available for majority of tourists - check with your embassy to avoid surprises, always 6 months validity and often at least 4 pages free... Which I don't currently have!
  • Return flights from Bangkok less than 100EUR - rather hop onto an island before coming back. 
  • Hotels offer excellent value for the price - we spent 2 great nights in Anusa Residence and Spa.
  • Full day tuk-tuk driver is a must and can be arranged with the hotel, but we recommend you to hire a tourist guide separately to truly understand the meaning of the decorations, the historical phases etc. I bought a book as we decided to skip this part as we don't get much time with each other, but everyone else I know hired a guide - this is my friend's recommendation - and felt it was well worth the money.
  • Cambodia has certainly a lot more to see, but if you are short on time but keen on scoring Angkor as part of your trip in Thailand, I suggest to drop by and opt for the VIP tour (where it is is possible to cover the main temples in 1 day - say 2 days if you are like me, a true sucker for ancient architecture.
    • VIP tour includes Srah Sang, Banteay Kdei, Ta Phrom, Ta Keo, Baphuon, Bayon, Angkor Wat, covered in separate posts. 
    • Day after tour includes Pre Rup, Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean, Preah Khan and a final stop in Phnom Bakheng aka temple of sunset which you can skip - too much wait, too many Chinese for minimal awe, humidity renders the sunset invisible.
  • Near the pub street there are western style restaurants, we stopped by Il Forno for some reasonably priced Italian fare.
...are you ready?
Angkor Tour
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Melbourne - Snapshots

Melbourne walk snapshots
Docklands, view from the after-work Friday drinks behind our office.

Fall is my favourite season. Having the chance to leave the heat behind and spend a fall weekend in Melbourne was an unexpected yet very welcome opportunity. As I walked out of the hotel the first night, the air felt clean and fresh, the streets were quiet because "at that time of the night, kitchen is closed" as a restaurant owner told me - it was 9.30PM, for the record.

Despite the tight timing - weekdays full-day locked in office 8-19, I managed to see quite a lot but, more importantly, to recover a bit the joy of travel by walking the city, a passion I discovered in Stockholm.  Here in Bangkok is not so easy to take really long walks - as you can easily do in Stockholm or Tokyo, neither it is in Malaga. The less you do something, the more you miss it. 

I find a tremendous joy on observing one neighbourhood morph into another, as you move along the veins of the big metropolis, step by step. Enrique's pictures do a better job than mine when it comes to capturing the awe of finding beauty hidden behind unexpected corners, that you would otherwise miss if moving faster.

My route was somewhat random, but I walked around the city center, exploring both street-art and arcades, all the way to Carlton where I stopped for dinner in the Italian (Lygon) street, at the highly rated Tiamo.

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