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A Tale of Two Kingdoms

“I’M NOT SHOUTING AT YOU LADYYY!” the angry salesgirl at the MBK mall in Bangkok shouted as we left her stall.

Cabbages and Condoms restaurant, a novelty in Bangkok with (unsurprisingly) good food.

Cabbages and Condoms restaurant, a novelty in Bangkok with (unsurprisingly) good food.

She screamed a lot more of what I could only surmise as invectives in the Thai language. Shoppers stopped, heads turned.

I suddenly imagined her pulling me into a catfight, so I walked as fast as I could, practically dragging my shocked grandmother away from the raging vendor’s stall.

The screaming salesgirl, who was furious that we thought her merchandise was expensive, was the piece de resistance in our stressful, tourist-trapped first day in what Travel+Leisure readers dubbed in 2013 as the World’s Best City—Bangkok.

Our Bangkok was nothing like the Bangkok of Hollywood movies and glossy magazines. Ours was real, rough and rowdy.

The Grand Palace would put Disneyland to shame with its queues and crowd, observed my husband, a first-timer in the city who immediately and irrevocably fell out of love with it (it didn’t help that the entrance fee to the palace was THB 550). The strict dress code—no shorts or anything that showed legs

or arms—meant security guards were eyeing tourists from head to toe and sending the inappropriately dressed to stores renting out or selling pants and wraps.

The famous temples, with their golden and reclining Buddha statues, evoked no sense of holiness or history.

Everything reeked of commercialism, the price of a successful tourism campaign that brings in millions of visitors each year. In 2012, Thailand’s tourism arrivals reached a record-high 22 million, compared to the Philippines’ 4.3 million. 

Golden Gate bridge replica inside Terminal 21 mall

Golden Gate bridge replica inside Terminal 21 mall

In 2013, the government expects 25 million tourists and USD 38 billion in related revenues.

Haunted by the memory of the furious woman’s face two days later, I pondered the redeeming qualities of Bangkok: Thai food is divine, whether it’s from a food court or food cart; jazz bars (specially Saxophone near Victory Monument) and rooftop restaurants can blow you away; and Terminal 21, that swanky mall with the one floor, one city concept is just a brilliant idea. This two-year-old department store will take you to Rome, Paris, Tokyo, London, Istanbul, San Francisco and Hollywood, depending on which floor you find yourself on. With 600 shops, the mall is a destination in itself. If only we had gone straight here and skipped the overrated MBK mall, my opinion of Bangkok might have been a little less… harsh.

Then again, it’s difficult not to be disappointed when Bangkok follows Siem Reap on your itinerary. It’s like watching Star Trek: Into Darkness before Star Trek: The Final Frontier.

“Hello lady! You buy from me, lady, I give you good price. What color you like?” a local vendor outside Preah Khan in Siem Reap said as she unfolded silk scarves and followed me to the tuktuk.

I have more scarves than I can wear back home, but the woman was so nice and desperate—and gave an irresistible price—that I found myself leaving with four scarves. At the Old Market, stall owners didn’t yell at you when you try to bargain or decide not to buy their goods (well, one would, but that’s another story).

IMG_5906

Pre Rup, near the Cambodia Landmine Museum, is a must-see if you have a second day in Siem Reap.

It was easy to fall in love with Siem Reap, its gentle people and eternal stone temples.In fact, the more Cambodians I talk to, the more I can’t connect them to the people that killed almost two million of their own during Pol Pot’s reign of terror from 1975 to 1979.

A trip to the Cambodia Landmine Museum and Relief Facility, 25 km north of Siem Reap and along the way to the early Hindu temple Banteay Srey, educated me. We were lucky because we chanced upon a leadership group being briefed by American volunteer de-miner William Morse, who took us through Cambodia’s history like a local professor. Otherwise, the place provides no tour guide.

The museum/non-government organization houses around 75 kids who suffered landmine injuries, or whose families were hurt, killed or affected by landmines. It was founded by Aki Ra, a former child soldier who was nominated in 2010 as CNN Hero of the Year for his tireless and bold efforts in clearing Cambodia of landmines. Several thousand more landmines are buried all over the countryside but nobody knows where exactly until they blow up.

The museum is a nice break from the temples for which Cambodia, Kingdom of Wonder, is known.

Trees eat stones at Preah Khan

Trees eat stones at Prea Khan

“You will see enough stones to last you a lifetime,” my friend told me when I said I was going to Siem Reap.

She was right.

A three-day pass (USD 40) to Angkor’s temples will give you a glimpse of what was once the world’s biggest city and Southeast Asia’s most powerful empire.

The seat of power of the Khmer Empire in the 9th-14th centuries, Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. Its most famous monument, Angkor Wat, attracts more than a million visitors every year and lives up to all expectations.

Frenchman Henri Mouhot, who reached Angkor in 1860, was stunned by its grandeur. He wrote about Angkor Wat:

“One of these temples—a rival to that of Solomon and erected by some ancient Michael Angelo—might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.”

But Angkor Wat is not the lone masterpiece of the Khmer empire.

Erected as a Buddhist shrine, Bayon is famous for its 173 carved faces. It has 52 towers and was built with more than 420,000 stone blocks during the reign of King Jayavarman VII, according to the Smithsonian.

One of Bayon's many carved faces (and yup, that's Danbo posing)

One of Bayon’s many carved faces (and yup, that’s Danbo posing)

Tourists who have only a day to explore Angkor are usually advised to go to Bayon, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm, made famous by Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider movie. These are within a few kilometers of each other so seeing them all is possible in one day, albeit at a hurried pace.

Those who have a second day to explore should take a trip to Preah Khan (12th-century monastery and university of medicine), Banteay Srey (10th-century building depicting the finest of Khmer art), and Pre Rup (10th-century temple-mountain and second capital of the Khmer empire). The landmine museum can be included in this itinerary. 

“Khmer architecture evolved largely from that of the Indian sub-continent, from which it soon became clearly distinct as it developed its own special characteristics, some independently evolved and others acquired from neighboring cultural traditions. The result was a new artistic horizon in oriental art and architecture,” UNESCO said in its profile of Angkor, a heritage city.

Scholars say Khmer’s architectural influence was carried over to Thailand, whose temples like Wat Pho and Wat Arun have towers resembling those of Angkor Wat.

Now that I think about it, the towers are indeed similar. But that’s where the similarities end. In my book, the 407 km that separate Siem Reap and Bangkok represent the distance between love and loathing. ###

Inside Angkor Wat

Inside Angkor Wat

ANGKOR WHAT??? 

  • Meant as a palace for the Hindu god Vishnu, Angkor Wat’s towers were originally gilded in gold.
  • Angkor Wat has the longest continuous bas relief in the world at 2,600 feet, carved directly in stone. It depicts the battle of gods and demons, churning of sea of milk, and a royal procession that includes a portrait of King Suyavarman II, who ordered the building of Angkor Wat in 1113.
  • Covering approximately 400 sq. km., Angkor is the biggest temple complex in the world. It is so huge it can fit 909 Vatican City.
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