Disputed Preah Vihear Ruins on the Thai-Cambodian Border

Cambodia, the 27th of January 2020

Inside the Preah Vihear temple ruins.

A three hour long road trip with our local guide Oeum Rida through the Cambodian „outback“ brought us all the way to the northernmost part of the country to the Preah Vihear temple. Located at the natural border of Thailand and Cambodia atop the Dangrek mountain range, these Khmer ruins are still highly disputed by both Thai and Cambodian government. While it is only accessible from the Cambodian side as of 2015, the original entry into the temple used to be in Thailand. Despite an official ruling of the International Court of Justice in The Hague that the temple is located on Cambodian territory both parties continue to lay claim to the temple. After many years of refusal to accept the ruling, the Thai soldiers finally retreated, but the national flag of Thailand that had been flying over the temple was never taken down. Instead, Thai solders rather dug up the whole pole with the Thai flag still raised and relocated it to the nearby Pha Mor E Daeng cliff where it can still be seen today. In the background of the picture above you can see the tiny Thai flag flying over the neighboring mountain. Furthermore, until today the province of Preah Vihear is among the most most heavily mined areas in all of Cambodia and still bears legacy to the Khmer Rouge regime which fell as late as 1998.


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There appeared to be unusually many soldiers stationed at and around the Preah Vihear site compared to the other temples we have seen. We never felt threatened by them personally but it was clear that this area was still under some kind of armed conflict. We had to book a jeep escort to drive us up the hill, for one because the road that was build after the original entrance from the Thai side was closed was VERY steep and only a heavy duty four-wheel drive type of car could climb up the road. For another it seemed that the military also had a hand in limiting and controlling the number of visitors coming to the temple and thus provided the vehicle to go up the mountain.

Since 2008 the temple of Preah Vihear is listed as a world heritage site by the UNESCO. Among all the Khmer temples we visited during our four day tour of the Siem Riep area, Preah Vihear in the far north is still the most spectacular one. While all the ancient temple ruins are quite unique and showcase their own piece of history, the location of the Preah Vihear temple alone is a stand alone feature that makes it an unforgettable place to have visited.

One of the gopura courtyards blocking the view through the temple complex. There is no one place in this temple that allows visitors to see through the whole building.

The architecture of the 800m long Preah Vihear temple is modeled after the home of the gods, the Mount Meru and is dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva. Construction started at around the 9th or 10th century and continued throughout the reign of various Khmer kings. Five pavilions, called gopuras, each of them reached by a flight of stairs to increase their impact lead up to the final sanctuary at the southern most end of the temple complex. Different from temples we visited in Thailand, where windows have been strategically arranged to allow the sun to shine through the whole temple, the courtyards of the five gopuras have been build to obstruct the view of the next part of the Preah Vihear.

Lichen covered many of the walls and floor of the ancient temple ruins and while some parts of the structure remained in a fairly good condition, other areas where reduced to little more than a pile of rubble. Slowly strolling through the different areas of the temple I felt quite humbled by these Ancient remnants of Khmer culture. When we reached the central sanctuary and got an unobstructed view of Cambodia‘s northern plains it was already late in the afternoon. The sun had not yet set but the clouds were already illuminated by the low light and glowed above the barren land. If you have the chance and the time to come and visit this place I can only highly recommend it! Except to pay around 150-180 US dollars for a round trip by car with a local driver, plus 10 US dollar each for entrance fees and an additional 25 US dollars for the shuttle Jeep up the mountain. It is definitely worth it.

 

Ayutthaya – Bang Ian Night Market & the Wat Mahathat

Ayuthaya, Friday, the 3rd of October 2017


In Ayuthaya one of the most famous sights is a single severed buddha head that looks out from under the tangled roots of an ancient bodhi tree. It’s hard to imagine how it got there since the body of the statue is long gone, but there might have been a shrine in front of the tree once that held an image of buddha. On the day we arrived in Ayuthaya light rainshowers kept coming down, convincing us to postphone the sightseeing to the next day. We did take a long walk around town though and found the Bang Ian night market around nightfall.



The next day, the first thing we went to see was the Mat Mahathat, the temple that holds the bodhi tree with the buddha head. It opens early in the morning at 8am and we were almost the first to buy a multi temple pass for the day. The temple ground was muddy and wet from the rain the day before and it didn’t take us long to ruin our shoes. But even with all the dirt and the bad weather it soon became quite clear that we were at a place that used to be of great importance once. Before Bangkok became the capital of Thailand, Ayuthaya was the center of Siamese power. And the city still is peppered with ancient Khmer ruins, making it an ideal gateway city to the history-ladden other cities in Central Thailand.


Backpacking Northern Vietnam IV – Three day motorbike tour to Meo Vac

29.01.2017 – 30.01.2017

So here is the fourth part of our travel documentary from Northern Vietnam at the beginning of this year (2017). In the last blog entry we were still discovering Bac Ha and the trekking routes around that small village with our local guide. We stayed one more night in “downtown” Bac Ha in the Ngan Nga hotel to discover the village a little more.

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The roadtrip, 31.01.2017 – 02.02.2017

A map of the route from Bac Ha to Ha Giang.

Since we were still travelling during the Vietnamese New Year, we had to be a little inventive to get all the way from Bac Ha further up north to Ha Giang. Again, Mr. Dong proved to be a very helpful contact who organized a private shuttle bus with driver in less than 24 hours before the trip. Drawing a linear line from one city to the other, the distance might be less than 80km. In this part of the world these units mean little though. First of all, there is no straight route connecting the one place with the other. There are very few streets passing through the mountains of Northern Vietnam, and even fewer that are accessible with anything else than a heavy-duty motorbike. Most of the streets are mere dirt paths with potholes the size of small swimming pools and our vehicle had to drive at under 30km/h average in order not to break down or get stuck in the muddy mess the spring rains caused. Needless to say there are no highways here, so it took us the better half of a day to make it up to Ha Giang. Once there, we took a room in the Cao Nguyen hotel and asked the receptionist to help us apply for a travel permit into the frontier regions of the north.

The travel permit officially allowing us to enter the frontier regions bordering Southern China.

Since it was only allowed fairly recently for foreigners to access the mountains bordering the People’s Republic of China we were thrilled to have the opportunity to visit. When it was time to rent a scooter for the roadtrip, the girl at the reception of our hotel was very helpful again, renting us her uncle’s motorbike for around 8€ per day. She made sure it had a comfortable seat that was large enough to fit two people plus backpack. Next, we went to a mobile phone store and tried to buy a SIM card with mobile data so we could access online maps during the trip. Unfortunately, they were sold out (or that is what we thought we understood the sales person said) and in the end the receptionist provided us with a mobile phone card. Right in front of our hotel a street market wound its way a kilometer up the road and we spent the evening before our trip buying fruit for the tour and discovering Ha Giang a little more. Very early the next morning we left most of our luggage with the hotel and only took one backpack with clothes for three days with us. Since we did not pay a deposit for the scooter, I guess this also served as a form of security for our return.


Photo documentary of our roadtrip from Ha Giang to Tam Son, over Yen Minh and Dong Van all the way up to Meo Vac and back.

 


The Vuong Palace and the past glory of the H’mong people

On the way to Dong Van we stopped by the Vuong Palace, a two-storey mansion built for the local H’mong king. In the 20th century, this old mansion was once home to an influential family headed by a powerful don. Up there in the mountains, where buildings tend to be small and practical, this structure takes a very special place in the landscape. The road winds down into the valley, so we expected to see the palace from a distance. But since it was built in a turbulent era and had to be protected from enemies, a small forest of trees was planted all around to hide it from view. Relatively speaking the place isn’t large and you would probably have overlooked it in any other context. In the mountain ranges of Ha Giang province though its quite a unique sight. Built in a Chinese courtyard style with a communal open-air space in the middle, the four “wings” on each side house more than 60 small rooms, some of which have secret passages that connect the whole structure. Some of the doorways were tiny, and even though the people who used to live here were probably smaller, I still have to wonder if they had to tuck in their heads to pass through like us.

With fresh snacks in our backpack we continued our roadtrip up north. The landscape became steeper still and the mountain road twisted and turned around the conical hills. Except for the occasional car we only encountered people on motor bikes or walking on foot alongside the street. I often asked myself what the people on the other bikes where doing today and what purpose they had driving or walking along this road that day. This being the only way through this region some of them might have traveled between the few larger villages, maybe from Tam Son to Yenh Min, or even farther up all the way to Dong Van to visit family. Some people obviously went grocery shopping, one couple even carrying a live chicken bound with a rope around its feet to the backseat of their motorbike. Every few hours the public mini bus would pass us by, speeding along the dirt round and announcing its arrival before every corner with a honk from its horn. That is what every one did to make sure they were not run over by oncoming traffic, so every time we made a turn – which was more often than not – we also sounded our horn. The best thing about doing this trip on a scooter rather than by public transportation was that we were free to stop whenever we felt like it. Since it was early in the year, it was still quite cold and my knees would freeze stiff when I sat too long on the bike. Even without that excuse to take a break every once in a while, it gave us the possibility to take in the landscape whenever we saw something interesting. Sometimes that would be a small stonepark long the street, or like in the pictures above a street market popped up on an intersection of the road. But most often it was simply the breathtaking views over the misty mountain ranges that made us hit the breaks and simply enjoy the nature.

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The Wild Wild West – Yungang Grottoes, Hanging Monastery & the Sakyamuni Wooden Pagoda in Datong

Dragon Boat Festival 2017 – May 26th to May 29th

In May, an extended weekend during Chinese Dragon Boat Festival provided the opportunity for another roadtrip. Since we already been to Pingyao, we decided to discover the rest of Shanxi province and visit the city of Datong. Usually, an extra holiday has to be made up for with a working saturday, but luckily we had enough overtime (and understanding bosses) that we got four consecutive days to spend on the road. Friday evening Jelte went to Dongzhimen to pick up the car so that we could be on our way later that night in high hopes to dodge the majority of the holiday traffic. Although the streets of Beijing are always overcrowded with people, bikes, motorcycles, and cars, it actually payed off to make the extra effort and get started right after work, because we managed to arrive in Datong at around 1 am early the next morning and get some sleep in the Holiday Inn. Our sightseeing itinerary consisted of three major sights: first, the UNESCO World Heritage Sight of the Yungang Grottoes, the oldest collection of Buddhist carvings in China. Then the Hanging Monastery which was built into a cliff and is supported by long wooden stilts, and lastly the Yingxian Padoga, the world’s oldest and tallest wooden pagoda.


Big buddhas, carved caves &  ancient artists – The Yungang Grottoes 云岗石窟

During the Northern Wei dynasty Datong was declared their capital and buddhism was developed from a minority religion to a major following. In the course of this expansion, the construction of these buddhist caves commenced in 460 A.D. and continued for more than 65 years. It can be seperated in three building phases: while the first phase was led by the monch Tan Yao who led the contruction of the five biggest caves, the second wave is remarkable for its twin and triplet caves. The third phase focussed on smaller caves and niches in which statues of buddha and other religious entities reside.


Climbing a (formely) firebreathing mountain – The Datong Volcanic cluster 大同火山群景区简介

A lesson we learned well then was that a detour isn’t always a bad thing. If we had followed the navigational system’s advice and hadn’t missed our exit on the way to the Hanging Monastery we would probably never visited the Datong volcanoes. It seems to become kind of a theme of our travels that we visit (or in this case accidentily stumble upon) a national geopark of some sort (see for example our trip to Inner Mongolia and the Hexingten Stone Forest). Here, over an area of around 77 km2  a group of 17 cinder cones are the main geological marker. We are pretty sure we climbed to the top of Hei Shan (Black Hill), the largest of the volcano group at an altitude of 1430m. It was sourrounded with deep trenches, which fractured the landscape into several pieces and could best be seen from the top of the Black Hill. It’s foot was covered with ancient frozen lava debries, of which even the larger pieces weighted less than one would expect, because they are riddled with air veins.


The Hanging Monastery 悬空寺

With the Yungang caves we got lucky because we visited them on the working saturday before the Dragon Boat Festival. Unfortunately, the following sunday we went to the Hanging Monastery was already a holiday, so naturally the place was swarming with tourists. Still the buidlings clinging to the face of the mountain were an impressive sight and were worth the 1 hour wait to get in.

Happy Dragon Boat Festival 2017!!

One of the things I love most about traveling in China is that at most sights, supplies are still fairly cheap to buy. Since we lost some time on our detour to the volcanoes, we decided to get something to eat for lunch before entering the Hanging Monasteries. As I already mentioned we went there during Dragon Boat Festival, so the traditional thing to eat are Zongzi, which is sticky rice usually filled with dried dates wrapped in banana leaves and pressed into a triangular shape. They are then steamed and served warm or cold right out of the their leafy packages.


For the time of our trip, we made Datong our basecamp and returned there after each sightseeing trip. A surprising sitenote about the city is the fact that – much like Pingyao – Datong also has a massive and intact city wall that is beautifully lit up after sundown. Built in 1372, it has a total length of 6.5 km and although we didn’t find the entrance, we’ve seen people walk on top of it.


Sakyamuni Pagoda 佛宫寺释迦塔 – The world’s largest wooden pagoda

As part of the Fogong Temple, the Sakyamuni (or Muta) pagoda was built in 1056 in Yingxian County. It is the oldest and tallest existent fully wooden multi-storey building still standing in China, and the world. From the exterior, the pagoda seems to have only five stories and two sets of rooftop eaves for the first story, yet the pagoda’s interior reveals that it has nine stories in all. Unfortunately visitors are no longer allowed to climb the octagonal structure, so we had to make due with a look from the outside. However, the ground floor was opened to the public and contains a very tall sitting Buddha statue. Not yet under UNESCO World heritage protection, the pagoda is almost a thousand years old and reaches a hight of close to 70m.


After visiting the Sakyamuni pagoda, we decided to head back home to Beijing again. As we had to check the mobile app for directions, we stopped on a small parking lot next to the road. An ironic reminder of the current brick up of Beijing’s Hutong just happened to be parked there – a broken down bus turned into a restaurant.