On the 6th of December, I got up at three in the morning and went to the international airport. Christmas is coming up and I want to be home. So this blog is going into hibernation again. As before, I am going to edit my notes, organize my thousands of pictures, and post a polished version on my homepage, www.bitrot.de, in a few weeks. So, for now, farewell to my readers, I hope you’ll follow my future adventures too!

I have spent most of 2009 on the road. All my travel reports in Europe, Asia, America, and Africa can be found here.

Table of contents of the blog archive:

Wat Saket, the Golden Mount, is a steep and tall artificial hill north of the old town, with whitewashed staircases all the way up and a golden Chedi on top. A procession of monks in bright orange robes were marching up, beating a gong and chatting for a while, and then back down. The views from the top is great. People are praying, and there is a souvenir shop too. At the foot of the hill is a modern wat with a huge golden sitting Buddha. On the way there I was once again stalked by a nice guy who is a professional (check), has a brother in Frankfurt (check), Wat Saket is closed today (check) – and then he turned and left without another word.

I walked to the old downtown, where the palace is. There are no skytrains here, no massive structure like that could be built there. I used a river taxi on the Chao Praya instead. The city is unusually quiet, and there were colorful military parades, because this is king Bhumibol’s birthday and the king is highly revered in Thailand. At night they had massive fireworks.

I had booked a bicycle tour with Spice Roads to the Bangkok Jungle, Bang Kra Jao. That’s part of a peninsula formed by a loop of the Chao Praya, connected to the city only by a narrow land bridge. It’s quite large, and even though it’s very close to Bangkok’s Sukhumvit business district, it’s undeveloped. There are two short narrow roads, and a maze of narrow raised conrete walkways through dense forests and rice fields. There are a few small farm houses and a very small wat. Unbelievable that such a peaceful place can exist so close to the center of Bangkok. For once, I had a good well-maintained bicycle with the correct size, and a helmet. Very nice ride.

This is my fifth visit to Bangkok and I have done all the usual sights before, most several times (see here and here). So I decided to visit the modern parts of Bangkok, like Silom and Sukhumvit where few tourists go, to see how the city works. It’s quite modern and clean, lots of malls, office towers, concrete, steel, and glass, but also trees. When I saw this part of town for the first time 11 years ago it was a howling mass of traffic and unbelievably polluted, and they were constructing an elevated skytrain system. That system was now complete and running, and it’s working. The tracks and stations use about ten times as much concrete as you’d think would be necessary, but it’s fast, efficient, and clean. I could no longer see blue smog rising up from the streets. The Bangkok business district has still too much traffic and is certainly not beautiful, but it has come a long way to a modern working city.

Christmas ornaments are everywhere in this Buddhist country. Huge opulent dioaramas with six-meter trees, green, blue, gold, or silver; phone booth-sized snow-covered swiss chalets, Cinderella, Disney dwarves, elks, snowmen, angels, and gingerbread houses. I asked some people about this but they were very unclear about the notion of snow. Like in Europe, all these things are just symbols for the annual shopping season. No prisoners taken.

Pantip Plaza is a six-floor department store packed with electronic shops. It’s like Tokyo’s Akihabara district packed into a single very large building. Shabbier of course, and not as cutting-edge, but it’s a lot of fun. And there are no orange-rober Buddhist monks browsing around in Akihabara. I also had the pleasure of meeting another Bangkok institution, the Common Gem Scammer. He walked up to me and gave an impeccable textbook presentation, well-dressed and polite (check), has a brother in Frankfurt (check), the place I am going to is closed today (check), please follow me (check) – but here I excused myself because the next stage of the script is fun but time-consuming. It involves following him to his uncle’s one-time government gem auction where I can buy expensive worthless pieces of glass that I am supposed to be able to sell for twice that price at home. Right. I decide to spend the money on a fresh fish with Thai spices at the excellent Baan Khanita restaurant instead.

A travel day in a long parade of buses. First a minibus to the Old Market bus stop in Siem Reap, then another minibus around the bloock to the VIP bus stop, then a big bus towards Poipet at the Thai border. Its brakes failed, and after rummaging around under the bus with very large wrenches and disassembling big chunks of metal found there, they found us yet another bus and we continued to the border. The dusty and bumpy dirt road we had used in 2006 was gone and replaced with a smooth paved freeway. Poipet is the only place in Cambodia where casinos are legal, and they are building two there, just past Cambodian immigration.

On the Thai side, another minibus brought us to the bus stop, where we were all summarily forgotten. Nobody seemed to know who goes where and in which bus, so I kept nagging everybody in uniform and got put on a minibus quickly. Thai freeways are wide and modern and we arrived in Bangkok quickly. I was dropped at a skytrain stop and found my way to the hotel I had reserved.

I rented a tuk-tuk for the day and went out to Angkor, the old Khmer temples. I focused on temples that I had missed on my previous visit in 2006. The circular temple in the northeast in the middle of a pool, surrounded by four smaller pools, was dry in 2006 but now the pools were filled, turning a dusty ruin into an enchanted place. I visited several more remote temples and wandered their extensive mazes of corridors and halls. Some had collapsed but most were restored. I was amazed that there were almost no other tourists, I even got my ticket without waiting at all.

Of course I also briefly visited the three most famous temples of Angkor: Ta Prohm, the Bayon, and Angkor Wat. Ta Prohm was my favorite in 2006: dark buildings, some collapsed, rising from the forest, mysterious, serene, and majestic. Huge tree roots were gripping the temples like alien tentacles, as if nature was clawing back what was once a jungle. It doesn’t just look like a Tombraider set, it was a Tombraider set. But Lara Croft won’t return. Ta Prohm was tamed and had its mystery and atmosphere squeezed out. Most exterior rubble and low vegetation was cleared away, leaving the temples standing naked, and wooden walkways were built including roped-off platforms right in front of scenic spots for the tourists to stand on and have their picture taken. They are even building a new concrete Naga passage to the temple. Morons. I guess it looked good on paper.

The Bayon with its many towers adorned with huge sculpted Buddha faces facing in four directions, and its maze of dark passages underneath, is still what it was in 2006. It has to be explored to be appreciated, from a distance it looks like a mound of rubble but it’s fantastic inside and justly famous.

The central complex, Angkor Wat, was the only temple filled with tourists and tour groups, but it was being renovated and the central temple pyramid was closed. Not much to see there and no views anymore. It was magic in 2006. If there was no Unesco to recognize places like Angkor, they’d have to set one up just for Angkor to give it its dues.

Siem Reap is where everyone is heading for hotels and restaurants. On my last visit, Siem Reap’s Old Market district was just a dirt road lined with old French facades. Now it’s paved, reducing its former small-town charm somewhat but they managed to give the place a pleasant hipness that can stand up to any western standard. It doesn’t have much to do with Cambodian culture though. Touts offer massages, girls, boys, marijuana, and other pleasures for those inclined. I had an excellent fish amok instead (a Cambodian fish curry served in a coconut shell). There is no ice cream in Laos, but there is in Cambodia, and the Khmer fruit and Khmer spices flavors were excellent.

Yesterday, when swimming, I could see Cambodia on the other side of the Mekong, so I decided to swing by Angkor on my way to Bangkok. A boat brought me to Ban Nakasang, and to a 14-hour bus to Siem Reap in Cambodia. The bus passed within 1km of Vietnam, and within 70km of Phnom Penh, but I resisted these temptations; I have been to both places before. We crossed the Mekong one last time before Kampung Cham and switched to a “private car”, which turned out to be a Honda packed with six people, driving in total darkness for three hours on a road with animals, unlit bicycles and overloaded motorcycles, parked trucks, and people sitting in the middle of the street chatting. That last one got a rise out of our otherwise imperturbable driver, “suicidal” he said.

I liked Laos; life is still simple there compared to its neighbors, even though some places sold out to tourism to get some of those euros and dollars no matter what it does to their cities. And I did not see any US chain store in Laos at all; no KFC, no McDonalds, no 7-Eleven, and no Starbucks. What a relief.