Tag Archives: monuments

Vientiane, Laos – Impressions

Compared to the massive sprawling beasts that are most capital cities in South East Asia, Vientiane – pronounced ‘Vieng chan’ — is decidedly small town. But even with only two hundred and ten thousand people, Vientiane is still the largest city in the Laos.

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Because ‘chan’ has two meanings in the modern Lao language, Vientiane is known as both the ‘City of the Moon’ and ‘City of Sandalwood’. The city is nestled on the northern bank of the Mekong River, with Thailand on the other side.

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Sleeper Train
The 12-hour journey from Bangkok to Laos was by overnight train, my first experience on a sleeper train. I booked in the second class car and ended up with an upper berth. Being 189 cm tall (6’3”), I was concerned that I might not fit. But when the bed was made up and I climbed into it, it was just enough.

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I’ve slept in tighter locations and actually got a good sleep. The train has two toilets per car, a western toilet and a squat toilet, but instead of going into a septic tank, waste simply drops out a hole in the bottom of the car onto the tracks. I guess it’s biodegradable. By about 10pm the car was silent with most curtains closed.

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Buddha Park
About 25 km east of Vientiane is a sculpture park called Xiang Khuan, meaning Spirit City. The site was begun in 1958 by a monk who integrated both Hinduism and Buddhism into the sculptures. There are over a hundred statues in the park, some quite massive. The largest is the reclining buddha…

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Another piece has a crawlway inside and has several chambers on three levels and access to the roof.

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There are several ways to get to the park, by tour bus, tuk-tuk, or as I did, by scooter!

Petuxai – The Victory Gate
Also known as the Gate of Triumph, the monument is dedicated to those who fought for independence from France in 1949.

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The monument resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but is Laotian in design and decorated with mythological creatures. The structure has 7 levels, the top three giving great views across Vientiane.

Pha That Luang
The golden buddhist stupa is regarded as the most important national monument in Laos and is a national symbol. It is suggested to have been built in the 3rd century and is surrounded on three sides by other temples.

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That Dam
A black stupa said to be inhabited by a seven-headed naga, a water deity taking on the form of a large snake with the upper body of a female. This creature was to have protected Laos from the Siamese army in 1827.

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Nagas are the divine enemy of Garuda, the great eagle ridden by Shiva in the Hindu religion.

Temples
Like all cities in Asia, Vientiane is littered with temples. Most temples have a very Thai design — or maybe the Thai temples have a Laotian design — but in Lao the temple compound is usually surrounded by a series of shrines. Laotian temples often have a tower in their compounds that can be climbed.

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Here are some of the temples I visited in my travels in Vientiane:

Wat Si Maung

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Wat Si Saket

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Wat Mixai

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Wat Thatlueng Neua

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COPE Visitor Centre
Laos is the most bombed country in the world. With a major portion of the Ho Chi Minh trail running through Laos it was bombed heavily during the Vietnam War in attempts to sever the Vietcong supply lines. But also during bombing runs, if the US had not expended all of its ordinance it would be discarded over Laos.

COPE is an organisation that provides rehabilitation to Laotians who have suffered disabilities from unexploded munitions left over from the war. The Visitor Centre is a museum which also presents a documentary film following one such victim.

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Overall, Vientiane surprised me. Considering Laos is a poor country, the capital was more advanced than I expected. There were more Apple stores than any other city I have ever been to (including the US), a large western style cafe district and a decided lack of US chain restaurants — not a KFC, McDonalds or Starbucks in sight.

Next, I head north to the backpacker town of Vang Vieng.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

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Bangkok, Thailand – Impressions

Bangkok is known in Thai as Krung Thep Mahanakhon, which means “City of the Deity”.

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After my brother headed home I travelled to Bangkok to continue my adventures. But never alone long, I met a British girl at the hostel and we spent 3 days exploring the city.

Day 1 – Getting Around In Bangkok

Cruising Chao Phraya River
The rapid growth of the city has caused major troubles with traffic congestion and pollution. While four metro train lines have been built to combat this, they do little to cover the city. Only one train stop goes near the Chao Phraya River, where commuters can transfer to express boats to move along its length. As these boats are the easiest ways to see the city, we booked tickets and headed out to see what Bangkok had to offer.

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Wat Pho – Temple of the Reclining Buddha
Named after a temple in India where the Buddha was believed to have lived, Wat Pho is a massive complex with many traditional Thai designed temples and buildings. It is also known as the home of traditional Thai Massage.

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A major building in the complex contains a massive golden buddha in a reclining position. It’s the most popular building on the site where tourists filter in one side, around the feet and out past the back of the head.

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Khao San Road
Originally a rice market, the road is now considered a backpacker ghetto and party zone. As I prefer quieter hostels, I didn’t to stay in the area. During the day there are plentiful backpackers, markets and food stalls. In the evenings, bars appear and backpackers party away the night.

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Democracy Monument
At the end of Khao San Road is the grand monument commemorating the Siamese Revolution of 1932 which led to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. Unfortunately, the widening of the road to accommodate the monument and ceremonial boulevard meant mass evictions of local residents and the cutting down of hundreds of shade trees.

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Wat Saket
Known as the Golden Mountain, this Buddhist temple sits atop an artificial mountain. The temple has a rounded golden feature atop it giving it the sense of being a mountain. The roof of the temple allows great views across Bangkok.

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Wat Suthat
One of the ten first-grade temples in Bangkok. King Rama I began the construction himself in 1807. King Rama II helped to carve the doors during his reign and the temple was finally completed by King Rama III in 1847. There are 28 Chinese pagodas at the base of the temple to commemorate the 28 buddhas born on this earth.

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Day 2 – Wat? More Temples?
Bangkok is the city of temples and while we’d visited several on day one there were a couple more we wanted to see.

The Victory Monument
Our hostel was right near the monument commemorating the 59 Thais killed during the 2 month Franco-Thai war in 1941. The outcome of the war was decided by the Japanese, who didn’t want a prolonged war between two of its allies just prior to its own war of conquest in SE Asia.

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Jim Thompson House
One of the most popular tourist locations in Thailand, the house was created by a US soldier during the 1950’s and 60’s. He put together 6 Thai houses made from Teak and brought from all over Thailand. After Jim went missing in Malaysia, his nephew created the Jim Thompson Foundation and turned the site into a museum.

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The Grand Palace and The Emerald Buddha Temple
Another of the most popular tourist attractions in Thailand, the Grand Palace was the home to the Kings of Siam between 1782 and 1925. The Palace compound is huge with many Temples, Halls and of course, the Palace.

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The compound is also the site of the Emerald Buddha Temple, home of a famous buddha statue. Labelled ‘emerald’ because of its green colour, it’s actually carved from Jasper. The statue has a long history, being carved in India, taken to Sri Lanka, lost on its way to Burma and ending up in Angkor Wat in Cambodia before the Siamese invaded and claimed it. Unfortunately, photos aren’t permitted within the temple.

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What Arun – Temple of Dawn
Once home to Emerald Buddha and named after a Hindu God, the Temple of Dawn is said to catch the first rays of the sun each morning, glowing with pearly iridescence.

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The main temple has very steep stairs that climb two tiers and give great views of the city.

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Day 3 – Market Day

All templed out by day 3, my British companion and I decided to explore a couple of weekend markets around the city.

Khlong Lat Mayom Floating Market
Bangkok has several floating markets, although the largest and most popular take over 90 minutes outside the city. We aimed for a smaller, less touristy floating market closer to central Bangkok. A floating market is a river market navigable by boat, with other boats and vendors along the sides of the river selling goods. Khlong Lat Mayom only has a small floating aspect…

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The market is mainly a food market which stretches across the river but with only the occasional boat floating by. As it was raining we were happy not to be on the water. Instead we enjoyed the local food, a spicy chicken side and some fried squid eggs in a batter. Interesting.

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Chatuchak Weekend Markets
Known as Jatujak in the Thai language, the markets are not only the largest markets in the city, but the largest markets I’ve ever been to. As the name suggests, it’s only open on the weekends, and is vastly busy during this time.

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The markets have 27 sections and 8000 stalls! Beyond seeing the markets, my major reason for going was to find and consume a fried scorpion on a stick. Unfortunately, after spending hours searching, I wasn’t able to find one so settled for a frozen banana dipped in chocolate and chopped almonds instead. While not entirely the dish I was looking for, it would have to do but my search will continue.

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Overall, Bangkok is a busy capital city with plenty to do assuming you aren’t already over temples.

Next, I catch my first sleeper train to Vientiane, capital of Laos.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Jakarta, West Java, Indonesia – Impressions

With a population exceeding 10 million, the city once known as Batavia by the Dutch is one of the largest cities in South East Asia. It also has the second largest urban population, behind Tokyo, with 28 million.

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Jakarta is a crushing metropolis and like most other major cities has severe traffic issues. To help out with this, the city has implemented a busway system which works quite effectively, except at highway U-turn zones where it can bottleneck. And, as everywhere in Indonesia, there are millions of scooters.

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It’s can be difficult to see into the distance in the city as there’s often a hazy and dense cover of smog. Yet hidden away in the thin back streets are little gems just waiting to be discovered, such as this Buddhist temple.

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But beyond having an avid nightlife like most major cities, there’s little for a tourist to see in and around the central city. With vast distances to cross just to get to some of the attractions, we stayed around the Northern Jakarta suburbs to see what we could find.

Kota Tua Jakarta

Jakarta Old Town is the old Batavian city centre and is situated in the northern region of Jakarta near the port. The area has many prominent buildings in the dutch architectural style although most were sacked during the War of Independence, leaving only their shells.

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Some buildings survived the sacking intact, while others have been rebuilt or are in the process of being rebuilt. This old building, now the Jakarta History Museum, is in the process of being rebuilt. It currently has a very large sheet hanging over to make it look finished.

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Old Jakarta is now dominated by museums and eating houses, with a stretch of small markets between.

Medan Merdeka – Independence Square
Jakarta has the second largest city square in the world, measuring a square kilometre in area. At the very centre is Monas, the National Monument.

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At 132m tall, Monas is a huge obelisk with a golden torch at its top. Inside the base there are two halls, the lower is used by the National History Museum to display reliefs of periods in the nation’s history. The upper is the Hall of Independence. Above the halls is the lower observation deck, 17 metres above the ground. Then, just beneath the golden flame at 115 metres, is the upper observation deck.

Because of the heat and the great line of people waiting to get in, we decided against the wait.

Bogor Botanical Gardens
Bogor is a city 90 minutes south of Jakarta at the most southerly point of the commuter rail line. For 10,000 rupiah we caught the train to the city which is known for its botanical gardens. The Botanical Gardens contain some 15,000 different species of plants and trees, and 400 types of palms.

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The gardens are more of a grand park with many ponds across its 80 hectares.

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Some showcasing metre wide Lily Pads.

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The gardens are in Bogor’s city centre and are adjoined with the Istana Bogor, the presidential palace.

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We spent a couple of hours wandering around the cooler grounds of the gardens before heading back to Jakarta.

Next and for our final stop in Indonesia, the Island of Sumatra and the city of Padang, popular with surfers.

The Trail Wanderers

Yogyakarta, Central Java, Indonesia – Impressions

Yogyakarta – pronounced Jojakarta – is the capital of the Yogyakarta Special Region in Central Java. The city is a centre of education where Indonesians come for higher learning. It was also the Indonesian Capital during the War of Independence.

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Jalan Malioboro
Unlike Surabaya, where we felt like the only Westerners, Yogyakarta is the second most visited tourist destination in Indonesia. Our hostel was near Jalan Malioboro (Malioboro Street), the main tourist area in the city, so not surprisingly this was where we saw most of the Westerners.

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Jalan Malioboro begins at the main train station to the north and runs south to Beringhajo Markets, near the Kraton – the Sultan’s Palace. The street has plentiful stores and street vendors selling all the typical touristic wares. Thankfully the vendors are less aggressive than in Bali, making wandering the street far more relaxing.

Kraton Ngaygyakarta Hadiningrat
The Kraton or Sultan’s Palace is just south of Jalan Malioboro and was the seat of power in the area. While it was once the house of the royal family, it’s now a popular tourist attraction and museum. The Indonesian 1,000 Rupiah bill features an image of The Keaton.

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Taman Sari Water Castle
Two kilometres south of the Kraton is Taman Sari, the Sultan’s royal gardens. It once had an artificial lake with islands, several pavilions and a bathing complex. While most of the Taman Sari lies in ruins, the bathing pools of the Sultan’s concubines are well-preserved and open to tourists.

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Candi Borobudur
Borobudur temple is the world’s largest Buddhist temple and is one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world. It was built in the 9th century and abandoned in the 14th only to be rediscovered again in 1811. It contains the largest and most complete collection of Buddhist reliefs in the world.

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We took an organised tour to the site and climbed the structure via the eastern gate, the only proper entrance to the temple. The stairs climb through three large tiers to the top where there are many bell-like structures, each covering a state of Buddha.

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The site is an amazing place for photos, although getting one without tourists can be troublesome. The temple was not the only thing being photographed, Westerners tend to also be targets for photos. When first asked, I assumed they wanted me to take a photo of them with the temple but they actually wanted a photo with me.

Candi Prambanan
Prambanan temple is the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia and was built around the same time as Candi Borobudur. The temple complex was once a collection of 240 individual temples, with the largest six temples at its centre dedicated to the 3 manifestations of the hindu god and the each of their steeds.

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Most of the temples are now just piles of rubble after numerous eruptions of Mount Merapi and the earthquake of 2009. The major temples have been reconstructed and stand like fingers protruding from the dirt.

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This time my brother and I hired scooters and rode out to the temple compound, which is only 17km from Jalan Malioboro. While vastly different to Borobudur, it is equal in magnificence.

Candi Sewa
There are several other temple complexes near Candi Prambana, although most are now little more than stacks of stones. One that has been rebuilt is Candi Sewa, a buddhist temple.

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Its main temple has been reinstated, but most of it’s surrounding smaller temples have not. Yet the guard statues still stand ready to defend the site.

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Mount Merapi
Mount Merapi, literally Fire Mountain, is the most active of Indonesia’s 129 volcanos, with major eruptions occurring every 10-15 years. It’s also a popular volcano to climb, usually to see the sunrise. In my adventures I’ve climbed mountains at night and had sworn never to do it again. But for some reason I forgot and climbed it anyway.

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The climb was difficult and 300 metres from the very top I made the call to go no further. I stopped at a large group of tents belonging to the wise people who had climbed the day before, camped and woken early to climb the final hour and forty minutes to the summit. The views from the camp were still awesome, although it was very cold. My brother and our Italian friend did make it to the top for similarly spectacular views, such as Mount Merbabu, Merapi’s slightly taller twin.

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While it was good climb, I stick with my decision to not climb mountains at night and will never do it again. I prefer to climb mountains when I’m rested and not after a full day. But for those who did reach the top they enjoyed the experience, although for some it was the most difficult thing they’d ever done.

Next we head further across the island of Java to the city of Bandung.

The Trail Wanderers.

Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia – Impressions

Surabaya is known as the City of Heroes for the part it played in the war of independence against the Dutch Empire. It’s also the country’s second largest city.

Surabaya isn’t a city that has embraced tourism to any great extent and because of this it doesn’t attract many travellers. This didn’t stop us from spending a couple of days checking out the attractions it does have.

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Surabaya is a major shopping destination for Indonesians with many Western style shopping malls in the central city. But just outside this area the city changes to more squalid conditions where the poor try to eke out a living.

Strangers in a Strange Land
As we walked around the city we garnered much interest from the locals, who would often stare at the two tall, bearded, foreign lads. Many times we’d hear, ‘Hello Mister’, followed by giggles, as if this was somehow funny because it was the only words in English they knew. Then unexpectedly, at another time, a local would strike up a random conversation in fairly fluent english.

For two days we felt like the only Westerners in the city until returning to the hostel we discovered a young Italian guy had moved into our room. He joined our troupe and began travelling with us.

The Bemo
While there are plentiful taxis in the city, we discovered a very cheap form of transportation known as the Bemo. A Bemo is simply of minivan converted into a taxi-bus that travels along a predetermined route through the city. Simply wave at it to stop, tell the driver where you want to go and get in the back. When you’re at your destination the driver will let you know or press the button to get him to stop.

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The cost of the trip is 4,000 Rupiah (40 cents) no matter how far you go. There are more than 40 routes, each defined by a large letter emblazoned on the front, and sometimes the back, of the vehicle. There are many Bemos on each route, so if the first one is full another will come along soon after. The entire Bemo system is reminiscent of the taxi system I discovered in southern Chile, the difference being that in Chile they use cars instead of vans.

There’s one large downfall of the Bemo system, knowing where a certain lettered Bemo goes. While there’s a list of routes online at: www.angelfire.com/on/Genhome/rutebemo.htm, there’s no map. So, unless you know the areas getting lost is easy. Having a maps app on your phone helps a lot.

Monkasel – Submarine Monument
Probably the least likely tourist attraction in the city is the Submarine Monument, dedicated to a SS-type Whisky class submarine built in Russia in 1952.

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The Monument is the full-sized submarine and is open for viewing most days of the year for the hefty price of Rp8,000 (80 cents). The submarine has seven rooms, although entry to some are through very low bulkhead doors. This height issue isn’t a problem for the locals, but at 189cm I had to crawl through them.

Tugu Pahlawan – Heroic Monument
Standing at 41 metres tall, the Tugu Pahlawan is a large monument commemorating the heroes of the war of independence. It is also the main symbol of Surabaya appearing on the city’s Seal, which also contains a shark ‘Sura’ and a crocodile ‘Baya’.

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House of Sampoerna – Clove Cigarette Museum
While I’m morally against cigarette smoking, Surabaya contains an award-winning tourist museum devoted to the history of clove cigarette manufacturing in Indonesia. While surrounded by poor areas, the grounds of the museum could be mistaken for being in central Amsterdam.

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Other Places
While there are several other places in Surabaya of interest to travellers: The Four Face Buddha; Joko Dolog, the 700 year-old statue of Buddha; or several mosques and temples, it’s not always easy to find them. Whether they are down hidden alleyways, the Bemos don’t go near them, of they just don’t stand out. Several times ended up walking at length through slums trying to find a site. Unable to ask due to the language barrier and floundering in the sticky heat, we’d eventually give up and head somewhere else. We did get lucky a couple of times and found the occasional Hindu temple.

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While walking through the myriad of slums, at no time did we feel unsafe.

Next, we head by train to the student capital of Indonesia, Yogyakarta.

The Lone Trail Wanderer