Arriving in Tokyo

Japan is our most anticipated destination. Evan and Vivian love Japanese food (mostly udon and ramen) and Vivian has been teaching herself manga and amine art for a couple of years.

When we reached Da Nang airport in Vietnam for our flight to Tokyo, we got our last bowls of pho and picked up some free masks. Everybody, literally everybody else at the airport were already in masks. The coronavirus has hit the headlines.

At Haneda airport in Tokyo fewer people are in masks. Jo had booked us rooms at the airport hotel. We get into bed. By 01:30 Evan and I turn out the lights. A half hour later as we are about to fall into deep sleep I feel like I’m on a waterbed and someone is gently but forcefully rocking the waterbed.

“Hey Evan, is your bed shaking too?”

“Yes it is”

I get out of bed and stand up. “Uh oh, the floor is shaking too. It’s an earthquake!”

We draw the heavy blackout curtains back and look out of our 9th floor window. Cars and buses and trains are running normally outside. We see some people walking in the street below. The shaking has stopped. No one is running down the hallway outside.

Welcome to Japan, I tell Evan. He isn’t perturbed. I check google to confirm that there was a 5.3 earthquake a few minutes ago. We turn off the lights and close the window curtains and go back to sleep. Next morning Jo tells us of an almost identical reaction in her and Vivian’s room while we sit across from the airport Seven-11 and eat onigiri and marvel at the variety of KitKats and we plan how to make our way to the Airbnb.

Hoi An

I look out of the window as we come in to land in Da Nang. Below us forest covered mountains abruptly give way to fields of newly planted paddy. They look like freshly brushed patches of green velvet broken by islands of villages and crowded cemeteries. I take lots of photos that I know will look crappy later. From the air I can see that Da Nang is a modern city of high rise buildings, soaring bridges, and a long strip of white beach. We land but we leave immediately for Hoi An, about 45 minutes away.

By the time we check in to our hotel it is getting dark outside. Tomorrow is the start of Tet, the week long lunar new year celebrations. The lady at the front desk tells us that it’s a good time to go see the flowers at the Ancient Town. Yet, a few minutes later when I step off the hotel shuttle bus on to the main street of the Ancient Town, I am unprepared for what I see. It is as if an immense flower bomb had exploded.

The main street is bordered by flagstone sidewalks, probably 15 feet wide on each side. But there isn’t an inch of space on the sidewalks because they are full of pots of blooming plants and bonsai fruit trees of every color and size. There is a sea of yellow chrysanthemums and orange marigolds. There are red cockscombs and bonsai kumquat trees laden with plump miniature orange fruits and bonsai apricot trees fluttering with delicate yellow blossoms.

Because the sidewalks are full of blooming merchandise, people are walking on the street along with thousands of scooters and mopeds. Entire families dressed for winter are drive-by-window-shopping in slow motion. Children stand on the scooter seats for better views of the flowers. People stop and buy their flowers which are then loaded on to the scooters and wedged between a family of four. Bigger orders are delivered by garden carts pulled by scooters or bicycles. Supplies are replenished the same way. There is celebration in the air. And while it’s one step away from complete chaos, things are moving relatively smoothly.

I wander around in this impromptu flower market wonderland and I get lost. My phone is almost dead (too many aerial paddy field photos). I stand on a busy corner (they all are) and try to orient myself. An old lady walks over and helps me. We don’t speak a word of each other’s language but she gets me going.

The Ancient Town is ablaze in paper lanterns gently swaying in the breeze. The bridge across the main canal is lit in gold and red. Thousands of people throng the cloth and tailor shops and cafes and restaurants. Some shops are already closed for business due to Tet. The owners and families and employees are sitting at long tables at the store front enjoying delicious dinners. Pots of yellow chrysanthemums (likely bought from the center of town where I was) adorn shop entrances. Row boats in the canal are being festooned with lanterns.

I find a quieter cafe and sit down at a table on the sidewalk and order a beer. It’s delivered by a studious looking 10 year old girl in glasses. I watch the world go by. Foreign tourists, locals, families, mostly walking, a few bicycles. Row boats slowly float by on the canal. The lady who owns the restaurant tells me that by tomorrow evening you’ll be able to cross the canal by stepping on boats. And that by the day after every flower at the market will have been sold.

I order an item that looks nice on the menu – stir fried morning glory and rice. When it arrives I am blown away by the simple yet exquisite taste and texture. This is what I’ll eat at least once every day in Vietnam. But this particular one will taste the best.

After a late and lazy breakfast at the hotel restaurant on the banks of the same river further downstream, I return with Jo and the kids to the Ancient Town. Everyone is stunned by the sidewalk flower market as I was last night. We stop at an ATM and I withdraw the local currency. I explain to Evan that you can get about 23,000 Vietnamese dongs for one dollar. Weak laughter, they are immune to dad jokes. I’m walking around with a million dongs in my pockets and I keep chuckling.

We wander around the narrow streets. The lanterns still look amazing in the day light, their bright primary colors punctuating the predominant yellow of most buildings. Vivian wants bubble tea. Jo finds a place on Google. It’s called Alley and Vivian declares that the brown sugar bubble tea is to die for. Evan is hungry so we go back to my cafe from last night and I introduce my family to the owner. Evan says that his pho is amazing. I can sense we are going to like it here.

We have plans to spend four days in Hoi An and then move on. There is so much to see in Vietnam. Ive been emailing with our friend in Austin who has family in Vietnam and she has given us a wealth of information. We can’t decide whether we should go to the famous Ha Long bay with its emerald waters and towering islands. Or Ho Chi Minh City to the south or Hanoi or Sa Pa where paddy terraces have been cut out of mountains. We punt and decide to stay put in Hoi An for our entire time in Vietnam.

On the first day of Tet, many locals are dressed in red. Evan insists on buying a red scarf that he proudly wears everywhere. I learn how to say Chu mung nam moi and greet everyone over enthusiastically. Initially they wonder if I’m choking but then I’m warmly greeted back. The ladies are all dressed in traditional Ao Dais and look striking.

We return to the bubble tea shop everyday. Vivian and sometimes Evan and I have a bubble tea problem that Jo is immune to. The food is uniformly good everywhere and quite unusually, we all like it. I’m in stir fried morning glory heaven. Evan tries a freshly made heavenly banana and Nutella pancake on the street that the lady expertly makes with what look like two paint scrapers and a large flat griddle. We settle into a comfortable rhythm that is hard to find while traveling. The kids don’t see much of Vietnam but they know parts of Hoi An very well. We really enjoy our brief rest in this tiny but truly enchanting corner of Vietnam.

Approximately during this time news of nCoVid-19 starts penetrating JoEllen and my news feeds. The day before we leave Vietnam the WHO declares that the coronavirus is a global health emergency.

Siem Reap

Apparently Siem Reap wasn’t much of a place – just a collection of hotels to house the couple of million tourists there to see Angkor Wat. But guide books now tout Siem Reap as a destination worthy of a visit if you happen to already be there. Definitely a back handed insult. We went to check it out anyway.

The food market was bustling. The night art market smelled like a tourist trap from even across the river, besides Evan was done walking and hungry by then. So we walked to Pub Street for a cold beer, hamburgers and wood fired pizza, all three of which were pretty good.

We sat on a open wooden veranda in the coolish night air above the street and watched the crowds. One group of black clad hip looking teens walked up the street rolling a giant speaker and amp. They set up shop below us at the crossroad and performed some dance moves to thumping music. A crowd assembled to watch. Then the kids distributed cards – probably invitations to a longer length event, we wondered – and rolled their act to the next intersection.

Besides Angkor, I knew of three other phrases that I associated with Cambodia – Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, and the killing fields. During our few days in Cambodia I tried to piece together what Jack and bartenders and tuktuk drivers said about them.

The history of modern Cambodia is very complicated because of the large number of actors: French colonizers exiting stage left, the Americans in a loosing war with the Viet Cong in neighboring Vietnam, China striving to counter Soviet influence in South East Asia, the Cambodian royals, Vietnam itself post American war (as they call the Vietnam war over there), Marxist-Leninist communism, and Thailand. Everyone partnered with and (not or) fought each other in various permutations. They managed to kill millions of Cambodians over the course of two decades through civil war, coups, political purges, carpet bombing, infighting, land mines, old fashioned war, forced marches, torture, famine, and mass killings. During Pol Pot’s reign as Prime Minister in the later half of the 1970’s it is estimated that one in four Cambodians lost their lives. The population from the cities were forced to move to the countryside and work in farms. The sudden shift to agrarianism ironically led to massive food shortages. Everybody had to work very long hours in rice fields and money was abolished. Teachers, doctors and scientists were executed and every else had to undergo reprogramming. Nowhere else that we’ve travelled have we heard of such diabolical social experiments. Mugabe’s reign in Zimbabwe comes closet to the Cambodian disaster but falls well short by any misery index.

On our last morning I’ve gotten more used to hearing my name when people say good morning in Khmer. “Arun suasdey”.

Jack is on time at the lobby, again. Three pick-ups on the dot. Whether he’s an exception or not, we now think of all Cambodians as very punctual people, which isn’t a common trait in south east or south Asia. Today Jack is taking us to a neighboring village. Our driver drove up a long winding dusty mountainous road which is one way towards the village in the morning and then at noon becomes a one way down from the village. We climbed a lot of stone steps to the top of a rock which has been sculpted into a giant reclining Buddha. Then we walked to a clear shallow mountain stream whose rock bed had been inscribed with a thousand Shiva Lingas. We saw Hindu pilgrims from India worshiping on the banks of the sacred stream. Then we walked downstream to a water falls where locals and tourists were changing into swimsuits and enjoying a swim. Vivian and Evan had enough of sightseeing and we headed back to town, but first stopped to buy some sodas and dried jack fruit. The Cambodian boy in the picture looks like he’s Evan age but he is the same age as Vivian. His mother was chatty but he blushed red and got very shy when his mother asked him to talk to Vivian.

We stopped at a nice roadside restaurant for lunch. Evan surprised the waiters by trying to eat all the rice he could get (he swears it’s the best rice he’s ever tasted). Then we headed to the airport and off to our next destination, Vietnam.

In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and toppled the terrible Pol Pot regime. They were welcomed by the people. But they stayed on as unwilling occupiers for the next ten years and soured their welcome. Add that to their historical enmity back from the times of the Cham kings invading Angkor Wat when the Khmers ruled over most of what is now Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and parts of Thailand. And so it appears that Cambodians don’t like their Vietnamese neighbors. They see Vietnam’s rising prosperity and tourism, and they recognize their demographic inequality (their 16 million to Vietnam’s 95 million), but almost everybody I spoke with didn’t like that we were going to Vietnam next.

Cambodia, even outside Angkor Wat is interesting. The people are super nice. Things are ridiculously cheap. We didn’t have to get any Cambodia local currency (Cambodian Riels). For transportation in tuktuks and street food, a dollar bill usually suffices, with no change offered or requested. Food is more difficult than Thai or Vietnamese cuisine with which we are more familiar. But hey, ask Evan and he’ll be happy to tell you the rice and chilly fish sauce is the best.

Cambodians seem to be at a restive peace with themselves. They have one of the longest ruling non-monarch head of state in the world – their Prime Minister has held that office since 1985, not without controversy. People, especially the young, are looking for change and opportunity. But the horror of modern Cambodia is a stark reminder to most that an unfulfilled peaceful existence is better than returning to a bloody strife.

Angkor Thom

I had an inkling that my family didn’t want to spend all day looking at eight hundred year old temples. So Jack and I had an afternoon session of more sightseeing while the fam chilled back at the hotel.

We started with Angkor Thom and it’s central temple, Bayon. This was Jayavarman VII’s answer to Angkor Wat. Bayon is a huge Buddhist temple and it’s striking feature is the 54 towers of stone, each with four serene giant faces on four sides.

There is some question about who the 216 almost identical giant faces belong to. Some think that they are an idealized version of Jayavarman VII’s face. If that were true he must have had a giant ego. He would surely have been a good friend of the Donald if they had been contemporaries. Others believe that the faces belong to the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara.

Whatever the truth, there’s something about seeing so many serene giant faces smiling down at you. I happily smiled back.

From Bayon we walked over to its older neighbor, the massive Hindu Shiva temple called Baphuon. Built to resemble the mountain home of Shiva, this man-made structure is almost as imposing as a mountain, with steep steps leading to what is the top now. An additional wood and bronze tower used to sit up here. The fashion show runway-like stone bridge leading up to the temple is the place to be photographed in Cambodia according to Jack and during our time here I saw multiple photographers and brides in spectacular wedding dresses hard at work.

A few hundred years after it had been built, probably around the 15th century, the tides of religion turned again and the Buddhists reclaimed this Hindu temple. The whole immense northern wall was rearranged into a huge reclining Buddha. It’s hard to spot but here are a couple of photos anyway.

From here we walked to the next structure – the king’s palace and swimming pools and the elephant terrace overlooking a massive field from where events were witnessed by the royals.

We finished and drove out of Angkor Thom through the beautiful Tonle Om gate and over the moat.

The bridge over the moat is representative of bridges small and large and modern and ancient all over Cambodia. The rail on the sides consists of a series of humanoid figures holding a long snake between them. The head of the snake is a giant fanned and hooded multi headed thing. This is Vasuki, the king of serpents who is usually found coiled around Shiva’s neck.

The bridges memorialize one of Hinduism’s favorite stories when the gods used the snake to churn the oceans. My summary, most likely inaccurate: the gods were weak (probably due to something stupid one of them had done). They needed to drink amrit, the nectar of immortality, to regain their strength and power. But the amrit had to be churned from depths of the cosmic oceans. Only a heavenly mountain was big enough to be used as the churning rod, and only Vasuki was long and strong enough to be the rope to tie around the mountain and be pulled to and fro from both ends. But the gods were weak and couldn’t do this by themselves. Vishnu got them to ask the demons to help. The demons took the head end of Vasuki, leaving the tail end for the gods. Then Vishnu turned into an avatar, a giant turtle, on whose back the mountain could rest while it was churned back and forth. A lot of valuable things were churned up including the nectar of immortality. Along the way poisonous fumes from Vasuki’s mouth (the gods had tricked the demons into holding the head end of the snake knowing this would happen) destroyed most of the demons. More trickery was used by the gods to finish off the remaining demons. The gods got their nectar and lived happily ever after.

The moat under the bridge of gods and demons is beautiful in the evening light. In the distance amongst the lotus there are a couple of boats. I sit and look at this for a while imagining life here a thousand years ago. And just like that after a lifetime of waiting my day at Angkor Wat is over.

The Tomb Raider Temple

Yep. That’s what the guides call it. But the temple was very popular even before the movie. It is notable as one of the few big temples that has been left with giant spung trees sprouting out from the stonework. Early western historians had decided that the buildings were too far gone so they cleaned up around the moats but left the trees, roots and all, intact.

The modern name of the temple is Ta Prohm. Jack says that when the French man “discovered” the site there was an old Cambodian man sweeping the yard. He didn’t speak French. When asked what it was called, he told them his name, Ta Prohm.

Ta Prohm is huge. At one time, the monastery supposedly housed tens of thousands of monks. It was built by Jayavarman VII, one of the first Khmer Buddhist rulers. He beat the invading Cham who had sailed up the river from Vietnam and had defeated the Khmer army. The victorious Jayavarman became the Khmer king and went off on a building spree including 102 hospitals and other public works. Then he built the massive Bayon temple and the surrounding city of Angkor Thom, and several other temples including Rajavihara, the royal monastery, now called Ta Prohm.

The roots of the giant spung trees look like molten cake batter that has slowly oozed out of an overflowing cake pan and dripped down the sides of the ancient stonework, solidifying into graceful flowing patterns. Or I am hungry.

Jayavarman VII was Buddhist. The temple is Buddhist. But now it was the turn of the later Hindus to alter a few Buddha statues into Shiva lingas (vertical cylinders of stone with rounded tops, symbolic of Shiva’s penis).

So here is where I discovered another of Jack’s qualities. He loves taking photos of his clients using their cameras. In an instagram obsessed world that is a good thing. For me and especially Jo it was at times a bit much. But I learned the art of vertical pano and trick pano from him. Jack took the vertical pano photo of us and the two hundred foot tall spung tree. I took the trick pano of Evan at two places at once! Vivian and Evan recalled that my friend Sharath had used the same vertical pano technique in Bhutan, but a bit more laboriously than Jack.

Other visitors noticed Jack’s aptitude with the camera. Here is a photo of Jack taking a photo of a couple of tourists who asked if he could photograph them. This photo shows a relatively intact portion of the temple. It has been newly reconstructed by the Archeological Survey of India who have partnered with Cambodia to help stabilize and reconstruct portions of Ta Prohm. In other spots around Angkor, we saw groups of archeologists and historians from Japan, Germany, France, and other countries hard at work putting these giant 3-D puzzles back together again.

By now Vivian was hungry and on the verge of being hangry (which also explains why she’s in fewer photos). Jack hurried us through short cuts at the temple and we walked back to the car. Along the way we found a group of Cambodian musicians playing under a tree. They had lost limbs to land mines, and had a sign that said that instead of begging they were making music and accepting donations.

At the car park an enterprising young girl Vivian’s age helped us buy snacks and sodas, interpreting for the elderly owner who didn’t speak English. We met this girl for just a moment but she made an impression. We wondered about her life and what she’d grow up and do. In a different world would she be class president and play the lead role in the school play and then later star in a movie like the Tomb Raider set in a distant exotic land?

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat has evoked stories in my head since I first heard those words as a kid. Now here we are, stepping out from the coolness of the Airbus on to the tarmac at Siem Reap airport. Dragging two preteens who are no more excited than if they had landed in Cleveland.

The next morning at 07:00 sharp I got a WhatsApp message from our guide, Jack (whose real name is Hun). He was at the lobby ready and waiting for us. We stopped in town to buy our tickets to Angkor Wat (they are like mini visas and even have each of our mugshots), and then we headed off to Angkor.

Jack had three qualities which make him a good guide. First, he likes to talk. That is good because I have a lot of questions. We quickly got done with the historical facts associated with Angkor Wat.

The Khmers built Angkor between the 8th and the probably up to the 15th century. During its peak, Angkor was one of the largest cities in the world with a population of one million. The temples, palaces, and monasteries are what we see. The surrounding city has been reabsorbed into the jungles. There are more than 300 temples in the complex which stretches over 400 square kilometers. Angor Thom and Angkor Wat are the bigger and more well known temples.

I’ve added this photo of Angkor Wat reflecting in the lotus pool. People wake up at 4:00 am to get here by the thousands at sunrise to capture the dawn sky and the sun rising from behind the temple. On equinoxes it’s even crazier because the top tower of the temple is directly lined up towards the east with the rising sun. My photo is a lazy 9:00am attempt on a random non equinox day with the light in the wrong place and a haze hanging in the air. It will have to do.

The temple of Angkor Wat was built by a Hindu king Suryavarman II. It is dedicated to Vishnu. Cambodia is almost completely Buddhist now. Over time, Hindu idols have been altered into Buddhist ones. Like the eight-armed statue of Vishnu that has a Buddha head on it and it worshipped by Buddhists today.

We enter Angkor Wat through the gate that was reserved for brahmins in the old days and Jack is excited to learn that we’d be welcome through this gate even back then. Oh, the privilege of caste!

The myth of a French man walking into a jungle and discovering the Lost Temple is apparently just that. Angkor and the Khmer Empire, probably due to floods and then droughts, disintegrated in the 15th century. The majority of the population died or left. Small groups of villagers could not maintain the vast facilities but they lived amongst the ruins and worshipped there till the said French man discovered them.

The immensity of the temple and the beauty of the sculpture are breathtaking. As we visit some of mankind’s most sublime works around the world I’m selfishly glad that through the history of our species we have been suckers for religion. Our best art and architecture are in service of our gods.

I thought it would be really crowded here with 2.5 million annual international visitors. But the temple is big enough to accommodate us all and Jack is able to steer us down almost deserted paths most of the time.

Vivian and Evan seem interested enough and the weather is comfortable – so no one complains. But I have no doubt that if they had been offered their iPads and the option to stay at the hotel instead, they would have been all over that.

We left Angkor Wat awe struck through the back gate facing east and drove to the next temple on our (Jack’s) list – the Tomb Raider Temple.


All roads to south-east Asia lead to Singapore. And Bangkok. So though we only plan to visit Cambodia and Vietnam, we got Bangkok as a bonus. That and because our dear friend Ami gave us her condo in Bangkok to stay at.

The flight from Christchurch to Singapore was long – ten plus hours – the same as Dallas to Frankfurt. But it didn’t feel bad – even the kids thought it was a breeze. At Changi airport our inter terminal train gave us an opportunity to gawk at the circular waterfall from the ceiling into the domed rainforest. Then, a short flight and we stepped out into the stifling steamy humidity and heat of Bangkok. It was a bit of a shock after New Zealand.

It took us several minutes to get signed in at Ami’s condo. But by the end of the process my thumbprint was registered to let us in. How cool is that! Here’s a pano view from the 25th floor balcony at dusk.

Bangkok feels like an in between city. It has good roads, an underground metro, an above street train system, a river transit system on the Chao Praya river, and is much cleaner than Cairo or Kolkata. The taxis are good. You don’t feel like you’ve got to look over your shoulder. But it isn’t an sanitized as first world cities usually are. It’s no Singapore.

Food, especially street food is cheap. Foot massages even at nice places are very reasonable and professional. Traffic is awful. One evening while returning from a dinner date night with Jo we saw someone who could be a prostitute. That’s the extent of what we saw of the sleazy side of Bangkok that you hear about.

The next morning we went to see the palace. It was crowded and hot and Vivian and I had to buy MC Hammer style pants to cover our unsightly knees. The pants were conveniently sold right there at the palace and they were cheap, but they only made us less cooler (in all possible ways).

The palace and the surrounding temples especially the Temple of the Emerald Buddha were beautiful in a pretty gilded gold mosaic way. Our entry tickets entitled us to a free traditional dance performance at the National Theater and after finishing our palace tour unexpectedly (we took an exit without knowing) we hopped on a free shuttle to the theater.

We saw a dance enacting a portion of the Ramayana, the epic from ancient India. The rulers of Thailand going back several centuries were Hindu. Their capital city was named Ayutthaya after Ayodhya, Rama’s kingdom in India. Though modern Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, the current king of the country is Rama X, the tenth consecutive Rama. In the Ramayana, Rama is the son of the king of Ayodhya. His scheming stepmother (the king had three wives) gets him exiled from Ayodhya for 14 years and her own son on the throne. Another one of Rama’s step brothers, Laxman, and Rama’s wife, Sita join him in exile. At one point Sita is abducted by Ravana, the ten headed demon king of Lanka (Sri Lanka). Hanuman, the monkey prince joins forces with Rama. His army builds a land bridge to Lanka by tossing boulders into the sea. Sita is rescued, Ravana is killed. Rama returns victorious to a welcoming Ayodhya and becomes king. Incidentally that day is celebrated as Diwali, the festival of lights. Here you see Rama and company from the left approaching Ravana and his demon army who are on the right. Our kids got a free cultural class.

The day after that we flew to Cambodia. Two short days in Bangkok – just enough to give us a flavor of this ancient and modern metropolis.


Christchurch hasn’t recovered from the big earthquake of 2011. Jo and I remember the beautiful square in front of Christchurch Cathedral vibrant with life from our last visit that was pre-earthquake. Now the square is dominated by the fence that surrounds the damaged and partially demolished cathedral. Downtown or CBD as they call it still has a lot of buildings are boarded up and there are many empty lots where buildings once stood before the quake. One afternoon we walked along the shores of a volcanic crater that opens out into the sea near the town of Lyttelton. We tried to rent kayaks but they weren’t any rentals anywhere close. It was the weekend and families were coming in with grills and coolers and watermelons, ready to spend some quality outdoor time.

Utsa flew back to Wellington. We enjoyed her short visit. In a few days we will go to Bangkok, and onwards to Cambodia, Vietnam, and Japan from there. We are excited but we will miss so many things about New Zealand. Of all the places we’ve visited I think the Long White Cloud may be the hardest to say good bye to.