Travel

Kitchen: Gaeng Hung Lay

I wrote some years ago how Chiang Mai and North Thailand (Lanna) used to be part of Burma for over 200 years, rather than Siam (Thailand) that it has since been part of (link).


Khao Niao, sticky rice is often served with Hang Lee.

One of the things where Burmese heritage shows, is some of foods that remained popular in the region, passing from generation of chefs to the next. One particular dish that makes the case is called Gaeng Hung Lay, or just Hang Lee. It’s an Indian type of sweet curry, stewed pork ribs and pork belly dish that are more common in further West. Chilies are main ingredient to spice up traditional Thai foods. When I lived in Chiang Mai, we often frequented in restaurants that were making good Hang Lee. Some of these places are little adventures all on their own, at the end of curvy mountain road that runs through the forests at the mountains.


Sunrise in Loei province.


Jolly good times.


Mekong river at morning, near Golden Triangle river junction.


Stone lions overlooking town of Mae Hong Son.

I’m not much of a chef myself, but this link provides good instructions how to make Hang Lee yourself. If traveling in Thailand, it can nowadays often be found from Thai restaurants all across the country, but obviously in north the easiest.

Kuala Lumpur Street Impressions

Street impressions and some popular scenes from Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, early 2020. I traveled to KL first time in 2003, and bought my first digital camera from there. Few of those photos in here as well.

Curiously, as COVID-19 virus pandemic is spreading currently, I remember doing these early trips when world was fearing similar SARS virus, also originating from China in 2003.


Photo from above is from 2003, bellow 2020. Back then Petronas Towers were only few years old. Now, decades later, they still look just as modern and futuristic as ever (least to me).


Roof top pool bars are a thing in KL. Petronas Towers and Kuala Lumpur Tower (Menara) can be seen forming part of horizon. Pretty cool place for a morning swim, or chill out with friends after work.


Old meets new. Minaret of Masjid Jamek (more information bellow) is famous old landmark of the city. Menara is towering behind.


Birthplace of a metropolis, aka. muddy estuary, at the meeting point of Kelang (Klang) and Gombok rivers. In Malay language where river meets another, is called “kuala”. In 1857, tin prospecting expedition came to the river confluence with mud silted waters and river banks. Tin ore was discovered from the mud which in Malay is called “lumpur”. It was also this far that tin ore ships coming from sea could reach, making it important location for mining settlements and other mining infrastructure. Tracks to tin mining villages further away started from here. Mining industry grew rapidly over the coming years, because discovery was made right in time when industrial revolution was getting speed in West. This generated endless demand for raw materials. Soft tin has some qualities that other metals don’t, for example it does not corrode and become poisonous like iron does. It was thus ideal for storing food, at the time when plastics didn’t exist and aluminium wasn’t an option yet. Tin commercial tin exporting began in 1859.

Masjid Jamek was built in 1909, when Malaya was one of most prosperous colonies in British Empire. Tin and rubber were main sources of its fortunes. Mosque served as main mosque for local Malay community, until 1960’s when building more modern national mosque was completed.


Old Secretariat building is another famous landmark of the city, modern Kuala Lumpur behind. In front of Secretariat is former cricket field, nowadays known as freedom square (Merdeka).


2003 & 2020. Sri Mahamariamman Temple, KL old town.


Batu Caves are on a limestone hill outside the center, and is popular tourist destination in Kuala Lumpur. In caves and outside are statues and figures inspired by Hindu legends. Caves can be reached easily by public transport, but prepare for long queues at popular times.


KL public transport is extensive and works well.


Petaling Street in Chinatown is famous destination for bargain hunting and street food.


KL street impressions.


KL street impressions.


KL street impressions.


Used electronics and trinkets of all kinds for sell in street market. Chinatown.


When wandering in streets, shops and museums start to get too exhausting, city bird park provides a nice respite.


In Kuala Lumpur Bird Park.

All Roads Lead to Angkor

This post was long in the making. I visited Siem Reap and Angkor in early 2013, and like many, was amazed by the magnificence of its temples. Such sites don’t require much background information and understanding, just move along and awe the architecture and opulence they represent. Later when living in Thailand, Khmer history popped up here and there because much of the region was once part of Khmer empire (see my previous post about Khmer Provincial). Finally now second visit to Cambodia and somewhat better informed. Here’s my take from this fascinating place and the role it once played in the region.


Elephants and riders in historic park.


Traditional costumes worn by group of young Cambodians.


Indiana Jones, Lara Croft and me 🙂

Rise of Khmers was centuries long process. Heyday of empire was around eleventh and twelfth centuries but many sources cite of trading and diplomatic relations with them a lot earlier. Chinese, Indians and seaborne Javanese are known to be connected with pre-Angkorian kingdom known as Funan (name given them by Chinese). Khmers are said to have 9 great kings that ruled with wisdom and success for their country. They were Jayavarman II (802-850 AD); the founder of “Khmer proper”, Indravarman I (887-889 AD), Yasovarman I (889-910 AD), Jayavarman IV (921-941 AD), Rajendravarman (944-968 AD), Suryavarman I (1002-1050 AD), Udayadityavarman (1050-1066 AD), Suryavarman II (1113-1150 AD), Jayavarman VII (1181-1218 AD). As can be seen from gap periods, there were not so great times in between.

Reigns of the last two of the list are periods when empire has been considered of reaching its zenith. It had occupied or vasallized much of Southeast Asia, with borders reaching from Burma to the Dai Viet and Champa (both in modern day Vietnam) and China in the north. In south Khmers bordered with Malay peninsula Hindu kingdoms, as spread of Islam would reach there when Khmer empire was already in decline in 13th century. As empire expanded, it gathered number of enemies who weren’t happy to pay tributes, send men to its military and participate endeavours of further expansion. Especially Champa and Dai Viet were often in war footing against Khmers, and some historians believe that even the capital Angkor was sacked by the marauding armies from the west (To see map of the empire, click link to Wikipedia here).


Miniature model of Angkor Wat, in Angkor National Museum, Siem Reap.

During Suryavarman II, construction of largest temple complex of Angkor Wat was begun. Completion of this massive project is debated, it might have been after the death of its founder.


Angkor Wat is said to be largest religious monument in the world. Temple has unusual orientation towards west, opposing direction to most Khmer Hindu temples. One possible explanation is that it’s dedicated to Vishnu, God of the west, instead of Shiva. West is also direction of death. Stories in bas-reliefs in the temple are organized same manner as religious ceremonies for tombs in Hinduism.


Large pool inside Angkor Wat. Complex has several of these within.

Building spree during Jayavarman VII was even more intense, Angkor Thom with Bayon Temple in its center and numerous other temple complexes of similar proportions were erected. Every one of the temples housed community of thousands of members, with monks/priests being at the top of hierarchy. Jayavarman also greatly improved the road system mentioned in previous post (link), and is said to have been concerned of the well being of his citizens, building shelters and hospitals for them. Over 100 rest houses, also known as fire houses, were built every fifteen or so kilometers along road, to help with the chores of long travels.


Statue of Jayavarman VII in Angkor National Museum, Siem Reap.

Except the temples, city of Angkor was largely made of wood. On the surface, little of it remains today. Modern lidar (technology of emitting laser rays, bit like old radio wave based radar) has helped scientist and historians to study the real dimensions of the remains of Khmer civilizations buried in jungle. Angkor is estimated to have had million citizens, largest city on earth in its time.


When tolerant religions become less tolerant. Jayavarman VII was famous for his building projects, but he was also devout Buddhist, which was unusual in traditionally Hindu country. During his reign many large Buddhist temple complexes were built, which much have seen as sacrilegious or least a challenge, by the establishment of Hindu clergy. Clock was attempted to reset couple decades after Jayavarman’s death, by one of his successors who was Shiivaite. Buddhist artworks were vandalized and images of Buddha were chiseled of, large Buddha statues were converted into Linga.


Inside Preah Pkhan, one of many temples built during the reign of Jayavarman VII. Linga in center might be one of Buddha statues converted by Shiivaites.


Buddhist monks visiting Bayon Temple, at the center of Angkor Thom, the capital of Jayavarman VII.


One of entrance gates to Angkor Thom. City had four main gates pointing to four cardinal directions.


Young Cambodians. Khmer influence is very visible still today, and not only in Cambodia. Khmer’s influenced traditions, customs, and set norms and examples for coming kingdoms to copy and further. For instance Thai numerals in use today are a copy from Khmer’s. In many ways life in Southeast Asia is living history of Khmer’s, people just don’t stop and think about it.


This old sign has since disappeared, but serves here a purpose: Welcome, I might find my way back there also some day!

Khmer Provincial

Introduction

This post begins in January 2019, when dry season was about to begin, turning landscape to brown and yellow. Last photos are from September, after monsoon rains had washed the region already for months.


Royal Road system of Khmer empire, connecting Phimai, Wat Phou (Phu) and other provincial centers. Credit: Mitch Hendrickson (source). Kingdom at its zenith, see: map.

Term “all roads lead to Rome” is not just a catchy phrase, but actually a precondition for any long lasting empire in olden times. Without a good road network, enemy forces threat even its existence, if warning of their approach came too late. In Khmer kingdom roads span from the capital Angkor and headed to all directions, facilitating commerce and enabling pilgrims to come worship in majestic temples of the capital. Roads no doubt had a military angle as well, improving intelligence gathering and making it faster for the God-King (Khmer Devaraja-cult of ruler being avatar of a God) to project his power where this was deemed necessary. Six main highways are sometimes called Royal Roads to signify them from the rest. These roads likely formed on top existing infrastructure of pre-Angkorian times, but were largely expanded as means and needs increased. Along the way wooden bridges were rebuilt using stone, roads were raised to prevent flooding, water reservoirs were dug, rest houses that combined as temples (fire shrine) were built. Two of the longest and most important routes were one heading to Phimai in north west (today in Thailand), and second to north east to Wat Phou (in Laos). Following text describes these places, as well as few other provincial centers. Third and final “Khmer post” will be about the capital itself, but that is yet to be made.

Wat Phou, 11th to 13th century


Lower temple buildings and surrounding region, including water reservoirs, seen from upper temple of Wat Phou. If landscape provided, holy sites were built on visible places to signify their importance. Such was the case also with Phanom Rung (see bellow), Phnom Bakheng (on a hill in Angkor) and Preah Vihear (at Dangrek mountain range).


Plumeria trees are distinct feature of Wat Phou temple park.

Wat Phou is Hindu temple in southern Laos built by Khmer’s when region was part of their empire. Like other temples dedicated to Shiva, Vat Phou is oriented towards the east. Temple is built at the foot of Phu Kao Mountain “Lingaparvata,” so named because the natural formation seems to resemble Shiva’s linga. “Parvata” means “mountain,” so “Lingaparvata” is literally “Linga Mountain”. This is why mountain was considered the home of Shiva, and Mekong river representing the ocean or the Ganges, the perfect location for a religious center, that served civilian and administrative center in the region. People who arrived for praying have seen the mountain already afar when slowly approaching. Once arrived, long corridor with 1.5m stone pillars were surrounding the first approach. There were three stages of stairs approaching the holiest, the temple atop of hill and just beneath the steeper slope to the mountain top. Road south from the temple through town of Lingapura, and then began longest of the Royal Roads, heading to capital Angkor.


Long corridors are believed to be used as processional walkways during rituals, the spectacle performed by royals and other nobility. Similar and better preserved walkway is in Phanom Rung (see bellow).


Half collapse temple of Wat Phou at the mountain. Survived buildings date from the 11th to 13th centuries.

While originally Hindu, temple has been converted to Buddhist use.

Human size “crocodile stone” is believed to have been used in human sacrifice during pre-Angkorian times. ”A Chinese 6th century text mentions ”near the capital there is a mountain called Ling-chia-po-p’o (Lingaparvata), on top of which there is a temple which is always guarded by a thousand soldiers. It is consecrated to a spirit named P’o-to-li, to which human sacrifice is made. Each year, the king goes into this temple and himself offers a human sacrifice during the night”. (Michael Freeman: A guide to Khmer Temples in Thailand and Laos, 1998)

Phanom Rung, 10th to 13th century

Along with Phimai, Phanom Rung is best preserved temple parks in Thailand and showcases what Khmer’s were capable of. Complex is built on the rim of an extinct volcano at 400 meter elevation. It is said to symbolize Mount Kailash, a holy mountain in Hinduism on top of which Shiva lives, to whom Phanom Rung is dedicated. Phanom Rung lies on the ancient route from Angkor to Phimai. Nearby is another Khmer complex called Muang Tum, from the same era. It resides in low lands and not have views from elevation like Phanom Rung.

Every year on April a interesting phenomenon occurs in Phanom Rung. On April 13th rays of the rising sun shine through all of the portals of the temple. This was actually a common feature in many Hindu temples: they are oriented usually towards general direction of east, astronomy playing an important role in Hinduism. Either true east – the direction guarded by Indra, and direction of sunrise at winter. North-east – the direction guarded by Isana, an aspect of Shiva. Some are orientated slightly to the south-east. Ancient builders didn’t always get the direction exactly right!


Royal family is believed to change their attire in buildings (distance in the picture above), and then enter the processional walkway, finally ascending to the main temple. 160 meter long walkway is impressive feature of the temple, and is paved with laterite blocks. It is bordered by seventy sandstone posts with tops of lotus buds.

Phimai, 11th to 12th century

Phimai was where western Royal Road ended. Its temples can be seen a sort of proto-Angkor Wat, predating it and many construction styles were then honed to the fullest in the capital. Because the region of Phimai during Khmer reign was already Buddhist, temple was dedicated to Buddha, instead of Shiva or Vishnu. Phimai is oriented towards the south east, in the direction of capital Angkor. Main building resembles the peak of Mount Meru at the center of the universe (sacred and mythical mountain in both Hindu and Buddhist cosmology). Main temple has three towers (Prang) which was common feature is similar regional temples (see Lopburi bellow).

Phimai was northern region of kingdom, but judging the size, it must have been an important administrative and religious center. 225 km long Royal Road, or Dharmasala pilgrim route connected Phimai to capital.

Dharmasala route explanation by Asger Mollerup (source):

“In 1925 the French archaeologist Finot wrote about the vahni-grihas and without any arguments coined the term dharmasala. This term has since become widely used and is correct to the extend that these small sanctuaries were places (sala) for Buddhist conduct (dharma).

Even the author favours terms as vahni-griha or agni-sala, or a translations as ‘temple with fire’ or ‘fire-shelter’, the more commonly used dharmasala will be used in this paper. The route from Angkor to Phimai is therefore named the Dharmasala Route.”


Statue of Jayavarman VII, was ruler of the Khmer empire during the end of the 12th century, and considered as last of great kings. During his reign grandiose building projects were started both in capital and provinces. The statue was discovered in one of Phimai’s prangs, and can be seen in museum outside the historic park.


Phimai temple park at morning.

Lopburi, Lavapura, Phra Prang Sam Yot, Late 12th to early 13th century

Thai town of Lopburi has Khmer and later period temples, although it has been debated if Lopburi/Lavapura was semi-autonomous state within empire, rather than integral part of it. Road system mentioned earlier didn’t reach this far west from Angkor. Nevertheless Lopburi was heavily influenced by Khmer’s, which shows today. Phra Prang Sam Yot is one of oldest and best preserved temples in the down. Temple has three prangs, which also give name to it, “three holy prangs”. Unlike in Phimai or Phanom Rung that have separate park areas, in Lopburi history scattered around the living city. Monkeys run free withing couple quarters of old town. Temple was likely founded in the late 12th or early 13th century during the reign of great builder king, Jayavarman VII.


Monkeys outside cannot get access inside the Phra Prang Sam Yot. It is home for many bats living in the roofs.


Lopburi is famous not only from historic sights, but also monkeys that roam free on streets.


Phra Kan Shrine is active Hindu sanctuary, modern temple has been built on top of old one. Several ancient objects have been discovered on the grounds of the shrine, such s the 19th Inscription, now exhibited at the National Museum, Bangkok (see link).

Khmer sites today

Today there are hundreds of historic Khmer sites in mainland Southeast Asia, and only couple of the best known were described in this post. Thailand clearly has better means and resources to restore its heritage, compared to Cambodia and Laos. This becomes evident when comparing Wat Phou in Laos to any of temple parks in Thai side. Angkor in Cambodia is exception to this rule, amounting over 10% to the GDP of the whole country. Some historic sites are located at Dangrek mountain range which forms a border between Cambodia in south and Thailand (Khorat plateau aka. Isaan) in north. Because of financial relevance and somewhat disputable location right at the border, both countries have been trying to claim temples as their side. There has been even army involved in solving these questions, such as was the case with Prasat Ta Muen and Preah Vihear.

Further reading

While studying topic, two good sources provided lot of additional information used in this post:

  • Danish Asger Mollerup writings about historic Khmer sights in Southeast Asia: link.
  • American historian Mitch Hendrickson about Khmer road network, research paper: link.


View from Phanom Rung to low lands and rice paddies, a scene that hasn’t change much since time when Khmer’s watched down from the mountain.

Trees Of Angkor

By the early 15th century, once mighty Khmer empire was in tatters. In previous centuries it had occupied and vassalised most of Southeast Asia, providing funds for its grandiose building projects. But now Angkor’s irrigation system wasn’t able to provide for agriculture to feed the population, and external enemies sensing their time to come, completed the humiliation in battlefield. Other contributing factors to decline has also been speculated, such as climatic changes, Black Death, and religious schism’s weakening the state internally.


In Ta Phrom.

Large body of population abandoned Angkor in year 1431, once it was considered indefensible against repeated attacks by Siamese Ayutthaya kingdom. Population moved further east to current Phnom Penh region, but some evidence shows also parallel Khmer kingdom’s existing at times in both.


In Ta Phrom.


In Preah Khan.

At its hight, Angkor is estimated of being city of million citizens, largest in the world at that time. However most buildings were made from wood, and had little chance of survival when times got tough. What was still standing after wars, was quickly swallowed by the jungle. Only the largest stone temples had any chance of survival in coming centuries. To witness what massive silk-cotton trees and strangler figs an do over time, Ta Phrom temple has been spared precisely for this purpose. Other temples such as Preah Khan also have them growing on the walls and roofs, slowly but surely twisting, bending and breaking the architecture.


In Preah Khan.


Temple inner yard in Ta Phrom.


Angkor Wat is the largest single temple complex of Angkor.