In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Motor scooter driver 1, tourist 0

It’s difficult enough for even hyper-aware pedestrians to dodge traffic while crossing a street in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and motor scooters driving on the sidewalk further complicate matters. 

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

My friend Susan and I took a fascinating two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in March. This is the 12th post in the series about our experiences.

On a Sunday afternoon in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon):

Susan and I had gone to lunch at an inexpensive restaurant called Nam Giao, which promised “authentic” dishes in the style of Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam. We selected it from a list of eateries suggested by our hotel.

The businesses in this alley seemed to be giving manicures and pedicures, but other services might have been available also.

The last alley we walked down before the restaurant entrance was heavily populated by shops offering low-price manicure and pedicure services. Lots of women were hunched over, seated on low plastic stools, accommodating customers.

Nam Giao was an unassuming, compact two-floor eatery, with a few locals inside, always a good sign. Polished tables and black wooden stools lined both walls, with a similar row in the middle. Muted gray and white tiles formed a checkerboard pattern on the floor.

After lunch, I snapped a photo of the restaurant exterior as Susan was exiting.

As this was about 2:30 in the afternoon, the restaurant wasn’t crowded and staff seemed to be preparing for dinner patrons.

I don’t eat pork or shellfish, and unfortunately, that’s what comprised most of the menu options. Susan had a bowl of pork and noodles, which she heartily enjoyed. I played it safe and ordered two side dishes: vermicelli and what was listed as “seasonal vegetables.”

I was expecting maybe string beans, carrots, onions and mushrooms, or some other recognizable springtime mixture, that had been fully cooked. What was brought to the table was a small plate, containing what I guessed was raw eggplant, sliced carambola (star fruit) and a variety of fresh green herbs, most of which I couldn’t identify.

The simply furnished interior of Nam Giao. The eatery was recommended for its “authentic” food in the style of Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam.

Throughout our trip, we were careful about not eating raw food and asking if salad greens had been washed in bottled water. We couldn’t make that determination here, so I left most of the “seasonal vegetables” on the plate.

Needless to say, the twisty heap of unadorned white noodles on the second plate weren’t enough for a meal.

Heading in the general direction of our hotel, we stopped several times to look at menus. Nothing was whetting my appetite.

We paused again across the street from a cafe that looked promising.

I should say here that there is an art to crossing the street in Hanoi and HCMC. Motorists stop for red lights, but other traffic signs seem to represent a polite suggestion, as if obeying is optional.

Helpful strategies: Look both ways at least twice. If you can identify a local, trail him or her closely, if possible, to weave through traffic. Once you make the decision to go from point A to point B, own it. Don’t freeze and disrupt the flow of traffic. (This is easier said than done because when you see a vehicle coming directly at you, your instinct is to wait and see where the driver is going, then dart out of the way.) Generally, the scooters, bicycles, motorcycles and cars will wind around you.

It’s sort of like dodge ball. If you keep moving, you’re a harder target. Become a statue and you’re more likely to make contact.

The narrow streets around Hanoi’s Old Quarter can be oppressively crowded. But because they are, drivers can’t achieve any real speed.

In Ho Chi Minh City, there is more room to maneuver, wider boulevards, and the number of scooters, motorcycles, buses and cars is much higher. The danger of an accident is a bigger possibility.

Further, in HCMC, impatient scooter drivers intentionally jump the curb and drive on the sidewalk, so we had to be particularly alert. We noticed this phenomenon generally at rush hour.

Twelve days into our trip, we had successfully negotiated every stomach-tightening foray into swarming city streets.

Then I was run over by a motor scooter. I never saw it coming.

One minute I was striding confidently, halfway across a side street — not a busy thoroughfare — and the next minute I was sitting down hard on my rear, in a state of semi-shock. Thank goodness I didn’t hit my head or smash my camera.

Behind me, Susan was horrified. She said a scooter rounded the corner and … smack. Down I went.

I was hit on the outside of my left leg below the knee. I had some scratches and dirt on my shorts, but no gashes or trickling blood. I was very, very lucky not to have broken a leg, fallen on my wrist, torn a tendon or mangled a knee. I was, however, anticipating a multicolored bruise.

I got up quickly, and finished crossing the street. Susan was carrying antiseptic wipes, so I cleaned my leg immediately.

The motor scooter didn’t stop and no one came to my aid (other than Susan; thanks again!), though I thought I saw the hostess in the cafe looking in our direction.

More shaken up than anything, I rested for a few minutes and reassessed the damage. The first impression held up. Fortunately, I was able to walk without too much difficulty. But we hadn’t solved the hunger issue.

Then we saw a pizza and pasta place called Napoli.

The glass-fronted restaurant wasn’t busy and we sat down at a table near the entrance. One of the staff spoke some English and understood that I wanted a pizza to go. After I ordered, they brought us glasses of water, and we hadn’t even asked.

In a nice multicultural twist, some web research revealed that the restaurant is part of a Japanese-owned chain and it imports its cheese, tomato sauce, flour and other ingredients from Italy.

We weren’t more than 10 minutes from our HCMC home, the elevator-less Cinnamon hotel in the city’s District 1. Pizza box in hand, we arrived without further vehicular incident, and I gingerly climbed the stairs.

The quality of the Margherita pizza was unexpectedly good: plenty of cheese and tomato sauce and a crisp crust. And it cost under $3.50. Once I was no longer hungry, my overall uneasiness began to fade.

When we checked into the Cinnamon on Saturday, we were assigned a room on the fourth floor. The next morning, hotel staff offered us the opportunity to move down one flight. Identical room layout, just fewer stairs, and they would move our luggage. In light of my mishap, this turned out to be a fortuitous relocation.

After my tangle with the motor scooter, I was extremely thankful that over our remaining days in Vietnam, I could walk mostly without discomfort, and that we didn’t have to change our itinerary. Fully chastened, we discussed several times whether we should take a taxi to local attractions … just to be safe.

We didn’t give in. We still walked everywhere, but you can bet my very fortunate escape was never far from our minds.


On the textile trail around Siem Reap, Cambodia

At Samatoa Lotus Textiles, microfibers are extracted from lotus stems by hand, one of the labor-intensive steps in producing luxury fabric.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

My friend Susan and I took a fascinating two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in March. This is the 11th post in the series about our experiences.

We were on foot exploring the downtown area of Siem Reap when we noted that we were repeatedly seeing glass bottles filled with a pineapple-yellow liquid, stacked in rows, often in a metal rack. Some bottles retained labels of what they had previously contained, such as Johnnie Walker Scotch or other alcoholic beverages.

The bottles were generally dirty and obviously had been refilled more than once. But what was inside? Certainly nothing potable for human consumption.

We asked our guide, Tony, that very question the second morning of our temple touring as we were en route to Banteay Srei (see previous post).

“Petrol,” he said, and added that he is frequently asked this question.

That made perfect sense. Out in the countryside, we saw few gas stations, but did observe many of the same bottle racks as we’d seen in town.

Note the yellow bottles behind the woman who is filling up the gas tank of Reab’s tuk-tuk.

On our third day of touring rural Cambodia, we had a chance to see a fill-up with our driver, Reab, as we paid for the gasoline for his tuk-tuk as he took us around on our textile tour.

Susan is a member of a weavers’ guild in Florida. A woman who had recently been to Cambodia gave a presentation to Susan’s group, and Susan gleaned enough information on a possible guide and route to plan our day out.

Susan set up our excursion with Reab via his Facebook page. His written English turned out to be better than his verbal skills, but he was a careful driver and we got to our five venues without incident. Reab had a tuk-tuk totaling accident in the weeks before our arrival, injuring his wrist. Susan kept tabs on his health and efforts to get a replacement vehicle in the days leading up to our meeting.

My favorite stop of our textile trail was off the beaten path, as in no other visitors there when we were and no admission fee. It was also the most unusual and interesting. In other Asian countries (and Turkey), I’ve seen many demonstrations explaining how silk is produced, from farming worms to finished products.

But I’d never visited a lotus farm, where thick stems are the stars in a labor-intensive process that transforms 100-percent organic microfibers into stain-resistant, fast-drying luxury clothing and other textiles.

A field of lotus plants grows behind Samatoa Lotus Textiles. The company also draws from fields in other locations.

With the exception of the man out back spraying the heavenly beautiful lotus pond, all the workers were women.

The lotus flower is a sacred symbol in Cambodian and other cultures. It signifies purity, wisdom and spirituality, and as such was the obvious choice for artisans to carve as decorations into the Angkor temples. The pedestals that the divinities sit on are often lotus flowers, and the floral shape is also depicted in temple finials.

Textile production is just one of the lotus plant’s many uses. It has medicinal and cosmetic applications, and can be made into tea. In our cooking class in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, we prepared a fried rice dish studded with lotus seeds. For presentation, the rice was encased in pliable green lotus leaves and accented with the dark electric pink petals. I’ll be writing about the cooking class and our visit to the market in HCMC in a future post.

According to the signage, and the Samatoa company website, it takes more than 40,000 stems to produce 3,000 meters of thread for one meter of lotus fabric (or 3,280 yards of thread for 3.3 feet of cloth). An experienced weaver can produce about one meter of cloth per day.

Grasping a bunch of stems in her right hand, one of the seated women broke off a lengthy section with her left hand and in the same motion pulled the microfibers from the plant, stringing them onto a low wooden table positioned in front of her. This movement was repeated with machine-like precision until the stems were spent and the artisan reached for a new supply. (Some of the women were using knives to cut the stems.)

Freshly dyed, nearly sheer fabric made from lotus fiber being hung to dry.

Other women were working on the next phases of production, such as spinning the fiber into thread, weaving or hanging newly dyed pieces of the delicate fabric to dry.

Samatoa Lotus Textiles was founded in 2003 as a fair-trade and eco-friendly company by a French telecommunications engineer named Awen Delaval. Several years passed before the company was able to stabilize thread production — the fiber is more fragile than silk — and overcome weaving challenges.

Needless to say, anything that requires so much time and effort to produce is going to be expensive. Ordering via the website, one meter of lotus fabric costs $318, with an average jacket requiring four meters. So a custom-made garment can easily cost thousands of dollars. Samatoa also sells silk-blended fabrics.

Cambodian ikat silk being woven at one of the workshops of the Institute of Khmer Traditional Textiles. A child is asleep in the blue hammock in the background.

Earlier in the day, at the Institute of Khmer Traditional Textiles, we also saw women weaving and spinning, but here the workshop was employing silk. IKTT celebrates the revival of an ancient Khmer tradition that was nearly lost due to the years of war and the destruction of mulberry trees, a silkworm’s favorite food, and other natural resources.

Ikat fabric dates to at least the time of the Khmer kingdoms (ninth to 13th centuries). Some decorative figures illustrated in stone at the Angkor temples are clad in flowing cloth garments.

Ikat itself refers to the warp or weft threads (sometimes both) being tie-dyed before being woven into cloth. The weft threads are mounted crosswise on a loom. The warp threads go over and under them in weaving.

One golden silkworm cocoon can produce about 300 meters (about 328 yards) of silk. Golden silkworms are native to Cambodia.

The person instrumental in IKTT’s story is Kikuo Morimoto, originally from Kyoto, Japan. A trained natural dye expert, he is also a master of kimono painting. He encountered the Khmer silk tradition while working in refugee camps in Thailand, according to the IKTT website.

Morimoto, a “silk fanatic,” traveled around rural Cambodia in the mid-1990s, seeking out the few villagers who retained knowledge of the traditional ways. He reintroduced golden silkworm farming to villagers, the first step in revitalizing the weaving industry, and their road to a better future.

A pattern emerges on a lap loom at IKTT.

Some women were weaving on large floor looms, but others were seated on patterned mats on the concrete floor with small looms across their lap. Several children were scampering among the workers in this multi-generational space.

Finished IKTT textiles are arrayed around a scale model of one of the Angkor temples in the IKTT showroom.

IKTT has a lovely showroom upstairs from the workshop, selling a variety of brightly colored, high-quality textiles.

Our first stop of the day was at Les Chantiers Écoles, a school that teaches artisanal skills to impoverished young people. Students are trained in creating lacquerware, silk weaving, painting on silk, stone carving and wood carving. It was also the most commercial operation that we visited.

Artisans paint on silk at Les Chantiers Ecoles, a school that teaches traditional Cambodia crafts.

The upscale showroom is a one-stop opportunity for visitors who don’t have the time or inclination to seek out smaller workshops. Prices were definitely not a bargain. If you’re looking for a souvenir, try one of the many shops or markets in town, where merchants are more open to good-natured haggling.

White silk and golden silk threads are slowly extracted from cocoons at the Angkor Silk Farm.

Les Chantiers Écoles also runs the Angkor Silk Farm, where visitors can see the multistep process from worm cultivation to weaving. A smaller showroom is onsite as well. A free shuttle goes between the two facilities twice a day (9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.; booking the shuttle by phone or website is recommended).

Silk weaving in progress at the Angkor Silk Farm.

We visited the silkworm farm with Reab. At both facilities we had a young man show us around, and the tours were probably under 15 minutes each, after which we wandered around by ourselves to watch the women weaving on floor looms. They facilities were the only places where the guide suggested rather insistently that we tip him. We declined.

Our final stop was the Khmer Ceramics and Fine Arts Center. The goal here is much like Les Chantiers Écoles: a better life through learning a traditional craft.

We must have visited on an off day. Very few staff were around and no demonstrations were going on. In that there wasn’t much to see, we didn’t tarry long.

Quick reference: Samatoa Lotus Textiles:

Institute of Khmer Traditional Textiles:

Les Chantiers Écoles (Artisans Angkor)

Khmer Ceramics and Fine Arts Center:

More splendors of Angkor temples, and a sobering visit to a land mine museum

Exquisite carving on nearly every surface is the hallmark of Banteay Srei, one of the temples at the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap, Cambodia. In the center of this pediment are two elephants holding pots in their trunks, pouring water over the seated figure of Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

My friend Susan and I took a fascinating two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in March. This is the 10th post in the series about our experiences.

Our second day of exploring the Angkor temples was shorter in duration and got off to a later start than sunrise at Angkor Wat (see previous post), but we were still on the road by 8 a.m.

Our guide, “Tony,” picked us up again at our hotel lobby, but with a different tuk-tuk driver.

We were heading to Banteay Srei, one of the temples farthest from the city of Siem Reap, and this gave us a good opportunity to get a lengthy look at village structures along the way, including how they differed in material and placement.

(Note to contact-lens wearers: A tuk-tuk is open on all sides with the exception of the roof. The driver sits in front on a motorcycle, which is attached to the passenger compartment, where riders sit on facing bench seats. Some of the main roads are paved, but you’ll likely also traverse ones that are not. A lot of dust gets thrown up, and it can be wind-in-your-face breezy, even though you’re going only about 20-25 miles per hour. That helps to cool your body temperature, but if riding in a tuk-tuk for any distance, you might want to opt to wear your glasses.)

As in Vietnam, Cambodia’s sturdier buildings are vertical. We did not see the architectural style known as a ranch house, a single-story structure.

We saw some clusters of cinderblock houses, nearly all with a balcony of some sort on the second level. Some houses I’d even describe as modest villas, nicely landscaped with native palms and flowers, including climbing bougainvillea, which I recognized from my Florida childhood, and surrounded by a high metal gate or brick wall.

These often had late-model cars or minivans — mostly American, Japanese and South Korean brands — parked in front. Signage in English seemed to indicate that some of the villas were available to rent.

But we also saw many less-solid dwellings, constructed of native woods and other materials such as palm fronds, perhaps homes of people lower on the economic ladder. During monsoon season, these structures probably take a beating. Chickens and pigs and the occasional cow or ox were more likely to be seen here. We also noted many stray dogs, which may have been pets … or part of the grocery list.

As with the previous day, roadside vendors were selling everything from homemade crafts and textiles to fruit (the small pineapples were especially appealing) and packaged food.

Our guide, Tony (right), gets a plastic cup of palm juice for us to sample, like the one the woman at left is drinking.

We also sampled palm sugar and palm juice. Individual disks of palm sugar are sold like candy, bigger in size than a bottle cap and about three-quarters-inch thick. Palm sugar is light brown (almost tan), has a dense, pasty granule and is mouth-puckeringly sweet. One small bite was enough.

Palm sugar is used in some Cambodian and Vietnamese recipes and it is also a favorite of cooks in Thailand and other Asian countries. Roadside stands market it in jars in a variety of sizes.

The misty palm juice was equally sweet, like someone had put a cup of sugar too many (or more) into a liquid and then shaken it up. A few sips sufficed.

A roadside vendor’s wares include palm sugar in jars (left side of photo), souvenirs carved from wood and coconut shells and a variety of textiles. The jar at top right and in the second row, second and third from left, contain palm candy disks. I don’t know the contents of the jars on the right side of the picture.

It took about an hour to get to our first stop: Pre Rup, which dates to the 10th century (961) and the rule of Rajendravarman II. It was constructed as a Hindu temple, with two of the top sanctuaries dedicated to Shiva, Michel Petrotchenko writes in his excellent “Focusing on the Angkor Temples.”

Restoration work is under way at Pre Rup.

Overall, Pre Rup is in worse condition than most of the other temples we saw. Its central layout is a quincunx (one sanctuary at each corner surrounding the center sanctuary), the same as Angkor Wat, which we visited the previous day, and Banteay Srei. As with Angkor Wat, this architectural arrangement represents Mount Meru, the center of the Hindu universe and the abode of the gods.

Petrotchenko says a moat originally encompassed Pre Rup, but adds that only after the rainy season is there even a hint of this.

Banteay Srei’s sanctuaries are constructed in a quincunx, that is, a sanctuary at each corner of a square surrounding the largest tower situated at the center.

Banteay Srei (banteay means citadel or fortress) was a short ride away. (It’s about 20 miles from Siem Reap, if we had come here directly.) Banteay Srei has several distinctions, the greatest of which may be the quantity and quality of its intricate, ornate carvings, all rendered in pinked-hued sandstone, and depicting mythological scenes.

It’s also one of the few temples to be commissioned not by royal personage but by two Brahmin brothers. It’s a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva and dates to 967.

A closer look at Banteay Srei’s pink-hued sandstone towers. Note the abundance of carving pervading the sanctuaries.

Another historical fact: Banteay Srei was the first Angkor temple in which the archaeological technique of anastylosis was used. In this method, all fallen and intact stones are numbered and inventoried as a structure is disassembled. Foundation restoration is completed, using modern technologies if necessary but preserving as much of the original as possible, before the monument is reconstructed with the inventoried stones. Banteay Srei was restored 1931-1936.

Land mines, rockets and a variety of other weapons are displayed at the Cambodia Land Mine Museum.

Our last stop of the tour was the Cambodia Land Mine Museum, begun in 1999 by Aki Ra, a former child soldier of the Khmer Rouge. After the Pol Pot-led communists seized the capital, Phnom Penh — and power —in April 1975, they began a disastrous resettlement and agrarian program, sending city dwellers into the countryside and killing almost immediately anyone with money and an education.

This tortuous, chaotic period, at its height 1975-1979, would become known to the world as the “killing fields,” named such because of the estimated 1.7 million who were beaten, starved and worked to death in labor camps or executed at will in rural areas.

Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge child soldier, is the curator of the Land Mine Museum. He also founded Cambodian Self Help Demining, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to clearing Cambodian land of all explosives.

Aki Ra’s brief biographical information is on a billboard at the museum. An in-depth, engrossing version is online. He says he doesn’t know his birthdate, but may have been born in Siem Reap province around 1973, though possibly earlier. The Khmer Rouge killed both his parents, indoctrinated him and taught him to lay land mines, make bombs, shoot guns and fire rocket launchers.

He says at about age 10, he was a Khmer Rouge soldier, which lasted for about four years, as the invading Vietnamese tried to eradicate the murderous regime. He was given the option of joining the conquerors or being killed. In 1989, the Vietnamese army left, and Aki Ra joined the Cambodian army to fight the remnants of the Khmer Rouge in the Siem Reap area.

Our guide, Tony, had mentioned in passing that the Khmer Rouge had occupied Siem Reap province, but Aki Ra’s biographical information reveals just how widespread their presence was, having taken over Ta Prohm (see my previous post) and other temples. The Vietnamese were stationed at Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and elsewhere, he says.

United Nations peacekeepers arrived in the early 1990s and they were instrumental in training Aki Ra, his life having come full circle, to disarm mines and other unexploded ordnance. By his own count, he says he’s defused or exploded more than 50,000 devices.

The idea for the museum sprang from abundance of the wrong kind. Aki Ra says as he was clearing mine fields, he was constantly finding American-, Chinese- and Soviet-supplied arms (Ak47s, Kalashnikovs, M16s, etc.) and ordnance (bombs, grenades, launchers) and had nowhere to store his relics.

Slowly, with contributions and funds raised from his work as a tour guide, Aki Ra was able to build the museum. Ordnance is displayed throughout, and touring the facility can be accomplished in less than an hour.

Aki Ra and his team continue demining fields, concentrating on “low-priority” villages. About 100 have been cleared. An estimated 3 million explosives remain, he says, and that his work, and that of the nonprofit Cambodian Self Help Demining, which he founded in 2007 and is partially funded by the United States, may go on for decades.

One of the paintings at the museum illustrates the disastrous results of children finding unexploded ordnance.

In a country that still depends heavily on agriculture, demining is continuing good news for farmers and the overall economy. More than 270 square miles have been decontaminated, and many of those fields are back in rice or vegetable production, but many hundreds of square miles remain to be cleared.

An area at the back of the museum, off-limits to visitors, is where young victims, permanently scarred or disabled, are cared for by Aki Ra and his wife.

Quick reference: Cambodia Landmine Museum: 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily. Guided tours available. $5 admission, adults; children 10 and under and Cambodian citizens, free. The museum is less than 5 miles south of Banteay Srei, and if coming directly from Siem Reap, about 16 miles from town.

Cambodian Self Help Demining:

Dawn at Angkor Wat, Cambodia, and other temples at the archaeological park


A mix of hues, including light orange, pastel pink and pale purple, signal daybreak at Angkor Wat, probably the most recognizable sight in Cambodia.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

My friend Susan and I took a fascinating two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in March. This is the ninth post in the series about our experiences.

There are few more famous archaeological sites in the world than the temples of Angkor, on the outskirts of the city of Siem Reap, Cambodia. To maximize the experience of touring the renowned Angkor Wat, a visit should coincide with sunrise or sunset. We opted for the early morning viewing.

Our guide, “Tony,” and our tuk-tuk driver picked us up at 4:30 a.m. from our hotel lobby. Streetlights are few in Siem Reap, so the 10- to 15-minute ride to the booth to buy our entry tickets was lighted only by our tuk-tuk’s headlight.

Some brave souls were bicycling on our right, negotiating a path with even less light than we had.

We had our photos taken for our IDs, and Tony purchased our tickets, $40 each, to enter Angkor Archaeological Park. At each temple, we were asked to show our ID, and purchasing the multi-day pass also saved time the next day.

Tony pulled out his smartphone and turned on its light. This was our “beacon” as we moved forward. The light attracted an energetic swarm of tiny insects as we walked up the uneven stone stairs and down the path to our positions in front of the pond at Angkor Wat, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1992.

Because we were so early, we were able to occupy space close to the pond’s edge. It was not uncomfortably crowded as our visit was undertaken during the shoulder travel season. Tony said that in high season, November to February, as many as 5,000 visitors a day tour the temples. In our time frame, he said it drops to 1,000 a day or lower.

A hazy morning meant that we wouldn’t be able to get a sharp image of the sun rising behind Angkor Wat’s iconic towers.  

Even in near total darkness, we could make out the iconic silhouette of Angkor Wat’s five towers. Over the next 40 minutes, as night predictably gave way to dawn, the sky became a brilliant mix of light orange, pastel pink and pale purple until the muted sunlight brought the structure into sharper focus.

Because of the haze, we knew we wouldn’t be lucky enough to get crisp photographs of the sun rising behind the towers, but our pictures would capture the palm trees and the temple reflected in the pond, the image of which has been depicted on many a postcard.

The temperature was already soaring, as was the humidity. The thought that I would take notes was quickly abandoned, knowing that my notebook paper would straightaway stick to my sweating wrist and anything I had jotted down would become an illegible mess.

Fortunately, I had studied an excellent book about the complex before leaving home. This not only familiarized me with the temples we had on our itinerary, but served to individualize the historical figures and the religious components we’d be seeing.

For anyone going to Cambodia, I highly recommend “Focusing on the Angkor Temples: The Guidebook,” third edition, by Michel Petrotchenko (Amarin Printing and Publishing PCL, 2014, $22.95). Not only is it a work of scholarship, but it’s also a labor of love. The author says he’s been fascinated with the temples since 1994, and has visited more than 50 times to perfect his presentation.

The full-color guidebook capsulizes more than 80 temples before delving deeper into most of them. Detailed, color-coded diagrams and floor plans of each temple, photographs, extreme close-ups and descriptions of the architectural characteristics (carvings, statues, bas-reliefs, religious figures, etc.) provide a wealth of information.

Particularly helpful is the chronology of 500 years of Khmer kings, giving the reigning years of each and which temples were constructed under his rule.

Rereading parts of the volume after I returned home also aided in identifying some of my photographs. While at the temples, there is so much to see and absorb that visitors can easily be overwhelmed.  Thus, having a top-notch guidebook served to unjumble my brain.

One of the five sanctuaries of Angkor Wat, as seen from the third (and highest) level.

From the ninth to the 15th century, the Khmer kings ruled from Angkor, a region north of Tonle Sap Lake in what today is north-central Cambodia. Over the centuries, hundreds of temples were constructed, built to house representations of the divinities of Buddhism and Hinduism.

With state-of-the-art technology, some of the temples are still being rediscovered deep in the Cambodian jungle.

A combination of factors may have led to the decline of the Khmer empire, but Petrotchenko believes the most logical explanation is the repeated attacks by the Siamese kingdoms from the north. The Khmer capital relocated east, then south, finally settling in Phnom Penh. Meanwhile, jungle overgrowth swallowed the magnificent temples.

By the 1860s, Cambodia had become a French protectorate, though the Siamese still controlled Angkor. The French dispatched a team to judge the navigability of the Mekong Delta, and the mission included a three-week study of Angkor, thus “discovering” the hidden wonders for the modern world.

Angkor Wat is considered to be the greatest achievement of a Khmer king, in this case Suryavarman II (1113-1145/50?). The five sanctuaries at the summit represent “the five peaks of mythological Mount Meru, the Himalayan abode of the 33 Vedic gods led by Indra,” Petrotchenko writes. (Indra is the god of the heavens, war and weather.)

It’s surrounded by an immense, rectangular moat, representing the cosmic oceans.

Devatas were semi-divine beings, like guardian angels or spirits. More than 1,800 of the figures adorn Angkor Wat. 

We followed Tony around the site as he pointed out scenes of daily life and some of warfare depicted on the bas-reliefs. One figure that we quickly learned to identify ourselves was the naga, a mythical snake represented as a multi-headed cobra. Most impressive were the naga balustrades, pillars topped with the snake’s head almost in the form of a fan. This type of balustrade is most often found on the causeways crossing the moats.

The role of the naga (multi-headed snake, in profile here) was to guard the causeways and terraces and be prepared to attack evil spirits.

There is quite a bit of climbing to undertake if you want to make the most of your visit. While I carefully scaled the steep stairs, grabbing a thin iron railing, to Angkor Wat’s highest level, Susan and Tony waited below.

We could have spent hours here, but we had to move on. The other temples we visited on the first day were Angkor Thom (featuring the Bayon), Ta Prohm, Sra Srang and Prasat Kravan. (Prasat translates as “sanctuary.”)

This billboard illustrates the restoration success at one section of Ta Prohm.

Of these, Ta Prohm might be the most well-known, in that some scenes in “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” the 2001 movie starring Angelina Jolie and a pre-James Bond Daniel Craig, were filmed at the temple. The film also marks the beginning of Jolie’s serious interest in Cambodia.

Trees and root systems have caused damage to Ta Prohm, which was a monastery with cells for 93 monks.

The most recognizable feature at Ta Prohm is the massive, twisting roots of spung trees (Tetrameles Nudiflora) growing atop strangler fig trees, which have snaked around and over the buildings. Ta Prohm was also the temple that was designated to be left in its original rediscovered state, but the thinking has evolved and some restoration is under way.

The giant heads of the Bayon are at the center of Angkor Thom.

The ginormous, serenely smiling faces at the Bayon, at the center of Angkor Thom (it means “great city”), also leave a lasting impression. Angkor Thom was the capital of Jayavarman VII’s kingdom (1181-1218/1220?), and remained the capital until the first part of the 15th century. Originally surrounded by a moat and high walls constructed of laterite, an iron-rich red clay, it “projected the power and protection of the king, and of his gods, to the entire kingdom,” Petrotchenko writes.

The jetty at Sra Srang, leading to a former royal bathing pond, has been restored to its original beauty. The site dates to the late 12th century.

We had a lunch break at a roadside restaurant before ending our first temple-hopping day at Sra Srang, once a royal bathing pond, with naga balustrades, and Prasat Kravan, the earliest of the structures we saw. It dates to the early 10th century, and is not attributed to a king’s reign but to Hindu dignitaries, who put up the funds.

Lakshmi, the Hindu god Vishnu’s consort, is flanked by praying figures in the brick bas-relief of the north sanctuary at Prasat Kravan. Extensive restoration took place at this temple from 1962 to 1966.

Each time we returned to our tuk-tuk, we were offered fresh bottles of cold water. Snacks were available from vendors at some of the temples, as was an opportunity to do some shopping. Rows of thatched-roofed huts offered T-shirts, clothing and other fabric goods, small carved or stone statues of animals and gods and other touristy souvenirs.

Eight hours or so after we started, we headed back to our hotel for a well-earned nap.

Hiring a guide

I had a recommendation for a guide from an acquaintance I made on a trip to Turkey in 2012. I contacted the guide via email and he replied that he was available for the dates of our visit. When I emailed him back to confirm which temples we wanted to visit and request information about his fee, he was suddenly “busy,” and passed along contact information for a colleague. I emailed possible guide No. 2 several times and never heard back from him.

So I turned to our hotel for help. On its website, the Soria Moria has a list of tours and activities that its staff is happy to to organize for guests, and we decided to utilize this service. The added benefit was that we could put the cost of a guide and driver on our hotel bill. (We did tip in cash, and American bills are most welcome.)

Having a private guide was definitely the way to go. We could proceed at our own pace, spending as much time as we wanted looking at the temples. The first day the guide cost $40 ($5 of that was for the pre-sunrise pickup) and the tuk-tuk, $20; the second day, $35 and $24, respectively (we drove farther into the countryside).

Dieter Dengler: A Navy pilot with an indomitable will to live

Navy pilot Dieter Dengler is the subject of “Hero Found.” This is the hardcover version. The photograph on the cover of the paperback is slightly different.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text. All rights reserved.

“Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War” by Bruce Henderson (Harper, 2011, $14.99, paperback)

As I was reading “Hero Found,” I couldn’t help but think that this electrifying story had all the cinematic elements that Hollywood loves: American pilot crash-lands his plane during a “secret war,” spends months as a POW, survives torture and starvation, manages to escape and is rescued when he’s nearly on death’s doorstep.

A little investigation revealed that my instincts were correct, and that Hollywood has already been all over Dieter Dengler’s Vietnam War-era exploits.

“Rescue Dawn,” starring Christian Bale as Dengler, and directed by Germany’s Werner Herzog, was released in 2007. It had a $10 million budget and as of 2012, had only taken in $7.1 million worldwide. I have not seen the movie, and judging by the fact that the film didn’t even make back its budget, not that many others did either.

Interestingly, Herzog also made a documentary called “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,”  released in 1997, with Dengler’s full cooperation.

And Dengler himself wrote a book about his ordeal called “Escape from Laos,” released in 1979, which author Bruce Henderson drew on to tell this almost too-fantastic-to-be- believed tale.

Henderson had another advantage as he undertook “Hero Found”: He had served aboard the USS Ranger in 1966, overlapping the time that Dengler was attached to the carrier as an A-1 Skyraider pilot. Henderson’s detailed narrative is a testament to his investigative skills and military knowledge.

The word “legend” was already uttered in the same breath as Dengler’s name, and Henderson was to learn that if anyone were a likely candidate to overcome the life-threatening hardships described above, it would be the unconventional and industrious German-born flier.

When Allied bombers, particularly American planes displaying a bright white star, arrived in 1944 in Wildberg, Germany, Dengler was a rambunctious 6-year-old. That the bombers were devastating his hometown was almost secondary to the gleaming warbirds having captured the youngster’s imagination. From that day forward, “Little Dieter needed to fly.”

In the bombing aftermath and post-war years, times were tough for the Dengler family. His father, Reinhold, 38, was killed by a Soviet grenade as the Germans retreated in Ukraine. In addition to his wife, Maria, and Dieter, Reinhold left behind two other sons.

The family moved in with Maria’s relatives in Calw, only 10 miles away, in southwest Germany.

Food and coal were scarce, but Dieter proved to be a born “scrounger,” skilled at finding something to eat, whether it be berries and mushrooms in the woods or the internal organs of a slaughtered sheep that the occupying force of Moroccans had discarded.

His “MacGyver”-like ingenuity, and a willingness to eat absolutely anything, would later help to save Dengler’s life.

At 14, busy running a gang and not a stellar student, Dieter’s mother apprenticed him to a blacksmith, who regularly beat him.

A way out of this abusive life, and Germany, arrived two-fold: At 16, Dieter saw an ad in a magazine that stated the U.S. military was looking for young men to train as pilots, and an aunt living in New Jersey agreed to be his sponsor in America.

Ever resourceful, for two years Dieter scavenged scrap metal to sell, earning the $520 he needed for the lowest-class, one-way fare to sail to the new world toward his dream.

Within weeks of arriving in the United States in 1957, he had enlisted in the Air Force. Not understanding that only officers could become pilots, Dengler ended up in the motor pool for several years, counting the days, taking classes and becoming an American citizen. And never giving up on his dream of flying.

Honorably discharged in 1961, he headed to California, where his younger brother was a baker. He moved in with Martin and joined him in attending community college, attaining the associate’s degree that would enable him to apply for the Naval Aviation Cadet program.

Dengler’s unwavering determination finally paid off. His aircraft of choice to fly was the A-1 Skyraider (nicknamed “Spad”), a single-engine, propeller-driven attack bomber designed in 1945 and delivered too late to be of service in World War II.

Like all other pilots, the newly golden-winged Dengler had to complete a SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, escape) course, intended to teach personnel the skills they might need in the event that they bailed out of their planes and/or became prisoners of war.

The struggles and lessons of Dengler’s youth had already imbued him with supreme confidence, so his ability to avoid SERE capture surprised him not in the least. (In later years he would return to help teach other pilots survival skills.)

As 1966 dawned, Dengler was on the USS Ranger en route to Vietnam. Never without a Plan B, he supplemented the equipment, meds and food included in standard survival gear. He customized his specially purchased Swiss climbing boots with $100 in the tongue of each shoe, and an extra Navy ID and Geneva Convention card hidden in each sole.

He also carried his old German passport and documents identifying him as a machinist, along with civilian clothes, reasoning that if he were captured, he would assume the guise of a German citizen working in Indochina.

By the end of January, he and the other pilots were flying bombing runs over North and South Vietnam.

Dengler’s life changed forever on February 1. Orders were to fly into Laos and disrupt the communist Pathet Lao’s attempts to supply the North Vietnamese via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The American public knew nothing of this “secret war,” though the CIA-run Air America operation had been under way for almost a decade, and U.S. military air power utilized since April 1965.

After bombs away over the Laotian jungle, the right engine on Dengler’s Spad was shot off. He blew the aircraft’s canopy and prepared to jump, but found himself pushed back into his seat as the plane shuddered and dived. At this point, he elected to crash land. Miraculously, he walked away from the debris, bruised and badly shaken, but with his survival instincts in high gear.

The next day, a Navy search party located the wreckage, but there was no sign of Dengler. Within a few days, he was captured by the Pathet Lao, and managed to escape briefly. When recaptured, he was marched barefoot through the jungle until the guerrillas met up with the North Vietnamese.

Two weeks into his ordeal, in his first POW camp, he discovered that he was in the company of an American Air Force helicopter pilot, Duane Martin, who’d been shot down five months earlier, and five Air America employees: three from Thailand, one from Hong Kong and another American, Gene DeBruin, a former air force enlisted man, who’d been prisoners since September 1963.

Dengler immediately began talking about escaping, the sooner the better. The other prisoners scoffed, especially when it was pointed out that without a source of water, dehydration would swiftly cause his demise. They cautioned him to wait for the monsoon season.

So the days were spent planning, noting in minute detail the guards’ movements and schedules, and stocking what few provisions they could from their dwindling, inadequate daily meals for the attempt ahead.

Despite the prep, the June 29 escape did not go as planned. Because of illness, one team stayed behind. The three Thai men grabbed most of the provisions, including the all-important boots, and took off on their own. Dengler did most of the break-out shooting and then made for the jungle with Martin, heading west toward Thailand.

For nearly three weeks, Dengler and Martin were on the run, getting weaker and sicker by the day, existing on the remains found at abandoned campsites and taking great risks in stealing from villagers. An accidental meeting with a local resulted in Martin’s death, and Dengler was literally running for his life.

When he reached a river, he wrote SOS on a rock, and suspected he was close to death.

Then he caught the break that would save his life. Air Force Lt. Col. Eugene Deatrick, on a bombing run over Laos, saw the SOS and put into motion the chain of events that led to Dengler’s rescue.

When hospitalized in Da Nang, Dengler weighed 98 pounds. He was suffering from severe malnutrition, two types of malaria, hepatitis, fungus and jaundice.

Dengler was discharged from the Navy in February 1968. For a time he owned a restaurant in northern California, and for 10 years, he flew as a flight engineer for TWA.

Despite living a comfortable life in a free country, he never gave up the practice of stockpiling food and having a survival plan, until he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2000, that is.

Even then he didn’t relinquish control. When he could no longer tolerate the ravages of the disease, he took his own life, at age 62, in February 2001.

The next month, Dieter Dengler, recipient of the Purple Heart, Air Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross and Navy Cross (second only to the Medal of Honor), was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.