Look closely–yep, that’s the Buddha through the doorway at Bayon in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
The editor of The Camel Saloon, Russell Streur, after he had seen some photos I submitted along with some of my poetry, came up with this cool idea about having an online photo exhibition of some of the photos I have taken during my travels around Asia.
Called the Asian Caravan, it is a collection of 50 photos taken in Cambodia, Japan, Laos, South Korea, and Thailand.
And while you are there, please check out some of the literary stylings and support this literary e-zine that is helping some writers get their first publishing credit and established writers to share their stuff.
That is true to an extent, but sadly I am embarrassed that I have not traveled as much as other people I know who have been overseas fewer years than I have. Granted I have done some traveling and have had the chance to visit some places that most people will never be able to in their lifetimes, I am still embarrassed that I have not taken advantage of where I am at to have traveled more. Sure, I have had my reasons, but when I look at the places I have visited, I am embarrassed that there are some notable omissions considering where I am and how long I have been overseas.
Just as much, when I started to compile this list that I haven’t seen as much of America as I should have. What I have come to realize (and I have come to realize a lot of things as I get closer and closer to my fiftieth birthday) is that there is still so much life to live, places to see, and things to do. I might be embarrassed for example that I have never been to New York, Boston or Washington D.C., but I have been to some cool, exciting, and historical places.
Well, I am just going to have to come up with another Top 50 List of “must see” places overseas and in America.
The Alamo – San Antonio, Texas
I visited the Alamo in the summer of 1976 while I was doing my Air Force basic training at nearby Lackland AFB. Toward the end of that six-week long basic training everyone got a day-pass. Almost everyone ended up the Alamo (it was also near the place where the buses from base dropped us off). But you know, it is one of those places that looks so much smaller in real life than it did on TV or the silver screen when I watched John Wayne’s The Alamo.
Angkor Wat – Siem Reap, Cambodia
Wow. Big Wow.
Located about two hours north of Bangkok, Ayutthaya is one of Thailand’s ancient cities. Founded c. 1350, Ayutthaya became the second Siamese capital after Sukhothai. It was destroyed by the Burmese in the 18th century. Its remains, characterized by the prang (reliquary towers) and gigantic monasteries, give an idea of its past splendour. It is literally, a museum without walls. Most notably of the ruins in Ayutthaya are the three chedis of Wat Phra Sri Sanphet and the Buddha image head in the roots of a banyan tree at Wat Mahathat.
Banteay Sri – Siem Reap, Cambodia
This was the first place I visited when I was in Siem Reap in 2006. It is famous for its pink sandstone and intricate carvings. It is a very lovely and quaint temple and like nothing else visitors to Siem Reap will see.
When I was a young boy I went on a mini vacation to Wisconsin with my Grandma and Grandpa Miller. One of the places they took me too was Baraboo, the home to the Circus World Museum, the former headquarters and winter home of Ringling Brothers Circus and now the largest library of circus information in the U.S. This was back in the 60s and I recall that there daily circus performances.
Bridge on the River Kwai – Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Internationally famous, thanks the several motion pictures and books, the black iron bridge was brought from Java by the Japanese supervision by Allied prisoner-of-war labor as part of the Death Railway link Thailand with Burma. Still in use today, the bridge was the target of frequent Allied bombing raids during World War II and was rebuilt after war ended. The curved spans of the bridge are the original sections. A daily train is still following the historical route from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok Railway Station.
You might be a little disappointed if you expect to see the same kind of bridge that was in the 1957 movie (which was filmed in Ceylon). Although the filmmakers might have taken some cinematic license with their bridge, this one is a grim reminder of the war and the lives that were lost here.
Not far from the bridge is Dong Rak War Cemetery, which is also known as the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. It is located opposite Kanchanaburi’s Railway Station on Saengchootoe Road. It contains the remains of 6,982 Australian, Dutch and British war prisoners who lost their lives during the construction of the Death Railway. What was really touching was how well the Thai people have taken care of this cemetery over the years.
I visited here in 2003 while writing some travel articles for the Korea Times.
Changdok Palace – Seoul, South Korea
Construction of Changdok Palace was started in 1405 by King T’aejong, and was completed in 1412. In 1463, King Sejo expanded the palace and created Biwon (secret) Garden. Most interesting about the palace is how the buildings blend with the surrounding topography. Although many of the buildings were burned during the Hideyoshi Invasion of Korea in 1592 the palace, which covers more than 110 acres has been restored to its former glory. It was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site List in 1997. I have been here several times, and once was given a private tour for a travel article I wrote.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Ancient site of the Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s more beautiful tourist destinations in the north. It is home to over 300 temples including Doi Suthep and is famous for handicrafts and paper umbrellas. I had the chance to spend a lot of time in and around Chiang Mai because my late wife was from a small village about an hour outside of Chiang Mai.
Chipyong-ni, South Korea
In May of 2001, I accompanied some Korean War veterans to this site (about two hours southwest of Seoul) of a major battle in February 1951 which turned the tide of the Korean War for the US and UN forces. It was a major victory for the US, especially the US Second Infantry Division that had suffered many losses the previous November in North Korea. I would go on to write two articles about that battle and it was also when I met Oscar Cortez who was captured by Chinese forces in February 1951. It is one of the few Korean War battlefields I have visited.
I’ve been lucky in that I have been to Disneyland in California as well as the one in Tokyo (which is actually nearer to Narita Airport than Tokyo). And you know what, there is no difference.
Doi Suthep – Chiang Mai, Thailand
Located 15 kilometers outside of Chiang Mai on top of a mountain, Wat Phrathat is more commonly known as Doi Suthep the name of the mountain. Along with Wat Pho, Wat Traimit, Wat Phra Kaeo, it is one of Thailand’s most sacred temples. The first time I visited here was in September 1994 when I had gone to Chiang Mai to meet my late wife’s parents and for our engagement ceremony. Before she passed away in 2001, I would have the chance to visit here two more times. To get the top you can walk up some steps or take a cable car. When the weather is good (especially in the cool season) the view of Chiang Mai from here is breathtaking.
Galena was another place my grandparents took me for a mini-vacation (usually a three-day weekend). It was just a few hours away from LaSalle and I suppose you could leave early in the morning, spend the day checking out the antique shops and historical architecture as well as visiting Ulysses S. Grant’s Home. The home was given to Grant by the people of Galena for his service in the Civil War and has been maintained as a memorial to Grant since 1904.
Gangwha Island, South Korea
Located in the estuary of the Han River, Ganghwa Island has often played a key role in history because of its strategic position. Most notably was in 1871 when the US Asiatic Squadron sailed to Korea hoping to establish trade and diplomatic relations with Korea (following the fiasco of the General Sherman incident in Pyongyang) and ended up in a small battle with a Korean outpost. Obviously the Koreans were not too keen on opening up to the Western world at the time.
Today you can still tour the fortress where the battle took place as well as one of the island’s more famous attractions Jeondeungsa Temple, one of oldest Buddhist temples in Korea as well as dolmens, megalithic burial tombs (they look like a giant rock table.)
The first time I went to Ganghwa Island was in April 1991. Afterwards I went back to the island on two occasions for travel articles for the Korea Times.
Ginkaku-ji – Kyoto, Japan
Ginkaku-ji, also known as “The Temple of the Silver Pavilion” was one of the places when I visited Kyoto in 1989. Built for a Shogun, the temple was supposed to be covered in silver; however a costly war prevented this from happening and the “silver pavilion” would never be covered in silver. The name would stick though. The rock and sand garden of Ginkaku-ji is particularly famous, and a pile of sand said to symbolize Japan’s most endearing and famous landmark Mt. Fuji.
Grauman’s Chinese Theatre – Hollywood, California
I visited this iconic movie theater in Hollywood just one time in 1979 where I saw the movie Superman. It definitely lives up to all the hype especially the autographed cement blocks featuring the signatures, hand and foot prints of some of Hollywood’s most famous and revered stars.
The Great Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains are a major mountain range in the southern part of the Appalachian Mountains. Called the “Smoky Mountains” because of a natural haze that hangs over the mountains, I traveled through them and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with my Grandmother and Grandfather Miller back in 1968 on a vacation to North Carolina and South Carolina (my grandfather wanted to visit Fort Jackson in South Carolina where he had been stationed during WWII; kind of ironic that we would visit there in 1968 when the war in Vietnam was escalating after the Tet Offensive). What I remember most vividly of the mountains was coming down this mountain pass near Cherokee North Carolina.
Gyeongju, South Korea
Gyeongju was the ancient capital of the Silla Kingdom in Korea and today, with its historical ruins architectural sites from that period, as well Bulguksa Temple (famous for two stone pagodas—Dabotap and Seokatap) and the Seokguram Grotto, the city is one of Korea’s more famous travel destinations. It was the first place I visited in Korea just a few weeks after I arrived and since then I have been back a few more times.
Hermitage – Nashville, Tennessee
The Hermitage—a historical plantation (and museum) near Nashville, Tennessee—was owned by Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States. For some reason I had heard about this plantation or had seen a sign advertising it when I was on a trip to Texas with my Grandma and Grandpa Miller. I must have pestered them to stop because we did for a few hours. It must have been really cool to visit because I remembered it for this list.
Hwaseong Fortress – Suwon, South Korea
Hwaseong Fortress (“The Brilliant Fortress”) is located in Suwon, about 30 kilometers south of Seoul. Built by King Jeongjo to honor and house the remains of his father, the fortress was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1997. What’s really cool about this fortress is that it surrounds the old part of town and you can leisurely walk along the fortress walls up and down some gently rolling hills, stopping to check out the fortress’s four gates as well as guard towers, observation towers, and command posts. I have had the chance to visit it a few times when I was writing travel articles.
The Great Buddha, Kotoku-in – Kamakura, Japan
Kamakura is noted for its trove of historically significan Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines. Of these, Kotoku-in the monumental outdoor bronze statue of the Amida Buddha is the most famous. A 15th Century tsunami destroyed the temple that once housed the Great Buddha, but the statue survived and has remained outdoors ever since. This iconic Daibatsu is arguably amongst the few images which have come to represent Japan in the world’s collective imagination.
Next to Kyoto, Kamakura’s architectural, as well as its Buddhist and Shinto heritage make it one of the more charming and unique cities in Japan. I first visited Kamakura on New Year’s Day 1990 (after having stayed up all night following a concert at the Tokyo Dome—Don Henley, Bryan Adams, Huey Lewis and the News, Michael Monroe, and Loudness—wow!) and traveled back there last year.
Kinkaku-ji – Kyoto, Japan
Kinkaku-ji, also known as the “Golden Pavilion Temple” is another one of Kyoto’s famous and endearing landmarks. I had the chance to visit here in 1989. Often linked or contrasted with Ginkaku-ji (I wonder why?) the top two stories of this structure are covered with pure gold leaf. Obviously, all that glitters in gold is quite true for this temple.
Kuongji Temple – near Kofu, Japan
I had the chance to visit here in November 2006, the day before I flew back to the States (two months after I had quit my job at Yonsei University). It is famous for its 287 steps of stone stairs known locally as the steps of enlightenment as well as the golden dragon painted on the black ceiling of the main temple. It’s most notable feature—usually pointed out by monks at the temple—is that the dragon has five toes, making it a Japanese dragon.
The blossoming of thousands of cherry trees, including the hundred-year-old weeping cherry tree in the garden, also makes this temple a popular tourist destination.
Kyongbok Palace – Seoul, South Korea
Centerpiece for the Choson Dynasty, Kyongbok Palace in downtown Seoul is one of the cities “must see” attractions. I was fortunate when I was living in Seoul because when I had nothing better to do, or just wanted to go for a stroll I would buy a ticket and wander around the palace grounds for an hour or two. I also wrote about it a few times for The Korea Times.
Of all the cities and places I have visited one of the more beautiful and charming destinations was Kyoto. It is definitely one of the gems of the Orient.
The first time I visited Kyoto (and nearby Nara) was in 1989 when I was living in Hamamatsu. I went there for three days and visited some of the major attractions including Ginkaku-ji, Kinkaku-ji, Heian Jingu (a Shinto Shrine) and The Philosopher’s Walk and also stayed in a traditional Japanese-style inn a ryokan. In 2003, I visited the city again when I met my friend Kevin McQuade there and went to Sanjusangen-do (a Buddhist Temple known as Hall of the Lotus King; the name literally means “Hall with thirty-three spaces between columns) as well as Nijo Castle built for a Shogun. What I have always found interesting about Kyoto was that during World War II, the city was spared from the atomic bomb as well as other bombing missions.
Besides being my hometown, LaSalle—located approximately 90 miles southwest of Chicago in north central Illinois—is perhaps most famous for having been named after the French Explorer Robert de LaSalle. Interestingly, some of the streets—Joliet, Tonti, and Marquette were named after other French explorers and missionaries including Louis Joliet, Henri de Tonti, and Father Jacques Marquette. LaSalle is also famous for the Illinois-Michigan Canal, which was built to connect The Illinois River with Lake Michigan.
After an unbelievable day exploring Angkor Wat and other breathtaking temples like Banteay Srei and Bayon, it was back on the road again to the border.
Didn’t take us as long to get back to the border as it did to get to Siem Reap two days ago. Left the hotel at 7:45 and got to the border around 11:30. We were in a better car, so the road didn’t feel as bumpy as it did the other day. However, more sections of the road were inundated with water. It was like having to cross a small stream with the water rushing over the road. Two times, some farmers had to guide the cars, trucks, buses, and motorcycles through these spots.
It was a little hectic at the border though. Took over two hours to get through immigration formalities. I guess a lot of people were making a weekend visa run to the border.
Had a full van back to Bangkok with five other people who had gone to the border that morning to get a new 30-day visa. They got really angry when the driver took me back to the JS Service Tower first (it was easier to drop me off first because the other people were staying at hotels around Soi Nana. Well, maybe not angry but very, very pissed. They started yelling at the driver and told him to let them off at On Nut Station. They had no reason to get angry but the driver should have told them that I was going to be dropped off first (maybe they were a little pissed too because they had to wait for me to get through immigration).
Although the package tour I went on was for three days and two nights in Siem Reap, you need at least a week to spend time exploring all the historic sites. I could have easily spent a morning or afternoon just walking through Bayon and waiting for the opportune time when the lighting was just right for those priceless snapshots.
As package tours come and go, it wasn’t a bad deal to see some of the more impressive sites and if you are planning to visit Siem Reap I would suggest going on one but also having one or two days for your own explorations of the city and its historic and cultural sites. Likewise, I would wait until you get to Bangkok to book a tour (chances are you will join a small group). Just one thing, if you do go, please fly.
It was a full day of exploring just a small part of Angkor Wat and other historical and cultural sites.
If I hadn’t gone on a package tour, I would have read up more on what to see and when (the time of the day that you go is very important for photographs) to visit these sites. You could easily spend a day just visiting one or two places and taking your time to really appreciate the beauty and the magnificence of them.
You never know who you will meet when you are on a package/group tour, but Achiranee and I lucked out when we met Don.
He was a really nice guy who was a lot of fun to hang out with during our day of exploring Siem Reap.
Here, Don and Achiranee pose with our guide Johnny while we were visiting Bayon.