Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam hold many exotic and fascinating secrets, and you’ll learn a lot of them during our Gems of Southeast Asia itinerary. But we think some of them are so fascinating and fun that we couldn’t wait to share them.
With this kingdom, I thee wed. Angkor Thom, Cambodia’s massive city adjacent to Angkor Wat, was created from an aggressive building program headed by King Jayavarman VII. To give you an idea of how passionate he was about his beloved city, one surviving inscription in stone here refers to Jayavarman as groom and Angkor Thom as bride.
Shape shifters. Apsaras, the supernatural female beings of Cambodian mythology, are said to be able to change their shape at will. Sometimes compared to muses of ancient Greece, they can also rule over fortunes, especially those acquired (or lost!) in gambling. Two types of apsaras live on in Cambodian lore: Laukika and Daivika, or the worldly and the divine, respectively.
What’s in a name? Bangkok’s current name in the Thai language is Krung Thep Maha Nakhon. But this is merely an abbreviated version of its full ceremonial name, which takes a native speaker 14 seconds to say: Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit.
This hearty mouthful translates as “City of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of nine gems, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate, erected by Visvakarman at Indra’s behest.”
Epic journey of a Buddha. The Emerald Buddha, the revered statue of Nephrite in the Grand Palace’s Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, has an adventurous history worthy of any summer blockbuster. It was carved in India in 43 BC. After 300 years here, civil war began to brew and so it was taken to Sri Lanka for safety. In 457 AD, the king of Burma asked that it be brought to him to support his country’s embrace of Buddhism, but the ship upon which it sailed lost its way in a storm and landed in Cambodia. When the Siamese army took Angkor Wat, they also took the Emerald Buddha and moved it around several cities until it arrived here.
Good tidings. It may seem a trivial custom to tie strings around each other’s wrists as a gesture of welcome. But to the Laotian people, this important ceremony, known as baci, which means “calling of the soul,” is central to greeting new friends. To accompany the simple act, a silver tray is festooned with flowers, banana leaves, and bamboo poles.
Morning stroll. Every morning in the streets of Luang Prabang, Laos, a parade of orange-robed monks appears in the streets with satchels and baskets. As they walk, they fall into reception lines to collect modest offerings of rice and other foods from locals. It is one of the most moving rituals we witness, this simple offering of kindness received with humility.
Halong by the numbers. Within its 600 square miles, Vietnam’s Halong Bay has between 1,960 and 2,000 islands and islets. The karst that makes up many of the islands has evolved over 20 million years in a tropical wet climate. Of its flora, 14 species are endemic. Of its fauna, 60 species are unique to this area. But no matter how you measure it, Halong Bay is a magnificent natural wonder.
One way to keep your taxes down. Real estate tax in Hanoi, Vietnam, is calculated by the street frontage that your house occupies. One way around high taxes was to build narrow houses, which you’ll see plenty of in both the city’s Old Quarter and modern areas. Known as “Tube Houses,” what these dwellings lack in width they make up for in depth. In the front section of the house, business is conducted, whether retail or other transactions. Heading to the back, you would walk through courtyards, gardens, and private family quarters.