On the first Tuesday in December, I flew from Bangkok (point A on map below) to Siem Reap, Cambodia (B) to meet a friend from graduate school for a week-long journey in South East Asia. We spent the first three days touring Angkor Wat and vicinity, followed by a quick 24 hour visit to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (C), and then three glorious days in Singapore (D). This trip allowed us to see the ancient splendor of the Angkor temples, the modern marvel of KL’s Petronas Tower, and the awe-inspiring skyline in the city-state of Singapore.
Siem Reap, located in northwest Cambodia, is the third largest city in the country (behind Phnom Penh and Battambang) and the gateway to the Angkor Region, former capital of the Khmer kingdom and now a designated World Heritage site. The numerous temples in this area were built beginning in 802, but the region was abandoned to the jungle in 1432 when King Ponhea Yat relocated the capital south to the water-rich confluence of the Mekong, Tonlé Sap, and Bassac rivers. Our guide explained that a multi-year drought was the reason that the capital was moved to the current city of Phnom Penh. As can be seen clearly in the map below, the Khmer kings built two large rectangular reservoirs, now called East Baray and West Baray, to collect water during the monsoon season. It is quite conceivable that these large reservoirs could run dry during a long drought, particularly with the high temperatures in this tropical nation. Internet sources, however, attribute the move to the defeat of the Khmer by the Thais. Since Siem Reap means Siam Defeated, it is likely that national pride would prefer drought as the explanation for the relocation.
During our three days in Siem Reap, we toured Angkor Wat and many of the other nearby temples (point A on map above); we drove north to tour Banteay Srei (B), northeast to explore Beng Mealea (C), and south to see the stilt homes of Kompong Phlok and to take a boat trip to the Tonlé Sap Lake. I will provide more details and pictures in a week or two.
On Friday afternoon, we flew to Kuala Lumpur (KL) for a one-day visit. Like so many cities in S.E. Asia, KL has a modern public transportation systems including a subway, monorail, and commuter trains. The airport express train whisked us from the airport to the center city in under 30 minutes at speeds of up to 100 MPH. KL, the capital of Malaysia and its economic and financial center, is a large (population 1.6 million in city but over 7 million in the Klang Valley metro area) but relatively young city. Tin mining was the driving force behind the development of the city in the late 1800s. The ethnic mix of the city’s population is a roughly equal mix of Malay and Chinese with a smaller proportion of Indians (about 10%). Just under one-half of the population are Muslim, one-third are Buddhists, and most of the rest are either Hindus or Christians.
The Petronas Towers are Kuala Lumpur’s and Malaysia’s most recognized landmark. When opened in 1998 after six years of construction, the twin towers surpassed Chicago’s Sears Tower as the tallest buildings in the world (1,483 feet vs. 1,450 feet.) The Petronas Towers held this position until 2004 when the 1,670 foot tall Taipei 101, originally called the Taipei World Financial Center, opened in Taiwan. Since then, the Petronas Towers have also been surpassed by the International Commerce Centre in Hong Kong (1,588 feet), the Shanghai World Financial Center (1,614 feet), the Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel in Mecca, Saudi Arabia (1,971 feet), and the towering Burj Khalifa in Dubai (2,717 feet).
Petronas is Malaysia’s state-owned oil and gas company as well as the main sponsor of the Malaysian Grand Prix. Inside the lobby of the Petronas Towers are two Formula One race cars. A double-deck skybridge on levels 41 and 42 allows people to cross from one tower to the other. The skybridge is not attached to either tower but rather slides in and out of each to allow the buildings to sway in the wind without breaking the bridge. Tickets to visit the skybridge are very limited, so we were unable to go up since we had to catch a plane to Singapore later that day.
The other key landmark in Kuala Lumpur is the KL Tower, a communications tower whose antenna reaches a height of 1,380 feet. We visited that tower’s observation deck that is 900 feet above the ground. While it provides good views of KL, the view of the Petronas Towers as a bit disappointing because the relative position of the two structures does not provide a view of the signature skybridge.
We arrived in Singapore on Saturday afternoon and stayed until Tuesday afternoon when I returned to Bangkok and my friend began an arduous 33 hour, four flight journey back to the states.
The differences between Cambodia and Singapore are vast. Wealth defines Singapore while Cambodia is still a very poor, developing country; for perspective, Cambodia’s per capita GDP is less than 5% of Singapore’s. In Singapore, malls and retail stores are seemingly everywhere and high-end shops are as common (maybe even more so) as they are in Hong Kong. In contrast, just 25% of the population of Cambodia is hooked up to the electric grid. Singapore has its own solid currency; the poor, unsuspecting Cambodians rely on the U.S. dollar that the Fed is rapidly debasing with its quantitative easing policies.
Singapore is situated less than 100 miles north of the equator on the Singapore Strait that connects the South China Sea with the Strait of Malacca. Not surprisingly, it was hot and humid and every day was at least a two-shower day.
The 25 year-old subway system is clean, comfortable, and speedy, so we took full advantage of our three-day visitor pass to get around. We visited the stately Raffles and Fullerton Hotels (points A and B on map below) as well as the magnificent Marina Bay Sands (C) from which we viewed downtown Singapore and the harbor from its extraordinary Skypark. We walked along the riverfront (D), through Chinatown (E), and down the fabulous Orchard Road (F). We enjoyed some of Singapore’s renowned dishes such as Chili crab and Mee Goreng.
On our third day in Singapore, we visited the National Museum of Singapore (point G on map above) in order to understand the history and development of this city-state. In 1819, Singapore was established by Sir Thomas Raffles under the auspices of the East India Company to allow the British to counter the Dutch who controlled the major ports in this area. When Raffles signed a treaty with the Sultan of Johor to establish a British trading post and free-trade zone, there were about 1,000 indigenous people in this area; within two years, the population had increased five-fold. When Singapore became a British possession in 1824, the population had reached 10,000.
In 1963, Singapore joined with the British crown colonies of Sabah, Sarawak, and Malaya to form Malaysia. Two years later, however, Singapore was expelled from the Malaysian Federation and it became its own city-state. Despite its limited land area (just 275 square miles of which at least 50 are reclaimed) and scarce natural resources, free trade has provided the 5 million people in Singapore with a per capita GDP that trails only Qatar and Luxembourg and that is 20% greater than that of the U.S. Today, Singapore is a world leader in many categories including financial services, oil refining, ship building, casino gambling, shipping, retailing, tourism, and logistics. It has to be the world’s greatest monument to the power of free trade.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.