From Siam to Suez ~ Angkor

Photo caption: THE MAD PRIEST OF ANGKOR AND THE AUTHOR – N.B. The author is on the right.

From Siam to Suez is a rare old book written by James Saxon Childers (1899-1965) detailing his journey from China to Egypt in the early 20th century. Childers was an American writer and traveller who wrote several fiction books as well as travel books. His fiction did not do too well, but his travel books were popular.

Here I’m sharing chapter two of the book where Childers visits Angkor. I have been to Angkor several times and it never ceases to amaze me. I agree with Childers though: Angkor is a foreign mystery to the westerner — cut off from our history, culture, and religion.

Chapter II, From Siam to Suez by James Saxon Childers (Public Domain Book)

The towers of Angkor Wat temple

DEAR OCTAVUS ROY COHEN: You asked me to write to you about the ruins of Angkor. I’m sorry you did; for I’ve been in Angkor a week, yet can find out nothing about it. At night I prowl through the temple and in the day I ride elephants through the town, but the stones are only stones and I hear nothing.

In Athens I can see Socrates in his ragged old coat, forever talking, forever making his soul as good as possible. In Rome I hear the tramp of the legions and Cato shout, “Delenda est.” In Paris I see Villon staggering, staggering just a little as he searches for the snows of yesteryear. In the streets of London, Doctor Johnson shambles along with Boswell at his side. I hear him say: “Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” But Angkor is silent. The lips of the four-faced god are mute; even the spirit of his devotees has gone into the awful jungle.

I would not have you feel that Angkor prompted me to ask Cleopatra’s famous question: “Is this the mighty ocean? Is this all?” In a way, I have not been disappointed in Angkor, but the place has not set me on fire; I have not felt as I did when looking at the Great Wall of China, or at the Parthenon, or at the Forum: Genghis Khan never stormed these gates, Phidias never worshipped in this temple, Cæsar never walked these streets…


I arrived at Angkor after a week’s visit to Saigon, the real capital of Indo-China, a French city set in a jungle. The French own Saigon: they dominate it; one sees the native only as a servant, or as a soldier in the troupes coloniales. The architecture of Saigon is French. The paved boulevards are French. The big shops are French. There is a Hôtel de Ville, a Théâtre Municipal, a Musée, a Jardin Botanique. Saigon in its buildings, parks, and streets is definitely a counterpart of Paris, but the buildings are merely masquerade; even a transient detects a noxious decadence in the lives of the haggard officers of the Foreign Legion, of the white-faced government employees, of the red-faced rubber planters–Frenchmen forced to live in daily contact with the jungle and its diseases, the heat and its diseases, the sullen hatred of the natives, opium, the nostalgic realization of exile, and the insidious enervation of the Orient.

After a week’s visit in Saigon–seven days of ghastly heat and of torment from mosquitoes, seven nights of tennis and absinthe frappés, of late dinners and champagnes and brandies, of visits to opium houses and to other houses where depravity in its most vicious form is commonplace–I was glad to hire an automobile for the two-hundred-mile ride over the jungle road to the ruins of Angkor.


Three times he spoke his name and three times I tried to repeat it. He laughed as I stumbled through the confusion of syllables, and when at last I called him Rollo, he didn’t seem to object. He was a white-haired old man of eighty-four years, and his entire international vocabulary was this: “Angkor Thom,” “Angkor Vat” (pronounced Angkor Wot), “Buddha,” “Vishnu,” “soldat,” “le roi,” “madame le roi,” “Naga,” and “all right.” For a week we talked with each other daily, and we used no other words than these. A stranger might have been puzzled had he seen us in conversation, for he might not have comprehended the gestures of our arms, the contortions of our bodies, and the significant grimaces by which we discussed history, art, and curious practices.

I found Rollo late one afternoon squatting on his haunches, chewing betel nut, and spitting the blood-red juice upon the stone causeway that leads to the temple of Angkor.

“You speak English?” I asked.

Rollo stood, bowed to me, raised his arm and swept it before him, encompassing by his gesture the entire façade of the mighty temple.

“Angkor Vat,” he said.

“Yes, I know, but do you speak English, and could you tell me where I could find a guide?”

Again the inclusive gesture and again: “Angkor Vat?”

“Good, but you speak French peut-être? Oui? Vous parlez français?

But the habit was on him: once more I learned that at the distant limit of the great arc described by his hand stood the temple of Angkor.

“Righto, old chap.” I nodded and smiled to him. “Merci bien.

I started along the causeway. Rollo trotted beside me, his little wooden clogs tap tapping upon the stones.

“Where are you going?” I demanded.


“So I gather, but why are you following me?”

He looked at me and smiled. Absurdly enough I thought of wrinkled copper.

“All right,” he said, and startled me by his linguistic versatility. He struck his chest, touched my arm, and, clasping his hands, showed that we were friends.
Afterward he pointed ahead at the temple. Crouching low, peering all about him, he stood on tiptoe, gazing with keenest interest. Finally, with two forefingers ever moving one before the other, he signalled our advance.

“But, see here, you don’t speak any language I understand. How can you–”

Already he was tap-tapping toward the temple. I could only follow. And so, led by this venerable Cambodian, this graybearded ancient of infinite gentleness, of wisdom to leap the barrier of language, I began a tour of architectural wonders wrought more than a thousand years ago.


Cambodia is a kingdom in French Indo-China, and in the center of Cambodia are the famous ruins of Angkor, once capital of the most powerful nation of Asia. Angkor was built by a people called the Khmers–whence they came nobody knows, where they went nobody knows, but at one time more than a million men lived in Angkor; and its grandeur shamed the Rome of Augustus, the Athens of Pericles, and the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar. To-day there is nothing except the shell of the mighty city and a silent temple of infinite majesty–a city and a temple, gray stone ghosts in a jungle of green.

Ta Prohm temple

Some writers have declared that the Khmers were driven from their capital after a war in which their enemies combined against them. Others believe the Khmers were blotted out by a swift plague. French scholars who have spent years studying the ruins and their inscriptions contend that in the fourteenth century the slaves of Angkor suddenly fell upon their masters and destroyed them. Chaos followed. Gradually the slaves reverted to savagery, and gradually the savages degenerated into the decayed peoples who live their shabby lives near the ruins to-day.

“Angkor Vat,” said Rollo, pausing at the entrance of the famous temple, then leading me into the outer corridor. “Vishnu,” he said, pointing at a giant figure with hundreds of arms. Upon the wall was an unbroken bas-relief depicting wars, battles, and fearful exploits of wondrous men. “Soldats,” Rollo explained.

“And a bloodthirsty lot–eh, Rollo?”

“Soldats,” he answered, solemnly.

We turned a corner and the subject of the bas-relief changed to tortures used by the Khmers. One man’s eyes were being plucked out by vultures. Another writhed between two stones that were slowly pushed together. A third was hacked in pieces with great axes. One miserable wretch was surrounded by a number of ladies who cut tidbits from his body.

Whenever we arrived opposite a particularly gruesome carving, Rollo demonstrated. I shall always remember his graphic depiction of a disemboweled man whose entrails were used as a skipping rope–Rollo danced about with the happy abandon of a child whirling a daisy chain. In the middle of his danse macabre I caught his little white jacket and pulled at it, stopping him. He bowed, and, hurrying past the other torture scenes, led me around the great square, more than a mile in length.


Angkor was built with gray sandstone that takes a polish almost like marble. In the middle of the twelfth century when the temple was built by the architect Visvakarman, thousands of tons of this stone were brought in huge blocks from quarries nineteen miles away. The outer gallery and inner gallery are connected by a stone causeway thirty-six feet wide. In the center of the temple are five huge domes, the middle one thrusting its rude splendour six hundred feet into the air. The walls, columns, entablatures, and pilasters are all marvelously decorated with carvings of the heavenly dancers, the monkey gods, and the divine tevadas with lotus flowers in their hands. When the moon touches them with silver, the carvings look like lace lying lightly upon stone.

The temple now is deserted save for Buddhist priests and sightseers, and millions of bats that defile the floor and pollute the air with the gagging smell of their bodies–besides these, there is nothing alive in a temple where once a million men bowed before their gods.

“Angkor Thom,” said Rollo on the second morning of my visit, as he made signs for me to mount one of the two elephants he had hired to take us to “The Great Capital,” the deserted city that lies one mile from the temple. We could have gone in automobiles, but Rollo insisted I ride as rulers had ridden, and because of his insistence I climbed to the howdah where I watched the mahout kick the elephant and strike it with an iron hook until at last the great beast heaved itself toward Angkor Thom.

Elephant ride from the entrance gate of Angkor Thom to the Bayon Temple

The boundaries of the old city are marked by a wall, its massive stone gates arching high in primitive splendor above the roadway. Within the boundaries are the remains of a dozen buildings with enormous square towers still standing, each side of each tower cut as a huge Brahmanic face. In all parts of the city are terraces adorned with figures of startling beauty, treasures of sculpture.

My son at the Bayon Temple (the temple of the Brahmanic faces)

The time may come when I forget the towers and the terraces and the carvings, but I shall never forget the dreadful silence of that dead city. In Angkor Thom, “The Great Capital,” one hears only the occasional call of a bird; the awful stillness sings the saga of departed pomp and power.

A thousand years ago the jungle was cut away and Angkor Thom was built. To-day the jungle is taking back its own, crumbling and swallowing proud buildings erected by proud men. Seeds dropped by birds have grown into trees and their roots have split the heads of the ancient gods. Other trees send their roots above ground and over all barriers more than a hundred feet to wrap about blocks of stone and tear them from their moorings. Myriads of small plants, the jungle’s infantry, advance in almost solid formation. A thousand years the jungle has waited, watching the aspiration of man. Then man died. The living jungle crawled in to blot out the scar of civilization.

I am writing you this letter, Roy, in the modern hotel built by the French at Angkor. I have just returned from wandering through the temple alone. Far back in the inner sanctum, I heard the liquid notes of the bamboo xylophone, played in the native village, join with the low chant of the Buddhist priests and come softly over the lake. The great temple stretched away from me, its stones silver in the moonlight, its shadows hiding the brooding souls of millions of men dead for centuries. . . . Long I sat listening to the xylophone and to the chanting. Long I peered at the ancient stones. And yet when I left the temple at midnight, the souls of the builders were still hidden in shadows.


A wedding at the Angkor Wat courtyard

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*Photos are my own.

From Siam to Suez

Caption of the photo: THE MAD PRIEST OF ANGKOR AND THE AUTHOR… N.B. The author is on the right

From Siam to Suez is a rare old book written by James Saxon Childers (1899-1965) detailing his journey from China to Egypt in the early 20th century. Childers was an American writer and traveller who wrote several fiction books as well as travel books. His fiction did not do too well, but his travel books were popular.

Here I share a chapter from Siam to Suez. Childers wrote each chapter of this book as a letter to either a family member or to one of his friends. This chapter was written while he was in Thailand (then called Siam). I chose this chapter because Bangkok is a place I visit regularly, and is one of my favourite places to do so. Enjoy…

Chapter VI, From Siam to Suez by James Saxon Childers (Public Domain Book)

I’m going to the fights this afternoon, Dad, because Wongkit is fighting. Wongkit is a boy from the northern hills who is so strong that men even in Bangkok heard about him. They heard that in the games he could throw the teak log farther than any other. Thinking that he might become a champion boxer, they sent for him. Six weeks ago he arrived in Bangkok, bringing his old father.

I first heard about Wongkit from Tom, my guide. “He will make a great boxer,” Tom said, “greater than any we have seen.” Then he cautioned me not to speak of Wongkit. “Only a few persons know of him and we want to keep him secret; we want to bet our money and get good odds. That’s why we brought him.”

Ten days ago Tom came to my room at the hotel. “What would you like to do this afternoon?” he asked.

“What have you?”

“Would you like to go to the market and see the silversmiths at work on bowls and boxes?”

“I’ve seen those silversmiths a dozen times.”

“Would you care to see the Siamese infantry drilling in the park?”

“It’s much too hot for that.”

“What about a visit to the gambling houses? I know where–”

“No, thank you. And I don’t want to see any temples or monasteries. And I don’t want to call and drink tea with ladies of casual virtue. I’m tired of all that. You’ll have to offer something really interesting to get me out in that sun.”

Tom thought for a moment, then gave up. “There’s nothing else,” he said.

“Then take the afternoon off.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ll just go along and see Wongkit. He’s in his training quarters and–”

I picked up my sun helmet. “Why do you guides the world over think there’s nothing but temples, and scenery, and brothels? Why didn’t you say something about Wongkit’s training quarters?”

“But, sir, do you mean–”

“I mean we’re going to see this Wongkit — that is, if he won’t object to my coming.”

“He would be honoured. But do you really mean–”

“I mean I’d rather visit a Siamese boxer in his training quarters that see most of the temples in Bangkok.”

As we drove across town, Tom told me of an elephant hunt on which he captured two enormous bulls. He was working to a glorious climax, and the story was getting more and more imaginative, when our car drew up beside a rickety pier.

“We get out here, sir,” Tom said.

We hired a small gasoline boat and crossed the river that runs through the heart of Bangkok. Then we entered one of the innumerable klongs, or canals…. Bangkok often has been called the Venice of the Orient; the name is partly justifiable, for there are some sections of the city where the streets are all canals and one can travel only by boat…. Tom and I passed dozens of small dories, anchored in the klongs, from which merchants did their trading. We passed a floating cloth shop where a young man haggled with two ladies on a shopping tour; they had paddled up in a crudely built canoe. We passed fish shops, dead fish hanging by their tails from the top of the sun-shade over the fishmonger, live fish in wire boxes let down into water. We passed crockery shops, hat shops, and ships where baskets were sold. We passed a warehouse from which a line of coolies loaded bags of rice on a great blunt-nosed sampan.

“Where’s Wongkit’s place?” I asked.

“A little further on,” Tom said, and pointed.

Behind the shops were many private homes, the backs of frail houses resting on the ground, the fronts resting on piles driven into the mud at the bottom of the canal. From our boat Tom and I saw men and their wives and children, some working, some sleeping, some playing. Many of the smaller children had pieces of bamboo tied to them so that they would float if they fell into the water.

“But don’t the mosquitoes almost eat them up?” I asked, remembering that in Bangkok one does not dine without putting feet and legs into a sack of heavy cloth and tying the top above the knees.

“The mosquitos don’t bother them,” Tom said. “Little babies, yes; but after they get older, the mosquitos don’t trouble them.”

Traffic in the canal is made up largely of boats owned by floating peddlers. Fruit peddlers steer from house to house. Women peddlers drift along in boats filled with Siamese skirts, and bright cloths for children, and cotton camisoles for young ladies. The canal restauranteur glides about in a boat not much larger than a canoe, cold food in the bow, a small stove amidship to heat rice and meat and bits of vegetables. An entire meal is piled upon a leaf and handed to a customer squatting on the bank, or who pulls alongside in another boat.

Through these canals, Tom and I cruised until at last we came to a bamboo ladder that rose from the water. We stepped from our boat and climbed the ladder. Before us was heavy undergrowth rising from a soggy marsh. Great palm trees leaned over and splotched the canal with shadows. Leading away from the ladder were planks, laid end to end.

“Wongkit lives ahead, sir,” Tom said.

We walked over the planks, mud oozing up beside them, until we came to a clearing where stood three frame houses, one of them Wongkit’s.

“He will be in the back,” Tom said.

We found him there, totally naked. I have never seen such a body. He was tall for Siamese, almost six feet, and the upper half of his body was a magnificent triangle; then his hips spread, and his legs rippled down in perfect symmetry. At a glance one could see his tremendous strength, his muscles live as young rattan. Wongkit’s features looked less like an Oriental’s than those of a Greek from the time of Praxiteles.

When Tom introduced me, Wongkit put his hands together and crouched, saluting me as royalty. I took one of his hands and shook it. He didn’t understand the custom and looked puzzled until Tom explained; then slowly he shook my hand four times, nodding and smiling as he did.

In the corner of the room stood an old man with white hair and wrinkled face. Tom introduced me, and the old man bowed and spoke. “He says,” Tom interpreted, “that he is Wongkit’s father.” In the softest and most musical voice I have ever heard, the father bade me welcome. “My house,” he said, “is the master’s house.” Then he added: “It is gracious of the American to visit my son, Wongkit.”

We sat down and watched the boy at his training. He shadow-boxed, flexed his legs, slashed backward with his elbows, rammed forward with his head; everything he did was poetry of motion. He worked for an hour and we watched. Afterward we drank tea. Then Tom and I went back to our boat. Wongkit, still naked, came with his father to see us off.

“What do you think of him?” Tom asked, as we passed through the canals.

“I don’t know, Tom. I don’t know enough about Siamese boxing, but to me he doesn’t seem vicious enough.”

Tom laughed. “That’s because he’s not fighting against any one. Wait until he gets in the ring. He will–” Tom flung out one foot and almost lost his balance– “he will win us a lot of money.”

Two days later I went to see Wongkit again. The old father and I helped Tom rig up a sack of sand for Wongkit to punch and kick, then we withdrew to a corner and sat there. Neither of us could understand anything the other said, but that made no difference. We could smile and bow to each other, and with little courtesies show our friendship.

Four times I have been to see Wongkit in his training; I can’t decide whether I go to see Wongkit and his rippling muscles, or the old man with his soft voice and kindly eyes. I am certain, though, that the father and I have become fine friends. Truly we have. I take him small gifts, and always he gives me little presents. On Friday he saved me some dwarf bananas. Day before yesterday he served me a double handful of rice, dipping it up in his hands and dropping it all hot on a banana leaf. He showed me how to catch it with my fingers, roll it into a tiny ball, and throw it in my mouth. At first I couldn’t do it properly and he laughed. When after a time I didn’t spill any, he was pleased. Then we cleansed our hands and went in to watch Wongkit at his boxing. We took our place in a corner; there was holy prayer in the father’s eyes as he watched his son, as in stillness and silence the old man fondled his pride and his glory.

Yesterday Wongkit and his father asked me about boxing in America. Wongkit wanted to know about the strange world where boxers never lack rice, and have beds to sleep on. “My father,” Wongkit said, “approves of my going to America. He will come with me. He will live as I live. He will have rice whenever he wants.”

This afternoon Wongkit is fighting for the first time. Tom already has gone, vastly excited: he and his friends have bet all their money. I haven’t bet any money, but I, too, am excited, for I have come to be fond of Wongkit, so gentle and tender with his father, and I have learned truly to love the old man. The fight is to begin in forty minutes. I must hurry to get to the ringside; I told them I’d sit in the front row. I’ll finish this letter later…

I promised I would finish this letter and because of my promise I shall. Wongkit went into the ring at ten minutes after four. He wore red tights. They were a little too short for him. After he had prayed, he turned and looked at his father. The old man nodded and held up his hands, gave his blessing to his boy. It was two minutes later that the other fighter, an experienced fighter, kicked Wongkit in the spleen, ruptured it, and killed him. Wongkit fell to the canvas, trembled, and lay still.

Some day, Dad, I may forget Wongkit, for he was a young man, strong, peering over the horizon, his dream bright within him; and he went out in a flash, before he knew. I may forget him, but I’ll never, never forget the look of the old father as he stared at that limp thing they carried away in their arms.

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Poipet Through the Ages

When the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in the ’70s they destroyed much infrastructure, including the railroad. And as Cambodia has been rebuilding, the railroad is coming back.

Poipet is the main crossing point between Cambodia and Thailand. Here is Lonely Planet’s description of Poipet…

Long the armpit of Cambodia, notorious for its squalor, scams and sleaze, Poipet (ប៉ោយប៉ែត, pronounced ‘poi-peh’ in Khmer) has recently splurged on a facelift and no longer looks like the post-apocalyptic place it once was. Thanks mainly to the patronage of neighbouring Thais, whose own country bans gambling, its casino resorts – with names like Tropicana and Grand Diamond City – are turning the town into Cambodia’s little Las Vegas. However, beyond the border zone it’s still a chaotic, trash-strewn strip mall sprinkled with dodgy massage parlours. The Khmers’ gentle side is little in evidence, but don’t worry, the rest of the country does not carry on like this.

As the railroad is being rebuilt, it will eventually link Bangkok to Phnom Penh. That railroad will run right through Poipet.

map 001

Just as you enter into Poipet from Thailand, there is a roundabout (Kbal Spean Circle in above picture) which then leads on to the main road through the city. The train will come straight through that roundabout (the busiest road in town) and then run south of the main road through the current slum area.

I don’t even want to think of how busy that border crossing area is going to be when the rail is finished and the train is running.

Here are some photos of that border crossing over the years….

1) I don’t know how old this photo is, but it’s quite old I think. If you took this photo, your back would be towards Thailand, and you would be looking into the beginnings of Poipet and Cambodia. That’s a big idol standing in the middle of the Kbal Spean roundabout. All dirt roads.
2) This photo is well over ten years old. Now we are looking towards Thailand while standing on the road of the round-about. That big idol is standing just off camera to the right. The first photo was taken from straight ahead of the view of this photo. That arch-way being constructed is the start of an entrance to a new casino.
3) This photo is taken from inside Poipet looking out towards Thailand (probably taken around 2006/2007 or so). The idol can be seen, but now we are seeing the reverse side from what we see in the first photo. The red brick pillar seen on the far right of this photo (centered from top to bottom) is the archway under construction in the last photo. Now we see the casinos are dominating the scene.
4) Now we are looking into Poipet again with Thailand at our back. Now we see there are lots of buildings, and the roads are paved. This is pretty much what Poipet looks like today, except that big idol is gone. The new railway is going to run straight through the roundabout.
5) Here is the track being constructed. This photo was taken just a few days ago (May, 2016). The track is running right through where the roundabout used to be. Notice that the red brick archway from photos #2 and #3 has been torn down to make room for the train. Also notice the crane on the left is still there (from photo #3). I think that crane has become a permanent fixture.
6) A closer look. The casino builders knew the train would eventually come which is why they built the walkways up above the road to connect their buildings.


Photo #1 is from

Photo #2 is from this website.