May 24, 2020

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Nov 2017

Siem Reap, in the North Western part of Cambodia, about 200 km away from the border with Thailand means literally “Defeat of Siam” (so named, as the folklore goes, by a XVI century Cambodian King after repulsing an invading army from Siam (modern day Thailand) 

Sime Reap was just a village until French explorer Henri Mouhot’s visit in 1860.  Henri “discovered” an ancient temple that he described as “grander than anything left to humanity by Greece or Rome”:  Angkor Wat.  Since then, Siem Reap has been attracting tourists from afar for the various Khmer temples in its vicinity.

Angkor Wat is the star attraction in Siem Reap.  Angkor Wat is a temple complex (in fact, the largest religious monument in the world) built by Khmer King Suryavarman II in early XII century.  

Angkor Wat is quite large; set in a square plot (3 km x 3 km) surrounded by a moat and designed to represent Mount Meru (the home of Devas in Hindu mythology).  It has an outer wall, a middle wall, and an inner wall (each at an increasingly higher level) all surrounding a central area with four towers in four corners and a taller tower in the centre.


Angkor Wat Temple Complex as seen from a helicopter

Angkor Wat at sunrise



Angkor Wat: Third perimeter wall

Angkor Wat:  Central Area with its towers


The early Khmer Kings were Hindus.  The temple was built for Hindu God Vishnu.   The temple has extensive bas reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu mythology:  Kurukshetra war (of Mahabharata), the Battle at Lanka (of Ramayana), the Churning of the ocean of milk for ambrosia (of Bhagavat Purana)  etc, every inch carved to depict intense emotions.  Poetry in rock, really.


Angkor Wat:  Bas Relief of Battle at Lanka


Siem Reap has several other temples too.  

The Bayon is one of them; built in early XIII century by King Jayavarman VII.  The temple has 54 towers and 216 giant faces of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara.  

The Bayon Temple

The Ta Prohm temple was also built by Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university.  It was built in a jungle environment by the King to help its inhabitants focus on meditation and acquisition of knowledge.  Little would the King have known that the silk cotton trees would grow to gigantic size and their roots spread all around the temple.  These days, the temple is known as “Angelina Jolie Temple” for the role it played in the Laura Croft movie.  This is probably the most photographed temple in Cambodia.

Ta Prohm Temple

Ta Prohm Temple

The Banteay Srei temple (“Citadel of Women”) was built in X century by two counsellors to the Khmer King.  The temple is relatively small in size but has very rich carvings in hard red sand stone.  Again, the carvings represent stories from Hindu mythology.  The temple has extensive carvings of Apsaras (the beautiful women in heaven as Hindu mythology goes).  

Banteay Temple

Banteay Temple

Banteay Temple:  Rich carvings in hard red sandstone

Angkor Thom is the gateway to the complex that houses more than thirty temples.  The gateway is guarded by stone warriors; and the complex is surrounded by a wide moat.  One can do a 2 hour scenic boat ride on the moat.

Angkor Thom is to the north of Angkor Wat.  Houses more than 30 temples.  Built by various Khmer Kings.  For Vishnu and Buddha.  The gateway is guarded by stone warriors.

Angkor Thom Gateway to Temple Complexes

Angkor Thom Moat

Siem Reap is located on the shores of Tonle Sap Lake.  The lake has two odd behaviours:

One, the lake expands four times its size during rainy season.  The lakeshore villages float and move base as the lake expands or contracts.

Two, River Tonle sap that connects the lake to Mekong River flows one way in normal times and the opposite way when Mekong overflows with glacial melt from Himalayas.  


Floating village on the banks of Tonle Sap lake

April 18, 2020

Washington DC, USA

Oct 2010
(and earlier/later)


The soldiers were very angry.  They risked their lives for the country; but the country did not pay their salaries in time.  They laid siege to the young country's legislature.  The legislators appealed to the Governor to send militia to clear the soldiers away.  The Governor was sympathetic to the soldiers and did not oblige.  The legislators ran away to a distant city.  And then to an even bigger and even more distant city.  That is when they decided, they cannot depend on any one state.  They need to have their own home and their own boot power.  They decided to set up a federal territory (limited to 10 miles by 10 miles).  Two states donated land by a river.  An architect was appointed to design a city.  Washington DC was born.

Washington DC is a city conceived by a country; instead of the usual other way around.  It is restricted to a size of 10 miles by 10 miles by US Constitution and cannot grow.  However, its suburbs spill over to neighbouring states.

The city has a population of 0.75 million.  This goes up to 1.0 million during day time.  The metro area has a population of 6 million.  Receives 20 million visitors each year.  The city is the fifth largest economy in US at $ 540 billion pa (fifth after New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco). About a quarter of all employees in the city work for Federal government.

For a country that was born on the principle there cannot be taxation without representation, it is ironical that its new capital pays taxes without representation.  The city does not have voting power in US Congress.

The residents should know something we do not given their proximity to political power.  The city is overwhelmingly democratic.  The split between votes pulled by Democrats and Republicans has been at least 78:22 since 1964!

Two iconic symbols that represent Washington DC the best are the US Capitol and the White House.

US Capitol (where the two chambers of federal legislature are housed) is located on Capitol Hill at the eastern end of the National Mall (a landscaped park that houses or borders a number of memorials, monuments, statues, museums, and art galleries).  The Mall is the public square for the city's celebrations, and protests.  The Capitol Hill was so named by Thomas Jefferson after the Capitoline Hills in Rome.  The US Congress moved into US Capitol in 1800 (after earlier locations in Philadelphia, Princeton, Trenton, New York, and Philadelphia again) and has stayed here ever since.

US Capitol

The White House has been home to every President of US except George Washington.  It is actually sandstone painted white and was fashioned after Leinster House, the Irish legislature, in Dublin.  Over time White House was expanded and the complex now includes:  Executive residence, West Wing, East Wing, Executive Office Building (where the VP is located), and Blair House (a guest house).  Technically, White house is a park owned by the National Park Service.  I have attended business meetings in the White House.  No, not for tea and a private chat with Obama.  This is more a technical brainstorming session in an office far away from the Oval office with about thirty invitees and the Chief Technology Officer of President (in the days I visited, a tech billionaire from healthcare industry).

Just opposite the White House, at any given time, there is always someone camping with protest slogans trying to propagate a favourite political cause; a symbol of vibrant democracy.  Substantive protests with mass participation happen in a different place: in the Mall opposite Lincoln Memorial.

White House

Abraham Lincoln (16th President, 1861-65, moderate Republican) led US when it faced a moral crisis and a political crisis.  He fought to keep the country united (and that was the fight about in Civil war; not slavery), abolished slavery, and rejuvenated US economy.  The memorial has, etched in stone, the two famous short addresses of Lincoln: his second inaugural address and his Gettysburg address.

When a black singer was not permitted to perform at a theater in Washington DC, Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to perform on the steps of Lincoln Memorial.  Marian Anderson performed to a crowd of 70,000 cheering fans.  After that the memorial has become a pivot place for people to express their voices.  Dr Martin Luther King Jr issued his famous "I have a dream" speech on the steps of the memorial (with MLK and all his followers wearing a Gandhi cap in honor of Mahatma Gandhi who MLK thought best represented his own crusade for equality and fraternity and his own style of opposing an idea without opposing the opponent).  There is a side bar memorial for MLK in the left basement of the Memorial.

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

When you step out of Lincoln Memorial, you see what Barack Obama would have seen as he issued his inauguration speech on his first day as President.  You see the mall, the Washington Monument, and the US Capitol at the farther end (except in his case, the entire area would have been full of people; about 1.1 million on that day).  

The Washington Monument is 555 feet tall and was in 1884, when it opened, the tallest tower in the world.  Eiffel Tower overtook it five years later.  You can climb about 900 steps (whew) or take a 70 seconds ride in an elevator to reach the top.  Would you believe that the monument's marble blocks are held together by gravity and friction and not by mortar.  

Washington Monument, as seen from the footsteps of Lincoln Memorial

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial cherishes the memory another great President (32nd President, 1933-45, Democrat) who led the country through a depression ushering in a "new deal" (public works, financial regulation, and social security) and who steered US through WW2 though he did not live to see the end of the war.  FDR did not want a memorial larger than his desk in the Oval office but ended up getting the most expansive memorial in the US with four outdoor galleries representing his four terms (including a statue for the first lady and his dog!).

FDR Memorial

FDR Memorial:  Breadline after Depression

Quite close by on the banks of Tidal Basin is Jefferson Memorial, cherishing the memory of Thomas Jefferson (3rd President, 1801-09, Democratic-Republican).  Jefferson wrote what should go into his own tombstone and was humble enough to not mention he was President.  He got an elegant memorial fashioned after Pantheon in Rome.  

Jefferson Memorial

The newest of all memorials is the Martin Luther King Memorial (the only one in the mall area for an African American and for someone who was not a President).  Quite a lot of symbolism here.  One sees MLK as part of a "stone of hope" emerging from a split "mountain of despair".  You need to read his speech to understand the symbolism.  

Martin Luther King Memorial

The City celebrates those who fought for the country and those who gave up their lives for the country in several war memorials.

The World War II memorial is dedicated to the 416,800 Americans who died during the war.  The memorial is built around the Rainbow pool (now sporting a beautiful fountain) with 56 pillars for the states and territories of US that participated in the war.  Yes, there is an often ignored corner where "Kilroy was here" is etched into stone.  (Google to know the Kilroy story).  

World War II Memorial

The Korean War Veterans Memorial proclaiming "Freedom is not free" depicts a platoon of 19 soldiers wading through a field.  This is a tribute to the 1.5 million soldiers who participated in the "Forgotten war".  

Korean War Memorial

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is dedicated to the 58,000 Americans who perished in the almost twenty years war that ended in 1975.  The design came from an architecture student and is just two simple walls with the names of the dead etched into stone.  The granite came from Bangalore.  The Memorial has a sculpture to celebrate the role of women who served in the war and another to celebrate the racial ethnic unity:  The three servicemen sculpture depicting a Hispanic, an African American and a Caucasian watching to protect US interests.  (This actually won the third prize in the contest for design of the memorial but was added to the memorial since it was quite elegant and meaningful).

Vietnam Veterans Memorial:  Three servicemen by Frederick Hart 

The Arlington Cemetery at the outskirts of the city (across the river in Virginia) is a 1 square mile resting place for more than 400,000 service members, veterans, and their families.  It has the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the gravesite of John F Kennedy.  Quite close to the cemetery is the Iwo Jima War Memorial showing the triumphant capture of Iwo Jima island (about 1,200 km south of Tokyo) where 19,000 of the 21,000 Japanese soldiers were killed and about 1,000 captured.  The planting of the US flag on a mountain top in Iwo Jima is the most iconic image of victory in World War II.

Should the flag in Iwo Jima memorial have 48 stars (for the 48 states in US then) or 50 stars (as is current)?  US law mandates that the only flag to be used in all memorials/monuments is the current flag.  It is the fifty starrer.

Marine Corps Memorial: Iwo Jima

Washington DC is also a city of museums.

The most popular one (and the most educative one as well) is the National Air & Space Museum, a collection of history making aircrafts and space crafts, a large stadium and a 230 seat planetarium to propagate the frontier of science.  The museum has the original 1903 aircraft flown by Wright brothers; Spirit of St Louis flown by Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic; Command module of Apollo 11; Eagle module of Apollo 11, that landed on the moon; rocks from moon that you can touch; rocks from Mars etc.  The museum attracts 7 million visitors a year.  I once saw Buzz Aldrin, the second Astronaut to walk on Moon after Neil Armstrong, signing books, and having a chat with kids.  

National Air & Space Museum

Command Module of Apollo 11 that took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, & Mike Collins to the Moon

Testing copy of Apollo Soyuz Collaboration with Soviet Union

Display of historic aircrafts

National Air & Space Museum:  Wife at McDonald's

Another museum that we liked is the "Newseum".  The museum is about 500 years of covering news for the world and a tribute to 2,300+ journalists who died in action.  More than 700 newspapers worldwide send their front page to the museum every day.  The museum cherishes the good (with eight pieces of Berlin wall) and the bad (twisted/damaged antenna from atop the North tower of World Trade Center after the 9/11 terrorist hit).  You can play reporter for a day at the mock NBC Newsroom (my daughter did; and did well).

Newseum:  Eight pieces of Berlin Wall

Newseum:  Twisted/damaged antenna from the North Tower of WTC after 9/11 terrorist hit

The Union station is another iconic symbol of the city.  (The "union" does not refer to union of states; any terminal station that serves more than one railway company and thus facilitates interchange between competing railroads is a "union" station in USA).  This is a high traffic spot in the city with more than 70,000 people passing through its portals every day.

Union Station

The Kennedy Center (John F Kennedy Center for Performing Arts) on the banks of the Potomac river is home to the city's symphony orchestra, opera, and ballet troupe.  The center has multiple auditoriums (yes, that is okay though auditoria is okay too) with differing seating capacities.  The rooftop terrace offers a spectacular view of the Potomac.  We saw the Watergate building, and the FBI building right next to each other on the horizon.  Some irony there.

Kennedy Center as seen from across Potomac River

The Old Post Office Building was a favourite for tourists in the past with nice restaurants in ground floor and an elevator to the top offering a view of the city.  The building has since been given to Trump Properties for conversion into a luxury hotel.  

Old Post Office Building (now under conversion into a Trump Hotel)

Ford's Theater, the site of assassination of Abraham Lincoln (on 14 Apr 1865 after seeing "Our American Cousin" with 1700 other patrons) is a spot that continues to attract visitors even today.  The theater was shut (due to public anger) after the assassination; was acquired by Government, used as a warehouse and later as office space and since 1968 modified to be a working theater and a tourist attraction.

Ford's Theater: Site of assassination of Abraham Lincoln

When Maryland and Virginia donated land to the Federal capital, the land was not completely empty.  It had two small towns which are today suburbs of the city:  Georgetown and Alexandria.  Georgetown today is an upperclass neighbourhood with upscale restaurants; and a university town with boisterous bars.

Georgetown university is 300 years old; has about 20,000 students from 135 countries; has provided more members to the US Congress than any other university.

Georgetown University

There are many ways to tour around the city.  The day time trip by coach is the most popular.  We once did a night time tour of the city.  It was even more exciting.  Lincoln Memorial, lit at night time, is a sight to see from anywhere in the Mall area.  But two exciting ways to see the city are the Duck tour and by Segway.  

The duck tour takes you around the town on an amphibious vehicle and rolls into the Potomac to give a river cruise view of the city.

Duck tour

Our favourite is the Segway tour.  Washington DC is a few hours by Amtrak from Princeton, our base in US.  Every time any guest comes in, one of the things we do is to take them to DC and get them to do the Segway tour.  It takes about ten minutes to master the vehicle.  And you cover almost the entire inner city and all its attractions within about 3 hours.  (No, you do not need to know cycling to drive this one).

Segway tour

Colonial Williamsburg is a 301 acre museum with restored or recreated buildings from the era when it was the capital of Colonial Virginia.  CW is about two and a half hours drive from Washington DC and is a nice way to understand what life was during colonial era.  The entire area (with about three main fares connected by a few side streets) has buildings as they were three centuries back with actors playing historic characters in period dress and using period language.  

Colonial Williamsburg:  Governor's bungalow

Colonial Williamsburg: Wife shopping in XVIII century shop

Colonial Williamsburg:  Coach tour of Town

The Great Falls Park in Maryland is about half hour drive from Washington DC.  The Park has rapids and waterfalls on Potomac river.  Though the Park itself is in Maryland, one can enjoy the scenic view from both Maryland and Virginia (the river is a border between the two states).  

Great Falls: Rapids

Great Falls:  White water rafting

Washington DC is the political power center of the world.  However, there are other sides to DC as well.

It is a financial center with several private equity firms spearheading investment into sunrise sectors in US and elsewhere.

It is a technology hub with many major players and start ups creating an ecosystem of innovation.  When I started my fin tech business fifteen years ago, I had strong reasons to start it at Tysons Corner in Vienna, Virginia (technically a different state; but actually a suburb of DC).  Later when the business grew, we shifted to New York.  A shift from "proximity to talent" to "proximity to customers".

Washington DC is ranked as the third biggest tech city in USA and fifth most successful for tech start ups. 

Most importantly, did you know Washington DC ranks first amongst cities for tech start ups founded by women?  

April 15, 2020

Shanghai, China

May 2014

Shanghai accounts for 1.7% of population and 4.3% of economy of China. 26 million people and $ 540 billion per annum.  Quite large, quite prosperous, and quite efficient.

Shanghai is a fine blend of China's rich past (colonial era buildings with ornamental facades and wide pavements) and prosperous future (skyscrapers housing multinational business enterprises).  Shanghai has XIX century "concessions" with elegant residences for its foreign residents and XVI century "walled city" with temples, markets, squares, enclaves, and dragon walls.  Shanghai speaks its own dialect of Chinese; and American style English.  Shanghai has a unique international feel and yet less than 1% of its residents are foreigners.

Shanghai has a unique division between its (a) "houkou" holding residents (about 60%) and (b) immigrants from rural hinterland (about 40%).  The city would have a poor rural girl working in Shanghai, rooming with friends, and visiting home about twice a year to see her siblings, uncles, and aunts.  The city would also have a rich urban boy with a Ferrari and several apartments inherited as a lone heir from two parents and four grand parents thanks to three generations of "one child policy" with no siblings, uncles, or aunts to visit.

Shanghai is located at the estuary of Yangtze.  Huangpu river flows through the city cutting it into Puxi, the western half and Pudong, the eastern half.

Shanghai was the birthplace of Chinese Communist Party.  Shanghai has provided more than its share of leaders to Chinese politburo.  Deng Xiao Ping came from Shanghai.  Current chairman Xi Jin Ping comes from Shanghai.

Shanghai is the fifth largest international financial center in the world (after New York, London, Hong Kong, and Singapore) and has the largest stock exchange in the world by market capitalisation.

When you stand on the wide terrace of the Bund on the Puxi side of Shanghai and have a look at the Pudong side, you can sense this.  The skyline is full of skyscrapers.

Pudong Skyline as seen from the Bund

The Bund is a waterfront boulevard showcasing the pre 1949 colonial past of the city.  The Bund is a congregation point for celebrations, or just enjoying a walk by the river.

The Bund

The Bund

Though Shanghai Tower, 632 m high, is the tallest in Shanghai (and second tallest in the world), and Oriental Pearl Tower is an iconic symbol of the city, we preferred to see Shanghai from "Shanghai World Financial Centre".  SWFC (the locals call it "bottle opener") has a glass platform through which you can see all the way to the ground below!

Century Avenue, where SWFC is located

SWFC from ground level (Shanghai Tower is at right)

SWFC has a glass bottomed 100th floor with a scary downward view

View from atop SWFC.  The Bund across river, Jin Mao Tower & Oriental Pearl Tower full of spheres

View from atop SWFC

View from atop SWFC

SWFC Tower: Back to Ground level

People's Square is a large Public square where residents stroll, practise Tai Chi or fly kites.  In the evenings you can see ball room dancers holding group lessons and practice.  The metro below People's Square is the busiest in the world handling more than 700,000 passengers every day.

People's Square

The Shanghai Museum, located in People's Square, is designed to look like an ancient bronze cooking vessel called Ding with a round top and a square base.  Some say this is symbolic of a round heaven and square land as well.  The Museum houses over 120,000 exhibits of cultural relics, ceramics, bronzes, sculptures etc.  The bronzes are from 2200 BC to 200 BC!  The Ceramics are from 1600 BC.  The porcelains are from 900 AD.  China is an ancient civilisation indeed.

Shanghai Museum:  Round top and Square bottom

Shanghai Museum:  Airy interior with multiple levels

Shanghai Museum:  In China, Buddha looks like a Han Chinese

The best food one can have in Shanghai is from a Taiwanese chain of dim sum restaurants: Din Tai Fung.  Its specialty dish,  "Xiao Long Bao" (Shanghai steamed soup dumpling) tastes exquisite.  How do you eat Xiao Long Bao?  It is a complex process.  Dip the dim sum in soy vinegar.  Place it on your spoon.  Bite a small corner out to let the soup leak out.  Slurp a bit to see how hot it is.  After it cools a little, chow down the rest of the dim sum.  (Thanks to the chain being widespread in Singapore as well, we have become experts in the process).

Quite next to the People's Square is the Nanjing Road Pedestrian Street.  This five kilometre stretch from Jing'an temple to the Bund is Shanghai's Fifth Avenue, full of shopping malls, luxury brand stores, and Chinese boutique shops.  Yes, it has the world's largest Starbucks coffee shop.

Shanghai's Fifth Avenue:  Nanjing Road

The old town, a walled Chinese city dating to Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) is the heart of historic Shanghai.  It has colourful pagodas, decorated bridges, pavilions, corridors, open courtyards, and intimate enclaves separated by dragon walls.

Old Town:  Yu Yuan Garden & Market

Old Town:  Yu Yuan Garden & Market

Old Town:  Yu Yuan Garden & Market.  Restaurants

Old Town:  Yu Yuan Garden & Market.  Dragon walls separating enclaves

Old Town:  Cheng Huang Miao Temple (City God Temple)

Shanghai has many water towns in its vicinity.  Zhujiajiao Ancient Town, 1700 years old, is one of them.  In the town buildings are accessed through waterways and bridges.  Artisan shops and restaurants line up the banks of the waterways.  The town, an hour's drive away from Shanghai, merits its label as "Venice of China".

Zhujiajiao Watertown

Zhujiajiao Watertown

Zhujiajiao Watertown

Zhujiajiao Watertown:  Yuanjin Buddhist Temple (dedicated to Guanyin - female Bodhisattva)

The Jade Buddha temple in Shanghai is about a hundred years old and built in the style of Song Dynasty.  When temples were getting destroyed during Mao's cultural revolution, smart monks in the temple posted portraits of Mao on the compound walls of the temple.  The Red Guards who were looking to destroy the temple did not want to tear up Mao's posters.  So, the story goes, the temple escaped the destruction that befell most other symbols of ancient Chinese culture. The 2 m tall Buddha statue is made of White Jade and with a robe of precious gems, all brought in from Myanmar

Jade Buddha Temple

Jade Buddha Temple:  Buddha made of white jade from Myanmar

Jade Buddha Temple:  Pond with flowers and fish

Do you know that Shanghai has a People's Park Marriage Market where parents flock to find matches for their children.  Posters of singles are pinned to umbrellas and left in the park.  Physical version of Matrimony.com!

When it was time to leave Shanghai, our guide for the week, Emma left us at Shanghai's railway station (for our four and a half hours bullet train trip to Beijing which was 1,318 km away - almost the distance between Chennai and Mumbai!).  The maglev train from Shanghai's airport to city centre does the 30 km distance in slightly less than eight minutes! 

The railway station in Shanghai is as modern and well designed - with passenger areas in one floor and escalators taking passengers down to the platforms one level below - as any airport in South East Asia.

Shanghai Railway Station

What would we remember Shanghai for?  Emma.  Emma was our guide for the entire week.  She comes from rural hinterland, has a Chinese name that she anglicised to Emma (which her mother does not know), speaks fluent English, has a deep knowledge of her city, and dozens of tips for dining and shopping.

Wife and Emma

Without exception, every Chinese we met in Shanghai and elsewhere had significant goodwill for India, and Indians and went out of the way to make us comfortable.