Novel Experiences in Southeast Asia

A group of Iowans visited Cambodia’s legendary Angkor Wat, a Hindu-Buddhist temple complex that dates to the 12th century.

Writer: Lily Allen-Dueñas

Have you ever read a book and wished you could travel to the setting? Better yet, how about traveling with the author as your guide?

This past February, dsm magazine teamed up with John Shors Travel to take a group of 15 people — mostly Iowans — through the pages of John Shors’ novel “Temple of a Thousand Faces” on a trip to Thailand, Cambodia and Singapore with Shors himself as the guide. From the bustling markets of Bangkok to the awe-inspiring temples of Angkor Wat to the enchanting gardens in Singapore, the tour was meticulously curated to include exclusive experiences and hidden gems.

Since Shors has visited the area many times — including more than 50 trips to Thailand alone — his wealth of knowledge and network of local ties helped the trip run smoothly, filled with the absolute best things to see, do and savor. Here’s just a taste of each country the group explored.

Bangkok’s nightlife buzzes with energy.

Thailand

The journey began in Bangkok, one of the world’s largest and most dynamic cities. The group navigated the city’s intricate network of riverways aboard traditional river boats, shopped along the river and explored traditional markets teeming with vibrant colors, curious sights and a smorgasbord of aromas. One highlight: the 24-hour Bangkok Flower Market, one of the largest in the world. “Shopping in Bangkok is not just a transactional activity but a cultural excursion in itself,” Shors said.

Their itinerary also included iconic destinations like the Royal Palace, the Reclining Buddha and the Jim Thompson House, which houses its late namesake’s art collection.

In the evenings, the group visited the several “sky bars” and “sky restaurants” perched high above the cityscape, with panoramic views of the glittering skyline. The visitors said the city’s dense and expansive energy is unforgettable.

Cambodia

Transitioning from bustling Bangkok to serene Siem Reap in Cambodia felt like stepping 50 years back in time. One trip member, Joyce Chapman, recalled seeing “water buffalo working in the fields, with little children netting fish in a small creek.”

Navigating the area via tuk-tuks, the ubiquitous three-wheeled vehicles that crowd the streets, the group traveled from their hotel to the heart of a lush jungle with dozens of ancient temples. They spent three days touring the massive Angkor Wat Temple complex. Group member Mark Holub had read Shors’ “Temple of a Thousand Faces” a few weeks before the trip and said that he immediately wanted to re-read the book after the Angkor Wat because it gave him “a whole different sense of scale.” He appreciated the opportunity to walk the grounds with Shors and ask him questions about the book.

The group also visited Banteay Srei Temple, took a Cambodian cooking class and visited Phare, the Cambodian Circus. The Killing Fields Memorial was a poignant part of the trip, where the group’s guides explained part of Cambodia’s tumultuous and tragic recent history, including their first-person accounts of life — and death — under the Khmer Rouge.

Singapore’s skyscrapers seem to grow up from gardens.

Singapore

If traveling to Cambodia felt like a trip back in time, traveling to Singapore felt like flying 100 years into the future, right into one of the most cutting-edge cities on the planet. The Iowa group was awestruck by the opulence and green grandeur juxtaposed with towering skyscrapers. “When you think of first impressions of the city, everything is beautiful,” Holub said. “It’s like going to paradise.”

The group enjoyed the Gardens by the Bay, Cloud Forest and Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. Holub’s husband, Wes Hunsberger said that Singapore has “made a big push to be the ‘Garden City’ of Asia, and they haven’t just been resting on their laurels.” Everywhere you look, modern buildings rise amid beautiful parks, blue skies and no traffic. “It’s breathtaking,” Hunsberger said.

Singapore’s restaurant scene is particularly good because of the city’s confluence of diverse cultures and cuisines. One night, the group shared dinner at the top of the Marina Bay Sands building, which boasts an infinity pool and restaurant on its 57th floor. As Shors put it, “It has one of the best views of any place you can possibly ever have dinner.”

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