THE SOUTHEAST ASIA GRAND TOUR
THE SOUTHEAST ASIA GRAND TOUR
OCTOBER 14, 2011
Teresa has never been to Southeast Asia.
She made the mistake of mentioning this last month!
So you can imagine my reaction. So predictable...
I thought about all the great adventures I've had with Christopher and Katie in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam - trekking in Chiang Mai, the wedding in Luang Prabang, the junk in Halong Bay...
So I put together a "must-see" list and came to the conclusion that we'd need at least six weeks to cover it all!
But after a bit of reality testing, I reluctantly cut back on the list to something that could be doable in about three weeks! Well, twenty-four days if you count travel time and crossing the international dateline!
So here's what I've put together:
We'll fly to Hanoi from San Francisco via Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific Airlines (http://www.cathaypacific.com/). We'll take the Hanoi city tour first then make two side trips, one to Halong Bay (http://sinhcafetravel.com.vn/) and the other to Sapa to explore the hill-tribe region up north. (http://www.vietlandexplore.com/)
We'll then fly to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) via budget airline Jetstar (http://www.jetstar.com/vn/en/home), and check out the Reunification Palace, where the former South Vietnamese government operated, then board the L'Amant Riverboat (http://www.lamant-cruises.com/) for a Mekong River cruise to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, stopping at towns along the way.
From Phnom Penh it's a five hour bus ride to Siem Riep, the gateway to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat.
Two short flights on Bangkok Airways (http://www.bangkokair.com/) will get us to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, where we'll join a trekking tour (http://www.allchiangmaitours.com/trekking) to visit several Thai villages, while sleeping in grass huts, riding elephants and rafting down the river.
Our last stop is Bangkok, a one hour flight south from Chiang Mai, where we'll explore the many temples scattered throughout Banglamphu, plus Chinatown, the Royal Palace and Khao San Road
We'll be joined by both our sons - both seasoned travelers: Christopher is already a pro when it comes to handling Vietnam - he even speaks a bit of the language, but for Brandon it'll be a novelty - not quite as challenging as India!
Our good friend Carol, an artist who lives in South Lake Tahoe, has also agreed to join us - this should make for some very interesting observations - she so often sees things from such a different perspective.
And it all starts on November 20th !
NOVEMBER 21-22, 2011: SAN FRANCISCO TO HANOI
We are on our way to Hanoi via a midnight flight from San Francisco on Cathay Pacific, with a short layover in Hong Kong. We'll get into Hanoi at about 10 AM Tuesday morning, factoring in a sixteen hour time change and about seventeen hours of flying time.
As I write this note we are sitting on the tarmac in Hong Kong waiting in line to take off. Getting to Southeast Asia is a long, tiring haul and everyone in our group is looking pretty weary, including Brandon, Christopher, Carol, Teresa, and of course, myself. We spent most of the long night (it was dark almost the whole time) watching video-on-demand movies and trying to catch a few hours of fitful sleep. (As an aside, I particularly enjoyed Rise of the Planet of the Apes!)
Christopher's friend Thao, who we met in Hanoi five years ago, is planning on meeting us at the airport and has arranged our transportation into the city. We are booked into the Rising Dragon Estate Hotel which is located in the old city not far from Hoan Kiem Lake (where John McCain crashed his plane during the Vietnam war).
We'll take the rest of the day mainly to rest and gather our bearings, then tonight Thao has invited us to her family's home for a welcome dinner, a very kind gesture.
Tomorrow I've arranged a day tour of Hanoi, and the next day we are off to Halong Bay
NOVEMBER 23, 2011: TOUCHDOWN!
posted by Carol
Hanoi -- halfway round the world to get here.
An 18 hour 45 minute flight. Little sleep. Touchdown in Hong Kong with a two hour layover. We five made it, the Roses and I!
A walk out on the streets in the dizzying chaos: motorbikes with heeled ladies, buses, cars, taxis, pedestrians. Traffic flowing in all directions: motorbikes on the sidewalks and in the street, vendors with stick-stick carriers balancing their fruits. Book vendors and fresh-fried donut holes and huge soup pots abrew. Shop doors are open with foodstuffs laid out or closed with air conditioning to cool fine fashions. Toots and horns beeping everywhere as traffic spins off in all directions. Electrical wires converge in spider web clumps overhead and attached to building facades continuously. Tourists are tall and blonde and stand out against the locals. Ordered chaos. It works! No one flattened during our walk. Why not? Let's try again. At the ATM one hundred dollars equals 2,100,000 dong. A bottle of water for 35 cents.
Let's see... what's next?
Kien, our driver who works at Thao's hotel, picks us up for an hour long ride, threading continuously around motorbikes, buses, trucks and pedestrians... the entire trip spent agape in the back seat! Only one slight mishap... to a motorbike. Why not more?
We arrive at Thao's parent's house, remove shoes, don slippers, and drink honey-flower tea while seated on the emperor's couch - gloriously carved red hardwood furniture, with American TV playing nearby. Large straw mats laid on the floor and the hot pots begin. Soup made to order with squid, huge shrimp, beef, chicken, mushrooms, spinach of sorts, rice noodles, and homemade rice wine made specially for the occasion... and Thao's friend Trang, with a friendly smile, keeping the little bowls full. Two cooks cooking... men and women at opposite ends. House tour upstairs... four floors with a surprise Buddhist altar atop. Plumbing ready on the top floor for the next generation. Exhaustions reigns.
One day down!
NOVEMBER 23, 2011: UNCLE HO
posted by Scott
Vietnam requires a visa to enter the country, and this has always seemed to me to be a major impediment to traveling there. In the past you had to send your passport to the Vietnamese Consulate in San Francisco, specify the exact dates you wanted to travel, pay a fee of $85, then wait and hope you got your passport back in time with an approved visa attached.
But now there's a new procedure called visa on arrival which is much simpler - you submit your passport information online with a nominal fee of $14, and within 48 hours you get an advance authorization electronically in the form of a letter that you present at the airport when you arrive in Vietnam. I tried this and it worked great! I showed the letter, provided a passport photo, paid $25, and lo and behold: the required visa was affixed to my passport and I was on my way.
As planned, we took it slow on our first day, walking the streets of the Old Quarter, dodging scooters while taking in the frenetic action, and eventually finding ourselves at Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of the old city.
Later in the evening, despite our exhaustion, Thao had us transported to her family's home, about a 45 minute drive north of the city center, where we were indulged with the most generous and authentic Vietnamese meal, lovingly prepared by her father, mother and sister.
The following morning we were picked up at our hotel for a city tour, the highlight of which was a visit to the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. It was an odd sort of experience, traipsing through the somber halls which were silently guarded by erect white-uniformed soldiers stationed at both the entrance and exit. And of course there was the perfectly preserved body of Uncle Ho himself - it was fascinating in a morbid sort of way, seeing Ho Chi Minh in repose, as if he had died last week rather than 40 years ago! Of course, he is revered today as the father of modern Vietnam's independence. I must admit feeling a strange ambivalence - as they say, history is written by the victors - but despite the passage of time, it doesn't feel that long ago that he was vilified in the U.S. as the face of the enemy.
It seems so odd to realize that today's Vietnam, still controlled by the Communist Party, is actually a valuable ally to the U.S., where recent American presidents have been welcomed, toasted and applauded by the current leadership! I think I read somewhere that more than half the current population has been born since the south was defeated and the country reunited in 1975.
Later in the day we took in a performance at Hanoi's Thang Long water puppet theater, a unique tradition that dates back more than a thousand years. The puppets operate above the water (which serves as a stage), but are mechanically controlled underwater by puppeteers using bamboo sticks.
Returning to our hotel by cyclo (pedicab) was an adventure in itself, with frenzied traffic whizzing around us - it was almost miraculous that we made it back in one piece!
Thao met us at the hotel and we proceeded on foot to a packed nearby restaurant for an excellent local meal, although the truth is that I'm still not entirely sure what I ate - but it was most certainly authentic!
NOVEMBER 24, 2011: A SURREAL BEAUTY
Leaving the hotel at 8:30 AM, we got into Halong City at about 12:30. There were throngs of tourists lining the busy port and rows of junks waiting to be boarded. Although there were a few that stood out as being perhaps slightly more luxurious, by and large, they all looked much the same, i.e., well-worn vessels, each with a dining room up top and half a dozen cabins below, some with sails but nearly all operating on diesel engines.
Lunch on board was a pleasant table service affair with several shared dishes served almost immediately after we had boarded and were assigned to our cabins. Following lunch we lounged on deck as the junk slowly cruised past the many small islands protruding from a fine mist which hovered over the still water, resembling silent sentinels. After several hours we got to the Thien Cang Grotto, the Heavenly Cave, a well-lit, touristy, but somewhat entertaining series of caves formed by the effect of dripping water on limestone deposits.
Toward the end of the day we spent about 45 minutes kayaking in the dusk, and as it grew darker we were forced to dart around incoming junks. After dinner we had a protracted karaoke session with the crew -- good thing no one could hear us -- what a racket!
Later, after slipping into bed, I contemplated what was truly the highlight of the day: the surreal scenic beauty of Halong Bay, a unique and spectacular vista unmatched by any other.
NOVEMBER 25, 2011: A CHANGE OF PLANS!
posted by Scott
I emerged from the darkness of our cabin to find the sun rising slowly above the islands - no clouds or mist this morning. I sipped coffee on deck as our boat bobbed up and down on the water, taking in the otherworldly scene before me.
At 8:30 we gathered for a light breakfast of eggs, toast and fruit, as our boat slowly began to crawl south toward Cat Ba.
About 10:30 we stopped to visit a fish farm which essentially consisted of rows of floating docks tied together with underwater netting secured to form holding tanks full of fish. A bit later we stopped by a small island with a sandy beach, and with the warm sun overhead, seized the opportunity for some swimming. Although several other brave souls leaped from the upper deck, the more timid members of our group, i.e., Teresa, Carol and me, lowered ourselves slowly into the cloudy water. We swam several hundred yards to the beach, which was not quite as sandy as it had appeared from a distance - in fact most of the "sand" consisted of a mix of crushed shells and broken coral - pretty, but tough on one's feet!
Back on board, but not long after, our guide informed us that the rest of our tour had been canceled! No cycling to a local village, and no hike to Navy Peak in Cat Ba National Park! And no explanation provided!
So we ended up at our hotel at Cat Ba - it was just past 1:30 PM. As you might imagine, I was not pleased by this turn of events and fired off an e-mail to the tour company demanding an explanation and also threatening to cancel payment for this part of the tour!
Looking for something to do, we made our way to the local market. It was quite a spectacle -- eels and catfish swimming in tubs. Dismembered hogs with their tails still attached. Goat skulls cracked open and their brains scooped out while we watched.
NOVEMBER 25, 2011: HALONG BAY -- BLACK FRIDAY IN PARADISE!
posted by Carol
The peacefulness of an emerald sea -- a floating city created by numerous boats, lined with windows, as if apartment buildings sprung from the waters overnight. Cora Cockroach made a surprise visit this morning as I removed my hanging cosmetic bag from the hook on the bathroom wall.
Breakfast served -- 4 slices of toast with a fried egg. Waiting for a water taxi to transfer us to Cat Ba. Slow travel among limestone giants for up-close views. A pull-over stop at a fish farm floating independently amid this beautiful place. Then a surprise, anchoring to allow swim time on a tiny beach shore. Splash downs from above as one after another cannon-balled from the top deck. A swim over to this coral-carpeted beach and back was exhilarating and exhausting all at once. Another stop for lunch at the bungalow village.
Off again to Cat Ba, shuttle to Sunflower hotel. A balcony showing an ocean view! A walk around town to the market caught locals at their finest, selling all, from pearls to shoes to dried fish. Live eels and hermit crabs in tanks. Entombed sea horses starting thru glass from apothecary jars. Stuff for sale by sitting women, in waiting forever mode. Motor men on bikes offer rides while old fishermen by the marina offer boat rides. All is in the flow as life works itself out somehow.
Dinner, escorted to a restaurant two doors down: Neptune's!
An early night ... swimming took its toll!
NOVEMBER 26, 2011: ON THE MOVE!
posted by Carol
On the bus to the harbor at 7:45 AM and on the boat by 8. A morning of transfers, one boat to another. Overcast weather, cool breezes a-blowin' thru the junk.
Transfer to a step-up junk with beautiful hardwoods. Scott sitting with Brandon on top deck beneath canvas - a gust of wind empties a hidden pool of water on Scott's head and his travel computer... oops!
posted by Scott
As Carol mentions in her note above, I am slammed by a wall of water while sitting on the top deck working on my HP mini. It is freakish - a sudden gust of wind, then wham! A sheet of water out of nowhere hits me in the face. As Doc Brown said in Back to the Future 3, :The Delorean will never fly again!" Since I'm still shaking water out of my keyboard while staring at a white screen, I'll leave it to Carol's poetic flowing prose to tell the rest of our story! Back soon, I hope!
posted by Carol
Sitting inside writing words in my journal and hearing: cooking class! Let's learn how to make spring rolls! You make it you eat it!
Four hours later we disembark to a van, load up with the Aussie girls, then u-turn for a flat tire! Teresa and I are amazed at the drama! Jack up car with 14 passengers and luggage, major tonnage! Exit for ice cream to wait. Thump, jack released. All in, all aboard with drinks, ice cream and new rubber to burn.
Back in Hanoi, the drama continues as drivers duel for lanes. To the Sunshine Hotel and the friendly face of Thao to welcome us with a room to wait for dinner and the night train to Sapa. Then off we go!
A tiny compartment for four plus Christopher one over. Train pulls out at 9:45 PM. Station call at Sapa 6:15 AM.
NOVEMBER 27, 2011: VILLAGE LIFE
posted by Scott
I must have fallen asleep as soon as the train left the station because the only thing I vaguely recall is the back and forth swaying of the carriage when I woke up at 5 AM to find Carol and Teresa discussing our arrival.
We exited the Lao Cai station at 6:15 to find a young Vietnamese man waving a white sign with our names. "My name is Hiep but you can call me Henry" he told us brightly as he led us to a nearby restaurant for breakfast.
We drove on a twisty road uphill for more than an hour to the town of Bac Ha where we joined the local Hmong hilltribe market "in progress" (as they say on TV).
It was quite a show! You could buy a whole pig (alive in a sack) for only $200. Or a water buffalo for $1000 (small) or $1200 (large). Or pigeon eggs. Or caged songbirds (for pets). Or geese, ducks or chickens, dead or alive.
After lunch we checked into our hotel, the Sao Mai, then Teresa and I headed back to the market to buy some items she had scoped out earlier.
We re-grouped in mid-afternoon and Henry took us on a long walk into the nearby hills to view the poetically terraced rice fields up close. Clearly the laborious task of terraforming these hillsides must have taken centuries to accomplish. At one point Brandon counted nineteen terraces starting at ground level and progressing upward.
posted by Carol
Night train to Sapa in a tiny room for four. Station call at 6:15. Met by guide Hiep who escorted us to breakfast. A party game for breakfast: Vietnamese names given by Hiep and our tablemates. Christopher - Soul; Brandon - Cobra; Carol - Sunflower; Scott - Pretty Young Boy; Teresa - President. Hiep is MJ? (Michael Jackson?)
Two hour ride to Sunday market. Vietnamese philosophy regarding nourishment: we eat dogs cats and donkeys... in fact we eat everything on four legs except the table; everything that flies except an airplane, everything on two legs except a human.
High above the city our two lane road begins to reveal cornfields and banana plantations. Small farms are tucked between lush trees. Children and chickens poke around gravel drives close to the street. Markets and fruit stands pop up. Colorful tribal clothing begins to dress those walking to market. Diesel trucks vie for passing space around motorbikes choosing mid-lane vistas. Terraced rice paddies separate family plots as donkeys and water buffalo graze, unmindful of the incessant honking of passing vehicles. Amid dusty concrete structures, classically carved, beautiful hardwood doors welcome family and friends.
Sunshine pokes through misty sky and brightens every shade of green. Construction everywhere and a baby girl plays in a three foot high sand pile. Hairpin turns. Steeper bends. Higher still, up into the hills. Mom on a motorbike returning from market with an infant in front and a toddler hanging behind.
At the market - what is the man's role? Just drinking and smoking. Puppies and kittens in cages for sale. Many markets in one: handicrafts, meat, vegetables, horses, birds, water buffalo, pets - all for sale or to be eaten. Birds for fighting or singing. Cardamom spice in natural pods; black pepper still on the branch; the meat market with gobs of white fat for cooking; cow brains; pig heads; diced clumps of coagulated blood look like brownie squares right out of the oven! Large hot pots of diced meats await a broth in order to simmer for the evening meal. Young mothers, no more than 14 or 15 years old, bundle tiny babies in cradle packs on their backs.
As we descend the muddy hillside to the caged bird market, there is an escape - a flash mob forms - the men halt their negotiations and create an instant vortex, chasing and following the unfortunate escapee as it flies over their heads. Suddenly captured, it is returned to its owner,
Same day - a two hour stroll through the streets of Bac Ha village. MJ still wearing his starched white shirt, glossy black slacks and pointy black leather shoes, though we have transformed into hiking gear. Up winding streets past family homes where we observe normalcy. Water buffalo and babies play in the same yard. Hill tribe women dressed in colorful outfits stand outside embroidering as they watch their children. Kids recognize us as foreigners and greet us with a pageant wave, yelling hallo! We climb higher and move onto a hand crafted stone road that rings the mountaintop and we see neatly laid out fields of terraced rice paddies. The vista takes your breath away. One particular sculpted mountainside shows 25 terraces built by Hmong 300 years ago.
NOVEMBER 28-29, 2011: NIRVANA
posted by Carol
Awakened to a rooster crowing at 3 AM followed by the sound of bells worn by water buffalo strolling down the main street. At 6:30 AM, blaring loudspeakers begin to speak telling of the latest news or whatever else the government wants you to know.
Breakfast, and luggage is stored as we head out on foot with backpacks atop. We walk out of the town and begin to climb a buffalo trail through a cool, dense forest.
Construction equipment soon surprises us as we find a road is being built. We step ankle-deep into freshly dug dirt which then turns to hard clay. Walking sticks drum a rhythmic beat against the clay soil. We cross a bamboo bridge that shakes with our steps. Here, they are building a dam, the Third World way. From a distance we see workers digging, and find as we approach that they are digging a 20 foot deep drain across the road bed. This trough runs down the hill from the village on our left, to the rice fields on our right and we must find a way over.
Walking through someone's yard to search for a passage across, we pass two tethered water buffalo. Scott and Christopher trail the party and tarry, taking up close and personal photos of posing buffalo. Photo op is not what it appears - the workers shout warnings as the buffalo become agitated. These buffalo are trained for fighting and are not the docile rice-paddy type. Oops. Faux pas #1.
We step over a small stream then climb straight up a muddy slope hanging on to small trees for support. I quickly find the trail again only to step away from it into the open fields nearby. Brandon spots a mound and steps onto it to shoot a picture but Hiep reprimands him - oops, an ancient burial site - the mounds are graves. Faux pas #2.
We climb through rice fields that resemble the opening scenes from the Sound of Music, high atop green fields, then take a break for "jumping" photos. On we go to pick a picnic spot where Hiep and our local guide peels cucumbers, slices tomatoes, opens cans of minced pork, and slices open flat baguettes. Laughing Cow cheese and bananas complete the menu. Many ups and downs later, and after four hours plus of hiking, we arrive at our destination. But where exactly are we?
Earlier, Teresa had asked Hiep who said we were going to visit the Nung which she heard as "nuns" and passed on to the group that we were going to stay in a convent!! Exiting from the main pathway is a rocky mud path with numerous tree roots to step over. We pass geese and ducks and bungalows and banana trees, all while climbing uphill, then we cross a bamboo plank footbridge and find ourselves standing in the front yard of our host's home. Men working in front - children returning home from school cluster to view the foreigners. We are invited to enter a low ceiling, concrete floor room to meet our host. Handshakes and smiles all around. So... is this the convent? And where are the nuns? Lost in translation somewhere. Lots of laughs!!
A wood fire is burning in the back of the darkened room, with a black iron kettle atop. Dense acrid smoke fills the house so we move back outside. No relief as the smoke from neighbors' fires engulfs us. Hiep asks how many beds we need. Teresa offhandedly replies one for each, i.e., five. Oh, he says, but there are only four! Upstairs, in the guest room, on a bamboo plank floor, four beds of straw with mats are up against the walls, each with a brick-weight blanket folded neatly where a pillow should be. Yup, only four beds. And one small light for after dark. A bare bulb hanging by a cord, eye level, in the middle of the room. One tiny Christmas-size bulb, green of course.
The next adventure begins with a question about locating the WC. Hiep looks straight ahead and asks "toilet"? I go directly through the kitchen, out the door, past the one cold water spigot twelve inches from the ground, around the corner and back to the bamboo bridge that crosses the rushing stream. There, tucked behind crumbling blue plastic, tacked to some bamboo poles, sits the structure housing our toilet facility. One peek behind the blue tarp shows three boards spaced strategically 10 feet apart directly above the rushing stream. Bring a flashlight after dark or risk falling through!
We slip upstairs with the four beers we brought for cocktail hour, not wanting to make a show of it to our host. This becomes our ten minute bridge to normalcy. But only for a moment as we are startled by a squawking chicken. This one is meant for the pot! We are called down to witness its demise. A quick slit to the neck, a moment upside down to drain its lifeblood, then tossed into a dishpan for a bath of boiling water to allow a quick defeathering. This will be the main dish for dinner.
Two tables are set. Guests will sit around a kindergarten-height table in elementary school-size plastic or wood chairs. The men pull out a large lazy Susan type of wooden board only three inches in height. Our table is heavily covered with many dishes - and our host has made a special wine in our honor. Apparently one hundred percent grain alcohol, they call it happy water. To honor our host we are to toast a thimble size cup and chug it down... or not! After tasting, the latter option appears to be the best.
The smoky fire in the room has filled the air with a code 3 alert for those with sensitive lungs. Clothing, hair and lungs are permeated to the core with smoke. Time for early bed as the men continue to party and dare each other to chug down more happy water. A quick run to the outhouse, then brushing teeth in a trough. Upstairs to bed - three water buffalo with bells clanging are tethered just outside, and two of the beds are located directly above the chicken coop. The darkness in the acrid air is punctuated by the tiny green Christmas bulb as we prepare for bed with flashlights.
Sweet dreams - until 1 AM - the TV downstairs suddenly blares as a couple of the men who continued to party with the neighbors return home. Loud conversation continues for another hour then finally a lull. Sleep...maybe. Seemingly moments later, at 3 AM, a rooster begins to crow directly beneath us. Then dogs start to bark at 3:30 AM - guess that's all the shuteye we'll get this night. We count the hours left to survive before we leave at 8:30 AM, and the good news is we're much closer.
In the dim morning light we notice that Hiep has found a couple of blankets and is sleeping on the floor in a corner of the room. He gets up and goes downstairs to cook breakfast for us. We pack up our pillows and backpacks and fold our blankets to leave the room as we found it. Opening wooden shutters to the outside, we are stared down by the bulging eyes of the three water buffalo.
After breakfast, a driver picks us up in a sparkling clean van - we smoke-infused, sleep deprived citizens of this homestay drop encrusted mud from our shoes on to the loading step and gratefully climb on board.
We drive a few hours and arrive at another hilltribe market within arm's length of the Chinese border, spotting colorful outfits on locals who are both vendors and buyers. We find and buy jewelry, silk pillow covers, baby cradles, and tiny peanuts. Much bargaining, walking away, renegotiating, then purchasing. Eventually we head back to the van and a long ride back to Lao Cai where we will take the night train to Hanoi.
In the meantime, Hiep has arranged a room for us at a nearby hotel to freshen up. We take showers to remove the accumulated smoke and crusty clothing after two days on the road, then repack our bags. A shower was never so welcome nor felt so good! At the appointed hour, Hiep leads us across the street to the train station, waits until the gates are open, then gets us settled into our berths before saying farewell. We will surely miss Hiep with his quick humor and resourcefulness.
So, another quick nap on the night train while heading back to Hanoi. As the train pulls away from the station, all the WC doors are unlocked and passengers line up for their turn. We laughably assume that the waste is being dropped directly on to the tracks sometime during the flushing process. How efficient! We stretch out on our rock hard bunks with the reusable pillows and blankets provided. Brandon is lucky enough to fit with feet flat against one wall up to the C5 vertebra of his neck, before another wall abruptly halts his unfolding.
Sleep comes and goes as we hurl through the night toward our 5:10 AM arrival in Hanoi.
Motor bikes pass as life goes on . A woman carries a five foot pile of logs strapped to her back! The pungent scent of wood fires permeates all. The cool mist of late evening beckons us homeward to make plans for the evening meal.
A way of life that is peaceful and close to the earth. We see that so much time is spend on activities to support basic survival. Planting, tending, transporting, shopping and preparation of food alone demands these people curtail most other pursuits associated with the advancement of their culture.
Dinner is to be hotpot and MJ goes to arrange the meal. We arrive and are seated next to the bar. In the time it has taken to walk here, ten minutes, the owner has prepared ten chopped dishes ready to be tossed into the boiling water at the center of the table.
NOVEMBER 29, 2011: A MESSAGE FROM TERESA!
From: Teresa Rose
Date: Tuesday, November 29, 2011, 10:08 PM
New Craziest experience. The homestay was REALLY a homestay.
Hiked 10K into the hills near the border of China and stayed in a home with a real family. We killed a chicken together in honor of our stay.
I asked if there was a toilet and I was shown a tarp strung around a few boards that sat 15 feet above the stream. Of course no hot water, slept in a hay loft and more.....
Christopher was the big hit. We were served moonshine and homemade tofu. After a few shots our guide got nervous because he realized that Christopher could actually communicate and he had told them that we were Canadian. Guess being American was not OK.
The men all stayed up until 3 AM (not Christopher) and when they quieted down, the rooster under us started in. You will have to see the photos to believe this one.
Two night trains and one barn loft for sleeping and we just arrived in Saigon this AM. I'll tell more when I can.
NOVEMBER 30, 2011: A "JOYOUS" LIBERATION
posted by Carol
I awake five minutes prior to our estimated arrival time. An announcement is heard and we scramble to find socks and shoes, repack personal belongings, and roll our bags down a crevice-like corridor toward the exit door. I find myself first in line and somehow my suitcase goes down the two ladder steps in front of me until it slips off, landing with a thud and pulling me with it. It provides quite a soft landing but I am wedged in and need the help of a kind Indian man who moves my suitcase and helps me up. A railroad employee within arm's reach watches the whole thing but chooses to walk away.
As soon as I'm back on my feet, Scott pops out of the train waving my fanny pack which I'd left behind. Not my day so far - must be the wee early hours! We find two taxis and return to Thao's hotel. We arrive as two employees pull up on their motorbikes and knock on the locked door in front of the darkened lobby. Sleeping staff arouse themselves from two couches and a mat on the floor where they have slept overnight, and are still in their undershirts as they welcome us inside. A room was to be set aside for us to freshen up but they are out of rooms and filled to capacity. As we wait, a nice-looking German couple emerge and exit the lobby with their suitcases - moments later we are directed to their room to clean up and prepare for our trip to the airport. Thao arrives to greet us and offers coffee and breakfast downstairs, and too soon the taxi is waiting. We say our heart-to-heart goodbyes and pile into the taxi. Tears flow as we take a last glimpse of a precious new friend.
It is a seamless transition getting through security at the airport except for Brandon's pliers and screwdriver tool which are confiscated to his dismay. On the plane there is enough leg room for a tiny Asian frame allowing only ninety minutes of torture before landing in Saigon. The taxi ride to our hotel suggests (to our Hanoi-trained eyes) that this city seems a bit more orderly. Less chaos - motorbikes stay in lanes and most stop when the light turns red.
We check into the Thien Xuan Hotel which offers the pure luxury of cool, air-conditioned rooms, bathtubs with spray showers, and a full buffet breakfast. We head to the Reunification Palace where we get our first lesson in communist rhetoric. On the tour we are shown beautifully preserved rooms while historical events are described in the form of forty year old news stories. Nixon. Johnson. Kissinger. All are mentioned as the chain of events are explained to those who were born too late to have followed them on the daily news. As we climb higher up, we reach the top floor where a helicopter sits, all that is left to bring the life and death drama of the 1975 evacuation to mind. After, a movie is shown which presents a one-sided perspective and we are constantly reminded of the "joyous" liberation of South Vietnam at the end of the war.
It is a hot, sticky afternoon and we decide to stop at a sidewalk café for refreshments . We have a choice of Hanoi or Saigon beer. A thick canopy of tall trees overhead rains feathery leaf particles on our table, while the constant high decibel drone of motorbikes emanates from the other side of the hedge pretending to be a wall.
We order the usual by now, beer, and spring rolls for appetizers. Soon enough we head back to our ice-cold rooms to freshen up for dinner Christopher has made a connection through Nook, his Vietnamese friend in Sacramento, whose niece Lan lives here and she agrees to meet us and find a restaurant for dinner. At 7 she arrives, and speaking limited English, quiet and delicate she is. Introductions pass and we head out to the Ngon restaurant which translates as "delicious". We are given the table of honor which sits on a raised platform at the far end of a rectangular pool and fountain. A photo op is recognized and immediately fulfilled. We connect with an Aussie couple at the next table as their bottle of white wine draws our interest, denied as we have been for more than a week, from our favorite fruit of the vine. Back on the street we traverse a maze of motorbikes as we wind our way back to our hotel. Lan tells Christopher that before we leave, she will bring a thank you gift - she will make a cake for us to share. So with visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads, we drift off to sleep
DECEMBER 1, 2011: A CHILLING DISPLAY
posted by Carol
Today we are off to see the Cu Chi tunnels, an elaborate system of underground crawl spaces which the Viet Cong used to hide from American ground forces. A ninety minute bus ride is punctuated by a rest stop where handicapped artists create lacquered artifacts using broken eggshells in the designs.
We arrive at the tunnels. The grounds are divided into several different areas for the hordes of groups that are visiting. First, however, we are informed that we will later have the opportunity to shoot our choice of weapons, and we are encouraged to determine a gun of choice from the glass cases before us. Of course we must purchase the bullets in minimum packs of ten - as far as I can determine, all in our group decline. We are then directed to a semi-subterranean thatched room with benches to view vintage footage of black and white film from the Vietnam War - carpet bomb explosions, blasting flame throwers, and the environmental aftermath from Agent Orange are emphasized. We walk on solidly caked clay dirt paths surrounded by a sparse but fully canopied forest. Our guide stops by a tree and surprises us all by kicking aside a few leaves to uncover what looks like a utility access box about 12 by 18 inches in size
He calls over a guard to demonstrate how the Viet Cong would be able to quickly slip down into the hole while holding the concrete cover, still covered with leaves, directly over his head with arms completely vertical, drop down, and place the cover tightly into the opening so as to completely camouflage the access hole. He explains that the American soldiers were so frustrated when the Viet Cong they had seen moments earlier vanished into thin air, that the US imported three hundred German Shepard dogs to locate these hidden openings. The Viet Cong then placed American soap around the holes knowing that the dogs would associate the odor with a friendly smell from the U.S. base. Then, when this trick was discovered, they instead sprinkled chili pepper around the openings to confuse the dogs.
The next exhibit is a gruesome display of horrendous, barbaric traps which the Viet Cong created to halt, torture, and no doubt kill whoever was unlucky enough to fall victim. The designs for several of these are based on animal traps, with long spears intended to puncture various places on the body. One in particular is a tiger trap with a swiveling 5 foot by 2 foot door covered on both sides with matted grass as camouflage. This panel releases easily with the slightest pressure to allow the person entering to fall four feet below into a bed of 18 inch long spears placed in a 6 inch grid pattern. Demonstrating this to the crowd brings immediate gasps. Every one of these traps is intended to inflict great bodily harm and expresses ingenuity and the cleverness of creativity gone awry.
Following these gruesome displays we are brought to the entrance of the tunnels. The tunnel we are about to experience has been enlarged especially for us because the original was so small and intended for an Asian body type. American soldiers were too large for these tunnels and this contributed to the Viet Cong's successes. Despite being enlarged, these tunnels are still low and extremely narrow and claustrophobic so that we are bent over the entire time while within. In the pitch black darkness our shoulders and elbows reveal the turns and bends, yet only gravity clues us to the steps downward. We scurry along as quickly as we can to the nearest exit and emerge sweaty and somewhat traumatized despite our bravado. As we rinse our hands and faces under a bamboo faucet we are led to another thatched hut with long tables and benches where a snack of tea and warm taro root wait. At this point we hear rifle shots in the distance as other tour groups apparently have purchased bullets and taken aim at some distant target range. This offers an auditory mirror to the drama that played out some forty years prior. After an ice cream break, we load ourselves back on the bus. Arriving back in Saigon we grab a few pieces of local fruit and head right off to the War Remnants museum designed to showcase the atrocities the U.S. enemy inflicted on future generations as well as the ecology of Vietnam. Journalists from various countries who perished while reporting are also showcased here, along with their poignant reporting.
Areas of this building display photos of malformed children attributed to the long-term effects of Agent Orange on their parents who were sprayed. The outer yard of the museum is full of armored tanks, guns, and airplanes, and a huge Chinook helicopter which we take in as we follow the signs to view the tiger cage. This cage was used in the war to stuff five to seven American prisoners inside, forcing them to squat with barbed wire attached to the walls and top of the cage.
With this grisly image in mind, we depart the grounds and locate a cool café to order a beer. After our refreshments we scurry down to the nearby Ben Thanh market just a few blocks from the hotel. The market covers several square blocks of continuous vendors sandwiched among footpath-wide aisles, all beneath low-hanging tarps and encased under a tin roof.
We browse, make some choices, and bargain with vendors. I set my sights on a two-tone silk scarf and am able to purchase it for four dollars. A few hairpicks catch my eye and although the sales girl points to a sign that says fixed price, she eventually asks her mother behind the counter and gets the nod to accept my lower offer.
Back at the hotel, with Christopher busy on the Internet and Brandon catching a nap, Scott, Teresa, and I head out to locate a traditional dinner restaurant. After asking hotel staff and searching for half an hour, we return - no luck. Either we can eat where Lan brought us last night or we can eat on the street at tiny plastic tables and stools set up along the sidewalk where enterprising chefs brew huge pots of soup on propane burners. We gather our troops and Christopher leads us a few blocks away to a local eatery we'd passed earlier today. The wait staff are amused by us, but surprised when Christopher speaks to them in Vietnamese. We order, eat and drink, and return to the hotel cheered by our culinary success.
DECEMBER 2, 2011: L'AMANT (THE LOVER)
Posted by Carol
I arrive first at the tenth floor breakfast room at 7:15 and take the last available table for four. Chairs have been scraping my ceiling on the ninth floor since 6 AM. Scott soon appears, then Teresa. A stir arises from the staff when Christopher appears carrying a hat box full of Lan's cake. The box proclaims: happy wedding! happy valentine! and happy birthday! on all sides.
We wait a few more minutes for Brandon to arrive before opening and examining a beautifully decorated cake with yellow frosting roses in the center. After carefully scraping them off we cut it into slices and easily devour half of it among us. Before leaving, I reapply the yellow roses to the cake and Christopher offers what remains of it to the appreciative kitchen staff.
With sugar coursing through our veins we drag our luggage half a dozen blocks to the Caravelle Hotel where we must meet at 10:30 AM to connect with our Mekong River tour. Within minutes our new guide Peter presents himself and leads us out to a bus already half filled with our tour group. Introductions all around: Alex and Robert, Marcelle and Jacques, Loec and Sarah, in addition to we four. Our cruise, as it turns out, will be only half of the boat's capacity.
An hour and a half later, our bus deposits us at a dock and we board the L'Amant, our cruise riverboat. L'Amant translates as "the Lover" in French, and is named after a 1992 classic French film about Vietnam, set in 1919. As it turns out, we will view this movie as our evening entertainment our second evening on board.
After locating our cabins and getting settled we are presented with a bountiful but artistically prepared buffet lunch. We are duly impressed and eventually quite stuffed. Our attentive staff seems to have been trained at the finest Paris restaurants!
Our afternoon program finds us on a water taxi to a nearby island. Enroute, Peter explains that the Mekong is the longest river in Asia at 250 km. with three branches, two of which flow south through Vietnam and are referred to as the upper and lower rivers - our ship will cruise the upper. We disembark on small concrete steps attached to a flood wall, then begin a stroll on a narrow walkway, staying to the right to allow motorbikes and bicycles to pass. At one point we stop for a snack of tea and fruit.
We continue down the path and are directed to a dock where several small rowboats await, each with an oarsman. We gingerly step down into the boats, four persons each. The tranquility of relaxing next to the café au lait - colored water sets us at ease as we view up close the silky mud shoreline lined by a heavy coconut and mangrove forest. Flowers where the actual coconut seed develops grow low on the trunks. I also spot many holes in the four foot high mud banks indicating the presence of a miniature insect civilization.
Back on shore, we are taken to a cage holding a python. We gather around as the owner removes it and offers the nearest of us to hold it... this just happens to be me! I can feel the muscles of this eight inch diameter beauty flexing around my body as I hold it tightly near its head. We are deposited back to a walkway leading to our water taxi.
When we return to the water taxi, Peter and our driver have purchased coconuts which they prepare by chopping the tops off with a machete, inserting a straw and passing them back to us. Back on the boat, we enjoy showers, cocktails, appetizers and dinner, following which we head to the top deck to watch the featured film Indochine on a flat screen TV.
posted by Scott
Where am I?
Since there hasn't been a whole lot to add to Carol's wonderful travelogue with her vivid descriptions of our daily adventures, I've chosen not to do so. Also, being on a luxurious riverboat with all the amenities - including fantastic meals - crab cakes, giant prawns, stir-fried ostrich, salmon salad, fresh baked rolls - plus a huge assortment of fresh local fruit - papaya, mango, pomelo, baby bananas, watermelon - and an endless supply of Tiger beer - I've settled into a state of satiated somnolence.
Actually, I'm still contributing to the blog indirectly - Carol dictates her prolific notes every evening while I transcribe and edit them. We discuss the details and review the daily chronology of events for accuracy.
I must admit that this has been one of the most heavily scheduled trips I've ever put together. The logistics haven't left much room for error, and keeping it moving forward has been a major endeavor.
For example, as soon as we disembark from the L'Amant at Chau Doc, we'll be boarding a high speed motorboat to make the four hour journey up the Mekong River to the Cambodian border, and then on to Phnom Penh. From there we need to get to Siem Reap, where the temples of Angkor Wat are located. So if we depart at 7 AM, we should cross the border into Cambodia by 9 AM, secure our visas, and arrive in Phnom Penh close to noon.
We'll then have a choice between taking a five hour bus ride or catching a forty-five minute flight to Siem Reap, if I can find one. If I can't, we'll have to grab the last bus for Siem Reap which leaves at 2 PM, or we'll be stranded. There's no single website for booking air travel from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, so as I write this, I'm waiting and hoping for an email response from a local travel agency in Phnom Penh regarding possible flights. And no, there is nothing to be found through Expedia or Orbitz! Siem Reap Airways, which used to provide this service, was shut down last year due to its poor safety and maintenance history. Angkor Air is the replacement airline - it's a joint venture between the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments and just got off the ground (no pun intended!) but has no online booking capability.
The last time I took a cross-country bus in Cambodia was five years ago - I was traveling with Katie Rose - it was a five hour hair-raising ordeal on a potholed gravel road with our luggage strapped on top of an old Toyota minivan. I'm sure Katie remembers it well. We missed our connecting train at the border and she had an argument with a local tuk-tuk driver over a matter of sixty cents. That was when Katie uttered her now infamous threat: "Dad, I will never go on the Amazing Race with you!!"
So, if possible, I'd like to avoid subjecting Teresa and Carol to something similar - they still haven't fully recovered from the trauma of the chicken sacrifice and our home stay with the "nuns"!
So let me just express my appreciation to Carol for doing such a tremendous job documenting our trip so far with her daily posts!
DECEMBER 3, 2011: "MY CAREER AS A LEG MODEL IS OVER!"
posted by Carol
Coffee, tea and croissants on the sun deck from 7 to 8 AM. I have a nice chat with our server who hails from the Philippines. Peter arrives, then others soon join us to wait for the breakfast gong.
Our excursions today will include a morning tour of a rice factory, then afternoon cycling. After taking a shuttle to shore we are directed to a concrete building where rice is being dissected into various products. We see husks removed, rice roasted, and a sweet syrupy liquid mixed with other ingredients to create a caramel candy all wrapped and twisted by hand. In another corner there is a small still where a strong rice wine brew is being made. Elsewhere, rice is being heated to produce puffed rice.
Resting at a nearby teahouse I examine a large map of Vietnam to determine where we are and where we've been, while Alex and Robert negotiate for a table runner for their home. We return to L'Amant for another gourmet buffet lunch, then, at the sound of the gong, we reconvene for our bicycle expedition. We return to shore, enter a backyard shed, and choose bikes. A shaky bunch of novices ride off in single file, deflecting oncoming motorbikes and passing locals. Soon Peter pulls us over so we can enter another new world, that of the long'an fruit. This appears to be a major export product and many of the locals are involved, both adults and children, in its time-consuming preparation.
The fruit is small, quarter-size, and light green, and grows in clusters. Extraneous twigs must be trimmed off and the husk split in two then separated to access the slippery white interior fruit. There is also a seed that must be extricated. There are many workers seated on the concrete floor among piles of fruit and overflowing dishpans waiting for their attention. Long, kiln-like ovens roast the husk stage of the fruit and fill the air with a less than pleasant pungent aroma. Fruit arrives on small boats across the road and departs the same way, providing work for several generations of the local population.
Back on our bicycles we next stop at a beautiful pagoda, only to discover that Teresa is missing! Bringing up the rear, she has been forced off the trail and down an embankment by a passing motorcycle. Apparently she has fallen five feet down into bushes and weeds, and is in the process of being rescued by two of the crew, who are pulling her back onto the trail and retrieving her wheels in like fashion. She is rapidly a developing a huge bruise on her thigh and has a three inch scrape on her leg. "My career as a leg model is over!" she exclaims.
At the pagoda we remove our shoes and the glossy tiles feel cool on our bare feet, while Peter explains the meaning of the many icons within. We return our bikes then settle in at a nearby tea table where we are served light fruit snacks including pineapple, dragon fruit and what looks like red apple pears. Peter pulls out a bottle of something with a Jack Daniels label - but it's a fierce homebrew of rice wine that he pours into thimble-size cups and passes around. We raise our cups to toast our local host in Vietnamese, then its bottoms up!
Back at the boat we're all craving showers and disappear into our cabins. A bit later we reappear nearly unrecognizable, all prim and proper. We polish off a three course dinner including lamb or veal as the main entrée, then head up to the top deck to watch the French movie L'Amant, with English subtitles. Social director Claire advises us that we will be seeing the original uncut R-rated version - she adds that the subtitles will not be necessary to follow the plot. Turns out she is right!
DECEMBER 4, 2011: THE SCHOOL AT SA DEC
posted by Carol
For the second day in a row I find myself first to arrive for the early bird coffee and croissants on the sundeck... (A note from your fellow caffeine addict, Scott: I was the second... perhaps they should just inject the coffee into our veins!)
Another delightful buffet breakfast before heading off to the town of Sa Dec, the site of both the novel and film L'Amant. We visit the elementary school where author Marguerite Duras' mother taught, as well as the original house once occupied by her Chinese lover's family. We see recent photos of the cast of the movie as well as long-faded family photos of some of the original characters. (Click here to see snippets of this elegant French movie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0101316/ & http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apdgsxdlZhw )
As we exit this house we learn that Loec and Sarah, our shipmates and newlywed couple, will be leaving us to continue their honeymoon at a more private location. We pose for several group photos on the front stairs of the house, then hugs and kisses and they are off.
Then we are off to see the local Cao Dai temple, one of the first, built in 1936, only a few years after this religious hybrid was founded. It is also known as the "one-eye" or "third eye" temple, and represents a religion created entirely by the Vietnamese people with more than five million followers, five percent of the population. It incorporates various aspects of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism to create a unique belief system and there are now more than 3,000 temples. Among other tenets, the monks can marry and have children, and the populace must attend services six days per month.
This temple is one of the most colorful and delightful structures, I have seen in days. And parked just next to the temple is a large truck with similar patterns as painted on the temple pillars, apparently it is a hearse. We learn about the current education system which is compulsory for preschool and elementary age children up to age 11, with most of the population being too poor to afford school after this age so that almost no one continues.
We are offered a respite of tea with fresh ginger candy chips then head back to the boat for a free afternoon, our first. We relax on the sundeck, some attending to and sharing technology, some reading and listening to music, some visiting, etc. At 4 PM the gong chimes calling us to cooking class. We are going to be shown how to make spring rolls by the chef. We are duly instructed and produce two full plates of inconsistent size rolls, then are told they will be brought up to the sundeck within fifteen minutes, deep fried and ready to eat. We enjoy cold beer while waiting, then enjoy our appetizers when they arrive.
DECEMBER 5, 2011: WEDDING CRASHERS
posted by Carol
Breakfast at 8 and we share email addresses with promises to keep in touch. We step into our skiff and set out for a nearby village, passing anchored houseboats with clean laundry hanging astern while women prepare food on the back stoop. We see a cluster of bedraggled wooden boats tacked together, all covered by corrugated rusty tin roofs - literally a floating village! Children wave excitedly, jumping up and down and yelling hallo as they spot us. Small yappy dogs add their excited chatter as we float by, punctuated by the persistent rat-a-tat tat motor of our boat which sounds like a machine gun firing.
Our driver spots some bright red flags festooning one particular boat - could it be a wedding? Our driver makes a beeline toward it - we are the ultimate wedding crashers but we get a welcoming reception as well as an up close view of the event. We crowd around to take photos of the beautiful young bride dressed in a rich, long, strapless gown that is the equal of any American wedding dress. Her groom is dressed in a starched white suit and smiles constantly. We are told that the bride's family is now leaving her - she will live with her in-laws - they wave in unison and their boat putters off.
We pass many small fishing boats whose nets are strung on bamboo poles protruding upward like insect antenna - when submerged they will scoop up today's catch.
Arriving at the village we exit on to a rickety, elevated, plank walkway about four feet off the ground. It is only about 18 inches wide and composed of rough planks with irregular spacing and a handrail consisting of thin bamboo poles lashed together. We are told that the village is prone to floods - it was under five feet of water not long ago.
The houses, huts actually, are all raised up on 10 foot poles to stay dry during the frequent floods. Peter guides us up a ramp into a shop where there is a woman weaving scarves and we observe her at her loom. We leave with several scarves after a round of intense negotiations. We cross a monkey bridge - a single eight inch wide bamboo pole lodged in the Y of two crossbar poles sticking into the ground below - one misstep and we will plummet five feet down into the mud - I wonder what level of skill this will require to precariously balance myself and traverse the twenty meter distance.
We progress in single file through a narrow street lined with tiny storefronts around vegetable carts while dodging motorbikes and bicycles. Peter takes us into a mosque and explains that this town is home to a separate Muslim ethnic minority that avoids contact with other Vietnamese to protect their culture.
After lunch on board, we are picked up by an aging minibus for our afternoon adventure, an excursion to Sam Mountain. The bus, its sagging suspension groaning, carries us to a lump of a mountain in the distance, our destination - climbing up and around hairpin turns we are deposited at the top of the mountain and from there we view the Cambodia border, while Peter tells us about Vietnam's war in 1979 against the Khmer Rouge - gruesome - more than 20,000 local Vietnamese were slaughtered by these barbarians. Before heading back, Marcelle and Jacques pay a token sum to free four small caged birds - it is a gesture to the saint of the mountain.
On our way back to the boat we pass a dried fish market (what a stink!), stop at two more temples and hear a bit more local history.
While relaxing before dinner, Peter distributes Cambodian visa applications and collects photos and passports in preparation for tomorrow's passage into Cambodia. The gong sounds and we have our last evening meal together: grilled fish skewers, lobster hot pot, and bananas flambé for dessert. Claire informs us that the speedboat to Cambodia will depart at 7:15 AM and breakfast will be served at 6.
After dinner, we guests head to the sundeck to discuss the matter of tips for Peter and the crew. It is like a family budget meeting - eventually a consensus is reached regarding a group tip. Tips are deposited into two envelopes and signed by all. Robert, our resident financial expert, calculates Dong vs. dollars so that we can relieve ourselves of all our local currency before we exit Vietnam.
DECEMBER 6, 2011: THE ADVENTURE CONTINUES...
posted by Carol
It was a restless night's sleep knowing that the luxury segment of our trip is about to end. At breakfast, Marcelle has a "major" announcement: "I feel I have known each of you for all my life!" she proclaims. Ditto, I think to myself.
The luggage goes out in the hall to be loaded onto a high speed motorboat that will take us to the Cambodian border and on to Phnom Penh. A young woman collects a fee of $22 from each of us to cover the cost of the visa - she advises us that our passports will be returned at the border with the visa affixed.
An hour or so later our boat pulls up to a decrepit dock where tourists appear to be milling about aimlessly waiting for instructions. We disembark and I notice a woman with a wad of Cambodian currency offering to exchange bills. I stand in a line for the WC - once inside I turn on the faucet and hear water splashing - a quick peek behind the sink reveals the water flowing from the basin on to the floor and into the river below!
With nothing else accomplished, we return to the boat but then repeat the process ten minutes later - this time we are directed to an outdoor waiting area - after a few minutes our stamped passports are returned to us - we head back to the boat where we settle in for the three hour journey to Phnom Penh. About an hour later, much to our surprise, lunch trays are revealed and passed out. We will be fed! On my tray is two slices of bread, one slice of ham, a packet of strawberry jam, a triangle of cheese (Laughing Cow, what else?), two thumb-size bananas and two frosted rice cookies.
It's well after noon when we pull up to the dock at Phnom Penh. It's a quick round of hugs and farewells as we all part company. Scott is anxious because he did not hear from the travel agency before we left this morning. Will it be a five hour bus ride or a forty-five minute plane ride? The young woman who had handled our visas had earlier called the agency - she told Scott someone would meet us at the dock with the tickets, but there is no one here.
While Teresa and I baby-sit the luggage, Scott and Brandon search for an Internet café. When they return Scott is jubilant - he has retrieved an email with our electronic tickets and confirmation information attached. Negotiating for a taxi, we load up and speed off to the airport where we track down the check-in desk for Cambodia Angkor Air.
Just before 4 PM we are loaded on to a 36+ seat turboprop, an ATR 72 ( according to Brandon) and are whisked off for the forty minute flight to Siem Reap. This same journey by bus would have taken five hours over bumpy, winding roads!
On the way to our hotel in Siem Reap, our taxi driver uses the entire time to sell us on hiring him as a driver to tour Angkor Wat. At first he offers his taxi, then when we refuse, he offers his tuk-tuk - only $30 to drive us around the temple grounds for the next two days. It sounds reasonable so we hire him on the spot.
As its after 6 PM and we are fatigued from a full day of travel, we have dinner at the hotel -it's convenient. We are hot and the beer looks good so we order giant $3 dollar bottles of Angkor beer. I see the tray coming across the room and roar with delight - they are enormous - the size of wine bottles! This proves to be just what we need!
Tomorrow our driver will pick us up at 9 AM to take us to Angkor Wat, and in the evening we have a reservation for the Apsara cultural show with a full buffet dinner. The adventure continues. ..
a note from Scott-
I still hadn't heard back from Star Travel in Phnom Penh by the time we disembarked the L'Amant. The last note I'd gotten indicated that they were holding four seats but we'd not received a confirmation number or e-tickets. The visa lady had called from the speedboat on her cell phone and she told me someone from the agency would meet us at the dock when we arrived. I tried not to dwell on it during the four hour journey, but when we arrived and no one was there I was concerned. I'd paid for the tickets online, so should we just go directly to the airport? But if there were no tickets there, we'd miss the last bus to Siem Reap at 2 PM. I supposed we could hire a private car.
I was greatly relieved when I found an internet café , logged on, and the tickets were waiting!
DECEMBER 7, 2011: SWAMPY
posted by Carol
Just scheduled a foot massage for 9 PM - can't wait! One hour of reflexology for $8 - I'm in! But let me start at the beginning.
Slept for 10 hours to catch up - much needed cool rooms - breakfast is a large buffet with many choices, very satisfying. We gather in the lobby at 9 AM. Scott appears late, limping - he plugged in the laptop under the desk and got a back spasm - going to be a tough day for him.
Our tuk-tuk is waiting and we pile into a Day-Glo lime green carriage which offers a rear seat with a back and a padded bench seat facing reverse. Our driver introduces himself as Phoeun - "patience". Off we go, bumping along in the open air sharing the rutted road with motorbikes, bicycles and enormous tour buses. He takes us on a loop to the various temple sites: Angkor Wat, Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm, and Ta Keo. Each site is a massive temple ruin where we can climb, stoop and crawl up steep steps - if we were anywhere else I'm certain no one would be allowed to trample upon the ancient stones in their sneakers.
Crumbling hallways seem to go on interminably, and steps appear which deposit us atop yet another altar to Buddha. Enterprising monks are more than willing to place incense sticks in our hands for a modest donation, motioning us to prop them in a bowl of sand. Each temple has its own unique blueprint but all are composed of blackened and encrusted stones in various states of disrepair or reconstruction - lichen covers every surface. Phoeun drops us off at each site and gives the name and layout and tells us where to find him when we are done. He waits in our carriage alongside dozens of others - the drivers wait patiently for their fares to return. Many have hung small hammocks beneath the shaded roof of their tuk-tuks and nap.
After a long morning we stop for lunch at a small restaurant - an Intrepid group is eating there - so it must be clean. We continue our explorations - Angkor Thom, Pneanakas, Preah Palilay, Baphugn. As we walk through a densely forested path through dry brown football-size leaves, a sprinkle of rain turns into a downpour in a matter of seconds. Carrying my umbrella that I'd brought for a sunshade, I continue on comfortably, but Teresa, Brandon and Scott are soaked by the time we find shelter beside a ten foot covered smiling Buddha.
With no end to the torrential rain in sight, our hardy team plugs along with nary a blink - one last ruin before we can call it a day. As the rains abates, I realize that instead of clearing the air, this downpour seems to have created an unexpected outcome - SWAMPY - what an excellent adjective for the Weather Channel - the 110 % humidity causes our sticky clothing to bond tightly to our skin!
Back at the hotel, we ride the elevator to the rooftop for an impromptu cocktail hour. The view is great as we watch the sunset, and Brandon jumps in the pool to cool off!
Dinner and a show! Scott has booked a table for the Apsara performance at a nearby dinner theater - it features traditional Khmer music and dance - and also includes a plentiful and delicious buffet. We settle in with giant bottles of Angkor beer and watch as tour groups fill the long tables stretching across the room.
Back at the hotel, Teresa, Brandon and I are met on the sixth floor by three young ladies and taken into a small room subtly lit along the perimeter by with Tiffany lights - a strong aroma of camphor fills the room. An hour later we are relaxed and ready for bed!
DECEMBER 8, 2011: MADAM, A SCARF FOR YOU?
posted by Carol
A bit more sun today - a tad toastier but still within the range of normal weather for here. Phoeun is waiting for us at the appointed time as we head out - more time in the tuk-tuk as our destinations today are further apart. We will visit Preah Khan which includes the ruins at Prasat, Neak Pean, Ta Son, East Mebon, Pre Rup and Prasat Kravan.
The sites are as splendid today as yesterday, each unique, but with one difference - the vendors. So many ladies with scarves stretching the entire length of each arm, plus baskets of the same hung on both shoulders, all crowding around as soon as we enter each site.
It is incessant: Madam, a scarf for you? Buy from me? Look, pretty color for you. They trail us an inch from our elbows no matter how often we say no thank you - the entire length of the walk to the ruins, sometimes a quarter mile, escorted by hopeful but pestering entrepreneurs. Always sweet with soft voices, but as persistent as mosquitoes.
At another location we are met by little girls, each with baskets full of wicker bracelets, refrigerator magnets, hand-carved flutes, and bamboo fish decorations. I listen to their little girl pleading voices, two or three together, almost like a chant. And all with the likely goal of a meal at the end of the day.
Once back at the hotel we thank our driver for his two days with us and settle the bill. Brandon asks that he write his name in his native Khmer and he produces miniature art. Brandon then takes a photo of he and I, and he offers his email address to send a copy to him later.
As we enter the hotel a few drops of rain begin to fall, and by the time we get past the lobby the skies have opened. We are aghast at the ferocity of the torrential rainstorm. Back in our room, Teresa and I watch out the window as a 150 gallon concrete rain tub behind a nearby home fills to the top in minutes. Phenomenal!
Scott and Teresa wait nearly an hour for the rain to subside before heading out on a last dash shopping spree. Christmas is coming!
When they return, we head off to a lovely restaurant next to our hotel for dinner - the background music is provided a Cambodian style marimba, while the sweet and attentive restaurant staff complete a perfect evening.
DECEMBER 9, 2011: ON THE ROAD AGAIN
posted by Carol
Taxi to the airport in Siem Reap, plane to Bangkok then on to Chiang Mai.
Yesterday I'd found my special purchase from Cambodia. A vendor at Prasat Kravan was selling a ten inch tall marionette puppet - a little doll with a white painted wooden head who had a silly grin and was dressed in an exquisite sequined costume. I could envision this little guy hanging from some wall at home and so I did a little bargaining (as expected) and walked away with this comical character. Fretting over how to get him home last night, I asked the hotel desk for assistance - they produced a carton from the kitchen and chopped it down to size. Now only TLC will assure his safe arrival.
We are given a form to complete on arrival in Thailand, stamped and collected when we go through customs. Overhead, there it is in red lights: "Welcome to Thailand."
A two hour layover, then we are on our way to Chiang Mai, a small city not far from the Burma border. On the flight we are seated by a group of older folks from the US and Canada and enjoy exchanging travel stories.
At the terminal we locate a taxi - our elderly driver, driving on the left, negotiates twisting city streets, enters the old walled city, then turns down a narrow alley and a sign with our hotel name suddenly appears - and we come to a halt. We drag our bags into a small lobby and are given the keys to our rooms on the third floor - oops no elevator! We look in our rooms - oops - one queen bed in each room - slight problem!
The problem gets resolved - a change of rooms and a rollaway bed - then Teresa, Scott and Brandon head off to locate some needed supplies for our trek tomorrow.
DECEMBER 10, 2011: INGENIOUS PLUMBING
posted by Carol
Trek day one: We gather in the lobby after breakfast to meet our trek guide. He introduces himself as Kaud, pronounced "could." We drag our bags outside and down an alley to a nearby intersection where he points to a covered flatbed pickup truck with padded benches on both sides of the bed. Lining the center with our bags, we climb aboard. We've repacked our backpacks so that they now contain what we will need for the next two nights. Off we bounce through the streets to the Buddy Tours office where we will store our bags while trekking.
Having freed up room in the truck, we pick up our fellow hikers: first we meet Scott and Carly who are from England - Scott has just completed an engineering degree and they have planned six months on the road to see as much as they can. India is their next stop.
Next are two young French women, Celina and Nathalie, who hop board with one large shopping bag. They speak only minimal English and we are reminded of how much we miss Katie Rose, whose communication skills would be greatly helpful right now. We make one more stop and a couple of extra backpacks are tossed in for the women to use.
Packed in like sardines, we leave the city behind. After about an hour driving up a steep, winding hairpin road we get to lush, densely forested mountainous area. When we finally stop, we are directed to a path that has about 5000 steps leading uphill to Buddhist temple set among various odd-looking statuaries. It appears to be occupied by several monks who apparently live and work there as well as maintaining it.
The view from the temple is spectacular - the temple itself, with its covered prayer room, resembles a dollhouse. There are several altars with fruit offerings (some with varying degrees of mold) which have been left as gifts for Buddha. The are several gold Buddha statues, of which the largest towers over us about a hundred feet tall. We stroll back down and find that Kaud has provided small containers filled with spicy rice for lunch. We gather to eat in a small pagoda using tiny plastic spoons. Bon appetite!
Back in the truck we drive for another ten minutes until we arrive at the trailhead where our trek will begin in earnest. Experiencing such beautiful mountain views I must pinch myself as a reminder that I am in Thailand.
The trail takes us through forested terrain, some of which is very steep. After one such climb over slippery pine needles and fallen leaves, and with no path in sight, Kaud admits he took a shortcut.
There are numerous river crossings over makeshift bridges of fallen trees or bamboo poles, some with lashed handrails, some not. There are precarious trails sloping sideways toward dizzying drops into the jungle below. With gaps at several dry waterfall junctures we must jump across to other sloping footholds. (A hop and a prayer get us over!)
After traipsing through rice paddies we trudge onto the grounds of our overnight accommodations. Glancing around, our eyes widen as we note several similarities to our Sapa home stay. We trade glances with knowing certainty - there will be at least one night in the rough.
Cold beers are offered for sale by the villagers, and bracelets are hawked by local ladies who have materialized out of nowhere. There is an oversize picnic table and when we sit, our feet are dangling. At one side of the table is an open fire with smoke billowing. Around the corner, three brick stepping stones lead to the wooden door of a latrine which houses a porcelain squatter on a mud base. Plumbing consists of blue plastic PVC pipe with a tiny faucet dripping into a concrete tub of water in which a plastic pail floats. Apparently this is used to dump water into the "toilet" so as to flush it.
Hmm... a high tech, interactive, energy-efficient, gravity-powered device. Ingenious.
Within the latrine the floor is, apparently, perpetually wet. This explains the "no shoes" rule before we climb the steps to our sleeping quarters. There we find three partitioned sleeping areas with each space enclosed by a brightly colored mosquito net. Each sleeping space is designated by a folded blanket and pillow, two spaces per net, and the well-worn bedding appears to have spent many nights with other trekkers without being changed.
Seated back at the picnic table, Kaud explains that this is a special day for the villagers. Students from the city have come to the village to provide gifts and supplies, therefore this will be a night of celebration!
Fireworks crackle overhead so we follow a road leading up a nearby hill where we see tents and what seems to be a fairground. There are tables piled high with food and a large barn upon which a movie is being projected onto one wall. The group spots us and waves us inside with friendly greetings. Almost immediately a plastic cup of homemade whiskey is passed around to share with us, and a following obligatory respectful sips, they pass around a platter of a strange kind of split roasted nut which we crack open and sample.
It's dark by now and, using our flashlights, we return to find that Kaud has prepared dinner for us - sticky rice and two types of mixed vegetables - not much protein, Teresa observes. After eating, we remain seated around the picnic table observing our surroundings. The fire smolders, putting out thick smoke, the pig snorts, and chickens appear and disappear in the bushes nearby.
The first day for the trekkers has ended - but unfortunately, it isn't over for the not-so-distant revelers up on the hill. Their karaoke speakers blare as their festivities ramp up. Ready for some rest, we retire to our mats under the mosquito netting, listening to a cacophony of sounds. Local pets chime in with much barking and meowing, and even after the noise subsides, someone nearby is rattling the hut with loud snoring - a sound night's sleep may be beyond reach!
DECEMBER 11, 2011: AN ICY SHOWER NEVER FELT SO GOOD!
posted by Carol
Trek day two: Morning catches us bleary-eyed with no clean water for a face wash. We slowly rally, pack up, then roll down to our picnic table for breakfast. There is a soft mist rimming the distant surrounding mountains across from the rice paddies framed by banana and papaya trees. It's a soothing sight as plates of hard-boiled eggs and thin slices of white toast are placed before us. Kaud has two tubs of butter and a jar of strawberry jam that appear along with an unlabeled plastic jar of instant coffee and some creamer. Hot water is poured into plastic cups from an ash-covered kettle boiling on the fire.
Teresa notices that Scott (from the UK) still has half of his machete-sliced hard boiled egg remaining and she asks if he is done with it. She would like to give it to the emaciated dog at her feet who has already gotten two slices of her toast plus one coaxed from Celina. "Oh no," Scott says, "I'm going to feed it to the pig. I love that pig!" After shelling his precious remaining portion of ovum and feeding it to the pig, he spends several minutes at her side communing with her.
And so, with our hearts warmed, we hoist our packs and traipse off into the woods.
An hour hiking to a waterfall where we are offered a chance for a swim. Relieved of our packs, we sit in the cool mist of the falls while Kaud busies himself with bamboo and a machete. Very soon a small package is delivered for lunch - it contains cooked rice wrapped in banana leaves and a shiny foil pack of pepper flakes tucked in, plus Kaud's newly carved bamboo chopsticks. The effect is gourmet! After also sharing some peanuts (for protein), we continue hiking for another two hours. The trail is very challenging with several stream crossings (via bamboo poles), and some elements rise to e-ticket status. (Our older readers will know what I mean!)
Late in the day we wander into another clump of buildings - our accommodations for tonight.
We get a quick tour: the beer chest, and the VIP toilet (as Kaud describes it) - VIP because it is a sitter not a squatter! Once again there is a tub of water for flushing and an additional luxury - a hand-held shower nozzle hooked to the wall ready to provide refreshing, icy showers to any brave soul who wishes to indulge.
There is a long cabin divided by a partition in the center with entrances at each end, so we split into two groups and select our sleeping quarters. At first glance, I am reminded of the accommodations for the tobacco field laborers in the Connecticut River Valley where I'd grown up. A mosquito net hovers over a row of thin mattress pads with several grimy-looking folded blankets and tiny pillows that resemble (and feel like) little bricks. We'll play seven dwarfs tonight and try to find a way to get some sleep!
After bracing myself with a cold beer I gather my courage for a shower. Despite the frigid water, I feel refreshed, having removed all the sticky sweat accumulated over two days of hiking . Dinner, once again, is prepared by Kaud - rice and two vegetable dishes including pumpkin and cucumbers.
Later, Teresa assumes the role of social director and suggests a game we can play around the fire, where we each share a little known fact about ourselves, then allow the others to guess who it could be. After, UK Scott suggests playing the "Who am I?" game and we enjoy another hour of frivolity before retiring for the night.
Nearby, in another open-air hut, a group of Kaud's friends have gathered to celebrate the birthday of one of their own - apparently they have driven out here to party with Kaud - we are told it is the friend's forty-second birthday.
I am sure they are wonderful, caring friends - but they sing and eat and drink into the wee hours, long after we exhausted hikers have dropped into bed - and unfortunately our thin-walled building is far from sound proof. So what's one more night of laying wide awake for a raucous party?
DECEMBER 12, 2011: A RAFTING LESSON
posted by Carol
Trek day three: First activity this morning will be rafting on narrow rubber rafts, three of us per raft. We toss our packs and shoes in the rear of a pickup truck as our rafting guide drops three rafts into the river. We are handed ten foot long bamboo poles, one for the person at the front and one for the person at the rear. Thinking this would be like guiding a canoe I get in front with Teresa in the middle and Scott at the rear. But it's not like a canoe - the front person must steer us. Yikes - I'm it! We shove off. I watch as the guide uses his pole to pilot the first raft down the fast-flowing river. I better take a quick lesson in pole rafting, so I mimic the guide...
Here come the rapids! I pole us around trying to get us moving forward but we quickly get caught on a rock sticking out of the water. The current is pulling the rear of the raft around - Scott unsuccessfully tries to pry us free. Suddenly the rough water breaks us free and we straighten out - I'm in control as we fly across the rapids!
The river is shallow enough for me to guide us by pushing along the bottom with my pole, but then we come to a sharp curve and my pole is submerged all the way to my wrist as I struggle to control the raft! I fight to avoid several rocky outcroppings and do a bang-up job propelling us away from several low-hanging branches. Reaching the back stretch the guide grabs my pole and pulls us to the nearby bank. Success! I've delivered us ashore! I'm sweating like a pig from the exertion but we've survived and I am proud of my effort! What a learning curve!
Back on the truck - its almost noon - then a pit stop. We gather at a table covered with a dirty plastic tablecloth under a thatched roof pavilion and patiently wait for a most pleasant woman to prepare rice and stir-fry veggie dishes for our lunch. Anticipating another no-protein meal, I pull out the last of my peanuts to share. Suddenly someone spots a giant black spider hanging above our heads - it's the size of a grapefruit! We all back away...
Next, our elephant ride: An old man approaches us with bunches of bananas to feed the elephants, so we buy a cluster then climb a tall platform to board our elephant. Brandon I crawl on to one elephant, Teresa and Scott on another, for the hour-long ride. What an opportunity, at least in theory... but the reality is less so as it becomes clear that our elephants are not happy.
Our driver sits on the elephant's head with his bare feet tucked behind its ears. I ask and am told our elephants name is Mego. As we lumber into the dense forest heading up a steep grade, an enterprising photographer snaps a quick photo from below. But every few paces, the elephant winds her snake-like truck over to our seat, obviously looking for a banana treat. We feed her often but she is persistent and our driver finally slaps her trunk away from us. When she tries to leave the path to forage for more food, he uses a sharp tool of some sort pressed against her ear. I assume she is hungry because she keeps probing the bushes along the trail, at one point grabbing a hillside of vines to munch on. We use up all of our bananas to keep her moving along the trail and wonder if we should have bought more - she repeatedly refuses to move forward, and over and over her trunk comes around and she blows hot breath into our faces - she wants more to eat!
What a conundrum! We are sympathetic to this elephant - it starts to feel like a setup to get tourist bucks. I begin to fear we may be on this huge beast forever, but we approach a watering hole, then reach the platform and get off. Scott says he read that the money provides room and board for elephants which might otherwise be destroyed for lack of funds, but I think it's a sad state of affairs regardless.
Off again to our next experience - another trip downriver but this time on a thirty foot long bamboo raft. Nine bamboo poles have been lashed together and our guide will pole us along. The four of us can either sit or attempt to stand while balancing ourselves precariously. At first it looks intimidating, especially with so many sharp turns, but we start to appreciate that the length of the raft stabilizes us so that we are actually quite safe as we bounce through the rapids while remaining upright! Brandon, being the tallest, must duck low branches and we all brace ourselves when the raft drifts too close to shore, brushing against rocks. But it's great fun flying down the river hands-free to the wind, with water lapping at our feet, and we don't want this to end.
But the fun is over and we are back in the rear of the pickup for our hour-long ride back to Chiang Mai. We say our goodbyes, exchange emails and make promises to stay in touch.
At the hotel we head for the showers - the hot water turns black as it washes off three days of accumulated dirt.
As the sun sets, we head to the Night Market for dinner and for some late shopping. We enjoy an excellent meal of barbecued fish, then wander through the market and buy a number of items that are quite clearly authentic and locally made.
DECEMBER 13, 2011: A BANGKOK CACOPHONY
posted by Carol
At 8:15 AM, another shuffle of the baggage, taxi to the airport, checking in, waiting, boarding, flying. Arriving in Bangkok, the taxi ride to our hotel takes nearly an hour while sitting in dense traffic. Air quality is even more dense. Lots of cars, tuk-tuks, billboards, and signs in both Thai and English.
Our taxi dodges street vendors and pedestrians before finally releasing us to our hotel, the Viengtai. It's about 1:30 when we check in, and as soon as we get settled, Scott takes us on a walking tour of Banglamphu, the old city. Over by the river we see signs of the recent flooding only a few weeks ago, with sandbags still piled everywhere - in fact we must walk on top of the hastily constructed levees to get past all the street vendors. In front of some upscale shops there remains evidence of newly constructed concrete barriers built across doorways. Many sandbags have been torn open spilling their contents and some areas resemble an ailing beach with debris strewn all around. The pungent stench of dried fish, cooking oil and fried food emanates from the scores of stalls that line the street. A continuous, repetitive scene plays itself out on the streets as we walk - a succession of street vendors, push carts, tiny stalls and endless hawkers proclaiming their wares.
Not far from our hotel, we choose a sidewalk bar along busy Khao San Road, and order several icy cold bottles of Singha beer, and we watch the constant stream of backpackers and other foreigners parade by.
We are accosted by the sights and sounds of the street - vendors stop to demonstrate their wares -we are badgered to buy croaking wooden frogs and fake tattoos, while just across the street, fake ID's, fake California driver's licenses, and fake diplomas are offered up. Table displays are covered with every imaginable designer item - all fake of course - from sunglasses to hairclips, shoulder bags, sundresses, t-shirts, dreadlocks, CD's and on and on. Rows of food carts have fresh-cut fruit: pineapple, mangos and watermelon, there is fried chicken, sausages, whole barbecued fish, hot noodle soup, and a variety of unidentifiable grilled meats. It's a cacophony of sounds, flavors, sights and textures - and all viewed during the course of one beer!
Back at the hotel we take some time to refresh and get cleaned up, then we are back on the street looking for a place to have dinner. Not far from the hotel we find an appealing, somewhat higher end restaurant, oddly named "The Macaroni House." (But only one macaroni dish on the menu.)
We are seated in an open-air atrium by a coy pond with a rushing waterfall in the background where we relax and unwind from the frenetic activity out on the street. We order several menu items including what turns out to be a delicious barbecued sea bass which we all share. Yum!
Following dinner we take a brief stroll along Khao San Road, but it's too raucous and crowded for our liking so retire to the solitude of our rooms. Unfortunately, despite being on the sixth floor, we cannot avoid the din on the street out front - loud music with a heavy thumping base and lots of shouting that doesn't stop until after 2 AM! Even earplugs are of little help.
DECEMBER 14, 2011: THE BANGKOK FASHION POLICE
posted by Carol
On our last whole day of the trip, Scott has an agenda of must sees from his previous travels here.
We have a sumptuous breakfast buffet breakfast then set out on foot for the Grand Palace. It's going to be hot, but at this early hour, the air still feels (a bit) fresh. We circle the palace looking for the entry gate, but several touts stop to tell us it is closed until 1 PM. Really? Scam alert! Our Frommers guidebook has told us it's open daily from 8:30 AM to 3:30 PM, and warns not to believe any street people or tuk-tuk drivers who tell you otherwise. The scam is that they talk you into getting into their taxi or tuk-tuk then collect big commissions by dragging you to tailor shops and other stores where you are trapped until you buy overpriced stuff. So we ignore them and sure enough, we find the (obscure) entry gate, and walk in without a problem. Until we get inside.
Through the gate and past a table where a stern-looking fellow sits. He glares at me. I am wearing long pants and a sleeveless blouse but I have a large scarf to cover my shoulders. The fashion police! NO. No scarf!
I wonder what he wants me to do. He turns his attention to Scott and Brandon who are wearing shorts. NO. He stops them and orders them to get long pants. Turning to look at Teresa, he studies her: a denim skirt to the knee and cap-sleeved t-shirt. OK, he signals. You go.
"Hey, why does she get a free pass?" I exclaim, but he looks away and ignores me!
What to do?
We are ushered into a nearby building and must take our place in line. For a deposit of 200 Baht each, the guys are given prison issue gray pants and I get a short sleeve button-down yellow shirt. I am irked to no end - there is no logic to it. As soon as I'm handed my receipt I crumple it up and stuff it in my bag. Irritated, I move forward into the crowd. I buy my ticket, then we all rent audio guides and are given maps and instructions.
We then enter a place so fantastic we stand agape. The visual images - in the form of buildings, statues and murals - are stunning! Gold twinkles at us from every direction and the sun reflected off of hundreds of tiny mirrors and glassy pieces of faceted porcelain is dazzling! In every direction we look our attention is captivated by glorious craftsmanship. The details we are seeing must surely reflect thousands of hours of labor. Ninety minutes later, our mismatched wardrobes forgotten, we return our audio guides, turn in our fashion statements, and collect our deposits.
Another must see, close by, is the reclining Buddha. Entering the walls of temple we locate an elongated building, remove our shoes, and go in. Craning our necks upward, we are greeted by an oversized shining golden head and shoulders that tower thirty feet above us. We follow a long line of sightseers across the length of the building until we reach the giant Buddha's feet that are inlaid with mother-of-pearl, quite a masterpiece!
Off again, we pace ourselves quickly along steaming sidewalks in search of the water taxi that will take us across the river to see the temple of Wat Arun. But it's after noon and we are getting hungry - luckily we find what seems to be a fast food Thai deli - and a bonus - it has air conditioning - so we order several dishes of green curry soup and pad Thai. Revived, we continue our search for the elusive water taxi. We find ourselves wandering through a back alley near the river, and chance upon the wharf's wholesale receiving area - there are grungy little offices fronting warehouses stacked with piles of stuff.
We finally find the taxi dock, scramble over piles of sandbags to get to the boat, then pay the grand sum of three Baht each (10¢) to cross the river. After the boat slams into three old tires attached to the dock on the opposite side, we exit to the temple. It's weathered and worn and not nearly as impressive as what we've just seen. Teresa joins Scott who climbs up the steep temple stairs to get a view of the city, while Brandon and I wait at the bottom - we've had enough climbing for one day.
Crossing back, we head in the direction of Chinatown. Teresa questions why, but Scott insists we must see it. We traverse block after block of city sidewalks, passing beggars and street people, until we get to the entrance of a market where the passageway is only wide enough to accommodate two people, yet motorbikes thread through to deliver their wares. We pass stall after stall of fabrics, buttons, jewelry, trims, hair decorations, piles of hello Kitty products, and every conceivable item that can be sold. We stop at a jewelry shop where we purchase several items - I find a cute little Siamese dancing figurine pin to decorate my memory book of the trip. We pass by shop after shop for nearly a mile until we tire of the crowds and look for an exit. Looking closely at his map, Scott discovers this is called the Thieves Market! Clever!
It's a long way back along busy, loud, congested and smoggy streets, as we trail one another while skirting vendors' carts and auto repair shops that seem to have sprouted on the sidewalks. A cornucopia of foodstuffs swirls by as we hasten our step, finally reaching our neighborhood market. Five miles of walking, we figure. Time for a beer! At the same sidewalk café, we relax and review the day.
We watch as street people, hawkers, touts, suit tailors, wannabe street artists, tattoo artists and riffraff pass by. Travelers of all ages, some who look to have been on the road too long. Backpackers coming and going. It's a circus worthy of a second night's review.
A bit later, we end up at last night's restaurant. Different table, different entrées, but we are satisfied.
I unlock the hotel room door, turn on the light, and Teresa gives a yelp as she spots a cockroach scamper across the floor. Eew. We think we'll make it an early night, so lights out by 10. But the music volume, even six floors below is even louder than last night. Who knew that that 70's lounge singer would continue until 3 AM!
DECEMBER 15, 2011: ONE LAST MASSAGE
posted by Carol
This is the day we head home. We have fulfilled our vacation potential to the fullest - time to face east with wings spread. Today will be an easy unstructured day.
After breakfast, Teresa, Scott and Brandon head out to do some last minute shopping, while I catch up on my blogging and check emails. We check out at noon and since our taxi to the airport is not until 3 PM, I sense the opportunity to slip down the hall for an hour long reflexology and massage session accompanied by Brandon who also wants another go at it. After an hour we return to the lobby so relaxed we are changed beings, and after a quick lunch we are off to the airport.
We first fly to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific where we meet up with Christopher returning from Hanoi. We continue for another eleven hours getting into San Francisco at about 8:55 PM. Picking up a rental car, then a two hour drive, we are deposited at the front door of Teresa and Scott's home at midnight.
It's too late for me to continue on, so the following afternoon, after a restful night's sleep, I am on my way back to Tahoe.
Some additional observations:
TP vs. Kleenex: Scarce paper products seem to have different meanings and uses in Asia. While our journey on the plane began with a delicate roll of TP to allow for the delicate aeronautical plumbing, as we moved into our tour of northern Vietnam, the paper fibers became so thin that we were hard-pressed to differentiate TP from Kleenex. Then, at the restaurants in Sapa, boxes of Kleenex were suddenly designated as napkins. This strange variability continued into Thailand where the only difference was the smaller 7" by 4" size pastel, pink, folded tissue used for napkins.
Blonde hair: OK, it became an entity in itself. Long blonde hair was worth five camels in Africa in 1974. (Karma.) But in present day Asia it only gets stares and odd comments. At the start of the trip, in Hanoi, while in close quarters with other families at the restaurant, I got a kick watching a two year old girl on her papa's lap stare at the back of my head, wide-eyed and drop-mouthed, while her father continually reminded her to attend to her meal.
While visiting a street market in Sapa, a woman sitting on the ground by her vegetables (on a tarp) makes eye contact, gazes down the length of my pony tails, then asks Hiep, "How old is she?" I really don't know what to make of that!
And after our elephant ride in Chiang Mai, with my hair braided and a kerchief around my forehead, and sitting at the rear of the pickup, a local man gave me a serious look, pointed toward me, and in perfect English said "She looks like First Nation." I cracked up, wondering when he'd seen his last albino native American!
DECEMBER 21, 2011: SOME FINAL THOUGHTS...
posted by Scott
Wow! Talk about exhausted! The jet lag this time around has just about done us in. I feel badly for Teresa - she had to go back to work less than 24 hours after getting home!
And with Christmas only a few days away - we have been running around like chickens with our heads cut off! Oh-oh, maybe I shouldn't say that - too graphic!
I want to thank Carol for her wonderful daily posts - they allowed me to experience our adventures through new eyes - I know I enjoyed her observations immensely - I hope others did too. And they were so timely - she was constantly writing while we traveled from place to place. It was also nice not to have to do it all myself!
But my poor laptop will never be the same. In fact, after drying out it started working again, about a week after getting drenched - but now I have a split two-tone screen with a different set of colors on each side. Oh well...