Bangkok–Markets, Movie stars, Massages, Malls, and Mother’s Day!

May 2019

On Day 17 of our Intrepid “Best of Vietnam and Cambodia” tour we departed from Siem Reap, Cambodia; a mere 10 hours later, arriving at Bangkok, Thailand. Our group of 12 (plus our guide Sareth) traveled in 2 separate vans and experienced 2 border crossings together prior to arriving at the Nouvo City Hotel in downtown Bangkok.

There were limited photo opportunities during this day of travelling and border crossings, so this blog post includes highlights from 3 days exploring Bangkok prior to returning home to Canada.

At 6:30 a.m. we departed from the Dinata Boutique Hotel in Siem Reap heading toward our first border crossing. Our group exited Cambodia at Poipet and entered Thailand at Aranyaprathet.

We were extremely grateful to have Sareth guiding us through the lines and expectations for border crossings. There were issues to overcome…lines that suddenly closed…stamps or documents that ‘somehow’ disappeared. Sareth translated and chatted with customs officials and extra personnel until everyone was eventually cleared. Photography was not permitted in the two border crossing locations.

Due to massive population’ traffic, we were late arriving in Bangkok. Thailand’s capital, has an estimated population of over 10.6 million people. The city is known for ornate shrines and vibrant street life. My husband and I were happy to be returning to the familiarity of this more peaceful country.

After dropping off our belongings at the Nouvo City Hotel we headed out for ‘real’ Thai food at a nearby location where our group filled the seating capacity of the establishment nestled on the edge of the soi (street). The Thai meal was authentic and a wonderful final dinner experience for our group.

Some of our group planned to spend a few extra days in Bangkok, while others were departing in the morning. My personal and very special reason for returning to Bangkok again prior to flying home, was that my son resides here and has worked As a senior engineer at Western Digital in the Bangkok area for over 5 years!

Our first full day back in Bangkok happened to correlate with Canadian Mother’s Day! (In Thailand Mother’s Day occurs on August 12th in 2019). During the last 2 trips to Thailand, we focused on exploring and learning about Thai culture, Buddhism, local cuisine, and different areas of the country.

During these final few days we would be experiencing Bangkok from a tourist perspective. Our agenda for Mother’s Day in Bangkok was shopping at JJ’s (Chatuchak) Market, taxi to Esplanade Mall, Massages, lunch at Sizzlers, an afternoon Movie (Pokemon Detective) with Thai subtitles, Swenson ice cream treats, and late return via taxi to the Nouvo City Hotel.

As it was Sunday my son, Alexander, was able to join us and make my Mother’s Day complete!

Meeting Alexander at Chatuchak (JJ’s) market ended up being a huge challenge as communication with taxi drivers, hectic roads, misunderstandings, and masses of exits and people resulted in extensive texting before we finally met up. This is the largest market in Thailand with more than 15,000 stalls and 11,505 vendors, divided into 27 sections.

Although still extremely hot and crowded, the temperatures and humidity were not as intense as our previous visit in early April–which happens to be the hottest month of the year in Bangkok. As we wandered through one of the main walkways we were suddenly immersed in cameras and filming paraphernalia.

Tourists and local merchants were scanning curiously to determine the person/people at the center of this attention. They were filming a lady in a white dress with long brown braids who was walking through JJ’s fanning herself with a red heart shaped fan and carrying a large straw hat. Who was this mystery woman?

Obtaining our souvenirs, we were off to sort out our next mode of transportation. Taxi or MRT? Luckily, Alexander speaks and understands Thai so we got a better price for the taxi.

Esplanade mall was our next destination as it was in close proximity to my son’s apartment, had reasonable prices, and he frequented the movie theaters there. We usually experience Thai massages from local shops along the sois or beach locations. However, we decided to pay a bit more than usual (350–400 Baht equals $15–$17 CAN) and try a “mall” location massage. The essential oils scents and little treats afterwards were a lovely touch. I prefer the head/neck/shoulder massage while the 2 men tend to prefer the foot massages. Traditional Thai massage can be pretty brutal for novices who are not expecting to have forceful body manipulation. At these prices, why not partake as often as possible!

Lunch at Sizzlers was Alexander’s choice. It’s a chain of restaurants specializing in salad bars, burgers and steaks. After 5 years residing in Thailand, he craves non traditional Thai food at times. He consumes these Canadian type foods with such ecstasy and enjoyment.

Next, a movie experience Thai style. Having substantially different movie preferences, our compromise was to watch “Pokemon Detective”. After purchasing tickets from a kiosk (like in Canada), Mark purchased his popcorn and we entered the movie theater.

Luckily, we were able to select movies in English (with Thai subtitles). The seats were super comfortable. Prior to the movie commencing, a song was played. Immediately people stopped talking and everybody stood up. The song and video depicting the King’s life was a dedication to the current King of Thailand and respect was an expectation. When the video dedication ended, everyone sat down and the movie started.

What follows a Pokemon movie experience better than a visit to Swenson’s ice-cream parlor? These cold treats are pretty expensive for a Thai wage, but the dessert specialty location was packed. Alexander had recommendations about his favorite menu items. The desserts were delectable.

A tropical down pour hit as we departed from the mall and again as we made our way back to the hotel. Income for taxi drivers must increase dramatically during the long rainy season here because as soon as the downpour commenced taxi drivers raised their prices and most only accepted lengthy fairs.

Our hotel Nouvo City Hotel was located in a historic area of Bangkok adjacent to the famous Banglamphu canal. Today we planned to explore this area starting by investigating around our hotel. The views from the rooftop swimming pool area illustrate the vastness and intensity of residences in the Bangkok metropolis.

We enjoyed the pool located on our 3rd floor level. However it was really annoying when a couple decided to take racy photos in the pool using a drone. Try to relax under the fountains while a drone zooms inches from your head! In my opinion there should be a privacy bylaw against drones in pool areas!

Air pollution levels vary and can be moderate to dangerous in Bangkok, but on this day the skyscrapers of the downtown area were visible. Our hotel room had a lovely view of the canal (Klong) complete with a window that didn’t open due to unpredictable air quality and variances in water pollution/smell levels. It was exciting to view long tailed boats transporting passengers or freight along the waterway.

I discovered an interesting article explaining the history behind the Banglampu canal from welcomeguide2thailand.com  The canal dates back to 1782, when Bangkok was designated as the capital, and is over 3.4 kilometers long created by over 10,000 laborers. Bang Lamphu canal is 1.1 km long and is a section of the canal line that offers transportation access around the city. Bangkok waterways are symbols of a city that was known as the “Venice of the East” for much of the 19th Century.  

On previous trips to Bangkok we took guided tours on the canals and also experienced the klong water transport system with the locals. This is an experience you don’t want to miss unless you have physical limitations–be prepared to jump in and out of the longboats quickly.

Sometimes the longboats did not even come to a complete stop at the docks, so be ready to move quickly; know your exit stop prior to boarding; have correct currency ready; and watch out for the fee collectors who hang off the sides and maneuver around the vessels as they speed down the canals. P.S. Most of the fee collectors did not speak English.

Off to north Bangkok destination Union Street Mall to meet up with Alexander and his lovely girlfriend Benz for dinner at popular MK restaurant. This mall has 8 floors housing over 1,240 booths and shops and adjacent to MRT Phahon Yothin station.

Our next adventure was to explore the largest Chinatown in the world at Yaowarat Road, Bangkok. The 1.5 km road was originally built in 1891.

Street food, markets, and famous temples are the main draws for this populous and popular area of Bangkok. According to the Chinese zodiac, it is the year of the pig and souvenirs were readily available. The clothing shops displayed brightly coloured ornate traditional clothing for very reasonable prices.

Market places displayed a multitude of choices of nearly any type of food or herb imaginable. Seafood options were plentiful and extensive. It is a fascinating area to explore. Unfortunately, it was Mark’s turn to suffer travel aggravation and our visit here ended up being cut short.

Heading back to the hotel we passed the majestic complex of the Grand Palace for the Kings of Thailand. Bangkok’s famous palace complex was built in 1782 and features buildings including Wat Phra Kaeo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), which contains a beautiful Emerald Buddha dating back to the 14th century. The yellow cloth banners symbolize the King. Purple banners symbolize the presence of the princess.

After 1925 the Royal family no longer resided here. The Grand Palace is now mainly used as a tourist attraction except for occasional ceremonial events. The fee to enter the Grand Palace is 500 Baht $21.50 CAN/person.

Back to our soi 2 Samsen Road, Banglamphu where interesting buildings influenced by French, as well as tailors flashing Armani titles and suits made to fit in 24 hours, intrigue.

Consuming more charcoal pills to settle irritated intestines, we headed out closer to home base. One last massage prior to departing from Bangkok tomorrow…

Checking Trip Advisor (our “go to” app for recommendations) we located a nearby massage shop receiving great ratings. Upon arrival the outside looked less than appealing, but we thought we would be open minded. We entered the massage location, but nobody was in the reception area? Suddenly 2 people quickly descended the stairs to greet us. As they led us upstairs to our locations a young couple quickly exited the disheveled bed I was directed towards. My husband and I quickly created an excuse and departed the establishment. This was our first experience with terribly inaccurate ratings.

However, further down the same block we discovered Samsen massage which was a clean, well run massage location making our final 300 Baht massage experience in Bangkok a satisfying success.

This video represents our adventures: exploring our Hotel, meals with Alexander, Chinatown, Grand Palace, our Soi, and final rainy moments.

It was time for final good-byes to wonderful friends Andy and Jen from Australia, and one last meal with my son, Alexander.

It is never easy for a mother to say good-bye to her child no matter his/her age when half a world separates them! So…until we meet again my son. Love you forever and always.

This has been a phenomenal 6 weeks in Asia. Thank you Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia for sharing your people, culture, history, geography, and unique perspectives with us. I feel richer and more informed from this experience.

Tomorrow we depart to return to Canada. What’s next for this curious adventurous soul and her equally globally curious husband?

 

 

 

 

 

Re-live Tomb Raider at Prasat Ta Prohm. Angkor Wat Sunrise to Khmer Dancing!

May 2019

Our final full day in Cambodia could not have been any more diverse or awe inspiring! Departing the hotel at 4:45 a.m. we joined the masses sitting or standing awaiting mother nature’s artistic sunrise display above Angkor Wat.

As we exited from this location we encountered an active troop/tribe of pigtail macaque monkeys. Research varied on the number of macaque monkeys at Angkor Wat, but estimates are 60 monkeys. Although the macaque played, groomed, and interacted with each other near well used pathways it is always wise to remember that these monkeys are wild and their personal space should be respected.

Here is a collage showing a sample of our day in Cambodia.

Our Intrepid group was off exploring two more temples. Prasat Ta Prohm is the famous temple in the Jungle featured in the Tomb Raider movie. We also visited another small temple Prasat Kravan. Our final group experience in Cambodia was to attend a Apsara Khmer Cultural Dance Performance and buffet dinner.

Departing from our hotel at 4:45 a.m. we drove in darkness to Angkor Wat and carefully followed our guide along the dark path to the favorite look out location. Luckily May is “off season” because clearly this is a popular tourist attraction and hundreds of other tourists were also gathered here to wait for the mysterious display of colors and hues which would light up Angkor Wat this morning. The sky was lovely and if you were close enough to view the reflection on the water it truly was quite spectacular. 

As we returned to our bus we were entertained by the antics and activity of a tribe of pigtail macaque monkeys. The macaque monkeys had appeared near the pathway after the sunrise and were busy playing, grooming, and eating. There were several tiny babies snuggled in tight to their mothers and the parents were keeping a close eye on their babies. As they traveled from location to location the babies hung on underneath or on top of their parents.

Tourists were venturing close to the monkeys. Research uncovered that there have been previous attacks/altercations between the monkeys and humans at Angkor Wat temples. Monkeys are fascinating to observe, but in my experience wild animals (especially mothers with babies) should be treated with an element of caution and personal space. However, the interaction and love displayed between mother and baby monkeys warmed my heart.

Heading northeast our next destination was the jungle-covered temple Prasat Ta Prohm famous in the Western world as the setting for the movie Tomb Raider.

What an incredible location for a photo shoot! Enormous gnarled trees exposed roots and branches that encompassed piles of ancient bricks from remaining ruins of this 12–13 century temple. A feral orange minx cat even appeared out of an opening in the stone wall. Hues of green from various types of algae and moss thriving against the grey/rust stone left a damp, magical sentiment.

This Bayon style temple, originally founded by Khmer King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th to early 13th Century, was intended as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university. The original name was Rajavihara. Conservation and restoration of this magnificent temple is a partnership project between Cambodia and the Archaeological Survey of India.

Our next temple stop Prasat Kravan was a small, less popular tourist location.

Kravan is a small 10th-century temple consisting of five reddish brick towers on a common terrace. The Hindu temple was dedicated to Vishnu. After about 10 minutes we were back on the tour bus!

This video reflects our adventures from Sunrise at Angkor Wat to Macaque monkeys and magical Ta Prohm temple!

 

We appreciated relaxing in the hotel pool between the sights of the day and the evening of Khmer culture –traditional dance and buffet. Sadly, one member of our Intrepid tour group slipped on the rain covered tiles while exiting the pool and sustained a nasty fall. She was a trooper but the injury resulted in the couple missing our final dinner together in Cambodia. Accidents happen so unexpectedly, it certainly is a reminder to buy medical insurance before you travel globally.

The rooms we received at the Dinata Angkor boutique hotel in Siem Reap ranged from satisfactory to quite lovely. Our room was quite lovely, but as we entered the room we could overhear a ferocious dog fight nearby. From our balcony we overlooked a dirt courtyard. A dog run fence was located along a white walled building. 

When the green metal gate was left open stray dogs entered the dirt courtyard harassing and threatening the dogs in the narrow fenced area. Adults would eventually chase the strays out with brooms and close the gate. We were thankful we spent very little time at our hotel.

The Apsara Khmer dancers were performing at a lovely hotel nearby. Several of us wore our Khmer scarfs to the event in honor of our tour guide Sareth and the Cambodian people.

The Apsara dance is based on a legend that Cambodia originated from the union of the hermit Kampu and the Apsara Mera. The dance dates back to the 6th and 7th centuries.

The main dancer wearing white represents Mera. The other females clad in colourful regalia are her maidens. Although the female dancers are serious and seem to show no facial emotion, ironically the dance depicts happiness and prosperity for the country.

The female dancers were beautiful and feminine. The costumes were ornate including silk, extensive jewelry and make up, and headpieces. The dances were slow moving and graceful with wrists, hands and eyes embellishing the story message. The men seemed to have the character parts–demons, monkeys. The youth dancers who performed demonstrated vitality, fun, and playfulness.

This pictorial video represents our entertaining Khmer Cultural dance and buffet experience!

 

The buffet dinner was extensive including Khmer/Cambodian food options: Amok Cambodian curry, BBQ, curry soup, mango salad, fish amok, and Khmer desserts.

What a memorable and lovely way to celebrate our last evening in Cambodia.

Tomorrow our Intrepid tour agenda includes a 10 hour bus trip exiting Cambodia and returning to Thailand!

Temple-hop at Angkor Wat!

May 2019

Travelling through Cambodia in May has its advantages and disadvantages. A huge advantage with travelling in the “off season” was more personal connection, physical space, and no line ups or massive crowds at tourist locations such as, Angkor Wat.

Peak season for Cambodia is from November to February when the weather is dry and cooler.  Our biggest challenge was the intense heat and humidity! Walking outdoors for hours exploring ruins and climbing steep staircases in 40 degree temperatures with 90% humidity required hats, hand fans, lots of water and incredible resilience. Don’t plan to pose for photos if you are concerned about looking fresh and beautiful. Saturated clothing, beet red faces, and hair stuck to our heads is the look you will be seeing today!

Angkor Wat world heritage archaeological site is a temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument in the world. The ruins are located on an area over 160 square kilometers. Angkor Wat means “Temple City” in Khmer. Angkor refers to the city of Cambodia and Wat is the Khmer word for temple ground. Angkor Wat is the icon on the Cambodian flag.

Angkor Wat temple is a source of fierce national pride in Cambodia. It has been the source of conflict between religions as well as neighboring countries (Vietnam and Thailand) attempting to claim its ownership.

Angkor Wat opens at 5am for visitors who want to see the sunrise from this iconic spot. The upper level (Bakan Sanctuary) is only open from 7.30am. Angkor Wat closes at 5.30pm.

An entry pass to the temples of Angkor costs US$37 for one day, US$62 for three days (which can be used over a period of 10 days) and US$72 for one week (which can be used over one month). Siem Reap is the closest main center located 7 km away. Our Intrepid tour group stayed at the Dinata Angkor Boutique Hotel in Siem Reap.

After getting our photos taken for the $62 US 3 day pass of Angkor Pass, our day’s adventure commenced.

Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer empire flourishing from 9th to 15th centuries. King Suryavarman II built Angkor Wat in the early 12th century as a Hindu temple for the Khmer Empire dedicated to the god Vishnu; however, the temple was transformed into a Buddhist Wat during the 13th/14th centuries.

The sandstone blocks from which Angkor Wat was built were quarried from the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen, more than 50km away, and floated down the Siem Reap River on rafts. Ironically, the floating walkway which safely supported 2.1 million tourists last year as they made their way toward the ancient ruins, originates from Canada. My husband and I recognized Candock immediately!

There is much speculation regarding the purpose of the enormous Wat complex–possibly a potential tomb for King Suryavarman (who was not buried here). Even the manner in which you view the temple has been interpreted as an anticlockwise direction. Angkor Wat’s unique features, include more than 3000 charming apsaras (heavenly nymphs) carved into its walls. The stairs to the upper level are immensely steep, because “reaching the kingdom of the gods was no easy task.” (Particularly in 40 degree temperature!).

Angkor Wat is an architectural fascination of intricacy and transformation. To understand the history and complexity of the structures and spiritual Hindu then Buddhist beliefs, it is wise to research prior to visiting this World Heritage site. Beyond the 12th Century origins in Khmer culture, many questions remain as you tour these temples and view evidence of historical transformations at Angkor Wat.

The bullet holes in the walls and missing Buddhas speak of uprisings, wars and periods of time when peace was not obtainable. The Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas (Preah Poan) used to house hundreds of Buddha images before the war, but many of these were removed or stolen.

After viewing majestic Angkor Wat our group gathered at the end of the Candock floating bridge where the monkeys entertained us (mostly from a healthy distance).

Sareth rekindled his energy with some fish kabobs while most of us searched for cool drinks and shade! Then we were off to tour Angkor Thom Temple and the Bayon.

As we trudged over the moat’s bridge (in the intense heat) we were greeted by statues on either side of the road–the faces of Southgate.

“On each side of the causeway are railings fashioned with 54 stone figures engaged in the performance of a famous Hindu story: the myth of the Churning of the Ocean. On the left side of the moat, 54 ‘devas’ (guardian gods) pull the head of the snake ‘Shesha’ while on the right side 54 ‘asuras’ (demon gods) pull the snake’s tail in the opposite direction.”  https://www.orientalarchitecture.com/sid/16/cambodia/angkor/angkor-thom-south-gate

Angkor Thom means ‘Great City’. The Bayon is the captivating 12th/13th century Khmer temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII.  It is adorned with stone pillars originally featuring 216 stone faces created to replicate King Jayavarman VII.

Sections of the facial rock sculptures have been altered and adjusted to reflect the face shapes and cultural representation of subsequent rulers.

After King Jayavarman VII died, several kings adapted and changed the faces in the Bayon temple. Under King Jayavarman VIII, Cambodia reverted to a Hindu country and the faces in the temple were altered. Later in the 14th and 15th centuries, Cambodia became a Theravada Buddhist country and the temple was altered once again.

There is much to observe and reflect upon while wandering through the various temples at the Angkor complex.

Late lunch was perfect timing as a tropical rain storm hit while we were under cover at a local rural marketplace. We observed shop proprietors rapidly and efficiently covering their wares with tarps and plastic sheets then plugging large holes in their roofs with temporary tarps or umbrellas. Although the children trying to sell us palm leaves to protect us from rain were adorable, we were told not to encourage them or give them money. Apparently if children beg or get successful getting money from tourists then they rarely attend school and have less chance of getting educated and improving their life choices.The laterite (red clay soil) shone with new purpose when the rains ceased and the sun exposed itself once again. The rain was refreshing and we were off to tour our third temple.

Banteay Srei, the Lady Temple, built from pink sandstone looked stunning after a fresh rainfall. This 10th Century Cambodian Temple was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. It is located near Phnom Dei 38 km from Siem Reap northeast of the main group of temples.

Banteay Srei was gorgeous! The colours and intricate carving made beautiful photo shoot opportunities. A French company has been working to stabilize the ruins and improve the condition of the artifacts. The guard monkeys and adornments of leaf motifs and female deities (devatas) on doorways and walls were spectacular.

But… our tour was not completed yet!

As we journeyed back towards Siem Reap, we encountered our 4th temple which was Prasat Pre Rup.  Pre Rup translated means “turn the body” and it’s believed that funerals took place here. Apparently, the bodies of the dead were rotated during the funeral. Some archaeologists believe that the large vat located at the base of the east stairway to the central area was used at cremations.

This architectural temple-mountain was built in the second half of the tenth century (961) by King Rajendraman II and dedicated to the Hindi god Siva.

When we arrived at Prasat Pre Rup another tour group was posing on the staircase while their guide snapped photos. We enjoyed touring around the ruins, climbing the steep staircases, and observing the canopy of the rainforest from the top of the “temple-mountain”.

However, we were given minimal information about the unique characteristics and religious significance of each archaeological site in the world famous Angkor Wat complex. In retrospect, I would strongly suggest that extensive front loading and research prior to your investigation of Angkor Wat would greatly enhance your understanding and spiritual experience here.

We returned to our hotel for a much needed quick dip in the pool and cool down prior to dinner! Although we had a “free” evening, my husband and I chose to add another experience to our Cambodia adventure by attending a “circus” located on the outskirts of the city.  Siem Reap, population 140,000, is classified as a resort town in northwestern Cambodia and is the closest location to the Angkor Wat complex.

We were naive regarding our Cambodian ‘circus’ expectations, but our tour guide organized the remorque (tuktuk) and tickets for our experience. We had heard that the Phare circus involved Cambodian street kids and orphans who were learning life skills in the ‘circus’ entertainment industry. By attending the ‘circus’ we would be financially supporting positive ways to change the lives of these children and teens. “Phare artists use theater, music, dance and circus arts to tell uniquely Cambodian stories.” https://pharecircus.org/

What a fabulous experience! Same. Same. But Different! When we arrived at Phare Circus Ring Road, south of the Intersection, Sok San Rd, Krong Siem Reap the place was buzzing with activity! “Phare, the Cambodian Circus, is an offshoot project of Phare Ponleu Selpak (Association), which translates into “Brightness of the Arts” in English. PPS Association is a Cambodian non-profit, non-governmental association founded in 1994 by eight young Cambodian ex-refugee artists in the area of Anchanh Village, Ochar Commune, Battambang Province.” https://www.bordersofadventure.com/night-circus-siem-reap/

To get children and teens off the streets, the organization teaches these youth skills to create a safe product which is then promoted and sold by other youth and adults. The money they accumulate goes directly to support their education and career training opportunities. Meanwhile, the public is also getting educated and the youth are gaining a positive purpose and new optimism towards life possibilities.

Keep in mind that due to Khmer genocide discussed in earlier blog posts, we were informed that 54% of Cambodians are 18 years old or younger and many of these youth survive without family guidance. We were totally supportive of, and encouraged by, this social and cultural initiative.

At this location there was a shop selling crafts mostly created by youth–many utilizing recycled materials. There was lovely food and drinks being created and served by the youth. Inside the humorous and athletic entertainment was performed by the older youth who had been through the education and job skills training. I particularly enjoyed the skit on the differences in fixing a power outage–Cambodian verses Foreigners!

There were posters and information displayed requesting that tourists do NOT give money to children who are begging and to phone and report if children are seen accompanying foreigners into hotels.

In addition to an enrapturing evening of entertainment, crowds of tourists were also being educated about Cambodian social awareness and responsibility.  I would highly recommend attending the inspiring Phare circus if you have the opportunity to travel to Siem Reap.

Tomorrow we are up early to observe the sunrise above Angkor Wat, explore more fascinating temples then attend a cultural Cambodian dance performance!

B.B.Q. Rat, Frog, or Fowl? Battambang to Siem Reap.

May 2019

Our morning agenda consisted of a Soksabike half day bike adventure exploring authentic cottage industries throughout the Cambodian countryside around Battambang. While our Intrepid group and Sareth would exercise all morning cycling 22 km in over 32 degree humid heat…I would play the role of the trusty mascot who would be in charge of purses and backpacks and yell encouragements from my position in the back of a covered Tuk Tuk! Ahhh….Those darn knees of mine!

Although this event was included in our Intrepid tour, it can be booked with Soksabike for $27 US/person. This collage depicts some of our sights and experiences today in Cambodia. 

During the Soksabike tour we stopped at several private homes to observe and learn how various food products were harvested and the locations in which they were created! This video represents our morning adventure from orientation at the bicycle rental through the first two countryside visits.

Please note the variety of housing as we made our way through the lanes and back roads checking out cottage industries off the beaten path of Battambang.  70% of Cambodian population lives in rural locations. We were so appreciative to have the opportunity to learn how products were made in traditional ways by local Khmer and understand how these gentle people lived, worked and survived. 

At the first location we learned about creating rice paper. Although most of the people we visited did not seem to understand English, our tour guide explained about their lifestyle and what was involved to create their product.

We walked past the racks of drying rice paper into the production area/home. Water is collected in huge ceramic pots at the rear of the home. Inside the home the men sleep on mats beside the fire, motorcycle, and drying racks. We were informed it is safer for the women to sleep upstairs. This family unit worked from Dawn to Dusk every day creating rice paper just to make ends meet. The elderly were cared for by the family. While we were at this location, a monk (in orange robes) arrived to collect contributions of food or money. The lady offered him coins from her meager supply.

 

At the second location we learned the process involved to make dried mango and bananas. Wooden boards supported multiple quantities of bright orange mango which rested on leaves while drying in the sun. Flies were plentiful buzzing around the sweet, sticky substances. There were also long poles drying bananas. In the yard we also observed long bamboo poles with baskets on the ends resting against a fence.

Inside the home a table was set with samples of fruit for us to try. While our guide explained the process for drying fruit, the women sat on the floor in the background peeling fruit. There were also some older men baring war wounds and scars who sat silently. When we departed into the yard one of these men demonstrated the long poles with baskets which he had created to assist removing fruit from tall trees. He also demonstrated the stick marionettes he makes and was delighted when Ecaterina and I purchased one.

Resuming our tour, we noticed that children were quick to wave but adults tended to be serious and sometimes seemed uncomfortable towards us.

The second video reflects the continuation of our cycling tour and introduction to more Khmer traditional foods and drinks including bamboo sticky rice sold in long bamboo tubes and another location producing rice wine.

We have seen several rice wine distilleries during our travels though Asia, but this was by far the cleanest and most modern facility I have witnessed. As usual, no rice wine facility is complete without at least one huge poisonous snake sharing its poison in a large clear jug of rice wine!

As we passed a Wat temple three very serious young boys were exiting–possibly studying there?

Following the cycling tour we checked out of the “Classy Hotel” in Battambang and headed to Siem Reap.

Au revoir Battambang. Although it is the second largest city located in northwestern Cambodia we spent very little time here.

We missed seeing the colonial buildings (Sala Khaet), Provincial museum, Khmer temples or 11th Century pagoda. We did experience the Bamboo train, visited Lok Ta Dambong Kra Nhoung statue, and toured through cottage industries.

En route to Siem Reap we stopped at Sareth’s favorite roadside stop at O Taki. Strettarea to sample Khmer BBQ foods (well…some tried). My husband decided to sample some rat, but I preferred to sample a very chewy frog! 

Roads were packed with bicycles through Banteay Meanchey as school children clad in white shirts and navy pants/skirts exited school grounds on mass for the day.

In the collage above… the top right photo is an example of take out Khmer style! There are several BBQ rats in the white bag on the dashboard.

During the 3 + hour trip from Battambang to Siem Reap we encountered more road upgrades and construction. We were informed most of the funding for these infrastructure upgrades is coming from either China or Japan.

This final video illustrates the BBQ Khmer foods we sampled and what traveling on highways looks like in Cambodia.

Road safety does not seem to be a priority here as people ride in the backs of trucks, on the tops of loaded vehicles, or pass on the right or left! We witnessed 2 lane highways regularly being utilized as 3 lane roads as vehicles manoeuvred between the center while vehicles were occupying both lanes of the highway!

Once arriving at our destination of Siem Reap many of us took advantage of the hotel’s pool for a much needed break to relax and unwind! We are based at Dinata Boutique Hotel for the next 3 nights.

Tomorrow we explore the famous Angkor Wat!

 

Life in a floating village–Kampong Luong, Cambodia! Then Exploring Battambang.

May 2019

As we boarded the bus to depart from Phnom Penh we had no idea this would be another eye opening, life changing day in Cambodia! Heading to our next destination, Battambang, we would travel northwest for 295 km which should take about 5 hours and 40 mins. However, in addition to stopping for coffee and baked goodies; and visiting a location where mentally challenged people craft items from recycled silver; we were stopping to tour and visit an authentic floating village of about 300+ families at Kampong Luong.

As usual, our packed day would not end there…Once arriving in Battambang we would take a bamboo train to watch the sunset, then tour the downtown area prior to a late dinner! Here is a glimpse of our day.

Our tour guide (and most members of our tour group), adore coffee in the morning so our first stop was Tous les Jours authentic Bakery and Coffee shop. Due to my gluten intolerance, these bakery visits are difficult for me as I usually can not eat anything on the menu. Oh well…I gain less weight this way!

The modes of transport in Cambodia have their own unique flair. There are many motorcycles and tuktuks in Cambodia, but unlike Vietnam, honking is less common. Many motorcycles pull long carts (remork-moto). Foreigners can rent motorcycles here but do your research prior to choosing this option. There is extensive infrastructure upgrades occurring, and dirt roads and huge potholes are still common in areas.

Sareth was entertaining during the bus drive teaching us about multiple different ways to wear the famous Khmer scarfs. He was so convincing with the multiple uses for the scarf for males and females that many of us purchased scarfs prior to departing from Cambodia.

Roadside housing varied from elaborate (often with French influence), to homes on stilts, or simple shacks. Overhead electrical wiring looks very similar to what we witnessed in Thailand. During our trip to the floating village, it was quite common to see skinny cows munching on sparse blades of grass along the sides of the road/highway.

This is a pictorial representation of our journey from Phnom Penh to the floating village.

As we drove down the long dirt road towards the floating village of Kampong Luong 54, Krakor, Cambodia  we were greeted by the site of garbage and remnants of previous homes. As the water levels subside on this lake (Tonle Sap), the homes must be moved. We weren’t informed how often this occurs or how far the homes must be relocated. Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia.

“The floating village of Kompong Luong offers the opportunity to visitors to discover the everyday life of Cambodian families on the Tonle Sap lake. The families live in floating houses with a constant movement of boats that brings people and goods to the village. The village consist of both Cambodian community and Vietnamese community both living in the same floating village.” For a home stay experience at this floating village check out this article written by Chris Green. https://impactexplorer.asia/kompong-luong/

As we neared the lake there were a few tiny homes situated on the land adjacent to the area where dozens of long boats were located. Emaciated cattle, dogs, and water buffalo wandered along the banks searching for sustenance. Several thin, agile Khmer boys gathered to assist the tourists in getting into the boats then free ropes for the driver. Perhaps the driver’s sons?

Later when we returned from the boat tour the same boys were collecting plastic and Styrofoam from the garbage heaps on the sides of this lake. As they ran to assist with the docking of the boat one little boy lost his flip-flops and cut his foot just prior to jumping into the murky greenish/brown lake water. They must be incredibly resilient children as the water was polluted and unsanitary. The little boys were friendly, helpful, athletic, welcoming, and had the most beautiful smiles.

Our tour group was informed there were over 300 families living in the floating village. Additional research indicates this number could be substantially low! Citizens from both Cambodia and Vietnam live together in this floating community. Interesting enough, although the village is located in Cambodia it is apparently considered a Vietnamese settlement?

We didn’t see any life jackets (except hanging in our tour boat!) and children seemed very confident independently maneuvering their vessels.

The lake water was used for bathing, swimming, washing, fishing, transporting boats and loads, and the outhouses were located directly above the water!

This experience was another eye-opener for us.  There was so much to observe and learn about this unique way of life. I have created 2 videos about our time at the floating village. This is Part One from our arrival until we reached the floating school in the village. (Note the boats docked in front of the school which the children quite capably navigate through the waters.).

According to our guide, students who get to attend schools in primary grades usually attend from 8:30–11:30 for the first 4 years of their education.

As we toured through Kampong Luong we passed the school, fueling station, phone stores, health center, convenience stores, ice shop, church, temple, police station, 2-3 home stays run by the village, fishing supply store, machine shop, and many other small businesses. The recreation building was located near the outer edge of the village. Entrepreneurs even rowed around the village with wares or vegetables in their heavily laden boats.

Children waved and adults seemed neutral or tolerant regarding the invasion of tourists exploring their community. The pace was slow and peaceful –except for the occasional loud engines as the longboats passed by.

No drive throughs. No junk food. No obesity. No eating unnecessarily. Food here is for sustenance and survival requires an active lifestyle. Turquoise, green and white are popular colors used on many of the homes and businesses here. Here is the second half of our trip through this unique floating village.

It would be fascinating to experience a home stay in Kampong Luong … but due to my current digestive unrest in Cambodia, I am sure I couldn’t survive the poor sanitation conditions!

However…. I would have loved to teach these delightful children!

Back on the bus… searching for emergency bathrooms! Then onward to Battambang–the second most populated city in Cambodia.

After unloading our belongings at the “Classy Hotel” we headed out on tuktuks to drive 4km to the train station, O-Dambong, where we would all board bamboo trains to ride through the country and observe a sunset Cambodian style.

The bamboo trains were very simplistic. The train is known as a norry, a 3m sq. metal and wood frame, covered with strips of bamboo. The “bamboo” section of the train was the floor boards which were covered in a reed mat upon which we sat. 10 from our group plus Sareth were divided into 2 “trains”.

Each “train” had a driver at the rear. There was no safety gear on this excursion. We sat bundled together on the mat and zoomed down the railway tracks. The rural landscape was lush and the ride was fun.

We had 2 brief stops en route to the bridge (sunset observation point). One stop occurred when a herd of cattle was led over the tracks to new grazing areas. The second occurred when a family was coming the opposite direction down the track! They stopped, got off their ‘train’ and lifted their base and wheels off the track until we passed then re positioned them on the track.

The only casualty occurred when a large hornet flew into my knuckle resulting in a substantial sting, swelling and welt. Apparently I “took one for the team!” However, I wasn’t thrilled about getting another sting as I previously was stung by a wasp at Halong Bay while kayaking! Thanks to Julie and Mac who shared their antihistamine cream to reduce the swelling each time. 😬

Presenting our sunset adventure on the Bamboo train.

While anticipating the sunset at the bridge area we heard croaking followed by a quick splash. A local man was sifting through the reeds capturing frogs and passing them to (possibly family) members waiting up the bank. Dinner?

After a beautiful return trip aboard our bamboo train admiring the romantic beauty inspired by the setting sun’s hues and impact on the scenery, we boarded our Tuktuks. It was time to return to our hotel after another late evening dinner and photo shoot at the enormous Ta Dumbong (Powerful Black Man) statue in central Battambang.

It was another packed day with Intrepid tours! Tomorrow we tour rural Battambang via bicycles then travel 3-4 hours to our next destination–Siem Reap.

Note: I would like to acknowledge that some of the photos/videos in this blog post were taken by my husband, Mark, or shared by members of our Intrepid tour group.

 

 

Cambodia–A Myriad of Emotions. Tuol Sleng, Tarantulas, Tropical Storms!

Early May 2019

Cambodia has a tragic past which deeply effects its people–lifestyle, family structure, culture, economy, basic survival, trust. This 7 day guided tour through Cambodia merely scratched the surface of new awareness and understanding of this country and its amazing people.

Commencing this Intrepid tour as a naive tourist; I departed emotionally haunted, shocked, and much more deeply connected to the needs and future visions of these resilient, hard working Cambodian people. Keeping in mind that 54% of the population is under 18 years of age, there is much rebuilding and new direction likely to occur in the next few decades. Here is a pictorial overview of some of the day’s highlights.

This would be our first full day in Cambodia. The heinous historical atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge shared and viewed during the morning tours, would deeply horrify and sicken us all. This day took a heavy emotional toll on our group members. Some chose to reflect and not to pursue optional activities today. However, others ventured out to explore the capital city Phnom Penh (population over 2.1 million)–even tasting a certain type of arachnid at lunch! Several of us toured the National Museum even being detained by a sudden Tropical storm! At night most of the group also took an optional tour up the Mekong River before dinner.

To be truthful… I have been taking Imodium and Charcoal tablets trying to stabilize unhappy travel bowels… I’m not alone either!!!

After seeing the Hanoi Hilton, Cu Chi Tunnels, War Remnants museums, and people effected by Agent Orange in Vietnam… I knew emotionally I couldn’t handle seeing the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Khmer Rouge Killing fields in person today. How people can conduct genocide and commit such heinous crimes on other human beings is so deeply disturbing and wrong! It was difficult enough to look at the photos and listen to information from my Intrepid tour group after the visit.

After additional research I learned, on April 17th 1975 the Khmer Rouge entered the capital of Phnom Penh and began a “reign of terror under leader Pol Pot that left up to 2 million people dead through starvation, execution, and overwork. ” abc.net.au/news/2014-08-07/an-Khmer-rouge-timeline/5655920

This genocide of one’s own race is on its own intolerable and sickening; however, trying to fathom that the number of individuals murdered was the size of the entire population of the largest city in all of Cambodia is beyond belief!

The group toured the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which was a former school converted into the Khmer Rouge torture center. Part of the tour included meeting 2 survivors who have now written their stories about their experiences at S-21. It is estimated that over 20,000 people from 1975 to 1979 were held and tortured at this site. The Choeung Ek Memorial contains a stupa made up of 8,000 human skulls which marks the site of the “Killing Fields” execution grounds for  victims tortured at Tuol Sleng.

Warning: There are some disturbing images in this pictorial representation of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Choeung Ek Memorial, and the Killing Fields. But… This is true, recent history.

For a complete change of pace…Many of the group went out for lunch together and Mark and Tyler decided to consume something very unusual. Ready? Ever wanted to try Tarantulas? Personally… not a chance!

But Tyler ordered 3 Tarantulas for lunch. He ate two and Mark ate the third one!

Notice Tyler laughing as Mark tried his arachnid! As they both concluded that there wasn’t a chance they’d like more in the future… I decided to create both a collage and GIF of the memorable experience!

They both said “We took one for the team!” This really unique restaurant called “Friends” was located near our Cardamom Hotel and the National Museum. It is a training restaurant run by the “Friends International” organization.

There is also a shop located adjacent to the restaurant where handicrafts (created out of recycled materials) were made by orphaned children and street youth and sold by the Friends organization to fund schooling and job training opportunities for these children.

“Friends-International is an international social enterprise and registered non-governmental organization focusing on children’s empowerment established in Cambodia in 1994. “Wikipedia

This is a non-religious organization which started working to assist street youth in Phnom Penh in 1994. There is a crisis of orphaned children and street youth here due to the decimation of families caused by recent mass genocide discussed earlier in this blog post. Unfortunately, there are some dishonest organizations claiming to assist the orphans here too.

The Friends organization has validity and reliability and seems to be making a true difference to the futures of many youth here.  Tourists are encouraged to avoid giving money or food to orphans who are begging. Instead, children are encouraged to attend school, then learn trades to become more self sufficient. The schooling and job training is funded by tourists purchasing handicrafts and food prepared by the youth.

Many of us purchased items from the Friends gift shop. I purchased jewelry created out of bullets which were pounded flat and cut into shapes adorned by recycled paper beads.

Jen, Mark and I decided to visit the National Museum to learn more about Traditional Khmer art and view religious artifacts. The 1920s reddish colored building is an intriguing architectural design. The entrance fee was $10 US/person. I wished I had time to attend the Cambodian dance workshop offered here!

This video highlights our adventure in Cambodia’s capital city from lunch into the afternoon including the Tropical Rainstorm. Listen for the Thunder!

As you can see… when in the midst of a tropical rainstorm why not relax and try out the local beer?

Jen, Mark and I squashed into an tiny available Tuktuk to head home. The driver had just raised the plastic side walls which were added to protect riders from getting drenched during the heavy down pour!

Another packed day… but we are not finished! Next we headed out on another optional Sunset boat cruise along the Mekong River!

Our guide Sareth joined this tour and taught us about the meaning of the Cambodian flag. We were informed the flag of Cambodia has 3 colors and 3 towers–but there are actually 5 towers? The blue represents the King. The red represent the nation (people). The white represents religion (pure).

The sunset was glorious and magical. The riverside views depicted a population which utilized water vessels of all shapes, sizes, and conditions. The discrepancy between the rich and the poor was evident as we traveled down the river.

It was a lovely way to unwind and enjoy the activity along the Mekong River. The cocktails were lovely too. We inquired about the safety of the ice, but were told the ice was safe for consumption.

After docking, we ended our extremely full day by reuniting with all 12 of our Intrepid tour group and Sareth for a final group dinner in Phnom Penh.

Tomorrow we head off to Battambang and visit a floating village!

 

 

 

Cambodia here we come! HCM City to Phnom Penh!

Early May 2019

Bright and early our newly formed Intrepid team of 12, plus our Cambodian guide Sareth, met by the steps of our hotel in anticipation of our upcoming adventure. Laden with cases we departed from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to board the public bus bound for our new destination of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Highlights from our trip Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, Cambodia May 6th 2019

Our trip would include border crossings and the estimated length of travel today was 10 hours! It would take about 2 1/2 hours to the first border crossing. After arrival in Phnom Penh we would check into our hotel then quickly head out for a tuk tuk (Cambodian style) tour of the downtown area.

We entered this next stage of our tour with fresh knowledge as we prepared to cross borders into Cambodia. Sareth, our guide, offered some introductory information to ease our transition into Cambodia.

We learned Khmer is the proper name for a Cambodian person. Generally people here are easy going and laugh a lot. It is rude to touch somebody’s head. 4,000 reil = $1 USA ATM. 54% of the population of this country is below 18 years of age! Wars have really effected family structures here!

Currency in Cambodia also required thought and preparation. Cash is available from ATM machines in Cambodia (as in Vietnam), but the bills you receive are in US dollars. We were advised to only carry small amounts of cash while travelling.

Although Riel is the national currency of Cambodia, usually prices were quoted in US dollars. Change is often returned in Riel though. So it’s to your benefit to learn money conversion values quickly! Also… Be careful about the US bills you bring. We were advised to only bring US $1, $5 and $10 bills. The bills must be crisp, not torn or marked, and newer than 2006. Members of our group did experience refusal at hotels if bills were crumbled or too old!

The 12 members of this tour group included 3 couples from our previous Intrepid tour through Vietnam and 6 new tour partners. The countries/cultures we represented were quite global: 4 Canadians (Nanaimo and Calgary), 4 Australians (Adelaide, and Canberra), 1 from Chile, 2 from New Zealand, 1 from Romania. However… the Romanian lived in Switzerland; a New Zealander lived in Brisbane; and several of us hold dual citizenships. The group was a prime example of what an interwoven global community our world is now.

Day 1 of our Intrepid tour of Cambodia

Here’s my video reflecting our day departing from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam at 7:30 am travelling by public bus, passing through 2 border crossings (no photography permitted at border crossings), then continuing our travels through Cambodia to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

In Vietnam 🇻🇳 there are red and yellow flags displayed everywhere—yellow stars are the national flag of Vietnam, yellow scythes represent communism. Motorcycles are the main source of transportation for families. Vehicles drive on the right side of the road (mainly). Traditional conical straw hats are common. Pagodas are seen occasionally; but unlike Thailand, there are minimal Buddhist Wats or places dedicated to religious study.

Roadside photos reflecting daily life

Crossing into Cambodia… The most immediate differences were: no more red and yellow flags; large billboards of the King; driving is also on the right side of the road (unlike Thailand); increase in cars and trucks; variances between areas of poverty and wealth; and Buddhist Wats and religious temples.

However, in both countries the rivers are fundamentally important to their economy and food production; weather in Early May is extremely hot (32-40 degrees C) and humid; and local men lift up their shirts and expose their bellies to cool off!

Border crossings were hectic with lengthy lines and masses of people. (And this wasn’t high tourist season!). First we needed to complete forms and pass our passports and papers to our guide—who then passed them to another individual. There were some mix ups at the booths, but everything was solved and we progressed through the first border crossing to exit Vietnam. No photographs allowed!

Next we had to walk, following our guide, a fair distance to the Cambodian buildings where we completed more forms and repeated the passport process again to enter Cambodia. I didn’t see any wheelchairs or mobility supports, so I’m not sure how physically challenged people would cope? Thankfully Sareth solved issues when they occurred and we all progressed into Cambodia.

Some members of our group quickly bought new SIM cards for their phones and Cambodian Riel and US dollars, then we were back on the public bus heading to Phonon Penh the capital city of Cambodia. This bustling city of over 16.5 million people has been the national capital since French colonization and is known as the nations industrial, cultural, and economic center.

Tuktuk tour of Phnom Penh led by Sareth

After registering at the Cardamom Hotel, we decided to take the optional Tuktuk tour of the city. $5 US/person lead by our guide Sareth.

The French architecture is stunning and we really enjoyed the delicious sweets Sareth shared. Tourists and locals enjoyed the sights and sounds of the lively evening activities. Entrepreneurs approached us to buy products like: sweet treats, hand fans, clothing, even releasing birds to bring you good luck. Eamonn was approached by children to release a bird and he released it when we were down on the main pier.

Most tuk tuks had barriers on the outside walls where you sit, as protection. We were informed to keep purses and bags hidden and protected as there is a problem with bags being stolen as motorcycles speed past near the tuktuks. Our Tuktuk driver’s son ran over and begged to join his dad as he toured us through the city center. In spite of the broken rear vision mirror and no helmets on our driver or son, it was a fun way to experience the city.

Tuktuk tour of Phnom Penh

This short video reflects our fun and memorable evening activities in Phnom Penh. We saw many highlights including: the Royal Palace (from a distance), Independence Monument, and Norodom Sihanouk Memorial commemorating former King Norodom.

Tomorrow the group views Tuol Sleng genocide museum and the Killing Fields, then the National Museum and Royal Palace (optional), and an optional boat cruise down the Mekong River. Wait until you see what Tyler and Mark eat!!!!

Free day in Ho Chi Minh City — Cambodia next!

May 4th 2019

Today was bitter sweet as we said goodbye to 1/2 of our Vietnam tour group and met 6 new members who would accompany the remaining 3 couples through Cambodia!

While some of our Intrepid group of 12 departed early, others remained until the afternoon and joined us as we explored the Independence/ Reunification Palace, the food market, and the Ben Thanh Market.

Some highlights of our day in Saigon

Jay, our fearless leader, had departed early to immediately lead a new tour. The morning felt strange and disjointed as members departed, yet we were still continuing on this journey through Asia. We had a 6 pm session to meet our new Cambodian guide and 6 new members of our tour group.

After breakfast we headed off to explore the Independence Palace. Our confidence walking and exploring around Vietnam has increased … We know how to safely cross hectic roads and avoid erosion on the sidewalks or oncoming motorcycles on sidewalks. We headed off in a small group.

We encountered some delightful Vietnamese students who enthusiastically practiced some basic conversational English with us. Andy convinced a local vendor to let him try his carrying pole (also called shoulder pole). This traditional method of carrying a load (in baskets) suspended by a yoke of wood or bamboo is more commonly seen used by females.

The Reunification/Independence Palace cost 40,000 VNDong each (About $2.30 CAN) to enter both the palace and the museum. Originally in 1868 a residence was built on this site for the French Governor-General which eventually became known as Norodom Palace.

After the French departed, Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem claimed the palace as his home. Apparently in 1962 the palace was bombed by his own Air Force in an assassination attempt. He had the palace rebuilt but the unpopular leader was killed by his troops in 1963.

The newly constructed building was named The Independence Palace and became home to South Vietnamese President, Nguyen Van Thieu until 1975 when communist tanks crashed through the gates.

Since this historic date, the palace (whether called the Independence Palace or Reunification Palace) was claimed by the Vietnamese communist government. The Palace is now a working government building, but when not in use, it’s also a historical museum.

Here is a video reflection of our final day in Vietnam.

Interesting areas inside the Palace include: Ground floor—meeting rooms, a room with phones which ring by importance; Upstairs—reception rooms. President’s living quarters with model boats, antlers, horse tails, and severed elephant’s feet;

2nd floor—games rooms, bar; Rooftop—cinema with massive projector, rooftop dance floor, helipad. Basement—telecommunications, bomb shelter, tunnels. In an adjacent building we watched historical videos and learned about timelines.

Time to explore the food fair then the famous Ben Thanh market. The choice is vast and extensive in each location. If you want cheap bargains… check out these spots. However, we didn’t stay long because I found the tight enclosed markets and aggressive vendors too much for me. J.J’s market in Bangkok is larger and vendors are much calmer.

Our remaining team of 6 saying goodbye to Anj and Rob

Sadly we said Tam biet to 6 of our tour group … Jess, Selina, Nell, Anne, Anj and Rob today. Tomorrow we depart Vietnam bright and early heading off to Cambodia with our new tour guide Sareth and 6 new team mates.

Cam o’n Vietnam! Thank you for opening our eyes to your amazing country!

Lush Mekong Delta! Tuk Tuks and Sampans to Elephant Ear Fish!

May 3rd 2019

Each day on this Intrepid tour of Vietnam has fulfilled our hopes and was packed with diverse opportunities to experience local activities and customs. Today, on our 9th and final full day together, was no exception!

Starting with a quick tour of Ho Chi Minh City, our main focus was to explore the Mekong Delta (Ben Tre); ride in sampans and tuk tuks; sample regional specialties from the famous river for lunch; and end the day at KOTO restaurant for our group farewell dinner. This blog post includes 3 short videos to reflect this amazing day!!

Our day started bright and early as Jay led us through a shortened version of the Ho Chi Minh city/Saigon tour. In this city of over 8.6 million the roads are hectic and noisy and motorcycles are common anywhere there is an open space!

In spite of this intensity, shear number of vehicles, and questionable safety of many loaded vehicles, we saw very few accidents during our time in this amazing country.

Ho Chi Minh City (also called Saigon by many locals) is the most populated city in Vietnam and has a vibe of development, evolution, commerce and culture.

The city has a complex history and the strong French influence from the past is noted in its architecture and French colonial landmarks, including Notre-Dame Cathedral. This majestic cathedral was constructed of materials imported from France. The gardens were colourful and well manicured, and appreciated by a multitude of birds and toddlers!

The yellow 19th Century Post Office also reflects this French connection. Walk inside to view the beautiful arched ceilings and “step into the past” red phone booths!

Jay presented a famous photo of a helicopter perched on the rooftop of a CIA’s apartment building as Americans evacuated the city on the final day of the American/Vietnamese war. The photo was taken by photojournalist Hugh van Es on April 29th 1975. This building was formerly called the Pittman Apartments. This is not a tourist site, but for further information on this event, here is an interesting blog site.

The building formerly known as the Pittman Apartments is located at 22 Ly Tu Trong St in Saigon’s District 1. https://www.rustycompass.com/blog/visiting-saigons-historic-rooftop-symbol-of-the-end-of-the-vietnam-war-295/#.XU4rnboTGEc

We drove by the Reunification Palace which some of us plan to explore tomorrow on our extra day in Ho Chi Minh City.

Heading out of the city, we boarded a boat for Ben Tre. Ben Tre is the capital city of the province of Ben Tre located in the southwestern part of the Mekong Delta, about 90km west of HCM City and is famous for its coconut products.

The Mekong River is a massive water system fundamentally necessary for the survival of the Vietnamese people. Economic advantage vs environmental vision is always a balancing act.

 

This video reflects Part #1 of our wonderful day exploring Ho Chi Minh City then our trip up the river in the fascinating Mekong Delta.

The low lying boats are close to overflowing with heavily loaded sand from the river bottom. Massive amounts of the silt from the natural base of the river is being excavated and sold. I couldn’t help pondering what effect will this have to the future of the Mekong Delta?

Other vessels are loaded with coconuts or produce from the Delta. Some boats are fishing vessels often accompanied with interesting living quarters on the back. Vessels have eyes painted on the front by their owners. According to legend, the custom of decorating  Vietnamese fishing boats with a pair of eyes is credited to Lac Long Quan, who believed this practice would scare off sea monsters.

Although we didn’t see any floating markets, pagodas, or Buddhist Temples today, we had an amazing adventure touring the coconut gardens and mangrove forests around Ben Tre. Clearly you need more than 1 day to explore this magnificent and abundant ‘rice bowl’ Delta!

Our modes of transportation were tuk tuks on a narrow cement roadway through the villages and coconut plantations, then sampans meandering through mangrove canals.

As we toured through the villages at Ben Tre the importance of coconut trees to these rural villagers’ livelihoods became blatantly evident.

We stopped at various locations to witness hard working locals (mainly women) manipulating palm leaves to create brooms (also used for roofing materials and baskets); utilizing the fibre from coconut husks to create mats and handicrafts; and extracting the water and milk from coconuts to create candy and delicious food products.

This video #2 reflects much of our experience traveling around villages in Ben Tre.

 

Ben Tre is famous for its delicious variety of coconut dishes in addition to specialty fruit, green Xiem coconuts, Mo Cay candy, coconut tree items, and handicrafts. Although many locals live off the land in similar ways to generations proceeding them, there is a growing push to diversify and expand economic options in this area.

I discovered some very informative websites about the Ben Tre economy and exports. I have attached these links particularly the Vietnam Investment Review.

“One of the area’s most famous products is keo dua (coconut candy), a favorite treat of southerners, closely followed by banana candy. The two traditional candies originated in Ben Tre.”

https://www.vir.com.vn/ben-tre-vietnams-coconut-kingdom-59087.html

“Only in the Mekong Delta province of Ben Tre can you find the Green Xiem coconut. It’s so special that it was recently granted a certificate of Geographical Indication.”

“Some of the province’s unique fruit specialties include milky yellow-fleshed and stoneless durians, green-skinned pomelos, Cai Mon mangosteens, high-yield “Four Season” mangos, and special Mo Cay oranges.”

We tried mangosteens with Jay at a market and rambutans on the boat. Although the exteriors are brightly coloured, the fruit inside is delicious. We also saw durians and pomelos growing on trees during our walks.

http://coconutvietnam.com.vn/news/use-the-8-great-part-of-the-coconut-tree/250.html 

During our excursion in the sampans we meandered through the canals bordered by mangrove and coconut trees. Our group was divided into 3 sampans  (small rowing boats) with a local gently maneuvering us through the water. We all wore the traditional conical hats called non la (leaf hats). They were light and cool as they protected us from another day of 38+ temperatures. Our guide even sang traditional Vietnamese songs as he softly directed our boat, until his cell phone rang!

We stopped at a lovely restaurant/boarding location on the return trip from Ben Tre back to HCM City. At this location we consumed a vast range of foods specific to the Mekong delta area. Possibly the most intriguing menu item was the Elephant Ear Fish which were presented so uniquely they were the focus of many photos.

Fresh coconut water…Bird of Paradise flowers…Delicious local food… Fascinating tours and scenery. I would have loved spending additional time exploring the Mekong Delta area!

During the bus trip back to Ho Chi Minh City, we saw many more motorcycles with unique loads–even one pulling a huge live pig! It was raining and the ponchos were out!

In Vietnam most garbage is burned, but there are roadside vendors recycling nearly anything you could imagine. I have included a few photos of some specialty metal being recycled in these roadside stores.

In video #3 more of Ben Tre is illustrated plus our return trip on the Mekong River, back to Ho Chi Minh City, and our final dinner together as Jay’s “Tiger Team”at KOTO restaurant.

 

Jay shared a heart warming ‘Thank you’ speech on the bus as we returned to Ho Chi Minh City and I responded on behalf of our tour group.

This was a very unique, cohesive, adventurous group of individuals from England, Australia, Canada, and Vietnam. Most of us are still keeping contact with one another. Thank you to each of you for sharing your laughs, stories, photos, energy, and positive attitudes. In addition, Intrepid is extremely lucky to have such a knowledgeable, caring, efficient ambassador of fascinating Vietnam.

KOTO restaurant is run by an organisation dedicated to developing the hospitality careers of disadvantaged youth in Vietnam.

Jay’s final gift to us was a personal clay whistle of our animal sign according to the Chinese New Year. We had fun and made quite a racket attempting to create a melody with them. Thanks Jay! You will always be in our hearts and memories.

The next blog post will include: our sad goodbyes to 6/12 of our tour group, further exploration Ho Chi Minh City, and meeting 6 new tour members and a new guide as we make the transition from Vietnam to Cambodia.

Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon– Somber Past and Optimistic Future!

May 2nd 2019

The purpose of today’s adventure on our Intrepid tour was more serious than on previous days. Vietnam is incredibly populated (over 97 million people), for its geographical area. On Sunday, August 4, 2019, the United Nations estimated that Vietnamese population is equivalent to 1.26% of the total world population. https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/vietnam-population/

During our 9 days in Vietnam, we have witnessed hard working, serious people who adapt to their situations and environments and have diverse talents. Each day has been a new adventure on our Intrepid group tour.

Today’s agenda was to depart from Da Nang airport and fly to Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon). Our tour of the most populated city in Vietnam (over 8.6 million people according to most sources–although 13 million was also quoted?), was postponed due to plane delays and traffic jams. However, we would be expanding our knowledge about Vietnam/American war history at the War Remnants museum and during the Cu Chi Tunnels tour.  This is not my favorite topic…but knowledge brings new understanding.

We departed from our hotel in lovely Hoi An at 5:30 a.m. to drive to Da Nang airport.

I was lucky to gain a window seat as the aerial views during the journey were fascinating and really told a story about the geography, land use, and importance of the mighty rivers between Da Nang (Han River) area

and the (Saigon River) metropolis of Ho Chi Minh city.

The people in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) seemed to have a more entrepreneurial outlook and dressed more western style than Vietnamese locals from the north and central regions. This was evident from the moment we exited the plane at the Ho Chi Minh airport.

Early in our tour we were informed by our tour guide that there are over 45 million scooters/motorcycles in a population of 97 million Vietnamese people. This was clearly evident here!

Foreigners are not permitted to drive in this country. Unlike Thailand and Cambodia, in Vietnam you drive on the right side of the road (like North America)–well at least that’s the plan!

Sidewalks and the opposing traffic lanes are also fair game here. Each day of travelling in the bus was a new experience in terms of eye opening limits. The record for a family transported on one scooter was 10 members! The loads and items we observed being transported, never ceased to entertain and shock me!

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) had a strong French influence in the past and is known for its French colonial landmarks, including Notre-Dame Cathedral, made entirely of materials imported from France, and the 19th-century Central Post Office. Photos of French architecture will be displayed on the next blog post as we saw these buildings on our city tour tomorrow.

Meanwhile… The next stop today was the War Remnants Museum (formerly called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes). The brutality of war expressed in a new and different point of view with graphic photos and artifacts was deeply disturbing.

After viewing the effects of Agent Orange and meeting survivors, I was too horrified to see further displays. This museum was a strong reminder why we must communicate, compromise, respect one another and avoid war!

This short video mainly shows war vehicles and paraphernalia displayed around the exterior grounds of the museum … I did not wish to share visually disturbing images.

After checking into our new hotel –Hoang Phu Gia Hotel on Bui Thi Xuan St, 7 members of our group were off again to experience more Vietnamese war history and view the Cu Chi Tunnels. I enjoyed the scenery as we drove past rubber tree plantations and different rural landscapes 47 km north west of Ho Chi Minh City.

The Cu Chi Tunnels, are located about 1 and one-half hours away. They are part of a 250 km maze of connecting tunnels and chambers below the city.

These famous tunnels took over 25 years to construct and were started in the late 1940’s. We were informed the tunnel network was utilized successfully by Viet Cong (VC) to control a large rural area during the “American” war.

There are 2 main areas of Cu Chi Tunnels which are open to public viewing–Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc. Our tour guide took us to the Ben Dinh site.

Here is a video of this frightening historical reality.

Introductory maps showing the locations and the layers of tunnels. Some were several stories deep and included living quarters and field hospitals in addition to multiple traps. It’s truly unbelievable to fathom this scary existence forced necessary to survival during these extreme war circumstances.

The Ben Dinh site included: a section which illustrated types of death traps for people; tiny underground hiding holes; an actual 50 m long section of original tunnel; as well as outdoor displays; a gift shop and an area where a man sold sandals made from recycled tires; and an optional activity where you could pay to operate and fire machine guns!

The bursts of fire exploding from this “activity” resonated throughout the wooded trails making this experience feel even more real and unsettling! None of our group chose to partake in this option!

Out of the 7 of us on this tour, no women selected to try fitting into the tiny underground hiding holes or crawling along the actual underground tunnel passages. These tunnels are the original size. The other location at Ben Duoc has enlarged their tunnels for tourist access.

Although the GIF showing the underground hiding area might seem amusing, one man on our tour closed the camouflaged cover over his head longer than others were comfortable with, and required assistance to be pulled out of the tiny opening. What horrifying conditions must have existed to precipitate humans to hide in these holes!

All three men on our tour also selected to crawl through the entire 50m section of actual Chu Chi tunnels. They all entered the tunnel with smiles and waves, but re-emerged moving a bit more slowly!

Imagine living and moving underground this way for extended periods of time!

Today was a day of pushing my comfort zone levels and learning about the atrocities of war. Tomorrow I’m so thrilled to be touring Ho Chi Minh city and exploring the lush Mekong Delta!