To visit Angkor Wat, Cambodia. We need to go quickly since 2 Million tourists visited Angkor in 07.
From Siam to Saigon:
Thailand & Vietnam Revealed
With Visits to Cambodia & Myanmar
March 11 – April 19, 2009
In 1966, the Army unit that Jim commands deploys to Thailand for a one-year tour to support combat operations in Vietnam. Three years later, Jim returns to Southeast Asia and spends another year in Vietnam serving as a logistics advisor to a Vietnamese Army unit. While traveling about, dodging bullets and booby traps, Jim is intrigued by the natural beauty, distinctive cultures, and magnificent archaeology of both countries and pledges to return again when the war is finally over and peace returns to the area.
Fast forward thirty-seven years and a new life for Jim and Norma. Since retirement, we have traveled throughout the world, and Southeast Asia is our next target. Overseas Adventure Travel presents us with a dilemma…do we sign up for a trip to Thailand with an add-on to Vietnam or a trip to Vietnam with an add-on to Thailand. Either way, one country will be short-changed. Other travelers seem to have the same problem that OAT finally solves by combining both trips into one and adding a pre-trip to the archaeological gem of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and a post-trip to the equally impressive temples of Bagan in Myanmar (Burma). This new, exciting adventure trip called “From Siam to Saigon” covers all of Southeast Asia in 40 days. We sign up for a March, 2009, departure.
Day 1, Wednesday, Mar 11 – Green Bay to Tokyo
We have a leisurely mid-day departure time and its 16 degrees and sunny when our neighbor Michelle takes us to the airport. After an hour flight we land in Minneapolis where it’s 7 degrees and sunny. We board a Northwest Airlines 747-400 for a 12-hour, 6000-mile flight to Tokyo. The plane is almost filled but we sit in the last row with room to stretch out. We’re spoiled from previous overseas flights with foreign carriers (Egypt, Turkish, Irish, TACA, KLM, etc.) where beer, wine and liquor is free, usually served with a meal, even on one hour flights. Northwest Airlines, a good old US flag carrier, charges $5.00 for a beer and $7.00 for wine or spirits…but we get a glass of wine for cocktail hour.
The long flight drags on…we pass the time reading, knitting, chatting, eating, listening to music, and napping. We travel with the sun through three or four time zones. Jim’s watch indicates midnight CST but its still late afternoon outside the plane.
Day 2, Thursday, Mar 12 – Tokyo to Bangkok
Meanwhile during one of our catnaps we cross the international dateline and like magic its now late afternoon on Thursday! We lose a day that we will gain back on our return flight. We arrive in Tokyo at 5:00 PM local time. We change planes and continue on our third leg to Bangkok, arriving after midnight. We’ve traveled over 9,000 miles in about 28 hours. We get our luggage clear customs meet the local OAT representative, Ms Nee, and board a bus for the hotel. The new Bangkok airport is built out in the middle of nowhere with no hotels nearby. Our hotel, The Rama Gardens, which was very close to the old airport, is more than an hour drive from the new airport. By the time we get checked in to our room, its 1:45 AM. Oh yes, we have to get up at 6:00 AM and head back to the airport for our flight to Cambodia. Good night.
Note: Because this adventure is really four trips in one, we are dividing the trip notes and corresponding photo albums into four individual parts.
Discovery of Cambodia
Day 3 (Mar 13) – Day 6 (Mar 16)
Day 3, Friday, Mar 13 – Siem Reap, Cambodia & Angkor
We’re up at 6:00 AM, surprisingly refreshed. We enjoy an excellent buffet breakfast…omelet, bacon, sausage, fresh yogurt, orange juice, fruit, and coffee. We meet our ten fellow travelers who are joining us for the Cambodia pre-trip: Richard & Valerie Huydic from Connecticut, Mike & Pat Michney from Michigan, Bill & Bobbie Pomeranz from California, Steve & Ruth Swarin from Michigan, Gloria Balzano from Arizona, and Jean Ismail from California. Off we go to the airport and board Bangkok Airline’s 1-hour flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Waiting for us is OAT’s Cambodia guide, Samnung. The tropical heat and humidity hits us as we disembark the plane…its 90 degrees & 90% humid. The land is brown, flat and dry…waiting for May and the monsoon rains. During the hot dry season all of the rice fields are fallow without irrigation nothing grows. But the markets are filled with fresh vegetables & fruits of every type, as we find out later.
Cambodia: Situated in southwest Indochina, the flat, low-lying country of Cambodia is surrounded by Laos to the north, Thailand north and west, and Vietnam to the east. Phnom Penh is its capital city. The city of Siem Reap (pronounced see-um reep, meaning “Siam Defeated”…celebrates the 17th century victory over invading army of Siam) is located in northwest Cambodia and is the main base for tourists visiting the temples of Angkor. Angkor, the ancient capital of the great Khmer Empire (803- 1432 AD) and it’s temple complex of Angkor Wat, is considered one of the most magnificent wonders of the ancient world and a site of major archaeological significance.
We check into the Somadevi Angkor Hotel, a newer 4-story resort & spa with a beautiful outdoor pool located in downtown Siem Reap. We have two hours to get settled in so Jim & Norma head for the pool…very refreshing in the 95 degree heat. The pool has a swim-up bar so we try it out…a local Angkor Beer for Jim and a Mango Daiquiri for Norma…$6.00 bar bill that we charge it to the room. At 3:45 PM the group meets for a familiarization walk through the downtown area. There is an extreme contrast between the modern tourist hotels and facilities, mostly paid for by foreign investment, and the common day to day life in the community. The people are very poor, subsisting from day to day on barter and little money. It reminds Jim of Vietnam 35 years ago, only with much more products on the shelves of the market stalls.
Siem Reap has managed to retain its calm rural ambience despite becoming increasingly busy catering to millions of visitors every year. We wander down the graveled streets, poking our noses into shops and the local market. The fruits and vegetables arrive from nearby Laos or Vietnam via trucks and the river. The old French quarter still contains buildings of the colonial era. Dinner tonight is at the Angkor Modial restaurant and theater, our first chance to try Cambodian cuisine, plus a cultural show of classical Cambodian music and dances interpreting the Ramayana, an ancient Indian epic. After the show, we take motos (motorcycle rickshaw taxis) for a ride through the city and back to the hotel. The drivers are pleasant and the route along the river is enchanting with all the lit-up restaurants and bars. A great ending to our first day in Cambodia.
Day 4, Saturday, Mar 14 – The Floating Village & More
Today is our 15th Wedding Anniversary and what a beautiful place to enjoy it as we explore the countryside around Siem Reap. Our first stop is a rural village located along the river…its very primitive and poor. But there’s a wedding ceremony underway at the local restaurant that has been decorated in pink, purple and gold bunting. The bride is decked out in a purple gown with a beautiful gold embroidered top, and the groom in a handsome purple embroidered shirt. Almost all the villagers are in attendance and the speech of the master of ceremonies blares out over the loud speakers. We cross a wooden bridge and walk along the dusty road…women and children are eating breakfast or cleaning up the dishes, fish are drying in the sun on racks beside the road. We ride two wheel carts pulled by a team of oxen through the lanes lined with fruit and banana trees, and past dormant rice fields to a local farm house where we are invited inside. The home contains only the basic of necessities to survive, but we are offered tea.
Back in the bus we continue our journey to Tonle Sap Lake. Tonle Sap means “great lake” and is one of the geographical wonders of the world. When the monsoon rains come in June & July, the Mekong River rises. But instead of flooding its banks, it pushes the waters of the Tonle Sap River northward, reversing the river’s flow. The Tonle Sap River floods into the lake, increasing its size by a factor of ten, and leaving behind fertile silt for cultivation. When the monsoon ends in October, the river returns to its southern flow and the land is again exposed.
Nearing the river, we stop to admire a huge, flooded field of lotus plants in bloom and taste some lotus seeds…each flower measures 6-8 inches in diameter. Nearby an irrigation ditch is flowing and farmers are working in the green rice fields. We stop at the Chong Kneash School, a floating primary school supported in part by Grand Circle Foundation, OAT’s parent company. Now tied to the bank, the school will resume its place among the floating village when school starts again. We donate pencils and pens to the teacher…these kids really need them.
We board a motor boat and head onto the lake to get a glimpse of the villagers that are mostly refugees from Vietnam. Floating fishing villages sprawl across the lakefront…we pass thatched roof houses on bamboo rafts, small markets, jewelry shops, beauty parlors, restaurants, fish farms & shrimp traps, even pig pens. Women sell fruits and vegetables from sampans, and we pass a boatload of firewood and fishermen selling their catch. Children swim in the murky water. A flock of storks soar overhead. The lives of the people are tied to the cycle of the lake and they are constantly on the move as the water level rises or recedes.
On the way back to Siem Reap, we stop at Artisans de Angkor, a school that trains young persons from rural villages the skills of making Cambodian fine arts and crafts. Ceramic making, wood and stone carving, painting, weaving, etc, are done in separate workshops. Proceeds from the sale of the items provide funding for the school. We lunch at our hotel: tempura veggies, salad greens, fish & pork soup, rice with beef & peppers, pork with cabbage, and baked fish…all spicy but good. A baked banana with orange sauce is our dessert. We relax at the pool and start our adventures again at 3:30 PM.
Our first stop is the War Museum, a collection of US, Russian and Chinese military equipment recovered from throughout Cambodia from the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, and finally their ousting from power. All types of equipment, from tanks to artillery to anti-air guns, rockets, bombs, shells, mines, etc., are located here. Nearby is a military cemetery. Our guide Sam takes this opportunity to relate events of his past. His village was bombed by B-52s and the family scattered. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia after the Reunification of the South, Sam, being a high school graduate, was sent to Vietnam for 6 months of military training in armor operations. He returned to Cambodia as a Captain, was given seventeen T-54 Russian built tanks, and was sent to the Thai border area for 5 years to fight the Khmer Rouge. When he returned to his village, he found out that one brother and one sister were lost during the Khmer Rouge reign, and he has never found out if they survived or not. Being fellow soldiers, Jim and Sam relate well to each other.
We stop at the newly opened Angkor National Museum. Funded by Thailand, it contains excellent displays of the Cambodian culture covering all Angkor phases. One hall contains 1000 statues of Buddha, gathered from all over the country…pretty neat. We enjoy our anniversary dinner with our group at the Alliance Restaurant: French food with an Asian twist. A great meal...the menu: Banana Flower Salad w/ Charcoal-grilled Chicken, Lemon Grass Fish Soup, Sautéed Chicken w/ Ginger & Pineapple, Seasonal Steamed Rice, Fresh Tropical Fruit Salad w/ Lemon Grass Syrup, Bordeaux Wine.
Day 5, Sunday, Mar 15 – Tour of the Temples
Today we explore the Angkor complex. Set among the dense green forests and rice paddies, the massive monuments at Angkor, built of massive sandstone blocks in the 9th to 12th centuries, are arguably the most remarkable and striking architectural masterpieces in Southeast Asia. The vast Angkor Wat complex with its imposing towers and the great city of Angkor Thom with its impressive causeway and gigantic smiling faces of the Bayon, are breathtaking sights.
We start at Angkor Thom (the great city), once the largest city during the Khmer reign, protected by 26-foot high walls about 7 miles long, and surrounded by a wide moat. There are five gates to the city, each bearing four giant stone faces. Inside are several sites…the most famous is Bayon. We enter through the south gate, the best preserved gateway into Angkor Thom. We walk across an impressive causeway flanked by 154 stone statues…gods on one side, demons on the other, each side holding a giant serpent. The gate is massive…75 feet high with four gigantic stone faces facing the four cardinal directions. Bayon is an example of the architectural brilliance of the Khmer period. Shaped like a pyramid, its most notable features are the huge calm smiling stone faces that adorn the towers, and the fascinating bas-reliefs carved deeply into the stone of its many galleries. Climbing about this magnificent example of architecture and standing next to the huge carved stone faces takes one’s breath away. Nearby is Baphuon, a Hindu temple whose pyramid mass represents Mount Meru. It is in disrepair with corner towers long since collapsed. Badly damaged, the temple is undergoing restoration so we cannot enter. Nearby the Terrace of Elephants and Leper King Terrace are highly decorated platforms believed to have been used for royal reviews and parades.
East of Angkor is Ta Prohm (Ancestor of Brahma), originally built as a Buddhist monastery. A deliberate attempt was made to preserve Ta Prohm in its existing condition with limited restoration and removal of the dense jungle. As a result the temple buildings remain smothered by roots of the giant Banyan trees, preserving the Indiana Jones “discovery” feeling. We walk through the narrow passages partially blocked by snarled Banyan roots…words cannot describe the excitement we share.
We take a break from the temples and visit a nearby village for a home-hosted lunch. Our hostess is a young mother with two children, assisted by grandma. The first thing she offers is cold beer that we welcome in the 95 degree heat. We enjoy home made lemon grass & chicken soup, beef & vegetables, curried fish, sweet-sour pork & onions, and rice. Dessert is rice balls & coconut served in a banana leaf. It’s very good and the hostess is very gracious. It’s traditional to give a small token from home in return for the hospitality so Jim presents her with a Green Bay Packers T-Shirt & small Packers pennant (she says they’ve seen the Packers on ESPN). After lunch we return to the hotel for rest and relaxation. Of course Jim & Norma hit the pool. Only Pat & Mike join us… we guess the others prefer the air conditioned rooms.
We return to Angkor to visit its crown jewel…Angkor Wat, the single largest religious monuments in the world, literally translating to “the City which is a Temple”. Famous the world over and symbolized on Cambodia’s flag, the layout is based on a sacred design of the Hindu cosmos…a five-towered temple shaped like a lotus bud. It also represents the mythical Mount Meru, considered to be the center of the universe. Angkor Wat is known for its magnificent galleries of intricate carvings that display Buddhist and Hindu beliefs. It contains a 1,970 foot long panel of bas-reliefs and more than 2,000 engravings of Apsaras, the celestial smiling dancing girl. Unfortunately the inside towers are under renovation so we cannot climb inside the temple complex. We do walk the exterior and exit the temple in time to watch the sunset color the temple in golden hues from across the lake. Our driver provides a taste of Cambodian whiskey, roasted peanuts & cashews, and dried snake (tastes like jerky) for a sunset picnic.
We head back to the hotel for a quick shower and change of clothes. We’re picked up by motorized rickshaws and whisked off to a restaurant for dinner and a shadow puppet show. It’s been a long day and the bed feels good.
Day 6, Monday, Mar 16 – Banteay Srei & The Killing Fields
It’s our last day in Cambodia…we’ve experienced far more than we expected and there’s more to come. At 8:00 AM we head for Banteay Srei, the Citadel of Women, located about 30 km from the Angkor complex. This remote Hindu-style temple dates from the mid 10th century, and is constructed of pink sandstone that, weathered over time, appears to be made of chocolate. It contains intricate detailed carvings that depict scenes from the Hindu epic Ramayama. A statue of a goddess is the center shrine and is surrounded by intricate carvings of Shiva, his consort Parvati, the demon king Ravana, and other gods.
On the way back to Siem Reap, we stop along the road where a woman is making palm sugar. We watch her boil the syrup until thickened, then scoop some into molds where it cools. This sugar s used as a sweetener in the countryside. We also stop at a small Hindu temple nearby called Prae Rap that served as a crematorium as Hindus cremate their dead. Prae Rap means “turn over”. We’re told that one always puts the body into the fire face down. If not, the fire causes the head to rise up like the dead is awakening. We lunch at a French Restaurant called Le Orientes, then return to the hotel to freshen up before checking out.
On the way to the airport we stop at Siem Reap’s Killing Fields Memorial located inside a Buddhist temple. Bones and skulls of the Khmer Rouge victims found in the area have been placed inside a four sided stupa with glass windows. The killing field discovered in Siem Reap was one of many located throughout Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror (1975-79) when more than 2 million Cambodians were murdered. Sam pauses and reflects that perhaps a skull within this monument might be that of his brother or sister lost during that horrific time. We say goodbye to Sam at the airport. He has been an excellent guide who is very proud of his country, and open about his past. Jim really related to him and tears are in his eyes as they share a goodbye hug.
Day 7 (Mar 17) – Day 19 (Mar 29)
End of Day 6
We return to Bangkok, Thailand, on Bangkok Air arriving in late evening. We’re met at the airport by Ole, our Thai guide who says we’ll start our tour of Thailand tomorrow at 8:30 AM. We’re into our rooms at the Hotel Tawana by 10:00 PM. Hotel Tawana is an older 3 ½-star hotel located in the downtown old town area of Bangkok making it convenient to wander around without a long bus ride in the Bangkok traffic.
Thailand: Thailand is located in the fertile monsoon beltway between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea in the heart of Southeast Asia. Monsoon refers to the winds, not the rain. In Thailand, the southwest monsoon is the rainy season the northeast monsoon is dry, called the cool season. In between these periods is the hot season (that’s what we’re in now). The verdant north is mountainous as is the long western border with Burma. The northeast is a flat, poor, arid region whose border with Laos is defined by the Mekong River and further south are the hills of Cambodia. The southern region (Thailand’s tail) has a long coastline filled with sandy South Pacific style beaches. Bangkok is its capital. Although the Thai (or Tai) ethnicity originated in China, the Thai culture is distinctive from the surrounding countries…with a tonal language unlike any form of Chinese, and the elegant written Thai script. Also, unlike the rest of Southeast Asia, Thailand (formerly Siam) has a long history of independence and has never been colonized by a European power
Day 7, Tuesday, Mar 17 – Bangkok, Flower Market & Wat Arun
At breakfast we meet the other four members of our group: Darrel & Janet Damon from Kansas, and Darrell & Sharon Waters from Illinois. We board our bus and head into the heart of Bangkok. Thailand’s capital city, straddling the Chao Phraya River, is a city of 12 million people and 3 million vehicles. It’s a lesson in uncontrolled urban expansion, but also one of the world’s most exciting cities…its lively nightlife and markets, shops and restaurants, and magnificent temples, museums, palaces and parks, have something for everyone. There are 30,000 temples in Thailand, Ole explains…and we’ll see about half of them because we are OAT (Oh, Another Temple!). Our first stop is the Pat Khlong Flower Market, known for offering the best array of flowers in Thailand. Open 24 hours a day, it provides the city with fresh flowers and vegetables. As we walk through the streets, we see magnificent displays of marigolds, roses, orchids, lotus, jasmine and tulips. Most marigolds are purchased for offerings placed in the small spirit houses that are a part of every home.
We board an Express Taxi boat and head upstream and across the river and enter a klong (canal). Meandering through the intricate network of canals, we see scenes of river life…stilt houses, small temples, mansions and floating shops. We stop at the home of Madam Toom for a Thai cooking demonstration and lunch. Jean, Janet, Bill, Steve & Jim all help Madam Toom prepare the green bean with chili paste salad that is served with cucumber soup, pork & green salad, stir-fried young luffa with egg. The cooking demonstration is great and so is the meal.
We board our boat and cruise back to the river continuing on to the Royal Barge Museum. Housed inside a huge warehouse is a collection of Thailand’s royal barges, used in the past for battles and military show, now used only for special occasions. These are not small boats, 145-165 feet long, 30-40 feet high, elaborately decorated in gilded splendor with carved prows of monsters and dragons. In 1996, for the 50th Anniversary of the king’s reign, more than 50 barges with 2,000 oarsmen sailed down the Chao Praya, the last big boat show.
Our next stop is Wat Arun or “The Temple of the Dawn”, a striking Bangkok landmark on the bank of the river. The monument’s style, derived mainly from Khmer architecture, is unique in Thailand. The central prang (tower representing the mythical Mount Meru) is 260 feet high. The prang, along with the towers on the four corners, are covered with rows of demons and dancing girls decorated with pieces of porcelain from China (some say it was ship ballast). The steep steps of the central prang represent the difficulties of reaching higher levels of existence. Visitors are allowed to climb halfway up, so Jim & Norma do so. The panoramic views of Bangkok below and the boat-filled river are breathtaking.
Dinner tonight is at a local restaurant a couple of blocks from our hotel…Ton Kao Surawongse Restaurant. The meal is authentic Thai cuisine…three appetizers, soup, three main dishes (sweet/sour fish, shrimp & onions, pork & mushrooms, and
Pineapple & sweet rice dessert. We stop for a gelato before returning to our room. And we just realize that today is St Patrick’s Day!
Day 8, Wednesday, Mar 18 – Essential Bangkok Tour
For a more in-depth look at Bangkok’s attractions, we join the optional tour of some of the city’s highlights. We start with Chinatown. Like Chinatowns everywhere, the atmosphere is electric, with vibrant colors, pungent smells, cacophony of noises, and hectic hustle & bustle. The colorful shops sell everything from fruits, cakes and incense, to funerary supplies that accompany the body in cremation (paper clothes, food, money, etc.). There are smells of roasting duck, fish, shrimp, vegetables…fish stomachs prepared like deep-fried pork rinds are packaged for sale.
We cannot visit Wat Traimit that houses the world’s largest golden Buddha (15 feet tall, 5½ tons of gold) as the temple is under reconstruction, so we visit instead Wat Suthat that contains the world’s largest bronze Buddha… 26 feet high. The cloister is filled with 220 Buddhas, each six foot high, some are covered in gold leaf, others are black lacquer. More funds (donations) are needed to finish the Buddhas with gold leaf (a good marketing tool).
Before continuing on, we all use the “happy room”…that’s the nice way of saying restroom. Restrooms are very important, especially for the women. Most facilities have both western (our flush type) and eastern (straddle a porcelain hole in the floor) style toilets. The choice for women is obvious. Ole explains that sometimes on the road there are no happy room facilities. So when the men relieve themselves in nature it is called “shooting the rabbit”. But since women don’t have a gun, they “bend down to pick flowers”.
Our next stop is Bangkok’s oldest temple, Wat Pho, where the colossal Reclining Buddha resides. 150 feet long and 40 feet high, it is made of plaster and brick, and covered in gold leaf. One can walk all the way around the Buddha and on the backside you buy 20 baht worth of pennies. Not sure of the count, you place a penny in each of a long row of copper pots along the back wall. Good luck will happen if you have enough pennies to complete the task. The main temple is surrounded by out buildings and four giant porcelain stupas. Wat Pho is also a center for the study of traditional Thai medicine, including the Institute of Massage where monks and commoners learn the traditional Thai massage techniques.
Its lunch time and we board a floating restaurant on the Chao Praya River. It’s a huge buffet serving a combination of Thai & Chinese food…something for everyone. There’s a special dessert called coconut pancakes that are to die for. Our next stop is Jim Thompson’s house, one of the best preserved traditional Thai houses in Bangkok. Jim Thompson revived the art of Thai silk weaving following its demise during WWII. He was also an avid collector of antiquities and artwork from all over Southeast Asia. His collection spans 14 Centuries and is displayed throughout his house much like he left it when he mysteriously disappeared in 1967. After touring the house we visit the silk shop and purchase a decorative pillow cover, several silk napkins and some gift cards. We walk to the nearby sky train station and ride it back to the Sala Daeng station located near our hotel. We walk through the night market area where people are already setting up their stands, and back to our hotel.
Although Thailand is a constitutional monarchy similar to Great Britain where the Prime Minister wields the power and the royal family is mostly ceremonial, the king of Thailand, already in his mid-eighties, is revered by all the people. Huge portraits, billboards, royal banners and memorials of the king and his family, are everywhere throughout the country. It is a crime to be disrespectful to the king. His picture is on all money and even stepping on a bill that has fallen to the ground could bring a penalty.
We have the rest of the afternoon off so Norma makes reservations to the Devadee Aromatic & Thai Massage Spa located in the hotel (no hanky panky or happy endings) for some very good deep massages with oil (1 hour for $12.00 each). When we’re finished our legs are like rubber. We will sleep well tonight. We enjoy the pool, shower, shave and prepare for dinner. We’ve had five straight days of Asian food so the lure of a free glass of wine with an Italian entrée from Dulio’s Italian Restaurant brings us in. Seafood anti-pasta (shrimp, mussels, clams, calamari, anchovies, tomatoes & onions) is followed by a combination pizza and a 2nd glass of wine. It’s a great way to end the day!
Day 9, Thursday, Mar 19 - To Kanchanaburi
After breakfast we board our bus and head southwest toward the River Kwai area. As we travel the road to our next destination, Ole puts up a map of Thailand and describes where we will travel over the next ten days. He also points out the northeast part of Thailand and the “Friendship Highway” built by the US Army during the war years. Ole & Jim talk about Jim’s time in Thailand in 1966-67. US Army Engineers were building roads and airfield in northeast Thailand…Jim’s Maintenance Company kept their equipment operational. The main route from Bangkok to Korat was called “Friendship Highway”…a 20 foot wide gravel road at best. Ole says that now all main roads in Thailand are at least 4 lanes wide, paved highways (as we later see throughout the country).
We stop along the road where sea salt is harvested in huge evaporative flats. The sea water is piped inland from the Gulf of Thailand about 6 miles away, and poured into the flats where the sun concentrates the evaporating water leaving sea salt. The salt is shoveled by hand into piles for cleaning and packaging. We stop at the floating market of Damnern Saduak. Ole arranges half hour sampan rides through the market area for us…a great way to experience the market. Fruits, vegetables, hats, souvenirs, food, all sold from sampans that fill the canal. And there are a lot of tourists here since floating markets are disappearing throughout the country as grocery stores become more popular. Norma buys a lantern-shaped hat made from palm fronds and asks Ole what it’s called. Ole says that “it was called a farmer’s hat, but now we call it a tourist hat”. We stop for a happy room visit and a chance to shop at the Royal Thai Teak Handicraft Center where artisans carve teak wood into everything from souvenirs to massive tables and chairs. Some scenic panels measure 2 feet by 8 feet and take more than one year to complete. The workmanship is extraordinary but the prices are also. We arrive at Katchanaburi, a small town located in the beautiful limestone hills along the infamous Burma-Siam Railroad, where we enjoy lunch at the Baan Loung Chun Restaurant (House of Chun). We dine outdoors under a woven palm leaf shelter…traditional Thai fare with pineapple for dessert (juicy & great).
After lunch we visit the bridge made famous in the movie “The Bridge over the River Kwai”. In the summer of 1942 as war raged across Europe and the Pacific, the Allies had closed sea routes to Burma, forcing the Japanese to develop an overland supply route from the east to support their troops in Burma and China. A railway following the river through dense jungles was the best option. About 200,000 Asian laborers and 61,000 Allied POWs (mostly British & Australians) built this 260-mile stretch of rail, working 18 hour shifts under abominable conditions with cholera, malaria, malnutrition, and torture & maltreatment. 100,000 Asian laborers and 10,000 POWs lost their lives…for every half mile of track laid, 38 POWs died. The movie told the chilling story but also used artistic license. For example, the river is named Khwae Yai, not Kwai the bridge is made of steel, not wood and the bridge was destroyed by bombers, not explosives. Although not used anymore, the two spans that were destroyed have been replaced and we are able to walk across the river. It is a moving experience, knowing what sacrifices took place here.
We stop at The Thailand –Burma Railroad Center, a small museum that shows the history of the railroad construction, complete with memorabilia, dioramas, and photos. Across the street is a War Cemetery that contains about 7,000 graves of POWs who died on the railroad project. The cemetery is immaculately maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. A smaller cemetery containing 1,740 graves of POWs is located across the river.
We arrive at the Pavilion Rim Kwai Resort, a beautiful hotel with landscaped gardens located next to the river. Facilities include tennis courts, and two swimming pools. Our room is on the 4th floor overlooking the jungle. Screeches from the trees cause us to wonder if the noise comes from monkeys or big birds (later Ole tells us that the noise was gibbons playing in the trees). We also find an anniversary card and a bouquet of flowers from the hotel staff in our room. Although the pool is a little “green”, we enjoy a swim, then order a bottle of French red table wine, “Baron St Georges”, delivered to our room. We enjoy dinner with our group in a private dining room…shrimp cakes w/ honey dip, rice w/ curried tilapia, stir-fried pork & vegetables, chicken & green peppers, beef & broccoli, fresh fruit and tapioca. As we settle into bed, the night is filled with sounds of the jungle outside…what a great place.
Day 10, Friday, Mar 20 – Hellfire Pass
After breakfast, we travel by bus for about 45 minutes to a riverside dock where we board long-tail boats for a 90 minute ride up the Khwae Noi (little Khwae) River. Both sides of the river alternate between dense jungle with birds and wildlife, and homes or resorts. There are floating restaurants and boarding houses lining the river at quiet bends. We exit the boats and climb into the back of pickup trucks that drives us up the hill to the Hellfire Pass Museum. The area is tranquil now but many lives were lost during the construction of this most difficult section of the River Kwai Railway. To lay track here, the POWs and Asian laborers carved through over 325 feet of solid rock, almost entirely by hand. We walk some 400 yards on the remains of the railroad bed cut through solid rock up to 20 meters deep. Small memorial tablets have been placed at various locations. There are two ways to return to the Museum area…climb a flight of 100 stairs or hike a 2 km trail along the railroad bed. Jim & Norma elect the trail. It’s peaceful and serene along the way. We pass a farm with Emus and peacocks hacked out of the jungle surroundings. The hike is worth it.
We bus to The J-Station, a local restaurant where the real villagers eat, for a great lunch. We board the State Railway of Thailand commuter train to experience the famous railway for a half-hour ride. On the way back to the hotel, the bus stops at a jungle clearing, that is obviously a feeding spot for macaques (Asian short-tailed monkeys). As soon as the bus pulls into the area, monkeys come out of trees and brush from every direction. Ole tosses out some bananas and everyone snaps photos. By 3:30 PM we are back in the pool cooling off.
Day 11, Saturday, Mar 21 – To Phitsanulok
Today is a long day on the road…seven hours of travel interrupted by a 1½ hour lunch cruise aboard a rice barge. We drive for about 1½ hours through the rice bowl of Thailand. Green fields alternate with fallow, water channels and ponds are filled with ducks & grey storks…white egrets search the fields for food. Because this area has irrigation, rice production is cycled throughout to year so all phases of rice growing are evident. Dry fields are flooded so the crop residue is softened. The remnants of past crops are plowed under (either by water buffalo or machinery). Flooded seed beds produce seedling plants that are planted by hand into the prepared flooded paddies. The paddies remain flooded while the rice is growing and weeding is done by hand. At harvest time, the paddies are dried, entire families and villages cut off the golden stalks by hand with sickles. The stalks are then harvested to separate the grain from the chaff, and the grain is dried in the sun.
The rice fields also contain field rats that eat the residual grain. They grow to about the size of squirrels and are trapped and grilled for consumption by the farmers. “Look for a stand under a red umbrella” Ole tells us, “That’s where passer-bys can taste the grilled rats”. We stop and have a taste (tastes like chicken…ha ha). Next we have a discovery that isn’t even in the guide books yet. Wat Tha Sung in the village of Uthai Thani is a newly constructed pagoda that can be best described as the Buddhist answer to the Crystal Cathedral. Through the use of glass and mirrors and modern construction lines, it is surely the expression of the artist who funded its construction.
We stop at the Sakae Krang River and board the Khiri Nava, a traditional wooden rice barge, and cruise for 1½ hours past peaceful scenes of village life. Many local people live on raft houses that line both sides of the river where they tend fish farms and water- plant gardens. Sampans selling fruits and vegetables paddle among the houses. While on board, we enjoy a lunch that features grilled catfish from the river. Norma talks the boat captain into allowing her to drive the barge…it soon becomes a photo op for all members of the group.
Back on shore, we continue on to our destination at Phitsanulok, arriving at our hotel about 5:00 PM. As dinner is at 7:00 PM, we have time for a quick swim before showering. Norma also signs us up for an after dinner massage at the hotel spa. It’s a buffet dinner but the selection is great…both western and Asian…and a great selection of salads. Norma eats sparingly while Jim fills his plate. That’s a bad idea with the upcoming massage. This massage is quite different than our Bangkok one but also very good. In Bangkok we were stripped naked and put in separate rooms with oils massaged into all of our muscles. Here we don loose fitting clothes, go into the same room with 2 massage tables and are massaged using pressure point techniques. The gals are climbing all over the tables…pushing, pulling, elbowing us until we peek at each other and giggle over the situation. By the time they finish, our legs are like rubber. We sleep well tonight.
Day 12, Sunday, Mar 22 – Sukhothai & Phrae
Ole uses the 1½ hour drive to our first destination to teach us some of the basics of the Thai language (its all Greek to us) and also explains some of his background. He comes from a small village, passed the college entrance exams and graduated with degrees in teaching and art. Taught art in middle school but couldn’t make enough money so he completed guide training to become a tour guide. He’s been at it for about 18 years (and does an excellent job). Married with two children (who we meet on our last day in Thailand).
We have another discovery when we stop at a local rice mill where we see the final stage of rice production. Here the husks are removed and the grains polished before bagging. They allow us to walk through the mill…open holes in floor, no safety cages on belts, steam squirting out of pipes, dust filling the air…definitely not OSHA approved but very interesting.
Our next stop is Sukhothai, a UNESCO World heritage site, contains Thailand’s largest collection of historic ruins...well-preserved columns, shrines, temples, and palaces, the epitome of old Siam. It is here that the Thai nation was created by King Ramkamhaeng who is credited with building this spiritual center, inventing Thai script, developing hand-to-hand combat on elephants, spreading Theravada Buddhism through the region, and establishing relations with China. With 40 temples covering more than 28 square miles, we ride a tram through the well kept and attractive grounds (in the past bicycle rental was available). We walk around Wat Si Sawai three 12th-14th century Khmer-style prangs thought to represent the Thai takeover of the city. The main attraction of Sukhothai is the moated city of Wat Mahathat, the spiritual center of Sukhothai. The central Lotus Bud Cheti (tower) built to house relics of the Buddha, is surrounded by columns that once supported buildings housing Buddha images and temple services. Of note is a huge seated Buddha image facing east. Vendors are prominent and persistent. We taste a sweet rice treat wrapped in a banana leaf and Norma gets a beautiful crocheted blouse filled with intricate banana-shaped designs for $3.00.
We continue north toward Phrae…the flat rice paddies change into sugarcane, orchards and other crops, and the road narrows as we enter into the foothills. We stop for lunch at Kaeng Luang restaurant and dine in the garden. We also try a taste of Thai rice & herb brandy (90 proof)…tastes like grain alcohol. After a happy room break at a rural 7-11gas station, we continue to climb into the hills, through road construction areas, grinding gears as we climb. We reach the outskirts of Phrae and stop at another discovery…an indigo dye shop. This is quite an operation: indigo plants are boiled with lime, wood ashes are added to set the dye, cotton fabric, plain or hand designed w/wax dipped in the dye until the desired shade of blue or purple color reached, wax boiled off, patterned fabric hung up to dry. Fabric is then made into shirts, dresses, table cloths, napkins, etc. We all try or hand at applying the wax design. Norma finds a deep purple tablecloth for us.
We overnight in the Maeyon Palace Hotel…Ole says it’s the best hotel in town…we find out it’s the only hotel! It’s not that bad and it has a nice pool that we enjoy. There are several nearby shops so we look for one that sells wine. The selection is limited but Jim finds a bottle of Australian Cabernet/Merlot and a bottle of French d’ Azur Cabernet Sauvignon…one for tonight and one for later. We dine in an outdoor garden…a nice buffet spread.
Day 13, Monday, Mar 23 – To Chiang Rai & Mae Saong Hill Tribes
Before we depart Phrae, we stop at the Ban Donchum School, partially supported by Grand Circle Foundation. The foundation’s contributions have built an organic garden and a water system, and provided band instruments and exercise equipment…plus the many gifts provided by visiting GC & OAT travelers. We assemble by the flag pole where the school band plays the Thai National Anthem as the flag is raised. We are escorted around the school by several girls, then listen to traditional Thai music performed by the children…we dance with them and then allow them to lead us through the village to tour their homes. It’s a pleasant start to our day. We re-board our bus and head toward Chiang Rai. We stop for a happy room break at Phayao Lake where we enjoy a great latte (beautifully decorated foam) served with roasted bamboo worm larvae (salty & crunchy). Jim discovers the Danish connection to Thailand…Danes use a lot of teak in their furniture obtained through trade with Thailand over many years. In the 1820s, the Danish Captain Jensen trained Thai policemen in this area and was killed here in an insurrection. A memorial to Captain Jensen stands in Phayao. We arrive in Chiang Rai in time for lunch at the Wiang Inn hotel. The specialty is Kao Soi (curried chicken with yellow noodles)…very good!
After a half hour bus ride we board Song Taews (pickup truck taxis) that take us up about 2000 feet in elevation to the mountain hill tribes of Northern Thailand. More than 20 distinct semi-nomadic tribes inhabit Northern Thailand, but there are six main groups: the Akha, Hmong, Lisu, Karen, Lahu, and Mien. Each group has its own heritage, clothing, language, religion, and culture. The beautiful scenery is obscured as the mountains are very smoky from forest fires burning in the border area. The hill tribes still use the slash & burn method to clear their land for farming…and sometimes the fires get out of control and no-one stops them.
We visit the Yao tribe in Mae Salong. They are a relatively new tribe in the region, migrating from China only 60 years ago. We walk through their village, take some photos and purchase some of their products. A short distance away is a group of Akha people. They migrated from Burma and Cambodia many centuries ago. The Akha women wear a very ornate headdress decorated with silver (now aluminum) coins and bobbles. Norma gets a headdress for a souvenir. The tribe performs a dance using hollow bamboo sections as drums. We enter the house of a medicine man who explains his crafts…most tribes believe in animism and keeping the spirits happy. We do not visit the Karen or “long necks”. OAT doesn’t support visits to their location as the people are exploited in a fake village set-up and their children are forced to continue wearing the neck coils against their will…only for the tourist dollars.
We say goodbye the hill tribes and return to the highway via Song Taews. Our hotel tonight is the Golden Pines Resort, a beautiful resort set in the tall pines outside of Chiang Rai. The main building houses the registration, bar, and restaurant… behind it a large swimming pool that is surrounding by bungalows for individual lodging. We’re in the swimming pool as soon as our luggage arrives at our room. Dinner tonight is very good: Chicken Satay, stir-fried veggies, and delicious (1st one in Thailand) American-style salad fixings with Italian dressing. A two-piece band plays USA dance music (they mouth the words as they don’t understand English) and Jim & Norma dance. It starts to rain on our way back to the bungalow so we enjoy the rest of the evening indoors.
Day14, Tuesday, Mar 24 – A Visit to Myanmar
We drive to the town of Mae Sai on the Thai border. Ole collects our passports to clear customs and we walk across the bridge to Thachilek, Myanmar. We set our watches back ½ hour and step back 50 years in time. The border crossing between Thailand and Myanmar is not what we expected. We visualized a remote crossing in the jungle with a road block guarded by border patrols and machinegun nests…instead we see bustling cities on both sides of the border with a six lane road leading up the bridge crossing. Locals from both sides seem to pass back and forth quite freely.
We board motorized rickshaws for a ride through town to the local food market. The streets, equipment, people and aura reminds Jim of Vietnam in the 1970s. The women all have streaks of tan cream on their faces (we later learn it is a cream made from a local tree bark that serves as sun-screen and supposedly makes their skin whiter). After the market visit our rickshaws take us to the Shwedagon temple set high on a hill at the edge of the city. This is a third scale of the real Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangan that we will see later on our Burma visit. A young girl talks us into taking part in the pagoda ritual (it is also a good way to tour the pagoda). First, by using astrological charts, we determine on what day of the week we were born (Norma is Sunday, Jim is Saturday). We walk to one of the Buddha statues positioned around the shrine that matches your day. At that location we light incense, light a candle, place flowers at Buddha image, pour water over the statue, make a wish, and release a bird from a cage. We then return to the gong at the entrance and ring it nine times. We have now honored Buddha (we do it as a lark…the Buddhists are very sincere).
Back to the richshaws and a ride back to the border. Before we cross we watch a lady prepare the betel nut package, a mild narcotic used extensively in Southeast Asia…betel leaf, limestone ash, areca palm fruit, some herbs, all wrapped together…then chew it until one’s gums turn red. We cross back into Thailand and re-board our bus, now heading to the northernmost region of Thailand that is known as the Golden Triangle. This semi-mythical area surrounds the meeting point of Thailand, Burma and Laos, and still conjures up images of untamed wilderness, remote hill villages, and fugitive opium barons. It has become a tourist destination with hotels, souvenir shops, restaurants and river cruises. The wildness of the opium wars and drug lords has been pacified, but the wilderness scenery remains around us. We hop aboard E-taens…farm trucks…and ride through the fields and back roads to a farmhouse restaurant called La Vallee where we dine on grilled free-range chicken under a thatched roof in an outdoor setting.
After lunch we take the trucks back into town and board a boat for a ride on the Mekong River. The Mekong River, some 2,600 miles long, starts in China and ends at the South China Sea in Vietnam. At this triangular juncture, Thailand, Burma, and Laos meet. The river is chocolate brown and about ¾ mile wide with quite heavy boat traffic. We see cargo boats flying Chinese flags as well as those of the surrounding nations. During our cruise we make a short stop at Don Sao, Laos…just to get our passports stamped showing that we visited Laos, have a Laotian beer, and get a few souvenirs. Back in Thailand, we return to our hotel in Chiang Rai and relax until dinner.
We dine tonight at a restaurant called “Cabbages & Condoms Inn & Restaurant” located in the “rubber triangle”. Tongue in cheek, the organization is devoted to raising money to accomplish two missions: first, change the hill tribe farming from harvesting opium to harvesting vegetables (Cabbages) second, eliminate the area’s very high HIV rate by removing the stigma of using condoms. The restaurant is humorously decorated with safe-sex posters and condom cartoons…a life-size Santa made of real condoms stands in the corner…and the food is good and reasonably priced too!
Day 15, Wednesday, Mar 25 – To Chiang Mai
After boarding the bus we travel for about forty minutes on the way to Chiang Mai, stopping at a temple complex that is being built in an entirely unorthodox fashion. Under construction by a Thai artist, it is covered in white plaster with mirrored trim, looking more like a wedding cake than a Buddhist temple. There’s also a spectacular happy room under construction. The Wat Rong Khun will become a tourist destination when finished. We continue on to Chiang Mai arriving in time for lunch…The Latino Food & Baverage Co…rice cakes w/ peanut sauce, Bok Choy, sweet/sour pork w/ peppers, grilled tilapia, onions w/ eggs…so good.
Chiang Mai is known as a shopping Mecca and its big time sales jobs…our first is at the Gems Gallery. After a short introduction and quick workshop tour, a sales rep gleans on to us and tries to make a sale. The jewelry looks great and probably well worth the money, but we’re not interested and we escape unscathed. Next is the Silk Factory…they explain the difference between Thai silk and China (all other) silk…courser and heavier weave. It’s a nice shop, pretty expensive!! We buy some silk elephants for Christmas ornaments and gifts. We reach the Centara Hotel and settle into our room on the 17th floor overlooking downtown Chiang Mai and the Night Market. Ole has already pointed out a small alley laundry nearby that does a good job at a reasonable price…fourteen days on the road means we can use a laundry so we gather up our dirty clothes.
The group meets again for an orientation walk around the Night Market area. Every night the streets in the area almost close to vehicular traffic as stalls spring up along the streets…everything conceivable is on sale…tribal crafts, leather goods, clothing, jewelry, art, food, etc., and lots of knockoffs of every kind (purses, watches, etc.). The wide range of goods and prices rival that of Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market. In the morning the stalls are gone and the streets return to normal…until evening when it starts all over again. We wander about as the stalls are being set up but we will wait until later to visit it.
Day 16, Thursday, Mar 26 – Elephant Camp & Bamboo Rafting
We drive about 40 miles north of Chiang Mai to the Mae Tang Valley and the Mae Taeng Elephant Park where we have the opportunity to feed baby elephants bananas & sugar cane that they devour by the bunches. We watch the mahouts (trainers) wash them in the stream (and spray water on the people). We watch the elephant show where the elephants raise a flag up the flagpole, march & dance, play music & beat drums, play volleyball & basketball, and paint pictures. Suda, the 11 year old, paints pictures that the camp sells for $50.00. We board the elephants for an hour long ride across the stream and through the jungle… it’s a lot of fun. Every 15 minutes there’s a feeding station where we pay 20 baht for a bunch of bananas that are consumed before we can get our money out. After the elephant ride, we board bamboo rafts for an hour long float down the stream. By the time we are ready to board our bus, the professional photographer has nice photos of us on the elephant and rafting, both framed in frames made of elephant dung paper…it’s a one time adventure so we purchase them for souvenirs.
Back to Chiang Mai for lunch at Ban Sai Ping restaurant along the Ping River…good Burmese-style curried beef. At the next table are four persons on an OAT post-trip, just back from Burma. Norma picks their brains some about what to expect (they say that they had a great time in Burma). We have the balance of the day to ourselves as we decide to pass up the optional visit to a Thai herbal farm in the afternoon. Instead we get some money from an ATM and do a little shopping finding a small spirit house to bring home…then back to the hotel for a swim in the pool, a shower, a glass of wine and relaxation. The hotel concierge arranges for a Tuk-Tuk taxi to give us a half hour tour around the walled old city. The tuk-tuk driver gives us a wonderful tour including a stop in the center of old town at Wat Chedi Luang. The obviously lopsided central chedi (a solid structure that holds a relic of the Buddha), once 295 feet high, was heavily damaged by an earthquake in 1465 AD. The most revered Emerald Buddha image was briefly located here in the 15th Century (see the Emerald Buddha story later). A replica of it now sits in the central chedi tower. We return to our hotel after a ride along the river and through the night bazaar area. It is an excellent tour.
We dine at Mike’s Original Hamburger Stand located about 2 blocks from our hotel and in front of an alley containing seedy, sexy bars…each with their “sweeties” sitting out front trying to attract customers. But it’s still early and pickings for the girls are slim. We dine on Mushroom-Swiss Cheeseburgers, Chicago-style fries, and Strawberry Malts…just like America and all pretty tasty too.
Day 17, Friday, Mar 27 – Buddhist Alms & Wat Phrathai Doi Suthep
We awake at 5:30 AM and ride toward the Buddhist University to take part in the daily alms giving ceremony. Shortly after dawn the monks leave their temples to search for their daily food. Giving food to the monks is a way to earn merit and practice generosity. Monks are only allowed to eat food offered to them and they must consume it before noon. Then they are allowed no food until the next day. We return to our hotel for our own breakfast
After breakfast, we return to the Buddhist University entering a lecture hall that has been recently renovated with the help of GC Foundation funding. Brother Sanes, a monk for 31 years talks to us about the Buddhist way of life, emphasizing that it is not a religion but a way of life. Buddhists believe in perpetual reincarnation…each life influenced by the actions of previous life (cause & effect = karma). Enlightenment (nirvana) is the only state of being that breaks the cycle…to reach it one must strive for morality, meditation & wisdom (the 3 pillars) and follow the codes of behavior. Novice monks have 10 rules to follow adult monks must follow 220 rules, lay persons somewhere in between. The key to successful life: make your life happy today…the past is past & cannot be changed…learn from it the future is uncertain & unknown…don’t fret about it hence live in the present & make each day the best day.
Our next stop is up the mountain to the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (the temple on the mountain), one of the most revered Buddhist shrines in Northern Thailand. From the parking lot, we climb 304 steps up a sweeping staircase flanked by snarling naga serpents whose tails curl up to the temple. The central temple contains a large golden Buddha image surrounded by smaller ones and a striking gold chedi tower with four multi-tiered umbrellas around it onto which pilgrims apply gold leaf. There is also a monument to the white elephant, the animal that plays a major role in Thai epics. And the view of the surrounding forests and Chiang Mai below is breathtaking. Next to the parking lot is the Orchid Jade Factory with beautiful products but also high prices…we pass on it and enjoy a cup of local Nacha coffee instead.
We lunch at Kao Gab Gang restaurant in Chiang Mai where we enjoy Pork Satay kebabs, Thai fried noodles (Pad Thai), bananas cooked in coconut milk. We have not found one Asian dish that we have not thoroughly enjoyed in our entire trip!
We have a couple of hours of free time this afternoon…we use the time to swim in the pool and relax. This is a long-haul trip and we are less than half way through it.
Tonight we enjoy a home-hosted meal, a chance for making personal contact with a local family. The home is beautiful, obviously a cut above the norm, with marble floors and teak woodwork and furniture. Ole tells us that they try to have better than middle class homes sponsor the meals. In the past some families started selling souvenirs etc., spoiling the purpose of the visit. Not happening here…Male’ (Molly), our hostess, teaches us how to make a Thai salad. Then we each make our own to eat. Dinner features deep-fried tilapia, plus beef w/ broccoli, stir fried vegetables, and a tapioca dessert. It’s a very nice evening with a very nice hostess.
Day 18, Saturday, Mar 28 – Back to Bangkok
We have a leisure morning of packing in preparation for an early afternoon flight back to Bangkok. While checking out the mini-bar selections, Jim notices that in addition to the drinks, nuts, and snacks, a pack of condoms is included for 40 baht. While sexual promiscuity is officially condemned, it is tacitly allowed in all areas. At the airport we say goodbye to our bus driver and assistant. Arriving in Bangkok, we pick up a copy of The Bangkok Post with a large photo showing 100,000 red-shirt demonstrators in front of the government buildings protesting against the current prime minister. However, we do not see anything in route to the hotel. We pass on an optional dinner with puppet show. Instead we both get gentle oil massages and enjoy dinner at Dulio’s Italian Restaurant: Seafood antipasto, pizza, a bottle of Chianti, and tiramisu for dessert ($60.00). We have a very enjoyable evening.
Day 19, Sunday, Mar 29 – The Grand Palace & The Emerald Buddha
This is our last day of touring in Thailand. Ole says that he saved the best for last…The Grand Palace & the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The Grand Palace is Thailand’s greatest temple complex, a sprawling compound of ceremonial halls, gilded spires and ornate buildings. Construction began in 1782 to house the royal residence and throne halls, as well as some government offices and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Covering 218,000 square meters and surrounded by four 1,900 meter long walls, it contains 34 major temples & buildings…all exquisitely decorated in gold, porcelain, and glass mirrors. The Disneyland artists could do no better.
Ole’s timing is perfect…we enter the complex before the hoards of tourists arrive and we have photo opportunities uncluttered by Japanese tourists. We enter the Wat Phra Kaeo to visit the Emerald Buddha. Only 26 inches high, it is breath-taking in its majestic setting. The image is not really carved from emerald, but jadeite and is the most revered image of the Buddha in Thailand. In 1434, a lightning strike at a Chiang Rai temple stupa exposed a simple plaster image. Handling it caused some plaster to break revealing a jadeite image beneath. When the king of Chiang Mai sent an army on elephants to bring the image to him, the elephant carrying the image refused to take the Chiang Mai road. Over the next century, the Emerald Buddha traveled to various locations, settling in Laos. It was finally returned to Thailand and Bangkok in 1778.
Again Ole’s timing is perfect…we arrive in front of the Throne Hall in time to witness the formal changing of the guard… all dressed in crisp white uniforms…impressive. Before we leave the grounds, we tour the Palace Museum…the ground floor houses replaced pieces of the temples and photos of restoration efforts over the years. The upper floor contains palace paraphernalia…thrones, palanquins, silver, china, crystal, and gifts to the royal family over the years…very interesting.
We’re back at the hotel by 1:00 PM…the afternoon is free and we end our Thailand stay this evening with a farewell dinner. Its 95 degrees out and very humid. While some do more shopping and sightseeing, we relax in the shade at the hotel pool. Norma orders drinks and a snack. The next thing we know the pool attendant is beckoning us to a shady alcove where a table is set, complete with table cloth, cloth napkins, silverware and china. We enjoy spring rolls with sweet sauce and a chef’s salad…wine for Norma, beer for Jim. We wonder what the rich folks are doing.
A short bus ride to the river and we board the Sia Phrae dinner barge for a sunset dinner cruise…our farewell to Ole and Thailand. Our OAT group is the sole customer and a table is set with white table linen, china & crystal. We cruise along the river as the sun sets, highlighting the palaces and temples with a warm glow. The river is filled with boats of all shapes & descriptions. It is an excellent meal and the setting is perfect.
Back to the hotel, we are pleasantly surprised to meet Ole’s wife and son. But it’s time say our farewells and give Ole his tip and big hugs for a job “well done”. We pack our bags and leave a small one filled with souvenirs and other purchases with the hotel…they will store it while we are in Vietnam and Burma. So ends the first half our forty-day Southeast Asia tour. Tomorrow we fly to Hanoi and a new adventure in Vietnam.
Introduction to Vietnam
Day 20 (Mar 30) – Day 34 (Apr 13)
Vietnam: Vietnam is located in the southeast corner of the Indochinese peninsula. It is a fertile S-shaped land extending from the mountains on the Chinese border in the north, to the rich flood plains of the Mekong Delta in the south. Its long coastline is lapped by the warm waters of the South China Sea. Laos and Cambodia form its western border. Charming Hanoi in the north, with its distinctive blend of French colonial influence and Vietnamese character, is the capital. Fast moving Ho Chi Minh City in the south (formerly Saigon) is the modern economic and commercial hub. The diverse country in between offers stunning limestone scenery, ornate temples, heavenly food, villages populated by ethnic minorities, beaches & fishing ports, and visible reminders of the Vietnam War.
Day 20, Monday, Mar 30 – To Hanoi
We arrive at the airport, clear customs and security, and board a Vietnam Airlines flight to Hanoi. We arrive in Vietnam about 2:00 PM, get our luggage, easily clear customs, and meet our Vietnam guide…Tran. Before we leave the airport he tells us to convert $100.00 into VN Dong, even though US dollars are widely accepted. Suddenly we are millionaires…at 17,000 dong to the dollar we now have 1.7 million dong! Although there are soldiers present in the airport area, we see no armed guards or weapons. We feel no danger or threat by our presence in Communist Vietnam.
On the way to the hotel in Hanoi, Tran tells us a little about himself: he was born in the ancient city of Hue (pronounced “way”) in South Vietnam a year before the Tet Offensive of 1968 (more about that later). His grandfather was a top mandarin in the emperor’s court and married a princess of the court…a colorful background. However, his family was forced to move to the Mekong Delta for the duration of the war, losing title to property and wealth. After the war, Tran fled Vietnam as one of the “boat people” refugees, ending up in a refugee camp in Thailand. He later made his way back and on his return to Vietnam, he underwent six months of “re-education” so he could become a model citizen. He is married, two children, lives in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), is 40 years old, and has been a tour guide for 15 years, including 4 years with OAT. (And a hell of a great guy…immediately he reminds Jim of his old South Vietnamese Army counterpart…Major Loi).
Our stay in Hanoi is the Bro & Sis Hotel, a 3-star or less hotel (“comfortable as home” says the brochure), and located in the old quarter of town. We think it’s wonderful…a typical OAT accommodation…a comfortable room with a big king-size bed, high ceilings with crown molding, heavy teak furniture, old fashioned bathroom…a fitting place in old Hanoi. The oldest and one of the most attractive capital cities in Southeast Asia, Hanoi exudes a rare sense of gracious charm and timeliness. At its core is a 600-year old ancient quarter surrounded by a 100-year old French-colonial city. The blending of both with the slow movement to modernization makes this a most interesting capital to visit and explore.
We meet for a quick briefing and an orientation walk around the area. Tran lays out a few rules...be on time, pay attention, enjoy Vietnam. We step outside the hotel and into a different world. We are in the heart of the old city…motorbikes & taxis beep their horns, pedestrians & bicycles dodge between them, loud speakers blare propaganda, small shops and street merchants sell everything from pig snouts to baby crabs rice to vegetables and fruit food vendors cook noodle soup & meat dishes…beauty shops, tailors, motorbike repair, massage parlors…huge tangles of electrical wires going in every direction…and people everywhere. It’s a real cacophony of sights and sounds.
We bus through old town to an nondescript restaurant called “Taste of Hanoi” that serves us a true taste of Hanoi…starting with Pho, the famous Vietnamese noodle soup that is eaten at every or any meal, Spring rolls, Banana flower salad with beef, grilled beef with honey sauce, Sautéed Chicken with cashew, pork & peppers, cabbage, and rice (all flavored with nuoc mam - a pungent fermented fish sauce, soy sauce and/or hot peppers)…quite a taste of Vietnam.
Day 21, Tuesday, Mar 31 – Hanoi City
Our full day tour of Hanoi starts with a one hour cyclo-rickshaw ride (also known as the suicide rickshaw since the passenger rides in front of the driver) through the Old Quarter of Hanoi during morning rush hour...a great and scary way to see the city up close. Thousands of motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians vie with buses and trucks…weaving in and out at a breakneck speed. There’s a minimum of traffic signals, lots of horns tooting, and NO accidents…amazing! Our cyclo drivers peddle on through it all like they are the only vehicles on the road.
Over the years, 36 distinct craft guilds came into existence and the Old Quarter earned its nickname of “36 Streets” with each street named for the product it featured…Silk Street, Bamboo Street, Copper Street, Fish Street, Sail-maker Street, etc. Today with narrow alleys packed with hundreds of small shops, restaurants, and unique tube houses, the Old Quarter retains its charm. The tube house design dates back to 1400-1700s and feature a narrow frontage for a shop area (as little as 2 meters wide) with work areas, courtyards and living areas behind (up to 80 meters deep). Today, additional 2-5 stories have been added creating “rocket houses”, still limited in their ground areas by the original land deeds.
We leave our rickshaw ride at the Temple of Literature, the oldest and probably the finest architectural complex in Hanoi. It was established in 1070 AD in honor of the Chinese philosopher Confucius, and has served as a center for higher learning, educating future mandarins (learned men) for more than ten centuries. Every 3 or 4 years, examinations were held to select mandarins…the names of successful candidates were inscribed on large stone tablets (15th – 18th century) mounted on the back of stone turtles called “tortoise stellas” (82 of the original 112 stellas still surround the temple). The French ended the mandarin selection practice in the 1930s. A highlight of the complex is the Temple of Confucius, a long, red-lacquered & gilded building containing a statue of Confucius & his main disciples. In the Music Hall, traditional musicians stage regular performances that we have an opportunity to see.
We stop for a ‘happy house” visit at the Hoalu Art & Handicraft Co, a wholesaler in Vietnamese crafts, and find a wooden cyclo, a wooden sailing ship, and a wood carved Vietnamese girl, for a total cost of $15.00. We lunch at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant called the Viet Kitchen, and the food is great. We stop by the massive Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, a heavy grey structure built of stone quarried at Marble Mountain near Danang. It is an important pilgrimage site for many Vietnamese, especially from the north, and we are cautioned to approach it with respect and reverence…any kind of noisy behavior, loitering, or inappropriate clothing is forbidden. As we re-board our bus, Tran points out a man in a grey suit who had followed us around the area… “Secret police” Tran says. We walk by the huge Presidential Palace (that Ho Chi Minh didn’t use) and the nearby green & gold cottage (that he did use) and the “Stilt House”, an unassuming 2-story structure affectionately called “Uncle Ho’s House”… two simple rooms, a study and a bedroom, kept as they were when Uncle Ho was present. We also visit the “One Pillar Pagoda”, one of Hanoi’s treasures…dating from the 11th Century this wooden pagoda is built on a single stone pillar standing in an elegant lotus pond. It has been damaged and reconstructed numerous times over the centuries, but its destruction by the French in 1954 is a sore spot in the two countries’ relations.
Our next stop is the Municipal Water Puppet Theater…probably the best place in Vietnam to see performances of the traditional art of Roi Nuoc or water puppetry. The puppets are colorful and the showmanship is excellent, making extensive use of dramatic music from a traditional orchestra and special effects like smoke, firecrackers and water-spraying dragons to create a lively performance. At the end of the show, the bamboo curtain behind the watery stage rises, revealing the puppeteers standing in waist deep water. Tran gets us seats in the third row so we have excellent views and photo ops.
The day ends with dinner at the Banana Blossom Restaurant...another great meal. This is our third country of different tastes and spices…throughout our trip, the food has been excellent…this Vietnamese food may be the best yet.
Day22, Wednesday, Apr 1 – Tho Ha Village
Its April Fool’s Day, but no-one’s cracking jokes. We’re up & dressed early and decide to take a walk around the neighborhood. Most shops are closed but things are starting to open. Food stands are getting the pots boiling in anticipation of breakfast diners. About 50 seniors are exercising in the park. We join them for awhile and they are happy to have two westerners exercising with them. After breakfast at the hotel, we’re ready for today’s adventure. We leave the city for a look at life in the countryside. Along the way, we stop at a cemetery for the War Dead (North Vietnamese, not South). The graves have names, dates of birth, and dates & place of death. Some have photos. All appear to be frequently tended with artificial flowers, incense sticks, etc. Tran discusses the importance of how Vietnamese honor their dead, especially ancestors.
We enter Bac Minh province that is rapidly becoming an industrial center with many foreign investments in manufacturing facilities. In the next village, Tran points out the many signs for “Thit Cho”…do we know what it advertises? “DOG MEAT”! Of course we have to stop for a photo op and a taste (tastes like a dry beef roast). We arrive at the river and take a small ferry across to the island village of Tho Ha, a two industry town…raising pigs and producing rice paper. We walk about the village, stopping at a backyard rice paper shop. After a demonstration, we are offered a chance to make rice paper for ourselves. It’s more difficult then it looks. Rice paper is made by fast-cooking a mixture of rice flour and water on a hot surface (similar to making tortillas), then carefully peeling the thin sheet of paper off to cool and dry on a woven bamboo rack. Various meat and vegetables are rolled into the rice paper to make spring rolls that are eaten either raw or deep fried.
A kind villager, Mr. Viet, invites us into his home to visit and give us a taste of home-made rice whiskey. Jim sees a photo of him in uniform…he says he was an in the North Vietnam Army and was in the Cu Chi area near Saigon in 1975. Jim tells him that he served as an advisor to the South Vietnam Army in 1971. Past is past, we are now friends…a hand shake and hug seals the deal. He explains that even though he honorably served in the army, because he was a land owner, he was forced to undergo “re-education” for almost two years. He gets out a guitar, hands Jim a moon guitar, and we start playing “You are my Sunshine”…everyone joins in singing. We thank him for his hospitality and continue on our village tour. There is a lot of construction underway…new school rooms, homes, even an old temple under repair. This is typical of many of the villages as capitalism (under socialism) is working. The pigs are kept under the houses and sold for market throughout the area. Back across the river on the ferry, we see a group of men gathered. In the middle of the circle is a cock fight…illegal in Vietnam, but openly held in the villages.
We enjoy lunch at the Merry Restaurant in Hanoi…another great meal. Our afternoon is free but Tran arranges bus transportation to several locations if interested. We go to the infamous Hoa Loi Prison, built by the French in 1896 to hold Vietnamese political prisoners against the French colonial government. During the Vietnam War, it housed downed US pilots who named it the “Hanoi Hilton”. Now a museum, the majority of the exhibits include a horrifying array of shackles, whips and other torture instruments, as well as tiny solitary confinement cells emphasizing the French brutality to the Vietnamese between 1896-1950s. A smaller section of the museum is devoted to the American period and, as expected, shows “how well” the US prisoners were treated by the Vietnamese. There’s the flight suit supposedly worn by their most famous captive… John McCain. The museum is very heavy on the propaganda, but Jim expected that. (Note: When we get to Saigon we see a newspaper photo of John McCain visiting the Hanoi Hilton four days after our visit). We walk the 1½ miles back to our hotel through streets filled with friendly people, scooters and interesting things to buy. We have no fear walking about here in the capital of Vietnam.
Tonight is dinner on our own. Tran suggests places for us to dine. Many restaurants are highlighted in guidebooks…Jim & Norma select a less-known restaurant within walking distance called Red Ascera. We are greeted at the door by a hostess who escorts us upstairs into a private dining room set with a table for two. Along with salad and spring rolls, she suggests a hot pot meal and we choose seafood. A silver pot filled with broth flavored with garlic, herbs & spices is heated on a burner placed in the center of the table. As it comes to a boil, a platter of vegetables (bok-chow, Chinese cabbage, morning glory greens & others) and a platter of seafood (large prawns, clams, squid, whitefish, mussels) arrive. We cook the items as we like and enjoy them with noodles heated in the broth. This is another excellent meal that will always be remembered for its uniqueness and setting. We walk back to the hotel fully sated and prepare our bags. We check out of Hanoi tomorrow…the next destination – a junk on Halong Bay.
Day 23, Thursday, Apr 2 – Halong Bay
As we travel to Halong (about 4 hours) Jim contemplates: How can the Vietnamese people be so friendly and open to Americans when they have been fed such strong propaganda against American “imperialism” and alleged atrocities? Jim knows the facts that 1) heavy bombing caused collateral damage to civilians, homes & hospitals as well as military targets, 2) Agent Orange defoliation of the jungles also took a heavy toll on human life, deformed children, plants & animals, 3) the Amerasian children left behind by US military are a generation of outcasts. The facts alone are enough to turn the people off without the propaganda…yet we are welcomed with smiles and friendship wherever we go.
We take a break to stretch our legs and walk through a country village. We stop at a home of a pig farmer whose son is also the local rice wine bootlegger. The man of the house is also a military veteran who fought the French at Dien Binh Phu before the war of liberation. Tran tells him that Jim was a soldier in Vietnam during that war…all is forgiven with smiles, hand shakes and a big hug.
We arrive at Halong Bay. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the magnificent Halong Bay is spread across a 580 square mile area, with more than 2,000 pinnacle-shaped limestone and dolomite outcrops scattered across it. Legend says it was formed when a giant dragon (halong means descending dragon) plunged into the Gulf of Tonkin, creating the islets by slashing its tail. Whatever the story, we are taken back by the mystical beauty of the fog shrouded surroundings when we board the modernized junk Hoi Au for an overnight cruise.
Sailing past the strange shaped formations with dramatic caves and grottos is a magical experience, especially in the misty weather of today. We cruise through the beautiful islands and islets as we eat our lunch…its difficult to concentrate on the great seafood meal as photo ops appear while we thread our way through the mist. Against this backdrop of lush landscape, the Vietnamese go about their daily lives, fishing and harvesting, reaping the riches of the land and sea. We stop at a floating fish farm where captured fish are held live in pens until sold…small sharks, red snapper, horseshoe crabs, groupers, eels, etc…very interesting.
Our next stop is Hang Sung Sot, or “the Cave of Awe”, best known for a huge, phallus-shaped stalagmite, lit in passion pink lights, and worshipped as a fertility symbol. We wander through the cave that is filled with strangely formed stalactites and stalagmites, backlit with colored flood lights to highlight their beauty. It’s similar to Carlsbad Caverns, only on a smaller scale. Back aboard our junk we continue our cruise, anchoring for the night in a small cove that we share with several other junks. Although the weather has been cool and cloudy with scattered showers, it doesn’t deter enjoyment of this beautiful work of nature. Our dinner tonight features broiled grouper purchased this afternoon at the floating fish farm.
Day 24, Friday, Apr 3 – End Cruise, Ethnic Museum, To Hue
Unfortunately good things must end…we depart our boat shortly after breakfast to continue our adventures. We’re back in Hanoi in time for lunch at the Al Fresco restaurant for a western style meal…BBQ ribs appetizer, green salad, pizza, and a strawberry shake. It’s a great change of diet. After lunch we visit the Museum of Ethnology that offers informative and well-documented displays on Vietnam’s many ethnic groups. Vietnam has 54 minority groups: Austro-Asiatic (25 groups), Austronesian (5 groups), Thai (12 groups), Hmong (3 groups), and Sino-Tibetan (9 groups). This museum highlights some of the major groups with displays of costumes, tools, pottery, art and miniature buildings inside and examples of full size tribal houses outside. We’re surprised by the extreme sexual connotations of some structures: a female staircase with large breasts that must be grasped by men when they enter the house the phallic door post with an obvious erect penis shaped top the funerary house surrounded by carvings of copulating human figures, pregnant women, masturbation, etc. We know what these tribes did before television!
We depart Hanoi and head to the airport…”north” Vietnam is history. After a 400 mile flight, we arrive in the imperial city of Hue about 7:30 PM and check into the “four-star” Camellia Hotel. Our room is on the 7th floor (the granite countertop in the bathroom is identical to our kitchen at home…Emerald Pearl) and the dining area is on the 11th floor, complete with a roof terrace. We enjoy a late dinner and wine at an outdoor table overlooking the city. Our initial reaction to “south” Vietnam: it is much cleaner, less junk, and a slower pace than Hanoi.
Day 25, Saturday, Apr 4 – The Citadel & Thien Mu Pagoda
We cross the Perfume River from our hotel and drive to the Citadel…declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 this huge fortress is made up of three concentric enclosures: the Civic, the Imperial, and the Forbidden Purple Cities. Within, beautiful palaces and temples co-exist with massive ramparts and moats.
Americans know the Citadel for the Tet Offensive of 1968, the longest and bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War when communist forces launched country-wide attacks and seized the imperial capital of Hue, holding it against massive counterattacks by US Marines for 25 days. Both sides suffered heavy casualties, as did the Citadel buildings and walls. As we walk around, we notice walls riddled with shrapnel and bullet holes. Major reconstruction is still underway but the main buildings have been returned to their original splendor.
We cross the moat and pass through the outer wall, pausing briefly at five of the nine holy cannons, said to represent the five elements (earth, metal, wood, water & fire). The other four cannons representing the four seasons are across the yard. We pass the massive, 120-foot tall Flag Tower that dominates Hue’s skyline, and enter the Citadel through its main gate, the Five Phoenix Watch Tower, an elaborate pavilion where the emperor sat enthroned on state occasions. A beautiful flower garden path leads to the Thai Hoa Palace or the “Hall of Supreme Harmony” that housed the throne room of the Nguyen Emperors. Behind the palace sits the Hall of the Mandarins, the gathering place of those learned men who assisted and advised the emperors. No man except the emperor was permitted to set foot inside the Forbidden Purple City, home of the queen, nine levels of concubines, female servants and court eunuchs. Once comprised of 60 buildings arranged around numerous courtyards, it was damaged extensively by heavy bombing during the Tet Offensive of 1968 and the Forbidden Purple City still remains in mostly ruins. We walk among the foundations and pathways, imagining its one-time splendor. The bombed out ruins of the Hung Mieu temple, destroyed by the French in the Indochina War (1947), remain in the destroyed state as a reminder of still hated French rule. One could spend days trying to take in everything at this historical site, but we must move on.
Another discovery…we visit the Dong Thuyen Pagoda, operated by Buddhist nuns (no monks). After a quick tour of the temple we sit down to a vegetarian lunch that they have prepared for us: bean soup, vegetarian spring rolls, deep fried mushrooms, tofu & green beans, rice, sweet sticky rice cake for dessert…very good. We travel to the Thien Mu (The Heavenly Lady) Pagoda, located on a high bluff above the Perfume River. Its seven-story octagonal tower is an iconic symbol of Hue. Behind the pagoda is a beautiful garden flanked by monks’ quarters and a garage that houses the blue Austin once owned by monk Thich Quang Duc, whose photo of his self-immolation, in protest against the corrupt Diem regime in 1963, reverberated around the world.
On the way to our hotel, we stop at a Silk Embroidery Shop where artisans, using magnifying glasses, embroider delicate designs on silk cloth creating translucent works of art…very pretty and expensive. During our rest break before dinner, we swim, shower, dress and negotiate a half hour cyclo-rickshaw ride around the walled old city of Hue, through the modern downtown area, along the Perfume River, and back to the hotel…cost: 100,000 dong or $5.88. We head up to the rooftop bar for a drink, watching the traffic and people below. We walk to dinner at Phuoc Than Garden, a very nice restaurant with another great meal and also taste the house specialty…Hue Pancakes (crepe with shrimp & fried bean sprouts)…very good.
Day 26, Sunday, Apr 5 – Overland to Hoi An
There are only two weeks remaining of this fabulous trip, but we’re taking it one day at a time. We board our bus and head south along the coastal road to Hoi An. Our road trip today is less than 5 hours, but if you were to travel the whole length of Route 1, you would be facing over 1,200 miles from Hanoi to Saigon. The tracks for the only north-south train in Vietnam (28 hours to go the length) runs along the highway. The highway is filled with large cargo trucks departing the harbor area. We do a double take when we spot a Schneider International Transportation truck, based in Green Bay and unmistakable in its bright orange paint, headed north with a heavy load. We travel along the South China Sea, watching sampans fishing along the shoreline, water buffaloes plowing paddies, fields bright green with ripening rice, and small rural villages.
We stop to observe clam harvesting in a quaint fishing village. Sidewalls of old tires are nailed to wood poles in the shallows, clams and oysters attached themselves to the tires, when brought ashore the clams & oysters are hacked off with a machete for sale or consumption. Meanwhile the tires are laid on the road where traffic breaks off the remaining shell particles…now clean, they are ready for reuse. About 60 villagers work in this operation. Others have large lift nets in the bay that the fishermen paddle to in “woven bowl” boats.
North of Danang at the Hai Van Pass, what was once a 40 kilometer trip up and over the mountain pass has now been replaced by a 6½ kilometer long tunnel straight through the mountain…quite an engineering achievement. We pass through Danang, the area that was a major port and headquarters for the US Marines during the Vietnam War, and stop at Marble Mountain, reknown for its marble and stone carving. They have many outstanding pieces of excellent sculpture, and they’ll ship anywhere in the world at reasonable prices. Gloria decides on a pair of huge carved lions for her backyard…the rest of us pass on the bargains.
The long stretch of beaches south of Danang are called My Khe, My An, and Non Nuoc beaches, but are known to many Americans as “China Beach”, named after the popular TV series. During the Vietnam War, with Danang being one of the most secure of US bases, the US military developed My Khe & My An as R & R centers for GIs taking a few days break from the war. Now resorts are under construction with rooms offered at $500/night.
We arrive at Hoi An…located on the north bank of the Bon River, this historic town was an important trading post from the 16th to the 18th century. Hoi An was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 and features long, narrow tube houses, Chinese pagodas, ornate community halls, and family shrines. We enjoy another excellent lunch at the Morning Glory restaurant…their specialties: pork grilled in mango leaves and pineapple pancakes. We check into the Ancient City hotel. We have a beautiful garden room with a king-size bed (orchids on the bed) next to a beautiful pool. We have two hours so we immediately hit the pool to cool off and relax.
After a quick shower, we join Tran & our group for a walking tour of old town. Hoi An reminds us of an Asian Santa Fe, only instead of art galleries and Indian crafts, they have tailor & leather shops and Vietnamese crafts. We stick our noses into a bakery shop where hot loaves of French baguettes are coming out of the wood fired ovens, loaded in baskets, and sent out to be sold throughout the city to persons on their way home from work. Tran snags some hot ones for us to taste. We walk to the Thu Ban River and watch the river traffic and tourist characters. Old shops are located in older converted warehouses left from the days when Hoi An was a center for trade with China and Japan. We stop at the House of Tan Ky, an excellent example of an authentic 18th century Sino-Vietnamese shop/house. Massive carved beams support a high ceiling decorated in Chinese crab shell motifs and the floor is made of red bricks imported from the Red River delta. Exquisite mother-of-pearl inlay Chinese poetry hangs from the columns that support the roof. Our next stop is Hoi An’s most prominent landmark, the Japanese Covered Bridge, a rust colored wooden bridge constructed in 1593 by the prosperous Japanese community. We make a quick stop at the Quan Cong Pagoda, built in 1653 and dedicated to the 3rd century Chinese general who was an early Taoist leader. It contains an impressive gilded statue of the general accompanied by two fierce guardians and a white horse.
Before going to our Vietnamese cooking class, Tran gives us some time for shopping. We find a tailor shop with a friendly shopkeeper and purchase some pants…2 pair of Capri’s for Norma and 2 pair of zip-off cargos for Jim (total cost $38.00). Hoi An is known for its hand-made silk lanterns so we find a lantern shop. Intrigued by their beauty and construction, we hope to pick up one for a souvenir…we end up with four of them (total cost $10.00). We spot a wine bar…also spotted by Bill & Bobbie and Steve & Ruth who have already ordered. We enjoy some French Shiraz ($3.00 a glass), and head for the Champa Bar & Restaurant for a Vietnamese cooking class. Mr. Hung Tran is our colorful host and we all partake in putting together the meal: Vegetable & meat spring rolls, fried Wonton, Squid salad, and Grilled fish in banana leaves. Jim is trying to take notes…Mr. Hung swoops them up and tells Jim to pay attention. People keep asking how long one should cook the items…his answer is “when it smells like it’s ready to eat, it’s ready to eat”. After dinner, he returns the notes to Jim, along with the recipes of the meal.
Day 27, Monday, Apr 6 – Champa Ruins at My Son
It takes about 1½ hours to drive the 20 miles to My Son due to numerous schools & children, rough roads and the heavy traffic. We pass peanut, taro, corn, tobacco, squash, gourds, and other farm fields in route…water buffalos, cows, pigs, and oxen are scattered about…cone-hatted farmers toil in the fields. As we approach My Son, Tran points out scars in the rice paddies left from 35 year old bomb craters. We arrive at My Son.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the temple complex of My Son is set in a dense, vegetated valley beneath Cat’s Tooth Mountain. Although centuries of pillage and more recent bombings have taken their toll, the ruins provide a glimpse into the fascinating Cham culture that was heavily influenced by Indian & Javanese art and culture. My Son was a religious center between the 4th and 13th centuries and once contained about 70 temples…20 are still in good condition. The most striking edifices are the famous Cham towers that are divided into three parts: the base representing the earth, the center is the spiritual world, and the top being the realm between earth and heaven. Also predominant are stone carved Shiva Lingams, male phallic symbols set either above or within a flat stone called the Yoni, the female symbol. Water was pored over the Lingam and flowed through a spout on the Yoni to symbolize creation.
We visit Temple Groups B, C, and D…situated in the center of the complex, the buildings reflect both Indian & Javanese art. Many feature religious images and elaborately embellished false doors. A 10th century tower housed temple treasures and features a boat-shaped roof, carved pilasters and a fine relief’s of the Goddess of Prosperity. 8th century celestial figures show distinct Javanese influence demonstrating the connection to Indonesia. The Group A temple, believed to be one of My Son’s most impressive structures, was almost completely destroyed by USAF bombing of a VC ammunition storage area located within the site during the Tet Offensive of 1968. While little remains beyond a huge pile of rubble and shattered columns, restoration work has started. Tran points out damage caused by US bombers…bomb craters amid the ruins and shrapnel marks on the columns…but he doesn’t tell “the rest of the story”...that the Viet Cong violated this sacred site to store weapons and ammunition.
We’re back to Hoi An for a late lunch at the Goda Restaurant…excellent as expected. Our afternoon is on our own. Tran gives us a choice…the bus will drop us off down town for shopping or back at the hotel. Most choose to shop more. Jim & Norma return to the hotel. We get bicycles from the hotel and ride through the traffic to an ATM machine located about a half mile away. That trip turns out to be easy so we continue on into old town, down to the river, through the market place… dodging bikes, motorbikes, vendors and tourists…great fun! We make our way back to the hotel, picking up a bottle of Bordeaux wine on the way (we can’t believe how easy it is to find French wine all over Vietnam). We swim some, shower and nap.
Day 28, Tuesday, Apr 7 – To Nha Trang
We depart the hotel and travel to Danang for a 355-mile flight to Nha Trang. The airport at Danang is a former US military base and the opposite side of the runway is lined with concrete shelters once used to protect US aircraft. Danang was also heavily attacked during the Tet Offensive, with the Viet Cong overrunning part of the base. An hour later we land at Cam Rahn Bay airport that services Danang…during the war this too was a major support base for US Army, Navy & Air Force operations. We see evidence of foundations of old buildings and old roads left from the US military complex once here.
We drive 20 miles north to Nha Trang, a bustling city of 400,000, a major fishing port, and also the primary beach destination in Vietnam. A highlight of the city is Municipal Beach, a 4-mile long stretch of clean sandy beach. Tran Phu Street runs the entire length of it and is filled with hotels, resorts, restaurants, shops and beach paraphernalia. We check into the Violet Hotel about noon. Tran suggests the Truc Linh Seafood Restaurant across the street for lunch. Norma has Red Snapper and Jim has Grouper…both fresh from the sea, pan fried to perfection, and served with mixed vegetables and noodles.
After lunch Tran arranges taxi transportation to take us to the local sites. We choose Po Nagar Cham Towers located on a hill above the north bank of the river that is now filled with bright blue & red fishing boats back from early morning fishing. Like My Son, Po Nagar is one of the most important Cham sites in Vietnam, and is similar in construction, temple carvings and religious appeal. It was built in the 8th century and only four of its original eight towers remain. The vistas of Nha Trang and the sea shore below are fantastic. We also stop at the Long Son Pagoda, the most revered in Nha Trang. The main sanctuary is dominated by a giant white Buddha (over 46 feet tall) built of fiber glass in the 1960s. The pagoda is reached by climbing 155 steps. We pass the Cathedral and the nearby market area on the way back to the hotel.
We gather at 6:00 PM for an open discussion Q & A period covering any or all controversial questions. Summarized… Vietnam is not Socialist, but a free-trade capitalist country Vietnam is not a Republic, but a one party communist country there is still a very strong secret police organization free to stick their nose anywhere and there is no forgiveness, nor compassion for supporters of the old South Vietnam regime. We dine “al fresco” at GIA Restaurant featuring Vietnamese seafood dishes. One dish really impresses Jim…Scallops with cheese on the half shell. No one knows what kind of cheese is used in the recipe until Jim goes to the kitchen and asks the chef. “Laughing Cow” she explains with a laugh.
Day 29, Wednesday, Apr 8 – Mieu Island & Fishing Village
There is one complaint we have about Vietnam…NO good coffee! Although Vietnam is the 2nd largest exporter of coffee, we find NO good coffee at any hotel…some use Nescafe, others (and in restaurants) make a mocha-flavored black slurry that could double as pavement crack sealer. Add in some condensed sweetened milk or (heaven forbid) reconstituted powdered milk and one’s tummy curdles. We are up early and walk the streets looking for good coffee, but to no avail. We decide to stick to tea.
From Nha Trang’s harbor, we take a small ferry boat to a small fishing village on Mieu Island. We walk through the market filled with fresh vegetables and fresher sea creatures and continue through to the other side of the island. Waiting there are basket bowl boats that we board, three to a boat. The young girl manning the oars is more interested in selling us some of her wares than getting us to our boat anchored in the harbor. But it’s another form of transportation that we experience. We cruise to the far side of the island to Mimi Beach, a private stretch of white sandy beach complete with beach chairs, palm trees, umbrellas, and a beach bar. It’s a wet landing but only knee deep. We find a beach chair in the shade and set up camp for our two-hour beach party. We swim awhile in the warm waters of the South China Sea. We relax in the shade, Jim sipping a Tiger Beer and Norma a glass of red wine. It’s not the Caribbean, but it’s still pretty nice. Jim never had the opportunity to take an R & R break at one of the beaches while he was in Vietnam, so this stop is for Jim. At noon we board our ferry boat and return to Nha Trang. Our lunch is at the Four Seasons Restaurant on the Municipal Beach featuring seafood: deep-fried cuttle fish, calamari, shrimp, baked fish, vegetables and seafood salad…all excellent!
We head out of town to a nearby village that specializes in making large bamboo baskets used in the fishing industry. It is one of the poorest villages in the area, and GCT/OAT is in the process of building four homes in the village. We meet Mr. Vang, the village chief, who treats us to tea. During a Q & A session, we learn that he was an officer in the South Vietnam Army (ARVN) and was forced to attend 8 months of “re-education. Through Tran, Jim explains his job as an advisor to the 22nd ARVN Division in the Central Highlands. Our guide Tran is surprised that a former ARVN officer holds a government office…even in a small village. In route to a school where GC Foundation recently installed a computer room & computers, we stop to watch villagers harvesting the rice crop by hand…a very labor intensive operation.
Back to the hotel for a few hours rest…that means the pool for Norma & Jim. Dinner is on our own tonight. We walk several blocks to the beach then south until we find the Sailing Club Restaurant that Tran recommended. We select a table overlooking the crashing waves of the South China Sea. The warm evening air is cooled by the breeze off the water. We select the Nha Trang Seafood Platter for Two and a bottle of Chianti. It takes 20 minutes to prepare the dish explains the waiter. We pass the time sipping our wine and reviewing all that we have experienced in the past four weeks. Then here comes dinner: a huge platter with a whole baked grouper in the center, surrounded by prawns, squid, octopus, mussels, calamari and baked potato hunks, all prepared with a curry/coconut sauce…a hot chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream ends the feast (total cost with tip - $57.00).
Day 30, Thursday, Apr 9 – To Dalat
We wake up about 6:00 AM to silence…no air conditioner or electric power. Later Tran tells us that because of power shortages, certain districts are blacked out for a day but this one wasn’t scheduled. Thank God it didn’t happen yesterday when the temperature was pushing 95! We head for Dalat, high up in the mountains at 5,000 foot elevation…it should be cooler than the 90s we’ve been experiencing. Dalat was started as a sanatorium in 1893, and by 1910 the town had become a popular summer retreat for French colonists seeking a cool escape from the heat of the plains. Today Dalat draws tens of thousands of Vietnamese honeymooners and holiday makers as well as an increasing number of foreign visitors. The hills turn to mountains, the houses to shacks, the fields to jungle…streams, waterfalls, beautiful wild land. We climb up through a mountain pass, totally enclosed with clouds. Fields are now filled with coffee plants…Vietnam is 2nd only to Brazil in coffee production but the quality of the coffee is poor so locals add various flavors while roasting the beans. That explains why we can’t find a good cup of coffee in Vietnam. Then we pass groves of cashew trees, followed by huge green houses where Korean companies grow vegetables for export to Korea. We arrive in Dalat about lunchtime, dining at Trong Dong restaurant where pan-fried venison is featured. After lunch we ride a cable car across the valley to the Truc Lam Pagoda…the pagoda itself is not special but the gardens and flower beds are spectacular.
We check into the Ngoc Lan Hotel. We have 2 ½ hours of free time before going out to a home-hosted dinner. We walk around some of the streets looking for a place to buy wine. All we are able to find is the local Dalat brand (of course we are in Dalat). We’ve tasted it before without good reviews so we are hesitant to buy, but we finally find a Superior Grade Red Dalat and purchase a bottle for 60,000 dong ($3.60)…and it doesn’t taste bad.
Our home-hosted dinner is at the home of Huynh Quoc Tuan (the father who’s cooking), Lien (the wife), and Quyen Di (windy) the 30 year old single, vivacious daughter who acts as mistress of ceremony. It’s an excellent meal with a lot of interactive discussion. Another daughter is married and lives in Pennsylvania…the parents have traveled to the USA. When we ask what impressed them about America, Lieu says “it’s so clean”. They are members of the Cau Dai faith (will cover later), they worship their ancestors, and have an entire room set aside as a place of worship.
Day 31, Friday, Apr 10 – Dalat
This morning there is an optional tour to a farming village and some craft shops. Jim & Norma decide skip the tour and chill out…until Norma hears about the “Easy Riders”… a motorcycle touring company, started by a group of ex-ARVN soldiers who love motorcycles, which gained notoriety from the “Lonely Planet” guidebook. So we book a two hour tour around Dalat. At 9:30 AM, Mr. Tu (age 40) and Mr. Yau (age 50) arrive at the hotel aboard their Honda motorcycles. Neither are the ARVN vets (busy on longer tours) but they are willing to listen to Jim’s tale of military service in the Central Highlands. Both speak excellent English and are familiar with Pleiku, Kontum, and Dak To as some of their longer (3-4 days) tours go through those cities in the Central Highlands.
We start through the city, taking the four mile loop around Xuan Huong Lake that’s located in the center of Dalat we stop at the Alexander Yersin Memorial (he’s the French founder of the city) travel five miles south to the Datanla Falls where we hike down about 800 feet to two cascading waterfalls in the canyon bottom we stop at the Summer Palace of Bao Dai, the last Nguyen Dynasty Emperor (who was a powerless puppet of the French) from 1938-1945. Mr. Tu tells Jim “this was my house in my previous life, now I’m an “easy rider”. Jim tells him “you must have been pretty bad then”. We all laugh. The palace was built in 1933 in a curious Art Nouveau style. Our next stop is “the Crazy House”…a Gaudi style psychedelic creation of wood and wire covered with concrete to form a tree house, complete with giant toadstools, cobwebs, tunnels, etc. While most locals hate it, everyone tolerates it since the owner is a daughter of a former Senior Communist Party hardliner.
It’s a wonderful tour with perfect weather…riding motorcycles through the city traffic and in the country with two friendly and knowledgeable guides. They drop us off for lunch at La Café de la Poste where we pig out on huge cheeseburgers with fries, cappuccino coffee (Great!) and a Banana Split sundae. We walk back to the hotel through a lovely park…what a nice way to spend a morning in Dalat. We relax after a shower and rejoin our group at 3:00 PM for a visit to Dalat University.
The purpose of the university visit is two-fold: give us the opportunity to mingle with young university students, and to give the students an opportunity to learn about us and practice their English. After a short briefing from a faculty member we are married up with a student who is majoring in Tourism, Vietnamese History, or English. Each gives their guest a personal tour of the campus while asking numerous questions and practicing their English. Each of our group is impressed with their student’s questioning and interaction…a win-win situation.
We depart the campus and head into the hills to visit one of the 30 ethnic tribes in the area…a village of the Lat tribe. The Lats are an ethnic off-shoot of the Colto tribe…once impoverished their foray into tourism has brought them into the modern world. But they show us an old tribal house, the way things used to be, and entertain us with excellent dances accompanied by musical horns and flutes, and bamboo and gong percussion instruments. We all join in the festivities and end up with a sip of rice wine sucked out of the common pot with a long reed straw. The Lats are also known for their embroidery and Norma gets a small purse. We end our day at the Ngoc Duy Restaurant for dinner: venison broiled on a banana leaf, tasty stew, coconut shrimp and bananas flambé.
Day 32, Saturday, Apr 11 – To Saigon
We’re up early for a 40-minute ride to the airport …we board VN 465 around 8:30 AM for an hour flight to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). We land at Tan Son Nhut Airport…once the largest US military concentration in Vietnam. Old concrete bunkers built to protect US fighter/bombers line the taxiways that were once the main runways. A new International Terminal is in operation. In 1971, when Jim was here, Saigon had a population of about 2 million…now its 8 million and growing. The largest city in Vietnam is also its commercial capital and it’s fast becoming the nation’s window to the world. Buzzing with frantic capitalistic activity, cosmopolitan Ho Chi Minh City looks outward, listens to jazz, and drinks French wine. Existing alongside the high-rise hotels, shopping malls and chic restaurants are ancient pagodas and colonial buildings, recalling a checkered but vibrant past.
As we travel into town we see high-rise buildings everywhere. Infrastructure construction projects including new sewer lines, a subway, factories, etc. are underway. Wide streets are filled with heavy vehicular traffic, motor scooters are everywhere (of the 21 million motor scooters in Vietnam, 3.5 million are in Saigon). We can’t check into the hotel until 3:00 PM so our first stop is a Lacquer ware Factory and Store. It is very interesting how they make the items and they are beautiful when finished and quite expensive to purchase.
We pass by the Victory Hotel…Tran asks Jim if it looks familiar to him, and it does. It used to be the headquarters for US MAC-V or the United States Military Advisory Command – Vietnam…Jim’s headquarters in 1971 (he spent about 8 days there before heading to the Central Highlands). We stop at the Notre Dame Cathedral, built in 1890 of locally quarried stone and trimmed with red ceramic tile imported from France. Across the square from the Cathedral is the majestic General Post Office, one of Saigon’s most interesting French-colonial buildings…the cavernous interior features two enormous murals depicting maps of early Saigon and Vietnam.
We drive past Reunification Hall (the old Presidential Palace) and the gate made famous in the photo of it being crushed by a VC tank signifying the fall of Saigon and the victory of the North. We pass the US Embassy Building…no photos allowed…and get off the bus to walk along Dong Khoi Street, the liveliest street in Saigon. During French colonialism it was filled with stately hotels and elegant boutiques during the Vietnam War it was filled with bars and brothels now it is returning to its past elegance with the renovated Caravelle and Continental Hotels and Gucci, Prada, Chanel, etc. shops beneath tall office buildings. We pass the Opera where a film crew is shooting a street scene (we might be in a movie), and loop over to Nguyen Hue boulevard past the famous Rex Hotel…a hangout for news correspondents and military officers during the Vietnam War. Jim remembers drinking beer at the rooftop bar and watching the bombing runs on the city’s outskirts.
We eat lunch at PHO 2000, a Pho shop where we sample southern-style Pho. Pho is the national dish…beef, pork or chicken served in a large bowl with noodles and broth and numerous veggies & spices to add as desired. Bill & Chelsea Clinton ate here during their 2000 visit to Saigon, as photos and plaques on the wall attest. We ask if the manager wants to add our photos to the wall...ha ha.
We visit the War Remnants Museum (formerly called the War Atrocities Museum). We expect a lot of propaganda and we get it. “Its role is to systematically study, collect, preserve, and display exhibits on war crimes and aftermaths foreign aggressive forces caused for the Vietnamese people”. The courtyard is filled with US military weapons from mortars to tanks to helicopters to jet fighters…”US state of the art weaponry used in the Vietnam War”. The first hall is titled “Historical Truths”…photos and posters showing causes, origins and processes of aggressive wars (The French at Dien Bien Phu the US Marines landing at Danang, etc). The 2nd hall is called “Requiem” that contains a very moving exhibit of photographs showing both sides of the war, taken by 134 war correspondents from 11 nations who lost their lives taking the photos on exhibit. It’s a very poignant tale of the war’s toll in photos. The 3rd hall is titled “Vestiges of War Crimes & Aftermaths” and contains pure propaganda highlighting every possible negative photo… handicapped children from to Agent Orange, the My Lai massacre, Vietnamese corpses being mutilated, torture devices and “tiger cages”, etc…many photos appear “doctored”. The last hall is called “War & Peace”, a collection of children’s paintings from around the world. The whole thing is a sobering experience, but war is hell and there is nothing pleasant about it or its outcome.
We check in to the Chancery Hotel and we’re free until dinner at 7:00 PM. Its 97 degrees outside but Jim & Norma go on a walking quest for a bottle or two of wine. For the first time in 30 days we cannot find a grocery shop within a several block area that sells wine. We’re about to give up when Norma spots a lone bottle of Dalat Red in a sidewalk stall. Any more available?…only one…we take it for 55,000 dong (that’s $3.24). Back in our room we sip the Saigon equivalent of “two buck chuck”.
Day 33, Sunday, Apr 12 - Cu Chi Tunnels
Happy Easter! One forgets about holidays when on a trip like this, although several of our group attend Easter service at the Notre Dame Cathedral. We travel about 25 miles west of Saigon to Cu Chi, a small town made famous for the elaborate network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war. This vast multi-level tunnel complex over 120 miles in length was built over a 25 year span and contained not only fighting positions but also dormitories, mess halls, operating rooms, movie theaters, small factories, and large storerooms of weapons, ammunition, food and water. This complex allowed the VC to control large areas near Saigon. Although known to the US military, every effort to close them down, including, infrared imaging, sniffer dogs, “tunnel rats”, and heavy bombing, failed. Tran gives us a briefing using a large map of the “Iron Triangle” area with Cu Chi in the center. A “VC soldier” guide takes us through a series of tunnel sections that have been enlarged for westerners…still they are tight and claustrophobic. We see how the original entrances were camouflaged and booby trapped. We visit a command bunker, an operation room and medical recovery area, a dining room, and living quarters. Costumed mannequins tell the story. It is very educational and interesting, showing the determination and resolution of the Viet Cong to “liberate” their people from the corrupt (very true) South Vietnam government and its US allies.
We stop at a rubber plantation with all the trees are in neat rows. Rubber trees can be tapped to harvest rubber from 7-25 year of age. Like maple syrup, the tree bark is slashed with special knives and the raw rubber is gathered in ceramic cups. During the war, Michelin Rubber Company had an agreement with the US government to protect their plantation from bombing…this was good for Michelin but gave the VC a “safe haven” in the “Iron Triangle”.
Back to Saigon for a late lunch at Le Etoile, a 5-star French restaurant. It’s a great Easter Dinner: home-made hot French bread and butter, pureed leek & potato soup, Filet of Sole with 2 sauces, a side dish of sautéed green beans, potatoes & carrots, baked banana with coconut sherbet, and a glass of Bordeaux wine…an excellent meal. We return to the hotel for a rest period.
We’ve been hot and bothered all day with the temperature around 97 degrees, so we decide to walk to the market and the nearby Rex Hotel before we clean up. It’s about 1 km to the Rex Hotel…Jim heads down a side street and we overshoot it…but we find it anyway and make our way to the rooftop bar for a nostalgic drink. Renovated in 1989, the interior bears little resemblance to what Jim remembers…concrete pillboxes out front and 8-foot high sandbag walls at the entrances. After a Tiger Beer for Jim and a Saigon Morning cocktail for Norma, we continue on to the market that is overwhelming, selling everything possible. Norma finds some split toe socks for use with flip-flops and Jim finds a Tiger Beer t-shirt.
It’s dinner on our own tonight but we’re still full from the big lunch, so we head back to the hotel…catching a bite to eat in the hotel restaurant.
Day 34, Monday, Apr 13 – Mekong Delta
The last stop on our last day of travel in Vietnam is the Mekong Delta, located some 750 miles south of Hanoi where we started our Vietnam journey, as the crow flies. Just getting out of Saigon on a work day is a major chore. There are hundreds of thousands of motorbikes, some carrying unbelievable loads, vying with trucks, buses and cars. Traffic signals are few and far between, and where present, are usually ignored. This is the worse traffic we’ve encountered on the entire trip.
We stop at a Cao Dai church along the way. This unusual religion combines aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Catholicism…and “divine agents” make contact with the priest during séances. Its patron saints include Joan of Arc, Louis Pasteur and Charlie Chaplin. The churches are decorated in bright reds, blues and yellows, with the all-seeing Divine Eye as the center piece.
We stop at My Tho, one of the first towns on the Delta and board a river boat. We cruise up the canal to the waterfront market where wooden boats and barges crowd the shore vendors sell everything from food to hardware and domestic items like large earthenware urns for bathing. The smell of drying fish mixes with the aromas of fruit and spices. Out into the Mekong, we pass big fishing boats tied to the docks, circle past Dragon Island to Turtle Island where we come ashore. We transfer to sampans and paddle through the jungle ditches to the Bee Farm, where we stop for a taste of honey tea and a fruit selection of loganberries, jack fruit, grapefruit, dragon fruit, coconut & ginger. Our host brings out a large Python that everyone gets a chance to hold, or be held, by the snake. We walk to a coconut candy factory. The candy is hand-made, cooked in huge kettles fired by the palm wood each square is individually wrapped and packaged by workers paid by the piece. We re-board our boat and travel to the other shore where we have lunch at a jungle restaurant: fish spring rolls made at our table, coconut fried spring rolls, baked tilapia, chicken with fried noodles, etc…excellent meal.
We head back to My Tho and board our bus for the return trip to Saigon. Our Vietnam travels are finished…all that is left here is the farewell dinner tonight. On CNN we are updated on the political turmoil in Thailand. Our Thai guide Ole had explained the strong sentiments of the two political parties. The Yellow shirts forced Thaskin (former Prime Minister) into exile last November when they forced the airport to close putting Thailand tourism into the trashcan. Now the Red shirts are demanding Thaskin’s return. Hopefully a lesson learned is NOT to shut down the airport. We’ll see.
Our farewell dinner is at Pho Co Ancient House restaurant featuring traditional Vietnamese cuisine. They saved the best for last…the food is tastefully presented and served to each one individually. Gloria buys champagne for all so we can toast our guide for his excellent leadership, and to the end of a great trip as only Gloria, Norma & Jim are continuing on to Burma. Then a final surprise…Tran, who has been snapping photos the entire trip, now presents each of us with a CD containing 500 photos as his contribution to the memories of Vietnam.
Day 35, Tuesday, Apr 14 – To Bangkok
Although we don’t depart for the airport until 10:00 AM, Jim & Norma awaken at 5:45 AM. A quick breakfast and we cross the street that is already packed with traffic, to a park where hundreds of people are exercising…a daily ritual of tai chi, badminton, jogging, and jazzercise. We think of the people back home where the parks are empty, but the “All You Can Eat” buffets will be full. We catch the latest on CNN about the Thailand situation…all is centered on downtown, not the airport. At the airport, we are able to check our bags through to Yangon so we won’t have any hassle in Bangkok when we switch carriers from Vietnam Air to Thai Air. Sharon and Darrell offer to take one of our carry-on bags filled with souvenirs to the Bangkok hotel where they overnight and where our other bag is stored…thus saving us the need to carry it through Burma. We say our good byes before we depart Saigon as we will be headed in different directions when we get to Bangkok.
Union of Myanmar
Day 35 (Apr 14) – Day 39 (Apr 18)
Day 35, Tuesday, Apr 14 – To Yangon, Myanmar
When we arrive in Bangkok and deplane, 13 of our group head in one direction for their overnight stay in Bangkok…Jim, Norma & Gloria go to the International Flight Transfer area to continue on to Yangon, Myanmar. We have a few hours to kill so we check out the duty-free shopping (prices are high). Not knowing what to expect in Burma, we buy two bottles of wine to take with us (this turns out to be a godsend later). At the gate area, we note that there are only two other Anglo passengers waiting for the flight. We meet a nice man from Myanmar who, in broken English, tells us about Yangon (very busy), our hotel (very nice) and what to expect (very nice people). Myanmar is a half hour earlier time-wise so we set our watches remembering what Ole told us (half hour back and 50 years difference in time).
Burma: Currently known as Myanmar, is a forest-clad country of mountain ranges and river systems, with an abundance of glittering golden pagodas. It’s located between Thailand, Laos, China, India, and the Bay of Bengal. After a period of isolation and repression, it has again opened itself to western visitors (less than 7000 travelers in 2007), while remaining one of the least Western-influenced countries in Southeast Asia. Burma has magical sights, friendly people and its own very distinctive culture. This is not a third world country but a “fourth world” developing country that is still catching up with its more prosperous neighbors hence we expect it to be adventure travel at its boldest.
We arrive in Yangon, get our bags, easily clear customs, and meet Yan, our Burmese guide. Like most Burmese men and women, he is dressed in a longyi, the wrap-around skirt-like garment that extends from the waist to the floor. With only three in our group, we now travel in a minivan. Although Yangon is a city of 8 million, we immediately notice two things: 1) there are no motorbikes or motorcycles anywhere…they are banned in the city as being too dangerous, 2) There are no beeping horns…blowing horns is against the law.
We arrive at our hotel…The Kandawgyi Palace (the Golden Teak Hotel on the Royal Lake)…off the balcony is a beautiful view of the lit-up spire of the Shwedagon Pagoda, the crown jewel of Yangon. It’s about 8:10 PM when we get to our room. While we are settling in, the phone rings. It’s Yan…dinner will be served at 8:30 PM…it’s the only included dinner of the Burma extension. But we ate on the plane…can’t we move the dinner to tomorrow? No, it’s contracted for tonight. Reluctantly we go to the dining room. We nibble on some of the very excellent food, being more polite than hungry. Then Yan drops the bombshell…there are no ATMs in Burma, credit card use is non-existent, and only new crisp US money is accepted for payment or exchange. OAT did not tell us anything about the money situation…after a direct flight from Vietnam and their non-tradable dongs, and 35 days of travel, we are cash short with no way to get additional money. And, because it’s Water Festival Time, most restaurants and services are closed so we have no optional trips. This Myanmar adventure is starting out badly.
Day 36, Wednesday, Apr 15 – Exploring Yangon
We awake about 5:45 AM as the sun is coming up and we look out to beautiful gardens and a small lake. We get dressed and go for a walk. Through the gardens is a two-level swimming pool set in natural surroundings. Out in the lake is a foot bridge with a lot of people walking on it. We head out of the hotel property to find out where we can get on the bridge. After walking about 10 minutes we see an entrance to a park and zoo with the start of the foot bridge beyond. But there’s a $2.00 entrance fee to the park for foreigners…we just want to walk on the bridge. So we pass it up and return to the hotel for breakfast. Then we realize: this is our first day in a new country…one that we have no knowledge of how westerners are treated…and we just walked down the street into the unknown without a thought of any perceived danger. And there was no danger…and the people greeted us with smiles. Jim counts our remaining dollar supply and calculates that we should have enough money to enjoy Burma and pay our bills.
We walk through the beautiful gardens and realize the historical significance of our hotel. The original wing was built in 1934 and was used as the British Boat Club for many years. Membership was restricted to foreigners and their guests. In 1948 the building became the Union Club of Burma and was used by Burmese Government officials and their guests. Many foreigners who had lived in Burma returned to their own countries during the years leading to 1964. At that time the club became the National Biological Museum…hence the huge dinosaur sculpture on the grounds and the beautiful gardens surrounding it.
We meet Yan at 8:00 AM. The projected temperature today is over 100! We almost melted in the Mekong Delta at 97 degrees so this should be interesting. Our first stop is the Shwedagon Pagoda, also called the Golden Pagoda. It is the most sacred pagoda in Burma housing relics of the four past Buddha’s (the staff of Kakusandha, the water filter of Konagamana, part of the robe of Kassapa and eight hairs of Gautama). Its central stupa (spire) is the tallest (326 ft), the richest (100 tons of gold plate & gold leaf), and the most sacred (built when Buddha attained enlightenment – 500 BC). Atop the stupa sit a golden orb that is studded with 4,350 diamonds and precious stones, including a 76 carat diamond on top. The stupa sits in a 14 acre enclosure measuring 1530 feet north-south and 900 feet east-west and is surrounded by 200 other holy structures. As we did in the 1/3 scale model of Shwedagon in Thachilek, Burma, as part of our earlier Thailand trip, we pour water on the Buddha image that reflects our birth date.
We head downtown to the main square to witness the Water Festival (celebrating the New Year and the end of the dry season) that is now in full swing. The square is packed with people all armed with bottles or buckets of water that gets dumped on anyone nearby. Large reviewing stands are erected along an informal parade route filled with trucks carrying revelers (most of them under the influence). In the stands are people with hoses hooked to the municipal water system…as the trucks pass, a deluge of water greets them. No one remains dry including us. A stage with singers and dancers perform nearby. We’re escorted by the local police to chairs in the VIP section to watch the show. A Burmese TV crew videoing the event asks if they can film us…so we may be on Burmese TV tonight. It’s quite a happening. Incidentally, we see no other westerners at the festivities.
We stop at the Strand Hotel…old British…the only hotel in Burma rated in Top Hotels of the World. We look around at its old world charm and elegance. The closest we come to staying here is using its bathrooms. The surrounding area nearby the hotel is filled with now empty government office buildings. For the sake of internal security, the government moved the capital operations from Yangon to an up-country location. Government employees and jobs moved with it. We also stop at the pagoda built in 1907 to house a Reclining Buddha that is larger (225 feet long by 50 feet high) than the one in Bangkok, but this one is not covered in gold (just painted plaster).
Back at the hotel, Yan shows us around the grounds, then says goodbye as we are on our own for the rest of the day. We find an open restaurant nearby with tables overlooking the lake. We review the extensive menu without a clue as to what to order. An Anglo couple are seated nearby…they’re from Australia and are seasoned Burma travelers. They suggest we try what they are having: beef curry with potatoes, eggplant salad, and tea leaf & muong bean salad. We try it and it’s delicious! Now Burma uses no credit cards so when we pay the bill in cash, the waiter doesn’t want to take a $20.00 bill because it’s damp and not crisp. Jim tells him it was crisp before we got drenched in the Water Festival…that’s all we have…take it or leave it. He takes it.
Back in the hotel, we get a glass of wine (purchased at Bangkok’s Airport) and head to the shady pool area to relax. The slower pace of the Burma extension is what we need to settle down from 35 very busy days. As we relax by the pool, the noises of the Water Festival continue on the streets around the lake. We take a nap waking about 7:30 PM. We have a light dinner in the hotel restaurant and head for bed.
Day 37, Thursday, Apr 16 – To Bagan & the Sites
After an early breakfast, we go to the airport for a short flight to Bagan, known as Burma’s “City of Four Million Pagodas”. Although Bagan’s shrines, pagodas and stupas are not actually numbered in the millions, there are literally thousands of them scattered over the remote plain. Marco Polo mentioned Bagan in the tales of his travels, so now here we are also. Bagan was founded by a Burmese king in 849 AD. It was believed that building religious structures gained merit for the king and his people, so an army of skilled artisans embellished this religious center with more than 10,000 religious monuments. Much has disappeared…perishable teak burned in fires, all else eroded and destroyed by earthquakes and passage of time. Never the less, what remains is one of the world’s greatest archaeological sites, equaling or surpassing Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.
As soon as we leave the airport we see spires of pagodas in every direction. Most are constructed of red or tan brick, probably fired in the area of construction. Our first stop is Tayokpyae Pagoda where we go inside and climb to the upper level for a spectacular vista of the entire landscape that is dotted with pagoda spires in every direction. There are 3,000 pagodas by UNESCO’s count…what remains of an estimated 10,000. Inside Tayokpyae are some original frescos, outside some original carvings. This site was restored in the 1970s after an earthquake that caused heavy damage throughout Bagan. Unfortunately the repair work is sloppy, bricks don’t match, and mortar work is bad (causing stress on the part of UNESCO as it doesn’t meet their restoration criteria) but the Burmese say, “It’s our site and at least we stabilized it”.
We continue on to the village of Nyaung-U and walk through its fresh food market, strolling among woven baskets filled with local vegetables, fruits and fish. At the end of the market are tourist junk stalls where we buy longyis, the wrap around all purpose garment worn by both sexes, and a few trinkets. Next we travel to Shwezigon Pagoda…it features a golden bell shaped stupa or zedi, said to contain a relic (piece of a tooth) of the Buddha. It is a center for prayer and reflection by pilgrims of the Theravada branch of Buddhism. In route to Ananda we stop for a photo op at a location where we can see three phases of Stupas and Temples. We visit a Hindu temple, the oldest (900s AD) in Bagan, and a model for later temples (early 1000s), and the last phase (Ananda – 1100s). Nearby are early and middle phases of stupas…we visited the late phase (Shwezigon) all ready.
We visit Ananda, the largest and most significant temple in Bagan. Its gold covered main spire is surrounded on four corners with four levels of smaller gold spires. Heavily damaged in the 1978 earthquake, it has been restored. It stands out from the other temples, having more ornate trappings and graceful spires recently covered with fresh gold leaf. The inside has whitewashed walls and passageways leading to four large statues of Buddha, each 33 feet tall, carved from a single teak log, covered in gold leaf, and each displaying a different position and expression. Two of the Buddhas are original, dating to the 1100s AD. The other two are restorations from about 150 years ago.
We pause for lunch at Saraba II Restaurant located in the shadow of Ananda. It features traditional Burmese food with an Indian influence (lots of curry, but not hot). After lunch we check into our hotel, Myanmar Treasure House, a modern cluster of two story buildings surrounding a nice swimming pool. In our room with a king-size bed we find a small heart-shaped cake, decorated in pink frosting (for our anniversary). We have rest time from the heat of the day until 4:00 PM when we’ll continue our pagoda tour. Until then we swim and relax.
Yan realizes that we really dig archaeology (no pun intended) so he goes above and beyond the itinerary, eager to show as much as we want to see. Our first afternoon stop is Gupyaukgyi Pagoda (13th century) that contains some of Bagan’s finest and most detailed murals…some of them looking like they were painted yesterday. Photos are prohibited inside in order to protect the delicate paintings. The Pagoda also has some well preserved stucco sculptures on its exterior walls.
We leave our minivan and board horse drawn carts to experience the archaeological sites up close and personal…riding along the dirt paths as we travel among the pagodas and shrines. Forty five minutes later we stop and climb the steep steps (about 80 feet up) of the Shwensandaw Pagoda for an amazing view of the Bagan complex. It’s cloudy so we miss the hoped for sunset but the views are incredible. Many of the structures are red brick, small & simple: others are overwhelming in size and beauty. But the staggering number of temples here is…words can’t express!! Imagine placing all of the medieval cathedrals of Europe into an area the size of Manhattan…then doubling or tripling the number of them. Bagan has to be ranked with the great sites of the world…Egypt, Mayan, Inca…and Angkor Wat.
Our last stop of the day is Buphaya Pagoda…standing on the edge of the Irrawaddy River, the bulbous dome resembles a gourd…the oldest Stupa (~800 AD) in the area. Back at the hotel, we experience a rolling blackout. We don’t mind the dark but sure can use the air conditioning.
Day 38, Friday, Apr 17 – More Temples, a Farm & Irrawaddy River Cruise
We visit the Damarazika Pagoda (13th century) before the crowds arrive and climb to the second level for a view of surroundings. Pagodas in all directions as far as one can see. This site needs renovation soon as much of the gold leaf and underlying material is flaking off. We stop at a nearby farm village and go back in time at least 50 years. The farmers grow cotton, beans, peanuts, and corn. Their wealth is measured by the size of their cattle or goat herd. The homes have bamboo woven walls, thatch or tin roofs, some have electricity via generators. When the monsoon rains come, the now dusty fields will be green with many crops. The villagers are very friendly…they show us cotton spinning, bamboo basket weaving, and making cores for lacquer ware pots.
New Years Day has finally arrived…the town is quiet…all of the Water Festival activities are finished. Many of the villagers are at the monastery where the monks welcome in the New Year with sermons and the sharing a community meal. We visit the Sulamani Temple, made of red brick as are most in the area. Masonry here is superb with close set mortar joints…interior walls are covered with murals, some dating to 13th century, and others to 16th & 18th century. Next is a visit to the Damayangyi Pagoda…it is the largest ever built in Bagan but unfinished. Construction was started by King Alaungsithu in 1131 AD it was never finished because of a revolt resulting in his assassination. His subjects were so incensed that they ceased construction, bricked off all entries to the inner chambers, and sealed the entrances. Now after many earthquakes and natural events, the inner chambers remain closed in fear of collapse. Because its builder was murdered, local legend says the temple is haunted.
We lunch at the Green Elephant River View Restaurant at a table overlooking the river and set under a yellow bamboo arbor. It is another excellent meal. Differing from the other Southeast Asian cooking where meat and fish are usually served in small pieces, the Burmese serve larger pieces, more often grilled than stir-fried, and with lots of garlic, ginger and curry in lieu of hot spices.
We relax in the hotel until 4:00 PM…two more temples to visit if we want to…of course we do. At Sein Nyet (12th century) a mid-size classic temple and its associated Stupa stand side by side. Next we stop at Nan Paya, the only temple in Bagan built out of sandstone (the building material used at Angkor). Although small, it contains magnificent carved walls containing Buddha images, angels, fierce warriors, etc. The archaeology here at Bagan and the quantity of sites rivals any complex in the world. 35 days ago we saw Angkor Wat…now we see Bagan. We think Bagan takes the prize.
Our last adventure in Bagan is a cruise down the fabled Irrawaddy River…a must do in the”1,000 Places To See Before You Die” book. Unfortunately the weather conditions are deteriorating, but we head down to the river bank and board the Golden Owl, our motor boat, for our sunset cruise. The winds and waves pick up so we travel close to the shore…we get stuck on a sand bar…then the engine quits…then the winds really start howling and the rains come in sheets. We duck under the canopy for partial shelter looking for life jackets as the boat struggles against the wind and current. It finally makes its way back to shore. The Irrawaddy boat ride is an interesting experience…not exactly the romantic trip on the “Road to Mandalay” that we envisioned.
Day 39, Saturday, Apr 18 – To Yangon & Bangkok
Our early morning flight takes us from Bagan to Mandalay to Yangon, so we are able to say that we have made it to Mandalay. We will spend most of the day visiting attractions in Yangon before an early evening flight back to Bangkok.
Our first stop is a visit to a small zoo solely dedicated to three Sacred White Elephants. Throughout history, white elephants have been associated with the kings and religious personages of Burma. White elephants supposedly bring peace, stability and prosperity to a nation…a good omen for Myanmar who is attempting to build a peaceful, modern and developed nation. We stop at a monastery to witness monks, nuns and lay persons attending a week long meditation training session. We pass the US Consulate (no US Embassy here as Ambassador was pulled after military coup in 1996) and stop for a visit at the market. It’s a nice market with many interesting things, but we are all shopped out.
We lunch at Pandurma Restaurant, our last taste of Burmese and Asian food on this trip: curried fish, curried chicken, green bean & garlic salad, watercress & mushrooms with powdered dried shrimp, and fried banana with honey. After we wander through Chinatown looking at the array of foods…Yan points out a CD by L,Lunwa, a Burmese pop singer who was sitting across the aisle from us on the flight from Mandalay. We buy it for a souvenir. We stop at the Yangon river wharf to watch manual labor load huge boxes and bundles on to the riverboats that transport material and people to delta towns. Our last stop in Yangon is the lobby of the Strand Hotel. Here we review our time in Burma. Yan gives us a list of the temples we visited in Bagan. He realized our interest in archaeology and willingly showed us many more sites then usual. We thank him for his outstanding services and then its time to head for the airport.
We get to Bangkok in late evening. By the time we reach our hotel room it’s midnight. We retrieve the packages left behind and repack our bags for the trip home. We have a wake-up call at 2:45 AM so we shower and just rest. We can sleep on the way home.
Day 40, Sunday, Apr 19 – Bangkok, Tokyo, Detroit, Green Bay
We survive our 28 hour long day with three flights and 12 hour time change, crossing the International Date Line getting the day back we lost on the way over, and finally arriving in Green Bay at 5:30 PM, Sunday, April 19. The taxi brings us home to a clean house in a green neighborhood. Thus ends our journey of adventure.
LIFE IS NOT MEASURED BY THE NUMBER OF BREATHS WE TAKE, BUT RATHER BY THE PLACES AND MOMENTS THAT TAKE OUR BREATH AWAY.
Forty days of travel through Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar have provided us with many places and moments that literally “took our breath away”!
Cambodia: Samnang (Sam) firstname.lastname@example.org
Thailand: Ole Osathirakul (Ole) email@example.com
Vietnam: Tran Tang Nghia (Tran) firstname.lastname@example.org
Burma: Yan Aung (Yan) email@example.com
MODES OF TRAVEL
1. Private Vehicle
2. Jet Plane
3. Moving Sidewalk
4. Mini Van
6. Moto (motor cycle taxi)
8. Tonle Sap Lake boat
9. River Phraye Express Boat
10. Floating Restaurant
11. Sky Train
13. Long-tail Speed Boat
14. Songtau (pickup taxi)
16. Rice Barge
18. Hill Tribe Truck
19. Motorcycle Rickshaw
20. Eetan Farm Truck
21. Golden Triangle River Boat
23. Bamboo Raft
24. Tuk-tuk taxi
25. Dinner Barge
27. River Ferry
28. Vietnamese Junk
30. Island Ferry
31. Basket Boat
34. Taxi Cab
35. Prop Plane
36. Delta River Boat
37. Horse Cart
38. Irrawaddy River Boat