Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Slinging through Singpore

I left this blog rather abruptly back in February, but it’s time to finish off this trip and move on.  There was a good reason for shutting down the blog.  A friend who was travelling with us didn’t board the boat in Bangkok.  We spent a nervous day thinking he was dead, or at the least beaten, robbed and seriously injured.  Fortunately, that was not the case, but somehow it took the steam out of the travel blog, and out of the trip.  Lesson learned? 
Singapore was our last port of call.  We were sad to leave our ship home, but watching the live Super Bowl disaster suffered by the Broncos in the ship’s lounge hastened our departure.  We took a taxi to our airport hotel, then another taxi for a walkabout on Orchard Road.  Not being a shopper, it was less than exciting.  We should’ve headed for Raffles and a Singapore Sling.  We were happy to get back to our hotel, a hot bath, and room service.

This was my second visit to Singapore.  The first was back in the 90s, and I remember thinking how oppressive it felt.  What a contrast to Thailand, the land of smiles; Singapore could more easily be called the land of scowls.   There were SO many rules and regulations…no littering, no jaywalking, no horn-honking, no thinking.  The ruling concept is order.
This trip, I appreciated the order.  Parkways are lined with beautiful flowers; cars stays in their lanes; people are respectful of your space.  In short, there is less stress.  Maybe it’s age, but I’ve come to appreciate order.  I’m not the only one to have found Singapore to be oppressively “big brother,” but the lecturer from the ship presented us with another point of view.  She recounted arriving in Singapore and taking a taxi into town.  She and a friend were commenting on the police state atmosphere, and they asked their taxi driver to give them his thoughts.  He said (a paraphrase):  “I used to live in China.  Here, I own my own apartment.  I’m married and my children received a state-sponsored education.  We have free health care.  I never lock my doors because there is no crime.”  Masses of people would be happy with that situation!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Angkor Wat - The Jewel in the Crown

Naga at the Bridge

The Central (Royal) Gate at the Entrance Wall
Angkor Wat has been on my bucket list since the mid 90's when we visited Thailand and first heard that the Angkor area was being opened to tourism.  The romantic vision of temples overgrown with vegetation, hidden from view for centuries, forbidden to the public by the Khymer Rouge, has stayed in my mind since that time.  The actual visit lived up to expectations.  Having seen the silhouette of the temple many times, I wasn't prepared for the size of the complex.  Originally a Hindu temple, the whole temple area is surrounded by a moat representing ocean.  To reach the main temple complex, you must pass over the moat and then through an entrance gate which spans at least two football fields.  There are three separate entrances based on the three main Hindu castes--one for the Royals and Brahmins, one for the middle classes, and one for the workers. 
Reflecting Pool at Angkor Wat Temple

After walking through the entrance gate, you walk at least another 3 football fields to the reflecting pool and finally to the temple itself.  Large outer corridors are covered with bas relief sculptures representing Hindu myths such as the Ramayana.  Beyond are a series of platforms leading to the main five towers, the central and tallest of which represents Mount Meru, home of the Hindu gods. The stairway to the top tier was closed on this particular occasion because of a Buddhist holiday, but maybe that was fortunate for our travel-weary group. 

A Buddhist blessing
Although the temple was originally Hindu, it was converted to Buddhist worship when Cambodia itself became principally Buddhist.  Many images of the Buddha were left in the temple by supplicants; a large number, however, were spirited away before the temple complex came under the protection of the current caretakers.  UNESCO has contributed much time and money to saving and preserving the site.  The site is worthy of much more time and attention than we were able to give during our short visit, but we had a flight to catch (and, of course, some shopping to do), so we headed back to our bus.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Time for Temples

The Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World, according to our guide, is what the Angkor Archeological Site has been called by UNESCO, and it’s true.  It is a site unique in its size, its architecture and its beauty.  Like the pyramids, Petra, and the Acropolis, it must be seen in person to be appreciated because the physical setting is as much a part of the whole as the buildings themselves.  The ruins are the remains of the Khymer civilization which ruled over the areas that are now Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam between the 9th and 13th centuries.  Jayavarman II (r. 802-850 CE) is thought to have established the first Devaraj (god-king) state in the early 9th century.  A Hindu, Jayavarman II, was the first to start building a series of pyramid temples representing Mount Meru, centre of the universe and home of the gods.   His successors for the next four centuries would each build their own temples which, upon their deaths, could serve as the kings’ mausoleums.  We were only able to visit the three most well-known temples during our short stay:  Bayon, the Tomb Raider Temple, and Angkor Wat.  To enter the city area, you must first cross a wide moat; the bridge is protected by a 7-headed Naga, and statues on both balustrades represent the demons and gods who staged a tug of war for the earth. 

Bayon was our first stop.  The Japanese are currently in charge of restoring the site and we stopped at a small demonstration area showing us how the limestone blocks were prepared to be lifted into place on the temple buildings.  Bayon was pretty much in ruins, but the central spire towering 75 feet above the site was something to behold, along with the stone carvings telling the story of life in the Ancient Khymer kingdom and the extensive maze of fallen walls marking various chambers and shrine areas. 

We next moved to the temple known as Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple.  This site has been left almost as it was when first found covered with the roots of trees.  It’s called the Tomb Raider site because that was where the movie was filmed.  I’m constantly amazed by the film site trend in tourism.  Tourists are more excited about walking in the footsteps of movie stars than walking in the steps of kings and commoners from an ancient and mysterious civilization.  They can have it both way in Angkor. 

After visiting the Tomb Raider site, we returned to Raffles for a quiet interlude and lunch.   

…to be continued

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Raving about Raffles

Performers at the Raffles Barbeque
This visit to Angkor, unfortunately, has been rushed.  We left the ship about 3:00 p.m., drove to the beautiful “new” Bangkok Airport (7 years old), and finally arrived in Siem Reap and our hotel at around 7:45 p.m.  The route from the airport was lined with new, large hotels surrounded by tour buses.  Our guide explained that Angkor draws millions of tourists every year, but the bulk still come from Asia—South Korea, China, Japan, Vietnam, and Thailand, in that order.  Western tourists are still a smaller group.  Raffles is an incredibly peaceful and elegant hotel with all the trappings of the 6 star prices it commands.  We had a barbeque poolside complete with a presentation from Cambodian entertainers.  And so to bed.

View from the Balcony of Room 2324, Raffles Hotel
The balcony of my room overlooks the pool/garden area of the hotel.  The breezes this morning were cool and refreshing and accompanied by the call of parrots which I could never locate.  We had a sumptuous breakfast and then piled into our buses.  Our group was divided up into groups of 15 which was not too large.  The first thing that strikes one about t1-he area is the incredible “busy-ness.” Tuk-tuks are buzzing around everywhere, joined by a mixture of tour buses and motorbikes.  I was expecting a peaceful and meditative spot.  Not so.  The first stop is the tourist office where one must buy passes (1, 2, and 5-day passes), complete with photos, to visit the temple sites.  The lines were what I’ve come to call Arab lines, which is to say very chaotic; they were not your standard British queue.  We struggled to stay up with our guide, and after having our photos taken, we couldn’t relocate our tour bus.  Finally all aboard, we ventured forth onto the site of the ancient city of Angkor Thom, which held over 70,000 inhabitants during its prime.
     …to be continued

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

What Day is Today?

On this journey, we've had more days at sea than we have had on past cruises.  The ports have been stressful and tiring, so the sea days have been very welcome.  What are they like?  You wake up and wonder what day it is, then decide you don't really care because it's a day at sea.  That is to say, you really don't have to pay much attention to anything except enjoying yourself and relaxing.  Some people choose the pool, some walk the jogging path, some visit the spa, some choose the trivia contests, some go to lectures, some gamble, and some just eat their way through the day.  All choices are good on a day at sea, especially on such a pleasant vessel as the Azamara Journey.  The Journey is one of the old Renaissance ships and is what I consider to be the perfect size maxing out at 680 passengers.  That's large enough for variety and small enough to begin to recognize people and make friends. It's also large enough to ride the seas very comfortably.  The public areas are intimate and friendly; the restaurants are plentiful and good; and, the crew is attentive.  What more could one ask than a day (or two, or three) at sea. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Short Stay in Saigon

Slaloming on the Saigon River
We arrived in Saigon after a 4 ½ voyage up the Saigon River.  It’s known as the Saigon slalom because of the narrow channel and all the twists and turns.  At one point, we made a 360 degree turn into the port narrowly missing a couple of barges and numerous fishing boats.  I was grateful to be travelling on a small ship which could journey up the river because while in Saigon we met some tourists who were travelling on a larger ship which had docked at the ocean port.  They had endured a 2-hour bus ride into the city.  I’ve had it with bus rides already.  


If Hanoi is an elegant city in the style of French colonial cities, Saigon is an elegant city in a more modern, cosmopolitan style.  We paid a taxi at the port to take us on a short tour of the city center.  We contracted for an hour’s tour…the exact duration of the actual tour was a matter of dispute at the end, but the doorman at the Rex Hotel helped to sort that out to everyone’s satisfaction.  At least it was to my satisfaction; I’m not so sure about the taxi driver.  His English was not good, so we’re not even that sure about what we saw, but the distance travelled in the hour plus of tour (which included a stop for gas) was a distance that probably could’ve been walked in about the same amount of time.  Saigon’s traffic not only rivals that of Hanoi, it beats it; however, it is slightly more organized with the occasional pedestrian crossing light that garners some attention from the motorbikes.  The advice we got from our Hanoi guide worked best—if you start across the street, pay attention and just keep walking.  To stop is a mistake which I found out the hard way.

We ended up at the Rex Hotel which was the Headquarters of the American Information Service during the Vietnam War.  The American press would gather there every evening at 5:00 p.m. for a briefing known as the Five O’clock Follies.  It’s an elegant hotel with a rooftop bar overlooking the traffic below.  I ventured forth to buy a new camera because I had dropped mine in Hué, but I ended up finding a shop which passed up a sale.  They said they could fix it, and they did!  All-in-all, we spent only a few hours in Saigon, but that felt like enough.

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Tale of Two Cities

Food art at a peaceful lunch in Hue
Hanoi and Hué are separated by only a few hundred kilometers and yet seemingly are thousands of miles apart.  The people and the culture appear to be the same…motorbikes dominate the traffic, the small shops share the same goods and the same signs, people speak the same language, and yet one, Hanoi, is full of constant hustle and bustle, while the other, Hué, has many peaceful walkways and parks.  Much of Hué was destroyed in the Vietnamese/American war, but UNESCO has since declared it a World Heritage Site and invested money in restoring it to its former glory.  Its principle industry now is tourism, not imperial government or war.   I’ll try not to sound crass by saying perhaps we all should be afforded the opportunity to destroy parts of ourselves with a view towards rebuilding a newer self, a self based on the best of the old but with eyes on the future--creative destruction.

Part of the difference in the two cities, of course, is because of the difference in population.  While Hanoi boasts (strange word) a population of several million, Hué has a population of only 350,000.  Maybe I’m just a small-town girl at heart.  Fort Worth, Texas, where I grew up, had a population of only 250,000 in the 60’s, which certainly seemed manageable at the time; it now boasts of a population more than double that, and has grown into the neighboring towns leading to miles of uninterrupted urban space.  Vietnam itself had a population of around 45 million when the latest war ended (1975) and now has a population of over 90 million.  According to my guide book, as late as the 1990’s most people in Hanoi got around by bicycle.  Now Vietnam has one motor scooter for every two people, each one spewing forth a lethal combination of benzene, sulphur, and microscopic dust.  In Colorado, we worry about running out of water; in the developing world, they should worry about running out of oxygen.  Vietnam instituted a family planning program in the 90’s limiting each family to two children.  Good idea?  If it’s the difference between living in Hanoi and Hué, I’m all for it.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Tale of Two Guides

Our Guide at the house where Ho Chi Minh lived & worked
The Vietnam War, or as the Vietnamese sometimes call it The American War…just exactly what was it all about?  It was interesting to hear the points of view of the two guides who accompanied us in Hanoi and Hué.  The first was a “13th generation Hanoian”.   One would’ve expected bitterness towards Americans, or at least the French, but such was not the case.  Maybe it was just a guise adopted by a wise guide angling for a tip, but he saved all his negative comments for the Chinese and the Communist Party.   We were stopped along with way at a police “check point” which seemed to be stopping about every 5th vehicle.  When asked what it was about he said that, with the Tet New Year celebration just a week away, the police were demanding money.  “You’re not going to pay it, are you?” one of the incredulous passengers asked.  “Of course,” he replied, “it’s just the system.”  Our guide seemed to exist very well within the “system,” but also seemed to dislike it.  He gave us a good history of Vietnam which concentrated on the efforts of the Vietnamese to keep out the Chinese, who had ruled them for over 1000 years, and skimmed over more recent conflicts.

Our guide in Hué introduced himself as Peter; that was his Christian name.  He was a Catholic and a native of Hué which is located in the center of the country, a point of great conflict during the American War.  His father had been a Lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Army and was killed in the war in 1974 when Peter was only 6.  For Peter, the enemy was northerners.  He remembered diving into bomb shelters as a young boy, and recounted a massacre of 6000 southerners by the north once the Americans had left.  He also told us his ambitions to study medicine were thwarted because of northern prejudices against southerners.  From his point of view, the Vietnamese War was very much a Civil War, and the remnants remain.

Either way, the Vietnamese welcome of American tourists is very surprising to me.  They seem to be polite and industrious as a whole and the country appears to be thriving, whatever its past. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to Hanoi

Never did I think that in my lifetime I would hear the words, “Welcome to Hanoi.”   When you think of the destruction rained down on this country by American military forces, it seems somewhat of a miracle to find ourselves touring Vietnam and being asked to buy something to contribute to the local economy.  I guess that’s the least we can do.  At the moment, I’m sitting on my balcony watching us steam out of the port of Ha Long.  The famous dragon-like rock formations that have turned this bay into a UNESCO World Heritage site are slowly drifting by.  We’re on our way to Danang, another name that rings through the infamous history of America’s penchant to interfere in other countries.

Yesterday was a long and tortuous day.  The seemingly manageable distance of 107 miles between Ha Long and Hanoi took over 4 hours each way to navigate over a dusty road that is being improved but has a way to go.  They assured us that next year it will only be a 2 hour drive…hardly of interest.  The trip left us only 4 hours in the city to take in as many sites as possible; we dragged home after 12 hours and were relieved to hear the brass band and be served the hot chocolate with which Azamara welcomed our return.  While I’m glad to have made the trip, I think it is my last excursion by bus.

Our first stop was the Hanoi Hilton, the French-built prison where American pilots (including Sen. John McCain) were imprisoned during the Vietnam War.  It’s been turned into a museum honoring the martyrs who fought for Vietnamese independence against the Chinese and the French.  A nod is given to the American occupants in the form of videos showing the destruction caused by American bombs…embarrassing.  After a delicious Vietnamese lunch, we continued on to Independence Square where we gazed at the mausoleum that houses the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh.  It seems that the Russians have to come every year and spend 2 months working on the body to keep it “viewable.”  We also saw the Presidential Palace complex and the one pillar pagoda before heading off for an hour in the Old Quarter.  Dwight kept looking for a statue of Jane Fonda, but it was nowhere to be found.

General impressions:  Hanoi is an elegant city in the style of old French colonialism tinged with Asian hustle and bustle.  It was swept very clean, a change from the homes and kiosks which lined the better part of the highway.  I wish we had had more time there and take in the museums and sit in the coffee shops, but perhaps another day.  It was enough to have survived the long bus trip and be able to say I visited the capital of North Vietnam.  

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

New York on Steroids

Bruce Lee on the Walk of Stars
Hong Kong was covered in smog; it stung our eyes, our throats and our lungs.  Don’t believe the blue skies of the photos…there were no blue skies.  We had a really nice harbor view room at the Sheraton and were able to watch the evening light show from both our room and the 17th floor lounge, the lights only somewhat diminished by the smoky, dusty skies.  The streets were jam packed with both tourists and natives; car and bus exhaust filled you lungs at each street crossing; the smell of soy sauce was pervasive; shops selling Rolexes and Ralph Lauren existed side-by-side with rabbit warren alleyways filled with tacky merchandise.  It is truly like New York on steroids, a mash-up of every New York ethnic neighborhood from Chinatown to Fifth Avenue.  It’s a shopper’s paradise, and I’m not a shopper.  Skyscrapers reached for the sky and many more are under construction.  The most pleasant walk was the Walk of the Stars on a quay around the Intercontinental Hotel.  Resembling the walk of stars at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, it was filled with Chinese school children matching their hands to the hand prints in cement.  The only name I recognized was that of Bruce Lee.   Dwight had fond memories of his previous 3-week stay in Hong Kong, but I was ready to leave after one night.  Been there; done that; don’t need to go back.

Star Ferry Port

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Worst is Over

I was writing this post in my head for many hours while stuffed on an airplane, breathing stale air and feeling fanny fatigue.  Since then, however, I've snuggled into a warm bed in the Sheraton Hotel in Hong Kong and thought about what a miracle it is that only a few hours ago I was snuggled in a bed in Durango, Colorado, so I'll try not to grouse too much about the way the bottom-dwelling, scum-sucking airlines treat their passengers.  Our flight from DFW was delaying by mechanical problems long enough to make us miss our connection in Tokyo resulting in AA having to put us up in a hotel at Narita and rebooking us to Hong Kong the next day.  That was probably a fortuitous situation; I don't think I could've climbed into another airplane for a 5 hour flight after arriving in Tokyo.  As it happened, we had a restful night in Tokyo and a not-so-bad flight to Hong Kong on Monday.

I've never had Japan on my bucket list, but I enjoyed the one night we had there.  I like the Japanese aesthetic...spare and orderly.  The people were incredibly polite; supervisors helped out to clear crowds when they piled up; smiles reigned.  I'd like to go back, but for now, it's on to the South China Sea.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Bags All Packed

The empty space is filled.  I did it.  A new record.  Only 43.5 pounds.  Woohoo!  Think of all the stuff I can buy to weight it down coming home! 

We're currently sitting in the new wing at Durango Airport waiting to start the first leg and then we're off!  Never have I needed a vacation more.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Say What?

Nothing is more important when you're traveling than learning about the culture of the lands you're going to visit, and that includes attempting to learn a few basic phrases in the local language.  At least that's what I thought before we planned to visit Vietnam.  It's not a matter of buying a Vietnamese phrase book and memorizing a few phrases.  Your whole mouth and tongue has to learn to shape itself into different tones to reproduce the various vowel sounds, and meanings can hinge on a subtle tone shift.  Being from Texas, I've always been vowel challenged anyway.  My goal is to be able to order the fresh Vietnamese  bia hơi  to go with my Bún bò Huế.  After all, Ăn kĩ no lâu, cày sâu tốt lúa!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Caveat Venditor

In Daniel Pink's new book To Sell is Human, he makes the statement that we have moved from a world of caveat emptor to caveat venditor.  He means that in the internet-connected world, the seller has so much good information, he's one step ahead of any seller who tries to make a fraudulent sale.  It seems to me that the problem is that the buyer has TOO MUCH information and the role of the seller has changed to one who sorts through the information and makes sense of it as it relates to the buyer.  That certainly is true in the world of travel.  Travel advertising makes a point of obscuring the truth.  One example is the airlines code share agreements which obscure, if not hide, the actual service provider.  Another is promotions offering "up to $2000 in savings" when to get the $2000 in savings you have to buy the top tier product, and savings on the regular product is more on the order of $200.  How about the hotels who have now started adding daily "resort fees" of up to $20-$30 a day to your bill for providing things that were previously free?  Those fees often aren't revealed until you get there...gotcha!  What about the information collected on the ubiquitous public review forums?  Do you really trust John Doe from Podunk USA to tell you where you ought to stay in Istanbul?  Having information is one thing...making sense of it is another.  And I won't even mention how much time the buyer must invest in collecting all of this suspect information.  The buyer must still decide whom to trust.  Trust someone with expertise; trust your travel agent; trust me!

BTW, I purchased a fake Rolex watch in Ephesus.  By the time we reached the port city of Kusadasi, it had stopped running so I took it into a watch shop.  The young proprietor told me the problem was that I had bought a fake Rolex instead of a GENUINE fake Rolex (from him, of course).  Anyone need a Rolex?  I have one I'll sell you.  

Sunday, January 5, 2014

One World? Not Yet!

One World?  I don't think so.  I've been on the phone all morning trying to arrange for disability services for Dwight on the flights for our upcoming trip.  The problem is we're ticketed on code share flights, the bane of both travel agents and travelers.  The airlines cooperate up to a point, that point being any convenience to the client.  First, while we were provided with the Record Locator for the American Airlines flights, we weren't given the Record Locators for the Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines flights, so there is no way to book seats.  You're just told they'll be assigned at the airport.  On top of that, it's getting harder and harder to talk to a person on the phone.  You have to be really persistent to get anything done.  An hour after I started, I talked to a helpful agent at AA who ordered wheelchair service throughout the trip and gave me the booking numbers for CP and JAL; however, the CP website didn't recognize the booking number and JAL has no option to manage flights on line, so now it's more hours on the phone trying to get seat assignments.  I've done this for clients before so knew what I was getting into when I started.  When will the airlines finally discover that profitability is all about customer service?  Not any time soon, I fear.   Blogs shouldn't be for grousing but I can't seem to help myself when it comes to airlines (and TSA).  Anybody remember the days when we dressed in our Sunday best, arrived at the last minute, and sat in comfortable seats while being served a hot meal, even in coach on even the shortest airplane trip?  Those days are gone with the wind.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year -- Another Adventure Awaits

What a great confluence -- the New Year, the new moon, and an empty suitcase all waiting to be filled.  The great thing about travel is the anticipation.  In a little over two weeks we leave for a voyage on the Azamara Journey.  After departing from Hong Kong  we'll call at Hanoi, Danang, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; at Bangkok and Ko Samui, Thailand; make a side trip to Siem Rep, Cambodia; and finally arrive in Singapore.  This trip was never on my bucket list, but now I'm really excited about it.  I'm starting to pour over guide books and mark what I want to see.  Mainly, at the moment, I'm worried about filling up this big bag.  Through many years of travel, I've never learned the skill of packing light.  A friend just told me she manages to pack light because she holds the thought in mind that she can always buy what she needs along the way.  Great solution!  I'm going to hold that thought as I start making my lists and filling this space.   I'm so ready for a new destination. What new sights will we see, new experiences will we have?  I can't stand the wait...let the adventure begin!