Another early morning departure before dawn. This time for a 30km drive to watch the sunrise over Banteay Srei, a Hindu Temple dedicated to Shiva. It was the oldest temple we saw on the trip, pre-dating Angkor Wat, built in the mid 900s. Constructed of pink stone, it is known for its intricate carvings and excellent preservation. Sometimes referred to as the 'Citadel of Women' it is believed to have been built by women, as the amazing detail of the carvings is thought to be too fine to have been done by a man. The three central towers were guarded by statues of Hanuman, the monkey-headed god. Many of the originals had been stolen (damn tomb raiders!) with replicas in their place.
Ta was rushing us along a bit, which we found strange. I know we were trying to get there before the crowds arrived but the sun was still low in the sky and the parking lot empty. When we arrived at the central sanctuary, we found out why; it was blocked off by rope barriers, still affording an excellent view but $2 per person in the pocket of the security guards allowed VIP access to the inner spaces. It felt a bit devious to be crawling around this ancient ruin in the prohibited zone, but it was amazing! We were alerted when another group was coming through, and filed back to the approved pathways and the rope barrier was quickly replaced. As if it never happened.
Back to the hotel for breakfast and pack and then we spent our final afternoon in Cambodia visiting the floating village of Chong Kneas located on Tonle Sap Lake. Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia and is unique in that the flow reverses direction throughout the year due to the monsoon season and it expands/contracts between 3000 and 16000 square-km in area! The village actually follows the edge of the lake and moves 5-6 times a year. It was really interesting, there was an entire city with all its functions on the water. Floating houses, groceries, schools, basketball courts, restaurants and temples. Even floating gardens, fish farms, alligator farms and pig farms! The water was a deep brown, sanitary conditions seemed terrible. A true example of water being the cycle of life... Used for drinking, bathing, farming, fishing, navigating and pooping.
Temples at sunrise, temples at sunset! Left the hotel at 545am to watch the sun rise over Srah Srang, a baray (reservoir) in the Angkor Temple Complex. Like everything else here, it was vast, majestic and perfectly oriented to the sun. We sat along the edge, listening to Ta's tales of his life while watching the water and sky begin to turn pink. It was so quiet and still, even the young children who came by to sell us postcards, stood quietly and listened to his story.
We moved on to Ta Prohm, or the 'Angelina Jolie Temple' where much of Tomb Raider was filmed. She's become a bit of the patron saint of the country, and there has actually been a push to rename the structure! Celebrity aside, it was phenomenal. I feel like each temple and the experience Ta choreographs (another morning where we had the ruins to ourselves, hiking through a back trail to the little-used north gate) gets even better. The ruins emerge from the jungle, strangled by vines and huge silver tree roots that resemble pythons. This complex has intentionally been left as a partial ruin to show what it must have been like when they were first discovered. Built in the 1100s, it's rather elongated with towers, corridors and courtyards. Amazingly this one and the others we have visited before are still active with spirituality, the Buddha shrines located in the nooks and crannies are often visited by monks and adorned with flowers and incense.
We were back to the hotel by 830 for breakfast and had the whole day open for explorations or Siem Reap or lazy time at the pool and spa. I managed both, haha.
We met the sunset at Pre Rup and Eastern Mebon. Both pyramid shaped with five lotus towers. Lots of steep steps to climb! They were constructed by brick and covered in sandstone, perfect for catching the colors of the late afternoon sun. Peeking up the towers allows a glimpse into the structure below. Both are located on the East Baray, an enormous dry reservoir that still floods in the monsoon, but it's pretty dry now. The steps start rather high up, at one point they must have been only reached by boat. Eastern Mebom was built a few decades earlier and is a smaller model of Pre Rup. As we settled on the steps to watch the sun drop down, we joked about how nice a cold beer would be... A quick cellphone call brought us each a can of Angkor beer, delivered by our driver. What a way to close the day!
Siem Reap Cambodia is the city closest to the temples of Angkor and has been built for the tourists; there are more guesthouses and hotels than temples! All which have been built within the last 15 years or so after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime. It has a bit of a Disney/Vegas feel with the uniform landscaping and architecture. I can only imagine how it will continue to explode in the next few years, but it's still rather pleasant now. We are staying in the super luxurious Sofitel, it's gorgeous but a bit guilt inspiring, particularly since it is right next to the Angkor Children's Hospital where families line up the night before for free inoculations the next morning.
The recent history and tales of genocide in Cambodia are unbelievable. I have a distinct memory of finding an old national geographic in my grandmother's basement on Pol Pot and the killing fields which fueled some morbid fascination as well as a few nightmares. Our tour guide Ta, who is in his early 40s lived through it all, and the stories he told about the violence, the forced labor, marching hundreds of miles, and death before his eyes was heartbreaking. Over 2 million were killed during the bloody regime.
Ta has a strong aversion to crowds, which is difficult when ones occupation is a tour guide at one of the wonders of the world! But he knows all the tricks. We left at 730am for our visit to Angkor Wat and entered along the lesser-known eastern gate and had just about a full hour to ourselves with the monkeys and apsaras (heavenly nymphs which appear all over the temple). It is enormous, considered the largest religious building in the world, aligned with the sun and surrounded by a huge moat, over a meter in length on each side. Construction involved over 300,000 workers (slaves) and 6000 elephants. By the time we hit the west gate, we found the crowds, while annoying they did not detract from the immense sense of space and scale.
I like the temple touring schedule a la Ta... early morning, relax by pool midday, and back for sunset. We visited Angkor Thom for the evening fix of templing. Another gated city, the most famous structure is called Bayon, a self-commissioned homage to King Jayavavnan VII, which contains over 216 faces which are a combination of the king himself and Avalokiteshvara (Buddha of Compassion). Big Brother (Buddha) is certainly watching over you here.
Today's ride took us to the CuChi tunnels, located about an hour drive northwest of Saigon. The ride meandered though rubber plantations, rice fields and graveyards. Sometimes the functions not mutually exclusive. At one intersection we happened upon a makeshift market where vendors were selling rats that were caught out by the fields for sale for food. Also included were large snakes in cheesecloth-type bags, still writhing around. Not my kind of cycle rest stop. Thankfully our first rest stop was more my speed at a rice paper "factory" where a thin solution of rice dough was rolled out on a steam drum and then dried in the sun on bamboo screens. There were two women in the operation, one tending the fire and steam of the drum and the other ladling out the rice mixture and transferring to the screen. With rat-free rice cakes for snacks, we then continued on through the rubber plantations, where each tree was about uniform size and shape, planted three meters apart. It looked like a stage set of a forest. Our next stop was at a local cafe which was very modest, a shade roof covering a room of hammocks, but on so lazy and comfortable. I think I want to bring that business model back to Brooklyn... Outdoor coffee shops with hammocks (and free wifi?)
30km later we arrived at the Cu Chi tunnels. An immense network of interconnecting underground tunnels which were used as the base of VC operations for the Tet Offensive in 1968. Over 20 years in the making, these passageways were chiseled by hand and span over 200km! They are three layers deep at some points and include kitchens, water sources, hospitals, and weapons storage. An amazing infrastructural feat, awful story. The area was filled with booby traps, and secret doors to the tunnels. Our guide, an ex-VC guerilla, lived in and fought from the tunnels for 5 years, starting at the age of 16. They had a small length of tunnel widened slightly for western tourists to pass through, just 200m or so... I did the crawl through, glad I didn't get stuck like Winnie the Pooh. It was incredible to think of living in that space and under the conditions of war for 5 years.
After the tunnels, we continued our ride to lunch where we said farewell to our bikes and the cycling part of the journey. Back to Saigon for yet another massage and then we went on our farewell dinner. Our final morning was a walking tour of district 1, we looped by the Post Office, Notre Dame Basilica (complete with posed wedding photos outside), the Reunification Palace and War Museum. The War Museum was absolutely devastating. I couldn't make it through the entire exhibition, and skipped the detailed coverage on Agent Orange. A rather somber note to leave the country, but felt it was an important pilgrimage to make just the same. Next stop, Cambodia!
Arrived in Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City since the liberation in 1975, although no one seems to use the new name, it had been Saigon for centuries. Sound more romantic too. It is a busy city, filled with mopeds. Statistics show something like over 200 new mopeds register with the municipality each day! The city is very grand, with ornate buildings and wide boulevards. Very clean too! It reminds me a bit of Paris, and is also segmented into a series of districts; we are staying at the Majestic Hotel in district 1, on the Saigon waterfront. It's very posh. One of the most famous hotels in the city, it's been around since 1925 and has hosted a cast of famous guests throughout the year. Most notably Catherine Deneauve and Graham Greene.
Spent our first evening exploring the neighborhood on foot. We are very near the large central market and opera house. There is a building site next to our hotel which is being designed by Arup (can't seem to escape the influences of work). Had sunset drinks on the rooftop of the Rex hotel, where the US military daily press briefings took place during the war. Wandered on and introduced my parents to the glories of mangosteen from a street vendor. Then a great dinner at a restaurant called Quan An Ngon, where you can sample 'safe' street food from all regions of the country. Seafood pancakes, spring rolls, papaya salad, sticky rice, beer over ice, oh-my!
Early rise the next morning for an hour drive south to the Mekong Delta. We picked up our southern fleet of bicycles in Tan An for a 50km ride. It's an incredibly lush and fertile part of the country. We cycled through backroads along rice patties and plantations (dragonfruit, mangos, bananas, and coconuts) making stops along the way. We had an introduction to rice harvesting and visited a cashew nut factory. It was extremely labor intensive, each nut is hand-processed, the final step is a scraping with an exacto knife by hand! The girls were very entertained by the tall giants in our group in their spandex unitards and giggled and twittered at us. It was gorgeous but so hot, difficult riding in the 90+ heat. I must have gone through six bottles of water. Our ride ended with a seafood lunch in My Tho and a visit to the Vinh Trang Pagota to see the humongous laughing Buddha.
We woke up to our first sunny day, it was fantastic. Our morning ride took us along the beach roads to Thuan An Beach. We knew we arrived at the villages by the pungent smell of fish sauce.
The roads were much smoother and quieter than outside of Hue, we passed through small villages and towns. Constantly greeted by smiles and waves by the cutest children. Some were rascals, and reached out for high-fives and would hold on to your hand, not too good when you were riding at a good clip. We continued on for around 40km in total and then were met by our vans for a drive to Hoi An.
Our drive took us through the gorgeous Hai Van Pass, also referred to as the "Pass of the Ocean Clouds", part of the Annamite Range where it meets the South China Sea. A twisty 20km climb up and over, with gorgeous vistas and a bit of nail biting in the backseat due to the aggressive Vietnamese driving.
At the other side was Danang, a rather depressed coastal city that reminded me a bit of Atlantic City - huge mega resorts along the primary oceanfront and then seedy hotels and a promenade a few streets back. It also has a reputation for sleaze, left over from the war era as it was one of the first ports for the US marines. The northern tip of Danang is a hill called Monkey Mountain with an enormous Lady Buddha statue presiding over the city. The beachfront itself is beautiful, called China Beach and was the setting for the 1980s tv show. I've never seen it, but think I'll be netflixing it when I get home.
Around 30 minutes south of Danang is Hoi An, our home for the next two days. Another Unesco town, we were booked in a beautiful resort two blocks from the old city. What a beautiful little city on the Thu Bon riverfront. Narrow streets, lots of shops and cafes; it was very tourist-oriented, but lovely. We lucked out with our timing, it was a full moon our first evening and during the full moon, motorbikes are banned from the old town, and the streets are lit by colorful silk lanterns, it's full of market stalls, music and street games.
Hoi An is also a shoppers paradise. It's full of tailor, shoe and silver shops, supported by craftspeople who can make anything you want in about 24 hours. It's a copycat paradise. Show a picture from a magazine or on google (many shops have computers just for that purpose), and an identical piece of clothing/jewelry/shoes will be constructed to your exact measurements and specifications. I couldn't resist and bought green leather booties and a silver necklace with three charms, a lady Buddha, jade teardrop and a lotus. All ready the morning before departure.
The cycling around Hoi An was also wonderful. We crossed the river and zig-zagged through back roads and village, stopping at an organic farm which supplies most of the herbs and greens for many of the hotels and restaurants in town. An 84 year old farmer was gracious enough for some silly photo-ops. He was a tiny man with bright eyes and a sassy beard.
And the food! It keeps getting better. Or I am just enjoying it more now that I am feeling better. Pho, seafood, dumplings, spring rolls, rice crackers, green papaya salad, and fruits. Yum, yum, yum. Definitely initiative to keep on cycling.
Flew down to Hue from Hanoi, once Vietnam's Imperial City. Another Unesco World Heritage City, it's located along the Perfume River in central Vietnam, south of the 17th parallel or old DMZ.
Our hotel was called the Pilgimage Village, a great complex of little brick buildings and landscaped grounds. Extensive spa, so I could sample a "Vietnamese Massage" and long pool for laps. It's much warmer down here than Hanoi. We are told it's just going to get warmer as the trip goes on, by the time we reach Saigon, we will miss the chill.
Started with a bike fitting. Our bike mechanic looks like a tough guy. Something about him reminds me of Mike Tyson. No high tech, perfectly tuned cycles here. I think the group was a bit shocked at the beat up cannondale mountain bikes we were given. Then we got on the road and all was understood. Potholes, partial paving, puddles, rocks, chickens, pedestrians, cyclists, mopeds, buses, trucks, water buffalo. You name it, we rode over it, around it or beside it. Definitely keeps you on your toes! We were a popular sight with the local children, strange westerners in their multicolor lycra unitards. They all ran to the street waving and shouting hello-hello.
Our 25 km warm up ride took us along the perfume river, stopping at pagodas along the way and ended at a local orphanage, run by nuns. It was a bittersweet, but heartwarming visit; there are around 200 children there, left by various circumstances. And the nuns keep them until they are 18 when they can make the decision to leave. No adoptions, I think in part due to problems with child prostitution. All children are well fed, clothed and are given full education, which is not necessarily common in this region. We were told to bring small gifts, such as stickers and stationary, so the kids were very excited to see us. This one clever girl quickly hands off a little baby in our arms so she could access the stickers.
The Hue visit was 50% touring, 50% cycling. The next day we continued cycling along the river, visiting the Bao Quoc Pagoda, built in the 1600s and devoted to the "Lady Buddha". It's also a school for training monks, and we saw a trainee with the craziest punk-rock monk hairdo. Then on to a dragon boat ride down the river to the Citadel, the primary tourist and historical destination in town. The Citadel is a walled city surrounded by 2m thick walls and a zigzag of moats and contains the Imperial Enclosure and Forbidden Purple City (my favorite part which used to house the emperor, eunuchs, and his concubines. Eunuchs were the only allowed servants in this area as they posed no threat to his beauties). Most of the interior was completely decimated during the American war. They are in the process of actually rebuilding large portions base on historical photographs.
Our dinner that night was hosted by Phan Thuan An, a local historian who lives in one of Hue's historic garden houses. It was previously owned by a Princess (his wife is a distant relative), it was designed according to the principals of Feng Shui, with an incredible garden and pond. Once a university professor before the war (he was not allowed to teach once "history changed") he is now the principal historian overseeing the restoration of the Citadel.
Arrived in Hanoi to meet up with my parents and the VBT tour group. No cycling in this city, rather 1.5 days planned of touring. Once I saw the traffic, I understood why. Signals are a mere suggestion, particularly for the moped drivers which make up 80% of the road! When we cross with the group, our guides tell was to be like "sticky rice" and surge across in a tight huddle, haha.
The city is planned around a series of lakes, which are quite lovely. The architecture is a mix of rather brutalist, institutional looking buildings (like the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum), and French colonial. With many large boulevards around the political center and crazy twisty alleys in the old town. Historically buildings were taxed by the width of their street frontage, so you seen many tall and super narrow townhouse type structures (similar to Amsterdam). And there is a very strong culture of health and fitness, if you walk to any of the lakes and parks around 530 am, they are filled with people not only walking or doing Tai Chi, but also lifting weights, and participating in Zumba-like dancing. Temporary "gyms" pop up with sound systems and free weights. We went for a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake early one morning to watch the exercise antics, even in the cold rain it was busy!
It's been interesting to hear the Vietnamese perspective on the "American War" during our tour as well as the perspective of the group, who are all my parents generation, including two veterans. For Vietnam, the American occupation was the latest of many as there have been the French, Japanese, and Chinese... And the collective history does not appear to be quite as polarizing. Ho Chi Minh is held in the highest of esteems, referred to as "Old Uncle". His body is preserved in a Mausoleum in the center the city, visited by tourists (we did not enter), similar to Lenin in Red Square. Apparently he is still sent to Russia annually for preservation "upkeep".
Non-stop touring included visits to the outside of the Mausoleum, One Pillar Pagota, the Presidential Palace, the Temple of Literature, a cyclo (rickshaw) ride through the old city and an afternoon Water Puppet show, which was my favorite. I am typically very averse to tour groups and tour buses, but this isn't too bad. Our guides are funny Vietnamese guys, the bus is amazing in the sea of traffic, and it allowed us a quick taste of the city before flying down to Hue to begin our cycling adventure.
I had a tiny bit of time between lnna's departure and when I needed to get to Hanoi for the bike trip, so I did a 28 hour stopover in Luang Prabang. What an incredibly charming place, my visit was too sHort, but I am glad I got a taste of what will definitely be on a future itinerary.
Booked a room in a great guesthouse in the city center, a block from the Mekong and a block from the markets. It was run by a Belgian-Lao couple and their two children. Spacious room with shared bath and great balcony to do yoga on looking across rooftops and the surrounding hillside.
Luang Prabang is the former capital of Laos, now a Unesco World Heritage Site with lots of French colonial architecture, narrow streets, river views and lots and lots and lots of wats. Walking through the streets you pass numerous saffron clad monks going about their day. The central city is a peninsula, between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It's certainly not a party destination... It keeps a rhythm of early nights and early mornings.
Spent my first day just wandering on foot and trying to resist shopping for handicrafts and silver jewelry. Ate a Luang Prebang salad, influenced by the French with a mayonnaise type dressing, along with watercress, lettuces, hard boiled egg and tomato. Enjoyed that with sticky rice at a side walk cafe, watching the tourists meander by, the majority being Asian.
It has been a few days since my last massage so after a few hours of wandering, treated myself to a foot massage, which perhaps wasn't the best idea before climbing to the top of the central stupa topped hill called Phu Si (pronounced pussy)! Oily feet and flip flops makes for a precarious climb on this 100m tall hill with over 400 steps. Made it to the top for great city views and a gorgeous sunset.
My reserve against shopping failed miserably during the extensive night market. I wasn't concerned with spending money, rather giving up valuable suitcase real estate. It was by the far the calmest market I have been to on this trip; no touts, just red illuminated tents, setting off a soft glow on pants, bags, scarves, and bedding. Bought a Hmong appliqué duvet cover and pillow set, my grandmother wold have loved it!
Rose before dawn to observe "Tak Bat" the daily monks alms procession. It is a quiet meditative ceremony where monks demonstrate their vows of poverty and humility, and Buddhists gain spiritual merit by the act of respectful giving (typically small balls of sticky rice). Left the guesthouse in the pitch dark, and found my way to the local Wat where we watched until the sky started to lighten.
Delicious breakfast and then rented a bicycle for the day, and explored the town. Spent a while at Wat Xiang Thong, probably the most famous in LP which is considered a classic of local design. Intricate mosaics, one of the Tree of Life. The main building was being restored. No scaffolding, no hard hats, no harnesses. Just young monks in saffron robes, sitting at the top, applying gold leaf!
Packed in a tourist filled morning at the old city before organizing our luggage and enjoying our last night in Bangkok before Inna heads home and I move on to Laos. We saw lots and lots and lots of wats. (sounds like a Dr. Seus rhyme). It was rainy and overcast, but it kept the heat at bay. Good day for ducking in and out of temples. Grabbed a tuk-tuk over to Ko Ratanakosin, the old town/royal district. They are much better than taxis with dealing with the city traffic, but the ceilings are so low, my head almost grazed the top! Good opportunity for breathing in exhaust fumes too, makes me glad I packed my neti pot..
We started at Wat Phra Kew, the Grand Palace, with hoards of tourists. Inna was stopped a few times for pictures, to the tourist Thais, she was quite the novelty, perhaps more so than the grand palace. We had been warned to bring clothing to cover up in the temples so we would not have to borrow the less than clean loaner clothes, but didn't quite realize the extent of it. No tank tops covered by shawls and no "skinny pants" - want to apply that rule to Williamsburg, haha. So we were sent to the changing roam for 200 baht loan garb. I wrapped my shawl around my waist and was told to then roll UP my pants underneath. We were both given stylish and flattering yellow polyester button-down shirts. It was absolutely gorgeous (the complex, not our fashion). Even in the rain, I can only imagine the sparkle of the gold leaf in bright sunshine. The grounds are huge, over 90 hectares with numerous halls temples and buildings showcasing various detailing and architectural styling. The most famous building and icon is the Emerald Buddha, a relatively tiny jade Buddha that sits on a huge altar and cloaked in royal robes - one for each season! It has an interesting history, it was originally covered in plaster, and in the 15th century, it fell and part of the plaster chipped from its nose and the stone was revealed underneath.
After leaving the palace, we wandered along Th Maharat, which is also known as "amulet alley" where vendors line the sidewalk with small talismans. Some old, some new, some plastic, some bronze. Maharat follows the river and we continued down to Wat Pho, home of the largest reclining Buddha. He is 46 meters long and 15 meters high, gold leaf and has mother of pearl inlaid feet. He's too big for the space, it's very difficult getting a full view. It reminds me of the part in Alice in Wonderland, where she drinks the potion which makes her grow too big.
By midday, we were completely Wat-ed out. Returned to the hermetically sealed CentroWorld mall for some lunch and then back to the hotel to chill and pack before heading out for our final evening. We went to the southern part of the city to Tawandang, a really bizarre place. It’s a massive beer hall, which brews its own German-style beer, has good food, and strange variety-act type performances. The place filled up pretty well for a Monday night, and there were very few foreigners. The performances were not exactly to our taste, but gave good insight into contemporary culture. It was a combo of Thai pop songs, cheesy American cover songs (think Tom Jones), dance performances to Disney songs, and some traditional music. No lady-boy cabaret though.