Down the Mekong from Siem Reap to Saigon
The first or was it the second day of our trip (as we crossed the international dateline, there was some confusion), we took Supershuttle to the airport. US security rules have changed so we old guys no longer have to take off our shoes. Flight to Seoul takes 12 hours; (its duration ideal for the teenager headed for trouble as they get a taste of extended incarceration in which they long for something meaningful to do), but Korean crew and meals are pleasant enough. Though we never left airport in Seoul, we still needed to go through security and passport control a second time—with just 90 minutes between planes!
Eight more hours and we arrive in Siem Reap to be greeted by the eye-tearing smell of burning vegetation. Our luggage is there! Taxi from airport to the Sofitel Angkor Resort is $7. Driver gives high pressure spiel as to why we need hire him for tour tomorrow. We cave at $25 to be paid the next day, chuckle, but leave the next day before he shows. Good thing as our destination Angkor Wat is just 7minutes down the road.
At the hotel, we are handed a cool drink a refreshing cold towel—it’s hot here even at midnight, then shown to our room which far exceeds Dorothy’s expectations for size, furnishings, and cleanliness. Basket of cookies and fresh fruit for us in room. (It should at $140 US a night, meals xtra.)
Dorothy wakes much too early, yet is much annoyed when I tell her to get dressed, get out, and take a walk around the extensive grounds of the resort. Eventually, I too rise--05:30. After in-room coffee we walk down to the bountiful but pricey ($20) breakfast buffet. So much is on offer, the conventional as well as the exotic, that it is only the next morning that I take full advantage. I begin with a smoothie and a dish of lychees.
We ask the hotel for transport to Angkor Wat and, a moment later, climb aboard a Tuk-Tuk, a cart hauled by a motor scooter. Un bon choix as the breeze is delightful. The half day tour is $7 for us both and admission to the park is $10 each. (Plus a buck for two bottles of water—an absolute necessity, as all signs say do not drink from tap.)
At 8am, it is already hot and the long walk from where our guide was obliged to drop is fatiguing. The temple grounds go on and on. The main temple, built in the 12th Century when Cambodia was a super power, is 1.5 Km by 1.4Km. It is surrounded by a deep dry moat. The entire length of the corridor located just inside the outer wall is given over to an intricate bas relief of two Hindu armies. One can spend hours in its examination.
The temple is on multiple levels; the size and spacing of the well-worn stairs suggests its builders had long legs and small feet. Lunch is a husked-pineapple we buy in the park for a buck.
Back at the hotel we take a shower and lie down, thinking we’11 go out soon and swim around the lake-size pool (an island in its middle) but we never get our act together. Dinner is an apple and scones we’d brought with us. We nap and watch TV (choice of French, Italian, Russian, Hindi, Thai, BBC, CNN, and lots of sports) and nap till 7:30 when Dorothy falls asleep. I watched Maigret on the Kindle for a bit and then join her.
Up the next morning at 6am. Left tagged luggage outside door as today we will be joining the AmaWay Lotus cruise. Went to buffet breakfast; this time had pork congee with multiple toppings and made-to-order green-noodle soup. Cook noodles briefly, add broth, cabbage, mint, toppings, some chicken, like soup with a stone.
It is the dry season, and the Mekong is still shallow this far north, so it takes a four and a half hour bus ride to bring us downstream to where our ship is docked. This meant three pits stops for me along the way. One is at an area where vendors have fried crickets, beetles, and tarantulas on offer.
We wait instead to have lunch aboard the AMA Lotus at 3pm. We skip dinner, fall asleep looking out our floor length window at the river passing by.
(Though we carefully saturated all our clothes with an insect repellent before we left and began taking anti-malarial drug the day before we left, only gradually does it dawn on us that there is not a mosquito in ear shot and won’t be until the rains come.)
Wake too early once again, to find ourselves surrounded by net-equipped fishermen on outboard- and paddle-driven pirogues. Breakfast not up to Sofitel standards.
Our first tour takes us to a floating village. Houses and stores are on rafts. Don’t like your neighbor; move your raft. Dry some fish on your roof, hold others in an underwater well.
Afternoon tour takes Dorothy via ox cart to Buddhist temple, while I stay on ship and write these notes.
Hard to believe, that by September, after it has rained continuously for four or five months, the river will not only have overflowed its banks, and reached the level of what is now a first floor raised well above the ground, but will have reversed its direction to fill a huge lake in northern Cambodia.
Evening features a talk from our Vietnamese Cruise director, who completed his compulsory military service removing mines from the Cambodian country side, plus a movie of Pol Pot’s life.
Morning tour takes us into a village of weavers--silk and cotton, and we tour a typical home. Looms are on ground, the slatted wooden floors of the bedrooms and kitchen are overhead, raised on wooden stilts set on concrete pillars. But when the rains come, the water will rise to (hopefully) just below those slatted floors. (Biggest advantage of the dry-season for us tourists is there is not a sign of a mosquito.)
Afternoon tour (only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun) takes us on foot through traffic ("stay together like sticky rice") into center of Phnom Phen. We skip dinner and night tour and watch "Pere Noel est un ordure."
Our excursion the next morning takes us just beyond the limits of modern Phnom Phen, to what was once a remote location. Here were the mass graves of hundreds of thousands killed by a death squad of only seventeen ten to 16-year olds. Our guide, whose mother had been one of the few survivors, thought we might be sad. But my sadness came from the realization that nothing had been learned from the killing fields of Cambodia, that these same mass graves would later be found in Rwanda, the Central African Republic, Bosnia, Serbia, and Syria.
Next, we were bought back to town and a a former high school where political prisoners (entire families rather than individuals) had been tortured for months before being taken out to the killing fields. We realized that Cheney had missed a bet: By doing all the U.S.'s torturing abroad, and having tame gov't lawyers declare it wasn't really torture, he denied the U.S. revenue-producing tourist attractions.
To divert our attention, we are taken to a huge central market, a modern version of the Medina with stalls extending in every direction. I acquire a shirt for $10 and an ultra-lite, four-wheel canary-yellow suitcase for $30.
Our afternoon excursion to the Royal Palace had to be aborted as the Palace had been closed to prepare for the Khymer New Year. We then went to the National Museum whose exhibits have been placed higgledy-piggledy without regard to period. All in all, not the most rewarding of days
AMA has placed a DVD of The Lover in everyone’s cabin.
Our 8th day on the cruise is spent entirely on the Mekong, we eat, defecate, watch films, nap. From 15:30 to 17:45, we pause for Vietnam immigration, and then enter the country as heat lightning fills the sky.
On the 9th day we board a motor launch and cruise the Vietnamese equivalent of a bayou. We tour a village where they raise jicama between the rows of corn, as well as soursop, banana, and papaya. [Picture: harvesting hot peppers]
Next come a floating fish farm and a jute mat factory. We take a rickshaw, my gastrocnemius howling in agony, pain relieved only by holding my back erect. Tour gift shops and finally the shore line of a Mekong delta town.
Our 10th day is totally exhausting. In the morning we tour a wholesale market astounded by the wide variety of fruits, vegetables, meats (rat!, snake), fish (fresh and ocean), shrimp, tiny clams, plus mud skippers for sale.
From the market, we go to the rebuilt building where once “the Lovers:” (a rich Chinese and a poor white girl) conducted their afternoon trysts.
An exhausted and ailing Dorothy returns to the ship, while I head for a former VC winter base in the jungle. (Winter is dry season, tunnels and fox holes were underwater once the Monsoon rains began.)
Shower, eat lunch, take motor launch to floating market, view and eat local specialties being prepared, rest.
A late evening concert features local musicians and local instruments—all stringed.
A 40-hour day begins at 05:30 as ship’s engines turn over and we head downstream to our final destination. One last breakfast of noodle soup aboard before we empty our cabin and disembark. An hour and a half bus ride brings us into Saigon. We leave our bags with the concierge and go to lunch at the Lemon Grass Café ($40 for the four of us) in the company of an online friend--an Italian, educated in Canada who is now teaching at a branch of an Australian University in Vietnam—and his Vietnamese wife. She then escorts us through the midday heat to Independence Hall (once the residence of the prime minister of South Vietnam) and then to the War Museum. Dorothy is appalled by the photographs. We have a coffee with our friends (same price as Starbucks stateside) and head for a hotel I’ve booked near the airport, where we shower and rest before our flight at 23.45. Cost of air-conditioned hotel room: $14.
Meter on cab to airport reads 18K dong. Driver demands 60K dong; I give him 40K dong which I was told was the price and ignore his protests. Huge crowd outside the airport scares us but we notice only one or two people are actually going inside. We follow them, check our bags and head through security. An hour later we board plane. Eight hours later, we land in Inchon, Korea.
As we have a long layover, we go to information booth and get advice on getting to the ChangDeokGung Palace in Seoul. We pay for bus in with credit card and exchange US dollars for Korean to pay for bus when we return. (Total for round trip for two is $40.)
An hour’s bus ride through heavy in-bound commuting traffic brings us to the Palace. We spend ninety minutes touring the grounds, then walk several blocks to get the feel of the city before boarding the bus again for our return to the airport.
Once through security, Dorothy stretches out on four seats in the waiting area and gets a little needed rest. I do my best in a similar position but can’t fall asleep.
Inspired by the bombing of the Boston marathon, security inspects all passengers’ bags a second time before we board the plane and confiscates the water bottles we filled at the airport drinking fountains.
Eleven and a half hours and a second airplane meal later, we land in LA. An hour and a half takes us through immigration (number of inspectors has been cut in half to reduce cost of government), customs, and agricultural inspection. Another hour or so and the shuttle drops us in front of our house!