Jan and Stephen's trip to Southeast Asia

March 14 to April 13, 2005

Laos-Cambodia-Vietnam and
Bangkok, Thailand

 

Our Tour Group

"Adventures Abroad"


Click on Camera to see Pictures

Itinerary

Itinerary Notes
Wherever you go, there you are. Your luggage is another story. ― Kornberg family saying

Mar 15-16

SFO to Bangkok - arrival in Southeast Asia We leave San Francisco on a 1pm flight, cross the international date and land in Bangkok, totally confused about the time and dateline.  We spend an extra day at our hotel catching up on sleep and adjusting to the time and warm temperature.  Finally our tour group led by Adventures Abroad meets over dinner, and we are off the next day for the start of our journey - Laos

 

Mar 17

Laos - Luong Prabang We start in Luong Prabang, the old Royal capital of Laos -- the "Kingdom of a Million Elephants".  (Very few elephants left in Laos now.)  The city has a lot of charm, a sort of laid-back, afternoon at the cafe, veranda sitting, monk sighting, hang-out ambiance that is very appealing.  It is a town of Wats, or Buddhist temples, with many monks in residence.  They practice Theravada Buddhism, as do Thailand, Burma and Cambodia.  It is not a requirement, but men will often spend at some point in their lives a month or more as monks, before resuming a secular life.  

Unfortunately, being a peaceful people, Laos has been attacked and ripped asunder many times in their history.  Today, the Pathet Lao still control the country, the communist flag still flies, and there are no free elections.  Each place we went our passports were taken to the nearest police station and the names and numbers taken.  Corruption is also a major impediment to the country.  But since the mid 90's, Laos has adopted the "new thinking" and has become a mix of socialism and market driven forces.  However, the government is very backward in their ability to deliver services; roads are crumbling, there is huge poverty (though food is plentiful if the harvests come in), almost no electricity in rural areas (even though electricity is a major export).  Across the Mekong River in Thailand they can look at modern buildings, roads, electricity, the bustle of a booming economy.  On the other hand, we didn't see signs of people starving and encountered no beggars.  Food was everywhere to be seen. 

The food has been really really good.  The French influence shows with wonderful bread and "fusion" French/Asian cuisine.  Our hotel was like a dream of colonial life with a beautiful pond with flowering lily pads, and the breakfast room on stilts over the water which made it nice and cool.  Our room had a small veranda which was lovely to sit on.  We really could have stayed longer, not touring, but living a very relaxed "colonial" life.  We've also gotten surprisingly good Chilean wines with dinner.  The Laotian people are very gentle and soft-spoken.   
 

Mar 18

Laos - Pak Ou caves and the Mekong We are still in Laung Prabang, we visited a number of the Wats, then left the next morning for a boat trip to the Pak Ou caves.  We went for about 1 hours up river on the Mekong River  and really enjoyed looking at the life along the river.  We watched jet boats, open air, holding maybe 8 passengers with crash helmets, moving quickly up-river toward the Thailand border six hours away.  Cost about $25.  We were not tempted as there have been serious accidents.

 

Mar 19

Laos - Royal Palace Museum

On our last morning we visited the Royal Palace Museum which was very interesting and had a uniquely beautiful reception room with cut mirrored glass figures over all the walls. The last King of Laos, deposed in the 1950's, was sent to a cave to live with his family and was not heard of after that.

 

Mar 20

Laos - Rocket Festival, Plain of Jars Site II We have flown from Luong Prabang to Vientiane (capital of Laos), then on to Phonsavan, which is in the Laos highlands.  It was very heavily bombed during the "Secret War" (part of the Vietnam War) during the Nixon administration.  Our hotel was up on a hill in the pine trees - also among the very tall poinsettias, the frangipani trees with their beautiful blossoms, and the orchids!  An interesting tropical mix of plants.  On the way up the hill on a switchback, our bus mirror snagged a droopy power line which fed the hotel.  No problem, they would send someone down to fix it - within 20 minutes they had spliced the wire and we had electricity again.  As we tried to sleep we heard the sounds of drums booming, and singing.  The next day Rhea, our tour guide, told us there was a Rocket Festival at the local Buddhist temple where the sounds were coming from, and we would stop in for fifteen minutes.  We left two hours later after having a wonderful experience. They were so kind to include us.  We were given rice wine by someone circulating through the crowd with a jug and a glass.  Some of the group participated in the dancing, and we all witnessed a ceremony in which three monks were raised from novice to monk.  I hope our pictures will capture some of the experience which was really one of those "once in a lifetime" events.

Stephen was moved to make a donation of $20 US, and even though it was a small amount, they were so nice in their appreciation.  They asked him to sign their book so they could post his name in the temple.  One by one, the three elders who were sitting next to the donation box shook his hand, not a Laotian habit.  It was done with such sincerity, that it was emotional for Stephen.  They then tied a saffron color thread around Stephen's wrist for good luck, which he wore through our whole trip.  

We visited the Plain of Jars, site Two.   Because these sites have been so recently cleared of UXO - unexploded ordinance- very little archeological work has been done to determine the composition of the Jars and nothing is really known about who made them or why.  They are at least 1000 years old, probably more.  They did not want us to visit the third site because it has not yet been completely cleared of UXO.
 

Mar 21

Laos - Morning Market, Plain of Jars Site I Today we visited the Phonsavan local morning market and Plain Jars, site One.

 

Mar 22

Laos - Vientiane This is our last morning in Laos.  We are in Vientiane, the capitol, which is a very busy city - however we had not left the country behind us.  During the early morning hours we heard roosters crowing repeatedly and when we looked over the fence behind our nice hotel, there was a dwelling with a flock of chickens.  Actually, we have never left chickens behind.  They run free everywhere, including the Phonsevan airport - roosters, hens, and chicks - ducks in anyplace wet enough to attract them - geese lived at our hotel in Phonsevan.  We've seen dogs, cats, cows, turkeys, pigs, water buffalo.  We visited a beautiful historic temple and That Luang, a beautiful stupa that is the Laos national emblem.
 
Mar 23

Vietnam - Hanoi We have arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam.  It is a hugely bustling, busy city. We are in the Nikko Hanoi, which is one of the nicest hotels in town, and it is a real pleasure to have a nice bathroom, Internet in our room and soft beds, after the "simple hotel stay" in Laos.  It is cooler here which is a nice break also.  Hanoi reminds us very much of Hong Kong but downscaled to a zillion little shops and a zillion motorbikes, but without the scenery and feeling of Hong Kong harbor.  They are slowly trying to set up bus routes to get the motorbikes off the roads.  The city is mostly narrow, 3-6 story buildings where the bottom is the shop with living quarters above.  As you walk by the shops people sit on small stools, eat, gossip and wait for customers.  Shops are usually open about 12 hours a day (10am-10pm).  Hanoi has a population of around 4 million.  Masses of tangled electric lines are everywhere, like they just keep stringing new electric lines until there are 50 on a pole.  It's a difficult walking city because the sidewalks are full of parked motor scooters, and the streets where you have to walk are hazardous - gutters, storm drains, projecting wire mesh bridges (to get the motorbikes up the curb to the sidewalk), not to mention traffic!  We started our visit to Hanoi with the Ho Chi Minh Memorial complex.

 

Mar 24

Vietnam - Halong Bay Today, we drove from Hanoi, through Haiphong (the famous harbor the US shelled constantly during the Vietnam conflict) to Halong Bay, which is a world heritage site.  The bay is surrounded by these large limestone karsts which come out of the bay, and in the fog and drizzle create a beautiful surrealistic image.   Halong Bay is a tourist destination for the Vietnamese in the summer, and foreign visitors in the winter.  Although the bay is beautiful, the waterfront is not that developed, more like Coney Island than Newport Beach.  Needs some work.
 
Mar 25

Vietnam - Hanoi, Museums and Water Puppets Our second day in Hanoi was spent  visiting the Temple of Literature, Vietnam's oldest university and then walking around the old quarter (lots of shopping opportunities for clothing, watches, sport bag and backpack rip-offs), having lunch, and then attending the famous Hanoi water puppet show. 

 

Mar 26

Vietnam - Hanoi Hilton Prison On our last morning we took a short 15 minute walk from our hotel to the Hoalo Prison.  This was nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by American soldiers, and it housed such people as John McCain (Senator, Arizona) and Pete Peterson (first ambassador to Vietnam) -- pilots shot down in Vietnam.  This was a prison built  by the French.  After the American War (our Vietnam War) it was mostly torn down to make way for a new hotel.  The exhibits are mainly about the treatment of Vietnamese prisoners by the French colonialists; there are only two rooms dedicated to American prisoners. The prison makes Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay look comfortable.

 

Mar 26-27

Vietnam - Dien Bien Phu, Day 1 and 2 We fly to Dien Bien Phu.  After WWII (1945), France decided to re-colonize Vietnam, notwithstanding the independence movement lead by Ho Chi Minh.  As part of the colonialization, the French set up a garrison in Dien Bein Phu, a rather remote spot in the Northwest of Vietnam, near the Laos border.  The objective was to make sure supplies didn't come into the independence movement through Laos.  The Viet Minh (North Vietnamese) decided to take down this garrison and the battle escalated to become a major confrontation.   In the end, the Viet Minh had a better handle on logistics than the French, and over a 60 day period, steadily took over the French positions.  Since the Viet Minh had to move ammunition, field artillery, and food over high mountain passes, the French just didn't believe it could be accomplished.  Soon the French had to be supplied by air drops and started to depend on the U.S. for assistance.  I'm sure the battle for Dien Bein Phu is now taught in all the military academies.  Before the battle the French bragged that no Asian ground force had defeated a European power and that this is why they would win.  Dien Bien Phu and General Giap, the military leader of the Viet Minh, proved the French wrong.
 
Mar 28 -29

Vietnam - Hoi An, My Son We travel to Hoi An, an old trading town (now a tourist destination, upscale restaurants and shopping), which is in the central part of Vietnam near My Son, Cham ruins that were part of the Champa Empire.  We visit Danang, China Beach and then take a breathtaking drive over the mountains from Danang via the strategic Hai Van Pass to Hue, on the Perfume River.
 
Mar 30-31

Vietnam - Hue Hue was the  imperial capitol of the Nguyen emperors.  It is right in the middle of Vietnam and the Imperial Citadel in the complex was taken over by the Viet Cong, who held out for a 25 day battle in the 1968 Tet Offensive, which destroyed a lot of the Forbidden Purple City.  We also see YAP (Yet Another Pagoda) but a beautiful one, and a tomb complex, 30 acres with garden, pond, and buildings, of Tu Duc, one of the Nguyen Emperors.
 
Apr 1

Vietnam - Saigon We are now in Saigon.  It's official title is Ho Chi Minh City, but because of the length of the name it's often just called HCM City or just by its old name, Saigon.  The population is close to 8 million.  After the North invaded, our tour guide told us that from 1975-1988 were the "years of darkness" (strict Stalinist rule) as people were evacuated to the countryside or fled the country, aka "boat people," until reforms ("doi moi" or "economic renovation") began in 1988.  Now Saigon has risen again and is a bustling city. In 1994 the US trade embargo was lifted.  During the "years of darkness" no individual businesses were permitted, but now, as in the rest of the country, thousands of small businesses are found on the ground floors of each building facing a street.
 
Apr 2-3

Vietnam - Cu Chi Tunnels and Cao Dai Temple Today we visited two sites: (1) Cu Chi Tunnels, near Saigon, where the Viet Cong hid in tunnels from which they launched attacks against the American forces, and (2) The Cao Dai Temple, an eclectic religion that merges Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and even a splash of Judaism into one religion.  Cao Dai has a spotted history, but throughout Vietnam you constantly spot smaller Cao Dai temples. 

 

Apr 4

 

Vietnam - Mekong Delta We go to the Mekong Delta (in Vietnam now, but historically was part of Cambodia) - a 4 hour drive from Saigon.  It is amazingly fertile - lots and lots of water, criss-crossed by canals - often able to get four rice crops per year.   They would get two rice crops per year in North Vietnam, in Cambodia they often could get only one.  Here we saw thousands of bags of rice and monster four story heaps of rice husks, which are used both for fuel and animal feed.  We stopped at a rice mill, but the pictures were really not good because of dust.  The process was quite interesting though.  It ran 24 hours a day.
 
Apr 5

Cambodia - Siem Reap, Evening After being with the Laotians, an extremely laid back and pleasant people, and then the Vietnamese, resilient, hustling, always working, we come to the Cambodians, the saddest people we have ever seen. Cambodia, once the greatest kingdom in all of Southeast Asia, gradually lost its prestige and territory since the 16th century, and then the final blow, from 1975-1979 the Pol Pot regime and the Khmer Rouge adopted the most leftist form of communism (as opposed to the pragmatists who were gaining power in Vietnam and China), moving all the people out of the cities into collective farms, abolishing money, business, denying advances in any technology and murdering intellectuals and bureaucrats in what is called "auto genocide". They soon just began to devour anybody who they felt was a traitor to the country, and that was anyone who resisted in any way.  Due to a lack of water, one, perhaps two rice crops might be grown each year.  The government decreed that there would be three - and it was not possible.  More lives lost.  In a bizarre turn of diplomatic events, much of the West backed the Pol Pot regime, thinking it would counter the Soviet bloc which supported Vietnam.  What a horror.  The leaders were "forgiven" - some still survive under "house arrest" and will never be prosecuted for their crimes.  Isolated pockets of Khmer Rouge survived until 1998 causing suffering for many years after the regime fell.

 

Apr 6, am

 

Cambodia - Angkor Wat We are in Siem Reap, near the Angkor ruins.  Angkor was the capital of the Khmer empire from the 9th - 15th centuries, a large, prosperous and sophisticated kingdom.  The Khmer empire, during its peak, dominated Southeast Asia.  There were a million inhabitants in Angkor, at the time there were maybe 30,000 people living in Paris.  Building took place over 300 years, during which time there was a religious shift from a Hindu cult of Shiva, to Vishnu, to a Mahayana Buddhism.  It was abandoned is 1432 after Thai armies successfully invaded.  The French colonial regime rediscovered Angkor, and have been principals in a painstaking study and reconstruction program that continues to this day. The Angkor complex is truly one of the world's wonders. 

We visited Angkor Wat, one of many temples, this morning.  Angkor Wat was built between 1113 and 1150 by King Suryavarman II, and is the world's largest religious monument.  It is considered to be an architectural masterpiece, containing 1,968 feet of narrative bas relief and almost carved 2,000 apsara dancers.

 

Apr 6, pm

 

Cambodia -  Angkor Thom Angkor Thom was one of the largest of all Khmer cities, and incorporated an earlier capital.  It was built by King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century, with building continued by successors.  The city walls are surrounded by a moat enclosing a square almost 2 miles on each side.  Angkor Thom probably remained the capital until the 1600's.  The state temple of Jayavarman VII is inside Angkor Thom, and is extraordinary with 37 remaining standing towers, each carved with enigmatic stone faces.  It is a unique and fascinating place.

 

Apr 7

Cambodia -  other Wats, Angkor complex Today we visit a few of the many other temples that make up the Angkor complex - Banteay Srei with its pink limestone and very detailed carvings; Srah Sang, a 900 year old purpose built royal reservoir; the modern Buddhist temple, Wat Thmei; Ta Prohm, the most romantic temple with huge trees still in place with their roots trailing over the buildings; and magnificent Preah Khan.  It is awesome to imagine the magnificence of these temples, whole and with their supporting villages and monks, at the height of their power.  Of course, commoners would not have been permitted into the temple inner sanctums, though they were given the privilege of supporting their building and maintenance, the monks, and the armies to protect them .

 

Apr 8

Cambodia - Phnom Penh

Today, Cambodia has little leadership for the country -- they all have fled or been killed.  The streets have many cripples and beggars and there are many children working at a very young age that clearly do not attend school.  The temples and the monuments are difficult to see -- you are swarmed by young children all selling the same thing, and beggars without limbs.  And yet, the most important thing for Cambodia is tourism, for that brings money into the country (all prices in Cambodia are quoted in US Dollars, and that is the accepted currency). Change is given in Riel, which is worthless, but gives the shopkeepers, hotels, etc. a little more money as everything is ipso facto rounded to the dollar. In other words, everything is $1.20 or some fraction of a dollar, but the $.80 in change is given in worthless currency so they make a little more money.  Most of the hotels & restaurants are funded by foreign investment so profits leave the country.  Angkor Wat tickets ($40 USD for a three day pass - huge for this area) and monument roads, and basic maintenance are run by a Vietnamese company, which was hired because the official previously collecting the money kept it all for himself.  The Cambodians are trying, but the sadness and pain in so many faces makes this a difficult visit.  An entire generation of educated persons is gone - teachers, engineers, city planners - and it will take a long time to build up a base of people who know how to run things.  The country is helped in large part by the NGO's, non-governmental organizations, who try to help with education and funding.
 

Apr 9-13

Thailand - Bangkok We come to a needed rest at the Marriott Resort on the banks of the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok.  It is absolutely beautiful with gardens and a lovely pool, and boat service to a nearby pier where one can take the air conditioned Skytrain, or river boats.  As  we expected for Mid-April, it was blazingly hot and humid and we simply could not be out very much.  We did visit the Jim Thompson house, a very interesting old teak house (via Skytrain); and  took the river boats to the Grand Palace complex.  On the return trip the Marriott boat greeted you with iced towels and water, oh joy!  There were many other interesting things to do, but it was just too hot to do them, so we graciously accepted that we needed to eat the Swensen's ice cream in the shopping mall next door, and spend time by the pool in its garden setting until we left for home.