After 9 weeks of travel in Europe, Indonesia and PNG I returned to one of my favorite destinations, SE Asia, for an additional two weeks, adding up to 11 countries in 80 days. I guess there is still some adventure left in this geezer.
Unlike the other trips, which were writing projects, I led the SE Asia trip for the tour operator Explorer-X. It was one of my all time best trips to the region. I will give you just a taste with photos illustrating some of the highlights.
The trip started in Hanoi with two days in the Old Quarter.
Our early morning walk to Hoan Kiem Lake for a Tai Chi lesson was the highlight for me. On the way we had a chance to observe some of the locals engaging in a daily ritual, ballroom dancing in a public square near the lake.
Two of our group, Cris and Mandy, decided to give it a whirl, to the delight of the locals.From there we headed to Tam Coc for a slow boat down the river to the luxurious Tam Coc Garden, a resort surrounded by rice fields, ponds, and karst (limestone) mountains. While the others lounged by the pool the next morning, Many and I spent a half day visiting a nearby village where a local woman showed Mandy how to make a basket.From there we headed to Lan Ha Bay, a remote section of the way too popular Halong Bay. For two days we cruised slowly and silently through the karst towers jutting out of the bay. On the way back from Lan Ha Bay to the Hanoi airport for our flight to Luang Prabang in Laos, we stopped by Nom Village and a too brief visit to the sprawling grounds and impressive structures of the Nom Pagoda. Our next stop was Luang Prabang, the clear favorite of the entire trip. I could have filled this blog with favorites from our three days in Luang Prabang, so I’ll just give you a sampling:
the lunch cruise on the Mekong that took us from the falls back to Luang Prabang; and sunset over the Mekong as viewed from the Wat Pha Badd Tai temple. Maybe the best of all was meeting the famous artist, Prince Tiao Nithakhong Somsanith, one of the last surviving members of the royal family who returned to Laos a few years ago to help restore and preserve Laotian art, music, dance and culture. His work, which includes silver and gold embroidery on leaves, is pretty impressive, but what moved me the most was a delicately seductive performance of traditional music and dance by several of his students. The hotel in Luang Prabang, the Maison Dalabua, was also a treat, with the second most beautiful grounds of the trip (Tam Coc Garden came in first). Our next stop was Siem Reap, the closest city to the site for the temples and ruins of the mighty Angkor Empire which ruled the region from the 9th through the 15th Century. Most people refer to the site as “Angkor Wat,” but that is only one of the many temples that comprise the overall site. The first set of photos are of, from or within the main temple, Angkor Wat.
My favorite stop was the Bayon, noted for the enigmatic faces carved into the stones of the towers. The following shots are from the bridge that links Angkor Wat and the Bayon. The last visit for the day was to Ta Phrom, noted for the ancient trees growing out of the walls and roots wrapping around the stones.
The next day we headed into the countryside to visit Banteay Srey. While the other Angkor sites are large, sprawling and marked by majestic structures, Banteay Srey is noted for its fine, intricate carvings. Its a very different kind of experience as the following photos demonstrate.
Despite the majesty and mystery of the Angkor sites, the highlight of our three days in Cambodia may have been the cooking class and the two meals we had in the restaurant Pou, run by one of the hottest young chefs in SE Asia, Mork Mengly. The class was great, the food we prepared was even better, and the tasting menu meal we had two days later, the farewell meal of the trip, was one of the best I’ve ever had. Almost as impressive as the meal was the young staff at the restaurant. One of Chef Mork’s goals is to provide training and career opportunities for local youth. It was clear from the warm and attentive service of the bartenders, wait staff and kitchen help, that he has succeeded.
After the trip ended, a few of us went on our own to Phnom Penh for a few days, stopping at Sambor Prei Kuk, ruins that predate the Angkor Empire by several hundred years (6th to 9th Century), Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in SE Asia, and the flooded village and forest adjoining the lake. After touring the Royal Palace, Central Market and other sites in Phnom Penh, the trip ended on a somber note at two sites memorializing the horrors of the Khmer Rouge — the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school which served as a prison and torture center before prisoners were sent to the Killing Fields to be slaughtered. The slaughtered included many children, even infants, who were killed to insure that the descendants of the executed would not seek revenge when they eventually grew up. Admittedly, this is a helluva note to finish the trip and this blog, but it is a reminder that travel is not always fun and that we are often more affected by the horrors of a civilization than by its beautiful scenery, artifacts and rituals. On a positive note, Cambodia has come a long way from its dark days under the Khmer Rouge, demonstrating once again that wonder and hope can emerge from the ashes of even the most evil history.