SE Asia Trip Report

We took off at 4pm from Rochester to Toronto which turned out to be perfect timing. We had an easy, quick time at the border and we’re sitting in a restaurant by the airport by a little after 7pm. Then we parked with ParkforU which is a relatively new company that has the best set up ever. You reserve ahead of time, pull up to their office, one of their friendly drivers hops into your car and drops you at the gate. It was awesome, no transferring your luggage an waiting for a shuttle, just pull up and off they go. They have our return flight details and will meet us with our car when we return.


We flew EVA Air and check in was seamless. Even airport security was fast so we were at our gate with two hours to wait before boarding. The international terminal in Toronto has been upgraded and most seats have ipads available for free. I got online and watched some TV.


The flight was very long. It is scheduled for 15 hours and 50 minutes but there were some delays with loading luggage and then de-icing and then we taxied so long I thought maybe we were driving to Taiwan. Eventually we took off and we made up most of the time once we were in the air. The food was typical airline fare and it was offered every few hours so there was no need to starve. Wine was complimentary. On board entertainment was plentiful. All in all it was as reasonable as it can be for spending 17 hours on cattle class confined to an itsy-bitsy seat.


Our next flight was just under four hours and we were finally after 24 hours of travel in Bangkok. Immigration was quick and all our luggage made it. We sued the ATM while we waited for our luggage to get some local mone. Our guide Jeed was waiting for us when we departed customs and he took us to the van where our driver Sam was waiting. The local company is Buffalo Tours. It was about a 20 minute ride to our hotel, the Hotel Salil. We got checked into the kids room and had to wait about an hour for our room to be ready but it was before check in time so we weren’t unhappy about that. I got my bathing suit on and all of us except Meg headed down to the pool for beer, food and swimming. Bryan and I took a quick walk to get some juice and snacks at a local shopWe were totally exhausted though having barely slept for over 24 hours now so we had dinner at 5pm and I was alseep by 5:45 and slept for a solid twelve hours.


The hotel is fine. Some of the common areas could be cleaner but the rooms are clean and pleasant. Breakfast is delightful and the pool area is small but comfortable with a TV playing soccer on behind the bar. The staff are all very friendly and speak reasonable English.


Our first day of sight seeing started at 8am when we met Jeed and Sam and drove to our first stop, a visit to Wat Traimit to see the 5,500 kg Golden Buddha. This Buddha s the largest in the world and it’s set in a gorgeous temple. We visited the museums on the lower levels before seeing the Buddha and found the story of the Chinese settlements in Thailand fascinating. There was also a good explanation of the history of the statue and how it was covered in cement and for a long time no one knew it was gold. Our next stop was the Grand Palace. Utterly amazing! The amount of art and architecture in a such a small area is overwhelming. There are three pagodas, one in Ceylonese style which houses relics of Buddha, one in Thai style which holds the Buddhist scriptures and one in Cambodian architectural style that serves as a pantheon to the Thai kings. There are also huge guardian statues. One of the main attractions is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha which houses a large Jade Buddha statue. Of course there are also numerous buildings for the King and family. There is a guest mansion where the Queen still lives, a coronation building, a huge reception hall and the funerary. It was an interesting time to visit as we were there within 100 days of the death of the last King and so there were many mourners waiting all day to view the King and say their farewells. Overall impression was one of awe. The intricacy of the art work on the buildings and statues was breathtaking.


The next stop was the temple Wat Pho where you can see the 46 meter reclining gold plated Buddha. From there we walked to the docs and jumped on a boat bus to cross the river where we visited another temple where the old capitol was. Then we took a delightful private boat ride on a traditional long boat. It was very narrow and literally used a truck engine for a motor powering a small propeller at the end of a long rod. The huge motor looks ridiculously out sized on the very skinny boat, literally only wide enough to seat 2 people. The boat ride was a nice way to see some of the city along the river and to enjoy a cool breeze. We had a late lunch afterwards and headed back to the hotel via the van.


General impressions of Bangkok include that it seems quite prosperous, clean and pleasant.


The next morning we packed up and checked out of the Hotel Salil at 8am. Stopped at a horrible place that exploited people and animals, took a quick look and turned around and left. We drove a couple of hours southwest for a boat ride through the some canals and a floating market. It was delightful. The canals were very narrow, as were the boats with 90 degree turns that seemed impossible to manage in these long narrow boats with long rods behind them to the prop. The houses on the canals were a mix between ramshackle and fancy but pretty much all of them was appealing as they were on this pretty canal. After about a half hour boat ride we looked around the tourist market, didn’t buy anything and then drove on to Kanchanaburi, about another one and a half hours. There were saw the museum and cemetery associated with the bridge over the River Kwae (Kwai in English). It was an upsetting visit but historically interesting. We had no idea just how awful things were during the construction of the railroad of death from Burma to Thailand. The treatment by the Japanese of the workers was horrific. I didn’t get through the exhibit without tearing up.


We saw some of the old train and walked on the tracks across the actual train bridge that the US finally destroyed as the war was ending.


Next we drove a little farther and then got on another long skinny boat powered by a humongous motor and took the 10 minute ride to the River Kwai Resotel. What delightful place. Ian immediately decided he would buy it if he could. We had one large bungalow over looking the river with a room for each of us connected by a covered porch. The showers were neatly done with creative tiling. Dinner was OK but nothing great. I took a quick swim and we played board games for a bit and got to bed early.


The next morning we were on the dock by 9 and took the boat back to the dock where our driver was waiting. It was about an hour’s drive to Erawan National Park. What a great place. Just like Stonybrrok State Park back home but in a jungle setting.


We sadly departed the River Kwai Resotel at 8:30, took the short boat ride to the parking lot dock and jumped in the van. It took about three hours to reach the fist stop at Ayutthaya. On the way we stopped at the cutest coffee shop I’ve ever been to in my life. The coffee drinks were delicious and the charming setting was wonderful. In the courtyard there were water features and plants everywhere and little fish ponds, a bamboo roof with long string like tree roots hanging down between the bamboo sticks and tied together decoratively. We had four delicious specialty coffee drinks and two ice creams for a whopping $13. Beats Starbucks every day.


Bryan and I both struggled a bit with car sickness. It was partially my fault that I was sick since I spent way too long looking down at my cell phone. It’s hard to resist the van’s onboard wifi. The kids and Bryan are totally addicted to it and will likely be begging for it back home. It worked amazingly well including streaming you tube videos. In the town of Ayutthaya we made three stops to view various parts of the ruins which were amazing and really whet our appetites for Angkor Wat. The mix of Ceylonese and Thai architectural styles was fascinating. I really enjoyed the ruins and I’m not usually a big fan of ruins. It’s possible that it was because these are just so different from the Ancient Greek and Roman ruins I’ve seen before, but I must also confess that it was not as brutally hot as it always seems to be when I visit sights with ruins and that may have improved the experience. I particularly liked the Grand Palace and the Buddha head in the tree trunk. It was discouraging to see so many tourists violating the rules against climbing on the monuments which were not patrolled to make sure people behaved. These 500-600 year old ruins deserve preservation and they also contain the ashes of past kings and their families as well as being Buddhist temples. It is disappointing that a handful of people were not more respectful.


We also had lunch at a little restaurant overlooking the river. It was the least tasty food we’ve had so far. It’s been interesting with lunch. I didn’t believe that it was included in the tour but apparently it was. Every day the guide orders an assortment of dishes for us to try. We don’t get a say, although he occasionally asks us a question or two about our preferences. It’s been a fun way to try different things and we were happy with that arrangement. Almost everywhere we went the food was terrific. Almost everywhere, the place in Ayutthaya was just mediocre. I think it got away with a lot because of it’s location overlooking the river but really the day before at Erawan National Park we ate in a hole in the wall that had the best garlic chicken I’ve ever had – we even ordered a second plate of it.


After a shorter visit then I might have liked we had to head to the airport to catch our flight to Siem Reap. It was about a two hour drive and the traffic was tough at times. Bryan and I loaded up on Dramamine and luckily he dosed a lot of the drive.


At the airport waiting for our flight to Siam Reap from Bangkok. It’s a late flight and we are a bit tired. A little sad to leave Thailand as well. The flight left late and while it’s capacity was 68 passengers there were ony about half that many on the short hop. Immigration was a bit stressful. We had our printed visas- not attached to our passports that we got from Travisa by email before we left and had printed out. We had also filled out our immigration and customs cards on the plane. One of the nerve wracking things about immigration in Cambodia and Thailand is that they really insist that you approach one at a time, even children. SO I go through first because I know the most about the paperwork so I can address any possible issues, the the kids one at a time and then Bryan so we have an adult on either side. In Cambodia the female agent who checked us through didn’t say word to us and took quite awhile staring at our douments before finally letting us through. She took forever with Bryan and I couldn’t help but worry that they had found some problem with his paperwork but eventually they let him through. We grabbed our gear and headed to customs which consisted of a guy busy on Facebook on his phone taking our customs slips without even looking at them.


We were met by our guide and driver as we came through and it was a short ride to our hotel. The kids were bowled over by the hotel. It’s got quite the grand entrance and a staircase right out of the Princess Diaries movie. The rooms are lovely too.


Add a bit about money, USD…

Also years of war and recovery from tourism and how much it has meant. Maybe a bit about sex trades that we learned about.


OK, so I’m sitting at breakfast at the Regency Angkor Hotel in Siem Reap Cambodia as I write this. The breakfast spread is incredible but I’m not feeling adventurous or even that hungry so I’m sticking to banana bread and fruit, well, ok, I might have slipped a chocolate croissant on my plate, but it was very small! Maybe after writing I’ll force down a plain egg for protein. I pretty much like carbs for breakfast but since we will spend several hours walking around Angkor Wat before lunch I will try to eat a bit more than I feel like.

Saturday we visited Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Both are incredible places. Our guide, Thea did a great job of explaining the history of both places. It was very hot and we wore out quickly but it was well worth the effort. At Angkor Thom


Add more about first two Angkor stops


Today we left the hotel by 7:15 so as to get to the first temple, the one from Tomb Raider with all the roots before it was too crowded. It was also a good idea because it was cooler. This sight was my favorite of the 4 we would eventually visit. Instead or restoring everything they left many of the large trees and roots in place which gave it a totally awesome feel. It makes it seem older and more part of the jungle and generally more exotic.


The second temple stop of the day was the one famous for the detailed carvings. It was a temple made by on of the kings for his mother and it functioned as a university in it’s day. The carvings were very impressive an they mostly depicted Hindu gods and folklore.


After the two morning temple stops we went back through town for a snack of coffee, ice cream and cake at the Blue Pumpkin. All was totally delightful, modern, clean, and with delicious cakes and homemade ice cream at prices about 30% less than in the US. Then we drove south of Siem Reap to take a boat ride on the Tonle Sap canals to the edge of the lake. The water was at a medium level so there were some floating homes that were already on the ground and many more that were still floating. We only got to see a glimpse of the flooded forest that we were told would be part of the tour and which I was looking forward to. I’m not sure why this happened, if it was just that the water level was too low for the larger boat we were in (maybe about 25 feet long and wide enough for 3 people to sit across a row and with 4 rows of seats, although the four of us and our guide were the only ones onbaord other than the driver and his little brother who gave me a decent little back rub and earned a dollar from me for it ) or if it was because a new Korea concession that charges $20 US per person now has control over that part of the river.


We enjoyed seeing life on the river. The fishermen were out with their nets and as it was a Sunday there were children playing along the recently uncovered water’s edge with kites and bikes. The one room floating homes were of various ages with nothing much more than primitive levels for typical Western standards. They all had at least a couple of hammocks strung up and many children were swinging in them. Some even had battery operated televisions with antennas on the roofs and a couple even had a solar panel or two. There were small floating schools, maybe 10×20 ft and similarly sized one Christian and one Catholic church. Many of the families living there moved to the area from Vietnam during the war and have stayed but still retain their Vietnamese culture and language including having Vietnamese schools.


After the days sightseeing we went for a delightful lunch at the Aviary Hotel. The pumpkin soup was delicious, the main course of chicken with peanut sauce and fried rice was OK and we are not big fans of the typical dessert of these parts which is sticky rice with fruit. The fruit that is in season is mango so that was offered along with some jack fruit which I like.


We arrived in Vietnam and cleared immigration and customs easily. We got our luggage quickly and went outside to meet our guide who spoke excellent English with an Australian accent since that was where his first English teacher was from. We had a slower than usual trip to our hotel since traffic was bad. Our guide grabbed a local area map and showed us a few choices for dinner and we had a little rest before heading out. We went to the furthest away place which wasn’t really a long walk at all but I was in tears a couple of times from fear while crossing the street. The restaurant was huge and packed and the food was only OK and the service was so-so but the experience was fun.


I know I’m leaving a blank here but it’s amazing how fast you forget what you did last when the days are so full and varied. We just arrived back in Saigon after an overnight in the Mekong Delta. The trip involved a two hour car ride to a branch of the Mekong River where we got on a boat, about 25 feet long with about 5 folding chairs down each side. The river was probably one hundred yards wide where we entered it and full of construction barges building a new marina/docks and many tourist boats and cargo boats of all sizes. We toured around in the boat for about an hour and then we got in a small skinny low slung canoe like boat that a woman rowed from the rear while standing to take us through the narrower shallow parts. I was fascinating to see life on the island and much of the foliage was beautiful and tropical but there was a tremendous amount of trash. It is hard not to feel guilty as a tourist at times. While we do not set the price structure for locals work the fact that the woman who rowed us for at least a half an hour, plus a half hour return trip) in the blistering heat earned fifty cents for her efforts. We tipped her a dollar. Seems like ridiculously little but that was the recommendation of our guide.


After the small boat trip we got back into the big boat and traveled down a wider canal to our lunch stop. Lunch was, as most of our prearranged meals in Vietnam were, ridiculously huge and with many courses. The special course of this lunch was the course of elephant ear fish. They serve the whole fish, eyes and all. They show you how to take some rice paper, add some noodles, veggies and some of the fish and wrap it up. Then you are on your own for the next courses. Also, this was where we learned that you better get good at eating with chopsticks as that is what is available. The fish was quite good as was everything else we were served. After lunch we had a short boat ride to our home-stay which turned out to be lovely. When we arrived there were some local musicians performing some music. We had 2 rooms close to each other with a coed bathroom down the hall. As we were the only guests that night the shared bathrooms/showers were not an inconvenience.


We took a short rest during the heat of the afternoon and then took a walk. We ended up on a bridge where a couple of kids were flying their kites. Then we had an opportunity to cook “Vietnamese pizza”, rice pancakes with sausage and vegetables over the wood fire in the kitchen. It was fun. It was followed by a fabulous dinner on the porch, probably the best food we’ve had so far. We slept pretty well after the local disco music stopped blaring from one of the local houses. There was no air conditioning but there was a fan and it did cool off a bit as the evening progressed.


The next morning we were back in the boat for a short ride to Vinh Long and then an hour and a half ride to Vinh Tran pagoda. It was interesting as it was the most active current Buddhist monastery we’d been to. It also had a huge fun smiling Buddha. A short drive ater we stopped for lunch and were served a ridiculous number of courses yet again. As our big eater wasn’t feeling well we barely dented the food which was good but not great. We then finished the drive back to Saigon and went to the War Remnants Museum which was awful. Then stoppped by the Presidential palace and then a church and the old post office. It was OK, my favorite being the Presidential Palace and the bunker underneath it. Now we’re back at our Saigon Hotel which is just OK, although the kids room is better then the first night we stayed here. We’re beat and feeling anti-social so we’re ordering room service.


It was a quick easy flight from Saigon to Da Nang and our lovely, energetic young guide Loc met us as we exited the airport. We dropped by our hotel in Hoi An, The Lantern Hotel and Chris arrived shortly thereafter. It was fun to see someone from home so far away. He joined us for a good but over priced lunch by the river and then for our walking tour of Hoi An. Hoi An is delightful, if a bit touristy. We visited traditional homes and bridges, watched a live music and dance performance describing life from before using traditional instruments which I quite enjoyed. We also had a half hour boat ride around the old port. It was refreshing with the breeze and we even got to stop and try out throwing a spin net like the locals use for fishing. We were pretty bad at it except for Chris who did pretty well.


Our guide is terrific, her English is excellent and we enjoyed talking to her very much. She had planned to drive us back to our hotel from old town but we chose to find a good coffee shop in Hoi An and hang out with Chris for awhile longer. We found a great spot and had terrific coffees and visited for awhile longer. Chris filled us in on his life in Da Nang and we were impressed with how well he has found his way. He is also working very hard on his Vietnamese and making progress. Chris got on his motor bike and left us around 7pm. We had a late dinner in the hotel restaurant.


The next morning we left at ten for our drive to Hue. The drive took us over the Hoi Van pass and it was truly spectacular if a bit scary at times. The view from the 500 meter top was breathtaking. The s turns on the highway are truly impressive. It was cool to see the train tracks below us wind through the mountainside, over old bridges and into tunnels. The tracks are courtesy of the French occupation and are very old. I am looking forward to our upcoming train ride on the old tracks.


We stopped at the peak for photos and a snack and then wound our way down. It was really a delightful ride. We arrived in Hue and were dropped at the Park View Hotel. We left our guide there until the next day and she suggested some choices of restaurants for us. We headed to Hahn restaurant and only got lost once upon the way. The restaurant was the most local place we have been on the whole trip and the food was OK. Bryan, Meg and I ate fine but Ian wasn’t thrilled with his meal. We headed back to the hotel and stopped at the Root coffee shop with pictures of Steve Jobs, Jimmy Hendricks and Che Rivera on the walls and a great “indoor” motorbike parking garage connected to it. It was the first place we saw with such a set up other wise every one just parks on the sidewalk making it impossible to walk on the sidewalk , meaning you need to walk in the streets which of course feels like you are about to be run over every second.


I headed back to the hotel and booked a hot stone massage. The massage was nice. I had never had a hot stone massage before and it was good although the stones were almost too hot at times. The masseuse also did some creative stretches which I really liked.


Today we have a walking tour of Hue.

So our tour around Hue was fabulous. We spent several hours at the Citadel, the home of the emperors for around 70 years. It was a huge complex surrounded by a moat and wall. Each layer deeper you went got you closer to the actual residence of the emperor. It was a very peaceful place and there were times where you were among just a few other tourists. There were ponds and bonsai all around and the buildings architecture felt calming. It was a place that made you want to stay. Our tour guide was full of knowledge about the place and the country and she was very willing to share her observations about life in her country. Her mother, who is retired now, spent her career as an historian restoring many of the buildings in the region so she knew more than the average guide. She literally grew up in the places.

From the citadel we went to lunch and it was another one of the ridiculous lunches with 7 courses where we ate maybe a quarter of the food offered. It was a delightful place to sit though and we enjoyed our table on the terrace by the gardens and pond. The food presentation was quite remarkable too with almost every dish presented as a work of art.


After lunch we went to the tombs of two of the emperors. The first tomb was set way up on a hill. There were over 100 steps to get to it and as with most of the royal tombs there were gates, statues of advisers, horses and elephants to help the deceased in the afterlife. Then the is a large stele with Chinese characters telling the contributions of the emperor under a gazebo. Finally you climb all the way up to the building with the tomb. In front of the tomb there is an altar. The room with the altar and the tomb and the altar and tomb themselves were covered with gorgeous elaborate ceramics. It was truly one of the most remarkable things we ever saw.


The next tomb we visited was at the summer home of the emperor buried there. It was far less elaborate but it was in a beautiful area with ponds and gardens. As with the other sites we visited in Hue there were thousands of flowers decorating things in preparation for new years. It was beautiful and peaceful there. This emperor didn’t bare any children of his own since he was sterile from having smallpox but he did adopt two of his nephews, one of whom succeeded him. He also had 103 concubines who lived with him and after his death stayed at the summer home so they could light incense for him every day.


After a very full day of sightseeing we went by the hotel to hang out until our train. While the kids hung out Bryan and I took a 15 minute walk to the grocery store to stock up for the train. It was quite a large store and had just about every thing so sort of like a Target. It was called Coop Mart. The food selections were very different from home but we managed to find cheese, crackers and peanut butter so we wouldn’t starve. We had dinner at the hotel and left for the train station about an hour and a half before out train was scheduled to leave. Our guide warned us that the train was often late, very noisy and in her opinion not an enjoyable experience and the kids were quite concerned as they don’t even like modern, on schedule train journeys. I do however and I tried to be hopeful.


The train arrived on time and we got right into our cabin. As there are four of us we take up a whole sleeper cabin and have plenty of privacy. The cabin looked ok except for the overflowing trash which eventually began leaking. The beds were hard and narrow, the train is quite loud and there were people smoking nearby us but despite this we all got a decent amount of sleep and the power outlets worked so we could all keep our entertainment devices working. The only real problem I have with the train is the filthy bathrooms. Other than that I love it. There was some nice scenery along the way and we watched locals working the rice paddies and enjoyed the countryside and mountains. The scenery would have been better but the weather was pretty socked in.


Right now we should be about an hour from Hanoi where we are supposed to take a full afternoon and evening tours but we are going to beg off on at least part of it as we are feeling tired and grungy.


Out tour guide was very understanding about our fatigue and proposed a shortened itinerary. After a couple of hours of rest and a wonderful shower we got in the van and went to our first stop the Temple of the Library, a Confucian temple from around 1100. It was quite nice and we liked the huge tombstone shaped concrete stones on concrete turtles that listed the names of the great scholars. There were over 100 of them and they are larger than I am. Then we took a quick drive past the Presidential Palace and Hoh Chi Minh’s mausoleum. We enjoyed the drive around town finding it much better than Saigon. Parts of the city have wide streets with massive trees and lovely old french style buildings.


We got back to the hotel after our short outing and Bryan and the kids went out to explore, get food and bring me back coffee. They actually found a Popeye’s Chicken and a Dunkin Donuts which was a welcome slice of home by this point in the trip.


The next morning we left for the cruise at 7:45. We’ve definitely adjusted to the time change as we are finding it harder and harder to get up on the morning. It was a 3 ½ to 4 hour drive and we stopped for about a half an hout along the way at a huge store and handicapped workshop where you could buy crafts made by the disabled. About 30 minues from our final destination we got very held up in traffic. When we finally reached the cause we saw a partially covered body under a truck in the middle of the road. The police were on hand and people had already placed incense by the body. Very sad but not uncommon with the way traffic is.


The boat was just about ready for us when we arrived at the dock and we were boarding within ten minutes. Our rooms were delightful, with plenty of space and large windows along the whole wall. There were only 16 of us on board and everyone else was from Melbourne, Australia, although they were not together. We headed off into the gorgeous scenery which is just so breathtaking. Our first stop was at a huge cave. It was quite impressive. Then we visited a Pearl Farm and were shown how that all works. It was fascinating. Meg got a new pair of earrings there. Some of our party kayaked around there but we passed as it was cold and raining and we knew we’d have a better opportunity the next day. We got back to the boat and relaxed a bit, skipped the cooking lesson and went up to the dining room at 7:15 for dinner. Dinner was amazing. As usual it was many courses but unusually there was even a tiny piece of delicious cake for dessert. After dinner Bryan and the kids went squid fishing and Ian was successful. We slept very well on our little boat (add specs) that night and I skipped the 6:30 Tai Chi on the upper deck because it was cold and rainy.


That day our group of 16 split up as there were only 6 of us that were staying for 2 nights. Everyone else went off with the big boat for their morning activities and then to be returned to the harbor but the four of us and two new friends from Melbourne got onto a much smaller boat, luckily with an enclosed, but not heated main cabin for hanging out and lunch. The plan was to go visit one of the many fishing villages in the area and then go to a cave where we could kayak and watch monkeys. All of this would eventually happen but first we had engine trouble – so we drifted for awhile while they tried to fix it and then we eventually were brought along sides another boat that pulled us to our first stop.


Apparently there are more than 3000 people living in fishing villages in Halong Bay. These villages are nothing more than homemade, fairly ramshackle house “shacks” floating near or maybe even attached to each other. The people living n them have their own culture and language. They have no schools, medical care (other than taking the patients to a Buddhist shrine they have perched on the edge of the cliff) and the women can have multiple husband if they choose. We got on a large rowboat and a local woman paddled us around to get a closer look Some of the better shacks have TVs and DVD players powered by generators but none have toilets or showers as best I could tell. Many of the residents do have cell phones though. Surprisingly many have dogs as pets which is particularly striking to me given that these dogs have no where to go to the bathroom except on the boat. Seems like a strange way for a dog to live.


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