THE GREAT TEMPLES OF ANGKOR

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Tuesday March 25, 2014

Believe it or not, we’re on our way home! We’re in transit at Singapore International Airport, waiting for a 10-hour flight to Auckland. Our grand Indochina adventure – Midlife Madness on the Mekong – is over, bar the shouting. And all I have to do now is tie up a few loose bloggy ends …

The Pandaw Cruise (I can’t speak more highly of our unique week-long experience along that legendary river!) came to an end on Saturday when we disembarked, loaded bags and bodies onto a coach, and drove for five-bumpy hours to Siem Reap. This energetic, touristy city sits on the edge of the vast, shallow Tonle Sap Lake (more than 150km long). And scattered all over the surrounding countryside are the world-famous temples of the ancient Kingdom of Angkor – home of the powerful Khmer Empire which dated from 802 to 1350AD.

After checking into the Victoria Angkor Resort, we drove to the floating village of Kompong Khleang, where people live in stilted houses rising 10-12 metres in the air, to keep them above flood levels during the monsoon season. A thriving (albeit poor) fishing community – and another set of hard-to-believe photo ops!

An early start next day gave us our first glimpse of the magnificent Angkor ancient ruins. More than 800 different temples (constructed 750 to 1200 years ago) have been dug out of the encroaching jungle thus far … and, spread over an area covering 200 square kilometres, they comprise one of the most astounding archaeological achievements in the world. In fact, only Egypt’s Nile Valley can compare.

So concentrate, please, because here comes some history …

The city of Angkor served as the royal centre from which a dynasty of Khmer kings ruled one of the largest, most prosperous and sophisticated kingdoms in the history of Southeast Asia – extending (at its peak) from the tip of the Indochinese peninsula, northward to Yunnan (in modern China) … and from Vietnam, westward to the Bay of Bengal. In short, the ancient Angkor Empire was BIG! And we Kiwis spent that day and the next (i) sweating profusely in the oven-like 37°-38° heat, and (ii) getting personally acquainted with four of those countless monuments (the biggest and best):

  •          Bayon Temple (centrepoint of the ancient city of Angkor Thom) – famous for its Royal Enclosure … the Elephants Terrace … the Terrace of the Leper King … and 54 towers decorated with over 200 smiling faces of the Hindu/Buddhist deity, Avolokitesvara.
  •          Ta Prohm (Jungle Temple) where massive fig and silk-cotton trees spread from the broken ruins, towers and corridors, offering a weirdly overgrown atmosphere (which is why it was chosen for Angelina Jolie’s blockbuster movie, ‘Tomb Raider’) – my personal favourite!
  •          Angkor Wat, the fabulous main temple in the area, listed as the Seventh Wonder of the World. Visually, architecturally and artistically breathtaking, it’s a massive three-tiered pyramid, more than a kilometre square, ringed by a huge moat, and crowned by five lotus-like towers rising 65 metres into the air. Its endless walls are smothered in beautiful apsara carvings (dancing nymphs and goddesses) and extraordinary bas-reliefs depicting stories and characters from Hindu mythology and the legendary wars of Suryavarman II …
  •          Banteay Srey, the delicate ‘Citadel of the Women’ with its deep and detailed carvings in glowing red sandstone – Robyn’s personal favourite!

Our heads were spinning yesterday, and we welcomed the afternoon off – to go tuk-tuk riding … shop-shop-shopping … enjoy a Cambodian massage … or just soak in the cool hotel pool.

Last night, heads still spinning, we sat down to our Midlife Madness Farewell Dinner and watched a classy display of traditional brightly-costumed, bendy-fingered ‘apsara’ dancing!

Anyway, that’s it. We’re done with the Mekong for now. Our heads are still spinning, and by the time you read this, we’ll be back in Godzone. We’ve seen more than we can possibly remember, met some of the loveliest people on earth, and learnt heaps. And we have squillions of photos with which we will probably bore you to death!

But that’s what travel’s all about, eh …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

 

WOULD YOU LIKE TO TOUR VIETNAM-CAMBODIA & CRUISE ON THE MEKONG PANDAW?

Have you been following this blog and viewing our pix and wishing you’d come with us? Maybe this tour is one that YOU would enjoy? Well, guess what? If enough people are keen, WE’LL DO IT AGAIN, in a couple of years’ time. Register your interest now with Roger Glynan: roger.glynan@lionworld.co.nz or phone 0800 277 477 – and be as definite as you can be, so we can plan with some certainty! You won’t regret it …

 

OX-CARTING, FISH-TRAPPING, SILK WEAVING

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Friday March 21, 2014

Last time we spoke, I talked about the sad afternoon we’d spent probing Cambodia’s bloody past. (Hope that didn’t depress you too much?) But don’t worry – our days since then have been filled-to-overflowing with Cambodia’s vibrant, unstoppable PRESENT. And you’re gonna have to forgive me for getting a bit behind, but the time’s gone by in a busy, colourful blur.

On Wednesday, for example, we found ourselves climbing up a steep, clay bank … then climbing up onto ox-carts for a wild, hilarious ride through the riverside town of Kampong Tralach and into the countryside, to a pagoda that dates back to last century. The bespectacled head monk was on hand to give us all a cheerful, generous blessing – then it was back on the ox-carts, with much giggling and guffawing, for the return trip to our boat. (Someone reckoned we looked like a file of refugees!)

Unforgettable fun? You bet! And the hordes of happy kids who jogged alongside us the entire way (insisting that we accept their little gifts of platted flowers, rings and ornaments) only added to it!

Wednesday afternoon saw us taking a side-trip up the Tonle River and enjoying a small-boat excursion through the floating village of Kampong Chhnang. Our eyes were popping, I tell you, and our cameras were running hot as we tried to capture the endlessly fascinating sights.

Thursday began with us all leaning over the rails, watching young men give their healthy white oxen a loving bath in the Mekong – then we were off on foot for a visit to the dusty town of Preak Bankang (they’ve had no rain since November!) where we watched a traditional silk-weaving demo and spotted a huge, reclining Buddha … before dropping in on a classroom full of six-year-olds at the local school.

Cute? Of course they were!

Then, after lunching, casting-off, and motoring for a bit, we enjoyed another wander – this time through the equally dusty Angkor Ban Village, where we ogled a large, impressive monastery (this one with a giant, seated Buddha) … and dropped in on another classroom, full this time with older kids, eager to sit us down and show us their reading skills and practice their English.

Cute again? Of course! And oh so hopeful … because these kids were so talented and ambitious. Out of the six or seven I had around me, three wanted to be doctors, two teachers, and the rest tour guides!

Today we woke (surprise, surprise) to rain – real driving rain, accompanied by crashing thunder and fork lightning! Very exciting! Sightseeing was canned, and instead we cruised on through the downpour to Kampong Cham (the provincial capital, boasting fine French villas) – where, under drier skies, we travelled by bus to the eco-village of Cheungkok, took-in another impressive shrine (this one with a tall, standing Buddha), and were entertained by another bunch of very cute kids singing, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands …”

Anyway, enough words. I’m gonna sign-off and let our photos speak for themselves …

WOULD YOU LIKE TO TOUR VIETNAM-CAMBODIA & CRUISE ON THE MEKONG PANDAW?

Have you been following this blog and viewing our pix and wishing you’d come with us? Maybe this tour is one that YOU would enjoy? Well, guess what? If enough people are keen, WE’LL DO IT AGAIN, in a couple of years’ time. Register your interest now with Roger Glynan: roger.glynan@lionworld.co.nz or phone 0800 277 477 – and be as definite as you can be, so we can plan with some certainty! You won’t regret it …

 

PEOPLE NEWS: Someone else has put their hand up for a Yellow Quacky Duck … and there’s plenty of time for more:

  •          The ‘Stolen Silverware Award’ went to Geoff – who lost his cutlery at dinner the other night. Geoff, who had already eaten, went to the buffet table for seconds and came back with a plateful – but there was no sign of his utensils. “Someone stole my knife and fork,” announced Geoff. He located another set, and resumed eating – only to find the missing cutlery buried under food on his overloaded plate. Hope the diet’s working, Geoff?

TOMORROW: We bid a sad “Leah hai!” (goodbye) to the crew of the Mekong Pandaw and disembark. But it ain’t over yet, folks, because we’ve got lots more exploring to do. Buried deep in the jungles around the town of Siem Reap is the world-famous temple of Angkor Wat – and that’s where we’re headed! So fasten your seatbelts…

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief. And if you want to receive future blogs hot-off-the-press in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription!

PHNOM PENH & THE KILLING FIELDS

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Tuesday March 18, 2014

If you dig around in enough history books, you sooner-or-later discover that every country – even the ‘nice ones’ – have their dark chapters. And today, with some reluctance, we got powerfully and emotionally acquainted with what must be Cambodia’s darkest, awfullest, most stomach-churning chapter of all. The death-toll was finally uncountable, but, between the years of 1975 and 1979, some THREE MILLION Cambodians (suspected ‘capitalist enemies’ and their families) were driven out of their cities and towns into the countryside where they were ‘re-educated’, worked to death, senselessly starved, and brutally murdered. If we didn’t know already, we know now about Pol Pot (the country’s renegade Mao-inspired ex-prime minister) … the Khmer Rouge (his rebel ‘red army’, most of them poor, brainwashed, rural teenagers) … and the Killing Fields where thousands of ‘worst offenders’ lost their lives under extreme torture. Their only crimes? Having the misfortune to be educated (teachers, doctors, lawyers, accountants), possess land, own a business, or have a husband/wife/son/daughter/father/mother/brother/sister/whatever who was (rightly or wrongly) accused.

Our sweet Cambodian guide kept calling this period “the terrible time” … and it wasn’t hard to see why.

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We woke today to find that, during the night, we’d dropped anchor in the mainstream off Phnom Penh’s bustling waterfront. Going ashore, we were spoiled with another cyclo tour – this time of Cambodia’s attractive (albeit, in parts, shabby) riverside capital and former French city. The private quarters of the glittering golden Royal Palace are home to King Sihanouk and his family and, therefore, closed to the public. We did, however, visit the famous Silver Pagoda (the floor-tiles are solid silver). It’s the most sacred temple in the country – which probably explains why it was spared destruction by the Khmer Rouge. We also got to poke around in the National Museum, with its outstanding displays of Khmer crafts.

Then, this afternoon, we were bussed to Choeung Ek, one of the country’s 350-plus ‘killing fields’ (more were found just recently) – where the murderous Khmer Rouge buried their victims in shallow mass-graves. It was hard to reconcile this dusty, peaceful patch of tree-covered land with the bloody events that took place here in the 70s … but the stories we heard, the simple wooden signs that marked the still-open excavations (like: “Mass grave of more than 100 victims, children and women, whose majority were naked”), and the fragments of bone and clothing that continue to surface on the paths we walked on, made this stark tragedy something we’ll not easily forget.

And, then there was the finale: a towering glassed-in memorial, stacked high with human skulls.

From there we drove back into the city for one more reminder of Cambodia’s painful, oh-so-recent past: the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum – a converted school that became known as S-21, and was set aside for detention, interrogation, insane torture, forced confessions, and execution. This dark, foreboding place has been left pretty as it was when the defeated Khmer Rouge took to their heels – and the fading black-and-white photos that cover the walls (in one still barbed-wired block) left us all feeling sick and sad.

Three million dead! You can’t get your head around such an awful number. But you start to understand when it’s broken down, when those victims are seen as individuals-with-names, when the whole thing’s made personal. And pretty much every Cambodian we’ve met has his/her own personal horror-story … including our guide, Phaly, who was force-marched with her family into the jungle for three tough years in a labour camp; she discovered later that her older brother had died in the ‘killing fields’.

We finished the day with lots of “why?” questions. We kept returning to the subject again and again. And we learned lots more details than I have room for in this blog. (Ask us when we get home, and we’ll bore you to tears!) But out of respect for the gentle, soft-spoken, welcoming Cambodians we’ve come to know and love on this truly wonderful trip … the happy, smiling, hopeful Cambodians who have moved on from this ‘terrible time’ and are working hard to give their country and it’s beautiful children a bright new future … I’ve chosen to include no ‘killing fields’ photos in this blog.

Tonight, after dinner, a talented group of youngsters from a nearby orphanage came aboard our boat and entertained us with Cambodian song and dance and acrobatics. They were simply delightful, a breath of fresh-air, and lots of fun.

Just what we needed, I reckon …

TOMORROW: Our upriver cruise on the mighty Mekong continues … with a rural feast of fish trapping, silk weaving, wats, monasteries and schools. (Oh, plus a wild ox-cart ride … giddy-up!) Lots more good stuff to come, folks, so hang around …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief. And if you want to receive future blogs hot-off-the-press in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription!

CAI BE … SA DEC … CHAU DOC

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Monday March 17, 2014

When I last signed off, we were (you’ll recall) sitting down to a scrumptious lunchious aboard the pamper-me-rotten Mekong Pandaw. Our much anticipated Mekong Cruise was actually under way … and we dropped anchor sometime that afternoon near the township of Cai Be.

Have you ever been to a sports event, a stage performance, a visual spectacular where so much is happening that you don’t know where to look? Well, that’s what it’s like here in the riverside towns and villages we’ve been visiting on the oh-so-photogenic Mekong. This fascinating, noisy, colourful kaleidoscope called ‘everyday life’ is happening all around you, and you honestly don’t know where to point your camera!

Take the past two days, for example:

On Sunday, having slept like babes in our beautifully appointed cabins, the ever-flowing waters lapping gently at the sides of the boat, we woke/showered/broke-our-fast, then switched from the Mekong Pandaw (which stayed out in the deeper main channel) to a small local boat and put-put-puttered up a tributary to the busy Cai Be floating market – where locals trade fresh fruit and veg from the decks of their houseboats. Each boat seems to be selling something different, with samples tied up on the mast so ‘shoppers’ can see before they buy.

Then we went ashore and checked out a factory making rice-paper and sugar-cane candy … sampled some ‘snake-wine’ (actually rice-whisky with real pickled snakes floating in the bottle – supposedly an aphrodisiac!) … watched hard-working locals make ‘popping rice’ (a bit like popcorn, which they combine with honey and sugar to make popular sweet-cakes) … and witnessed some expert snake-charming by yours truly with a hefty python.

We returned to the ship for up-anchor – followed by a gourmet lunch – followed by another small-boat visit along another small canal to the town of Sa Dec, and a visit to a huge brick-making factory. More fascinating fodder for our cameras!

Robin Williams featured in ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ after dinner that night in the ship’s comfortable little movie theatre, while the Mekong Pandaw continued its steady upriver cruise. And we woke this morning in the larger French-style town of Chau Doc.

Another floating market awaited us … plus a floating catfish-farm (there are hundreds of them in this region, ramshackle houseboats with huge bamboo vats suspended under the floorboards, crammed with healthy, hungry, hand-fed catfish) … plus a Cham tribal village (a Muslim minority who’ve made their home on a small island).

We arrived at the Vietnamese-Cambodian border this avo (there was a cooking show and a watermelon-carving demo up on the sundeck while the crew dealt with the customs-formalities). And tonight’s movie (appropriately) was ‘The Killing Fields’

But enough words. You’ll get a better feel for all this from the photos Robyn and I have been taking …

PEOPLE NEWS: We’ve been too busy to nominate folk for our Yellow Quacky Duck Awards … but one does deserve a mention:

  • The ‘Foot-Loose Award’ went to Jackie – but, first, a little background. Each morning or afternoon, when we return to the Mekong Pandaw after sightseeing ashore, the friendly welcoming crew (can you believe this?) take our stinky, dusty shoes/sandals/jandals, clean them for us, and return them to our cabins. Jackie, when handing her shoes in the other day, gave the crew someone else’s cabin number by mistake. Hoping for an upgrade, Jackie?

TOMORROW: We’re in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s riverside capital and former French city – and centre of the Khmer Rouge and their 1970s reign of terror. You won’t want to miss this …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief. And if you want to receive future blogs hot-off-the-press in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription!

SAIGON & THE AMERICAN WAR

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Saturday March 15, 2014

We flew back into the madness and mayhem on Thursday – from the peace’n’quiet of Hoi Ann to the energetic, well-ordered chaos of Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as it’s still called by many locals). A mere 10 million people riding 5 million motorbikes (according to the stats) – and I reckon they ALL hit the road whenever we went driving!

You know the feeling you get on NZ roads when a big bunch of motorcyclists overtake you? Well, multiply that feeling by at least several thousand – and repeat it at every intersection – and you’ll start to get close to what it’s like in this bursting-at-the-seams Asian metropolis. Imagine torrents of helmet-clad bikers (often mum, dad and the kids) whizzing around you, behind you, in front of you, straight for you, and (seemingly) underneath you! Frankly, it’s wonderful! Don’t ask me what the road-rules are (survival of the fittest?), but the system (or lack of it) works amazingly well … and driving through Auckland just doesn’t compare.

Last night and the night before, we Kiwis bunked down in the glorious Hotel Majestic Saigon – the city’s second oldest hotel, oozing with olde-worlde charm. And, on that first night, we enjoyed a Bonsai Dinner Cruise along the city’s glittering waterfront (with live culture song’n’dance) before crawling between the sheets for some zzzz. Then yesterday morning, after weetbix and toast, we motored out through the rush-hour crush (then, later, past endless rubber-plantations) for yet another unforgettable Indochina experience: the remarkable Cu Chi Tunnels.

This 250km-long network of narrow underground bunkers and passageways was used by the communist forces (Viet Cong) to supply their soldiers in the south and pursue the long struggle for independence that they remember as the ‘American War’. If you’re feeling brave, you can even try some tunnel-crawling yourself – and several of us Mad Midlifers got down-and-dirty doing just that!

Then, after a rural lunch (humble surroundings, yummy food), we headed back into the city for a sobering, disturbing, discussion-provoking hour at Saigon’s huge War Remnants Museum. This scandalous chapter in military history cost 58,000 American GIs their lives … and left 3.5 million Vietnamese dead: most of them simple peasant farmers (along with their women and children) who understood little or nothing of the grand political theories being outworked here in this bombed-to-bits land.

Mixed feelings? For sure! I think we all had them yesterday … big time!

A new day, fortunately, has dawned for the resilient, forgiving Vietnamese. And, this morning, a new day dawned for us – with another countryside drive through lush delta-flats and lime-green paddyfields to the small town of My Tho. Awaiting our arrival was the truly lovely RV Mekong Pandaw – our luxury floating hotel for the next week. And, once we’d been welcomed on the sundeck, we unpacked in our teak-and-brass cabins and sat down to a scrumptious lunchious.

“There are few tapestries of river life as fascinating and varied as the Mekong River,” said one travel-website. And ahead of us, I gather, is a striking cultural contrast: the endlessly active Mekong Delta (the ‘ricebowl’ of Vietnam) vs. the tranquillity of Cambodia.

Oh boy, this is what we’ve been waiting for. Let the pampering begin!

TOMORROW: We cruise through stunning evergreen islands … visit a floating market and a rice-paper factory … and ride a sampan to the town of Sa Dec, the ‘little Venice of Asia’. So don’t, whatever you do, change channels …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief. And if you want to receive future blogs hot-off-the-press in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription!