ANCIENT TEMPLES OF ANGKOR

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Monday March 25, 2019

We bid a sad “Leah hai!” (goodbye) to the crew of the Avalon Siem Reap on Thursday morning … walked the gangplank for the last time … and got bussed to the airport for an Angkor Air flight to Siem Reap. This thriving touristy city sits on the northern edge of Tonle Sap – a vast shallow lake (more than 150km in length) renowned for its prolific birdlife and fascinating fishing villages. But the real fascination lies out of town …

Buried deep in the surrounding jungles are the spectacular, world-famous temples of ancient Angkor – comparable only (say some archaeologists) to Egypt’s Nile Valley. The ancient city of Angkor once served as the royal centre from which a dynasty of Khmer Kings (between 802AD and 1350AD) ruled one of the largest, most prosperous and sophisticated kingdoms in the history of Southeast Asia.

In short, the ancient Angkor Empire was BIG!

They reckon there are hundreds of temple ruins scattered over this vast area. But we had chosen four of the best. And we started with the best of the best …

ANGKOR WAT is the largest and most fabulous temple of all. A fleet of motorised tuk-tuks took us there from town, and before long we were hot-and-sweaty in the unseasonable 41 degrees. (Phew!) Angkor Wat is architecturally breathtaking – a massive three-tiered pyramid more than a kilometer 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 and Buddhist mythology and the legendary wars of Suryavarman II …  

BAYON TEMPLE, second on our agenda with its Royal Enclosure, Elephants Terrace and Terrace of the Leper King, is unique for its 54 towers … decorated with over 200 huge smiling faces of the Hindu/Buddhist deity,  Avolokitesvara, facing all four corners of the compass, and designed to send a message of unity to all who came visiting.

Friday arrived, our final day of sightseeing, and two more temple-wonders were still on our must-see list:

TA PROHM, my personal favourite, has been left the way all these temples were when they were first rediscovered. Massive fig and silk-cotton trees spread from the broken ruins, towers and corridors, offering a weirdly overgrown atmosphere … which is why it is known as the ‘Jungle Temple’ and was chosen for Angelina Jolie’s blockbuster movie, ‘Tomb Raider’!

BANTEAY SREY, Robyn’s favourite, is older than the others, but in much better shape. A delicate, smaller-scale ‘Citadel of the Women’, it is truly beautiful, its deep and detailed decorations carved in glowing red sandstone.

On the way back to town, we stopped at a village that’s famous for making Khmer rice-noodles by hand – an eye-popping spectacle involving the entire family: soaking then grinding the rice to remove the liquid … pounding the gooey mush into a thick paste … squeezing that paste out through a pipe with spaghetti-sized holes at the end … then cooking the resulting noodles and eating them with fresh greens, herbs and chillies.

Yum!

During our farewell dinner that evening, superbly outfitted Apsara Dancers brought the ancient Khmer culture to life one more time for us through their music, song, and dance – leaving our heads spinning long after we’d gone to bed!

The time had come (the walrus said) to pack our bags, check out of our hotel rooms, and make tracks to the airport for our home-bound flight. Which is what we did the following morning. And by now, of course, we’re back in Godzone … wondering how on earth our 21-day Mekong Adventure went by so fast.

We’ve seen more than we can possibly remember, met some of the loveliest people on earth, learnt more than I could ever put in a blog. And we’ve all come home with squillions of photos with which we’ll probably bore you to death!

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

PEOPLE-NEWS: Two more lucky-last Quackers are going home with new owners …

  • ROB added yet another duck to his duckery: ‘I-Can’t-Remember-Where-I-Left-Her, Award’ – for sitting on his own and eating his entire breakfast without realising that his wife had been waiting for him the whole time at a different table! They’re having counselling.
  • HEATHER easily won our ‘Is-My-English-Really-That-Bad? Award’ on the last day of our cruise. At breakfast, she asked for one poached egg and got four – then, at lunch, she asked for a Heineken and got an ice-cream sundae! Oh dear!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

PS: If you want to receive future Mad Midlife TRAVEL BLOGS in your Inbox, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription!

PPS: And if you’d like to join us on one of our UPCOMING CRUISES OR TOURS, go to www.midlifemadness.tours … phone Glen (our Bookings Manager) on 0800 323 333 … or email Glen info@midlifemadness.tours.

  • We’re off to SPAIN & PORTUGAL on May 2019 …
  • cruising ALASKA & THE ROCKIES in September 2019 …
  • touring JAPAN in cherry-blossom season, March 2020 …
  • enjoying a WILD AFRICAN SAFARI in August 2020 …
  • and lots more!

MONKS, SCHOOLKIDS & OX-CARTS

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Thursday March 21, 2019

If the day we’d spent probing Cambodia’s bloody PAST had left us feeling sad (and it did) … our days since then have been filled-to-overflowing with Cambodia’s vibrant, unstoppable PRESENT. And the time’s gone by in a busy, colourful blur.              

On Tuesday, for example, we continued our idyllic upriver cruise, with the Avalon Siem Reap nosing into the steep bank at one point so the more ambitious amongst us could climb 300 steps to the temple of Wat Hanchey (leaving our more sensible friends to go by bus). After exploring this ancient religious complex (some of the brick ruins date from the 8th century, and predate even the glories of Angkor), we took part in a traditional water-blessing given by local Buddhist monks in their iconic orange robes.

After lunch we went ashore again, wandering through the rural village of Angkor Ban, viewing the humble Khmer homes and visiting a local school, where we happily sat down with the kids while they showed us their reading skills and practiced their English. Cute? Of course! And oh so hopeful … because these youngsters were talented and ambitious – proudly confiding that they wanted to be doctors or teachers or policemen or tour guides.

This was a highlight for us, without doubt, and a highlight for them – because we’d come bearing gifts (books, maps, and school stuff that we’d purchased earlier).

On Wednesday, for another example, we climbed another steep, clay bank … then scrambled up into ox-carts for a wild, hilarious ride … leaving the riverside town of Kampong Tralach, and rumbling past rice paddy-fields out into the beautiful Cambodian countryside … accompanied by much giggling and guffawing, and looking like a long trail of refugees!

Before returning to the ship, we dropped in on the silversmith village of Kampong Luong, where we watched talented locals creating stunning works of art – with the simplest of tools, and in the most basic, dirt-floor surrounds. Then (because we’re tourists, after all), we spent some of our leftover cash on silver bracelets and necklaces.

COMING UP: We bid a sad “Leah hai!” (goodbye) to the Avalon Siem Reap, and caught a local Angkor Air flight to the town of Siem Reap – surrounded by jungles that hide the world-famous temples of ancient Angkor. Wow! Some bucket-list moments still to come! So don’t go away …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like 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.) t

PHNOM PENH & THE KILLING FIELDS

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Wednesday March 20, 2019

We woke on Sunday morning to find that, during the night, we’d tied up alongside Phnom Penh’s bustling waterfront. Going ashore, we were spoiled with another cyclo tour – this time of Cambodia’s attractive riverside capital and former French city. The private quarters of the glittering golden Royal Palace are home to the current king 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.

But the next day it all got harder …

If you dig around in enough history books, you sooner-or-later discover that most countries – even the ‘nice ones’ – have their dark chapters. And on Monday, 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 un-countable, but, between 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 possess land, own a business, be educated (teachers, doctors, lawyers, accountants), or have a husband/wife/son/daughter/father/mother/brother/sister/whatever who was (rightly or wrongly) accused.

Our first confronting moment was at the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum – a converted school that became known as S-21, and was set aside for detention, interrogation, torture, forced confessions, and execution. This dark, foreboding place has been left pretty well 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 – as it was for us by one of the few survivors of S-21, who was onsite that morning and happy to talk with us. Sadly, pretty much every Cambodian we’ve met has his/her own personal horror-story … including our guide, Phany, who lost family in the ‘killing fields’.

Our second confronting moment was half an hour away – at Choeung Ek, one of more than 350 ‘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 along, 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.

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 dark chapter 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.

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

Just what we needed, I reckon …

COMING UP: We continue our cruise upriver to Wat Hanchey monastery where we get blessed by a local Buddhist monk … and Angkor Ban village where we interact with a classroom full of schoolkids. Stand by, folks – the adventure ain’t over yet!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like 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.)

CRUISING MEKONG BACKWATERS

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Tuesday March 19, 2019

The fascinating, noisy, colourful kaleidoscope called ‘everyday life’ that I’ve already mentioned has continued to enthral us – on both banks of the mighty Mekong as we’ve cruised on upriver … and ashore, as we’ve stepped off the lovely Avalon Siem Reap each day and gone exploring.

Confession: I’ve fallen a bit behind in my blog-reports – firstly, because we’ve been having too much fun, and I’ve struggled to find time to sit at my laptop … and, secondly, because the wifi on the ship has been a very on-and-off, especially in the more remote regions of the Mekong, and uploading photos has been impossible. Anyway, I’ll keep my comments brief tonight and do my best to catch up.

Okay? Okay!

On Saturday, following our scrummy breakfast, we hopped into another sampan and putt-puttered down the backwaters of the Mekong past endless shambolic-looking stilt-houses. People in this part of the world are poor (compared to the city-dwellers we’ve met throughout Vietnam, and will shortly meet in Phnom Penh). They live simply, feeding their families by fishing and farming and trading with neighbours. We trekked through the local market of Chau Loc – absorbing the sights and the atmosphere as busy locals went about buying and selling their seafood, meat, dried goods, fruit/veg and other delicacies (like rice-paddy rats). We then fought our way through crowds at a colourful religious site near Sam Mountain, honouring a local, obviously popular goddess.

Then, after lunching back on deck, we rejoined our sampan and chugged off to Long Khanh A for a home-grown demo of the village’s well-preserved tradition: cotton-weaving. On the way, we stopped at the home of a Viet Cong veteran – Sau Vien – where we added to what we’ve already learned about the Vietnam (American) War. Sau Vien, now in his 80s, was a medic in the Viet Cong’s revolutionary forces, and was badly wounded by shrapnel. (He even pulled up his shirt and showed us the ugly scars.)

Imagine his surprise when he was introduced to an American (one of several cruising with us on the Avalon Siem Reap) who is also a Vietnam vet. Jim had been a medic with U.S. forces, had spent two years in Vietnam and got wounded twice, winning two Purple Hearts. It was truly moving to see these two men, once on opposite sides of that awful conflict, with their arms around each other – friends! 

Finally, returning to the ship, we cast off for the Cambodian border – where the usual customs formalities were dealt with. All we had to do was line-up in the ship’s lounge, passports in hand, and smile nicely to local policemen.

Some of us even practiced saying “Suo s’day!” (hello) … with palms together and head bowed. Impressed? The police were – and you should be, too!  

COMING UP: We reach Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s charming capital … hitch a cyclo-ride along the busy corniche (waterfront) … and visit the glittering, golden Royal Palace plus the famous Silver Pagoda. Don’t miss this exciting next episode, whatever you do …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Two more of our famous Quacky Yellow Ducks have left the nest and taken flight …

  • SUSAN easily won our ‘Weight-Watchers One-at-a-Time-Please Award’ – for standing on the electric scales in her hotel bathroom a few days ago. There was a loud bang, the lights went off (in the scales or in the hotel? we’re not sure), and nothing worked thereafter.
  • KATHLEEN sneaked away with our ‘Shop-Lifting Award’ – after trying to walk out of a Saigon bookshop with an un-paid-for magazine glued to her forearm. She reckons it was the sticky cover, but we have our doubts. Investigations are continuing.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like 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.) t

HALONG BAY ON A CHINESE JUNK

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Thursday March 7, 2019

Yesterday morning, once we were properly up/dressed/fed/watered, we said “Tam biet!” (goodbye) to Hanoi and drove for four hours through the rich farmlands of the Red River Delta … past scenes of rice fields, rural towns and everyday Vietnamese village life … arriving in the bayside resort town of Bai Chay: gateway to beautiful Halong Bay. There, we boarded a look-alike Chinese junk and motored away for an overnight Bhaya Classic Cruise through this astonishing coastal seascape, dotted with thousands of pointy, lumpy islands (mostly uninhabited) and recognised as one of the New World’s Seven Natural Wonders.

We made ourselves at home in our comfy cabins … partook of a fresh-cooked lunch … snapped endless pix of passing islets and other junks-cum-cruise-boats, large and small, that were plying these astonishing waterways … grabbed a relaxing massage in an open-air ‘spa’ on the back deck (well, I can’t speak for the others, but I sure grabbed one!) … and enjoyed a hilarious demo of traditional Hanoi cooking.

Then, after ‘Happy Hour’, a sumptuous seafood dinner and a bit of amateur (unsuccessful) squid-fishing, we retired to our beds for the night.

Aaaah yes – magic!

This morning, bright and early, we wakey-wakeyed to some brisk tai-chi that was happening on the top deck – then up-anchored and continued cruising – going ashore on Sung Sot Island to explore some colourful limestone caves, before downing a fresh’n’healthy buffet brunch and sailing back to Halong City.

Our return-coach-trip to Hanoi was broken with two stops: the first at a pearl farm/factory/showroom where we saw how they (the oysters) do it … the second at a huge art’n’crafts workshop where many of the young people exhibiting their skills (at silk-weaving, for example) were victims of the war: landmines, Agent Orange, and worse.

It’s these kind of experiences that we’ve come here for. And, so far, Vietnam has not disappointed us …

COMING UP: We fly south on the morrow to Danang and get taxied to the charming old riverside town of Hoi An. So don’t hang up just yet … 

PEOPLE-NEWS: Our internationally-renowned Quacky Yellow Ducks are once again being awarded to Kiwis in our group who do silly, embarrassing, award-worthy things …

  • CATHERINE & GRANT shared our ‘Very Early Earlybird Award’ – for getting their wires crossed before they’d even left NZ, and almost, very nearly, going out to the airport, bags and passports in hand, the day before we were due to depart.
  • HEATHER earned herself our ‘Breaking & Entering Award’ – by standing in the hotel corridor on our first night in Hanoi, trying desperately to open the door with her plastic key-card (wait for it …) of the room next door to hers!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like 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.) fffffff