Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Long and the Short

Friday, October 31, 2008

We were up early so we could get to the Phnom Penh airport by 8:15, two hours before take-off. Check-in was quick and painless and we had a lot of time to kill before boarding started around 9:30. We took off on time and landed a bit early, arriving in Singapore just before 1 o’clock. Jon and his family were about six rows ahead of us so we couldn’t see couldn’t see the children. On the other hand, they traveled well so we didn’t hear them, either.

As a group, we were the last ones out of the jetway and stayed together until we had to go through immigration and they had to start out for their new gate and snacks for The Boys. [We had been served lunch on the plane but nothing which would have appealed to the kids] So it was off to Burger King for them as we made our way to Baggage Claim and the rest of the bureaucratic dance. We arrived at the Marriott around 1:45.

Once the bags had been delivered to the room, we headed to "our" Starbucks for a drink and an e-mail session. The drinks were refreshing and the e-mail was dull. Back in the room, MA rested while D repacked the luggage so we would be ready in the morning. We were still tired from all of the walking we did in Cambodia and decided to have an early dinner at the hotel.
The trip, the journal and the blog are almost over.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

And so begins The Longest Day.

We stayed in this morning, skipping our last chance to visit the Paragon Starbucks. We almost expected a phone call from the staff inquiring about our health. We did the last minute toiletry packing and were ready to go around 10. The Front Desk called when we didn’t show up at 9:30, the time we had estimated we would check out. Our plane was scheduled for a 1:10 departure and we weren’t in any hurry. By 10:30, we were checked out and in the maxi-cab, a minivan large enough to hold all of our luggage. The Vanderbilts were returning to Newport. Or Newark.

The only day got off depressing note, though. When we turned on the cell phone, there was a text message from MA’s sister alerting her to the death of her next oldest sibling. It was not unexpected; she had been battling cancer for five years and recently began a rapid deterioration which brought a great deal of pain and suffering. Her children were with her, apparently, and two brothers-in-law had come to visit as well. We were saddened but also a bit relieved for her that the pain was over.

The trip home continued apace. When we got to the Singapore airport, we found our way to the EVA counter where we were redirected to the Business Class check-in area. We were able to sit comfortably while someone else schlepped our bags to be tagged. [It didn’t appear that the bags were actually weighed, but we were allowed three bags per person of 70 pounds and the staff didn’t seem too concerned about our motley assortment of five mismatched pieces.] After receiving our boarding passes and Lounge passes for both legs of the journey, we went through passport control and turned in our departure cards at the same time our passports were stamped.

We followed the directions we had been given and found the Business Class lounge. It was almost deserted and was very quiet after our week with The Boys. We got pastries and coffee/tea before checking our e-mail on the EVA computers. We thought we might have gotten a message from Jon or Emily, but the only message was from MA’s sister saying she had texted us the news about her sister. We had some Singapore dollars left over [how did that happen?], so D went shopping. He returned to the lounge with the latest Jeffrey Archer novel and $61 USD from exchanging the SGD.

Soon thereafter it was time to board the plane. As we sat in the boarding area, MA was paged to confirm her wheelchair for Taipei and Newark. She didn’t need it in Singapore because there were no steps and no long walks. We were first to board and settled in. The plane was an Airbus with multiple seat positions available including most-flat for sleeping. The flight crew was great and the ride mostly smooth although there was some rock-and-roll.

We arrived in Taipei around 5:45 after flying 4-1/2 hours. By the time we deplaned, it was almost 5:55 and our next flight was set to leave at 7 o’clock. We were met by a succession of wheel chair pushers [let’s call the "wheelies"] who raced to the Lounge where we really had only about 20 minutes to relax before starting for the next gate. The wheelie was there right on time and we retraced our steps [okay, no steps, just elevators] and then descended one more level [and one more elevator] to the boarding area. We were whisked right through and, again, were first to board. We were grateful for the very short layover, especially after last year’s eight hours in Narita. If not for the wheelie, we never would have had time to visit the Lounge; in fact, we probably would not have found it. Taipei’s airport is very large and there was a lot of walking involved in getting from the plane to the terminal proper.

This part of the trip is supposed to take 14 hours, about the same time as the flight from Tokyo/Narita to Atlanta last year. We pulled back just after 7, pretty much on time. One of the advantages of the flight this year is that there is a 12 hour difference between Cambodia & Singapore and the East coast. There is no need to reset our watches [except for the date function]. Still, it will be almost 9:00 p.m. when we touch down in Newark. By the time we get our bags; clear Customs and Immigration; recheck the bags and find our way to the Sheraton [at EVA’s expense], it will be after 10 p.m. Luckily, Daylight Savings Time ends tonight, so we get an extra hour of sleep. We will still be up early to catch our flight from Newark to West Palm, but every extra minute helps.

In deference to Jon, there has been no mention of food so far, but he knows from his travels that when you fly long distances over large bodies of water, you tend to eat your way from point to point. Today was no exception. Of course, we snacked in Singapore before boarding, but that was really our breakfast. Then there was the lunch served as soon as we were at cruising altitude. There were drinks for the asking all the way to Taipei. Even before we departed for Newark, there were drinks in Business Class. Then there was another four-course meal. There will be more food before we descend over the Garden State, a breakfast of sorts for the biorhythmically challenged. Continental should feed us, too, since we are taking off at 9:00 in the morning. This travel business is even more fattening than cruising. At least on shipboard and field trips we walked a lot; here, there is nowhere to go.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The longest day was followed by the shortest night. We had little enough time to sleep, even with the extra hour, but we both slept badly. Maybe it was the stress of travelling or of being almost home. We were up at six and checked out by seven. The airport shuttle took us right to the Continental entrance in Newark’s Terminal C, so we got our boarding passes and went to Starbucks [where else?] for scones and drinks. We got to our gate just as first Class boarding was ending and walked right onto the plane. The flight was uneventful and we landed exactly on time.

Since the folks in the front of the plane were allowed to deplane first, we were among the earliest arrivals at the baggage carousel. We waited for our bags and Dominique, our driver, to appear. We decided that if only one showed up, we hoped it was the luggage. Of course, Dominique found us easily, but he had a sign with our names in case we forgot what he looked like or vice versa. On the other hand, the suitcases never raced around the magic belt. When all the luggage had been claimed and the belt was no longer moving, one of the employees told us to go to the Baggage Claim office. As soon as D walked in, he saw all five of the bags lined up and waiting for him. The bags were loaded on a cart, Dominique drove like the wind and we were home, sweet home.


We love the smell of exhaust fumes in the tuk-tuk.

Sunshine is directly proportional to heat and humidity.

Corollary: clouds are our friends.

There is nothing like an ice-cold towel on a hot day.

Coca Cola is the drink of the gods.

It will be a while before we eat rice or noodles.

Private tours are the way to see a country and its people.

Being the only foreigner in a restaurant is a good thing.

There are seven more Mr. Otas stacked inside the one we met.

Water is really the giver of life; our most interesting tours involved cities on rivers.

Buddha loves me, this I know. Little ones to him are fed, first the feet and then the head.

Caiden looks just like the smiling Buddha.

D’s wall of masks may, just may, finally be complete.

Or maybe not.

Being in the U.S. means no more bottled water in the hotel room.

Unpacking is never as much fun as packing.

Dirty laundry multiplies in a locked suitcase.

The places with the most beautiful sights have some of the worst poverty.

A full answering machine is the only way to stop political phone calls.

Every country except the US has some version of the tuk-tuk.

On the other hand, there was the Gremlin.

Dorothy Gale was right. There’s no place like home, Toto.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Charm City, Cambodia

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Today is the King’s birthday, another national holiday, and we are not sure if the Royal palace will be open for visitors. Everyone has an answer when we ask and none of the answers match.

We began our day by walking to the National Museum which was open. It houses a collection of antiquities dating back to the Eighth Century. Almost half of the displays are of Buddhist mythological figures including Buddha and Siva. Although they span one thousand years, they are remarkably consistent. There were standing and sitting figures, busts and Naga [the snake that shows up on bridges]. As they items got closer to modern times, there was more metalwork and tools, both agricultural and military; later displays included 18th Century teapots. We were only here for about a half-hour because of the heat, humidity and attention span of children and adults alike.

One of the highlights of the visit was lavender sticks. Lavender flowers had been skewered on wooden sticks and were offered by staff members as we walked through the exhibits. We were supposed to take the offering and place it in a receptacle in front of a Buddha. The hope was that we would also make a donation in the conveniently place box. We did the former but not the latter except for Caiden. He liked his flowers so much that the attendant indicated that he could keep them and they kept him busy and quiet for a long time.

We picked up tuk-tuks when we left. One of today’s drivers was the guide who took us around yesterday, so we knew he was reliable and spoke well. We went to the Russian Market which isn’t Russian anymore. It was like all of the other markets we have visited except it had wider aisles in spots. It had the usual conglomeration of goods for sale. MA and Briton both bought some Cambodian silk and Jon bought pirated copies of The Wire which are not available in Jakarta. Caiden slept through most of the shopping having fallen sound asleep again in the tuk-tuk. We wandered through the market past the fresh fruits and veggies and the proteins – chickens, fish, prawns, unidentifiable things – before exiting to find our tuk-tuks waiting for us.

Although it was early, we decided to eat and Danny, the lead driver, took us to a hole-in-the-wall near the FCC where we had eaten yesterday. The food was good [more curry and rice except for Jon’s Italian cold cut sub] but the exhaust fumes and street noise detracted from the experience. There was a brief rain “event”, as the TV guys say, while we ate, but it was done before we were. By the time we were ready to leave, a small tour bus had emptied out 10 or 12 tourists who piled into the restaurant. Then it was back to the hotel to rest before tackling the Royal Palace one last time.

It was worth the wait. The Thais and Cambodians are historically and culturally linked but not necessarily pleased about it. There have been conflicts for generations and political chicanery for decades. Indeed, Siem Reap is named in part for Siam [Siem]. Even without knowing of the historical ties, it is hard to miss the similarities in the two countries’ traditional architecture. The Thai temples and chedi are more rounded but still taper in layers as they climb skyward. The traditional roofs of the buildings are almost identical and the use of red and gold is common to both.

As a result, Phnom Penh is, or could be, a charming city. There is much French-inspired architecture, especially the use of wrought iron on balconies. There are many large, well-used parks filled with sculptures and fountains. And there are all of those buildings, some old and some new, resplendent in their bright colors. Many of these are newer structures built on the old model and used to house government agencies [such as the Ministry for Cults and Religion and the Council of Ministers, two which are near both our hotel and the Palace]. The poverty evident in many areas of the city detracts from its appeal, but Cambodia is a poor country and people crowd in from the agricultural areas looking for a better life which many don't find.

The palace grounds cover an area probably in excess of 10 acres; it’s just a guess. We walked around the perimeter yesterday so we have an idea of its size. The buildings are mostly in the “old” style with red tile roofs, uplifted corners and ornaments resembling stylized cranes at the end of the roof peaks. Of course everything is done in red and gold. The most amazing of the buildings is the formal reception hall. No pictures are allowed inside, or even through the windows, but the blaze of gold would obliterate any pictures anyway. Gold furniture and fixtures; gold columns, and Oriental rugs fill this enormous room. It almost resembles a Greek temple with flights of steps leading to a portico. Here, there are chairs so one can sit while removing one’s shoes for no one is allowed to wear them inside. There are “watchers” at all of the entrances and windows to be sure that visitors obey the rules. It is, in its own way, as beautiful as any of the temples we saw in Bangkok.

Another building of note is the Silver Temple [?]. This contains some displays like those in the National Museum – bowls, implements, etc. –but the piece de resistance is the collection of Buddha statues in all sizes and materials. The centerpiece is a green standing Buddha which may be jade [there was no explanatory material]. There must have been close to 500 Buddhas in this room, maybe more. It was a little overwhelming.

The grounds themselves are well maintained and beautiful. We wanted to stroll in the gardens before returning to the Himawari, but by 4 o’clock the gardens had been closed even though the buildings stayed open until 5:00 p.m. We walked back to the hotel glad for the chance to see the Palace complex and equally glad that we had avoided rain once again.

For dinner, we tuk-tuked to a Mediterranean restaurant that Briton had found and had shwarmas and appetizers [hummus, samosas, etc]. There was only one other table occupied and we laughed because the other couple had a three-month-old with them. At both tables, the parents alternated walking and eating. We tuk-tuked home and were packed for tomorrow’s departure by 8:30.

And so to bed.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Wat's Up, Siem Reap

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Once again, we had a lazy morning. While MA showered and dressed, D went to Starbucks again for coffee and the internet. For better or worse, there was nothing really new for either of us. D also posted the latest entry in the blog. Once back in the room, he made last minute adjustments in the luggage. We have distilled our clothes for the next week to one suitcase so we can use the so-called “rolling carry-on” as checked luggage since it is twice the weight allegedly allowed by Silkair. At 15+ kilos, it would have been difficult to get in and out of the overhead bins anyway.

At 11 a.m., we called for a porter to fetch the baggage and then checked out. The porter brought our bags to the front and loaded them into a taxi, then rolled the ones we were not taking to Cambodia to the concierge area where, we hope, they will be held until our return in a week. The taxi whisked us to Changi airport without incident; the ride gave us another opportunity to marvel at the beauty of Singapore. We decided that it must be a city planner’s or architect’s dream location.

We checked our bags and cleared passport control on our way to the gate. The Singapore airport, or at least Terminal 2, reflects the city – beautifully designed, extraordinarily clean and bright, and filled with high-end retail stores. What other airport houses a Ferragamo store? We got directions to the free wireless area and sent an e-mail telling Jon where we were; he said it would turn up as a text message on his phone. It didn’t. Next, there was the text message directly to his phone, but, of course, it was to the wrong phone. Finally there was the text message to the right phone. Nada. He never received any of the messages.

By this time, it was 12:15 or so. We hadn’t had breakfast and were hungry, so we got pizza and Cokes and waited. And waited…..MA got tired of waiting and went looking for the family. She found them not 100 yards from where we had been waiting, playing in the “kids’ zone” nearby. She sent Jon to find D and we returned only to have Carter come running up yelling, Grandpa!” No more Peepah, just ordinary Grandpa. We talked and played with the kids until 1:45 when we could, in theory, board the plane for our 2:45 departure. In fact, we had to clear security at our gate [not a cattle call as in most other airports] and then fill out paper work for entrance into Cambodia.

We had hardly made a dent in the forms when the plane started boarding. This was good because there was no stampede but bad because we had that much more time on the non-moving plane. Caiden was especially vocal in his displeasure. The plane was full but left on time and we were fairly comfortable in an exit row for the two hour flight. We set down amid rice paddies, a reminder that we were not visiting a large metropolitan area.

The heat was stifling when we exited the plane. Siem Reap has a one-story terminal and we had to walk down steps to the tarmac and then wait for The Boys paraphernalia [strollers, backpack] to be unloaded. As a result, we were at the end of the line when we entered the building. A helpful staffer took pity on our group of six and walked us around the immigration/passport lines. Once we were in the lobby of the terminal, he collected our passports and $20USD for each of us and disappeared to take care of the entry visas. Jon and D collected the luggage while we waited for the official’s return. He reappeared in short order, distributed the passports and pocketed the “tip” [read: bribe] Jon handed him. We then left the terminal and found the driver from our hotel.

The ride to our hotel showed both the opulence of expensive resort properties and the poverty of many of the locals. There were road-side food stalls as there have been in several other countries; cattle grazing at the roadside; motorcycles and bicycles. The Casa Angkor is in the city proper but has the look and feel of colonial times. It is a sprawling 4-story complex with a relatively open first floor housing the front desk and a deserted restaurant. In this, it is like the Villa Lumbung in Bali where we stayed with the kids last year. It is a modest establishment when compared to others; indeed, we can see the back and elaborate swimming pool of the larger neighboring resort. The biggest problem when we checked in was that the air conditioning was not working in either suite [yes, suite – bedroom and living room for $100 per night, breakfast included]. Jon called and eventually both units in both rooms were running full blast.

Aside: An interesting peculiarity of most of the Asian hotels we’ve stayed in is that the electricity to lights and outlets is activated by inserting the room key card into a receptacle by the entry door. We discovered this the hard way in Japan last year. It held true in Bangkok and Singapore on this trip as well as here in Siem Reap. This system saves electricity and money, but it means that the A/C turns off when the key is removed. We solved the problem by removing the traditional metal key from its holder so we could go to dinner, take the key but leave the A/C turned on. Jon says that a credit card or even a business card will often activate the system.

We went to dinner around 6:30, Jon and Briton making the decision on our destination. When we inquired at the front desk, we were told that the best, perhaps only, way to get to the restaurant was to use the local version of the tuk-tuk [tewk-tewk]. We had seen tuk-tuks in Bangkok and a cousin, the bajai, in Jakarta. They are three-wheeled motorized vehicles which provide cheap transportation for two or three people. In Jakarta, they seemed to be powered by lawn motor engines. In Bangkok, they were more substantial. In Siem Reap, they are two-wheeled passenger compartments pulled by a motorcycle. For two dollars USD, the drivers would take us to the restaurant. We needed two tuk-tuks because there were six of us counting Caiden. The drivers not only took us, they returned in an hour to retrieve us. Tuk-tuks are as thick as New York taxis.

Dinner was good [pan-Asian], but Jon says there is too much space spent on describing meals and Cokes, so we’ll skip it tonight. And the whole Coca Cola thing has become a joke to us and, we hope, a running gag in the blog. We tuk-tuked home and said goodnight. We have to be up early tomorrow for our first day at Angkor Wat. We are praying for cooler, drier weather.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

We were up early today so we could be ready to meet our guide at 8:00 a.m. Jon has engaged this guide for two days. Like all tourist guides in Cambodia, he is licensed by the state, so he should know what he is talking about. In fact, once we met him, we found him to be quite charming and helpful. On more than one occasion, he took Carter’s hand or helped push Caiden.
We ate breakfast as a family which means Jon and Briton sort of took turns eating around their Caiden duties. Both of the boys are charmers, but they are also quick to change moods and change back again. The hotel dining room had big paddle fans and we waited for Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains and Sidney Greenstreet to appear; we hummed As Time Goes By.
Tuk-tuks seem to be our only exotic mode of transit in Siem Reap as we will be touring in an air conditioned minivan. The six of us barely fit despite the fact that Jon reserved a 12 passenger van. As long as the A/C works, we will be happy campers.

We spent today visiting the ruins of palaces and Buddhist temples in the area. Most of these date from the Thirteenth to the Fifteenth Centuries, more or less. Now, they are largely in ruins with large piles of rubble prominent. The remaining stone work is magnificent. In most cases, sandstone has been covered by harder stone hewn into large blocks. These facing stones were then carved with elaborate displays including elephants, dancing women, warriors and kings. So much has been lost to time and erosion as well as antiquities thieves that we may never know what these temples and palaces looked like.

Our first stop was at the Angkor Thom which featured a long entryway over a moat. [Note: Angkor is the area, Wat is a temple, and we think Thom is a palace] The bridge held railings of stone and the railings were topped with carved heads. Surrounded by throngs of tourists, we walked along the bridge admiring the stonework. Once through the gate at the end of the bridge, we got back in the van for the drive to the site. Although much was been lost, it is still easy to see the 5 main towers. Four of them have faces carved on four sides while the fifth has faces on eight sides. There are, or were, 54 towers altogether with fifty-three having four-sided towers and only one having eight. Everyone but MA climbed to the top of this complex and took pictures; MA waited in the shade of the stairway until we returned.

The weather gods had favored us once again, sort of. It was hot and humid but not rainy although we are still in the rainy season in Siem Reap. The Bayon area had a lot of deep and steep stone steps, so the touring was tiring and occasionally treacherous. It was even more exhausting for Jon and Briton because of Caiden. At one point, Jon, Carter, Caiden and MA returned to the car while Briton and D continued with the guide. As Ed said in Kyoto, “If I don’t have a picture, I must not have been there.”

Our next stop had fewer steps but was still hard. We were at an almost-deserted temple which was known for its Secret Sword. On the approach to the temple, we saw a small musical group all of whose players were handicapped as a result of land mines. In the past fifteen years, Cambodia has cleared millions of mines placed by the Khmer Rouge, but millions more may remain. On the way out, we put money in the donation basket. Outside the temple, we found an old woman selling fresh fruit, so we gave her a dollar for about 5 bananas. Caiden and Carter ate most of them.

This temple had more of a linear design. There was a main “aisle” through the complex with only a few side “halls” visible. Like the gardens in China, in which each room was a separate building, this temple was a series of rooms. The doorways became increasingly small as we approached the center, then became larger.

Jon stayed back with Caiden and Carter while D, MA, and Briton walked through. MA stopped partway through and waited for us to return. Briton and D saw the whole complex although they encouraged the guide to move a little faster. We picked up MA and returned to Jon and the boys. We were all hot and sweaty, so we decided to return to the hotel to dry off and get lunch.
We ate in the hotel dining room and were the only customers for most of the time. Once again, Jon and Briton ate by turns while the rest of us enjoyed our meal. After lunch, we rested and then met the guide at 3 o’clock for the last tour of the day.

Angkor Wat. Even the name conjures up pictures of steamy jungles and remote places. It is actually only 20 minutes from our hotel. If the Royal Palace and Temple in Bangkok is the typical poster for Thailand, the buildings at Angkor Wat are quintessentially Cambodian. Tall spires behind a reflecting pond silhouetted against a clear blue sky. Saffron-robed monks. Japanese tourists. It wasn’t the mob scene of the Bayon, but it was plenty busy.

It is an immense complex with a straight path leading through ante-buildings. There are two libraries [in ruins, of course], one on either side of the path. The temple itself seems to be a series of hollow squares. Again, there were numerous horrendously steep steps, so MA, Jon and Caiden stayed back while the rest wandered through the ruins. There were friezes carved into the stone walls inside and out; the remains of four swimming pools; lotus-patterned ceilings; and more of the “Chinese style” doors with tall steps in them, perhaps to keep evil spirits at bay; these often had had three wooden risers added so tourists could walk through without the big step.

When we were done, we had some confusion finding the other half of our group but finally made connections. We discovered that Jon had twisted his foot rather badly after carrying Caiden and his stroller over one of the afore-mentioned risers. Caiden was fine but got scared when Jon fell. Other tourists assisted them and Jon was a bit gimpy but not seriously injured.

Jon’s injury was not the only one of the day. Carter fell and got a nasty scrape on his arm but recovered quickly. MA hurt her good knee when she tried to exit the van at the hotel and lost her balance. As a result, she sort of slid forward in the seat and jammed her knee past the normal bending point. We had to pull/push her back into a normal seating position before she could get out of the van. We decided that we were in trouble if D was the healthy one in the group.

We were all exhausted so returned to the hotel to wash up and get ready for dinner. We tuk-tuked into town again and ate at a barbecue restaurant. This is not what it sounds like but is more like upside-down fondue. We each selected what meat we wanted and it was brought out raw with a whole egg on top. It was accompanied by a plate of noodles and fresh veggies. Next, we were presented with a red-hot cooker and had to cook our meat ourselves. The eggs were broken up and stirred into the meat; broth was added to a channel on the edge of the cooker; and the noodles and vegetables were added to the broth. We had no real idea what we were supposed to do, but we grilled the meat, put it in a bowl and added broth, noodles and vegetables to make a soup. It was tasty but hot sitting near the cooker. Briton took the kids home at 8 o’clock and we cooked her supper and brought the meat home to her. It was definitely one of the most unusual meals we have ever had.

Tomorrow, we are to see more temples. Maybe it will rain.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Early to bed, early to rise makes people tired. We were ready for Bunta [Boohn-ta] at 8 this morning and were on the road around 8:15. We have decided that visiting the Cambodian temples is like taking a safari – you go early in the morning and then in the late afternoon to avoid the worst of the heat. In Siem Reap, of course, it’s always the worst of the heat and humidity.

We spent the morning at two temples whose names are unimportant and unpronounceable. Both were made of red stone and the oldest dated to the 8th Century. The decay and rubble were worse here than at Angkor Wat which is only natural considering their ages. The friezes were just as detailed but of different styles. Only pictures can do any of these temples justice.
At all of today’s stops [including the afternoon visit] we have been accosted by highly aggressive vendors. Despite our fervid refusals to purchase t-shirts, books about the temples and other handicrafts, the sellers persist. If we won’t buy on the way in, they ask, how about on the way out? Around the gateways to the temples are souvenir shops of every kind – textiles, wood work, tchotchkes and food. The assailants are unfailingly polite, but are very persistent. Since so many are children [a sure way to appeal to the guilt of well-off tourists], we wonder why they aren’t in school. Jon says their parents are too poor to afford the tuition which is a sad commentary on the central government.

After we had climbed and sweated enough, we drove back to Siem Reap for lunch. Bunt and the driver found a neice local place near the river. We couldn’t see the river, which isn’t particularly pretty during the rainy season, but the restaurant was quiet and cool and we enjoyed our typically Asian lunch. And Cokes.

We gathered in the lobby at 3 to visit our last temple of the trip – the Lara Croft, Tomb Raider movie site. As usual, we were beset with vendors who even followed through the temple gate. It was peaceful inside the gate, but we had a long walk ahead of us. We also had a small lake/stream/moat to cross. We knew we were in trouble when the entry led to sand bags on the ground. We realized the large building stones which formed the crossing over the water. Some presented deep steps and others were low; some of the stepping stones were almost at water level; and all had weathered over the years of tourist visits. MA was hesitant to cross because both of her knees were bothering her and insisted on sitting in the shade while the rest of us went on. D insisted on waiting with her. She almost won the contest of wills, but Bunt pointed out that he could not get hold of the driver to tell him to fetch MA and that the tour ended at a different gate. MA decided that she could make the crossing and then proceeded to prove it [with a little help].

She was glad she had. The temple was magnificent, even though most of it was a shambles of rubble and rock piles. Although we had not seen the movie, we could appreciate the cinematic possibilities of the temple. It has been deserted for so long that gigantic trees have grown over, around and through the remains. Each vista showed something even more fantastic than the last, and fantastic is the right word since the scene looked like something from Tolkien. Again, only pictures may convey some of the beauty of this site.

When we had finished this tour [with only one fall by Carter and no tears], we drove back to the hotel. There are lots of other temples and ruins to be seen, but we had seen enough; we were overloaded by carvings, temples, towers and humidity. We all washed up and then went to an early dinner in the hope of getting the children back on their normal schedules. We took tuk-tuks in a light rain a few blocks to the restaurant, had another fine eclectic Eurasian dinner and were “home” well before 8 o’clock [Note: MA had noodles and D had amok, the local curry]. MA and D went to their room where D caught up on the journal and they both watched CNN. Like Coca Cola, CNN is a safe bet world-wide.

This part of Cambodia, at least, has a high water table. Much of the land is flooded for rice production – and we saw plenty of rice fields – and Bunt says the there is enough water retained in the area to have three crops each year. We can’t understand what made Angkor such an important place since it doesn’t have any geographical advantages. It is not on a major river like Shanghai, Bangkok and Saigon or poised in a natural trading locale like Singapore. This area has always been strictly agricultural although now tourism is the major player in the economy.
Today’s temples were farther from downtown SR than yesterday’s. The country-side was definitely rural and squalid. There were store shanties along the road along the way, as well as several linear towns [i.e., they seemed to exist in a straight line along the road]. We saw rice paddies, of course, but also coconut and banana trees and lots of bulls and oxen; for some reason, we saw no cows.

SR is also undergoing a building boom. High-rise buildings would be out of place here where the tallest structures seem to top out at 4 stories. A number of mixed us buildings are under construction, all following the same basic plan: three stories with housing on the upper floors and businesses on the street level. The street level units might have been configured as parking in the US if these had been townhouses, but here they are fitted with ugly but functional pull-down steel doors. They will be rented as commercial space and, sadly, many will end up being “one stop” stores just like all of the others.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

We said “farewell” to Siem Reap today. We have grown used to this little town and its tuk-tuks, potholes and standing water in the streets. We did a bit of touring in the city today or at least tried to.

We started with a guided tour of an artisan workshop. Young people come here to learn one of several fine arts with the goal of apprenticing and then going out on their own. All of the techniques being taught here are aimed at preserving the native folk arts albeit with new materials. Skills include acrylic painting on silk; silk manufacturing and weaving; wood working; and antiquing. The participants are either handicapped or poor.

For example, all of the trainees in the silk painting program are deaf. They are learning to paint traditional scenes of temples and other things on stretched silk. Their work is beautiful if not really inspired. They are learning technique, not creativity, so they will be painters, not artists. In the same way, the wood workers are using laminated woods [think really thick plywood] which they carve in representations of Buddha and other mythic figures. They, too, will be skilled workers but not artists because they are using models and stencils to perfect their technique. At the end of their training, they may only be proficient in one figure and will recreate it endlessly to support themselves. Others are learning how to paint figurines and apply bronze leaf to create an antique appearance or how to carve stone to imitate the ancient temple carvings. It was fascinating to watch and reassured us that similar products are hand-made even if simultaneously mass-produced.

We tried to go to the local historical museum which is relatively new. It is housed in a stylized Cambodian building reminiscent of the temples but thoroughly modern in appearance. Staff gave Briton a hard time about bringing in the backpack with Caiden’s paraphernalia and then we learned that we would have to pay for both boys. Even at half price, it seemed ludicrous. Since the total admission for the group would have been $60 and the boys bored to crying, we left quickly.

Jon, MA and The Boys returned to the hotel while Briton and D took a tuk-tuk to go shopping. They went to two modern shops, one of which was run by the handicapped where Briton bought 2 scarves and D bought the final mask of the trip [that makes 4 so far]. They followed that up by going to the old market in the center of town for more shopping.

The old market was like the one we visited in Saigon although there was no outer ring of government approved shops. This one was one block square and had its outer stalls filled with vendors of textiles, wooden souvenirs and junk. The inner section was a native food market – poorly lit and poorly ventilated – filled with people selling vegetables, fruits, fish, meat, sea food, chickens and God knows what else. There was no refrigeration and we could only hope that the local restaurants did not purchase anything here.

We returned in time for lunch at a nearby restaurant which was classier and more expensive than we wanted but which we enjoyed anyway. The children got restless as it was Caiden’s nap time, so Jon and The Boys went back while D, MA and Briton got the check.

Our trip to Phnom Penh was uneventful. Our plane was only one-quarter full and the flight took less time than our wait in the Siem Reap terminal. We were met at the PP airport and then endured a half-hour of the worst traffic and pollution we have seen. Jakarta’s traffic may be worse but not by much. We discovered in Siem Reap that traffic control lines and lane markers are only suggestions; drivers of motorcycles and cars pass over double lines as if they didn’t exist and horns are more important than turn signals or brakes. We made it to the hotel without incident, but we were a trifle nervous when the horde of cyclists cam at us against traffic on the wrong side of a traffic island.

We ate in the hotel after we checked in because we were too tired to go out. MA was in bed and asleep by 9 o’clock and D went to bed around 9:45 when he finished today’s entry.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Singapore Fling II

Friday, October 24, 2008

We started late again today. We had no specific plans, and it was rainy earlier this morning. We learned our lesson yesterday about coffee and muffins in the Lobby, so we headed to Starbucks for breakfast and free internet access. Actually, the internet was the deciding factor since there are several restaurants serving breakfast in the hotel. Once again we trudged down Orchard Road, marveling at the number of people who were out and about. We saw magnified versions of this foot traffic in Japan, Shanghai, Bangkok and Saigon – people scurrying along crowded sidewalks, everybody going somewhere, but where? Singapore isn’t as bad as those other places, but the walkways are still bustling.

We walked past Mt. Elizabeth Hospital [or at least its driveway]; this is the hospital where Caiden was born, but we couldn’t find the commemorative plaque. On to the Paragon mall again. We know our way around too well now and still have one more morning to use the internet. D got coffee and a muffin and MA got passion fruit tea so we wouldn’t feel guilty about the wireless connection. We checked e-mail and D uploaded the newest addition to the blog. It’s become somewhat Dickensian in its length and MA reminded D that Dickens was paid by the word.

Today was Tourist Day. We took a taxi to Suntec City, an office and convention complex on the East side of the city. The Marriott concierge had called ahead to make reservations for our ride on the “Duck.” We have used every other type of transport on this trip, so this was only fitting. The Duck is an amphibious craft developed during WWII. By definition, then, it rides the streets and the waves. Our trip was scheduled for 1 o’clock, but we were early, naturally. Suntec Center had 2 huge food courts which were crammed with diners. At one end, there was a tremendous fixed-price buffet, and at the other, there was a collection of “stalls” which specialized in anything Asian. We were brave and didn’t try anything although what we knew as Chinese bread [from our lunch on Ko Samui] looked good.

The one-hour tour ended up as 45 minutes during which we drove and swam around a small part of Singapore and Marina Bay. The vehicle was noisy, the ride was bumpy and we could only catch every third word of the narration. All in all, it was not a great experience. Still, we had a good time.

When we returned to Suntec, we hailed a taxi for the two block journey to Raffles Hotel. We could have walked, but our first cabbie of the day urged us to ride because of traffic and dangerous intersections. It wasn’t as bad as he made it sound, but the ride wasn’t too expensive and we are on vacation…

Raffles is an institution in Singapore which dates back to colonial days, probably the late Nineteenth Century. Other than being posh with a capitol posh [rooms start at $600USD per night], its Long Bar is the acknowledged home of the Singapore Sling. It’s not tourist tacky, but it was filled nonetheless with tourists. It probably hasn’t changed in almost a century. Dark wood. Ceiling fans. Free peanuts. Throwing the shells on the floor. All of these date back to the primordial mists. When in Singapore, act like a tourist, so MA had a Sling while D had his usual Diet Coke. We also ordered French fries and a satay sampler [four each beef, lamb and chicken skewers]. We sat and relaxed and soaked it all in. D took the requisite pictures and the videocam behaved, surprisingly. Once it was time to go, we caught a taxi at the Raffles Hotel taxi stand and returned to the Marriott to pack for tomorrow’s trip to Cambodia with the family. We talked with Jon who had called before we returned. He offered the use of his video camera but we decided to take our chances. We chatted for a few minutes and then let him go back to work.

Our last taxi driver suggested someplace called Lau Pasak for dinner if we wanted something local, not tourist, but we opted for Indian at Ras at Clarke Quay, the complex we visited last night. We were in the same general area again, so we could watch the light show and the boats even though we weren’t right by the water. Clarke Quay was jam-packed tonight. Most of the outdoor restaurant venues were pretty full as were many of their indoor areas. The sidewalks were almost impassable in spots, especially outside of the nightclubs. It is a happening place to put it mildly. After dinner, we came home and braced ourselves for tomorrow’s departure. We can hardly wait!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Singapore Fling I

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

[Posted from Starbucks, of course]

We have arrived in Singapore. Yesterday was a sea day for which we were thankful on soooo many levels. We had time to organize our “stuff” prior to packing; we could spend time and money in the ship’s casino; and we could sleep in. After three straight days of shore excursions, we were tired.

Singapore is a big, Western city. There are high-rise buildings popping out of the ground like spring flowers. Most if not all of the apartment buildings are government-owned and are refurbished and updated on a regular basis, every 6 years according to one source. The infrastructure seems sound and the roads are well-paved. The Singapore government discourages private automobiles and has provided a modern public transportation system which includes the MRT subway; getting around is easy via the MRT, taxis and buses.

Because we were playing the Vanderbilt’s again, we could not take a regular cab to our hotel but had to use a minivan once we cleared the Cruise Terminal. We had left the ship promptly at 10 a.m. to discover that our checked luggage was waiting for us on a trolley. All we had to do was wheel it 50 feet to an x-ray machine. Security personnel unloaded the bags and then re-stacked them once they emerged from the jaws of the scanner. We wheeled ourselves out of the terminal and to the taxi stand where we were to back inside to get a driver of a big taxi. MA stayed with the bags while D did this; we were mildly aggravated only because we had not been warned about this prior to disembarkation.

Even so, we were on our way to the Singapore Marriott by 10:30 and arrived within 20 minutes. We found the city to be very green and clean with much parkland along our route. We also saw at least three schools which is noteworthy because we hadn’t seen many schools in our other ports of call. Check-in was a breeze; porters emptied the van of our luggage, gave us tags for the bags and told us not to worry about them. When we were registering, the clerk asked about luggage and was given the seven receipts. Within ten minutes of our arrival in the room, the suitcases appeared.

After resting for a bit, we ventured forth into the wilds of Orchard Street. Orchard Street must be the Rodeo Drive or Worth Avenue of Singapore. It is filled with individual high-end retail stores and tony multi-level shopping malls. We wandered on Orchard for a little bit taking in the sight of Gucci stores next to 7-Elevens and noodle shops. Singapore is such an amalgam of cultures that it all fit together despite the apparent incongruities. We were looking for a camera store because our video camera had been misbehaving, going to black when it should have been recording and jumping when there was no apparent reason. We decided to try our luck in the Paragon mall. Tres chic. Very upscale, with no camera store, it did house a Marks & Spencer department store from London, a Lawry’s restaurant; lots of high-end stores; a Toys-R-Us; and a basement filled with restaurants and drug stores.

As we walked through this lower level, we realized that we were on a collision course with Ed and Roxanne. We just stopped and pointed, unseen by the oblivious Roxanne. Once she recognized us, she practically shrieked. We all started talking and then repaired to [where else?] Starbucks. We had drinks and chatted for a while. They had had a busy morning tracking down their absentee ballots and delivering them to the US Embassy. They had also taken the cable car ride which carried them directly over the Amsterdam as it crossed the Singapore harbor. Once back in town, they had been caught in a sudden downpour and had sought shelter in Paragon mall to stay dry and pursue Ed’s search for more AA batteries.

We finally said goodbye for the second time [last night was the first] and headed off on our respective e quests. We found no camera stores in the mall but did find an allegedly Indonesian restaurant where we had chicken curry, steamed rice, nasi kuning [a yellow rice] and the ever-popular Coca Cola. Lunch was inexpensive but good and we congratulated ourselves on our good luck in finding the place.

We headed back toward the Marriott, still looking for a camera store. We had passed several on the way to the Paragon, so we stopped at one on the way back. The salesman [for that is what he was] said the problem with the camera was the humidity of SE Asia, and he would be willing to sell me a new video camera for only 1200 Singapore dollars [SGD]. He would even discount it, he was such a nice fellow. We left quickly. At the next store, the salesman also blamed the humidity for the lack of any image and explained that the change from cold [as in A/C] to warm and humid messed with the camera. The jumping picture was probably the result of dirty recording and playback heads. That made sense, so we agreed to buy a head cleaner. He tried hard to sell a wider-angle lens for the camera and was persuasive, especially when he included the head cleaner and an adaptor ring for about the same price, 150 SGD [about $100 US].

The day was still overcast and threatening, so we decided to return to the hotel and do some sight-seeing tomorrow in the hope that the weather gods would smile on us again. Jon called right after we got to the room, so we chatted with him before reading and resting. We ate dinner in the hotel tonight because of the weather but expect to be more adventurous tomorrow.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

We started late this morning with muffins and coffee in the hotel lobby. Veddy civilized, you know.

If this is the Year of the Cruise, this must be the Cruise of Public Transit. Since we have already toured by train, tram, subway, taxi, minivan and speedboat, we decided to try our luck on the MRT, the local subway system. It is a big help to us that the dominant commercial language is English and signs are easy to read. We were also lucky that the Marriott is situated on top of the Orchard Road MRT station, so all we had to do was exit the hotel and take an escalator underground. This underpass can also be used for getting across the huge intersection in front of the hotel.

The ticket machines were easy to operate once we watched someone else. The machine has an interactive map on which you simply touch your destination and watch as the correct fare is displayed on a screen. We used one-way tickets since we hadn’t firmed up our plans; there are package rates but we think we are better off buying on a “pay as we go” basis. All “regular” tickets carry a $1 SGD handling charge which is refunded at the same ticket machines upon exiting. Since the tickets are really magnetized plastic read by the turnstiles, the $1 guarantees their return for re-use. This is a much more cost efficient and environmentally sound system than paper tickets. Of course, the machines can also add additional funds should plans, and costs, change.

We duly followed the instructions given by a ticket agent and made our way into the bowels of the station, heading for track 5, the train to Marina Bay. We transferred, though, at the second stop, Dhoby Ghaut which we refer to as Dobie Gillis. If you have to ask, it won’t be funny. We made the transfer without incident and headed for HarbourFront, the station at the cruise ship dock. We had seen the office and shopping complex yesterday from the ship.

Our destination was the cable car which travels from Santosa Island to Mt. Faber. We had also seen the cable cars yesterday as they rode thorough an office building. The system has only three stops – Mt. Faber, Santosa and the HarbourFront office tower. We found our way from the MRT to the right office block, paid our fare and rode to the 15th floor to board the cable car. We rode to Mt. Faber to take pictures of the Singapore skyline even though it was shrouded in fog. We were able to take some video during one of the brief moments when the camera was cooperating and even photographed our hotel which was easy to spot on the horizon.

When we had seen what little there was to see at Mt. Faber, we got in a car to return to the HarbourFront station but decided to stay on to and around the Santosa stop. Since we weren’t actually getting off at Santosa Island [another two bucks], no one bothered us. We were able to get a closer look at the Merlion, Singapore’s icon. A combination of a lion and fish, it sits proudly on Santosa overlooking the harbor. It is historically synthetic, created simply as the city-state’s logo. We finally exited from the cable car back at HarbourFront.

On our way “home” we stopped at a Canon service center in the office complex to see if they could diagnose our videocam’s illness. We couldn’t wait five or even the three days it would have taken for a professional checkup, but the clerk suspected that there is a dirty or faulty contact buried in the camera’s innards. We’ll check in Florida and hope it works when we see The Boys. We returned to the hotel to retrieve the computer, then walked to the Paragon mall to check e-mail at Starbuck’s. Once that was done, we went to the Singapore Airlines office and got boarding passes for Saturday’s flight to Cambodia. The agent was a bit surprised to see our last name appear so often on her screen, but we explained that Jon and his family were on the same plane. They have the front bulkhead seats because of Caiden and we have seats in an exit row so we can have more leg room. We returned to the hotel to write the journal, read and do crossword puzzles.

Dinner tonight was magic. We had read Cruise Critic reports on Singapore which spoke highly of Clarke Quay as a place to see; Jon and Briton had also recommended it to us, so that was our destination tonight. We took a short taxi ride because we weren’t sure where the MRT stop was in relation to where we wanted to be. The taxi, naturally, took us right where we wanted to be.
Clarke Quay is a vast wonderland of restaurants and bars although there are a few stores mixed in, but very few. Food choices range from Scots to Cuban to French to Spanish to Asian fusion and on and on. There are as many bars as there are real restaurants. Each place has its own gimmick. The most obvious was the place which had wheelchairs at its tables and stylized hospital beds for drinking and chatting. Overhead are large plastic shields to keep the rain off the customers – they look like UFOs supported by stainless steel toothpicks. Almost all of the eateries and bars were busy by the time we left around 8:20.

We ate at a tapas restaurant, the Tapas Tree. We each had gazpacho then shared a basket of bread, mushrooms sautéed with garlic in olive oil and a red bell pepper filled to overflowing with a mixture of cream cheese and mint. There must have been a full 8 ounce block of cream cheese stuffed into that poor pepper, but it gave us the chance to spread some of it on the bread.
The setting was as satisfying and relaxing as the meal. We were seated on a deck overlooking a canal with a footbridge about 100 yards away. The bridge was lit with colored lights which changed regularly so that sometimes it appeared to be blue or red while at other times it was showcased in a rolling ROYGBIV display. Tour boats plied the waters regularly, appearing from under the bridge in a relentless parade; obviously, they disappeared under it, too. On the opposite bank we saw steps leading to the water, but these, too, were colorfully lit. Again, they were often just one color, but often they were lighted in multicolored patterns. Behind the steps were office towers which seemed to have even more restaurants as high as the third floor [much like where we ate in Hong Kong]. It was enchanting. We wandered through more of Clarke Quay before catching a cab back to the Marriott.

Singapore is an amalgam of cultures. Because of its strategic position at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, it has been fair game for invaders and colonials for centuries. The most prominent influences are Chinese and British and most locals speak some form of English although one of tonight’s cabbies was less than fluent. There seems to be a large Indian population, too, but most natives appear to be of Chinese ancestry. Of course, there is a large commercial American presence, too, but that may not be such a good thing. It is sad that what we are exporting around the world is mostly KFC, Big Macs, Coke and Pepsi. On the other hand, we are watching season 3 of The Amazing Race: Asia right now, so who are we to complain?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Final Field Trip

Monday, October 20, 2008

This phase of our Cruise to Cambodia is almost done. We took our final field trip today with Ed, Roxanne, Russ and Patti, a tour of Ko Samui [Koh Sa-moo-ee], Thailand.

This is our first tender port; the harbor is too shallow for the ship to dock, so passengers have to take the lifeboats from the Amsterdam to shore. The six of us met at 8:15 in the usual place, then waited in the theater until we could board the tender. We reached shore after an uneventful trip almost on the dot of 9 o’clock. As we exited the tender, we could see a mere slip of a girl holding up the sign for our group.

Our first stop today was the Big Buddha. It could have been called the Really Big Buddha without exaggeration. It had been built about a half hour out of what passed for the town and stood on the crest of a hill overlooking the water. The men all ditched their shoes and climbed to the top of the hill to take pictures – if there is no photo, we weren’t there. There were several families there, too, enjoying the view as well as practicing a little Buddhism.

As we drove to the Buddha, we marveled at how much Ko Samui resembled Bali. The several towns we passed through were all crowded with businesses catering to tourists and there was much more English visible on signs than in other ports we have visited. We saw extensive and elaborate resorts next to tin shacks, even a Starbucks which we hadn’t seen in Bangkok although we are sure there are some there. Storefront business and markets lined the streets and motorcycles were numerous. Out of the towns, there was obviously less development and roadside “stores” were aimed at a more local market. Still, it all felt familiar in a good way.

The weather gods had blessed us today with tropic heat and humidity, bright sunshine and a threat of afternoon showers. Once we had cooled off, we climbed into the van and headed to a “Kodak moment” overlook from which we could once again gaze at the tropical blue waters; the blue was a pleasant change from the muddy brown river water we had seen the past several days. If we squinted a bit, we could even see the Big Buddha on its distant hilltop. Fortunately for us, Lexi, today’s guide, had brought ice cold bottled water and disposable towels which she had kept in the cooler with the water. They were even more welcome and refreshing than the “welcome home” towels HAL has been providing at the gangway in the afternoon. We drank eagerly and toweled off before once again getting in the van.

We stopped next at the Hin Ta and Hin Yai rock formations. Since Ko Samui is built on a volcanic base, these were lava outcroppings which had flowed into the cool water and solidified. Hin Ta and Hin Yai are the Grandmother and Grandfather rocks. Grandfather is a vertical formation at the shoreline which is overtly phallic; when the lava hardened, it really hardened. Grandmother is a collection of three rocks in the water about 30 yards off shore. Ed and I found another lava flow which looked more anatomically female, but that wasn’t grandma.

When we had parked at this stop, we had walked through a little market area replete with food stalls and souvenir shops. Lexi took us to one where women were preparing coconut sugar candy. Molten coconut sugar is spooned into plastic squares and tied off leaving a sweet tasting confection with a consistency a little stiffer than molasses. On the way back to the car, we made a special stop at that same stall to purchase some to take with us. It shouldn’t be refrigerated and should stay fresh for 2 weeks, so it will last through the rest of the trip; we think Briton and The Boys will like it.

We made a stop at a monkey exhibition, too. Yesterday, MA and Roxanne had seen a monkey show which exploited the monkeys, but today we saw a monkey trained to climb a coconut palm and harvest the coconuts. This is a less labor intensive way for the local growers to harvest the coconuts because the monkeys can climb the trees more easily than men and can work faster once they have reached the top. The monkeys also are more agile since they can use their tails to hold on or for balance. We tasted fresh coconut milk and shredded coconut before taking our leave and driving to a nearby waterfall.

Roxanne and MA stayed at the top of the hill which overlooked the falls. There was little to see from the top through the tree cover, so Ed, Russ, Patti and D climbed down the rock-and-root footpath to the bottom of the falls to take pictures [of course]. There were local kids swimming in the pool at the bottom and several were jumping into the pool from a rock outcropping next to the pool. While we were at the bottom of the hill, Roxanne and MA made an executive decision: it was time for lunch.

We returned to town and stopped near the dock. Lexi escorted us in an made sure we were comfortable but declined the invitation to eat with us. Most of the guides have left us to our own devices; only in Shanghai did a paid guide lunch with us. We ordered a variety of dishes. Ma had an Indian curry and D had pad thai noodles. No Coca Cola was available so we settled for Seven-Up and Russ had a large beer. The bill for six of us came to 560 bahts, about $17 USD. D had exactly 560 bahts and paid the check in an effort to get rid of them, but the others paid him bahts so he had gained no advantage and had to exchange them for dollars when he returned to the ship.

The tender trip back to the ship was interesting, too. After Lexi left us at the dock, we waited for the HAL tender but were told to board a rust bucket instead. Once aboard, though, we had to wait for several bus-loads of passengers who were returning from their tours. As we waited, we could see the afternoon storm approaching, low lying clouds gradually obscuring the hills outside of town. By the time we started to move, it was raining hard. Russ, Patti and Ed remained outside on the top deck; D went to the lower deck; and MA and Roxanne stayed under cover in the top-deck passenger area. D was the only one who was dry by the time we transferred to the Amsterdam because Roxanne and MA got wet not only from rain coming in the windows but also from a leaking roof. The three who stayed outside, of course, were soaked.

Once on board, we returned briefly to the room before adjourning to the Ocean Bar for the requisite post-trip Coca Cola, then checked e-mail. MA returned to the room for a nap and D joined Russ for trivia. After trivia, D finally finished reading World Without End, all 1000 pages of it. From there to dinner, the journal, the casino, the end.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Two Short Days in the Emerald City

Sunday, October 19, 2008

“Come with me to the Emerald City.”
“Oh, I’ve always wanted to see the Emerald City!” [from Wicked]

There is no way to capture Bangkok in words. It is a mixture of beauty and grace, squalor and poverty. Perhaps as a result of its splendor juxtaposed against its crowded streets, it is even more magical than it would otherwise be.

Saturday started ominously, though. There was little coordination between the various departments on the ship resulting in a longer than anticipated wait to get our passports from the Front Office. All passports had to be checked and stamped by Thai authorities before anyone could leave the ship, but the documents of those spending the night off ship were not pulled for early perusal by Thai officials. All of us had notified ship’s personnel, but they still seemed surprised. Ed and D were patient, especially when every passport except MA’s appeared. We finally went ashore at 9 o’clock, right on schedule.

We were met by our driver and rode in a Mercedes minivan [ours for the next two days] to Bangkok, about a two hour drive. The Thai road system is so superior to Vietnam’s that there can be no comparison. The roads were decently paved, well laid-out and wide enough to handle the traffic, especially on a weekend. Much of the trip was on limited-access roadways; much of that was an elevated highway which we drove for about an hour.

After the smooth ride into town, we were a bit startled to see the traffic once we got off the highway and dropped into Bangkok. Traffic moved slowly, so we had a chance to see some of the city before we met our guide. We passed many parks; colorful divided boulevards full of plantings; Buddhist temples; and street markets, a staple of SE Asia. The sidewalks were crowded not only with stores and stalls but also with vendors with food carts. They were packed cheek-to-jowl amidst a sprawl of humanity. We also had our introduction to Bangkok taxis. They all have the same signs on their roofs – “Taxi Meter – but each company has a distinctive bright, almost electric, color of combination of colors. There were bright blue ones, yellow ones, green ones and our favorite, the shocking pink taxis.

Once we picked up Ka Ty [Kay Tee], we began the whirlwind tour of Bangkok. The first stop, where we met her, was near the Grand Palace. There may be a picture here eventually, but this area is what is usually shown when Thailand and Bangkok are pictured in posters or movies. The grounds include a complex of Buddhist temples and outbuildings as well as the Royal Palace. The most prominent building was the Phra Siritana Chedi, a large round building built in layers like a Dairy Queen cone topped by a spire like the DQ curl. It is probably the most recognized edifice in the mile-square Palace grounds. We spent a great deal of time looking at the buildings immediately behind the golden Chedi; there were three, each done in a different style, faced with glass tiles so that the buildings sparkled in the sun. Surrounding the last building were statues of elephants and stylized dragons and women. Again, words don’t really convey the beauty of these buildings.

We walked down the steps and entered the ante-chamber of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Buddhist custom requires long pants, covered shoulders and stockinged feet to enter the sanctuary. Before we left our shoes in numbered bins outside the temple and climbed the stairs, we tried to take photographs of the distant Buddha since photography was not allowed in this temple. We also saw worshippers dipping lotus flowers into water and sprinkling themselves, some leaving donations in conveniently placed boxes. Ka Ty baptized us, too, saying that anyone could ask for good luck, not just Buddhists. We all agreed that having another contemporary deity on our side couldn’t hurt.

The Emerald Buddha was much smaller than the jade one we saw in Shanghai in 2006 which, ironically, we were not allowed to photograph, either. There was a crowd inside but it wasn’t hard to find the Buddha high on the back wall. Ka Ty tried to explain some aspects of the temple and Buddhists, but we probably forgot most of it by the time we got to lunch. We did learn that one must never sit so his bare feet face the Buddha and, later in the day, we saw parents correcting their small children at another temple.

When we finally tore ourselves away from the Temple complex, we walked through part of the Palace grounds. Much of it is off limits to visitors and today there was extra security because the king’s sister had died. We all heard a reference to January but couldn’t agree on whether she had died in January or her ashes were going to buried in January. Buddhists practice cremation and a new crematory was built for the occasion. At any rate, only Thais are allowed to pay their respects and they were expected dress completely in black; it wasn’t hard to spot them in the crowd. The palace buildings a an amalgam of traditional Thai architecture and Nineteenth Century European. King Rama V wanted to modernize the country and started by copying European buildings. A replica of Buckingham Palace topped by a Thai tile roof gives the place a Disneyworld effect.

There were so many temples and statues of Buddha on today’s itinerary that they have all run together. In no particular order, we visited both the Reclining Buddha and the Standing Buddha. The Reclining Buddha is around 65 feet long and colored with the traditional gold leaf. The Buddha is so long and the temple so narrow that one can only see the entire statue by standing at either end. Buddha’s toes are always shown as perfectly straight, but he bottoms of his feet are marked into 108 sections [only visible, naturally, with a reclining figure]. Pilgrims may purchase temple coins to drop into 108 bowls stationed on the back side of the Buddha. Dropping the coins without dropping the coins is supposed to bring good luck, but we heathens decided not to do it. As we toured, Ka Ty continued explain what we saw, especially wall paintings depicting he Buddha’s life.

The Standing Buddha was not nearly as tall/long as the Reclining Buddha, but he was still impressive. Like the others, he was in a shoe-free zone, so we dutifully removed our shoes before entering the temple. We found monks rearranging the furnishings but never found out why. Ka Ty told us that monks may stay for a few months or a few years, but few stay for a lifetime. Being a monk is not a lifetime vocation in Buddhism but a phase many young men go through.

There was also a large standing Buddha outside. We could see him clearly without entering the sanctuary area, so we did not have to remove our shoes. We wandered around this small compound with Ed and D taking pictures, especially of a herd of cats since Roxanne is fixated on The Cats of Asia.

We had been up since before dawn and on the go since 9:00 a.m., so it was time for lunch. We knew that Ka Ty would recommend someplace for lunch but were not prepared for the floating restaurant which just happened to dock next to the boat we were to take after lunch. We could have done better here, but the meal had its high points. The food was offered as a buffet. We were careful to stick to cooked items although there were Westerners eating salads. We found spaghetti with assorted sauces; stir-fried veggies; chicken and pork dishes; and steamed and fried rice. Ka Ty brought us several Thai specialties we may not have seen or tried. The most memorable were the coconut pan cakes. That is not a typo – they were little cakes steamed in a pan. They had a coconut milk base other ingredients added; most of ours had corn and green onion tops. Yummo! The fried won tons were good, but these were sweet and moist and to die for. We hope we can find them when we get home. Dessert choices included petit fours sized cake squares and fresh fruit.

After lunch, Ka Ty tried to get us all into a long-tail boat but was unsuccessful. We had a boat to ourselves, but the restaurant boat was too high and the long-tail boat too low for MA to even attempt the transfer, despite Ka Ty’s pleadings. Ed, Roxanne and D went for the boat ride while MA waited in air-conditioned comfort with her MP3 player and Barry Manilow. Ka Ty joined us for the ride which took us through a canal off of the river. As boat trips go, this one was simple: go up the canal, turn around, come down the canal. The long-tail gets its name from its propulsion system. An automobile engine is mounted on the rear of the boat with a long drive-shaft attached to it. This makes it easier to use in shallow water since the propeller is far behind the craft, not directly under it. The name itself derives from the long plume of spray which is thrown when the boat is moving at high speed – it looks like a rooster’s tail.

There were lots of boats operating on this canal, so things go choppy every time we crossed another boat’s wake. We saw homes built over the water, often with no dry land beneath them. Utility poles were stuck in the water looking like trees growing. There were merchants traveling dock to dock selling food and a mail man is a motor boat. These houses, for the most part, had no road leading to them so the only access is by boat. We stopped for a water-borne huckster who paid a commission to our driver when Roxanne bought some tchotkes. There was even a land/sea fire station. The highlight, though, may have been the teen-aged boys jumping from the top of a railroad trestle into the river to swim.

We decided that we were Buddha-ed out and told Ka Ty that it was time to go the hotel. When we got there, she stayed until we were checked in and had our room keys, then told us that a driver would pick us up at 5:45 to take us to our dinner cruise on the Chao Phraya River.
Our rooms at the Marriott were magnificent. We got the last two river-view rooms [which we had reserved months ago] and could watch as barges, long-tails and other boats went both up and down the river. We rested, showered and dressed in clean casual clothes. We thought the driver was going to cal the room when he got to the hotel, but that didn’t happen. MA and D went to the lobby around 5:50 to discover that Ed, Roxanne and the driver were waiting. Away we went.

Once again, the food left something to be desired, but we hadn’t signed up for this cruise for the food per se. Once diners were allowed to board, we were shown to our table. As soon as we cast off, appetizers and then soup appeared. The wait staff wanted to finish the service in an hour so they could present the folkloric dance program. The appetizers were excellent, the soup was very spicy and the Thai sampler dinner had its ups and downs, but the view of riverfront Bangkok intermittently lit from one end to the other was spectacular. The most breath-taking view was of the Royal Palace and Temple buildings ablaze in light. Like the long-tail this morning, we just made figure eights, circling back on a short course to we could continue to move without really going anywhere.

After dessert was served and cleared, members of the wait staff changed their roles and clothes to present the dances. It was amazing to watch the girls bend their wrists back and then their fingers so far that they could touch the backs of their arms. There were four separate dance numbers, but none was recorded by us because D had left his cameras in the hotel room. We knew this before we left but decided that he might enjoy the show more if he weren’t fiddling with two cameras, both of which had been erratic on the trip. So we enjoyed the show, found our driver around 9 o’clock and returned to the hotel through noticeably emptier streets. We were exhausted and, therefore, asleep by 10:15.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

My God! We’re in Bangkok! The morning started around 6 a.m. because breakfast was being delivered at 6:15 so we could be ready for a 7:30 pick-up. We must be out of our minds. And the weather gods have failed us. We watched a rain storm approach from across the river and by 7 o’clock, it was pouring. We gave fleeting thoughts to canceling today’s trip and returning to the ship, but Ka Ty, who returned at our request, explained that we were going an hour east of Bangkok and the weather might be better there. How could we turn her down after she got up on a Sunday just for us? And she was right. The rain tapered off the farther we went from Bangkok.

We were heading for another boat ride [more on that shortly] but made an unscheduled stop on the way so Ka Ty could show us some more of Thailand’s traditions. We pulled into a roadside stand which might have been selling grapefruit in Florida or barbecue elsewhere. The workers, though, were demonstrating uses for the coconut. Ka Ty showed us how, as a young girl, she had had to shred the meat of coconuts by hand using a method that looked a bit like juicing a orange by twisting it back and forth over a grater. There were three pots of boiling coconut in the various stages of preparation of coconut brown sugar. We watched the last stage – twirling – which resembled taffy preparation, and we tasted the finished product which was just oh so sweet and tasty. The girls, especially, were delighted. Ka Ty explained that every part of the coconut is used for something. The fronds are used as cooking packets; the husks could be burned instead of charcoal [just like the fires in Jimbaron, Bali]; the wood from the tree used for artifacts like spoons and decorative cups; and so on. It was an informative and tasty stop.

We completed our journey to the next boat in only a few more minutes. It was still raining but not as hard as when we left. Once again, the boat was not hospitable. Although MA could have gotten into it this time, seating was on cushions on the floor so she could not have gotten down or up without some serious discomfort. We couldn’t seem to make Ka Ty understand that we wanted a boat with seats, even if they were low. Did I mention the rain? Roxanne and MA stayed behind with the driver [whom D christened Mr. Kwan] while Ed and D, joined by Ka Ty, climbed in and down. Although the seat cushions had been dried as we boarded, we were wet in no time. Ed and D were wearing the famous red rain jackets, but they didn’t offer protection for legs or faces. It was especially wet on the right side of the boat. We wandered through a real water town similar to what we had seen on the canal yesterday. Again, these were functioning houses with few having land access. We zigzagged through a canal system for 30 wet, bumpy minutes taking pictures [of course] before ending up at the water market.

The market was a morning market. Vendors in boats, most similar to the long-tails but without the giant motors, were selling everything from vegetables to fruits to cooked foods. There were LP gas canisters lining the dock. The dock itself was really several blocks of canal with open buildings on either shore, a concrete sidewalk available for the pedestrian shoppers. Many customers came in their own boats; vendors jockeyed for position; and boats full of tourists added to the melee. It was marvelous. This market is a morning market because the vendors ply the canals making home deliveries and sales in the afternoon.

On the way from the terminus of their tour, D and Ed did some “window” shopping while Ka Ty ran an errand. Predictably, D bought a mask for “the wall” in WPB. As they walked through more of the pedestrian area, he bargained for another mask to the point that the seller ran after him in the crowd. The selling price was only one-third of the original asking price and even Ka Ty was impressed.

Once Ka Ty found MA and Roxanne, she planted us at a counter after we got the usual Cokes. We sat mesmerized at the panorama in front of us. We were on the canal’s edge watching everything and trying to capture it digitally. Suddenly Ka Ty reappeared bearing food! She had gone shopping for us at several of her favorite floating food stalls. We feasted on fried bananas coated with coconut; fresh-from-the tree mangoes and sticky rice; and something which looked like a miniature taco but was made from coconut and filled with cream. She brought so much that this became our lunch. Before we left, the four of us filled in questionnaires about our experience for a girl who said she was doing research for her Master’s thesis.

We finally dragged ourselves away after a little more shopping and drove less than 5 minutes before reaching our final stop of the day, one which was not on the original schedule. We went to an elephant park where D and Ed had a 30-minute ride on Ralph the Elephant while Roxanne and MA saw a monkey show. Ralph did well – he didn’t lose a single passenger – but it was a bumpy ride made worse by the muddy conditions. Ralph kept stopping for snacks and tried to drink water from deep puddles formed in the mud. Elephants lurch sort of like camels, so our backs were sore when we climbed off, but we were glad for the experience, so much so that we bought the souvenir picture of the two of us and Ralph.

Once the monkey show was over, we traipsed to the van and started home. We dropped Ka Ty in Bangkok and Mr. Kwan made good time and returned us to the ship just past 3:00 p.m.

This might be a good time to discuss Asian plumbing. Many places, such as the gas station where we stopped in Bangkok this afternoon, do not have Western-style toilets. In some places, especially Japan, there are holes in the floor with no toilets at all. In other places, there are low-rise toilets which are only a few inches off the ground. Most of these have a place designed for one’s feet, but they are still difficult for the arthritic to use because getting up and down is difficult. Just as important, they are often unappetizing [use your imaginations here] if not outright unsanitary. When we stopped today, Ka Ty offered the women Kleenex as a precaution, but they were prepared, having been in many of these facilities over the past month. Frequently, there is no flush mechanism; the user must scoop water into the bowl to clean up. Toilets, women’s toilets especially, are not for the faint of heart. While the same toilets may be in the men’s room, anatomy has made life much easier for them.

And so to bed. Our last field trip is later this morning [it’s closing in on 1:00 a.m. now] and we have to meet Roxanne, Ed, Patti and Russ at 8:15.