Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ahh....Civilization, at Home and Abroad

So I'll get it off my chest right away and then go positive. Never fly Air Asia. Air Asia being the "low cost" carrier based out of Kuala Lumpur and serving much of SE Asia. I've flown them too much in the last couple years and I can guarantee that no one makes you feel "low cost" like Air Asia. That stuff I said about airlines that look good on the outside having a decent chance of being good inside the operation applies both ways. The zoo that is the "Low Cost Carrier Terminal" at KL is a mostly Air Asia creation. They've squeezed their last dollar out of me, I'll never fly them again if I have a choice, and I'd recommend that you pay a little more and fly someone else.
Border Crossing Viet Nam to Cambodia. Beats Air Asia.
Now for the positive stuff. The bus ride from Saigon to Phnom Penh was pretty decent. It took about five hours in a comfortable, air conditioned bus with one stop for lunch and an efficient border crossing into Cambodia.  Interesting that there was no 'entertainment' on board until crossing the border from Viet Nam. Then, the bus crew, a Vietnamese driver and 'door gunner', immediately put on a shoot 'em up war movie where the good guys were Cambodian Hmong types and  the very despicable bad guys were the Vietnamese army.
Lunch anyone? Beats Air Asia.
No English but no translation necessary, hmm....Anyway, it was an interesting trip through very flat, mostly flooded, rice growing country. The city of Phnom Penh sprawls along the Mekong, a dusty, vibrant and rambunctious third world Asian city.
Cargo tuk tuk. Beats Air Asia.
Bacon anyone? Guess what....
Only as you reach the heart of downtown does it begin to seem at all modern. Our hotel, "Hotel 9",  was very comfortable in a good location and we ate well nearby at a nice Cambodian/French restaurant, the "Boat Noodle".
Dinner at the Boat Noodle
We tuk tuk'd around the city. But the highlight of the  stay was lunch at the Foreign Correspondents Club, the "FCC",  bar and restaurant. It's a second and third floor open air affair looking out directly onto the street and over the Mekong with a great atmosphere and pretty good fare best described as "western nomadic". You really need  to have a meal and a couple drinks at the FCC if you're in Phnom Penh.
Lunch at the "FCC"
Much of the tourist stuff  revolves around the Khmer Rouge atrocities. Who was it said, "....the banality of evil" ? These people didn't have or need much imagination. They just took anyone they didn't like out and beat them to death with a piece of rebar, etc.  But they were  sure to take their photos and carefully record their names before hand. I don't think Mao and Ho were as  bureaucratic.
"Killing Fields" memorial
It's pretty amazing, considering what happened, and that recovery really only started around 1998 after the Vietnamese left, that Cambodia has come so far so fast. The Cambodian people we met were very sweet.  By the time we left Siem Reap I had developed quite a liking for the Cambodians. They have a lot of energy and desire and pride in their history and they want to do things well. The tuk tuk drivers, our guides and hotel staff  in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap were  good crew.

We took the ferry up the river from Phnom  Penh to Siem Reap. The 'river' is the Tonle Basak but it intertwines with the Mekong several times between Phnom Penh and the South China Sea. So where it's no longer the Mekong I haven't figured out. I believe it's safe to say that upstream of Phnom Penh it's no longer the Mekong and it runs about 150 km up from Phnom Penh to the Tonle Sap, the Cambodian great lake. Our boat went up that river to the lake  and the 100 km or so to the NW end of the lake where the port village serving Siem Reap is the end of the passage. The boat ride was great fun.
25-30 knots and little wake. A very efficient hull.
The ferry boat itself is about one hundred and twenty feet long with maybe a fifteen foot beam. It's almost fully enclosed, very low free board, with a rakish bow, air conditioned, fairly quiet and smooth. There's a big twelve cylinder dual turbocharged Yanmar diesel powering a single prop and the beast "flat hauls out". We did the 250 km in about five hours! Most of the trip some of us were out on the bow watching the river  scene and since there was too much speed generated wind to keep a hat on we got fried by the sun. It was worth it. Once we were clear of the Phnom Penh city area the river was a step back into a seemingly timeless rural past.
Along the River scenes
People live on or along the river fishing and growing rice. There is almost no sign of modern life. There was an occasional Wat along the banks and surprisingly few villages. The passage of the ferry was big excitement and naked kids would be waving from along shore. Water buffalo are the chief farm implement. Homes are wood or bamboo and grass and everything is on stilts. This was high water but we were told it would continue to rise for about another month.

Approaching Siem Reap
A tuk tuk ride got us into Siem Reap from the ferry. At this point I should say that the Cambodian version of the tuk tuk varies from any we've seen elsewhere. They use an entire motor cycle as a 'tractor'.  The cab is attached to the seat of the motorcycle by a 'fifth wheel' type arrangement like towing a trailer. We passengers sit in the trailer  while the intrepid tuk tuk commander, who always wears a helmet while under way in Cambodia, braves bus devouring pot holes, blinding dust, pouring rain, insane traffic and wandering cattle. And we in back have no fear, heh, heh.  A tuk tuk ride all over Phnom Penh or Siem Reap costs about two dollars US.
Prior to lift-off
 Which brings up another little bit of craziness. Almost everywhere in Cambodia the US dollar is the currency of the realm. The 'official' Cambodian currency is the 'Riel' at about 4000 to the dollar. But guess what, the ATM machines give only US dollars! And everywhere we went, from street kids hustling whatever to restaurants to hotels to the temples at Angkor,  the dollar is the standard currency. You can use riels if you have them and you'll get them back from your dollars as small change, that's about all.  
Slow Moving Traffic, Siem Reap
In Siem Reap we stayed at the Kool Hotel which is one of the really greatest  small hotels we've ever enjoyed. The public areas and rooms are lovely in tile and hardwood. The rooms are large and spacious with all amenities. The pool is nice and  the staff were absolutely the best. At one hundred sixty eight bucks all inclusive for four nights this was a bargain.
The Kool Hotel
Siem Reap is interesting enough in itself. The town bustles with tourist activity and the streets are lined with hotels, restaurants, watering holes and massage parlors. The name means "Siam Defeated" and the town was founded after the Cambodians defeated a Siamese (Thai) invasion back around the 12th century. These days the reason for Siem Reap being anything but a rural Cambodian village are the temples at Angkor, Angkor Wat, as known to the world.
Quiet time, Siem Reap
So, like everybody else, I'll use "Angkor Wat"  as a name for the whole temple complex area even though 'the' Angkor Wat itself is only one of many temples in the immediate area. It is the largest single temple and the best preserved. The claim is that it's the largest religious complex in the world.
Four Faces of Buddha, Angkor Wat
Trying to describe Angkor Wat and everything to be found there is well beyond the scope of this blog. I can only say  the place is well worth a long journey. The temples and peripheral structures, moats , walls,  stone carvings, etc,  are magnificent.

Main Entrance and Moat, Angkor Wat
Initially we were put off by the tourist hoards at one well known  sunset viewing hilltop temple. But after that we found the area not over crowded and we  both were very happy with the visit . We spent two days with hired guides who were very good and I would highly recommend that plan. We got far, far more out of our time than we would have on our own or with a larger group. We also had a taxi to drive us around and given either broiling sun or heavy rain it was a good idea. Cabs and guides are not expensive and were worth far more than we paid.
Janet and Vateh, our guide, modern Apsara.
Stone Carved Apsara, 12th Century

12th Century Cock Fight
It's one thing to read about the glories of a past civilization and another to be presented with the evidence. On viewing the temples there is no doubt of the power, size and cultural complexity of the population that existed here between about 900 and 1300 AD. Internal political and religious strife created weaknesses that enabled external enemies to destroy the Khmer culture of the time. In no other place I've seen has the experience of a 'civilization lost' seemed so powerful.

Tomb Raiders?
 We put the boat to bed in Rebak after returning from Siem Reap. As we left it looked a little lonely but secure. We came out of Singapore on Delta to Tokyo, couldn't get on the SFO flight so we took DL 296 to SEA. Caught a United A320 down to SFO and got on the last flight home to Arcata.
Rebak Marina

Now it's September 2nd and we're home. The weather is beautiful and our place has been very well kept by our house sitter. We're jet lagged and culture shocked as expected.

It's been quite an eventful six months for me. Janet had a good time in the Phang Nga gulf and doing this land cruising. The plan for next year is not yet defined but come February or March I anticipate some long passages. Back to sailing!
Janet after the elephant ride, Angkor Wat

Love to all,
Bill & Janet

Friday, August 19, 2011

Baht, Kip, Dong, the Road to Saigon

I get a real warm fuzzy from counting the millions in currency found in my wallet at any given time. It's great fun watching the ATMs spitting out bills in denominations of 500,000.
To Saigon
Of course it's  Dong, the currency of Viet Nam,  and the exchange rate is roughly 20,000 Dong to the dollar. I am SO confused. Most ATMs will only give you 2,000,000 a hit which is about $100 so the nice warm fuzzy comes fairly often. But Saigon is not an expensive place. We've had some very nice meals very cheaply and street food costs almost nothing. As a city it's hard to think of a comparison place but Manhattan, some areas of Manhattan, come to mind. There  is plenty of energy and it's a very aggressively capitalistic place. There are most major international hotel chains represented in some posh buildings. The real high rise commercial construction is just beginning. There's one nearly finished glass and steel creation which will be interesting when completed. There is every very high end name in fashion and apparel to be found.
"Reunification Palace" Saigon
In government architecture it seems much more a capitol city than does Hanoi, but  in practice no place could be any less "communist". That historic bad joke was given up on about twenty years ago in Viet Nam although the "party" remains the one  political entity allowed. 

We're here for another day and then we take the bus to Phnom Penh for a couple days before taking a boat up the river to Siem Reap and a few days at Angkor Wat. From Siem Reap we'll fly back to Langkawi via Kuala Lumpur. The plan is to put Airsteam to bed and come home on the first of September. We'll leave it in the water at Rebak marina. That's what we did last year and it worked out very well.

This trip began with a couple days visiting old haunts in Bangkok. The Thai 'Baht', about 30 to the dollar. We had a lovely lunch with a friend at the Mandarin Oriental, one of the great hotels in the world.
Lunch at the Oriental
We stayed at the Novotel Siam Square which was my old layover hotel flying with Northwest. And we took the new SkyTrain to and from the airport which is a vast improvement in speed and comfort from using a taxi on the roads.

Bangkok was fine but we've both been there plenty. Vientiane, the Laotian capitol,  was new territory and Lao Airlines was a new carrier for us. Vientiane is an hour flight and as different from Bangkok as Ensenada is from San Diego. The Laotian 'Kip', about 8000 to the dollar. I was just starting to get confused.
The "vertical runway" Vientiane
Vientiane is a city of about 300,000 on the north bank of the Mekong but it has a small town atmosphere and is certainly the most laid back national capitol I've ever seen. The Lao people seem exceptionally sweet. There is no high rise construction in the city. Traffic is not heavy and the mopeds and bicycles far outnumber the autos.
Vientiane, from the top
The old French influence is very strong in architecture and food. There are very good bakeries and western food as well as the Lao fare which we enjoyed. It's a very inexpensive city. We got a couple of the best massages we've ever had in a nice spa for about $12 for an hour and a half. The site seeing is good for a couple days at least.  I enjoyed Vientiane whereas Janet felt it was just TOO third world.
Downtown "strip", Vientiane

Family travel, Vientiane
After a few days in Vientiane Janet couldn't wait for the big city of Hanoi. And Hanoi is a fair sized place at about four million folks. Again we flew Lao Airlines.  Things are definitely different  from Vientiane. It's hard to imagine the Lao folks trying very hard to scam anyone. In Hanoi one of the most well organized and aggressive taxi scams in the world operates on a large scale at the airport. The Vietnamese are out after the Dong, number one! 

Elegance Ruby Hotel, Hanoi
We had arranged transportation from the airport through our hotel. Even then, as you exit the terminal arrival area the taxi guys will ask what hotel and when you tell them another guy will come up waving a sign from that hotel. The idea is to lure you to another hotel with a similar name far from your intended destination and then either get you to check in there or hit you for a big taxi fare. This was tried on us but our real hotel had our names and an identification code to confirm the ride so we didn't have a problem. Beware taxis in Hanoi. There were about fifty guys hanging around in the arrivals lounge playing this game. The city itself sprawls along the banks of the Red River. There is almost no high rise construction. You may have guessed this is something I like in a  city. It seems a much more naturally human place to me. Big modern sky scrapers are exciting to look at in themselves but I'd rather look at a city of trees and buildings of a more modest scale. Rome, Venice and Washington DC come to mind. Paris would be a far better place without the Tour Montparnasse . Hanoi is probably the most French seeming city I've seen outside France. We stayed in the Old Quarter  in a very nice small hotel. The street we were on was three paces wide and could easily have been mistaken for a back street in Montparnasse.

On the street, the Old Quarter
Except that on the narrow curbs people were cooking meals and slaughtering chickens and parking motorbikes chockablock and selling vegetables and cutting hair and basically using the curbs and the street as an outdoor communal living room and business center. We did our site seeing. The Maison Centrale (the "Hanoi Hilton") and some temples and museums.
Remnants of the "Hanoi Hilton"
But Hanoi itself is the main attraction. We had some good meals, western and Vietnamese, and the prices were varied from inexpensive to very, very inexpensive. Getting lost in the old quarter is impossible to avoid even when you're trying and it's a pleasure unless you're in a hurry. There's little reason to hurry in Hanoi.
Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi

Broken leg? Wonder how that happened?
Cyclo drivers hustling rides in Hanoi
From Hanoi is was another new-to-us carrier, Viet Nam Airlines, to Hue and then to Saigon. I will say that both Lao Airlines and Viet Nam Airlines were completely professional and we had no complaints of any kind. Lao flies ATR 72 aircraft, I don't believe they have any jets, but the aircraft were clean inside and out, they left and arrived on time or early  and everyone seemed very well trained, happy enough and professional. I think an airline which manages to look good from the outside is usually, not always,  acceptably good inside the operation as well. I could say the same for Viet Nam Airlines except that they are much larger and international. We flew Airbus A321 aircraft from Hanoi to Hue and Hue to Saigon and had good flights.
Air Viet Nam triple seven
Hue is another relatively small Asian city, about 300,000 people, and it seems smaller. The city is built along the banks of the Perfume River. The French influence is very pronounced in architecture and atmosphere but this is the old capitol city of imperial Viet Nam.
Common local craft, the "drop tank boat", Perfume River, Hue
The tombs and dwelling places of the emperors are the primary tourist attractions and since many of the best of them are near the river, a river tour is the thing to do when in Hue. We had a fun day with the two of us on a boat doing the sites. The tombs and palaces at Tu Duc are perhaps the loveliest we've seen anywhere in Asia.

At Tu Duc
The  guy and his wife who owned, operated and lived aboard the boat were fun and she cooked us a great lunch on board.

Lunch on the Perfume River

'Our' boat
The other main attraction in Hue is the massive, rather grim old Citadel. There is big big flag on top of the tower but there once was a better one. I had to go wander around the southern walls while Janet was sightseeing in the very nice Imperial Enclosure. For me, the Citadel evokes a lot of old memories.
The Citadel
We  really enjoyed Hue and I think Hanoi and Hue are well worth a visit if you're in this part of the world. Saigon, well the verdict is still out here. Not that it isn't an interesting city now but as of yet I'm not sure it's worth the hassle of getting here.
Estimated 5.6 million motorcycles in Saigon
There are a lot of interesting cities in the world and so far the new  Saigon, other than a really outstanding Vietnamese dinner we had last night, hasn't shown me much of special appeal. There is some nice architecture remaining. There is plenty of really good food. The 'sites' are not much. The 'War Remnants' museum is almost funny in a sad sort of way.
"People's Committee Hall" Saigon
If nothing else  these cities make it clear to those of us who were young and in the military during the Viet Nam war that the war was forty years ago. There's almost nothing outside the museums remaining in Viet Nam from the war. Most Vietnamese and most Americans were not alive during the war. The world has moved on. This is as it should be.

So we're outta here day after tomorrow for Phnom Penh. Sorry if this has been a bit of a book but I could go on about much more. Thanks for reading.

Love to all,
Bill & Janet