Southeast Asia has been one of the top five destinations on my "must see" list for some time. Finally the time was here, so I signed up with Tauck World Discovery Tours.
First up: Vietnam, considered to be one of the last frontiers of Asia. It held a complicated mystique for me with images of the war at the edge of my memory. Just before landing, I experienced that on-the-verge feeling as I filled out the customs forms, asking SARS detecting questions like: Name, Cough, Malaise?
All that vanished, however, on our arrival at the swank Hanoi Opera Hilton (not the wartime Hanoi Hilton). As I walked outside the hotel and turned right, I found myself in a bustling intersection where a sea of locals were rushing by on a variety of cycles, crisscrossing with the greatest of ease and determination, many carrying huge loads. Facing the intersection, and virtually next to our hotel, stood the spectacular Hanoi Grand Theater Opera House, which symbolizes the great revitalization of the new Vietnamese capital.
Our tour began in earnest that afternoon as we boarded the coach to visit the Temple of Literature, the Tran Quoc Buddhist Pagoda on the West Lake, into which John McCain crashed his plane in 1967 and became a "detainee," as our guide put it. The next morning we started with a "Cyclo" (a bicycle-powered rickshaw) ride to Hou Lo Prison, the POW Hanoi Hilton. It houses a guillotine, death cells and is complete with rows of replicas of shackled Vietnamese prisoners, as they were held by the French. Of special interest to our group, however, were the two POW exhibits, focusing largely on John McCain's imprisonment there. The Ho Chi Minh saga continued as we arrived at Ho's Mausoleum at Da Binh Square. No pictures were allowed inside, but as I expressed confusion over Ho's rather young appearance, given that he died an old man, our guide explained that he is "refurbished" every year.
Having seen Ho Chi Minh at his final resting place, we moved on to his modest green-shuttered bungalow and his "Stilt House," where he actually lived, shunning the "grandiose Presidential Palace" as his residence, according to the official explanation. Or was it to evade American bombs, I wondered, given the bomb shelters on the compound.
Later that afternoon, we concluded our visit to Hanoi on a happier note by attending the famous Water Puppet Theater. Using a system of rods and
pulleys to control the antics of the puppets, the puppeteers, accompanied by music of traditional instruments, perform 17 episodes in 45 minutes exalting the legends, traditions, myth and beliefs of rural Vietnam. At the end, the puppeteers wade out from behind the scrim into the watery stage to take their bows.
On day three, we found ourselves in Hue, said to be one of the prettiest cities in Vietnam. Its seven-story Thien Mu Pagoda is as much a landmark as the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building. Again, we were treated to a Cyclo sightseeing trip, which included the Imperial City, the Forbidden Purple Palace and a mini-cruise along the Perfume River.
We reached Da Nang, our next destination, via a long and exciting drive over the beautiful Hai Van Pass. A short stopover at the Cham Museum in Da Nang was to give us a better appreciation of the ancient Central Vietnamese people who were rivals to Cambodia's Khmer Kingdom. In late afternoon, we arrived at the world-renowned Furama Hotel, located right on the infamous and beautiful China Beach. After a short drive to the once thriving port of Hoi An, which after the ravages of war, has transformed itself into a prosperous trading town. We were invited by its proud mayor to see his modest home, after some money changed hands. The curious locals were also out in droves and more money changed hands as cameras clicked to take "people pictures."
On day six, a one-hour flight from Da Nang landed us in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, as it's known by the boomer generation and "preferred" by the South Vietnamese, according to our guide. Our city tour of Saigon took us to stroll the ever-interesting Cho Benh Thanh, or Central Market. It's one of largest most authentic outdoor markets and I was particularly interested in the mysterious large green fruit called durian. Our guide said, "It smells like hell, but tastes like heaven." I never got a taste of it. The vendor refused to cut it.
On Saigon's Paris Square stands a beautiful building designed by the firm of Gustav Eiffel. Built by the French in 1886-1891, it serves as the main post office. The large beautiful foyer is dominated by Ho Chi Minh's portrait prominently displayed above the crowd.
The second day in Saigon brought our somber group to the Cu Chi Tunnels, the hallowed grounds from which 18,000 Viet Cong waged war, planned the Tet Offensive and littered the area with bamboo-spiked booby-traps. Our Vietnamese tour guide demonstrated the fine art of concealment. Wearing green fatigues, he slipped down the hole and then popped up holding the hatch above his head. I and a few others went into the tunnels. Eerie.
Our next stop was Cambodia. Forty years of war are still very visible in the rural areas, where the impoverished locals scratch out a living any way they can. The barefoot children are everywhere, looking wistfully at the tourists to buy their goods or pay to have a picture taken. Siem Reap, a dusty little town, is the gateway to the temples. Our visit that afternoon was to the small, but exquisite, Banteay Srei Temple, "The Citadel of Woman," with its pink sandstone carvings. But the coup de grace for Cambodia, the majestic Angkor Wat, anxiously awaited by all, would not be seen until the next day.
Approaching the unrivaled symmetrical complex, we walked down a causeway lined on both sides with 44 guardian statues of gods and demons, our guide explained. Built between the ninth and 15th Century, and then abandoned by the Khmer Kings, we stood mesmerized to take it all in. While the ravages of time showed, many of the incredibly detailed stone carvings like the all-seeing, four-faced smiling heads topping the towers, still rivaled any of the man-made wonders of the world I've seen. One of the tourist challenges of Angkor Wat is a climb up the steep steps to the top of one of the five 210-foot high towers. Many tried, a few succeeded. Among them, a group of very young monks, their bright orange robes blowing in the breeze.
The differences between Cambodia and Thailand, our next stop, were awesome. After seeing the stoic and mostly impoverished population, and the many haunting and decaying temples of Cambodia, Thailand presented a stark contrast. We flew to Chaing Mai via Bangkok, where one of my favorite activities would take place.
Day 11 was designated elephant trek day. It started at Chiang Doa Elephant Camp with the feeding of the elephants by the tourists. Photo op anyone? Followed by a demonstration of their impressive, but no longer needed, logging skills.
The youngster of the group was a local artist, painting a watercolor, which one of our travel mates bought for $15.
Then it was finally time for the jaunt in the jungle -- a one-hour trek through the jungle and down the river atop the obedient pachyderms, guided by their mahouts (trainers) or "stepmothers" as the locals refer to them. Amazingly, despite their size, these elephants transported their passengers up and down the steep hillsides into the river almost effortlessly. Maybe a little risky, but it was great fun.
What was in it for the elephants? A leisurely cool mud bath, of course.
The bath game began right after the river trek finished and they filed in and lay down at the shallow end of the river to let the mahouts work their magic. The elephants clearly relished their soak and scrub, but all good things must come to an end, so 20 minutes later, they all filed out again.
The whole thing was a sight to behold, I will never forget it.
On day 13, we were back in Bangkok at the posh Shangri La Hotel, overlooking the Ping River. From there, we drove to Wat Phra Kaeo, a virtual treasure trove of Thai temple architecture. Cameras went on overload trying to capture the exquisitely detailed paintings and carving of colors, gold buildings and gilded statues. We viewed the large Golden Reclining Buddha and walked through the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (no photos allowed here) and were dazzled by the ancient murals and stunning gold structures all around us. They were incredible.
The tone in Bangkok is upbeat, a modern city that has decent mass transit. So, a couple of us decided to take the new, quiet and cool Skytrain hurling above the city to Siam, a ritzy super mall with tenants like Gucci, Cartier and Burberry's.
Prices were higher than in the United States, but the newly rich Chinese and Vietnamese tourists didn't seem to mind.
That was Southeast Asia -- three countries in 15 days.
All fascinating, some still not too spoiled by tourism. At the beginning of my journey, I worried about the "if it's Tuesday, it must be Bangkok" style of this tour, but then it did have something to offer this intrepid traveler as an introduction to the region.
I'm glad I saw it before it changes too much.
It was a truly amazing trip.