The locals say Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia don’t see a huge number of American visitors because it’s such a beast of a trip to get there. My best Orlando pal, Mike, and I made the 26+ hour journey and somewhat miraculously met up within minutes at the Phuket Airport. When we got to our lovely hotel at Kamala Beach, the hours of travel were all worthwhile.
Not only was the place gorgeous, everyone was friendly and super happy to have us visit. This was the case throughout Southeast Asia, which I found a little surprising, after visiting Hoa Lo Prison, the Hanoi Hilton. More on that later. In Phuket, we found $8.50 Thai massage, kayaked through caves where you had to lie down or lose your head, 50-cent Pad Thai, and the most incredible elephant sanctuary. MUCH more on that later.
I felt compelled to visit Bangkok, because, well, it’s BANGKOK. But I was surprisingly underwhelmed. It was eight lanes of crawling traffic and people people people here, there, and everywhere. Since my days of partying all night have long since faded, I was not that psyched by yet another city that never sleeps. The highlight here was dinner on the river at the Mandarin. That was actually awesome. Oh, and yoga at Yoga Elements was fun. This studio is Lonely Planet’s top in Bangkok and one of the top 25 in the world.
On to Vietnam, which was FASCINATING and NOISY and EXCITING and DELICIOUS. I am a HUGE FAN. Hanoi was exactly what I wanted Vietnam to be.. There were motorbikes and guys with carts and some cars on the roads, and none of the operators seemed to know or care that there’s such a thing as traffic rules… or lanes for that matter. Our first hotel actually gave us printed rules on how to cross the road. Number one was: DON’T STEP BACK. We got the hang of it, but I have to admit the first few times, I waited for someone else to go, then shadowed them to the other side of the street.
A highlight in Hanoi was visiting the Hoa Lo Prison, better known in our country as the Hanoi Hilton. It’s always interesting to me to see how other countries portray historic events compared to what we are taught about them in school. The gist here was that Vietnam was fighting to have its own government, a Communist one, and interventionist America didn’t like that. So we came and bombed the crap out of them. It’s even called the American War here (same in Cambodia). I felt a bit uncomfortable here as an American, but that’s not a bad thing. I think exposure to other perspectives around the world keeps you centered. Senator John McCain’s flight suit and photos of his capture and treatment are on display at the prison, and that was VERY cool because he’s not a loser.
In Hanoi, we met up with Jen and Amanda, two of my nieces, and my sister-in-law, Sheryl. We hopped on an overnight cruise to gorgeous Halong Bay. Our guide Peter said no trip to Vietnam counts unless it includes Halong Bay. (Every time he got on the PA to make announcements, he would close by saying “Thank you for listening to Peter.” We found this hilarious and are still quoting Peter. Thank you for listening). We swam and hiked to the top of a mountain and ate terrific food. Number three highlight of the trip (Still waiting to tell you about the elephants!!)
Speaking of food, the food was even better here than it was in Thailand, and that is saying a lot. I eat Vietnamese food with pretty good regularity in the states, so I was in food bliss here. I had pho every day and spring rolls most days.
I love the Vietnamese people more than their food! They are friendly and seem to be very happy we are here. And they like Americans, which I don’t really get, but that makes me happy and relieved. I’ve been in countries where the locals are not so psyched to see Americans (Morocco).
From Hanoi, Mike, Sheryl, and I scooted south to beach town Hoi An. (I have to say, I was a pretty good travel agent here… Beach-city-beach-city. A great progression.) Our little hotel, the Hoi An Resort Villas, had bikes, so Mike and I pedaled out and around town, trying to follow the hotel map to find “downtown.” After 45 minutes, all we found was ourselves, back at the hotel. Hanger was setting in. So we turned around and had lunch in the first restaurant we found, which was great. I think I had pho.
Number two highlight of the trip: Vespa Adventures’ Streets and Eats night foodie tour. It’s exactly what it sounds like.. We zoomed through slightly less crazy traffic on Vespas and ate street food, learned to make (kind of) dumplings, and stopped at a couple of restaurants for local favorites.
This adventure was highly recommended by my friend, Andrew, and I’m so glad we squeezed it in. Try to get Vinh as your lead guide, he was terrific. If you do get him, tell me what you think of his accent, which is interesting but unplaceable. He learned to speak English from watching American and British tv, and often I found myself listening to him in wonder.
I also found a really cool yoga studio here called Nomad. It had an open air (hot) room, and to my surprise, it was an Ashtanga (power) yoga class. I’m more of an Anusara (friendly, heart-opening) girl, but I was game, especially when the instructor (from Texas “Thanks for coming to yoga today, y’all!”) said I could child’s pose some of the Chaturangas. It was game on. I Chaturanga’ed with the best of the class. I was somewhat crippled for three days, but I wasn’t a child’s poser.
We were sad to leave Hoi An, but I wanted to at least dip into Ho Chi Minh City. I’m glad we went, even for a day and a half. It’s crowded and loud and a nice change of pace from sleepy Hoi An. Sheryl and I went to the War Remnants Museum. We went late so we could only spend about 90 minutes there, which turned out to be perfect for me. I alternately wanted to cry and throw up looking at exhibits from the Vietnam (American) War. I couldn’t have taken much more. There’s an entire exhibit hall featuring the work of international news war photographers that is indescribably fantastic.
From Ho Chi Minh City, we went on to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to see Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Seventh Wonder of the World. We got up at 4:40 to take a tuk tuk up to see dawn break over this breathtaking temple. It was built as a Hindu temple in the early 12th century. but became Buddhist by the end of it. It was stunning. In the US, I don’t think you’d be able to traipse all over the stones and stairs without signing ten papers signing away your rights to sue. It was rugged, but fantastic.
Bayon Temple, with its 216 giant heads of Avalokiteshvara was incredible as well… And I adored Ta Prohm. It was built in 1186, but we were told it was forgotten for 400 years. During that time, giant trees, like animals swallowed up and knocked down huge parts of this massive temple. If you’ve seen “Lara Croft, Tomb Raider,” parts of it were shot here. Must see.
I tracked down a yoga retreat center (there are quite a few of them here) in Siem Reap and took a terrific Vinyasa class taught in English by a French woman. I would have understood her better if she’d spoken French, but It was a lovely class and gave me my trifecta of doing yoga in all three countries. It was interesting how there wasn’t one Thai, Vietnamese, or Cambodian student or instructor in any of the classes. Mostly Aussies. So at least the classes were fun. Our last day was in Phnom Penh. Mike flew home, and Sheryl and I had time to visit one place. I, of course, picked Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It used to be a school, but between 1975 and 1978, 17,000 mostly Cambodians were held and tortured here before being clubbed or stabbed to death in the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge. There were still beds and leg irons and scaffolds where people were tortured. But it’s the rows and rows of black and white photographs of men, women, and children who died after leaving here that strangle your heart. Our visit was harrowing. Haunting. It’s hard to believe this happened in our lifetime. It was a lesson that you have to be vigilant about what’s happening in your world and with your government. No photos from here.
It was an uneventful (except for missing my flight to LAX from Guangzhou, China) and long journey home that included an overnight in China AND TWO MORE PASSPORT STAMPS. Here’s where I get to be the boss of this page. This post is long enough, and I’m about to add more photos. So I’m going to create a Part Deux to tell you about by far my favorite part of my three weeks in SE Asia. Here’s a BIG hint: