We debarked the Mekong Prestige II for the last time, having recovered our passports and paid the bill. Good-byes would come a little later, as we had a morning’s excursion to enjoy first. We passengers were divided once again by language, the Aussies on one bus, the French on the other, both headed for an hour’s drive into Ho Chi Minh City.
The language division that divided the passengers throughout the cruise struck me as an unfortunate but inevitable feature of the cruise. One obviously wants a tour given in a language one understands, and during the tours people will bond, later enjoying dinner and drinks and what-not together.
Speaking for myself, I would have liked to have met and attempted to converse with a more diverse group. Continue reading 10. Saigon Reunification
The Tuesday morning excursion was to a Vietnamese village by the name of Tan Chau, not far from the border. We met our guide for the remainder of the cruise, a forty-ish gent named Thang who at first blush came across as more formal, almost stilted, than our Cambodian guide, Samath.
A “local junk” (small wooden powerboat) took us to the first stop, a fish farm. It comprised of a series of docks surrounding and enclosing four netted fish pens in the river, each maybe ten meters square. One of the pens was covered with a simple shed roof, another by the home of the family that operated the farm, their continual presence necessary, according to Thang, to prevent fish thievery. Continue reading 09. Lies, Damned Statistics, and Tourism
Cruise Director Gaby made it clear that we wouldn’t be allowed to leave the ship in the morning since the Cambodian border officials had already stamped our passports as having left the country. We’d have to take her word for it since none of us had seen our passports since we gave them to the purser before leaving Siem Reap some days back. We were some hours from the Vietnamese border yet, and had been forewarned that the border formalities for a shipload of passengers could take another four hours once we got there. Hence, we would spend Monday in limbo, a day at sea, or at river, as it was.
Continue reading 08. A Day on the River Limbo
I had been in Cambodia for five days. In addition to visiting the major tourist city, Siem Reap, I’ve taken a five-hour bus ride across the countryside, spent two nights on a river boat, and visited a school, factories, and villages. Most Cambodians live what can be euphemistically described as a simple life. Dirt poor is probably a better description.
In theory, I support tourism for the economic benefits it provides to such people. Continue reading 07. My Great Cambodian Depression
Our arrival at the village of Kampong Tralach provided the opportunity for an ox cart ride. I cannot claim this was on my bucket list. Nevertheless Frank and I put on our smelliest clothing, debarked the ship and boarded an oxen buttock buttressed buckboard. We were assigned to the English-speaking oxen, but all the passengers jumped at this rare chance, creating a bizarre scene as the parade of westerners rumbled through the village in a caravan of over a dozen ox carts.
Continue reading 06. Ox Cart Aerobics and Buddhist Blessing Yoga
There are a couple drawbacks to taking a Mekong River cruise downstream from Siem Reap, particularly during Cambodia’s brief but convincing dry season. First, the Mekong River doesn’t go anywhere near Siem Reap, making the proposed excursion an impossibility any time of year. Instead, the cruises usually start on nearby Lac Tonle Sap, crossing its length before proceeding down the Tonle Sap River, which meets the Mekong at Phnom Penh. During the dry season, even that is an impossibility, as the lake drops nine to twelve meters. At the moment it is only a half-meter deep, making it easier to hike than cruise. Continue reading 05. Cruising Cambodia
In my last missive it was awful of me to call Angkor Wat a “pile of old rocks”. Not just because it was obnoxious and ignorant of me to say such things about a place sacred to an entire people and their national symbol – it’s on their flag, for heaven’s sake – but because it has been an extraordinary source of inspiration for millions. It was not for me, but that’s my issue! So I wholeheartedly and sincerely apologise for that crack. My only defence is that I, too, was hot, sweaty, and rude. Continue reading 04. A New Approach
The two hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Siem Reap had more empty seats than occupied, a cricket team of twenty-something farm boys from Pakistan providing all the in-flight entertainment one could ask for. We debarked across a baking tarmac into sleepy Siem Reap International Airport where a single serious-looking customs and immigration official reviewed paperwork and stamped things furiously. Despite this age of supposed globalisation, the visa and entry process from one country to the next still varies considerably.
Malaysia’s visa and entry process is admirably electronic. Not a scrap of paper changed hands except the passport itself, and even that was only so it could be swiped through the electronic reader. All they wanted was electronic index-finger prints, and off we went.
Cambodia’s visa application process was conveniently online, making its paper-intensive entry process (passport, arrival card, departure card, arrival visa, departure visa, contagious disease declaration, customs declaration, each a different scrap of paper with much the same details to be filled in by hand) something of a disappointment. Then they wanted all ten of my finger prints. Continue reading 03. Spiritual Me
This trip breaks precedent on many fronts, but I suppose if Alabama is recognising same-sex marriages, well, we live in interesting times indeed. Generally we start planning our adventures a year in advance, which is something of a necessity if one is using frequent flyer points, or want to book a popular place and time at a reasonable rate. This time, without gainful employment, we jumped on a “last-minute” bargain, booking the 19-day holiday in less than two weeks.
It has been a harrowing experience. With time, one can order and pay for things in rational sequence, limiting risk: first visas, then flights, then accommodation, then everything else. Without time, one hands out credit card details to anyone who asks, then prays for divine intervention. Having paid for the entire trip but not yet having received our Vietnamese visas, we spent a morning in absolute panic when we re-read the visa application instructions to realise they wouldn’t accept the personal cheque we had sent. World-class bickering and recriminations followed. Continue reading 02. Last Minute Minutia
When disaster strikes, start looking for bargains.
Mere hours after the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center, Frank was planning a visit to Manhattan. A week after the 2002 Bali bombing, our holiday in Sanur was booked. A month after George Bush The Lesser invaded Iraq, I was flying over Persia.
Callous? Insensitive? Reckless? Perhaps.
Compassionate? Thoughtful? Courageous? Maybe.
Smart? No doubt about it.
In October 2001, no one in New York City suggested our attendance was insensitive. The beleaguered restauranteurs of lower Manhattan were particularly glad to see us in their near silent bistros. Moreover, the events of 9/11 went a long way to shatter the hardened façade of New Yorkers, offering a rare glimpse of their humanity, humility, and vulnerability.
Continue reading 01. To The Rescue