By Mary Jo Plouf

photo credit: Mary Jo Plouf

photo credit: Mary Jo Plouf

There are several ways to get around with public transportation in South East Asia. Vietnam has a large number of taxis, both with and without meters. It is much preferred to use a taxi with a meter and visitors should always agree on a fare before they enter the taxi. Taxis are not particularly expensive, but the fare can vary widely.  We had to learn the hard way when we were charged the equivalent of twenty dollars for a ride that should have been three dollars. Fortunately, we had booked the taxi through our hotel and they had the time and the name of the taxi company on their records. We got a refund within an hour. So actually, we learned two lessons which are invaluable throughout the world.  Always know the fare ahead of time and whenever possible book through your hotel when you need a taxi. The hotel can also give you a good estimate of what the fare should be in order to reach many popular destinations.

Continue reading

The Mysteries and Delights of the Far East

By Mary Jo Plouf

photo credit: Mary Jo Plouf

photo credit: Mary Jo Plouf

Gate 1’s 17 day tour of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, is presented not as a “walk in the park” but as a sensory, visual and physical immersion in the culture of the three countries. Our group of 17 walked among the people and viewed their homes, temples, schools and places of business. We ate their food, starting with noodle soup for breakfast, fried noodles for lunch and noodles and vegetables for dinner. It was soon apparent they did not eat much meat and most of us found the diet quite healthy.

We arrived in Bangkok at 11.30 p.m. after 17 hours of travel. Our Gate1 representative was waiting to bring us to our hotel. It is no small thing that after such a long journey, our hotel, The Chaophya Park, was a deluxe refuge and relaxing haven from the rigors of travel. After a refreshing sleep, we were ready for a full day of Thai culture.

Bangkok is the capital and most densely populated city in Thailand. Traffic is out of control. Boat service on the Chao Phraya River services approximately 50,000 people daily and helps to alleviate traffic in the city center. Taxi service includes cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks.

Our first stop was Wat Pho, which is the largest temple complex in Bangkok. It is home to the gigantic golden reclining Buddha. The Buddha is 150 feet long and 40 feet high and takes up the entire building. It is covered in gold-leaf and shines like the sun. Along the sides of the temple are 108 small bronze bowls where visitors can buy coins to deposit in each bowl and make a wish. It is more than impressive, it is amazing. Visitors are reminded that it is an active temple and proper clothing must be worn. Shoulders and legs must be covered and shoes removed.

photo credit: Mary Jo Plouf

photo credit: Mary Jo Plouf

We spent about an hour roaming freely around the rest of the complex which includes 394 Golden Buddhas sitting in the lotus position, a school of Thai massage and numerous small buildings and statues in a park-like setting.

In the afternoon we had our choice of visiting the Grand Palace which houses the Emerald Buddah and is still used for cultural and government functions, but is no longer a royal residence, or wandering on our own through the maze of street venders and small shops.

Late in the afternoon we returned to our hotel and availed ourselves of the nearby Thai massage facility. The Thai massage is very different from our usual massage. It is invigorating instead of relaxing and uses yoga style postures to relieve and stress and improve blood circulation. The charge was $15 for an hour and we were definitely hooked.

Continue reading

Angkor Wat

By Mary Jo Plouf

photo credit: Mary Jo Plouf

photo credit: Mary Jo Plouf

Angkor Wat or the city of temples in Cambodia was first a Hindu and then a Buddhist temple complex.  It is the largest religious monument in the world and the best preserved. It was built in the 12th century. It is renowned for its grandeur and its extensive bas-reliefs on the walls surrounding the structure.  It has become the symbol of Cambodia and appears on its national flag and it is the country’s number one attraction for visitors.

It was not until the 19th century when the temple was visited by the French explorer, Henri Mouhot, that the temple became a Western tourist destination. There is no evidence that the site was ever used as living quarters. No domestic utensils, weapons or items of clothing were found. Little was done with the site until the 20th century when a considerable restoration was begun and the area was cleared of out-of-control vegetation.  There are still a lot of the old, old trees which have grown-into and become a part of the structure. The entire structure contains an enormous amount of sandstone which was probably transported to the site by raft.

Angkor Wat has seen continued conservation efforts and has contributed to a massive increase in tourism to Camodia.  It is now a World Heritage Site.

Our Gate 1 Travel group spent two days in Siem Reap and visiting Angkor Wat was one of the highlights of our trip. It is beautiful beyond words and even photography cannot completely capture the enormous scope of its walls, towers and grounds. It is a site that no traveler to South East Asia should miss.

Halong Bay

By Mary Jo Plouf

photo credit: Mary Jo Plouf

photo credit: Mary Jo Plouf

Halong Bay, or Ha Long, Bay as it is known in Vietnamese is a popular tourist destination in  Quang Ninh Province in northeastern Vietnam.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that should be included on every travel itinerary in Vietnam.  It is a bit out of the way but our Gate 1 Travel group reached it by bus from Hanoi.  We spent a half day on the bay and it was pure magic. We left fairly early in the morning when the fog shrouded many of the limestone formations and the old wooden fishing boat in which we were traveling gave us the feeling that we were alone in an eerie seascape.  The fog soon cleared however and we were able to photograph the massive limestone formations.

The bay consists of a dense cluster of some 1,600 limestone islands each topped with thick jungle vegetation rising spectacularly from the ocean.  Some of the islands are hollow. Some have caves and towards the end of our trip we climbed above sea level to visit one of the caves which was lit with a variety of soft lights. It was not a difficult climb and all of our group was able to enjoy the beauty of the natural caverns.

 

photo credit: Mary Jo Plouf

photo credit: Mary Jo Plouf

A community of approximately 2,000 inhabitants live in four fishing villages in the Bay. They make their living from the large variety of fish and mollusks in the waters.  The climate is hot and humid in the summer and can be quite cold in the dry winter. Spring or Fall is the best time to visit.

Many tours, because of its slightly out of the way location, do not include this magnificent area on their schedule.  I am most grateful that Gate 1 Travel recognized the unique beauty of this site.  It was well worth the bus trip. It was another highlight on a great trip full of highlights.

The Water Puppet Show

By Mary Jo Plouf

The only existing water puppets in the world, as far as I can determine, are in Hanoi, Vietnam. The Thang Long Water Pupper Show is a puppet show, performed on a watery stage. The puppets depict scenes from the history of Vietnam, animal antics and human foibles.  It is all very interesting even if the majority of the spectators cannot understand the language.  The band alone is worth the price of admission.

The theater is small and the seats are very close together and small.  There is very little leg room. A few of our Gate 1 Travel group were a bit uncomfortable, but the performance lasted only about an hour so we all enjoyed the show. There were no bad seats, just uncomfortable ones.

The colors and visuals for the show were outstanding and there was no objection to taking photos during the performance.

Before and after the performance, it was possible to visit the gift shop and view some of the puppets up-close. They are quite different from the usual puppets.  The theater is located in a very popular market area, so many of our group stayed on after the performance and walked back to our hotel.

 

Cambodia

photo credit: Mary Jo Plouf

photo credit: Mary Jo Plouf

By Mary Jo Plouf

The Kingdom of Cambodia, recently known as the Khamer Empire is bordered by Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodia is one of the most populous countries in the world and one of the poorest. The current head of the government, Hun Sen, has ruled the country for twenty-five years. Although still a relatively low income country, it has enjoyed the largest economic growth in Asia, with a 6 percent growth for the last ten years in textiles, agriculture, construction and tourism.

The capital and largest city is Phnom Penh but the most famous tourist attraction is located near the small village of Siem Reap. Angkor Wat and Angkor Thon are known throughout the world as World Heritage Sites and the number of tourists is increasing by almost a million a year. This has insured that the relatively small area has a large number of new hotels and good restaurants. The city also features a number of museums, the French quarter market and the Apsara dancers.

Continue reading

Vietnam, An Exotic Destination

By Mary Jo Plouf

photo credit: Mary Jo Plouf

photo credit: Mary Jo Plouf

The majority of the time with my Gateway1 Travel in the Far East was spent in Vietnam. Vietnam is bounded by China, Laos and Cambodia. We also visited Thailand and Cambodia, but for me Vietnam was by far, the most interesting, diverse and culturally stimulating. I found that Vietnam had it all, including beaches, mountains, dynamic cities, interesting culture and fantastic cuisine. Our trip in Vietnam started in Ho Chi Minh City and ended in Hanoi 9 days later. In between we visited Hoi An, Da Nang, Hue, and Halong Bay. Much of our travel was by bus and we were able to get a pretty good idea of how rural life in Vietnam was conducted. It can be pretty much summed up by saying “rice farming.” The small farming villages are the backbone of Vietnamese culture and most of the residents return to the village where they were born when they are ready to retire or die. Many of the rice fields contain family tombs, although in recent years it has become illegal to bury farmers in their fields. Small cemeteries are located nearby.

Continue reading

Shopping in Vietnam 101

By Mary Jo Plouf

photo credit: Mary Jo Plouf

photo credit: Mary Jo Plouf

Of all the many places in the world I have travelled, Vietnam has by far been my favourite country to shop! I personally preferred to use US dollars, so I knew what I am paying. The Vietnamese dong (VND) was very confusing to me. Believe it or not, you are NOT rich when you have a fistful of $4,230,019.40 VND; it equals approximately $200 US! If you decide to use US dollars, its best to have a lot of small currency, so you can give exact change for your purchases. The shop keepers will mostly give you VND as your change.

The fun of the shopping sport in Vietnam is the bargaining! The price starts high, you bid low and you meet somewhere closer to your bid. For example, I wanted to buy a purse; I asked how much? She said $600,000.00 VND which is approximately $29 US, I say no…. $15 US, she says no $25 US, after we went back and forth a few times, I got my purse for $15 US! Bargaining is expected and acceptable. They do have a limit, and if they let you walk away without reaching a deal, your bid was too low.

Another fun shopping experience was getting clothes made by one of the many tailors in Vietnam. Hoi An was my personal favourite town for visiting tailors. I settled a deal with a tailor by the name of Mr. Xe. I wanted to have some shirts made for my husband, so I brought one of his shirts for them to replicate. Two linen and one dress shirt made of cotton cost me $20 each, at home in Toronto they would have cost me at over $100 each! On the flight over, I was browsing through a Vogue magazine, I saw a beautiful pantsuit at some extraordinarily expensive price, I showed the tailor the picture of the pantsuit, my measurements were taken and that same evening I had my final fitting! The pants and jacket cost me a whopping $75 US. A girl can have a really extensive wardrobe at these prices!

We did a lot of awesome sightseeing while in Vietnam besides shopping, but for this gal Vietnam was a shopper’s paradise!

Exotic Thailand

By Mary Jo Plouf

photo credit: Mary Jo Plouf

photo credit: Mary Jo Plouf

Thailand, officially the Kingdom of Thailand for until 1939 known as Siam, is a country in Southeast Asia bordering Myanmar (Burma) to the northwest, Laos to the northeast, Cambodia to the southeast and Malaysis to the south. With great food, a tropical climate, fascinating culture, vibrant cities and golden beaches it is a great destination for tourists from all over the world.

I recently traveled to Thailand with Gate1 Travel where we spent three days in Bangkok. We stayed in a hotel quite far removed from the city center but that was not a disadvantage. The Chaophya Park hotel was located very near the subway system which got us to wherever we wanted to go. Gate 1 provided most of our transportation into the city which was crowded with traffic which was often out of control. We spent time on the Chao Phraya River which carried about 50,000 passengers a day, the Grand Palace, Wat Po, the largest temple in the city and Wat Phra Kaew, also known as the temple of the Emerald Buddha. We had a chance to visit the Indian and Chinese market and by late afternoon we were more than content to return to our very comfortable hotel away from the noise, traffic and chaos of the city. We traveled at a time when there was supposedly some political unrest in the city, but we saw no signs of it.

Bangkok is the largest city in Thailand and covers over 600 square miles. The tourism industry in the country has grown very quickly and because Thailand is the starting point for most tourists, the infra-structure is struggling to keep up the influx of visitors.

Part of our hotel complex included an excellent Thai Massage Spa. The Thai massage is quite different from our usual relaxing gentle massage. It can be a bit painful and may take a little getting used-to, but our masseurs were well trained and we found the experience to be stress releasing at the end of a busy day. There is also an excellent restaurant in the hotel and a breakfast buffet which spans the range from noodle – soup to eggs. The typical Thai food contains a lot of lime, lemon grass, fresh corriender and dill. The Thai consume very little meat, but their vegetarian dishes are not always completely vegetarian either, since they are often made with “fish sauce” which is their substitute for soy sauce. Almost every meal is combined with either noodles or rice.

thailandBangkok is a shoppers paradise and usually the first opportunity visitors have to become acquainted with the local wares. There are many markets, usually crowded and noisy, but they are great places to buy local clothing, knock-off purses, Thai silk and a variety of handicrafts.

Continue reading