By 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.
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.
The next day was on our own. Most of our group chose to visit the week-end market which we reached easily by the subway near our hotel. The market was huge and sold everything including animals, food, clothing, household goods and hardware in shops crammed into narrow twisting alleys spanning 6 or 7 blocks. It was hot, noisy and not always comfortable, but we loved it.
Our final evening was spent on a relaxing night cruise on the Chao Phraya River. We floated slowly by the picturesque and colorful bright lights of Bangkok as music played and we enjoyed an International Buffet Dinner. We were all together on the top deck and before the evening ended most of us were joining in the exotic, graceful dancing performed by lovely Thai girls. The night was magic and provided the perfect ending to our time in Bangkok before our morning departure for Cambodia.
Our flight to Siem Reap in Cambodia was handled seamlessly by our guide. Luggage was assembled, our transportation was ready on time and we were helped with check-in. No hassles at all. And just like that, we were in Siem Reap in time for lunch. The afternoon was at leisure and most of us used the $2.00 tuk-tuks to bring us into the market. By the end of the day we were all excellent at bargaining and had purchased colorful harem pants and pantaloons to wear to dinner.
In the evening we attended a typical Cambodian dinner with Apsara dancers. This traditional Khmer performance presented different aspects of historical and present day life in Cambodia.
Our first tour in Siem Reap was special and remained a highlight of the trip. The architectural masterpieces of Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat are designated as one of the “Seven Wonders of the World. It is a distinction well deserved. This sprawling city, built by Khmer Kings was once home to more than one million people. The stunning temple of Angkor Wat was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and is world famous for its beauty and splendor. The walls of Angkor Wat contain the longest continuous bas-relief in the world which runs along the entire outer gallery. At the end of the day, when the light is at its best, is the time to take pictures of the magnificent structure reflected in a pool near the entrance. Some of us were brave and sturdy enough to climb to the very top level of the central tower where it is possible to view the entire surrounding area. Others decided to forgo the rather arduous 127, three tiers of steep steps to wander around the grounds where every new room held architectural delights. Tourists to this area have increased about one million a year and new development of hotels and restaurants are striving to keep up with the influx.
We depart Siem Reap early in the morning by bus and drive through rolling green hills and miles of rice farms. Along the way we stop for a ride on an 0x-cart, which was actually pulled bumpity-bump through a rutted rural road by water buffalo. It was quite an experience. Later we arrive at Tonle Sap Lake, in the heart of rural Cambodia. We took a relaxing boat excursion among the fishing villages where we got off the boats several times and were able to enter some of the floating residences. These unusual floating homes, include gardens and space for animals and are moved twice a year to a new location depending on the dry and wet season. The wet season provides the villagers with abundant fish which hatch and grow in the surrounding “forests.” When the water becomes low, the villages are towed to a new location. All of the homes gardens, restaurants and even the large secondary school are relocated. Life flows smoothly and although they have very little, the importance of the extended family life is evident. I was impressed and more than a little humbled.
Later in the afternoon after a short visit to the National Museum we caught our flight to Ho Chi Mihn City (Saigon) in Vietnam. At our hotel we meet other Gate1 travelers who become a part of our tour.
The pace of life in Ho Chi Minh City is hectic and vibrant. Motorbikes have taken over the streets and there are very few cars. The taxes on cars is about three times the price of the car and few people can afford them. There are approximately 90 motorbikes for every car. The advantage to this is that the streets are far less congested but they are terrifying to cross. Our guide Tuyen showed us how to use the crosswalks, hold out our hand (like we knew what we were doing) and once we had started into the street, do not stop. Easier said than done. The system must work however, and we all mastered the pedestrian crosswalks without mishap. It was quite exciting. The city does not appear to sleep and you can hear the shrill beep-beep of the motor bikes into the wee hours of the night. The Vietnamese are limited to two children per family and it is not uncommon to see all of the family on one motorbike, along with their purchases. Helmets are supposed to be required by law, but it does not seem to be enforced very rigidly.
We did a quite extensive walking tour of the city including Notre Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office, the Saigon Opera House and the teeming Ben Thanh Market. In the afternoon many of our group visited the famous Cu Chi Tunnels which were part of the underground tunnel network built by the Viet Cong to control a large rural area near Saigon. The entire tunnel network extends for 125 miles and parts of the complex have been improved to allow visitors to be comfortable. Descending into the lower tunnels is optional. I opted out of this particular activity and instead spent the afternoon in the local market doing what women throughout the world do best….shopping.
We departed Ho Chi Minh City on a flight to Da Nang and continued on to the small, traditional city of Hoi An. Hoi An is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to more than 200 tailor shops where visitors can have an entire wardrobe perfectly made to measure using their patterns and specifications
in less than 24 hours. Many of our group participated in the optional river tour where they had lunch at the organic village of Traque. The local farmers gave a cooking demonstration and participants were allowed to taste the many herbs and local vegetables. This very quickly became my favorite city on the tour.
After a full and relaxing day in Hoi Ann, we were back on the bus to Da Nang and the city of Hue. We stopped at Marble Mountain, a village well-known for its sophisticated hand-made marble products. We traveled over the towering mountains through some beautiful country to Hue, home to a wealth of palaces, temples and museums. We enjoyed an afternoon tour of this former Imperial capital, modeled after the Forbidden City in Beijing. In the evening we all boarded Cyclos, pedaled tuk-tuks, and spent an hour being ferried through the city and the evening markets to the Citadel where we had dinner. The cyclos are gradually beginning to disappear but they are an interesting way to travel in the city. The cyclo features a large, cushioned seat for the passenger strapped to a bicycle and propelled through the traffic by the cyclo driver. Not an easy feat.
Part of our full day in Hue was spent on an afternoon Perfume River Tour, which explores life along the banks of the ancient royal capital city. We made our way to Khai Dinh, the last monument of the Nguyen dynasty. Here, a vegetarian lunch was prepared by Buddhist nuns of the Dong Thien Pagoda. We were allowed to ask them questions and were surprised at how cloistered and sheltered they were. They were rarely allowed to leave the premises except for one day yearly visits to their parents. The young girls enter the convent between the ages of 9 and 10 and spend at least six years before taking their final vows.
The final leg of our stay in Vietnam is Hanoi. We fly to Hanoi and journey by bus to the magical Halong Bay area. Halong Bay is considered one of Vietnam’s most celebrated attractions and is considered one of the most breathtaking places on the planet. It has been added to the list of UNESCO Heritage sites and declared as one of the new “Seven Wonders of the World. The bay is filled with over 3000 limestone islands and structures rising out of the sea creating a truly breathtaking scene. We traveled by traditional wooden boat for several hours taking literally hundreds of pictures. Words cannot describe the ethereal beauty. Our trip culminated at an elevated cave illuminated by soft pastel lights. We had lunch as we slowly returned to the city where we spent the night before continuing on to Hanoi.
Hanoi, our final stop starts out with a visit to the fascinating Museum of Ethnology which is the center for the preservation and exhibition of cultural heritage for over 50 ethnic groups in Vietnam. This is followed by a performance of the world-famous Water Puppet Show.
On our final day we have a choice of exploring the city on our own or joining an optional tour to the stunning Thay Pagoda and So Village where we can interact with the villagers and visit their homes.
The final evening we all gather for a final traditional Vietnamese dinner organized by our excellent guide, Tuyen.
The time has passed quickly and we have seen much and made many new friends. We shall all share our pictures on Facebook and through e-mail. Gate1 greatly exceeded our expectations and for those of us who were making our first trip with Gate1, we agreed that it would not be our last. Many of those travelling with us were on their 5th of 6th Gate1 tour.