Friday, September 2, 2016

Cambodia and Vietnam - Definitely an Educational Adventure

My hard work for the past 11 years owning this agency has been worth it, but even more so as for the 2nd year I made President's Circle with my host agency, Cruise Holidays, and received an amazing incentive River Cruise trip through Cambodia and Vietnam.  As a former high school history teacher, this type of vacation was right up my alley and I loved every minute of it.  Come along with me on this journey:

August 12 - 13:  I left Las Vegas for Seattle for a couple hour layover, then boarded Asiana Airlines and we headed to Incheon (Seoul), South Korea for a short layover and then on to our final stop - Siem Reap, Cambodia. 

Asiana Airlines is a wonderful airline, with very gracious and helpful flight attendants and clean, comfortable planes.  They provided us with slippers, headphones and several movies to choose from, as well as meals and snacks.

The airport in Incheon is more like a shopping mall.  It has everything - shops, restaurants, bars, lounges.  It's huge and good thing, because people tend to have long layovers here (as we did on our return).

The airport in Siem Reap is rather small - you disembark the plane the old fashioned way - walking down the stairs outside, and then a long walk to immigration.  After passing through that and gathering our luggage, we were greeted by a very welcoming guide who led us to our bus waiting for us.  We headed straight to our hotel for the evening - Sofitel Angkor Wat, an oasis of beauty in the middle of this 3rd-world country. 

After a very comfortable nights sleep, a great breakfast buffet, and a walk around the gardens, we boarded our comfortable bus for our 6 hour narrated and scenic drive to our river boat.  Depending on the time you travel there, the Mekong River can be flooded and the drive can be only 2 hours - we arrived just a few weeks prior to the annual flooding.  Along the way, we saw miles and miles of rice paddies, water buffalo, cows, goats, children waving, hard working people, homes on stilts (ready for flooding), and more.  We stopped for lunch (provided by Ama Waterways), and snacks (fried beetles, crickets, and tarantulas - um, no thanks!).

Upon arrival at our riverboat, the Amadara, we were greeted by little children eager to say "Hello" and wave at us.  We gave them pencils, coloring books, etc that many of us brought with us just for this purpose - we were told to never give the children money as the country is trying to dissuade the children from the usual begging they are used to.  We then boarded our boat, and our luggage was immediately brought to our rooms, while we were treated to a small luncheon of sandwiches, Pho soup, and local fruits.

We began exploring our home for the next 7 days.  River boats are much smaller than ocean cruise liners, with only 3 decks and around 100 people onboard plus crew.  Everyone gets to know one another rather quickly, and the crew really does feel like family as you see them everywhere as they serve in different capacities.  The rooms are luxurious and clean, with AmaWaterways' well-known feature of twin balconies - a French balcony and an open air balcony.  The sundeck is popular for its pool and covered lounge area with bar.  The Saigon lounge is also a common location that we spent time in for port talks, performances by local dancers, and internet time.  The dining room always had a buffet salad bar, an Action Station with some type of local fare (not to mention the fabulous omelets every morning), and the menu always had a seafood option, as well as a different type of meat and a vegetarian choice.  The wine is always flowing at meals, although my choice of drink was always a Sprite (Diet Coke is my usual, but outside of the US it is Coke Light - not the same).

We didn't really visit ports of call as you would on an ocean cruise - rather, we visited villages and towns.  We literally would pull up to the riverbank, where we would be escorted down the small gangway onto the grassy hill, up the crudely built wooden stairs, right into the main part of town.  In these villages, we would visit a school, a monastery or two, some temples, some historical sites, and some local home businesses such as silversmithing, candy making, rice paper making, mat weaving, snake wine, and a silk factory.  These were always small and run by the locals, which made spending money in their shops more enjoyable (and items were extremely inexpensive by the way).

We rode ox carts, trishaws (bike pulled buggies for one person), and tuk-tuks (carriage for 4 pulled by a motorcycle).  We visited the Killing Fields and S21 Detention Center in Cambodia and then Xeo Quit in Vietnam, the headquarters for the Vietcong during the war.  These were sad and a bit uncomfortable, but I believe important for us to understand the hardships the people of these country had endured not so many years ago.  We were able to meet two survivors of those dark times in Cambodia, 2 sweet little old men who were so happy to tell their story.  On a lighter note, we visited a Buddhist monastery and were able to experience a blessing from the monks, as well as giving alms (rice) to the monks as they prepared for their lunch.

We enjoyed free time in both Phnom Penh, Cambodia and Saigon, Vietnam - huge cities with stores everywhere, more motorcycles than cars, and people everywhere.  We found the people to be welcoming and helpful.  English was spoken much more and understood in Cambodia than Vietnam, but the people tried so hard to learn.  We ate at an interesting restaurant, Malis, where they served a little bit of everything - very exotic and different.  We hung out in a nightclub with the locals, dancing all night.  We enjoyed time at a Sky Bar, literally under the stars, overlooking the city.

Although you can spend Riel in Cambodia and Dong in Vietnam, they readily accept the US dollar and most times even give change in US.  I'm not sure which is the best way to do it, but things were so inexpensive that I didn't give it a thought at all.  You can get some great souvenirs here and I did - placemats woven there in Vietnam, coconut candy made in front of me as well as popped rice (both in Vietnam), silk scarves made in Cambodia as well as a meter of silk for $20 (trust me that's cheap) made right in that factory, a small bottle of snake wine (with a Cobra inside) - that was not for me but for a lady onboard that chose a different excursion but then regretted not being able to get a bottle for her dad. 

At the end of the cruise, we were taken to Saigon by bus to the Sofitel hotel.  We decided to get a day room where we kept our luggage.  We then headed to the Central Market and the mall to wander around.  We had a great lunch at a small restaurant, found a Quilt store where the quilts are made by the women in these poor villages and are supported by the proceeds (yes I bought something), and then we walked back to the hotel - about a half hour walk through the neighborhoods and busy streets.

I should mention that there is so much traffic with all these motorcycles, cars, tuk-tuks, etc. that crossing the street is literally like taking your life in your hands.  Street signs and lights are merely suggestions which are regularly ignored and pedestrians do not have the right of way here.  So, as our guide suggested, we became "sticky rice" when crossing the street  - meaning when you see others crossing just stick with them and you'll be okay.  The locals took great care of us making sure we didn't get run over.

Plan for heat and humidity, and bring bug repellent with you for those trips through the villages, or anywhere you are wandering through the grasses and trees.  I only had 2 bites the whole time I think, so it's not a huge worry.

Leaving Saigon that evening, we were sad to leave and not looking forward to the long trip home, but we were filled with memories of a lifetime.   Our flight again had a layover in Incheon, but this time it was 12 hours.  So, believe it or not, the city offers a FREE tour to people in transit.  We had to get a special stamp in our passport saying we were in transit, so we could go through immigration, and then found the tourist desk to sign up.  They took us an hour into Seoul, where we made a couple of stops at some local areas and visited some neighborhoods where the real people of South Korea live, and then we headed back.  The total time of the tour was 5 hours.

We then found the Sky Hub, a great lounge where transit passengers pay $24 for 3 hours in the lounge, where you can enjoy free unlimited beer, wine, soda, buffet lunch, ice cream, internet, TV, and relaxation.  Well worth it!

Overall, this was a trip of a lifetime and I am so thankful I was able to do this.  Although it takes forever and a day to get there and even more to get back, I would highly recommend this to anyone who is interested in an extreme cultural experience.  You will definitely appreciate all that you have once you return.

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