May 23 - 29, 2008
by Marian Johns
In the January 2008 issue of the Smithsonian magazine an article appeared entitled " 28 Places to See Before You Die", (a much more sensible number than the "1000 Places to See Before You Die" bestseller book). And of those 28 places, I was happy to learn I would be visiting two on our (Reda Anderson and I) trip to Southeast Asia:
Angkor Wat - In Cambodia we were awed by the magnificent ruins of Angkor Wat, a huge temple complex built in the 12th century A.D. dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu. There are many other temples in this areas; our Cambodian guide took us to see several of the more outstanding ones.
Bagan - The second "place to see", is Bagan – an archaeological site in Myanmar (pronounced Me-an-mar) formerly known as Burma. Bagan, like Angkor Wat, is known for its temples, but unlike Angkor Wat, they are Buddhist temples and most are relatively small, yet they number in the hundreds. Some say 2200, others 2800. It depends on where the perimeter of the area in question is drawn. Our Myanmar guide said 2217 temples, built between the 12 and 14th centuries A.D., are found in an area measuring 16 miles square miles.
Now on to the countries we visited. How difficult it is to compact 25 days into a short article for the Newsletter!
Thailand - We only spent one day in Bangkok, Thailand where we were escorted around the Royal Palace by our lady guide, Benny. It's open to the public as the present-day king chooses to live elsewhere. Now in his eighties, he is a forward-looking and benevolent man is much loved by the Thai people.
Cambodia – From Bangkok we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia (translates to "Siam defeated"), the fast-growing city near Angkor Wat. Our guide, named Thai, was an excellent leader. Of all the places we visited with him (other than Angkor Wat), perhaps the Killing Fields stands out as one of the most memorable. There are many Killing Fields in Cambodia, but the one we saw was marked by a square monument with four glass sides so the bones and skulls of slaughtered Cambodians are visible. The massacre of an estimated 1.5 million was the work of a radical Marxist regime which tortured, starved and executed "enemies of the state". All professionals and intellectuals were considered "enemies" and expendable. Our guide pointed out the fact that even today very few Cambodians wear eye glasses – a holdover from the times when anyone wearing glasses was suspect of being an intellectual or prosperous.
Vietnam – Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City, was our next destination. Here we were greeted by "Ocean", who was to be our guide for the following two weeks. (His real name is "Hai" which means ocean.) We learned that the Vietnamese language is made up of one syllable words, thus Saigon and Vietnam are each really two words.
What impressed me most about this communist country is how un-communist it seems. It is bustling with activity and commerce; it's second only to China in rice exports and the garment industry is booming. Streets are filled with hordes of motorcycles, scooters and some bicycles. Restaurants and shops abound.
These people are very proud of the fact that they, just by their wits and tenacity, out-foxed the mighty USA and won the Vietnam War. However, our guide was careful not to rub our nose in our demise. Instead, he referred to the end of the war as our "withdrawal".
We lost some 58,000 men (all for nothing it seems), but Vietnam paid a much higher price. It's estimated that one million Viet Cong soldiers and two million civilians perished in that conflict.
Vietnam is a fascinating place. We saw Buddhist temples and monasteries, a Buddhist nunnery, an orphanage, a high school, villages, rode in horse-drawn carts and cyclos (bicycle rickshaws), and took several boats rides. The best of these was the Mekong River Delta and its house boat population and Halong Bay with it 1000+ dramatically-shaped mini-islands north of Hanoi.
Myanmar – Last year's protests by Buddhist monks against economic hardships imposed by Myanmar's repressive military regime have had a negative effect on tourism – fearful visitors are staying away. Fortunately all was calm during our five days there and we had a delightful time.
In Yangon, the capital, our guide, Erik (real name unpronounceable) took us to the magnificent, gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, a 320 ft. high stupa built of bricks and covered with 8,000+ bars of gold. Near the pinnacle are 5448 diamonds and 2317 rubies and at the very top is a 76 carat diamond. Unfortunately, they are too high to be seen with the naked eye.
From Yangon, we flew to Bagan, then back to Yangon, Bangkok, and home – with a three hour layover in Japan, so technically I can say I've been there too.
Since Neal doesn't like to travel outside the USA or Baja, I made this trip with my friend Reda Anderson. We went with Grand Circle Travel – as we did when we went to Egypt and Jordan. I can recommend them because they are highly organized, provide excellent English-speaking guides and make sure you visit, not only the well-known tourist spots, but also the more mundane, but fascinating aspects of the countries such as schools and rural villages. Hotels are usually 4-5 stars. For example, in Hanoi we stayed at the Hilton – no, not the POW Hanoi Hilton which has been torn down except for a small section.
I'm planning on more trips (I'll be doing Russia in September/October with my cousin). I figure I'd better go now while I can. At my age you never know.
(She just can't get over how many changes there are in the world in the 1900's – Neal)