Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Surprise Visit to Hong Kong (sort of)

[Wednesday, January 11th, 9:45 pm, Hong Kong Time]

I hadn't anticipated another blog posting before I got back to the States when I could post photos. Instead, here I am in the Business Class Lounge at Hong Kong airport, at a time when I should have been flying east across the Pacific.

The morning began fine. A good breakfast at the Sofitel in Saigon. Fond farewells to other guests. An uneventful cab ride to the Ho Chi Minh airport. Some interesting snacks in the Business Class lounge there.

I should have checked our flight status before going to the gate, but it turns out our plane from Hong Kong was arriving late. An hour late. That pushed our departure back an hour. We only had an hour and 15 minutes to make our connecting flight to Los Angeles, so this was cutting extremely close. I asked the flight attendant after we took off if Cathay Pacific would hold the flight for us, and she told us that 1) they were aware of the problem (after all, it was their flight that was late to begin with), and 2) they would move us up to business class just before landing so we could deplane quickly.

Sure enough, just as they began to make their final approach, they moved about a dozen or so passengers with tight connections to business class. As soon as the business class gate opened, I rushed past everyone making it to the gate agent first. "Los Angeles," I yelled. "We are putting you on a later flight," he calmly replied. "Please sit over there." There were four flights leaving with 20 minutes of our arrival; all connecting passengers on those flights were reticketed. I guess they felt that since our baggage wouldn't make it, we shouldn't either.

I'd been kind of hoping that we wouldn't make our flight so I would have the opportunity to explore Hong Kong. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. We've been reticketed on a flight leaving tonight at 11:45 pm, roughly eight hours after our arrival. They gave us a voucher for a hotel room connected to the airport. I asked about meals, so they also gave us two $75 HK vouchers for meals in the airport.

That meant we needed to clear both immigration and customs, and then get set up in the hotel. The "Regal Airport Hotel" looks from the outside like a large car park, though it had a relatively fancy interior. We got our rooms and I took a shower while dad watched the news. I went down to the business center to use their computer terminals, but found that the charge $3 HK per minute for them. They do, however, provide 2 hours free WiFi in the lobby, so I sent emails out about our change of flights. It was around 5:30, and neither of wanted to get money (we're nearly out of cash), find our way into the town without any idea of where to go, and then rush back so as to not miss our flight.

Instead, we walked back to the airport to use our meal vouchers. $75 HK works out to about $10 US. We skipped Burger King in favor of a Chinese fast food place. The name was in Kangi script, though it had a superscripted two, like it was squared, above the name. We ordered the "Maxim's Roast Goose" with rice and the wonton soup with noodles. The goose was beyond awful. The skin was the opposite of soggy: it was as hard and tough as beef jerky. The meat was cold, hard, and rubbery, except for the bones, which were just hard and cold. The soup was insipid.

We went back to the hotel, where dad took a nap and I walked around for a bit. I went outside, but it was night already, somewhat cold, and there was no where to walk to, since the hotel sits on a service road leading to the taxi ramps for the airport. I ended up returning to the room and trying to nap for about an hour.

When we got up at 8, we found the hotel had put some dinner vouchers under our door. If only, if only.... We went down for dessert. They had a pretty decent spread, and the ice cream was excellent, far better than any we had received on the ship. After that we checked out and went back to the airport.

We had no problem with immigration control or security, but some finding the Business Lounge. They had several, and I found one just opposite our gate. We were nearly there when dad insisted on stopping for directions. They told him that this lounge was closed for renovations. "Aren't you glad I asked?" he crowed. We walked the length of one wing of the terminal to get to the other lounge. There we learned that the original lounge isn't closed and would really be best for us since it's so close to our gate. "That way you won't have to rush back." We returned to the original lounge.

So here I am in the Business Class lounge with two hours to go before my flight to LA. I'm going to try to sleep on the flight, but I think I was reticketed to a middle seat. I'm hoping that perhaps these seats will at least recline. Otherwise, it's going to be a very long flight to LA.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Above the City - Updated

[Tuesday, January 10, 11:50 am, Vietnam time]

Last night, seven of us bundled into a large taxi to go to the Rex Hotel. This was the center of activity during the height of the Vietnam War. The rooftop bar was highly recommended, so we had reservations. Despite being a warm night, the rooftop was cool and breezy. Beige lanterns with golden designs hung from a wooden lattice and swayed in the wind. A large golden crown was perched on the corner, with stone elephants guarding it. If we leaned at the railing we could make out the former French colonial Hotel de Ville; elsewhere we saw the gleaming high rises of modern Ho Chi Minh City.

After confirming that the ice and water were all made with bottled water, we ordered our drinks. I had a mai tai and it was terrific. Janet ordered some Vietnamese appetizers: some kind of prawn-filled spring roll that was then deep fried. It was great. I'm not sure the $9 drink was really one of the "1000 things to do before you die," but it was a beautiful ambience, and certainly it was worth it having drinks and laughs with friends.

Then it was off to the restaurant: Vietnamese House. We had reservations for 8:30 pm, and it was only a few blocks away, but the traffic looked daunting so we took a taxi. Then something extraordinary happened: our taxi overshot the restaurant so he backed up, through the intersection and partially against the light! None of us could believe it, but he kept going, slow, deliberate, and with confidence until we were parked in front of the restaurant.

Our table was on the third floor, so we climbed up two different stairwells until we reached the large, round table they had reserved for us. I think at this point, we were all glad we didn't walk after all, so we save our strength for the stairs. We ended up getting four separate checks.

The meal was quite good. I got the pumpkin blossoms stuffed with prawn meat and then deep fried as an appetizer, and it vaguely reminded me of the stuffed zucchini blossoms I had had in Italy. Dad and I each got a main course of roast duck (his with orange sauce, mine with pepper corn sauce), and we split some sauteed morning glory with garlic. Dad was shocked when the bill arrived, as it was $30 for both of us, including the bottle of beer we each had. "That's all??!" he said. Then we went back to the hotel.

This is the third Sofitel I've stayed at on this trip and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, the lobby, the service of the staff, and the restaurant buffet this morning were the best of the trip. On the other hand, the room has problems in design and layout.

First was our inability to find the thermostat. It turned out that the electric clock on the nightstand (which is 30 minutes too fast) also controls the room temperature. After searching, I found the lightswitch for the bathroom, but couldn't find one for the hall, until I went back to the control clock and found the button there. It's as if Microsoft decided to design a hotel room.

We slept well, and I managed to sleep until 7:30 am (according to the clock; according to reality is was closer to 7). The shower-tub had good water pressure, though I would prefer a walk-in shower for my father.

As I mentioned, the breakfast buffet was top-rate fabulous. Dad loved the lox and bread, and they had far more options than anywhere else we have eaten. We kind of pigged out. We ran into Carl and Carol and they asked what we're doing for dinner, so we invited them to join us.

For the morning, I suggested we take a long walk. Saigon is a interesting mix of old and new. At dinner, we had an interesting conversation with the waiter, who had come south from the Hanoi area. He said he preferred Saigon. It was more prosperous and people were closer. In Hanoi, he said, it was just poor and rich. I also think the people in Saigon seem happier and friendlier than in Hanoi, though the Cambodians we met exceed them in both areas.

It's still a bit of an effort to get dad to cross the street, but I have a hard time imagining how my mother would ever leave the hotel. Saigon has traffic lights, which really help a lot; it's far easier to cross the street here than in Hanoi. Dad kept waiting for a break in the traffic, but those rarely, if ever, came. I just kept repeating my mantra: slow, steadly, deliberate, and confident.

We stopped by a French restaurant I had read reviews of called Augustin, and we asked to see menus. It looked good and affordable (most entres in the $12-15 range, unless you wanted imported meat like steak, which upped the price to $25-30). Then we went to the Saigon Tax Trade Center (formerly the Russian market). This is large, enclosed, air conditioned mall. It was only 10 am, or so, so few people were out. We bought another piece of lacquerware for the same amount I paid yesterday, but with much less screaming and agony.

From there we continued down the boulevard to Saigon Square. This market is closer in design to the Ben Thanh market we were at yesterday, but there were almost no tourists, and no one assaulted us. Dad bought two more shirts, now at $5.50 each (he should have got them for $5, but the vendor rounded up from $10.10 to $11; I told dad to walk away, but he wasn't willing). After that, we continued down until we reached the Ben Thanh market. I got a few photos of the market for my scrap book, and then we caught a taxi back to the hotel.

I haven't decided yet what to do this afternoon. I will almost certainly swim in the pool. It's on the 18th floor and has spectacular views of the city. I may read my book or I may go to the museum.

Tomorrow, we'll take our airport transfer to Ho Chi Minh airport. Thankfully, we don't have to leave until 9 am, which we allow us to sleep in and have good breakfast first. Cindy Newman, our travel agent in San Diego, worked out the errors made by AMAWaterways, so we shouldn't have any problems.

[Update: 9:15 pm]

After such a big breakfast, I decided on a light lunch of pho in the hotel's cafe. I ended up sitting next to Nancy, her husband Richard, and her father Donald. It turns out that Donald's late wife may have graduated from LA High School with my father's cousin Ruth, and that Donald's neighbor in the managed care facility (he's 94) was the aunt of a friend of mine.

We chatted for over an hour and the restaurant mistakenly combined our bills. I promised them that if they come to the corner in Beverly Hills on Saturday morning, I'll buy them all coffee and provide them cakes and cookies.

Afterwards, I went up to the roof deck on the 18th floor. It has spectacular views of Saigon, including the Prudential Building (which has what looks like two minarets), and the tallest building in Saigon, the Bitexco Financial Tower. Judy described it as shaped like a bullet, but it's modeled on a lotus petal. Around the 50th floor, the helopad juts out from one side in a very dramatic fashion.

I brought up my book and then went swimming. The pool isn't heated, but it's pretty warm here, so the water is refreshing. Afterwards, I wrapped myself in the robe and then finished the book while glancing at the scenery now and then.

The differences between Saigon and Hanoi couldn't be more dramatic. Not only is Saigon larger and far wealthier, the architecture is different. In Hanoi, the long, narrow style of building predominates, while here that seems to be far rarer. You see much more of the French (i.e. European style). There's far more neon and western-style advertising. While the streets are more crowded, they are also wider and better maintained. We didn't see anything corresponding to the Old Quarter in Hanoi, with the narrow lanes, with tunnel houses. From the 18th floor, the contrast is between the new, tall structures, and the older, red-tiled ones.

Carl and Carol joined us for dinner. Both they and dad wanted something other than Vietnamese food tonight. I had read good things about Augustin and made reservations for 6 pm. The food was excellent, and we had a long conversation with the owner. She talked about the problems she's had with some tour guides imposing surcharges on their guests who ate at the restaurant.

The restaurant itself was rather small; she had may be a dozen or so tables. The food is definitely French. Dad and I started off with the cream of pumpkin soup, while Carol had the French Onion soup, declaring it the best she's ever had. For the main course, dad and I both got duck again. He loved his Canard a l'orange, while I very much enjoyed my pan-caramelized duck breast with ginger. For dessert, Carl and I both ordered the crepe with strawberry and coconut ice cream (very good), while dad had the crepes suzette, which he said were the best he's ever had.

They all insisted I take the front seat of the cab on the way back, so I had a ring-side view of the mayhem on the road. We had several near misses with mopeds, and one time, as we were coming down the street partially on the wrong side, he honked at a police van to get out of his way!

We're all packed, so I went up to the roof for one last view of Saigon at night. Again, I was struck by how different it is from Hanoi. Of course, the difference with Phnom Penh is even more enormous; it's as if they occupy different planets, or perhaps centuries would be more accurate.

I had one last chat with Janice, Kathy, Dave, and Janet. Their transfer will be at 3 am (yuck!). Of course, while ours is at 9 am, we'll be sharing it was Frau Fabissiner (yuck!).

Hopefully, the next entry will be either en route or from home with selected pictures (I've taken over a thousand).

The War in Saigon

[Monday, January 9th, 5:40 pm, Vietnam Time]

Last night was all about packing everything up. I thought I misplaced my new smart phone and went through everything in the room again and again, until I finally found it in the first place (and second place, and third place I looked). There's no light by the hall closet and I kept missing it as I felt around where I left it.

I learned last night one important reason why we were divided into four groups and were not intermingled. The Australians don't have a culture of tipping, so all their tips were included in their price. They only had to tip the cyclo or the tuk-tuk or the ox-cart driver. Since the Americans were tipping their guides and drivers and the Australians weren't the groups needed to be kept separate.

One way around this would be to make all the guide and driver tips inclusive; then they could allow each guest to choose which group he or she wanted (e.g., a group for slow walkers, or a group up for more adventurous activities). It would also means we wouldn't need to carry so many singles and five-dollar bills. We brought a lot but not nearly enough. In the future, I would advise anyone going on this trip to bring at least 100 single-dollar bills, and perhaps 30 five-dollar bills. If you plan on doing a lot of shopping, you might want to bring more.

For example, for all but one of the days so far, there's been a local guide. That guide gets $2-3 a day in tips. That means in 14 days of guided tours, we've paid out about $30 in tips just to the local guides. But when you add on top of that the daily drivers ($1-2) and special drivers, that's another $20. Then there's the tip to the cruise director (suggested: $28 per person) and the tip for the crew ($70 per person, though this can be put on the credit card). Not counting the crew tip, that's a total of $78 in cash tips before you even consider additional expenses, like taking a tuk-tuk to and from a restaurant, or any additional tips you might give.

Of course, you also need cash not only for tips for purchasing in the markets, which don't take credit cards.

I realize these expenses pale in comparison to the cost of the trip, but when you've only brought 40 singles with you and you suddenly realize you've got nowhere near enough, it becomes very annoying.

We all had to have our bags packed and by our cabin doors by 7 am. As has been my practice, I joined the early risers up on the sun deck around 6:30 am to watch the sun come up over the mangroves at My Pho. I went down around 7 to join dad for breakfast. We had to be out of our rooms by 7:15, but they didn't force the issue. After getting our stuff I gave the two receptionists, Kenny and Jem, an extra tip for their friendly and helpful service. At 8:15, we disembarked and got on our buses for the 1.5 hour drive to Saigon.

As we already have seen, South Vietnam is far more prosperous and fertile than either North Vietnam or Cambodia. We passed many lush rice paddies, broken up only by sugar cane, banana trees, or houses. Our first stop in Saigon was Thien Hau Temple, dedicated to the goddess of the seas. Inside there were three courtyards. In the middle (which is the one we first entered from the side), there was a large, elevated, rectangular metal box in which a fire blazed. People would burn prayers (?) inside.

The inner most couryard had tables spread out with roast pigs and other foods, which were set before a large shrine to the goddess of the seas. Around the top of the walls of this courtyard were elaborate Chinese carvings depicting scense from Chinese mythology. The food, our guide explained, is first presented to the goddess as an offering, and, now blessed, is taken home to be eaten.

As we were walking around, teenagers dressed in matching track suits began bringing in long paper dragons. The Chinese new year is in two weeks, so each of these eight dragons is carried by a different dance troupe, and they perform in front of individual homes to drive away bad spirits and bless the home for the new year. Before they do so, however, they need to be blessed themselves by the goddess, and this is why they were crowding into the temple.

When we came to the outermost courtyard in front, there were a group of troupe members pounding Chinese drums as part of the ceremony. Even dad, who doesn't usually like to visit houses of worship as a tourist, enjoyed himself.

I heard later from some in the "yellow" group, that Mr. Krohbuy loudly announced when they arrived at the temple that he didn't come to Vietnam to see Chinese things. I told them that ignorance is its own punishment.

Our next stop was the Reconciliation Palace. This was the original Presidential Palace of South Vietnam. We heard about the four presidents of South Vietnam, including the first Diem, who was assassinated with the support of the CIA (though that fact wasn't mentioned). We saw the conference room and the dining room, and the two tanks that were used to capture the building in 1975.

After that we visited the old French Post Office, which really looks like a nineteenth-century train station, and has some great old French-era wall maps of Cochin-China and Saigon.

As we drove around dad kept asking me if I could see a particular tall building. I kept saying that from where I sat, I could only see ground level. "You're not even trying!" he responded. I moved my seat to one six rows back where I could see.

Our last stop before lunch was at a laquerware factor, where we saw how they made this product. I decided to price out a platter for later, but I had no intention of buying anything there.

Lunch was at Indochine Restaurant and it was generally pretty good, but not really worth writing home about, so I won't.

Finally, we came to the Sofitel Hotel, which is a large, new hotel in the heart of Saigon. Our rooms were lovely and our luggage was already there waiting for us. Dad watched CNBC for a bit while I found a complimentary map of the city. We then headed downtown for a ride to the Ben Thanh Market.

This is Saigon's equivalent of the Central Market in Phnom Penh, but the could not be more different; it's like night and day. Our guide warned us that the sellers could be aggressive, but it was like nothing we had seen before. People didn't just call out to us; they grabbed our arms, several hit my chest or stomache, they held up clothing to our faces to block our way. It was rather uncomfortable.

After much tension and argument, we managed to find shirts that dad wanted to buy. After settling on five, he turned to me to negotiate. The shopseller typed $99 on a calculator. I laughed. She said "how much?" and handed me the calculator. I typed $35 and handed I back to here. She moaned and said "no, no." I pulled dad's arm to leave. She said "wait, wait," and typed $80. I typed $35 again. After much back and forth we settled on $45.

After that I made all the purchases. I bought some bamboo table mats at 1/6th the price I paid at the shop on the road to Ha Long Bay. I then found a laquerwood tray that I liked. In the factory shop they wanted $50-60 for this. "How much," I asked. "$25," she responded. I offered $15 and we settled at $16. In general, I assume if they agreed to the price I probably over paid.

By the way, Mr. Krohbuy joined us on the bus to the market and I got a sense of how annoying he must have been to the people in his group. He sat up in front and loudly commented on everything. For example, when the guide asked if we had picked up the complimentary maps from the hotel, he yelled, "yeah, from the hotel, not from the cruise." He would ask for street names and then mock the Vietnamese spelling and pronunciation. Thank God, it was only a 10 minute drive.

Dave and Janet have a book called 1000 Places to See Before You Die, and it lists two items for Saigon: the covered market with the hyper-aggressive sellers and the hotel bar on the roof of the Rex Hotel. This was the hotel where the U.S. military gave its regular five pm briefings to the press corp during the Vietnam War and it's supposed to be very, very nice. We have 7:30 pm reservations for drinks, but it isn't clear if we're eating there.

We agreed to join Dave and Janet, Kathy and Janice, and Jill for drinks. Dad was anxious about whether we're eating there or not, but I begged him just to play it by ear. "Which one?" he asked. "Yes," I responded. Part of the issue for the others is that the Rex Hotel may be too expensive for them for more than just drinks. I'm now going to go online and find some dining options near the Rex Hotel for tonight.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Tipping Point

[Mekong Delta, Sunday, January 8, 7:35 am, Vietnam time]

Last night we had a lot of fun playing Liars' Club. Kathy, Janice, Jill, Dave, Janet, and I were all on one team. Unfortunately, we came in second, missing such questions as the origins of the name "Balsamic Vinegar" (they said the correct answer was two brothers, Balsa and Mic, whose last name was Vinegar, and who were killed in 1602, so their mother named the concoction after them! I still think they're wrong.]

We were given instructions on tipping last night and dad's rather upset that the crew tip (recommended: $10/day, per person, for 8 days) is not included in the bill, but is separate. He insists this wasn't in the pre-trip information or brochure, but I pointed out it was in the information booklet provided by our travel agent in San Diego (though I only got my copy of it the night before).

[2:00 pm]

Yesterday evening, I was up on deck watching the sunset with Kathy and Janice, and they mentioned that Jill was an executive with a specialty cruise line company. When she came over, I asked her opinion about the cruise, and she said she thought the company ought to better prepare guests for the ship. Sailing in Cambodia and Vietnam imposes many difficulties on the cruise line, difficulties that can be seen by customers. Instead of promising a five-star ship, they ought to be more upfront about it being three-to-four stars.

One major problem is guaranteeing high quality and hygienic food on board. What that often means here is that the quality of food and the availability of food options has been sacrificed in favor of health. Now, I'm not sorry about that decision; I'm happy to remain healthy. But many guests, used to what might be available on a European river cruise, might be disappointed.

I asked her what she thought of the policy of dividing us into "teams" for the duration of the trip. She said she understood why they did that: to guarantee tips to the drivers and to allocate passengers to guides and excursions, but that there were ways around that. For example, and this would make dad especially happy, they could include all tips in the cost of the cruise. Similarly, they could make individual groups first-come, first serve, so that when one filled up, you would take the next one. You could also divide people according to interest or ability: e.g., a slow-walkers group, etc.

We also talked about what we liked about this cruise: the rooms are very well appointed, and the excursions have been excellent. I'll write more about my overall assessment of the cruise in a later post.

This morning we had a terrific excursion. On paper it might look really dull: tour a brick-making factory. In reality, it was a lot of fun and very interesting. Here on the lower Mekong River, the water level is affected by the tides. At low tide, it was somewhat difficult to land, but eventually we made it. Here we watched them shape and form the clay tiles, fire them in enormous kilns fed by rice husks (for two months), unload the finished tiles, and stack them for export. The kilns are huge three story, brick monstrosities, using technology from the 19th century or earlier.

All the workers this morning were women and children (they work the morning 8 hour shift; the men work the afternoon and night shifts). We saw children pushing large and heavy barrels full of clay bricks. We asked two how old they are; the older one was 16, his younger brother was 14. No one wore safety equipment or helmets, and dad thought an OSHA inspector would have a heart attack here. I heard Frau Fabissiner debating child labor with Bob. She apparently grew up on a farm and thought there was nothing wrong with children helping their families out. Otherwise, she state, they end up on drugs or become criminals. I asked her if she thought those were the only two options: child labor or drug dealing.

After that we headed over to Sa Dec, where we toured the local fresh food market, and where I finally got to see live snakes for sale (they were right next to the live eels and the skinned rats). After that we visited a Chinese Buddhist temple. One thing I noticed is that since we left Cambodia, we have seen few to none Buddhist temples. This one serves the local Chinese community. One thing that stood out was the swastika image behind one of the Buddha statue. This was the image Hitler stole for his movement, but then reversed it for his usage.

Our final stop of the morning was the house of Marguerite Duras' chinese lover in the 1930s, and the setting for her novel, The Lovers. It was built in the French colonial fashion in the 1880s, and was the home of a prominent Chinese merchant family. After that we returned to the boat for lunch and now we're about to head to to see the floating village in Cai Be and a candy-making factory.

[Update: 5:05 pm]

This afternoon, we took our last boat excursion. Cai Be is famous for its floating market, but apparently most of the action is between 6 and 9 am; by the time we got there, there were less than a dozen boats. Still, you could see what people were selling by what was hanging from the pole in front: turnips, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, etc. If you want to buy, you sail up to the seller and get your merchandise.

Instead, we cruised along the canal looking at the homes open to the water. Small children bicycled along the small road near the water; people washed with the canal water; others motored by on their sampans. Some individuals have opened warehouses or factories on the canals. You can tell which ones are prosperous by the large, prominent house that has been put up behind the warehouse.

I asked the guide what happens when a storm or typhoon hits, and he said that the residents of the Mekong Delta believe themselves to be blessed and protected from such events. In fact, such storms only seem to hit once every 50 years.

Kathy asked about the designs on the front of the boats. He explained that originally, boats had a dragon design on the front and back. Now, many centuries later, they draw the two eyes on the front as a way of scaring the river monsters below the surface and bring good fortune to the ship.

We moored by a factory making various forms of candy. We walked through one shop, across a small lane and into the bigger shop. There we saw them pressing coconut and cooking the coconut milk and paste into a kind of caramel candy. We tried some of the fresh candy while it was still hot.

Next door they were puffing rice. To do that, they heated a giant wok to about 200 Celcius, and added black, river sand to it. Once the sand was the proper temperature they stirred in the rice. A few swishes and the rice popped white. Then they ran the sand and rice through a wire mesh that allowed the sand to pass but kept the puffed rice. After that, they shook it to remove the rice husks (which they then use as a fuel). After that, the coat the puffed rice in caramel. I tried the finished result; it was kind of like caramel corn, but a little drier.

After that they offered us tea and sweets. I had a piece of candied ginger and a small cup of jasmine tea. I browsed the souvenirs but they seemed to me rather overpriced. I was really happy, though, to finally see something I had heard about a week ago: snake wine.

They take a cobra or other venomous snake, kill it, and then dessicate it (which shrinks it). They then put it a bottle with a narrow spout, add the wine (and possibly snake blood) and then seal it. The wine causes the snake to rehydrate and expand, creating an illusion of a snake magically transported into a small bottle. Supposedly, the snake wine works like viagra. Sounds like snake oil to me.

We went back on the tender and went from there to the town's Catholic church. We arrived just as the school children were leaving for the day, so we saw the nuns arranging them in rows. Inside the church, they seem to have picked up a trick from the Buddhists and have added neon to the crucifix (we've heard the Buddhists have done this for the tourists).

Outside, I heard some high-pitched shrieking and we found half a dozen gibbon monkeys in cages. I watched someone feeding them, but kept my distance. Then it was back on the boat to return to the ship for our farewell dinner. Those of us staying the extra day in Saigon will have another farewell dinner Monday night. Tuesday will then be on our own.

Mr. Thinh, the cruise director, didn't have dad and my name down for transfers to the airport on Wednesday, but we assured him that his print out is out of date and the problem has been fixed. He's going to double check as well. I gave him our departure time and it turns out we will be sharing the transfer with Frau Fabissiner and her husband. I started to laugh and he said yes, he knows. I'm not sure if he meant, yes, he knows she's very fabissiner, or yes, he knows I think she's very fabissiner.

Meanwhile, many of the passengers remain confused over tipping. On the boat, I heard people continuing to ask how much to tip the guide and how much to tip the boat driver. We don't tip Mr. Thinh until tomorrow night, so that will give us a chance to pull out some money from an ATM (if we need it).

Friday, January 06, 2012

Amateur Anthropology

I've been thinking a lot about one aspect of this trip that has most surprised me. While there have been elements of this trip similar to ones I've taken in the past (e.g., natural scenery - Ha Long Bay; archaeological sites - Angkor Wat; historical sites - Tuol Sleng prison), the dominant element has been anthropological. It's as if we're all amateur anthropologists following along with some National Geographic expedition.

There's a strong element, if not so much among the guides than among the guests, of "see the exotic people." Today, we're going to visit (I'm typing this preamble at 6:40 am, but will post it much later) a silk-making village "untouched by tourism." The only people who visit this town (other than Vietnamese) have been AMAWaterways in the last three years.

But what does that mean "untouched by to tourism?" Does this mean they are some pristine, authentic, untainted culture, guarded like in a nature preserve? People and cultures are dynamic processes. By my very presence, I'm changing the people around me. Is that always a bad thing? Do "exotic" peoples have an obligation to remain exotic to satisfy my desire to see things exotic? Aren't I objectifying them, treating them as "other," like animals in a zoo? These are all questions I've been struggling with on this trip.

Last night they had talent show for the crew. This mostly involved various crew members dancing for us and then trying to get the guests to dance too. Luckily, we were sitting the second row. As I explained to Kathy, Janice, and Jill (with whom we had a lovely dinner - though dad couldn't believe what they were telling him about a Medi-Jet program), I'm rhythm challenged. I have trouble spelling out "YMCA" (which was on the list of songs they did).

[1:30 pm, Cambodia Time]

This was one of the best excursions of the trip. We moored opposite the town of Tan Chao, close to the border with Cambodia. Even at night we could see we were no longer in Cambodia: buildings with neon lights, street lamps, and cars. This was confirmed during our excursions today.

We boarded the tender and sailed up stream to a small island in the Mekong. Until a month or so ago, this island was underwater. Now the level has gone down and they are growing rice and vegetables. Our boat passed sampans and larger fishing boats, as well as houseboats. We eventually landed disembarked on a dried mud embankment. We walked up a dirt path between fields and a bamboo wooden fence. Small children came running up yelling "hi!" Dad really enjoys handing out little candies to them.

There were farmers wearing conical hats weeding among the rice, or growing turnips, elephant grass, snap beans, or corn. Many had cattle such as cows or water buffalo. Most of the cows used in Vietnam aren't for dairy use. Many houses had a dog in front; they guard the house and ward off evil spirits. The dogs are extremely placid and rarely bark.

I snapped a photo of one young farmer, who watched happily as his children played around us. I showed him the picture I took and he grinned. The kids loved to see their photos. The island is remarkably fertile and is bright green from the numerous crops growing here. Some of the houses are raised on stilts to last through the flood season. When it floods, the people move to the mainland. Now, when the water level is lower, they come back to farm.

In one place we were able to see some rice that had been planted just as the water level was coming down and now has grains of rice visible. Eventually, though we had to get back on the boat.

I got on first, and since my life preserve didn't fit at all, I quickly switched it for dad's and waited for him to try it on. He was rather stunned when it didn't fit and I kidded him about eating too much on the island.

Our next stop was a floating fish farm. There were several sleeping dogs on the deck, but they ignored us as we took up seats around a large rectangular hole in the floor, covered by fencing. This was the entry to the fish farm. They raise snapper on this farm, but on others they raise tilapia or cat fish. This was a large wooden floored rectangular boat, resting on drums or booms to keep it afloat, with corrugated tin walls and a metal roof. The roof was high above our heads, and the boat connected to others, so one could if one wished, walk on to other boats and eventually to shore.

The guide explained the fish farming method and then threw in some fish food. We could see the snapper swarming for food. They were so energetic that one splashed water on my legs. After that, we walked back to the tender.

Our next stop was the mainland shore. Dad had a bit of a run in with Frau Fabissiner. She and her husband, like many of us, had trouble with the audio system they gave us (the have a tendency to give out after an hour). She and her husband stopped right after getting off to ask the guide for new receivers, leaving dad perched somewhat precariously on the block one steps on from the tender. He loudly told her that one shouldn't stop at the top of an escalator. She moved.

We walked through a small village until we came to the reed mat-making factory. Red and green dyed reeds were drying on a fence outside. Inside, there were half a dozen looms run by mostly young women, producing rolls of mats. At the end of the path was a gift shop, but most of what they sold looked like it was made elsewhere. I bought one gift that was made in the shop.

From there we walked to get on the cyclos. These are a kind of rickshaw, but using a bicycle. The driver sits in front and the passenger behind. One person per cyclo. After a lesson on how to get in and out, I volunteered to be the first to board. I had no problems. Many people were uncomfortable on them, including dad, though I thoroughly enjoyed it. The problem was that the leg room was too short for people long legs. I didn't mind resting them on top and bending them, but others didn't enjoy that.

Our last stop was the silk-weaving factory. They produce bolts of silk cloth, which are then dyed. They use the punch-card system, in which sheets of cards are used to determine the pattern. The importance of this system in later history is that this is where computers came from. Early calculating machine designers looked at English looms and their cards that controlled fabric designs and used them to make adding machines. These computer punch cards were still in use as late as 1984, when I graduated college, though I think they started to phase them out in law school in favor of the floppy disk.

As with the mat factory, most of the items for sale in the gift shop didn't appear to be manufactured in it, but I found a nice gift there that looked as if it was. After that it was back to the ship for lunch. I found lunch was one of the better meals on the ship. Dad and I both had the cold coconut soup, though he went for the hamburger (sans bun), while I had the fish and chips. Dad decided to bend one of his rules and have the creme caramel. It was quite good. I had some too and a large green (though ripe) banana.

For the rest of today, we sale down the Mekong until we reach Sa Dec. Tomorrow, we will explore the delta. I may swim again in the afternoon and then play the Liar's Club tonight (if I can find out how it's played).

Thursday, January 05, 2012

A Quiet Day

Friday, 6 January 2012, 2:15 pm, Cambodia time

Today we have no excursions. Around 6:30 am, the other ship moored next to us, La Margarite, repositioned to allow us to depart, so when I came out of the shower, the room was much lighter.

I went up on deck and had tea and chatted with the other early risers. Around 8 am, I went down to find dad and we had a leisurely breakfast, chatting with others. Then, it was back up on the sun deck.

Many people have been complimenting dad on the Tommy Hillfiger shirt he bought in Phnom Penh, so he's planning on getting some more in Saigon. Only these, he hopes, will have pockets in the front where he can store his glasses.

I was sitting with several of the smokers (who agreed to tolerate my non-smoking) and we told bad jokes, loudly. I heard that Mr. Krohbuy's obnoxiousness has extended to the staff. After Hanoi, we filled out evaluations and he ripped the guide for everything, getting the guide in trouble. Many of his group now intend to include a comment in their evaluations indicating that not only has the service been excellent, but that one member has been unduly critical of the staff.

Apparently, his wife has gotten used to the social rejection that flows from his behavior, and is quite nice herself. Unfortunately, she has to deal with the consequences of his boorish and insulting comments. From his comments yesterday, it appears he has hated everything about the trip, including the people, the culture, the food, the art, the architecture, the accommodations, and the environment. One wonders why he came.

I was talking to Steven and Terri this morning and we all agreed that we really needed more time in Phnom Penh to get to know the city better. They went out to dinner last night with their guide, and talked about watching people strolling and playing along the corniche, and then going to a dance club.

Today, it's been very quiet, with jungle and villages on one side of the river, and rice fields on the other, and the occasional sampan fishing. Lunch was ok. I stuck to salads and the pasta buffet, while dad ordered a hamburger. The apple tart was the first really good dessert of the voyage. We've all agreed that the food on board has been so-so. Not sure why. It's really been the only negative of the entire trip.

In about half an hour I'm going to change into my bathing suit and blind everyone on the sun deck with my pale whiteness. We're about to reach the border between Cambodia and Vietnam and will have to wait for about three hours for them to do all the paperwork. By tonight, we will be back in Vietnam.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Royal Palace and the Killing Fields

[Thursday, January 5th, 12:10 pm, Cambodia time]

Usually it starts to get light around 6 am, but not today. When I walked out to the reception around 6:30 am, I saw that the AMA Waterways ship, La Margarite, is now moored next to us. The receptionist invited me to explore the other ship, so I walked around. The ship is somewhat smaller, with only 70 or so cabins. When I went up to the sundeck, I waved over to Carl, Steve, and Terri, who were smoking on the deck of the Amalotus. "Traitor!" "Mutineer!" they called back, laughingly. I hadn't seen a single passenger, but the receptionist said there only 30 or so on the ship and they were all sleeping.

About the ship, in comparison to Celebrity Xpedition, which dad rates a 10, he gives this a 7. I think the cabins on this ship are nicer than the ones we had in the Galapagos, but the Celebrity did a lot more for us. For example, on the Celebrity Xpedition, every time we came back from an excursion they gave us a wash cloth, hors d'ouevres, little sandwiches, and a small bar. Here, they give us the wash cloth and a "cocktail" that looks and tastes like melted jello.

On the Celebrity Xpedition, the dining hall was mostly buffet, with various stations. Here they have a small breakfast buffet and at lunch and dinner, most of the courses are ordered off the menu. I've generally been pleased with the main courses, though the desserts have been mediocre at best. The good news is that I'm not going to get fat splurging on cakes.

Dad asked for bananas at breakfast, and they brought him a plate of six small ones and one large one. I said it was a Barry Bonds banana. There weren't a lot of people at breakfast: about half the ship is either under the weather or recovering.

The morning expedition was to the Royal Palace. The buildings are quite exotic and beautiful, and while we would normally visit the palace, the ceremonial rooms were closed to tourists today. Based on the flags on display, the king will be greeting a delegation from the European Union later today.

Instead, we went to the Silver Pagoda. The guide explained that when the French came to Cambodia they introduced paper money to replace silver, so the Cambodians melted silver down and paved the floor with it. Dad stayed outside while I took of my shoes and went in. The centerpiece is the emerald buddha, which a three-foot tall meditating buddha carved out of solid emerald. In front was a standing figure coated in gold decorated in over 280 diamonds, the largest of which is 24 karats. The cases along the wall contained various silver and gold items. I have to say, I found it more interesting and impressive than the crown jewels in the Tower of London.

Afterwards, we toured the National Museum and saw many of the fine statues and carvings that were found in Angkor Wat and elsewhere, but the highlight for me was chatting with a group of Cambodian college students in the garden at the end. They were all posing for pictures by the koi ponds and one dropped his camera case. I pointed it out to them and we had a brief chat. They are studying archaeology at the university in Phnom Penh. The one who spoke the best English was from Kompong Thom, so I mentioned we had driven through it. One girl asked him something in Khmer and so he asked me if I had been to Kompong Chhnang. I said yes. He asked what I liked best there. That was a tough one because it's hard for me to remember all the Cambodian names of the places we've been. I named the floating village and the monastery at Kompong Trelach, and they seemed to recognize my confused pronunciations.

Our last stop was the Central Market, where we had done so much shopping yesterday. Dad finally broke down and bought sunglasses. I suggested the Rayban aviators, so she had him try on a pair that were polarized. How much? I asked. "$20" We eventually bargained it down to $16. Later I convinced dad to buy a polo shirt, which we bought for $6. Then we caught an early bus back to the ship.

[Update: 8:15 pm]

The desserts at this lunch were slightly more appetizing then usual. I tried the khmer pastries and some were actually good. Dad ordered an ice cream (not on the menu) and they wouldn't bring him one.

After lunch, while we were waiting to go to the killing fields of Cheung Ek and Tuol Sleng prison, the person I'm calling Mr. Krohbuy sat down by me and started a conversation. I asked him what he thought of the Royal Palace and he started complaining about how the Cambodians had chosen the wrong religion. Why Hindiuism? he asked. "Look what it's done to India. And then they exchanged it for Buddhism. You would think," he went on, "that they would learn from their mistakes." He went on complaining about the entire country had nothing good in it and this stemmed from their mistaken to the failed religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. "Where has it got them?" he kept saying.

I have to admit, this caught me off guard despite being warned about his tendency to make offensive comments. I suggested that the last 2000 years of European history didn't suggestion their adoption of Christianity was that wise, but he dismissed that with a wave of his hand. The other gentleman sitting with us, who is in Mr. Krohbuy's group, suggested we end the conversation, so I quickly shifted the topic to the Royal Palace.

On the road to Cheung Ek, our guide told us of his family's plight during the Khmer Rouge era. One of his older sisters died from malnutrition, and two of his brothers were murdered or died in unknown circumstances. His entire family came within a day of execution when his father, the village healer, was arrested. The villager who arrested him hoped to get a promotion from this act, but his mother turned out to be a patient and told her son he had to choose between getting a promotion and his mother staying alive. That night he released our guide's father.

At Cheung Ek, and later at Tuol Sleng prison, our guide only accompanied us from the outside; he didn't enter the main part of the killing fields or the rooms of the prison. While he said this was because of the need to keep a respectful silence, I noticed that all the other guards went in and talked. I got the distinct impression that he couldn't face the images or the spaces.

Prisoners were brought to Cheung Ek in trucks at night, chained to the ground, and then executed, usually with axes or sticks to the back of the head. Over 17,000 people were murdered in this place and they are still finding pieces of bones and scraps of clothing. I could see the occasional rag that might have been someone's shirt. Several of the pits were still quite distinct, though thankfully no bones were protruding from the ground (which still happens after it rains).

In the center is a tall tower with a pagoda top. The sides of the tower are glass doors, and in the middle are shelves filled with skulls and bones, with clothing piled up on the bottom. These are the bones that have been unearthed at the site. The pagoda is a Buddhist shrine, so one must remove shoes and hat before approaching.

I had a conversation with our guide afterward about the site. I asked if the tall shrine was a kind of stupa (funerary monument that often contains the ashes of those who have died) and he said yes. I asked about how people felt about the bones of those murdered being on display. He said that every year Buddhist monks come here to pray for those murdered in this place, and that surviving family members also regularly come here to pray for their loved ones.

I asked him how he would feel if the bones of one of his friends or family were on display here and he said that he would feel fine, that Cambodians are not offended by this public display and feel that this is important to demonstrate the history of what happened here.

Our next stop was the Tuol Sleng prison. I assign a book about this prison to my students so I've read a fair amount about it. One of the things that struck me walking through it was how similar the architecture of prisons is. It's as if they all went to some infernal graduate school specializing in how to create soul-crushing cells.

At the end, I was able to buy two books, one containing the paintings done by Van Nath, one of the 7 survivors of the prison and whose work depicts the various ways prisoners were tortured. I particularly need this book for my Comparative Genocide class this spring.

On the way back, our guide told us about the efforts to bring the surviving Khmer Rouge leadership to trial, and the problems they've faced in doing it. One particular problem is the fact that many people active in the Khmer Rouge are still involved in Cambodian politics today, raising difficult questions about their responsibility.

Dinner tonight was so-so. I didn't care for the Cambodian salad; it just tasted off. The soup and main course were good, as they typically have been (I had the pan-fried fish with tamarind sauce), but the desserts, as usual were lousy. Dad again special ordered ice cream (chocolate), but this time they gave it to him. I had the pumpkin custard with sticky rice; the sticky rice were by far the best. The custard was grayish and blah and stuck inside a slice of cooked pumpkin.

Tomorrow we sail down the Mekong for the Cambodian/Vietnamese border, with the border crossing expected to take at least 2 hours. The ship is taking care of all of it, so we don't have to do anything. At the same time, though, there will not be any shore excursions tomorrow. Instead, they are offering a Vietnamese cooking class "for the ladies," and then an ice cream party in the afternoon, at which time they are going to try to lure people into publicly singing.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Silk Weaving Village - Updated

[Wednesday, January 4, 10:30 am]

Dad and I both slept well. After I got out of the shower, dad asked if there was hot water and I said yes. (Yesterday, he had tried to shower, but couldn't get any hot water. I pointed out that he had it set to cold. It's not as strange as it might sound since the hot and cold sides aren't marked and you have to let the water run for 2 minutes before it gets warm).

There was some unpleasantness around the computer stations this morning. There are only four terminals and one doesn't work. Frau Fabissiner was up at 6 am this morning to go on the computer, but the lounge was dark. "Tex," who likes to start political discussions and cheers Fox News, came up and showed her how to turn everything on. She sat down at one terminal, he set up his skype to call home. She then complained that he was talking too loud and it was disturbing her; couldn't he please step around the side. "I can't get reception if I do that," he replied. He then turned somewhat passive aggressive and spoke in his normal tone of voice.

I came in just as they both done. She accused him of trying to push her off the computer and he called her a "geezer" and an "old shit." As I told dad, I don't have a dog in that fight.

One of the problems is that while there is wifi in the lounge, it only seems to work with laptops and Ipads, not with smart phones. Don't know why.

At breakfast we learned that a fair number of people on the ship are sick, some with colds or fever, others with nausea. I'm being extra careful to use the hand sanitizer and soap and water.

By the way, in terms of the break down of passengers, I would now guess that a third of the passengers are Jewish, a little less than half are Australian, and about 6% are Israeli, and 8% are gay or lesbian.

This morning we sailed up the Mekong from Phnom Penh about 20 kilometers to a weaving village of Chong Koh. We walked across the gangplank and were surrounded by small kids trying to talk us up for change or sales. We gave them small pieces of candy. Walking through the village was a blast. We saw hand-run looms, workshops, a mobile barber, and climbed up to sit in a house on stilts with a 90-year old woman. I sat down by her, made the namaste gesture, which she returned, and then took her picture. I showed her the photo and she grinned and grinned, and held my hand to get a better look. She had two tvs (one didn't work).

At one loom, I bargained for a gift. Gloria had one that I liked and they quoted her one for $5. I countered "how about two for $5?" We settled on two for $6, but Gloria wouldn't go for it. The girl then sold it to me for $3.

We also visited the monastery and school. I saw the kids doing their lessons and the teacher at the chalk board. There was also a small temple nearby with some new stupas, and one really old one made of bricks and decomposing.

This afternoon, we'll go to Phnom Penh. I'll update later if I can.

Update: 5:05 pm, Cambodia Time

I joined Richard and Shannon, and Steven and Terri for lunch. At first dad was going to skip lunch, but later joined us. He ordered a hamburger off the regular menu. They were planning to hit the Central Market before the 3:30 optional excursion and were happy to have dad and I along. We were joined by Judy, and both Judy and I needed to stop by the ATM.

Steve and Terri negotiated two round-trip tuk-tuk rides ($2 each way) while Judy and I found the ATM. Judy wasn't happy with the terms, so only I withdrew money. Dad decided to wait to see if he could find a Citibank.

Traffic in Phnom Penh isn't as hectic as in Hanoi, but has some similar traits. One must always cross the street by walking slowly and deliberately, while allowing the scooters, tuk-tuks, cars, and trucks to pass you.

The Central Market was a blast! We all headed off in our separate ways. Dad noticed almost immediately that all the shops were run by women. In fact, we later discovered, there was one set of shops run by men: the ones doing jewelry repair and other mechanical services.

The central hall was dominated by jewelry shops, and everything glittered and gleamed. Radiating outward were the wings, which varied from Chinese or Vietnamese restaurant decoration supply stores, to brassieres, to children's blouses, to men's suits. At one end, they had a floral shop.

I found some gifts I wanted and negotiated for a good price. Dad wanted to buy me a shirt, but at first I didn't see anything I wanted. We found some nice light-weight cotton shirts with some Cambodian patterns. I tried two on over my t-shirt to make sure they fit and then bought them at $9 a piece.

At the western end we finally found the food market, which is always my favorite part of any market. Lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, many we had seen growing in the country-side villages we visited. Only a small butcher section, but lots and lots of fish. Some of it was dried and smoked, but there were baskets and baskets of fresh prawns, crabs, lobsters (including some small green ones), clams, mussels, cockles, and live crab and eels.

On our way back dad found a gift for one of the poker managers in the casino he goes to, and then a pair of cargo shorts he really liked. They measured his waist and then sold it to him for only $5.

Dad, by the way, says he likes Cambodia more and more, the more time he spends here.

We ran into Terri and Steven, who are far better hagglers than I am. They were bargaining over t-shirts, while Shannon and Richard looked at more leather bags. Eventually we all headed back to the ship at 3pm.

After dropping off our stuff, we went back to the lounge for the brief walking tour of downtown Phnom Penh. The highlight was the Wat Phnom, the original shrine of the city. There we saw people selling small little birds that are released for good luck (they then fly back, like homing pigeons, to be sold again). We had the opportunity to visit another Buddhist service, but I was the only one in my group to avail myself of this.

By the way, the guide explained that the blessing we received yesterday was for: happiness, prosperity, health, good family life, and good friendships.

On the side, we saw a shrine to Madame Penh, the woman, who according to legend founded the shrine on this hill. The shrine is known as Penh's hill, and since he khmer word for hill is "phnom," the town she founded is known as Phnom Penh.

On the walk back to the ship, we saw groups of men playing a Cambodian form of chess. Apparently some bet on it. On the drives through the country side I noticed the most popular game appears to be volleyball.

We came back to the boat after an hour and I did some laundry. Tonight we have a performance of Khmer children and then tomorrow, it's off to the national museum, the royal pagoda, and the killing fields in the afternoon.

[Second update: 9:40 pm, Cambodia time]

After a very nice dinner (khmer beef salad, duck with orange pepper sauce, though a typically middling dessert), we were treated to a performance of traditional khmer dance by a group of children from a local orphanage. Their dancing was beautiful.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Floating Villages - Updated

I will update this post later this afternoon if I have internet connection. I'll modify the title if I do.

We both slept quite well last night. No rocking of the boat at all. Apparently, this is the norm on river cruises. I woke up early to see the sunrise. I was up on deck around 6 am, watching the horizon turn purplish red, then orange, then yellow. Finally, the sun burst through the clouds. It was cool and breezy but the air warmed up fast once the sun came out.

I took my shower at "rush hour," so water pressure was a little light, but no problem getting warm water. The breakfast buffet was nice, though I just had toast and cereal, but also some lox. Dad had them make him an eggs and lox omelet.

This morning's excursion was to a floating village near Kampong Chhnang on the Sap River. Home to over 6,000 people and over a thousand year's old, the entire life of the village revolves around the water. We saw people bathing in the river, cleaning their infants in the river, fishing from the river, and using the outhouse over the river (that gentleman certainly wasn't "pee shy" as 26 people sailed by in the tender).

A few months ago, the water was 4 meters higher and you could see the dead lotus leaves hanging from the trees that only recently were under water. It reminded me of the Spanish moss hanging from the trees in Savanah. Several of the houses on stilts weren't high enough to keep them out of the recent flood waters, and you could the waters came up one meter over their floors.

Most of the villages make their living from the river, and their homes varied from simple shacks to elaborate homes with blue-painted paneling and satellite dishes. Most of the homes were filled with small children, who often waived to us. There were also small to mid-sized dogs.

Next to the floating village is a land-based town, much higher than the river. At the harbor, our nostrils were assaulted with the intense odor of dead, rotting, and decayed fish (as well as some fermented fish). Children ran in the muck, while people filleted and salted fish. We climbed a muddy path reinforced with bamboo rods to the street. The farther we got from the harbor, the weaker the smell became.

On the street we saw a blacksmith shop, where they were beating old car parts into knives and scythes. One guy was pressing canes to make cane juice. Other people were selling bitter nuts and bitter leaves, which are chewed along with shells to make a kind of cement (though it ruins your teeth). On several occasions, I walked up to people, made the namaste gesture and then pantomimed taking a picture with my camera. They always agreed, and then they smiled when I showed them the photo I took. I got a really nice shot of a Buddhist monk.

After 20 minutes, we went back to the tender and returned to the boat. Now they're giving us a briefing on Cambodia and this afternoon we have an ox-cart ride and then visit a large pagoda. If I'm able to update the blog this evening I will. Otherwise, we may not have reception until we get to Phnom Penh tomorrow afternoon.

First Update (6:00 pm, Cambodia time):

Lunch was pretty good. Dad and I both got the khmer fried shrimp, which were tasty, but a little over battered. The chocolate mousse for dessert, though, just tasted "off." Like the ice cream last night, it didn't taste "chocolate" enough.

The ox-cart ride was fabulous! It was kitschy and touristy and a blast. After we took the gangplank off the boat, the carts and oxen were all lined up. I got in first and dad followed. We sat on a fabric mat over a cushion of straw. The ride itself was only 15 minutes long, but it felt just right. We both really enjoyed it.

Afterwards, we got on the buses for a 30 minute drive to the monestary in Oudong. This was a large, beautiful complex. We got a bathroom break first, though, in what amounts to a uni-sex bathroom: women's stalls were on the left, men's urinals on the right. When we all regrouped, I looked around for dad and didn't see him. I searched all the bathrooms without any luck. I just hoped he would eventually show up.

We went up to the main temple, a large, tall, very ornate, gilt-encrusted structure, with an elaborate pointed roof composed of many stylized parasols. Inside, all the other groups from the cruise had arrived and were already shoe-less and hat-less and sitting on mats, waiting to receive the blessing from the two orange-robed monks. We quickly joined them and I spotted dad hovering on the margins.

The monks started chanting in rich, wavering, sing-song voices that were too varied to be monotone, but too similar to be a clear melody. After 10 minutes or so they blessed us by throwing jasmine buds at us. After they finished I had a chance to take some up-close photos, as well as more detailed shots of the temple's interior.

The most striking element was the statue of the Buddha, who was not only on a raised platform, but was also surrounded by an elaborate light display, including a hypnotic rotating halo behind his head, chains of what kind of looked like Christmas lights (if they had been in Christmas colors) and flashing neon-like pillars. Dad thought it reminded him of Vegas.

Mr. Krohbuy (see the earlier blogs) was heard to remark "where is the monkey house?" I guess he thought he was making a joking reference to monks.

From the temple, we went down to visit the shrine to the monk who had founded this monastery and who was killed by robbers four years ago. I chose not to go up to see his mummified corpse. After that we walked to a school, where we saw nuns studying. Many children attend monasteries for free education and many widows come her for a place to live and eat if they cannot be supported by their children. We also saw many large and elaborate stupas, which are a kind of funerary monument.

I have to say that everyone we met was exceedingly kind and generous, and not just in the monastery. All of us have remarking on how nice, kind, gentle, and friendly everyone we have met in the country has been. It really is quite extraordinary.

Afterwards, we returned to the boat and set sail down river towards Phnom Penh, where we will moor tonight. Tomorrow we visit a silk-weaving village in the morning and tour the capital in the afternoon.

On the River

Last night we took a tuk-tuk from the hotel to Abacus Restaurant, a highly regarded French restaurant in Siem Reap. Because of heavy traffic on the main road, we took some side streets. It was a somewhat experience going over dirt alleys in the back of what looks like a small carriage. For a while, I worried we were being taken for a ride (in a bad way), but instead, we ended up at the restaurant. Because we didn't have a reservation, we were seated outside. Luckily, we both put on our bug spray, though they put a bug repellent candle under our table.

Dad and I ordered the same thing: entrecote bordelaise with sauteed spinach, mushrooms, and potatoes. The only difference: mine was medium rare, dad's was medium. The steak was quite good (better than the one they just served us on the boat), but I like to see what I'm eating. At one point I jumped when what looked like two leopards walked in behind where we were sitting. They were to very large, black dogs, who have the run of the place.

By the way, I asked our guide today why we don't see any cats. He said that cats are kept as pets in Cambodia, but they are considered a higher "caste" than dogs and are kept indoors.

We were pretty full so skipped dessert. There was one tuk-tuk driver waiting out front, so I opened negotiations. "How much?" "Where are you going?" "Sofitel Angkor." "Three dollars." Since it only cost us two dollars to get there, I responded with two. "But very long distance," he replied and dad said he was comfortable with the price. Still, it was a wild experience darting in and out of heavy traffic on dark streets.

One complaint I heard from several guests about the hotel in Siem Reap was that while everyone agreed it was very posh and nice (with a nice pool, too, which I enjoyed in the afternoon), their wifi service leaves a lot to be desired. You have to log in every time and get a new password every day. I can't imagine they will keep this system that long.

This morning we were joined by the other half of the tour. Two almost entirely Australian tour groups from APT, which book their river cruises through AMA Waterways. We learned a new Cambodian word on the bus today: "kroh-BUY" It means oxen, but when applied to a person, means someone who is bull headed and stubborn, who does what they want without concern for others. In order to distinguish him from Frau Fabissiner (who looked quite stylish this evening in her silks she bought in Siem Reap), I'm going to refer to the problematic person from Team Yellow as Mr. Krohbuy.

Apparently, he's been stiffing the guides all along the trip, refusing to tip either the driver or the guides in any place we've been. He tried to join our bus again today, but since the seats are based on the number of people in the group, we sent him back to Team Yellow (who were very disappointed, they told me later, to see him back). We had a 5.5 hour drive to the embarkation point for the boat, and he was very upset about it. I heard him telling his wife that he should have rented a motor boat and do it on their own.

On the way, we were introduced to our new land and boat guide, Mr. Ly. He described his upbringing. We actually drove through his birth village. When he was three, the Khmer Rouge came into power and his entire family was transferred from one village to another, as they moved whole populations around. As a small child, he was somewhat better off than adults, and could get his food directly from the communal pot. He was also lucky in that he only lost two family members. The Yellow group guide lost his entire family.

I had a chance to speak to him one on one and he told me that he after his mother died, he lived as a buddhist monk for two days as his way of mourning for her. He's married and has two children and two pet dogs. Because he's in tourism, he gave them American names: Tony and Sonny.

Traveling through the countryside, we went through numerous small villages, with wooden huts on stilts, some with hammocks hanging underneath, most with small children running about barefoot, playing in muddy ponds. Large ceramic pots lined the sides of the houses, which are used to collect rain water. Often the roads were lined with small carts selling rice in bamboo containers, dried fish, fruit, or gasoline (in one liter soda bottles). Many houses have large piles of straw set up on raised platforms to keep them dry when it floods.

Every hour or so we went through a market town, where the houses were often more built up, with fancy roofs and eaves, and sometimes out of masonry. The space between the road and the shops was dirt, and filled with mopeds and carts, kicking up dust. We often passed mopeds with two or more children hanging on, and on more than one occasion, a cart with 20 or more kids.

In between, we passed rice paddies, some with fresh, bright green rice newly planted, but most with dried straw waiting to be collected. We passed many thin, scrawny cows and some water buffalo. At this time of year, the cattle are set free to graze, but later are rounded up to work the fields.

The whole sight makes one very humble, aware of how blessed and privileged we are to live in such a wealthy country with as many benefits as we have. I don't remember if I've written this earlier, but on several occasions on this trip, I've really felt as if I'm on the other side of the world: in Ha Long Bay, at the Angkor Temples, and on the road to the boat, and now on the river.

We stopped twice on the road: the first was to visit a "happy room," in Kompong Thom. Of course, the line for the women's room was more than twice as long for the men's. I should add that there was no toilet paper in the stalls, only a hand-held bidet (but nothing to dry oneself with afterwards). There were sinks, but just one towel on the wall. I chose to air dry them by waving my hands back and forth. I knew we had three hours to go, so I bought a Nestle ice cream bar. The problem was I couldn't tell what the flavors were (one was lavender, the other white). I was pretty sure one was coconut, but I couldn't figure out the second. I showed the wrapper to the guide, but he said it was in Thai.

The second stop was to see a really wild food market in Skoun. The guide told us about how eating crickets and tarantulas were delicacies, but it was another thing to see people selling and eating them. I took a ton of pictures. I figure this was their way of making us not too hungry since it was after noon, and lunch was still over an hour and a half away.

The last 40 kilometers were off the main highway on a side road that was only partially paved (the left half). That meant all the traffic on our side drove on the dirt road, kicking up a cloud of dust that lasted 45 minutes. The dust cloud was like a fog, and every now and then a truck or moped would suddenly loom out of the haze and be upon us. The road was also heavily pot holed, and I think I heard at least one scream after a particularly violent lurch and dip.

We finally reached the ship around 1:45 pm. Because AMA Lotus has a draught of over 2 meters, it can't navigate the shallowest part of the Tonle Sap lake. That's why we had to take this bus transfer. In fact, this ship can only navigate the entire distance for maybe two months a year. I'm not sure if the other vessel, La Margarite, which is shallower is a better option.

From the bus, we walked across a field of reeds until we reached the gangplank for the boat. The cabin is very nice and larger than the one dad and I had in the Galapagos. There is a small veranda with a chair bolted to the deck. I washed some shirts and put out one of my pants for laundry (I need my blue jeans for our visit to the pagoda tomorrow afternoon, after which, I will have them laundered as well).

Lunch was good, with a mix of salads, including a rather amusingly labeled "crap cake" (the menu described it as "crab cake"). After our first briefing, we had the safety drill. Dad's life vest was very tight on him, while mine fit fine. I told him that was a sign he needed to lose weight. He suggested we change vests.

Up on deck, I found that there are three Israeli couples in the Yellow group, so we had a very nice conversation in Hebrew. Dad then went down to take a nap, and I explored the ship. The library is small, but they have dozens of dvds to watch on the monitors in our room. There's also a jacuzzi on the sun deck. I got a beer and watched the sunset, while chatting with some of the guests.

At dinner we sat with Greg and Irene (from Australia) and Kevin and Ann Louise Fischer (from South Africa). It turns out that the South Africans know my father's urologist! Dad can't wait to tell him when we get back.

The dinner was ok. I liked the starter of pineapple and prawn salad, followed by cream of cauliflower, but the Aussie beef loin with pepper sauce was rather tough (though Kathy pointed out, it would have been better if we had been given something other than butter knives to cut it with). Dad enjoyed his consumme soup, and really liked the flavorings in the rice. Since dad can't drink caffeine, they made him a special ginger tea with slices of fresh ginger. He liked it.

Tomorrow morning we have an excursion to see a floating village of 6,000 people, but if we're up at 6 am, we can see the water taxi. Since I've been waking up early as it is, I may try to see it tomorrow.

Finally, internet will be very spotty until we reach Phnom Penh. I've been trying for several hours, but this is the first I was able to get through.