a challenging region to enjoy

Note to self: next time we’re travel planning, in addition to checking TripAdvisor forums and the Canadian government travel advice and advisory website, look up the Air Quality Index (AQI).

It was shocking to land in Hanoi and discover the smog level is so continuously thick that we would rarely see the buildings downtown, just across the river. On the Sunday we were there, the AQI peaked at 365, categorized as “hazardous to everyone” with a caution to avoid physical exertion outdoors. To put that in perspective, the AQI was 26 on that day in Vancouver. It turns out Hanoi is one of the most heavily air-polluted cities in the world, with only a handful of “good” recorded days in 2017. Cough cough!

We have mixed feelings about our experience in Vietnam and Laos. Both are Communist countries with no freedom of expression and many other oppressive laws and practices. A few days after we left Ho Chi Minh City (which locals we talked to still call Saigon), more than 100 people were arrested for protesting government plans to offer foreign investors 99-year leases in special economic zones. However, both economies are already heavily shaped by massive direct investment from Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, although the protesters were particularly concerned about growing Chinese involvement in their economy. The state-run media in Vietnam report that private enterprises now employ more people than the state, and both Vietnam and Laos are in the processing of privatizing public institutions and services.

The Vietnam War looms large over both countries. You can’t visit any museums or historic sites in Vietnam without facing intense propaganda about US aggression and destruction, American soldiers described as “devils who kill women and children”, and graphic descriptions of the ongoing impact of Agent Orange. In Laos, unexploded bombs, including small cluster bombs that look like toys, continue to main and kill civilians. We visited the Mines Advisory Group information centre in Vientiane to learn more about work to clear mines and bombs from fields and communities.

The taxi drivers of Vietnam are the worst we’ve met in the world in terms of rudeness, deceptive practices, even refusing to take us across the Red River in Hanoi. We were staying just across the river from the old quarter; for some reason taxi drivers were reluctant to cross the river and pedestrians are not allowed on the two nearby bridges. We found Vietnam to be the least safe place to walk anyway, drivers pay no attention to pedestrians or traffic signals, and motorcyclists use the sidewalks to pass or go against traffic. No one slows down or stops, they just blare their horns and roar by.

There is trash everywhere. Storekeepers and street venders simply dump their trash in the street, empty lots are used as garbage dumps, streams and rivers are basically open sewers. We saw more rats running around and more men urinating in the streets in Vietnam than anywhere else we’ve ever visited.

Okay, so that’s a lot of bad news for countries that claim to offer visitors “Endless Charm” (Vietnam), or a “Simply Beautiful” experience (Laos). It wasn’t all bad! The beaches in Vietnam are wide and sandy, the ancient history is fascinating, and there is an emerging craft beer industry that attracted our keen attention, especially in Saigon. The Heart of Darkness tap room was just 300m from our hotel in Saigon — superb craft beer so dangerously close we dropped by three times over four nights — the Aussie manager confirmed that made us regulars!

The Reunification Palace in Saigon aka Independence Palace.

Inside the palace as it was during the 1960s.

Gruesome photos at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon.

Once hidden entrance to one of the Cu Chi tunnels, just north of Saigon.

Our favourite craft beer taproom in Vietnam: Heart of Darkness.

Nha Trang — major beach resort town.

Royal Tomb for the last king of Vietnam.

Statues of mandarins at the Royal Tomb.

Part of the ancient Imperial Palace in Hue, Vietnam.

Arch within the grounds of the Imperial Palace.

The smog in Hanoi.

Massive Patuxai arch in Vientiane, Laos.

Deborah was interviewed by students asking about her experience of Laos — they seemed thrilled she was from Canada.

Quirky Belgium bar in Vientiane celebrates the life of Tintin.

Quirky park outside Vientiane features random statues of Buddha and various Hindu deities.

ancient khmer temple cities

(We’re home, finally posting again with just a few of hundreds of photos from our visit to Angkor Wat – enjoy!)

The Khmer kingdom expanded and contracted several times over the centuries from about 700 to 1400 AD. It also moved back and forth between Hinduism and Buddhism depending on the beliefs of the king at the time. But through it all, the wide flat valley north of the west end of Tonle Sap Lake remained the centre of Khmer political and religious power until the capital was moved to Phnom Penh in 1432 and the temples and cities now known collectively as Angkor Wat were all but abandoned.

But now, not only is Angkor Wat a world heritage site, it is also described as the largest religious monument in the world, and just missed making it onto the “Seven new wonders of the world” list. Wat means “temple” and Angkor means “city” – so what we have is a “temple city”. And while the walled Angkor Wat city-of-temples itself is perhaps the most famous, it is just one of dozens of significant and diversely-designed and constructed temples and former capital cities scattered across 400 square kilometres.

We arrived in Siem Reap by air, and by the time our taxi driver got us to our hotel, we had hired him to be our driver for the next three days, complete with an itinerary that would not only get us back and forth across the valley to explore some of the major outlying temples, a butterfly garden and a landmine museum, but timing for each that would minimize our exposure to the pushy and rushed crowds moving around by big tour bus.

Sunscreen, bug repellent and water was all we needed, and we were off! A three-day pass cost us $40 each, US cash only (a Vietnamese company actually runs and profits from visits to Angkor Wat, a sore point with locals).

On the first day we wandered around Pre Rup, a Hindu temple that was built around 960 AD. Then it was north to Banteay Srei, constructed just a few years later quite a few kilometres north of the Angkor Wat site, sometimes known as the Citadel of the Women, and certainly known for the numerous and intricately carved bas relief illustrations found here. Everywhere we turned, there were carved panels depicting religious stories and deities – some weather worn and crumbling, some holding up well, and some restored.

Nearby Banteay Samri was next on our list of temples to visit. This temple was dismantled and reassembled by the French in the 1930s using original materials and techniques, although it is interesting to see piles of leftover blocks and building fronts assembled and stacked along the walkway to the main entrance.

On the way in, a dozen girls approached us with items for sale. They asked us our names and where we were from, and when we told them Canada, they declared that the capital of Canada was Ottawa, and made Deborah promise to buy something on the way out. And even though we emerged an hour later, they remembered our names and country of origin – a future in sales for each and every one of them!

Our second day on site was our most ambitious: Ta Prohm, the Terrace of the Elephants, Victory Gate, Bayon (the main temple at Angkor Thom), and finally Angkor Wat. Our driver did well – we mostly avoided the big bus tours and had some sites almost to ourselves for casual exploration.

These are amazing ruins. Everywhere there were walls, towers, statues, and bas-relief carvings. Shiva, Vishnu, Buddha, nagas, guardian lions and monkey-headed men, devatas, apsaras, battle scenes, creation stories, inscriptions, and worshippers and wise-men.

Our final day in the area was a chance to get out to Beng Malea – a temple site mostly left as it was found, and the temples that make up the Roluos group, an early Khmer capital. Beng Malea brought our inner mountain goats. While most of the package-tour people are rushed along the boardwalk on their way in and out, we joined a small number of other visitors who climbed up and over, around and under the crumbling ruins – Indiana Jones would be proud! It was here that a scene in Tomb Raider was filmed (apparently several other movies have used this site as well for “ancient ruins” scenes).

Did we say these are amazing ruins? Machu Picchu remains our favourite, but these are solidly in second place!

beaches and bangkok

We’re already in Sihanoukville, Cambodia as we post this – after four days on Penang Island and four days on Phuket Island, we wandered the streets of Bangkok for three days, hopped another border to see the ancient sites around Siem Reap, Cambodia and then travelled by boat to Phnom Penh. After that, a bus to the coast. So we have some catching up to do – we’ll cover the beaches and Bangkok today.

We bused from Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth on west coast of Malaysia, and quite conveniently the ferry terminal is next to the bus station. On the other side of the water the city bus terminal is right across the street. We happily discovered there was a stop right at our hotel. We had selected the Four Points by Sheraton, which sounds expensive, but wasn’t; they were offering a grand opening (or re-opening, we weren’t sure) deal that was too good to pass up. We had a fabulous room with a huge window looking out over the water and a small sandy beach. We spent a lot of time on that beach, no sellers, no boats, no hassle, and to our happy surprise, very inexpensive beer and meals on the hotel deck. We read about a beach a few kilometres away that was described as “3 kilometres of white sand – the Cancun of Malaysia”. Nice try. Batu Feringgi was the dirtiest and most run-down patch of beach we’re ever stepped foot on, and off as quickly as we could.

Phuket Thailand was another story altogether. We had decided to stay at Patong Beach, which we knew was the epicentre of tourist craziness – and it sure was. Wall-to-wall tourists and touts on the beach and in the streets all day and night, and in the overflowing bars during generous happy hours. Lots of Australians come here, and an increasing number of Russians catching direct flights from Moscow – signage is in Thai, English, Chinese, and Russian.

We booked a day boat tour to Phang-Nga Bay – an area with numerous small islands and beaches, and a very small but tall island promoted as the James Bond Island for its role as the headquarters for the bad guy in The Man with the Golden Gun. We enjoyed the great scenery along the way, had a wonderful paddle under the edge of one of the islands, and saw lots of sea hawks and sea eagles. Ironically, although the tour brochure heavily promotes James Bond Island, it was the shortest stop, barely enough time to get the requisite photo (whereas the stop at an overpriced craft market on another island was painfully long).

We also did a self-directed island tour up to see the Big Buddha, numerous temples, the old section of Phuket Town, feed elephants, and visit a cashew factory. It’s a very big Buddha that rivals Cristo Blanco in Rio as a mountaintop landmark that can be seen for miles in every direction.

Bangkok is a huge city and like Vancouver, they have a light rapid train line that zooms you directly from the airport to the centre of the city and connects with the other light rapid transit lines for getting around. Our hotel in Bangkok was about three blocks from an LRT station, which was also our connection to the main attractions downtown. Buddhism is huge here and the city offers a range of important Buddha images – the largest golden Buddha in a temple in Chinatown, a small but mythical Emerald Buddha at the National Palace (actually made from jade), and a 150 foot long gold-leaf reclining Buddha at Wat Po.

With admission to the Wat Phra Kaeo and the Grand Palace Complex you can have a guided tour, in English, of this huge and nationally important site. Men and women have to borrow pants and short-sleeve shirts if you are dressed in shorts or shirts that reveal your shoulders, but they are well organized and deposits are returned to you on your way out. We were massively impressed with all the intricately carved statues and temples commissioned by a succession of kings, and the massive palace itself. We were in the city just a few days before the king’s birthday, and there were signs and banners and shrines everywhere declaring “Long Live the King”, apparently he is quite loved by the people. In fact, it was expected that there would be a truce between anti-government protesters and the authorities on and around observance of his birthday on December 5.

We dropped by the main rally site at the Democracy Monument and saw tens of thousands of people gathered to hear fiery speeches and show their support for change. Hugh tents provided shelter from the hot sun, and tons of bottled water, fresh cold cloths, and even food and other supplies were available for free. There were also lots of people selling the plastic whistles and hand-clappers you might have seen on TV, and all kinds of other items bearing the Thai flag or images of the protest – the most commercialized protest we’ve ever attended! (A few days later the Prime Minister did dissolve parliament and promise to hold elections in the near future; not sure if that’s what the protesters really want.)

We also traveled up and down the river – a major commuter system that gets you out of the heavy street traffic and congestion, although you do get packed in like a sardine and have to be ready to quickly jump on and off the boat because there is no waiting,

We’re really enjoying our time in SE Asia, but increasingly noticing how smog-bound the cities are. Buses, heavy trucks, untold millions of motorcycles and obviously no emissions controls.

the view from floor 86

Some cities feature such a mish-mash of buildings and roadways and transit lines that nothing stands out. Sure, as you wander the streets in major SE Asia cities you might come across a cluster of old brick colonial administration buildings now serving as art galleries and museums, old Hindu temples with intricately carved figures, large modern mosques, and huge upscale flash-and-glass shopping centres. But seldom does a structure so completely dominate the landscape as does the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. No matter from which direction you are approaching the city, you will soon spot this pair of 452 metre high towers and the skybridge that connects them.

If you saw Entrapment a few years ago (featuring Sean Connery, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and art thievery) you have seen the towers and the skybridge support bars up close. This is truly an iconic structure, described in many places as “the pride of Malaysia”. It was the tallest building in the world from completion in 1998 until a new building in Taipei reached higher into the sky, but it remains the tallest twin tower building in the world.

To walk the skybridge at floor 41, and spend time in the observation deck at floor 86, visitors must buy tickets for an assigned time – we arrived around 11 am and got a pair of tickets for the 4:15 pm tour, just enough time for us to wander the surrounding downtown area for a little while and grab lunch. By the way, the ticket seller asked if we would tell her our ages – and upon hearing them, offered us the senior’s discount – half price in fact. We appreciated the savings; we’re not sure how we feel about being identified as seniors!

At the assigned time we gathered with about 20 others for the very fast ride up to the skybridge, which has two levels of walkway – one for tourists and one above for staff. It was quite amazing, the view and the engineering that made it possible. The bridge is kind-of “floating” between the two towers so that in the event of an earthquake, the skybridge will not crash into either tower, but will move in and out as needed. We were told that in order to speed up construction, two separate consortiums were hired to build one tower each, one lead by a South Korean company and the other lead by a Japanese company. They also have lots of statistics to impress us: 33,000 pieces of stainless steel and 55,000 glass panels make up the exterior of the building.

It is then another fast and very quiet elevator ride up to a few stories below the observation floor, a quick change to a pair of smaller elevators and we have a stunning 360 degree view of the city – and a much closer look at the top of the other tower. Did I already use the word stunning? Okay, let’s go with awesome this time. Nothing else in the city comes close to the impact this tower will have on you, looking up from the outside, or looking out from the inside. Wow.

Back down on the surface of the earth, we caught the last run of the city hop-on, hop-off bus for a slow crawl through rush hour traffic, no commentary, and as it turns out, the driver took a short cut and skipped some of the attractions we were supposed to see, as we learned the next day when we hopped back on. Just the same, Kuala Lumpur doesn’t have much else to offer – some old colonial building and Chinese shophouses, the National Palace you only get to look at through a big archway, and large shiny malls.

Kuala Lumpur does a relatively efficient rapid transit system, even if the monorail, LRT, and bus stations don’t always line-up for getting across the city. We did manage to take public transit all the way to the famous Batu Caves, long ago turned into a Hindu shrine but open to the public. Up 272 steps there is a massive inner chamber, and then further in there a second chamber open to the sky, recalling for us the time we swam in a cenote in the Yucatan.

We’re a bit behind with posting; stay tuned for a report comparing Penang Island, Malaysia and Phuket Island, Thailand. And don’t worry gentle readers, we’re keeping an eye on the anti-government protests in Bangkok, our next stop!

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National Palace crest

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The National Palace (through the front gate, no visitors allowed)

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View of the towers from our hotel’s rooftop patio

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Fancy street lights in the colonial district, Kuala Lumpur

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Hindu statue near the Batu Caves

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Long-tailed Macaque, mother and child near Batu Caves

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Long-tailed Macaque, inside the Batu Caves

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Long-tailed Macaque near the Batu Caves

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Central Market / Chinatown area, Kuala Lumpur

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Petronas skybridge

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Hindu temple, Kuala Lumpur

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Inside the Batu Caves

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Entrance and stairway to the Batu Caves

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View from floor 86

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View from floor 86

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View from floor 86

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View from floor 86

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Inside the skybridge

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Inside the skybridge

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Everywhere a sign

Good afternoon to all you wonderful people…

As I write this, I believe it is Wednesday, the 20th of November… we lost a day from Vancouver to Singapore, so I am still a bit unsure of days. The 13-hour plane ride to the Philippines, our change-over spot, was quite uneventful… they fed us a lot and we seemed to be awoken every few hours with some water, food, what have you. Our take off was an hour late, so when we arrived, our connector flight was leaving. Don’s tripadvisor comment about that will give you the idea of how we were treated… abandoned was the word of the day. We managed to eventually get on a flight to Singapore a few hours later, so all was well.

The transit system in Singapore is exceptional, quite inexpensive… we could travel for an hour on the MRT (rapid transit train) for about $2… way better than Vancouver. They have lots of buses and again very reasonable… Vancouver could learn a thing or two.

We did the hop on hop off bus on Monday so we could get a lay of the land and where interesting sites are. Don was really surprised to see that the Marina Bay Sands Hotel was not a figment of someone’s imagination (he had seen a model of this hotel at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibition “The Grand Hotel”). The Marina Bay Sands is actually three 55-storey towers and sitting on top is a massive curved ocean liner with an outdoor swimming pool where people feel like they could swim off into the air, quite a few restaurants and lounges and a great viewing area on the “56th floor”. That is where we spent about an hour enjoying the incredible view of the city, including the very creative engineering.

We also spent a few hours in the National Museum, where we partook in a guided tour by one of the Museum’s volunteers. It was a great history lesson. One of the many things we learned was that when the Japanese attacked Singapore, they were brilliant in their strategy… the advance ground force travelled quietly through Malaya (Malaysia was called that at the time) on bicycles and travelled over the connecting bridge and started killing people… especially the Chinese that lived there, as they blamed Singapore for backing the Chinese in the Japanese invasion of China years earlier. Over the 2 week period they killed between 5,000 and 50,000 people… no one really knows. They only stopped the killing when the people of Singapore paid a ransom of 50,000,000 dollars to Japan. Three years later, when the Japanese were no longer in control of Singapore, the only demand of the Singapore people was that Japan pay the 50 million back. Japan and Singapore have a good relationship now and hopefully all will be well for years to come.

We also learned that Malay is the official language of Singapore. We had thought it was English, the language of business and commerce (and tourism). All signs in the country are in four languages… Malay, English, Chinese, and Tamil.  Of the 600 languages in India, Tamil was chosen as it was the language of the early immigrants from India.

They honour one particular doctor who helped out with the basics of life… hygiene. Prior to his involvement, people would urinate and defecate in the same river water they would drink.  It was not healthy… so when he came back from Europe, fully trained, he brought to Singapore the concept of the bed pan. Every day, a truck would come around and the contents of the bedpan would be dropped into the truck… it was then delivered as manure to a section of town that they renamed “Lavender” as it smelled so bad there, they thought the name might help. There is an MRT stop at Lavender.

We caught the MRT to the last stop east, way past the airport, to walk in the ocean. We heard there were great beaches and parks. When we got there, the beaches were small and at that time… around 2:30pm, there was almost no one around except the grounds keepers, which were many.

We took off our shoes and walked in the water and then sat on some rocks to let our feet dry. We then spotted a sign that said no swimming… oops.

Talking about signs… please take a look at the pictures we have posted. This is the most directive city we have ever been in.  Most signs are about behaviour… “94% of people say they would give their seat on the bus to a person in need…”, “Be considerate of others”. or just “No (swimming, camping, etc)”..

A last comment… the people here do not act very happy (maybe it’s all the signs!). Not much laughter either. Given that observation I smiled at a few people… and they smiled back. So maybe they’re just very reserved.

Till next time… have much fun, smile and laugh… it is good for you.

Love and happiness,

Deborah

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Hindu temple in little India

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First view of Marina Bay Sands – wow!

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Marina Bay Sands — close-up

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Old Hindu temple – Chinatown

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Old Hindu temple – Chinatown

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Courtyard of the famous Raffles Hotel

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Created at Raffles, but pricey!

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Beach at Pasir Ris on the east coast

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Another view of the Marina Bay Sands

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View of the city from the top of the Marina Bay Sands

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View of the harbour from the top of the Marina Bay Sands

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View of the financial district from the top of the Marina Bay Sands

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View of the port from the top of the Marina Bay Sands

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Here we are on the Marina Bay Sands observation deck, 56 stories up, beer in hand, views all around!

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