Saturday, February 28, 2015

Bangkok behind the scenes


Having returned to the dock, we set out on foot for the Flower Market. First we visited a large veggie market with huge trays of red and green chillies, trays of ginger and big baskets full of vegetables and fruits. Out in the busy laneway trucks were loading and unloading while a large man wandered up and down the street with a megaphone offering free haircuts. Along the street were all kinds of food stalls, some with sitting areas.

By now flowers were everywhere. There were huge amounts of marigolds being strung into garlands or made into arrangements. These were for offerings to Buddha. Beautifully colored orchids were everywhere. At little stalls men and women would patiently make arrangements of flowers. Some shops were full of cut flowers while in others there were huge plastic bags of marigolds waiting for their turn in a display. We were told not to smell the flowers as they were intended for offerings and hadn't been blessed by a monk.

Our convoy of tuk tuks delivered us to the oldest part of this bustling city, Chinatown. First we visited a Chinese temple that was very busy since it was the day after the New Year. Here we saw the huge gift baskets of food people brought to the temple as well as individual offerings of food and flowers, especially marigolds. We passed several monks yesterday and saw more today walking on the streets or at the temple. Every time we saw one the women were warned not to touch the monk as he would have to undergo a long purification ritual. Some men become monks for life while others are monks for shorter periods of time. The monks collect their food in the mornings as alms, and eat only two meals a day, breakfast and lunch.

We left the temple and emerged onto a narrow side street packed with market stalls, restaurants, tea houses, herbal stalls and a dense concentration of gold shops. Chinatown during Chinese New Year is an experience not to be missed. There were lots of red lanterns decorating the streets as well as stalls selling items of red clothing and golden decorative goats. At one end of Chinatown by the huge entrance gate, a stage was being set up, and just at that moment a Chinese dragon made its noisy appearance. In the evening the streets would be closed to traffic; vendors were already moving their stalls further out into the street.

By now it was late afternoon and we were heading to a cinema to see Kingsmen. But this was no ordinary cinema. There were five rows with five double seating areas in each row, much like business class seats on a plane -- leather, fully reclinable and separated by a console for drinks and snacks. Our tickets also entitled us to free drinks and snacks in a fancy lounge prior to the show. There were even blankets, a good thing because they really like their air conditioning in Bangkok. It is always a treat for us to see a movie in English and tonight we were really spoiled in such a setting watching Colin Firth in a funny action movie.

Once again it was time to eat and this would be our last dinner in Bangkok. I must confess I had soft shelled crab again but this time with rice in a tamarind sauce. We see soft shells so seldom it is always a treat. Seamus refrained and had some pad thai prawns. It was a lovely ending to a lovely holiday. Tomorrow, home.



Friday, February 27, 2015

Lots to see along Chao Phraya River

This morning we went for a boat cruise down the Chao Phraya River. The streets were already busy with people at outdoor food stalls, which are everywhere. Since many people living in Bangkok have small apartments with limited cooking space, and because they may also have long commutes into the city, they choose to eat street food. It is delicious and you can buy breakfast for fifty cents.

The river was incredibly choppy with the wash from other boats. This was going to be a welcome relief from all the crowds we had encountered as there were only eight of us on a "James Bond" boat. They have had this name ever since they were used in a chase scene in "The Man with the Golden Gun." We were very pleased that the boat was much more stable than it first appeared.

We travelled down the river, passing by the Flower Market, and then by Buddhist temples. In front of the temples were tall hemispherical buildings called stupas containing cremated ashes. King Rama IX, who is much revered by his people, is in a hospital that was pointed out to us. Rama IX is the longest reigning monarch in the world but has been in ill health for some time. His picture is seen everywhere you go, on buildings, banners and billboards. His son is very unpopular and his now divorced wife's family has been involved in a corruption scandal.

We headed up a smaller canal passing a mixture of housing from old tin shacks to some lovely waterfront homes. Rice barges plied the river. Little skiff-like boats loaded with food were selling to larger James Bond boats. One of the highlights was passing an old building that held nine of the royal barges used by the royal family on ceremonial occasions. A flotilla of over fifty Royal barges are used at those times.

Then we were each given a loaf of bread so that we could feed giant catfish. It was a feeding frenzy as the huge fish vied with each other for the bread. As we moved upstream we spotted a large river monitor sunning himself on some steps. Apparently they don't bother people as they are content with their diet of catfish. Sometimes people swim in the river and we did notice some children splashing about. It wouldn't be for the faint of heart.



Monday, February 23, 2015

Chinese New Year brings crowds to Bangkok sights

We arrived in Bangkok, the final stop on our tour of Southeast Asia. Everything was incredibly busy. It was Chinese New Year, and 500,000 Chinese had descended on Bangkok, many on cheap holiday packages.Our tour that day began with Wat Traimit, the home of the Golden Buddha. Unfortunately, it took us a long time to move into the complex because of the huge number of people. We were told that 100,000 Chinese a day were visiting the site. At 5.5 tons of of pure gold, the Golden Buddha is the the world's largest gold statue. Some lucky people touring with us had been here before when no one was around.
Next we visited the Emerald Buddha, which is less than two feet tall but carved in solid jade and perched on a pedestal of gold. We tried to admire the sight without getting in the way of those who had come to pray and make offerings, but it was a bit of a scrum and I was just about knocked over a couple of times. Outside a priest was sitting on a pedestal blessing people with water. I went in line and got splashed and blessed. Some people got hit on the head with the twigs for extra good luck. I think they donated more.

The highlight of the day was a visit to the Grand Palace, an intriguing mixture of Thai and European architecture started by Rama I. The Palace Complex contains over 100 buildings including a Coronation Hal, Throne Room and Funeral Palace. Rama l was played by Yul Bryner in the musical "The King and I". He and many of his brothers attended Eton. The movie is banned in Thailand because it is considered highly disrespectful to depict he king in a form of entertainment.

Next we visited the oldest temple in Bangkok, Wat Pho, to see the famous Reclining Buddha. This statue is 15 metres high and 43 metres long. The feet of Buddha are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. 108 panels display the symbols by which Buddha can be identified: flowers, dancers, white elephants, tigers and altar accessories. In the corridor 108 bronze bowls represent the 108 auspicious characters of Buddha. People paid for small containers of coins which they then distributed into each bowl as they walked by, to bring good fortune. It was lovely to see but we kept also seeing signs warning us to be wary of pickpocket gangs, which seemed incongruous here surrounded by reminders of Buddha's teachings. We were assured that these gangs came from other countries!

The temple is also the home of Thai massage. For Thai massage therapists, the medical inscriptions inside the temple act as a base for treatment. There are 60 plaques inscribed, 30 each for the front and the back of the body. Full research on the plaques is still ongoing. You can have one of the therapists come to your hotel for a two hour massage.

After a very long shower we revived ourself with a late lunch, and then wandered around nearby shopping malls. Things seemed quite expensive even by European standards. In one mall we saw a very colorful Chinese dragon dance. Outside we wandered through the street market stalls selling clothing and leather.

At dinner time we decided to go to a Food Court that was really like a huge Thai Movenpick, where you went from stall to stall picking what food you wanted. There were so many cooking areas that it was hard to decide what to eat.There were vegetarian, seafood, food from the north, central and southern parts of Thailand and many other cooking areas. I ended up with a very nice clear soup with some vegetables in it and a dish of rice with crayfish and some salad. Unfortunately, it was so hot that my mouth just burned. I ate a little bit, but it was all too much. It was my own fault as I had gone to the chili paste stall.



Phnom Penh's royal palace and a bus ride like no other

We arrived in Sihanoukville, Cambodia's seaside resort. For us this was an access point for Phnom Penh, once considered the "pearl" of French Indochina. It would be a four-hour drive before we arrived there.

In the distance there were mountains shrouded in mist. Along the road we passed many small villages with open-fronted shops selling food, household goods or even motor scooters. White cows belonging to the villagers roamed freely, only going home at night. They are not used for milk, only to work and for beef. The houses were often on stilts, with a living area for people upstairs and for the animals below. The fields looked untended. It was difficult to determine if crops had been taken in as we never saw any activity in them other than some water buffalo foraging.

A rest stop after two hours gave us an opportunity to try some Cambodian coffee, which wasn't too bad. Our ship's captain wanted milk in his and so the lady produced a can of thick condensed milk that she poured in his coffee.

As we moved into the outskirts of Phnom Penh traffic became totally gridlocked with vehicles moving in all directions. There were many more cars than we had seen elsewhere, usually second-hand Toyotas from America we were told. Added to this were the scooters and 'tuk tuks', motorized rickshaws that usually carried four people but sometimes as many as twenty in longer versions. The schools were getting out for lunch in the case of private schools or for the day for the rest. It all added to the chaos. As we had seen everywhere else, there were up to four people on the scooters. Many were loaded up with a variety of goods and we even saw one with a number of dead chickens hanging from it.

Added to this scene was an awful lot of garbage, especially plastic. Thick piles of it lined the roads and it was quite common to see the white cows foraging among this mess. In some places it was burning. It was really disgusting. We had seen plastic in other places and along roadways but not to this extent. There is no recycling in Cambodia and no education about it. The thinking is that you keep your own house clean but beyond that it is someone else's problem. After crawling along for most of the next two hours we arrived at a hotel for lunch. I don't eat much meat anyway, but this was one day that I was very careful to avoid it!

After lunch our bus took us past some fine colonial architecture, parks and along the river until we reached our destination for the day, the Royal Palace. Outside the palace the wide streets had been blocked off to ensure peace for the royals. The king and his mother were in residence, where they had been celebrating his 61st birthday, so we were fortunate to be allowed to visit. In fact we were treated as VIPs; no other tourists had been allowed in. What a magnificent sight with beautifully manicured gardens and magnificent pagodas. We had just missed the king in the Throne Room. We were permitted to peek inside to admire the coronation throne, the everyday throne, beautiful chandeliers and frescoes.

We crossed over to the exquisite Silver Pagoda, so named for the 5,000 silver tiles that cover its floor. Most are now covered in carpet but there were a few spots where we could touch the tiles with our bare feet. The tiles were made in France at the time of Napoleon III. By weight the amount of silver that was sent to France was considerably more than what they got back in finished tiles; however Napoleon did send a huge statue of himself on a horse. The king then replaced Napoleon's head with his own. There are many statues of Buddha in this pagoda but the most magnificent was the diamond-encrusted, life-sized Buddha crafted out of solid gold.

There were many stupas -- funerary pagodas -- where the cremated remains of kings and their families were interred. We entered the palanquin room displaying palanquins that the royals had been carried around in. I particularly liked the life-sized white elephant complete with howda that the royals used.

At the National Museum we saw a fantastic array of Khmer artifacts from Angkor dating back many centuries. It is fortunate that these artifacts survived the Khmer Rouge period during which many were lost or destroyed.

Cambodia's recent history has been extremely turbulent. The country became entangled in the Vietnam war and then in 1975 the Khmer Rouge came to power and began their brutal reign, systematically exterminating 1.7 million citizens, particularly targeting those perceived as 'intellectuals'. Another 1.3 million people died from related causes such as disease, starvation, being worked to death or stepping on mines. Phnom Penh was completely evacuated and all the people were sent to the land as slaves. This was the time of the Killing Fields. The average life expectancy was 42 for men and 44 for women. In 1978 the Khmer Rouge was overthrown and the present government came into power. Although Cambodia is a democracy, and holds elections, the same party has been in power for 35 years. Corruption is rife, life expectancy is still only 62 for men and 64 for women, and although most children go to primary school not many make it to high school and only 8% go to university.

It was time to begin our four-hour return trip. The factories were finishing for the day and we passed many open trucks jammed full with workers, standing room only. It didn't look very safe or comfortable. Most of the workers were women who make $120 US dollars a month, a subsistence wage, with no benefits. The factories make clothes for the Gap, Old Navy, Polo and several other brands that you would recognize. Thirty-five per cent of the population live below the poverty line.

Since it was the end of the working day the roadside markets were even busier than before with people doing their daily marketing. We were moving along quite well until our driving had to come to a sudden stop because a truck ahead of us had hit a wandering cow. After a beautiful sunset we carried on in the dark. The only light came from other traffic, dimly lit houses houses, small piles of burning garbage that dotted the landscape. Finally, we arrived back at the boat. This was after its scheduled sailing time but that wasn't a problem as we had the captain on our bus. It was with some relief that we set out to sea, enjoying a beautiful dinner and thinking how fortunate we were.



Friday, February 20, 2015

A happy Buddha and a sampan ride

Once again we braved the traffic of Ho Chi Minh City as our bus took us south for today's tour in the Mekong delta. It was only 7:45 but it seemed that everyone was out on their scooter. We drove along a canal dating from the French period, which was home to a floating flower markets with lots of yellow chrysanthemums, marigolds and pink and purple bougainvillea.

The traffic seemed endless and totally chaotic. As our driver tried to edge our huge bus out of a crowded roundabout he bumped a scooter that had tried to cut in front of us. Apparently no damage was done but some words were exchanged before the two riders picked up their scooter and went on their way.

The traffic came to a total gridlock. It was interesting watching the people on the scooters and all the things they had with them as they were going to visit relatives in other towns and villages. Finally, we took an alternate route and ended up on a speedier toll road that didn't allow scooters. There were no rest stops on the road so people just picked their own spot to relieve themselves.

Now we were in the Mekong Delta, the "rice basket". The landscape was carpeted in a variety of greens slashed with waterways. Rice fields were everywhere. We stopped at the Vinh Trang Pagoda, a beautiful sanctuary. Outside is a giant statue of the Buddha, surrounded by lovely, well manicured gardens. Inside were many shrines to Buddha. People were lighting incense and leaving offerings for their ancestors, including glasses of beer, gift baskets of food, and even a giant package of M and Ms.

A small boat took is across the Mekong River to a little island village where we saw coconut candy being made from scratch. They use old coconuts, pulp them, add malt and caramel, and then heat this over a wood fire. This makes a sticky mass that is placed in forms, cut and wrapped in rice paper. It was quite tasty in fact so tasty that we have hardly any left of the candy we bought. We were served jasmine tea and cookies, and were then offered samples of locally produced honey and royal jelly. I didn't like it when the royal jelly was put on our hands; it was far too sticky. This was followed by more tea and a fruit tasting. I liked the longan fruit the best. It had a very sweet taste and a huge pit in the middle. This was followed by some ladies singing Vietnamese songs accompanied by traditional instruments.

Our return trip to Ho Chi Minh City was through busy traffic once again. We said goodbye to the city as we sailed back up the Saigon River watching the twinkling lights from the passing towns and villages. Tomorrow will be another relaxing day at sea with a few lectures from our experts on our next port of call, Cambodia.



Ho Chi Minh city

Our first taste of Vietnam was the five-hour trip up the Saigon River. Lining the river were concrete two- or three-story buildings with rows of holes in them. We knew immediately what they were; homes for the swallows whose nests are prized for bird's nest soup. The wide river has a brownish tinge to it from all the silt flowing into the it. We passed villages, lots of sea palms and mangrove swamps. Our horn blew to let the barges and smaller vessels know that we were coming through. This is a very busy river with lots of container ships, and became even busier the closer we got to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as we used to know it. Now containers cluttered the shore ready for loading. Beyond this the skyline was dotted with high rise apartments.

Driving out of the port we were overwhelmed with all the traffic, especially scooters. There are four million of them for a population of nine million. They darted here and there, especially on roundabouts and rules of the road seemed like they were only rough guidelines. Scooters would have three and four people on them, mothers holding on to babies or they would be loaded down with shopping. If you looked up you could see great clumps of electrical wires hung from poles or hanging down the sides of buildings. There were little shops selling everything, with apartments above. Fruit and food stalls selling everything from loaves of French bread to crispy roasted ducks lined the pavements. It was all colorfully chaotic.
We passed the Reuinification Palace, home of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. This was also the site where the tank belonging to the Vietnamese Peoples Army breached the gates, signifying the fall of Saigon and the end of the war.

Our first stop was outside the Notre Dame Cathedral built entirely of red brick imported from France in the 1800s. Looking across the busy road we could see the building from which US helicopters plucked refugees during the final hours of the fall of Saigon in 1975. You may have seen the famous picture of this scene.

We crossed the busy street with scooters darting around us to visit the Central Post Office. It is built in French colonial style and designed by Gustafson Eiffel. I don't think he would like its current garish colour scheme. Inside it is quite lovely with high vaulted ceilings. It still functions as a post office and probably looks much the same as it did when it was built.
The War Remnants Museum featured exhibitions of weaponry and vehicles used by US and South Vietnamese troops during the Vietnam War. The museum features many thought provoking photos, especially in the agent orange room, documenting the war. It brought back memories of following the war night after night on the news. Thinking back, this was not the US's finest hour.

Leaving the group we made our way through the endless hustle and bustle to Ho Chi Minh Square, which is flanked by several old French Colonial buildings. We stopped in the Rex Hotel, built in 1927, and famous for hosting the American Military Command's daily conferences during the Vietnam War.

Once again revitalized we found our way to the colonial Opera House. It was time for a drink. Across the road from the Opera House was Hotel Continental, built in 1880 to provide the French traveller with proper French style luxury. It was the place where Graham Greene conceived his novel, The Quiet American. Today, I can attest to the fact that they make a very fine margarita.

We continued walking in the general direction of the ship. All the time we were careful crossing the teeming roads. The zebra crossings were all faded out and no one on a scooter seemed to take them very seriously. By now it was dark and all the decorations and lights for the New Year were lit making everything quite beautiful.
As we crossed one not very busy street a motor scooter came from nowhere heading straight for us. But it was no accident. Suddenly I felt a tug on my neck as the scooter's passenger tried to wrench my purse away. But it has a good strap, which I always loop across my body, I had my hand on it and Seamus grabbed at it reflexively, so it went nowhere. It was over in a second and we were left grateful, as this little lesson in big city awareness could have been a disaster -- our landing cards, money, smartphone and a credit card were all in there!
We continued our walk down to the river and were happy to be back on the ship with no further adventures.