Having traveled independently all over the world, in a Rick Steves kind of a way, I'm nearing 60, and traveling solo now and thought this would be a good way to see Vietnam and Cambodia. It was PERFECT for me. There were a.m. and p.m. tours, breaks for meals and air conditioning, first class accommodations throughout, and staff willing to bend over backwards to attend to your wishes.
Taking the whole 14 day tour I landed in Hanoi and stayed at the gorgeous Hotel Metropole. Loved this hotel, loved Hanoi, felt very safe walking around alone. Our excursions here included a walking tour, cyclo ride and water puppet show, which I though would be lame but was really very entertaining. Shopping was good here, and wish I had spent some more time doing so, prices better than in HCMC for sure.
The third day upon checkout, we carried an overnight bag and left our big suitcases with the bus driver. We were bussed north to Halong Bay (road construction made this my least favorite part of the whole 2 weeks) for the overnight junk trip on Paradise Cruises, very deluxe! The food on the junk was buffet style and delicious. The first day we went by small rowboat to see the floating village and how people live, some never setting foot on land. The next morning coffee and Tai Chi on the upper deck was other worldly in the mist. Day 2 we stopped at a beach for a while, some of us hiked up a stairway for a fantastic view of the bay for photographs. The trip down was not so exciting. On disembarkation we were driven, with a lunch break where we saw our big bags again to repack, then off to Hanoi Airport for a quick flight to Siem Reap, arriving at sunset to the charming little airport.
We got our Visa on Arrival by standing in that line with our forms filled out on the plane, not much of a delay, and headed to the hotel. The Sofitel Angkor was beautiful! There were musicians playing on our arrival, cold, icy drinks and cold towels waiting, room keys given out, people waiting to direct us. Mine and several others were in the wing across the ponds, over wooden walkways through lilypads, in a gorgeous wing looking out on those ponds. You could hear the frogs at night if you left the window open, but for good A/C and bug control, you just didn't. On arrival there were gifts in the room, small cinnamon packets, fresh shortbread cookies, and a basket of hairy fruits, which have become my favorite fruit now Rambutan! After a delicious buffet dinner and beautiful Aspara dancing in the hotel restaurant, I slept like a baby for the first night since arrival in Asia. After buffet breakfast we headed by bus to Angkor Wat.
Now THIS was the reason I had chosen this trip, and this was supposed to be the highlight for me. The buildup was immense for,, I had made it out to be so much more in my mind than it was, I was clearly disappointed by the reality. Our guide, Savon, covered what books and guides don't tell you, that these monuments to Indian gods and goddesses were built with slave labor during roughly the same decades as Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The Khmer King Suryavarman II built this, the largest religious monument in the world. Today it is Buddhist, but was originally built in honor of the Hindu gods, and they are present on every wall, spire, carving, entrance, exit. Their stories are everywhere. Angkor Wat is amazing, and it is beautiful, but very overrun with tourists, literally crumbling from the elements, and sadly now being defaced by tourists getting too close or souvenir takers. In subsequent days we visited more interesting temples that the throngs bypass, and whose stories were more interesting to me. I'm glad I saw it, but was far more impressed by other parts of Cambodia. We went into the Siem Reap Night Market. What a trip!!!! We were on our own for dinner, so headed in by Pedi-Cab, 5 of us ladies in two, to do a little shopping. The pedi-cab drivers are hard workers. For $2 the maybe 1/2 mile drive from the hotel on deserted streets, in delightful, balmy night weather is very memorable. Pub Street has about 50 little bars and restaurants with everything from British to Thai to Chinese to Hamburgers. You could hear rooftop American country karaoke blaring, people were dancing in the streets, we didn't stay late, but we were told it was just getting started when we were headed home about 10:00pm.These were the best prices of the whole trip. You can negotiate with the vendors, and I'm guessing the overhead is lower than in Saigon or Phnom Penh. US Dollars are the traded currency here, because their currency changes value so easily. We found many lovely things here. If it hadn't been the beginning of the trip, I'm sure I would have spent much more to take home gifts for family and friends. I would come back here for maybe a week and just relax by the pool and visit the market area at night, spending more time at each temple area during the days.
We did get scammed here by the "milk scam." Young women with baby on her hip as you to buy milk for the baby. I'm sure the people at the mini-mart are in on the scam. The milk they want is a $26 can of formula, and she can talk you into buying it for her, with this adorable baby. We had no idea it was a scam until another girl tried the same thing just minutes later. We felt very foolish, so don't let them try it on you!
On day 2 we went to Angkor Thom, much smaller in stature, but each tower has smiling faces of Buddha. The adornments and grounds were fascinating to me, and the people riding elephants around the grounds made this an other-worldly place. After seeing elephants in the wild in Africa, I would never opt for a ride, but those who were riding seemed to be enjoying themselves, though the elephants eyes looked very distant.
Day 3 in Siem Reap we went out to Baphoun Temple, still being excavated by archaeologists. We stopped at the Terrace of the Elephants and that of the Leper king, which were once used as stages for lavish performances and religious ceremonies. This afternoon we had a long drive into a rural area where our guide Savon was from. She told us her life story, being born at the beginning of Pol Pot's regime, when everyone was forced to work in the rice fields, and those that were educated were put to death. She told us of the way she had to live and nearly died during the regime, it was really a sad story, told firsthand even worse. She said they were told not to look back, only look forward, and thank God for what they had now, their freedom. When we arrived at Batay Srei, the Lady Temple, I was taken aback by it's sheer beauty. It is intricately carved out of pink sandstone, and the statures standing guard around the structures are beautiful. This is a very special place, and we were almost the only people there. I felt this was much more spiritual than other temples we visited, and felt this the most moving of all the places we visited. On the way back from there we stopped at the ODA English Language School in the village of Ta Toum, which is sponsored by AMA Waterways. We had brought school supplies and gave them to Mr. Leng, the head of the school. He is an artist that, through art is teaching these children (32 at the moment) to make their way in the world. They did a dance performance for us, then a tour of the facility including the "gym" a bicycle operated pump from the well to a cistern for fresh water. Then we were able to purchase art the children had made, $10-$15 per item, and many of us did, to take home, and to help pay for the costs of the school, which helps orphans and children from disadvantaged homes. They children enjoy practicing their English and showing their work. It was a great visit, and a highlight of the trip!
Some from the group went back to Angkor Wat for sunrise the next morning, I opted to sleep in. Having wanted to do the sunrise hot air balloon ride over Angkor park, it was shut down for refurbishment while we were there, so no go. I took the opportunity to relax and to read a little bit. We left the hotel about 11:45am and headed for Kampong Chhnang. Along the way we passed small fishing villages, seeming much poorer than those we had seen in Vietnam. Dotted throughout were some very prominent painted stone houses, that seemed out of place among the stick and board homes most people lived in. We boarded small launches that took us out into the lake to our waiting ship, La Marguerite.
Our bags were waiting in our nicely air conditioned, and beautifully decorated staterooms. The beds are very comfortable, lots of fluffy pillows. The bed was made into a queen, and there was just enough room to walk around. Individual reading lights on each side were nice. My cabin didn't have an alarm clock, though some others did. Sliding glass door windows led out to a small deck, with a tiny bench over the air conditioning until. It was usually too hot to sit outside unless the ship was moving. The window seat inside was great to curl up and read a book as the Mekong went by. There is a TV with no reception, but videos at the Pursers Office, which I caught up on several great films during the trip. On this entire trip each and every hotel and the ship had outlets for US pronged electronics, but not for high voltage units. I brought my cell phone and used it for an alarm clock, white noise machine, flashlight, camera, voice recorder (to keep daily notes) and to read e-mail in the Library, when we had WiFi service, which was spotty on the river, fine in Phnom Penh. I never made a phone call.
After freshening up we headed to the dining room for a delightful buffet lunch. Beer and wine was included with meals. I didn't think it was too bad, I'm not much of a drinker, but some complained about the quality, and they ordered better wines and paid for the upgrade, or ordered cocktails from the bar. The afternoon was free to explore the ship, visit with new friends, sit atop on deck chairs. It was hot, so most of the time, if we weren't in the cool pool, we were inside enjoying air conditioning while on board. There is a very large cold plunge pool on the top deck, it was great to cool off after reading in the sun returning from a long, hot shore excursion.
During the cocktail hour each day there was a "signature cocktail" for no charge in the lounge, available for those who came to the daily briefing. Mr. Son gave us an overview of what to expect the following day. From there we all headed to dinner which was ordered off a menu. The wait staff was wonderful and always got the orders right. Only once in a while was the food not up to par, and they were quick to bring another option if you we unhappy with the food. There was a vegetarian option on each menu. The soups were amazing every lunch and dinner. Salads were plentiful and you needn't worry about eating anything or ice cubes on the ship. Desserts were so-so, but the abundant fresh fruits at every meal made up for a lack of really special desserts. They do make a special deal of anniversaries and birthdays, and there seemed to be a celebration every night in the dining room. After dinner on several nights local entertainers came aboard to perform. While in Phnom Penh a group of children Aspara dancers in beautiful costumes came on board. It was wonderful! Another night was karaoke, another a pianist. No one seemed bored on the ship. I was mostly tired from long days of two a day excursions.
We were docked at Phnom Penh for two nights, which was great. We were able to go out to dinner at a restaurant in town, and there are so many great choices. Our excursions here were to a wonderful Buddhist Temple, where we could speak with Monks about their lives, and received a special blessing, and the other day trips were related to the Capital & Presidential Palace, the Killing Field memorial, and a prison that scores of people were held and died in during Pol Pot's regime.
Most of the other excursions along the trip were to small villages and towns that must rely on this tourist trade to survive. We toured open air markets, a silk factory, a silver factory town, a candy factory. We traveled by boat, pedi cab, cyclo, oxcart, launch, rowboat and foot. Our guides found, in nearly every town, locals who told their stories of struggles and wars, that brought the peoples closer. This trip is NOT for the weak or infirm, there is a lot of climbing in and out of these various forms of transportation. We saw things that would gross out some people, delicacies such as balut, a fertilized duck egg, some of the group tried, and all sorts of live animals in the markets, sold that way because people don't have refrigeration, and to keep it fresh... But I fell in love with green papaya salad, ate it at every lunch, as well as pho, available at breakfast, lunch and dinner on board with different noodles and toppings. You have to be looking for an adventure to enjoy this trip, and look at the boat (not ship) for what it is, a deluxe river boat. Compared to other boats on the river it is majestic. There were other cruise lines anchored nearby, and looking at the ship layout, I would not have wanted to stay in a cabin that was reached from an outside promenade. We did walk through the AmaLotus while docked in Phnom Penh, and it was much newer and seemed a step above the Marguerite.
The dress was very casual and comfortable for the really hot and humid climate, resort casual for dinner. There was one dressy night, no one wore more than a little black dress and most gents in nice Tommy Bahama type shirts and slacks. The culture is more modest than many Americans wear, so no really short shorts or plunging necklines on the shore excursions. I wore Travex capris and washed them out almost every night. I brought many tee shirts and changed between excursions, they get pretty damp. In Temples one should cover your shoulders and knees.
We ended the trip in Saigon, and the sights there were memorable, but after the calm of the river, I couldn't wait to get out of the bustling and polluted city. The Sheraton Saigon was lovely, we had Tower rooms, gorgeous! A group of friends we had made went out to a nice restaurant for our last night together and had a fabulous meal, several courses, bottles of wine, $12 per person. For photos of the ship, the launches, the cabin and more details on the excursions see the whole adventure at www.travelblog.org/MONichols