This 27 day venture was both a touristic and educational experience. Traveling from Miami to Kansai International airport (KIX) in Osaka via Frankfurt avoided additional plane changes in the US and Japan. Flight path diversions were made ... Read More
This 27 day venture was both a touristic and educational experience. Traveling from Miami to Kansai International airport (KIX) in Osaka via Frankfurt avoided additional plane changes in the US and Japan. Flight path diversions were made to avoid flying over the Ukraine and North Korea.
A Limited Express train from KIX to JR Kyoto provided direct connection to our room in the Hotel Granvia located directly above this modern station.
Kyoto is the 7th largest city in Japan and was the imperial capital of Japan for over 1000 years. It is the cultural capital of the country with numerous Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, often located together. Although about 80% of Japanese are secular, many are influenced by these ancient beliefs and celebrate them in a secular way.
Secretary of War Stimson (who had spent his honeymoon in Kyoto) urged President Truman to spare Kyoto from the A-bomb since it had such cultural significance. Using public transportation, our guide Ken Sakurai took us to various temples and shrines on a two day tour including Nanzen-ji Sannen-zaka, Yasaka shrine, the Gion area, Tofuku-ji Fushimi Inari shrine and Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion covered with gold leaf), Kitano Jingu shrine and the Bamboo Grove in the Arashiyama & Sagano area. Riding the JR local train to the shrine provided more local color. Ken also provided guidance for our visits to Osaka, Hiroshima and Miyajima.
Returning to Osaka to board the Azamara Quest at Tempozan Port via JR Special Rapid provided another look at the efficient Japanese rail system. Osaka is a very modern city. Overnight aboard the ship provided time to see the nightlife district (Dotonbori) and the famous Osaka Aquarium before departure for Hiroshima.
At Hiroshima we boarded the high speed ferry for the island of Miyajima to view the Great Torii gate - one of the most famous landmarks in Japan. It appears floating in the water at high tide. This island is also home to a herd of tame deer as well as the Itsukushima Shrine and Diasho-In Temple at the foot of Mt Misen. We did not have the time to take the ropeway or to climb to the top of the mountain.
We did not have quite enough time to walk from our ship to the ferry for our reservation. The volunteers at the port drove us to the ferry without compensation. This was an example of the courtesy of the people of Japan.
We viewed the A Dome and Peace Park in Hiroshima – a sobering reminder of the horrors of war. Japan now has a population of 126 million, expected to decline to 100 million in 2050 and 67 million by 2100. Although it is the world’s 3rd largest economy, it is now stuck in a cycle of stagflation.
Our next port of call was Shanghai, a vibrant city of 23 million and the center of Chinese commerce. Our smaller ship was able to navigate the Huangpu river and dock near the famous Bund. Our guide for the day – Jean Liu – took us to the old city where the street vendors preserve the old market open-air market traditions. These areas of the city are being replaced by larger more modern structures to accommodate the growing population.
We then toured the famous Yuyuan Gardens built in the Ming Dynasty over 400 years ago by a merchant who wanted a suitable place for his parents to retire. We also saw the Jade Buddha Temple built to contain two jade Buddha statues from Burma and the old French Concession area, now an upscale dining and shopping area. Jean provided an excellent narrative for each place we visited. Jean provided a driver so that we could visit more places than would be feasible with merely a walking tour. The next day In Peoples Square we toured the free Shanghai Museum that contains collections of ancient Chinese bronze, jade, ceramics and sculpture among its many collections. We also saw A Chinese Acrobatic show in the evening. There are several venues in Shanghai for this show. The performers were quite talented and reminded me of the high wire acts in the old Ringling Brothers circus.
Viewing the new Pudong area with the Oriental Pearl Tower directly across the river from our ship at night was awesome. Twenty years ago this area was mot much more than a swamp. Today it is the commercial center of mainland China. We took the modern efficient subway to Pudong and the elevator to the 95th floor of the “Bottle Opener”. Fortunately, there was little pollution to obscure the view. Traveling in Shanghai you must be aware of various schemes like the infamous “tea scammers” who also approached us. It is not wise to talk with strangers, just pretend that you don’t speak English.
China has made great strides in the past 30 years with rising incomes and market-oriented reforms. Yet China has many problems to solve including pollution, political corruption, and poverty especially in the outlying regions. The rising middle class is now traveling in great numbers and overwhelming the tourist areas throughout Asia. Major cruise lines are repositioning some of their larger vessels to Asia to capture this market.
Our next stop was Hong Kong – a territory on the South China Sea bordering Guangdong province. It is a leading financial, business and cultural hub. Most of the residents are Chinese but there are still a significant number of expatriates. Our ship was small enough to dock at Ocean Terminal in Victoria Harbor adjacent to the Star Ferry in Kowloon. This convenient location allowed us to use the Hop-On Hop-Off (HOHO) buses as the primary mode of sightseeing.
After crossing to Hong Kong Island on the Star Ferry, we boarded the RED HOHO route for an early tram ride to Victoria Peak before the midday crowds. This vantage point allows a view of all areas of the city. Transferring there to the GREEN route, we passed Stanley Market and alighted at Aberdeen for a sampan ride. Seeing these old boats that serve as fishermen’s homes with residential skyscrapers as a backdrop as well as passing the famous Jumbo Floating Restaurant was interesting. After touring the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, we returned to Kowloon. The evening laser show on the skyscrapers was a backdrop to the White Night party on the deck or our ship.
The next day we used the HOHO BLUE route to tour Kowloon. This densely packed area is the site of much new construction. After riding the Star Ferry one hour harbor tour on a replica of the ferries that plied the harbor in the 1920’s, we walked the Avenue of the Stars and spent considerable time at a Chinese cultural dance performance with dancers from various areas in highly decorated native costume.
Our next stop was Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon). Our ship was able to navigate the twisting Saigon River and docked in the heart of the city. Larger ships require guests to travel two hours to the city from a container port. We did not expect to see a booming metropolis with skyscrapers. There were newly constructed high-rise apartment projects along the river. Additional land has been cleared for more of the same. If we came back to the city within the next five to ten years it may look like the Florida coastline from Palm Beach to Miami.
That evening we celebrated the AzAmazing Evening at Binh Quoi Village on the outskirts of the city. This is a standard event for each Azamara cruise. The ship staff transports all the passengers to this memorable event with local entertainers.
Our next day in Ho Chi Minh City included guided visits to the Unification Hall – the former Presidential Palance where a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the front gates ending the Vietnam War, the History Museum illustrating the cultures of Vietnam from the bronze age to the present, Notre Dame Cathedral dating from the 19th century, the old French Post Office, and the Thien Hau Temple dedicated to the Goddess Protector of Sailors. We lunched at a restaurant where Bill Clinton dined and his picture is prominently displayed. We also saw the Rex Hotel where General Westmoreland gave his infamous “we see light at the end of the tunnel” daily briefings.
We would not attempt to navigate this city of 10 million without a guide. Crossing the streets with 7 million cycles going in every direction is not for the timid. Our guide email@example.com led us safely through the maze. We did however take an hour long rickshaw ride through the midst of this mayhem.
The history of the disastrous Vietnam War is much more complicated than our leaders informed us at the time. After WW2 the French tried to reinstate colonial rule and were soundly defeated at Dien Bien Phu. They were 80% funded by the U.S. The Geneva accords of 1954 called for a temporary partition of the country with national elections to be held in two years. A corrupt puppet - Ngo Dinh Diem was installed in the south but refused to hold the election since he was widely despised and knew he could never win.
Ho Chi Minh, although nominally Communist, was really a nationalist who saw Communism as a way out of imperialism. He actually quoted Thomas Jefferson in his writings. In 1945 he asked President Truman for help but was ignored. His forces created the Ho Chi Minh trail and tunnels bringing weapons to the south. President Johnson escalated the war but realized it was not winnable and didn’t run in 1968 to be the first Democrat to lose a war. Nixon and Kissinger were looking for a graceful exit but after the pictures of naked children being burned by napalm and agent orange killing civilians caused worldwide outrage, the war effort collapsed. It is sad that we never learn by our mistakes – if only Bush and Cheney had read history before leashing their immoral war in Iraq! It is ironic that Boeing, whose planes bombed Vietnam, has now opening an airplane door factory in Hanoi.
Our port of debarkation was Singapore – an ultra-efficient modern island city-state at the tip of the Malay Peninsula with a population approaching 7 million in less than 300 square miles. How Singapore came from a British colonial backwater to having one of the highest per capita income in the world is due primarily to one man – Lee Kuan Yew who died at 91 in March 2015.
Squatters were living on public land and in shantytowns with limited hygiene. There were race riots between the Chinese and Malay factions. There were others, including Indians who made up a significant share of the population. Singapore was forced to leave the Malaysian Federation in 1965.
Except for some colonial buildings downtown, the city was a complete mess. Lee was able to form a strongman government to take charge. He went about nation building by having the various ethnic groups blended into public housing. He was instilling a sense that we are Singaporeans, not various ethnic blocs. The campaigns against spitting and chewing gum in the streets are well known.
Singapore’s strategic location along the Strait of Malacca allowed it to develop into the world’s most important port. Investments in education and compulsory voting have resulted in a highly motivated skilled workforce. High tech manufacturing and financial services account for a significant portion of the economy.
The government is highly autocratic. When Lee feared a burgeoning population, he instituted a to child limit per family. When he saw that the most educated were not marrying, he sponsored “love boat” cruises to encourage marriage.
When using public transportation to ride the Singapore Flyer (huge Ferris wheel) and to attend the famous Night Safari at the zoo, we saw the immaculately clean subways and people queuing up in line at bus stops. On a half day guided taxi tour to Changi airport with Eason Lim (Lin Yisheng) we visited a few temples including the Sri Mariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, the iconic Merlion (lion head, fish body), Raffles Hotel (home of the Singapore Sling), viewed the new Marina Bay Sands hotel – a three structure complex with a structure in the shape of a boat atop and connecting all three.
Our layovers at Changi airport were more like visiting a tourist attraction than sitting in a terminal waiting for a plane. There a garden displays and a rooftop swimming pool and gym in each of the three terminals, butterfly and cactus gardens and a koi fish pond where tourists could actually feed the fish.
Our final destination was Siem Reap Cambodia and the famous Angkor Wat temple complex. We were surprised to see Air Force One on the tarmac until we found out the Michelle Obama was in town for a three day conference on women after having visited Japan. We were glad that she had visited Angkor Wat the day before we did since her visit caused some disruption in normal tourist traffic.
This temple complex in the ancient city of Angkor Thom dates from the 11th century and was built primarily by Jayavarman VII one of the most forceful and productive kings of the Khmer empire. Originally built as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, it was converted into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century, and statues of Buddha were added to its already rich artwork. After the Thai’s invaded, Angkor was despoiled and disappeared into the jungle until 19th century European discovery. It was closed again in the 1950’s during the Vietnam War.
In addition to Angkor Wat – the largest religious building in the world, the complex contains many structures including the Bayon (a stone mountain of ascending peaks), Phimeanakas, Baphuon, and the Elephant Terrace. Ta Prohm temple was left in its natural state surrounded by jungle as it appeared when rediscovered. The 2001 movie Tomb Raider was filmed at this site.
Touring this vast complex provides some insight to the power of this ancient empire. Some of the temples contain holes in the walls where precious gems were installed. The main temple is very busy all day with visitors lining up to see the sunrise on one side of the temple and in the evening to see the golden sheen created by the sunset. Some of the lesser temples afford more leisurely viewing. Our local guide Sok Dat Soy and our driver Ang Vuthy took us around for two days in an air conditioned car. Many visitors ride the open air tuk-tuks that are much less comfortable during the heat of the day.
We stayed at the boutique Pavilion d Orient Hotel including two large swimming pools that provided a respite from the midday heat. The larger hotels are overrun with visitors from China and Korea. They are now constructing a very large hotel on the infamous killing fields of the Maoist Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979. Of all the countries visited, Cambodia with a population of only 14 million is by far the most “third world”. However, the people are generally friendly and helpful.
In summary, this trip was a most rewarding experience. The upscale Amazara Quest provided a high end experience and I highly recommend it compared to other lines on which we traveled. It was like sailing with family. The officers and crew at all levels were most helpful and efficient. We met some very nice people on the cruise and look forward to traveling with them again on Azamara.