Friday, August 31, 2012

Goldring Travel's AMAWaterways' AmaLotus - Vietnam, Cambodia and The Mekong River Cruise- Part X (The Egg)

Since the Tonle Sap Lake level was too low, we traveled fairly far south to Prek Kdam in order to find a convergence of road, river and landing facilities.  It was a reminder of just how undeveloped and remote Cambodia is.  But as we had to travel so far south, we doubled back once aboard the AmaLotus and traveled north up the Tonle Sap River after embarkation to Kampong Chhanang (say Com-Pong Cha-Nang) where we anchored overnight mid-river.  Trust me there is no nightlife that is being missed in this remote area.
Up early we boarded small local boats for a guided tour of the floating village.  It was more like a floating town with everything from drying fish to motor repairs being available from ramshackle huts constructed on top of stacks of bamboo (which last for about 5 years).  There are many smiling faces of children whether doing chores or just hanging around.

It is a busy place, but also docile.  Women with floating grocery stores, men moving bags of rice, a woman with a floating shaved ice concession float by huge baskets of fish and crabs.  Everyone seems content with a simple life with little to worry about in their world of bartering and almost no expenses.  (It is strange to see this with cell phones being used by almost everyone!)

But there is another side, there is no plumbing so the waste goes right into the water under their homes.  It is also the source of their bath water, swimming and recreation and, to be sure, the location of their fish pens or crab pots (if this their business) resulting in a rather disturbing (at least for western culture) corruption of the food chain and overall hygiene.  This has been their lifestyle for centuries and, to be sure, it does not seem to be in danger of disappearing…though some improvements would be appreciated.
After the tour our boat took us to the local land-based market.  

And this is where my son earned his $50.00.  He, without hesitation, ate a Fertilized Duck Egg (also known as a Balut egg).  While I do not show photos of my children I will tell you that I am working on permission to have a video I took uploaded onto YouTube.  The star of the video is not my son eating the duck embryo, but the face of my daughter...showing utter disgust as only a 13 year old girl can do!

But as he finished I thought to myself, “What have I done?  How can I have a 16 year old telling me for how many years that he did it and I did not?”  Yes, that’s right, I ate one too.

We then walk along and a man pulls up with a huge honeycomb in the trunk of his car,

a woman is selling buttonwood (used as a kind of chewing gum)

boiling pots of fresh water crabs

dried fish

and a woman selling herbal medicines

and local fruits beautifully displayed.

Our walk was over a very small area so what strikes me is that for a country that is hugely dependent on rice, there is a diversity of foods within reach of many…but only if they compromise on other things; and that many just are not willing to do.   This country and its politics, economies and people are very complex and so far I feel I am just scratching the surface.

But our day has only just begun! 

After a rest and another excellent lunch onboard the AmaLotus, we traveled downstream to Kampong Tralach.  As we arrived there were dozens of wooden ox carts and about a hundred people; the largest gathering I have seen in the rural countryside.  While many were there to get new Identity Cards, some were there for us. 

We looked at the carts and saw that it was really a cart.  No seats and very small with a jute carpet to sit on.  As we agreed my son and I would do this together the seating was tight.  As our driver and two oxen pulled out on the dirt road, I am not sure if my sides hurt more from laughing or my bottom from the ride.  One funny moment was when I was slipping out the back and the single wooden stick intended to hold us in popped out of its peg…like that was going to stop me…and then my son says to me, “Dad, if we fall down that ravine do we have to go home?” To which I replied, “I guess it depends on how hurt we get.”  It was a long 20 minutes, but also a very memorable one.

We then had what, surprisingly for me, was what my children thought has been the best part of the trip so far:  A visit to a Buddhist Monastery.  (Comfortable busses were waiting for us as was our truly wonderful guide.)  Our guide gave us a bit more insight not only into Buddhism, but the workings of the monastery and the Bhuddist role in both religion and politics.  He is incredibly insightful and makes so much of this complex society make some sense.

The monastery was quite impressive, but the prayer service – with its rhythmic chanting including the tossing of jasmine flowers over us – was very moving.  It really brought you to a different place with solitude and peace.  The three monks without emotion just started chanting each with a different tonal quality (one with a distinct twang) repeating the same phrases and then changing just a bit of it (either tone or melody or phraseology).

It was, to be sure, a WOW moment both individually and as a father.  It is pretty cool for your children to both get that this ain’t no week at Disney World.

As we had been traveling up the Tonle Sap River, the AmaLotus travelled back down the river to our starting Embarkation field at Prek Kdam for our cruise down to Phnom Pehn where we anchor midstream. 

After dinner we went up to the Sun Deck to enjoy the evening and our arrival into the city.  It was sort of surreal.  Having been in rural Cambodia we were greeted by some flashing lights, a couple of taller buildings and the drum beat  of a disco.  I just wanted to go back upriver.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Goldring Travel's AMAWaterways' AmaLotus - Vietnam, Cambodia and The Mekong River Cruise- Part IX (The Ship)

The AmaLotus is a beautiful luxury river cruise ship; the most luxurious on the Mekong River for sure.  Our children have a standard veranda cabin, we have a junior suite and our friends have a Sadec Suite (the largest on the ship).

My first impression is that AmaWaterways does a lousy job…of letting people see how wonderful this ship is.  I really didn’t have a clear idea that the ship is so spacious or the cabins so roomy and nicely laid out.  (And this is me talking!).
But I do not want to get ahead of myself. 

After boarding we immediately were taken to the restaurant (the only dining facility on the ship) for a late lunch.  As we had checked in in Siem Reap there was no real embarkation procedure!

AmaWaterways says the lunch is a buffet-style, but it really isn’t.  There are multiple types of salads and breads offered in the buffet, but to the right of the buffet is an “action station” where a hot option is offered.  It could be pho or pasta with a variety of sauces or roast turkey.  To the left is the fruit, ice cream and cheese station.  But also, when you sit down, you are given a menu and you also have a choice of adding or just having a salad, soup or main course.  Because the main courses are both Asian and Western, a sample of each is displayed as you enter the restaurant.  (By the way, breakfast is served in a similar fashion.)

Wine and beer is freely poured during lunch and dinner.  Both the white and red wines are acceptable and poured from carafes.  There is a limited, but acceptable, wine list if you wish.
One small sore point:  We are a group of six and even though there are twelve tables for six, one or two people will sit at those tables making it difficult for us to dine together…unless one of us races down to the restaurant for a table.  A table will not be reserved for us.  I do not find this to be acceptable…especially when family is traveling together.   (And when we had the problem when we boarded it soured just a bit an otherwise excellent embarkation.)
After lunch we were given the keys to our room (high tech RFID cards) and a warning not to use the water from the taps to drink or brush our teeth.  But plenty of complimentary bottled water is provided…with four bottles placed in your in-cabin refrigerator every morning with more available upon request.
When we arrived in our cabins/suites our luggage was already there.    The rooms have a small balcony (enough for two chairs) and also a French balcony (which might be useful  at a cooler time of year, but now not so much.) 

The beds are very comfortable and fitted with duvets and four pillows (two firm and two softer.) There are sufficient cupboards, but I would like some additional shelving.  A large desk is provided as well as a solid wooden luggage butler and a two seat sofa (by the French balcony).  The standard cabins have a chair in its place.  Flat screen televisions are provided, but there is no broadcast television…not that I can find any time to watch it. My children advise me that there is actually quite a large and current selection of DVDs.

The bathrooms are small, but excellent, paneled with warm wood.  There is a large ceramic vessel sink with a low profile toilet and a large shower in the standard cabins.  We have a large whirlpool bath as well…with many jets and LED lights.  (The same one found on the luxury junk AmaWaterways uses in Halong Bay, Vietnam.

After  a quick unpacking and up to the Sun Deck.  (Note:  There is no sailaway because as soon as the last guest is boarded the AmaLotus shoves off from shore and we head up the Tonle Sap River.)  The Sun Deck is a very comfortable and attractive space with more than enough cushioned wood loungers, wicker sofas and chairs and a small bar. 

Coffee and tea is available 24/7 and local (I stress “local”) liquor and beer are complimentary at all times…but strangely wine is not except at dinner. 

Obviously premium liquor is available for purchase.  (I am finding the local 333 beer and gin & tonics more than acceptable.)  Smoking is permitted on the Sun Deck.


There is also one lounge which has a bar at the rear and many comfortable sofas and chairs with cocktail tables.  The lounge is used for movies, lectures, local performers, logistics meetings and the gathering point for the tours.

There is also a small internet station.  Wireless service is limited to the lounge.  This really needs to be expanded.  While with the steel construction of this ship, putting into every stateroom would be quite a challenge, it most definitely needs to be added to the Sun Deck. 
There is also a small exercise room with a high stationary bike, elliptical trainer, treadmill and free weights.

After a time taking there was a lecture on Cambodian history and biology by a number of the guides.  Our guide has been so informative over the past days that I had already heard all of the information…and in more detail.  Of course I have been immersed in Cambodia for days, so for those who are just doing the cruise I am sure it was most helpful.

Shortly thereafter there was a briefing about the next day (which takes about 15 minutes) and then dinner followed by a quiet evening on the Sun Deck. 

Goldring Travel's AMAWaterways' AmaLotus - Vietnam, Cambodia and The Mekong River Cruise- Part IX

Up, a good breakfast and then on the road to Prek Kdam to board the AmaLotus for our 8 day/7 night cruise down the Mekong River. 

For our group it was “old hat” as we now know the routine, have bonded with our guide and have been introduced both to Cambodia and the AmaWaterways’ way of doing things. So as we headed for Reception at the Sofitel Angkor Hotel, we noticed a line for check-in for those only doing the cruise portion of this trip.  The “newbies” are put into two other groups and then the now four groups board their respective busses for the drive. 

Our guide asks us if we mind being last.  Huh? 

And then he says he prefers the longer drive to Prek Kdam (required due to the low water level not allowing our ship to pass into Tonle Sap Lake) rather than a short one to the lake near Siem Reap.  What?

I mean doesn’t everyone want to be first?  Don’t you “win” if you come in first?  And why the heck would you want to be trapped on a bus for 5½ hours rather than 45 minutes?  Is this some sort of Cambodian cultural or philosophical approach?  Is Buddhist approach now affecting our journey? Seriously, could it just marketing trying to make a sitting on a bus sound better than it really is?

I can emphatically tell you,"NO!"

What he was saying is the journey is more important and more interesting than the trip.  He is talking about “travel”.  He explains that once you board the ship on the lake you don’t see much of anything because you are far from the shoreline, but driving on the road you have the opportunity to observe everyday Cambodian life.  He was, of course, correct and the drive was fascinating as was his discussion of Cambodian history, culture, present day issues and nature.

To be sure I will fondly remember our bus ride far more than some rather non-descript initial cruising on the AmaLotus.

Our first stop was unplanned. We found ourselves passing through a small town with a number of wooden contraptions along the road.  He stopped the bus after a couple of us asked what the things were.  They were a sort of mortar and pestle which crushes the rice into a cereal.  The people then sell the cereal to passersby who mix it with bananas, mangos or coconut milk. 


Our next stop was also a bit of a surprise, though planned.  It was not only a comfort stop, but for “Cambodian KFC”. Yes, it was time to try Fried Tarantula…and crickets…and silk worm larvae…and giant water beetles.  Yes, I tried them all. (Note:  I could not bring myself to eat the fried stuffed tadpoles, but mostly because I was thinking about the safety of eating an amphibian which has been lying out in 100 degree heat.) 

I can see why the tarantula is so popular…once you get past the “creepy factor”.  Not only are they inexpensive at two-for-a-dollar, they taste very similar to a food I love:  Soft-shelled crabs. 

On the other hand, the giant water beetles (you should remove the wings…in case you have any interest in trying them) were sort of dry and crunchy and, to be sure, had a much higher creepy factor for me.
My son, looking forward to the Fertilized Duck (Balut) Egg was disappointed there were none there, but he did give the silk worm larvae a try.  Our guide did inform him that the next day in  Kampong Chhang he will have his egg!

About another hour on the bus, traveling over a dirt road (under construction) we arrived at a small field where the AmaLotus has literally pulled up to the shore for us to board.  You are guided by smiles, past two oxen, through the grass and up a wooden gangplank to our luxury river cruise ship for then next eight days.


Goldring Travel's AMAWaterways' AmaLotus - Vietnam, Cambodia and The Mekong River Cruise- Part VIII

We awoke to bright skies and, at least for me, great excitement.  I have wanted to visit the Cambodia temples for many years.  My anticipation was heightened by a comment made by Anthony Bourdain in his television show, “No Reservations”, when he said that after visiting Angkor Wat he stopped taking photographs of his travels.  Why, I am not so sure.  One may not be able to capture the magnitude of something, but the small details can be compelling.  We shall see.

Our first day in Siem Reap was not, however, visiting Angkor Wat, but Angkor Thom.  It is very large temple complex devoted, for the most part, the Hindu religion. I say the most part because there is a very peaceful co-existence and melding of the Hindu and Buddhist religions. Carvings and faces everywhere cut into massive stones.  It really is not something that I can describe; so rather than not taking photographs I will let them provide the description.  To me there is a beauty and an essence that is compelling. 

 But what is making this more compelling is our guide.  He speaks from his soul and has an amazing way of balancing his pain from the time of the Khmer Rouge, the complex political and economic issues, the cultural issues of dealing with so many nationalities and, of course, his present day personal life. 

As I mentioned in another article, I will most definitely be writing a reflective piece after my journey here ends.  But one thing is for certain, those that have come here to tick off something on their Bucket List are cheating themselves.

Anyway, after Angkor Thom, we then briefly visited a number other temples and sights nearby, such as the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King

before visiting Baphoun Temple, which has a number of ficus trees both destroying and preserving the temple in what is clearly a tension between the jungle and the preservation/restoration of some incredible history.

Afterwards we returned to the Sofitel Angkor for an independent lunch.  However, since we started late (after our late arrival the night before) there was no time to venture into Siem Reap for a midday meal; a bit of a disappointment.  I say this because at this point I am feeling a little bit sanitized.  The hotel is beautiful and quite modern, but until you step outside the property the reality of how poor Cambodia is, on the one hand, and how rich its cultures are, on the other, really doesn’t have a chance to hit you.  That said, my feeling of needing more of Cambodia was quickly satiated.
In the afternoon we had our first somewhat rainy experience visiting an incredibly beautiful temple known as Bantrey Srei (the Citadel of Women), which has some of the most beautiful and detailed stone carvings I have ever seen…with some really phenomenal architectural elements.  Our guide said many times that the temple is more beautiful in the bright sun, but I found it breathtaking in the soft rain.



It was then time to leave the past and travel to the present…and, somewhat sullenly, the issues surrounding the poor education system in Cambodia; especially in the rural areas. 

AmaWaterways supports an English language school for young rural Cambodian children.  It is very understated in its efforts because, as it has been explained to me, there is a delicate balance between doing what is right (by giving back) and appearing to be charitable solely because it is a good marketing ploy.  To be sure, AmaWaterways clearly is doing this for the right reasons.  It only suggests…if you read all the materials sent to you…that you bring some school supplies to donate.  AmaWaterways does not ask for donations of money and, honestly, it is so discrete, I would not have a clue how to make one. So when you visit it is totally about the children.  (Compare Silversea automatically adding a monetary donation to your onboard account for a charity that you never visit or have any other involvement with…and then you have to ask to have it removed if you do not want to donate; something I have been overtly critical of.)

I enjoyed talking with the children, spending a few moments with as many of them as I could helping the practice their English.  From the beaming smiles, to the sheepish looks, to the class clowns, our brief 20 minute visit went by so quickly; ending with them singing a song in English with so much pride and so many smiles that you had to feel great.  

There was an included dinner at the hotel with a Cambodian dance troupe.  I observed that most in our group really enjoyed it.  But for me it was just not as an authentic experience as I would have liked.  Again, it is a balance sort of thing.  (If I was to do this trip again, I would skip the dinner and headed into Siem Reap for a local dinner.)

I awoke the next morning with threatening skies just begging to ruin my visit to Angkor Wat.  With raincoats and umbrellas in my backpack we headed off…and the skies brightened and the temperature rose.  And the temple is everything it is cracked up to be.  It is architecturally impressive and far grander than any camera lens can capture.  The relatively short time we spent at Angkor Wat just didn’t seem enough, but the heat and the attention span of our children said, it was.  (AmaWaterways makes it very clear that you can spend less time or stay later…even return at your leisure…via a $5 tuk-tuk ride; a rickshaw attached to a motorbike.)

Then, to the relief of my friends and family, it was an afternoon of decompression and relaxation by the pool.  It really struck me that, as I sipped my mojito in the whirlpool, that I could be anywhere in the world.  While somewhat frustrating for me, when planning a tour for a group, the art of compromise is oh so important.  But not to worry!

After everyone was refreshed it was time to head into Siem Reap and its famous Pub Street and Night Market.  We decided to try an upscale Cambodian restaurant named AHA and the surreal contrasts I have been experiencing deepened.  While I dined on a three plate tapas sort of affair that, while truly some culinary art and  included snake for $9.00, I could have walked out the door and literally less than 50 feet down the road purchased and entire dinner for $2.00.  In the end, our dinner was quite expensive…too expensive…but very good.  But then the polish wore off a bit when the phone lines went down and we were scrounging for cash because they could not process my credit card.

And then the shopping began.  Beautiful shawls for $1.50.  A very nice ceramic Buddha for $12.00.  Varying quality jade, t-shirts, etc.  Fish massages (where they eat the allegedly dead skin off your feet) for $2.00. Street food.  And tuk-tuk drivers hawking rides.  It was a lot of fun and a great way to end our time in Siem Reap…finally getting out of our bubble and also being refreshed after a fairly hectic itinerary so far.

Tomorrow we board the AmaLotus after a 5½ hour drive.  I wonder what we will see along the way.