Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Many Faces of Cambodia

Angkor Wat Temple
Descending the steps (wooden steps were not there on our last visit
Ta Phrom Temple

Roots of the trees once covered all the temple
Entrance with statues pulling on the Naga (the snake)
Visited an orphanage - they entertained us

Visited a village near the temple where they make baskets
Six-hour speed boat on the Tonle Sap from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh
Timeless scenes along the river

The Killing Fields Moument
Memorial at the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum
The Royal Palace

Wet market shopping
Cooking Experience at the InterContinental
Sokha Beach Resort in Sihanouk Ville

Sokha Beach Resort
Three-island day trip
Sokha Beach Resort - dining by the pool

We arrived in Siem Reap, the city closest to Angkor Wat early in the morning, and were able to obtain our visas at the airport for $20 each. The van from our hotel, La Maison d’Angkor picked us up. La Maison is a wonderful little hotel built in Khmer style that is like a garden oasis in the middle of the city.

We prebooked an afternoon tour of Angkor Wat with Buffalo Trails. The ruins at Angkor Wat are some of the most impressive we have ever seen and cover a vast area. The tour included the main temple area of Angkor Wat but also took us down a short trail to a small village where the ladies were weaving baskets. Most of the village homes were basic structures built on stills but some were more modern stucco buildings. It was a mixture of traditional and modern amenities with water supplied by a well but many people had cell phones and motor bikes. A thousand years ago it was a metropolis of one million when London was a small town and only Native Americans lived in what is now New York State.

The second day we hired a tuk-tuk for $15 and explored the ruins on our own. He took us where we wanted to go, waited, and showed us best place for lunch. Excellent value. At one temple complex, Ta Prohm, an inscription on a stone in Sanskrit told something about the temple. In Ta Prohm there were 3,140 villages, it took 79,365 people to maintain the temple, including 18 high priests, 2740 officials, 2202 assistant and 615 dancers. Among the property was a set of golden dishes weighing more than 1100 pounds, along with diamonds, pearls, and other valued items. As the area declined in power and population the jungle took over. In many areas the jungle has been removed but some of the tree roots in Ta Prohm temples have been left in place. The roots of the banyan and kapok tree are an impressive site and look like huge snakes which we found interesting since the snake, called Naga, is an important part of their Hindu history. Long stone Nagas border most of the main entrances to the temple complexes.

It would take weeks to see all of Angkor Wat and a tour is necessary to get a feel for the place but much of the story line that go along with the carvings are from the Hindu religion of which we have almost no historical background. We try to learn a bit more each trip.

One day our son, Jim, rented a bike for $1 and explored the temples on his own. There are many ways to experience Angkor Wat including from a fixed balloon and elephant rides to the top of a temple hill to watch sunset. All are great. Most people spend three days at Angkor Wat. The complex is huge and there are many areas still not uncovered. Since our last visit to Angkor Wat in 2004 the number of high-end hotels has grown dramatically and so have the number of tourists. Three-day admission is still $40. They have added wooden walkways and stairs in some area which makes it easier for tourists and protects the stonework.

From Siem Reap we took the boat for six hours down the Tonle Sap River to Phnom Penh. We paid $8 in 2004 and $40 this time! But I really like the river trip where the scenes are of National Geographic portion. The weather was great so we sat on the boat roof.

All civil wars are awful but the civil war in Cambodia from 1975-79 under the regime of the Khmer Rouge has to rank as one of the worst. During the reign of Pol Pot one out of every four Cambodians died from starvation, overwork and executions. Nearly everyone has a story. When we were in Cambodia in 2004 our guide said that when the population of Phnom Penh was forcibly evacuated to the countryside he was seven and was sent into the jungle to youth camp. His mom and dad each went to different camps. When they were separated his father said, “Whatever happens never forget your name.” I thought that was a strange thing to say but the guide said the children were all given revolutionary names and after several years many did forget their name. He continued, “After a few years I thought motor vehicles were a figment of my imagination. When we were told we could go back into Phnom Penh and I saw the first motor vehicle I ran behind it sniffing the exhaust.” He never forgot his name and his family was eventually reunited. His is one of the few happy stories. Today the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Prison are must sees only so people do not forget. Sadly, it seems genocide and war never seems to stop. Today, in Cambodia, people want to go forward.

Everything seems much more vital and prosperous than it did six years ago. We stayed at the lovely InterContinental Hotel where there was a very upscale wedding with a reception for 500 but we were told that it was smaller than average. After our son flew back to San Francisco we had a cooking lesson that is offered by the hotel, visited the museum and royal palace.

One example of the “new” Cambodia is the development of the beach area in the south of Cambodia. For $7 we took a four-hour bus trip to Sihanouk Ville that included a bottle of water and a snack. We stayed at the beautiful Sohka Beach Resort. The hotel’s new additions have doubled the size of the hotel. We spent every day around the pool except one when we took an all-day island boat tour for $15. First we stopped at a snorkeling spot and then went to Banana Island where we hung out at the beach for a couple hours and the crew prepared our lunch of grilled barracuda. The barracuda was excellent – meaty and not at all fishy. It made us wonder why we don’t see barracuda on the menu in the US. On the way back we stopped at another island for snorkeling. On our last night we had an amazing seafood buffet that was set up around the pool and a band from the Philippines played familiar songs from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I think tourism has a great future in Cambodia as there is a lot to see and do. More importantly tourism brings money and improvements in all sectors of society.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Singapore - The Garden City

Singapore is one of the most perfect places so it is no surprise that the world’s largest flyer is in the city. We visited Singapore the first time in 1998 when our son, Jim, was an exchange student for a semester at National University of Singapore. We have returned several times. On this trip Jim, interested in seeing the changes that have taken place, flew in from San Francisco to join us. The best place to view the city is from the Singapore Flyer which opened in 2008 and is currently the world’s largest observation wheel. It is located in the new Marina Bay area where the Marina Bay Sands Resort is scheduled to open later this year. The Sands Resort will be the world’s largest hotel with over 2000 rooms, a unique sky garden, theaters, discovery center, restaurants and floating pavilions. Since Jim was going to school in Singapore the Marina Bay area has been developed, mainly on reclaimed land.

The Flyer is 541 feet and takes about 30 minutes to make one complete circuit. Each capsule holds 28 people and can be set up for dining, weddings, and other special events. A narration along with a map details the sites from as the Flyer makes a complete rotation. Built beneath the Flyer, thus hiding the foundation and supporting structure of the Flyer, is the Yakult Rainforest Discovery area with tropical trees, waterfalls, and pools with koi fish. It is an excellent use of space and in keeping with Singapore’s name as the Garden City.

The Flyer complex is a hub for tourism with shops, restaurants and tour buses. We boarded the FunVee hop-on-hop-off tour that took us past the major parts of the city including the city’s other icon, the Merlion. The Merlion is half fish and half lion. The name Singapore means “Lion City” but studies have determined that lions never lived in Singapore. We stayed on the bus for the whole circuit then took the Hippo River Cruise. I think the views of the city are best from the Flyer and river cruise. The city is very, very clean and the guide on the boat said it took 10 years to clean up the Singapore River because they had to remove 15 feet of sludge from the bottom of the river.

We stayed at the Pan Pacific Orchard hotel – there are two Pan Pacific hotels. The other is in Marina Bay. The Pan Pacific Orchard is just off Orchard Street the shopping street with everything from GAP to Starbucks. Jim really enjoyed the food at the hotel recalling, “There was nothing like this in the dorm!” The breakfast at the Club Lounge offered a variety of international choices each presented in traditional serving dishes. Jim and John opted for Seafood Soup with Vietnamese Noodles while I tried the Roti Canai “flying bread” with Vegetable and Lentil Curry. Their Sunday Buffet was just as impressive. It seems that Sunday buffets are very popular in Asia.

We had an early flight from Singapore to Siem Reap so we stayed at the Crowne Plaza Changi Airport. The dinner buffet was another amazing expanse of international food with everything from lobster to kobe beef. Many airport hotels in Asia look like resorts with beautiful pools, spas, and lots of greenery.

No matter how many times we visit Singapore there is always something new to see and do.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hong Kong: Asia's World City

View from our room at the InterContinental
Morning Tai Chi lesson with Master William

Junk ride on Victoria Harbor
Stanley Market
Cooking class

Cooking class
Space Museum

Our living room at the Peninsula
Salon de Ning's Ski Lodge Room
Transport to airport in Rolls

Hong Kong never fails to impress me. The airport is very nice but the best part is the transportation into the city. After exiting the baggage area there is a transfer desk where we purchased a train ticket into the city, and without leaving the airport we boarded the fast, clean train for the 30-minute ride into Kowloon, one of the main districts of Hong Kong. Once the train arrives in Kowloon there is an elevator up one level to the bus that goes to our hotel. The bus is included in the ticket. It is so smooth and hassle free which is important as our flight from JFK was 16 hours. Getting around Hong Kong is painless, too, which especially amazing considering that Hong Kong is located on several islands. But between the bus, subway, and ferry systems it all works smoothly and senior citizens are half price.

Hong Kong is considered one of the world’s most expensive cities but the Hong Kong Tourist Board has one of the best tourist programs we have ever run across. Their Kaleidoscope program offers many free tours based on the culture, history, and nature of Hong Kong. We have taken several. This time we signed up for the Chinese Cake Making class. John and I joined eight other people at the Wing Wah Cake Shop to learn how to make Wife Cakes. Wife Cakes are actually made by men for their wives. It seems that long ago a wife sold herself into servitude to get money to pay for medical treatment for her father-in-law. The husband was so impressed by her sacrific and wanted his wife back so he created the Wife Cake which he sold in the market. They became very popular so he was able to earn enough money to buy his wife back.

Most of the Kaleidoscope programs are free but the junk boat ride which is also offered by cost about $5. It is the only authentic junk boat still plying the waters of Victoria Harbor. The views of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island from the junk boat are incredible. Hong Kong Island is lined with skyscrapers that continue back from the waterfront and seem to climb up the mountain. The average residential skyscraper is home to between one and two thousand people.

The junk boat, named Duk Ling, dropped us on Hong Kong Island where a short walk took us to Exchange Square where we caught a bus to Stanley, best known for its bargain market. Hong Kong is a shopper’s delight offering everything from the most exclusive shops to unbelievable bargains.

Our first three nights we spent at the InterContinental right on the waterfront. Each morning at 6:30 we meet Master William Ng on the pool terrace for a free Tai Chi exercise class. Every night there is a laser light show emanating from both sides of the harbor.

The last three nights we spent in the Peninsula Hotel, considered the best hotel in the world. They have a fleet of Rolls Royce cars to serve their guests, their own helicopter, and just added two Mini Coopers, which they say are perfect for shopping trips. Walking into the Peninsula’s pillared lobby is like walking into another era. The in-house musicians play while people enjoy afternoon tea. No matter how many times we visit Hong Kong there is always something great to see and do.

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