Friday, March 31, 2023

Cambodia and The Killing Fields

They were orphans, those children who followed us around on that hot, humid day in Cambodia.  

We were quite interesting specimens

As we made our way into temples, and around the grounds of this Buddhist Wat, the children watched us with as much interest as we were showing the statues and buildings that made up this holy place. 

Our guide explained as our tour bus pulled away, that the children are being raised and educated within the compound by the monks that oversee its operation.

The Wat Children - Cambodia

A collective sigh - the type prompted by learning something heartbreaking - seemed to echo through the our fellow cruisers processed the information. 

Temples of Cambodia

The temple compound was our first stop on a tour of Sihanoukville (see-an-oouk-ville), Cambodia, the third port of call on our Southeast Asian cruise.  Cambodia was one of the reasons we chose this Oceania cruise. It was all new territory and aside from guidebook descriptions and a few online travel articles most of our ideas about the country had been forged decades ago in our teen years.

Our welcome to Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Back in the mid-to-late 70's U. S. newspaper headlines and nightly news reports shaped our view of Cambodia; a country that was then a war zone.  Images were furthered cultivated by the chilling, but award-winning 1984 movie called, 'The Killing Fields'. 

1984 award-winning movie, The Killing Fields

A capsule bit of history: The Khymer Rouge, a radical communist movement headed by an individual called Pol Pot, ruled Cambodia from 1975 - 1979. He and the Khymer Rouge wanted to socially engineer a classless, agrarian society so took aim at intellectuals, civil servants, professionals and city residents forcing them to march to and work in agricultural fields as part of a re-education process. An estimated 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians died of execution, starvation, disease or of being overworked.  Their bodies were buried in mass graves that later became known as the killing fields.

Sihanoukville Today

Early morning arriving Sihanoukville, Cambodia

The Sihanoukville cityscape that greeted us in our early morning arrival was breath-taking - it looked both modern and large.  And definitely a contrast to those wartime images from 40 years ago. 

With just a day to explore this city we chose a highlight's tour which took us to some of the area's famed white sand beaches, the enormous and overwhelming Phsar Leu Market, with booths selling a bit of anything and everything, as well as its famous Golden Lion statues and Buddhist temples. 

The Land of Buddha - Cambodia

As we traveled between the 'sights', we found the everyday scenes to be as interesting as those places considered 'highlights'. For all the high-rise buildings and big boulevards, hotels and beaches, we also saw poverty.  

Street scenes Sihanoukville Cambodia

Homes made of corrugated metal, and small roadside businesses being operated off the back of trucks.

Roadside business - Cambodia

Seeing local everyday life is one of our favorite travel activities.

Street scene Sihanoukville, Cambodia

We saw some beautiful and contrasting sights on that taster-sized tour, but what we will remember the longest about this introduction to Cambodia will likely not be the places we visited, but our tour guide and the story he told in response to that collective sigh about the orphans:  

Our guide - witness to the killing fields

'Being raised by a Buddhist monk isn't all that bad,' he assured us. 'I was. My sisters and brothers and I were raised by the monks after Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge killed our parents.' 

His father had worked for the government, one of the types of persons targeted by the Khymer Rouge.

Father of four with an infectious laugh and quick smile

'I was 10, I remember the march to the fields.' 

He then recounted some of the scenes he had witnessed along the way. I am not listing them, suffice to say, they were scenes no one should have to witness, especially a 10-year-old boy and his siblings. He lived with the monks for 10 years.

He didn't tell the story as a victim seeking sympathy. He recounted his experiences candidly. And he balanced the horrors of his childhood, by later telling us of his four college-age children, each on their way to graduation just as any proud dad would. Nor did he dwell on the country's past as he soon resumed his tales and tidbits about Cambodia.

Cambodia - thanks to maps

Sihanoukville, also known as Kampong Som, is younger than the two of us. It was 1955 when work began on a deep-water port in an area called Kampong Som and with the port's opening a year later, a town to house the workers was born. It is four-hours from the country's capital, Phnom Penh.

During the course of the day. we were blessed by a Buddhist monk, who prayed and sprinkled holy water on us.

We were blessed by this monk

And we were granted good luck (according to legend) because we posed for a photo in front of the Golden Lions Monument on a roundabout from which wide boulevards extend and cars race past. (We had good luck both getting to the monument and back across the street, that is for sure!)

How lucky are we now!

Several of our fellow passengers were heard commenting that the city had disappointed them. It had been dirty, there was poverty, and they recounted any number of items that hadn't 'wow-ed' them. We don't travel just to see pretty, so I can tell you that for us, this stop only whetted our appetite for more Cambodia! We are ready to visit Phnom Penh, Angor Wat and Siemreab among others. 

That is one of the selling points of cruising for us: these appetizer-sized tastes of places are often enough to bring us back for more comprehensive overland tours or to write a destination off as having 'been there, done that'.

 Thanks for being with us today and we hope you'll be back -- and bring some friends with you -- for my upcoming tales of rocking and rolling on the South China Sea thanks to stormy weather!  

Until then wishes for safe travels to you and yours~


Monday, March 20, 2023

Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind

'Mai Pen Rai' means 'never mind' in the Thai language. It is the only Thai we know, a phrase learned ages ago and used infrequently, serving as a fond reminder of that Southeast Asian country.

During our two-day stay in Bangkok in February we found ourselves using it on several occasions. 

Street scene in Bangkok - portable eatery heading to its set up spot

In fact, it came to mind during our first couple of hours in the country, beginning with the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel. Our driver spoke as much English as we did Thai.  Not a good combination, we decided, as we set off while he was trying to tell us something:

Rooftop restaurant and bar at Marriott Sukhumvit

We were headed to the Marriott Hotel in Sukhumvit (the name of both the street and the neighborhood where this Marriott is located) when the driver, -- by then, speeding down the freeway -- finally got across to us that he needed an actual street address to get us there. 

Our mobile didn't work in Thailand and the one thing I hadn't jotted down on my somewhat anal-but- useful, handwritten list of hotels and flights, confirmation numbers and details, was the street address for this hotel. After all, there is only one Marriott Hotel in Sukhumvit.

Oh, mai pen rai, problem solved when he handed us his phone and a Google search got him the address and Google maps got us there. 

Thai flower garlands - offerings to Buddha

Arriving at the hotel, we had no baht (Thai currency) and the driver didn't take credit cards. We uttered another mai pen rai as the hotel's doorman assured us the front desk would provide payment and simply charge it to our room. It apparently wasn't the first time that travelers have arrived baht-less in Bangkok.

Bangkok Revisited

Our room with a view - Sukhumvit Marriott

Bangkok is where we boarded the cruise ship that took us to other ports of call in Southeast Asia.  It was a perfect departure port as Bangkok is near and dear to our hearts. It was here -- many decades ago -- that we first considered having an expat experience. And for many years our expat daydreams were of a life in Thailand. 

Electric wires drape sidewalks and streets

Bangkok, like New York, is a city that never sleeps.  It's almost 13 million residents fill sleek, modern high rises and mid-century structures that stand side-by-side throughout the city. 

A mix of old and new

Massive numbers of electrical wires droop and drape overhead as pedestrians make their way along congested sidewalks lined with mom-and-pop businesses and eateries that spill out onto the pathways. 

Eateries line the streets

The mix of smells and sounds that assaulted our senses awakened our Thai love affair.   

Street eats across the street from our hotel

As we made our way along neighborhood sidewalks the smells of street food cooking on small portable barbeques combined with the heady aromas of spices and fruits offered for sale. Car exhaust, honking horns, flashing traffic lights, passing bicycles all contributed to the kaleidoscope of sensory experiences to be had just outside the hotel. 

You snooze, you lose on Bangkok streets

Rolling on the River

Our two nights in Bangkok were divided between the hotel and the cruise ship. Many cruise lines are now scheduling overnight stops in ports of call, and such was the stop in Bangkok. We boarded the ship on a Sunday afternoon, and we didn't depart until Monday afternoon, which allowed almost another full day of exploration.  

We could see our ship in the distance docked on the Chao Phraya 

We were aboard Oceania's Nautica, a small ship of just over 600 passengers. Because of its small size it was able to dock in the city on Bangkok's Chao Phraya River. It was so close we could see it in the distance from our hotel's rooftop. Large cruise ships - those that carry thousands of passengers -- dock at a port some two hours from Bangkok.

Morning coffee on the Chao Phraya

One of the selling points of cruising for us is our cabin's deck. I had thought there could be nothing better than sipping room service delivered coffee and watching the morning's river activity in Bangkok. But I was to find out that actually being on that deck and traveling down that river toward the Gulf of Thailand was even more fun. 

Tugboats accompanied us just in case we needed them

Our river journey was three hours long and provided one of the best sightseeing opportunities of the trip. We had a flotilla of tugboats escorting us as we made our way to the gulf, ready to assist should our ship have lost power.

River scenes on the Chao Phraya River

The scenes we passed were a series of contrasts.

Our minds wandered and pondered about the purpose of each place and its occupants.

Thai Buddhist temple

The purpose of some places was quite evident, such as this Buddhist temple with a large Buddha gazing towards the river. Thailand has the second largest Buddhist population in the world after China.  

River scenes along the Chai Phraya River

We'd pass rickety, weather-beaten structures barely above the water's surface and seemingly accessed through acres of undeveloped groves. Within minutes we'd be passing a suburb with high rise buildings and a most modern network of highways and bridges.

Modern freeways and bridges contrasted with other river structures

Our journey to the sea was a slow one, beginning in mid-afternoon and ending as Happy Hour was ushering in evening's activities on the ship. 

The Scout and The Scribe - a toast to Thailand

As the sun set, we were entering the Gulf of Thailand. The next morning we'd be arriving in Cambodia. . .and that is where my tale begins next time. . .

We were entering the Gulf of Thailand

As always, thanks for the time you spent with us today. Safe travels to you and yours ~

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Southeast Asia ~ A Coming of Age

The fact is that a lot of years had passed since we were last in Malaysia. 

In our minds, our return visit last month was far overdue.  That was one reason we chose its capital, Kuala Lumpur, as the starting and ending point of our recently completed Southeast Asian adventure.  

Downtown Kuala Lumpur was a happening place

Kuala Lumpur, or KL as it is often called, is 55 kilometers, or 35-miles, from its KLIA, the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.  Our visit required four such rides; two at each end of the trip. Time and distance provided us ample time to visit with our cab drivers, all of whom spoke English well.  

At some point during each ride, the conversation invariably went something like: 

Chatting with our cab drivers - Oh My GAWD!

'So, your first time in KL?' asked the driver.

'No, we were here before. . .' one of us would answer, pausing, then adding, '. . .about forty years ago.'

At which point each of the cabbies -- who ranged in age from 40 to 56 -- nearly drove into the freeway barrier as his head snapped from focusing on the road to the rear-view mirror to get a good look at the talking fossils in the back seat.

The best verbal response was from the 56-year-old who exclaimed, 'Oh. My G-A-W-D! I was 15 then!!

Each of the conversations ended with the driver telling us about his elderly parents who were in our age range but were still 'getting around' and how good it was that we were still traveling. 

Coming of Age

Street scene 2023 Kuala Lumpur

We have aged, and hopefully grown a bit as well, since our first visit to Malaysia's capital city. But our changes pale in comparison with the changes to this cultural, financial and economic center of Malaysia.  

The city looked much like the photo above during our first visit in the early 1980's. But those old storefronts are fast being replaced with towering skyscrapers offering condominiums, offices and retail space.  The photo below was taken from our hotel room.

Kuala Lumpur from our hotel window

Back when we first visited KL it had a population of 1.1 million. Today's population is 8.6 million. Its population density and urban spread is evidenced by towering buildings of living accommodations that began to fill the skyline miles before we reached the city's center.

Residential high rises outside city center

What we found most interesting is that even with all the change, we were as taken with this new modern high-density version of the city as we were with the old charmer, we explored decades ago.  Maybe that is because it still retains many of its historical buildings which were a pleasant contrast to the ubiquitous high-rise structures.

A heritage building in KL

The Old and the New 

Entry display at one mall

Shopping malls abound in the heart of town. Our first stay was at the JW Marriott Hotel, which was part of a high-end shopping mall, and also across the street from yet another high-end mall.  We could log our day's footstep goal with a single trip through one of the multi-storied malls.

Coffee at one mall allowed us to watch video ads across the street

We were bedazzled with jewelry displays, clothing, and cars. There's definitely another world out there! I had no more than said, 'Can you imagine these places at Christmas?' when we saw this photo:

Christmas must be something else!

Each of the three nights we spent at the JW, we were treated to a car show outside the front door in the valet parking area. This purple car won out for the color, but each day we found some breathtakingly expensive car parked just outside the door.

Outside our hotel in valet parking

We had one additional night and a full day in KL on our return leg of our journey. We chose to experience a bit of history and stayed in the heritage wing of its Majestic Hotel, located in another part of the city. The hotel, with a tall sleek conference hotel wing to one side, was originally built in 1932, just across the street from its heritage train station. It simply oozed with charm. . .the music playing as we stood in line to check in was Glenn Miller's 'Moonlight Serenade'.

Hotel Majestic, since 1932.

We sipped cappuccinos while others had High Tea in the old wing's lobby. We could have sat in the Orchid Room but will save that for 'next time'. 

Orchid Room - Majestic

Happy Hour was held in the stately old bar where you could play a game of billiards or watch financial news on a flat screen television. The air was tinged with cigar smoke - just adding that perfect old gentlemen's club touch to the setting. 

Happy Hour at the Majestic Hotel

The Southeast Asian Adventure

For those who missed the last post outlining this adventure, a brief recap: 

KL was the first stop on a journey that would take us to Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Viet Nam and Singapore.  We flew from Athens to KL via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. We were reminded that it is a long haul to get to SE Asia no matter from which direction you fly. It was an hour and a half to Istanbul then 10.5 hours to Kuala Lumpur.  

Most of our journey was completed aboard Oceania's Nautica cruise ship.  We boarded that ship in Bangkok, Thailand after a brief stay there.  And that is where our tale begins next time when we will be: Bangkok Bound.

Thanks for the time you've spent with us today and thanks to those of you who sent us travel suggestions and recommendations. All were appreciated! 


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