Angkor, Cambodia, and Vietnam (plus Seoul, Korea) Trip Report

Amcan Travel visits Southeast Asia, December 2007.

We left cold, rainy Seattle on Christmas morning to catch a Korean Airlines flight to Seoul. We thought KE a very good carrier, with plenty of legroom, great Korean food, individual entertainment center with movies and games at each seat, and handsome staff. We were quite happy as regular economy cabin passengers. Our flight schedule required an overnight stay in Seoul, so we took the airline's bus to the downtown Sofitel Hotel. The ride is quite long, aggravated by rush hour traffic in this city of more than 10 million people. We saw some of the city through our bus window, but after checking in at the hotel we opted to immediately go to bed.

We spent Boxing Day sightseeing Seoul. We started out early to the Gyeongbokgung Palace (photo, Gyeongbokgung throne room) a palace complex with design copied from Beijing's Forbidden City. We were among the first dozen of visitors in the chilly morning. The recently renovated National Folk Museum of Korea on the palace grounds is interesting and informational.

We walked through town to Jogyesa Temple, the biggest Buddhist temple in Seoul (photo, praying at the Jinsinsari pagoda). Unlike a stereotypical temple, Jogyesa is not set in a quiet area surrounded by trees and nature, but is right in the middle of downtown Seoul. We have never seen a temple so busy. There were worshippers coming in and out of the prayer hall all the time. We took our shoes off and went in to observe a bit of the lecture that was in progress. It was quite an impressive sight inside.

In an alley in the old Insadong neighborhood, we found a small restaurant serving a royal court style lunch. Dining parties are served in private banquet rooms, for very reasonable price. We ordered a standard fixed-menu lunch, and were served about two dozen little dishes plus endless kim chi (photo, little restaurant). Barbara was in heaven!

We wandered around town a little more, and made a visit to Seoul's famous musical equipment emporium - a building covering an entire city block, three floors jammed with instrument sellers and repair shops. We returned back to our hotel in mid afternoon, to catch the airport bus and fly to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Going from Seoul to Siem Reap is like going from the refrigerator directly into a sauna, from 40 degrees (F) to 89. We were met at the airport by a driver sent by our hotel. Siv was was such a friendly, gentle and peaceful man that we liked him immediately, and accepted his offer to be our driver all during our stay. The Golden Orange Hotel is well located, clean, simple and price of the stay included a great daily breakfast.

We were so excited to see Angkor Wat, we rose at 4:30 in the morning. The Angkor area park opens at 5am, our tuktuk took about fifteen minutes for the four-mile ride. We bought a pair of three-day passes and found ourselves on the grounds of Angkor Wat well before sunrise. The grounds were crowded, everyone aiming cameras at the towers in the brightening dawn, the beauty of the structure revealing itself shade by shade as the sun lit up the sky behind them (photo, Angkor Wat reflected). The experience of the place at sunrise is so inspiring and peaceful, no wonder the image of the Angkor Wat has been depicted on the Cambodian national flag, even during the Khmer Rouge Regime. A lot of tourists took off for breakfast immediately after sunrise, but we stayed to tour the relief carvings in the galleries around the temple's walls and wander in the relative quiet through the interior. Then we headed over toward Angkor Thom, which is a bigger compound though not preserved as intact as Angkor Wat.

Angkor Thom is the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire, established in the late twelfth century by king Jayavarman VII. It has several temples but the most impressive sites are the five gates and the face-bearing towers of Bayon at the centre of the city. The south gate stands above the moat at the end of a bridge along which two dozen warriors churn the ocean of milk with a giant naga or nine-headed snake (photo, at South Gate) The faces on the towers 23 meters above the city gates are like the ones at Bayon. After 800 years of speculation about whose face is represented, most convincing theory is that they represent the king himself (photo, at Bayon). Anyway, they are magnificent.

At the end of the day we somewhat overworked ourselves by taking an ambitious trip to Tonle Sap Lake, the largest lake in Indochina. The tuktuk took us 40 minutes to get to the lake, where we were just in time to board a boat and cruise out to the floating village, where people have lived and fished for generations (photo, floating house). There are village meeting halls, schools, drug stores, and everything, all built on boats. There is also a tourist gathering boat with alligators kept under the boat as a farm. A balcony was built on the top so tourists go up there to take photos. The sunset was truly beautiful (photo, Tonle Sap sunset), as expected. We got home quite late, tired but happy.

The next day we slept in til 7am, after a hearty hotel breakfast we set out for the more northern isolated temples beyond Angkor Thom, the Preah Pithu group. These Hindu temples are less famous than Angkor Wat and Bayon, so there are not as many tourists around. It's relatively peaceful and quiet. They are older and more ruined, atmospheric and unique in their own ways. We had some lunch around Sras Srang Lake in a rather touristy restaurant, still quiet nice and genuine Khmer food. We spent the afternoon at East Mabon and Ta Prohm, which is a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm has been left in much the same condition in which it was found. The photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings (photo, big roots), make it one of the most popular temples. It was suggested in all tour books that the hill of Phnom Bakheng a bit west of Angkor Wat is the best place to view the sunset over Angkor Wat. We climbed the hill to find millions of tourist already there taking up every standing space facing east and west. The steep stairways made us worry about coming back down in the dark after sunset, so we cowardly came down before the sun actually set. However, we did have the chance to see Angkor Wat glowing in the later afternoon sun, looking very mysterious and noble.

Our last day in Siem Reap, we realize we have not even seen the town itself at all. Though the hotel is not far from downtown, our interest is focused on the temples out of town rather than shopping. So we went out before 5am back to revisit Angkor Wat. This time we walked back in the dark to the east end of the temple, so we could have the view of first light shining from the top of the towers at sunrise. At this end of the complex, we met fewer than five people altogether viewing the sunrise from the same vantage as us, instead of thousand from the front of the temple (photo, first light on Angkor Wat).

We walked through the Wat again, this time appreciating more of the intactness of the walls, the graceful towers and relics after seeing the other temples in the region. In midmorning, we drove south to Roluos Group, built between years 877 and 889 as the first stone temples built by the Khmers, representing the beginning of the classic art of Cambodia. These were also less visited sites in an isolated and peaceful setting (photo, Bakong temple). We noticed that there are many joint projects with European and Asian countries teaming for temple restoration work, but did not find any US involvement. These temples reminded us a bit of ones in Khajuraho, India, built around the same time. We got back to town for lunch at a restaurant recommended by Siv, great Khmer specialties and perfect as our last Cambodian meal. We spend the early afternoon at Angkor Wat National Museum, a brand new state of art display of Khmer history, culture, people and temples. We enjoyed it tremendously despite the high admission price. Late in afternoon, we should be on our way to the airport, but Barbara could not forget the giant smiling faces on the towers and above the gates at Bayon (photo, Bayon), so we made a final stop on the way to airport. Though the weather turned overcast, so we did not see the sun on the faces, they are equally haunting, and mysterious with their knowing, forgiving smile, the typical Khmer smile that even after long time war and grueling Khmer Rouge, you still find it in the locals right here in Siem Reap. Our driver Siv is a great example, if possible, we love to send him more tourists (photo, Siv our tuktuk driver).

We arrived Hanoi in late evening and went via taxi to our small hotel in the old quarter. Next morning we were up early to walk around the wonderful old quarter, its narrow streets each named for household items, such as wooden bowl, silver, paper, silk, and so on, which in ancient times were sold by guilds in shops for the single item all lined up on the same street. Competition working to the consumers' advantage a thousand years ago. Nowadays, the shops no longer represent the street names, though we did see a few herb and traditional medicine shops on Herbal street. For our overnight tour in Halong Bay, we got on the bus in front of our hotel after post-walking tour breakfast, along with full load of passengers. The drive from Hanoi to Halog took almost 4 hours with restroom/souvenir shop breaks on the way. Construction and restoration were evident everywhere, it seems the city is expanding quite rapidly. On the cruise junk on Halong Bay, settling into the boat presented a problem. We were assigned a cabin on the junk right above the engine and immediately forward of the galley. Fumes from the engine and the smell of gas from the kitchen made the room practically uninhabitable. We asked for a change of cabin but on New Year's Eve every cabin is booked. We thought it unfair to ask other people to switch with us, since all paid the same price per manager of the boat. After a negotiation, we were offered a small discount. Lunch on the boat was delicious, with fresh seafood out of the bay. We cruised south through the mist among jagged, haunted looking little islands. In the afternoon we took a tour of Sung Sot cave. Inside, the cave is partitioned into two chambers, the first one being similar to a wide theatre hall. Stalactites hang from the high ceiling, with numerous forms and shapes. A narrow passage leads to the second cavern, where a flow of light meets visitors. The chamber is so immense it could contain thousands of people. For sunset, we visited nearby Tiptop Island, where we climbed up to the hill for a panoramic view of the magnificent bay.

Dinner on the junk was served royal court style, multiple courses of highly decorated spring rolls in form of a phoenix, giant shrimp cocktail looking like sculpture, etc. We shared our table with two nice English ladies, mother and daughter. Since we wanted to spend as little time as possible in our cabin, we talked, drank wine and played card games into the late night, til almost midnight when staff rolled out a giant cake, bunch of candy, small Vietnamese sweets, and deadly Russian red champagne. The new year celebration was in full swing. We danced and sang Karaoke with everyone, including staff, partying hard well into the wee hours.

We got up late on New Year's Day, enjoyed brunch on the boat. While cruising around the sun came out and made the bay even more beautiful with ample photo opportunities. Thus Richard was kept busy all morning while Barbara caught up on her journal writing. We arrived back to Halong pier around noon and took the return bus to Hanoi. In the early evening, We enjoyed a sunset stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake, along with young lovers and families out for their New Year's outings. For dinner, we had some coconut and chocolate ice cream from a famous ice cream shop on the south end of the lake.

Rising up early on our last day in Hanoi, we enjoyed another walk around the old quarter before breakfast, and then set out to see the Temple of Literature (photo, gate at the Temple of Literature). Barbara felt like being back in China since all the original writings inside were in Chinese when it was built about 1000 years ago while China had a firm control. In the back of the compound, we saw a folk music group performing traditional Vietnamese music in full costume (photo, performers). We bought a CD and a cheap bamboo flute at a somewhat inflated price though we were happy to do so in the sprit of supporting the musicians. Lunch was at a very pleasant restaurant run by a non-profit organization KOTO (Know one, teach one). We decided to skip a visit to the Ho Chi Minh memorial site, instead heading back to the old quarter to see the big market, admiring some snake wine and other wonderful and weird stuff for sale. In the early evening, we took a taxi to the train station for our overnight sleeper to Hue. We occupiedd a six-berth compartment shared, with a Vietnamese family. They didn't speak any English, so we smiled a lot to each other and when the train pulled out of station, we said "bye bye Hanoi." They seemed to understand that well enough, so they smiled and nodded.

We got into Hue early next morning and were met by Yang, a young tourist guide trainee, who took us to Orchid Hotel. It turned out, the Orchid was the best hotel we stayed during this trip. The staff was very nice, and even though it was only 8am they gave us our room right away. We freshened up, and enjoyed an early lunch at Pho 24 around the corner from the hotel. We then rented two bikes to ride out of town (photo, biking around Hue). The eight-mile ride out toward the Minh Mang tomb is mostly flat, with just a few shallow hills. We enjoyed riding among green rice fields and through small towns with children yelling Hello to us, despite a persistent misty rain. Richard's bike was too small for his legs, even with the seat raised to its the highest, so he looked like a teenager straddling a toddler's bike. We took our time, stopping frequently to look around at temples and pagodas along the route (photo, temple decor). The site of emperor Minh Mang's tomb is impressive and beautiful, even in the rainy afternoon chill (photo, Minh Mang's tomb). We definitely felt it was worth the ride, and would recommend exploring by bike to just about anyone who would visit Hue. Heading back to town we somewhat lost each other among the stream of motorbikes and bicycles (photo, Hue traffic jam). But it was no problem, we each followed along the Perfume River, and were reunited in front of hotel where we returned the bikes. We reserved a table at Y Thao restaurant, a well-known place in the Citadel that serves a fixed-menu royal court style dinner on their open air terrace. Along with fellow tourists at a few other tables, we enjoyed nine fancy courses, all featuring elaborate sculptured and decorated dishes (photo, egg rolls a la phoenix). The total bill for two including taxes and tips but not our drinks came to $20 US dollars. What a treat at such a bargain.

Next morning we visited the oldest citadel in Vietnam, inside the Hue old city (photo, Forbidden City). It is a citadel inside the citadel. The core was called the Purple Forbidden City. It was indeed copied from the Beijing Forbidden City on a smaller scale with all Chinese characters. The site has massive renovation going on all over the palace, since it was heavily bombed during the war 40 years ago. Today, the ponds are peaceful and the royal theater is in cheerful performance mood to put on yet another cultural extravaganza aimed at tourists.

In the afternoon, we took the four-hour bus ride to Hoi An. The scenery along the way was beautiful and quite peaceful (photo, Perfume River). We saw farmers, mostly women, working the field, kids riding on their buffalo. The road was in great shape and we were at highway speeds all the way with one restroom/souvenir shop break. We booked a night at a giant Soviet-Style hotel compound a bit north of the downtown Hoi An. It was confusing for us to find, as the taxi and cyclo touts tried to get our business said it was far, though our map seemed to suggest otherwise from where we were dropped off from the bus. It was dark and we got lost. Richard fell down over a curb with full load of luggage on his back, getting an ugly scrape on the knee. We finally walked into the hotel (it was indeed not far if we knew how to find it the first time), and deposited our bags in the room. Then we went out, back to the old town center towards the river and found a nice restaurant for some typical Hoi An food, itself heavily influenced by Chinese cooking.

Next morning, our local guide Tran met us after breakfast in the lobby and took us for his official downtown walking tour. The whole district is a sort of outdoor museum, there are kiosks that sell tickets for entry to ancient meeting houses, temples and even people's homes (photo, Hoi An courtyard). We stopped in at Phung Hung ancient house. The sixth, seventh, and eighth generations of the family family still lives there. We met a smiling old man of the house, his giant ears just like those of his ancestors pictured on the walls. He is a retired teacher who speaks quite a bit of Chinese and some English. He asked Barbara about the Chinese writing of the words he struggles to get from English to Chinese. We planned to go to the Handicraft center to catch a traditional show when our guide found out Richard is a musician. He contacted the troupe and forced them to squeeze a slot for Richard to play his flute. What flute, we have not got one with us. So, quick to the market where we got a cheap but playable flute with scotch tape as membrane for 3 US dollars. We then went straight to the center, where audience are mostly tourists as well, of course. Richard played his flute after apologizing to the audience for taking their time. The local performers seemed happy enough to have a short diversion from the course of their usual show. After the show, the Erhu player asked Richard to show him a popular US song so they can practice and please their American audience next time. Richard wrote down You are My Sunshine for them on the sheet and demonstrated it with his flute (photo, cultural exchange). We could hear them start their practice even before we were off the premise. We went down the street to the Japanese Covered Bridge (photo, bridge) and strolled along the Hoi An River, which is barely a foot below the street level. This town has seen many floods, the watermarks obvious on buildings throughout the town. We went to the upstairs of a small Hoi An specialty restaurant to enjoy our last lunch in Hoi An and watch people from the balcony (photo, street scene). Time seemed to be frozen and for a little while we almost could not tell where we were with shops as ancient and authentic as the lamp shops (photo, lamp display).

Tran came back to collect us, and we were driven to Danang for our flight to Saigon in late afternoon. The ride is a bit over half hour along China Beach, the resorts are a change from the typical green and lush countryside. We were surprised to board a brand new Boeing 777 for this one-hour flight. Vietnam Airlines seems to be doing very well for themselves. Meals were offered on all their flights, even this short one, and service is very good. Arriving in Saigon in the evening, we were met by our guide Hieu and taken to a hotel in District One in the old downtown area, close to Ben Thanh Market. The place was simple, clean and has a few PCs with free internet, as we found everywhere in this entire trip, excepting only the otherwise lavish Sofitel in Seoul.

First thing in the morning, we went over to stroll through the morning market just a block away from our hotel (photo, Ben Thanh Market). Here it seems everything can be bought at quite a bargain price including major brands such as Gucci, Coach, LV. etc. Back at the hotel, we met Hieu and our driver Quoc and headed south for My Tho and the Mekong Delta. On the way our guide Hieu, in his early fifties with excellent English, gave us a full account of Saigon from 1975 to the present. From the quay at My Tho, the Mekong River is as wide as the Amazon at the meeting of the waters. Excursion boats docked up and down the quay take tourists to the delta islands, named for Phoenix, Dragon, Unicorn and Turtle. These islands are well set up to receive tourists, a bit reminiscent of the Polynesian Culture Centre in Honolulu, though perhaps not yet quite as commercial. We visited a bee farm and sampled fresh honey tea with tropical fruits as sweet as the honey. The waiters double as singers with a few senior uncle figures playing traditional instruments. Hieu walked us through the fruit tree orchard, showing us how the local people nuture and harvest their passion fruit and water coconuts. A peaceful canal runs through the center of the island. We boarded a sampan commanded and crewed by just one nice local lady (photo, sampan) who rowed us around through the quiet bamboo forest to the outer shore of the island where our excursion boat was waiting. We visited another island to see coconut candy production, deliciously best when fresh out of the big boiling wok. There are hundreds of thousands of villagers living on the islands, and we saw some nice houses among the orchards. Hieu told us the big houses are owned by people with relatives overseas or local party officials. We finished the tour by early afternoon, skipping lunch due to the very filling fruits and drove back to Saigon. Hieu took us to the Reunification Palace (formerly, Presidential Palace of South Vietnam). The place has been preserved in much the state it was in when the Viet Cong took it over in 1975. The building is "a fine example of '60s architecture," airy and spacious. There's a fascinating historical photo exhibit in the basement. After dinner, we walked to the theater, very close to our hotel, and enjoyed the traditional Water Puppet Show (photo, water puppet theatre). The show was attend by some local families with children, it seemed, and lots of tourist families. The musicians sit on either side of the stage playing the accompaniment tunes and also providing voices for the puppet stories with great enthusiasm. The short pieces have simple plots and a great deal of broad comedy, very suitable for children and children-like adults, in other words perfect for us.

For our last day in Saigon, we went northwest of Saignon to tour the Cu Chi Tunnels. The network connecting underground tunnels located in the Cu Chi district are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. They were dug in 1950s and 1960s, most of them are much too narrow for any person over 100 pounds. The tunnels were used as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters. We have learned about America's Vietnam war from books and movies. Up close and personal with the land, food, jungle smells and photos taken by Vietnamese, we had a different perspective. Hieu had very good knowledge of the sites and personal experience in the war that he shared with us. We got back to town in early afternoon and spend the afternoon browsing around the Ben Thanh Market and looking at traditional musical instruments. Then we went to the well known ice cream shop Fanny's for an evening snack and finally to the rooftop café at the legendary Rex Hotel. Downtown Saigon was still thick with Christmas and Western New Year holiday decoration, all colors of lights covering the wide boulevard (photo, Christmas lights). The city of over six million seems like a sleepless city with nonstop traffic and rivers of motorbikes, private cars, buses and bicycles - a very energetic country with beautiful nature (photo, tropical flower), a great future as bright as those shining lights.