A December to Remember

Southeast Asia: From Vietnam to Laos via Angkor

By Mary Goldsmith

Edited by Angelica Syseskey & Steven Goldsmith

 

 

In December 2008, we traveled to Vietnam, the Angkor area of Cambodia, and Laos. Weve always wanted to see Vietnam especially since we grew up hearing about it most days on the nightly news. If youve read about our past travels, you know we like to go to countries which have recently become open to Americans for travel and are making the transition from communism to democracy. We also rarely go to only one country, so we agreed that adding Cambodia and Laos to our vacation would make for an interesting trip especially because of their shared history. I found it easy to find small group tours that went to two of the three destinations. However no company would accept us on their tour that did all three. Believe it or not, there are still a few companies that flatly refuse a person who uses a wheelchair when it makes sense for her to do so. Before I contact a company, I review their itinerary to screen out trips which would be too difficult. I only contact companies to ask for details when I think it might be possible to join their tour. One company wouldnt even listen to my traveling history of over 50 countries. The representative just said that I would inconvenience other tour members too much.

 

Map of Trip to Vietnam, Angkor & Laos

 

After hitting too many dead ends, I decided to look for a Travel Agent. I called Virtuoso and they had an agent from Connecticut call me. I explained what we were looking for, my limitations and the research Id done so far. She found a company which had a tour to Vietnam and Angkor. We asked to add on Phenom Penh and Laos. She said that she had just done a Laos tour for someone and felt sure she could add that, but given the time we had it would be impossible to do both. Steve definitely preferred Laos over Phenom Penh because he had done a report on Laos in junior high school. His assignment had been to do a report on a Southeast Asian country. Most students chose Vietnam, but Steve chose Laos. At that time there was little information on the country but he did not give up. Now he wanted to see this nation. We booked with Vido Tour: Indochina Travel on their Mystic Marvels of Indochina tour and added three Laos destinations. We were told that at least one other couple had booked the tour and wed have a Tour Manager and local guides.

 

As I mentioned earlier, we are not typical travelers. I have juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and insulin-dependent diabetes. I use a wheelchair, which Steve has good heartedly pushed on terrain that is International Access Symboldefinitely not accessible. We generally get along just fine. However, it does require a little more forethought and planning. I mention this because I will include accessibility information in this travel log. The start of access information will be marked with the international access symbol. Here it appears to the left.

 

 

 

Day 1: Wednesday, Dec. 10

 

Our car comes early and were not quite ready. We finish preparations quickly and leave about a half an hour earlier than we planned, after saying goodbye to our cats. Our driver asks us if were going to France. We reply no, were going to Hanoi, Vietnam by way of Singapore. He has our correct information, but the destination is listed as FRAN. We think that perhaps this is the designation for our stopover since our flight information states there's one stop for re-fueling. The drive to JFK airport goes quickly. During the ride my blood glucose drops lower than I want it to be. Our driver offers me food, of which he has a variety. I choose a peanut butter granola bar.

 

When we arrive at the airport, Singapore Airlines is not yet set up for check-in, so we dont find any signs for our flight. Were not the first one at the Singapore Airlines counter, but once they set up check-in, it moves quickly. As we go through security, I am thoroughly checked over. They even require me to open my money belt. Security is not crowded so we dont have to rush. We find our gate and then go to eat. We only find one restaurant open, but luckily it has a good number of available tables.

 

International Access SymbolWe return to the gate where they are setting up the boarding area. The staff is almost obsessive about placing the line barriers. They reposition them about ten times. Boarding goes easily. We sit next to a nice woman, Veronica, who is a Merchant Marine going to Singapore on her next assignment. We learn that our layover is in Frankfurt, Germany. Were a bit dismayed because we assumed that we were flying west to Singapore. It takes six hours to reach Frankfurt. Our layover goes quickly. As we wait to board our next flight, I find people rude. Its a bit of a challenge to board early because many people try to cut us off. Once on board, we have 14 hours to Singapore.

 

 


Day 2: Thursday, December 11

 

We spend the day in flight. We find Singapore Airlines very nice. The seats are as comfortable as possible. The stewardesses are very courteous and caring. We receive much to eat and drink. For airline food it's quite good and they have interesting choices of Oriental or continental cuisine. Steve watches movies.

 

My sugar spikes high so I sleep a good amount during the flight to Singapore.

 

 

Day 3: Friday, December 12

 

International Access SymbolWhen we arrive in Singapore, a transporter meets us with an aisle chair. Then we get my wheelchair and the transporter takes us on a tram to a lounge nearby our next terminal. The Airbus is very nice and barrier free. At the lounge, a staff member takes my boarding pass and gives me a sticker which indicates my boarding pass has been processed. At least, thats what we think the sticker indicates. We find the lounge comfortable at first. People come and go. Most are seniors, children or have mobility problems. After a while we feel confined. Steve leaves the lounge to look around. When he returns, I ask him if he found a rest room. He gives me directions and I tell the staff member monitoring the entrance where Im going.

 

Our next flight goes quickly. Thirty-six hours and too much aggravation later, we reach our final destination of Hanoi, Vietnam. We meet our guide, Le Thanh Long and our driver Mr. Tang. We ask him if the two other people who are supposed to be on our tour have arrived yet. Hes surprised to hear about them and states that most of the tours his company does are private tours, with only people who know each other. Perhaps the other two people canceled. Were disappointed to learn that were the only two people on our tour. Long reviews our itinerary and suggests a revision which switches the first and third day activities. He states that what were scheduled to do on our third day in Hanoi is not a good idea because most of the sites are closed. He suggests that we do these sites tomorrow and the third day well have to ourselves. We agree to this and wonder why, since this is the private tour, this change was not previously made. He also asks for a copy of our entire itinerary, since hes only been given that of Hanoi. We question why he only has information on Hanoi and he states that this is the only part of our trip to which hes assigned. He explains that each time we fly we will get a new local guide when we arrive at our destination. This is also a surprise to us, but he states that this is the only way to keep the price reasonable. Its especially disappointing to me because I asked about having one tour manager for the entire trip. I confirmed with our travel agent that the only place we get a different tour manager was in Laos.

Hanoi City Homes City Homes

Our drive to the hotel is quite interesting. We both take many pictures as Long explains what were seeing. We reach the outskirts of the city. Long tells us that rich people from the city purchase vacation homes to get away from the city noise and their business. I find these homes quite nice. We see many motorbikes, many of which are used to transport merchandise. Once in the city, we are amazed at the houses. Long explains that taxes are based on house frontage. Therefore the houses are narrow, tall and deep. Unless one lives in a corner house, there are windows only in the front and back walls. In the city, it costs $2000 per square meter to buy real estate. Our hotel, the French colonial Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, is located in the city center and its very nice. We find the location convenient to some of the city sites. We're in an old section of the city where historical emphasis has been on the arts and learning. The buildings have remained relatively small, simple and in harmony with nature.

 

I believe that in order to enjoy a visit to any place it's useful to know the history. So before I tell you about our experiences, I will give you a brief overview of the history.

 

 

History of Vietnam

It appears that Vietnam had inhabitants as far back as the Stone Age. Civilization probably began in the Early Bronze Age, from when archeologists have found artifacts in the Vĩnh Phc Province, close to Hanoi. These reveal evidence of early Vietnamese culture from approximately 2000 to 1400 BC. In approximately 1200 BC, wet-rice and bronze production began in the Ma River and Red River plains. These led to the development of the Dong Son culture, known for creating elaborate bronze drums.

 

Before 257 BC, the Hồng Bng Dynasty ruled Vietnam. Before becoming a dynasty, in the north most people lived around the Hồng River and the Ma River. As time went on, population spread to the rest of Vietnam forming 15 tribes. One leader, Hng Vương, pulled the tribes together and declared himself Emperor, creating the Hồng Bng Dynasty. Credited with teaching his subjects how to grow rice, he named this country Văn Lang which translates to Vietnam. In successive generations, the throne passed from father to son through 18 lines of descent.

 

In the third century BC, Thục Phn overthrew the Hồng Bng Dynasty. The Thục Dynasty only ruled 50 years. There's debate as to whether Thục Phn was a prince from a Chinese state or an indigenous Vietnamese. He renamed Văn Lang to u Lac.

 

For 1045 years, Chinese dynasties ruled the area. During this time the Vietnamese people continually fought against Chinese expansion which came from the north. The first Chinese Dynasty to rule Vietnam divided Vietnam into two parts but kept it separate from China. The Dynasty lasted until 111 BC.

 

After approximately 100 years, the next dynasty of the Hn, took over and made Vietnam part of China. It divided Vietnam into nine districts. During the first century of rule, China governed Vietnam leniently. In the first century A.D., the Hn raised taxes and instituted marriage reforms with the purpose of making Vietnam a patriarchal society which would accept political authority. In 39 A.D., a revolt broke out led by two sisters, one of whom was the wife of a Vietnamese lord who had been put to death. The Trưng Sisters captured more than 65 cities and were crowned the queens of Vietnam in 40 A.D. This ended the first Chinese domination of Vietnam. Although the queens reign only lasted for three years they are highly regarded as heroines and celebrated with an annual holiday.

 

The second Chinese domination of Vietnam occurred from 43 through 544 A.D. the area was ruled by Chinese governors. During this time local rebellions continued to occur. In 248 another Vietnamese woman led a rebellion. She was able to hold onto her victory for six months.

 

In the 530s, L B , a military overseer of the Duc province, wanted to free his area from rule by the Chinese. In 544, he announced secession from the Liang Empire and declared himself Emperor of the region of Vạn Xun. He established his capital in today's Hanoi and appointed effective military and administrative scholars to leadership positions. He promoted literacy and established a foundation for many reforms which were modeled after Chinese social structure. However in October, the Chinese attacked and war ensued. Triệu Việt Vương became Emperor of Vietnam. He used guerrilla warfare to hold the Chinese. In 550, he defeated the Chinese. He remained as Emperor until 571 when L Nam Đế overran his territory. L Nam Đế remained in power until 602.

 

In the Mekong Delta from the first through the sixth century, the kingdom of Funan flourished. It had contact with China, India, Persia and the Mediterranean. During the late second century, the Hindu kingdom of Champa established itself in the Danang area.

 

From 602 to 906, the third Chinese domination of North Vietnam occurred. After 618 the Chinese Dynasty established 12 provinces. Islam arrived in Vietnam during the middle of the seventh century.

During the 10th century, Vietnam declared independence from China and began almost 1000 years of their own Dynastic tradition. In 905, Khc Thừa Dụ instigated a rebellion against the Chinese. By 906 the rebels established independence. A series of Khc governors ruled during the next 24 years.

 

From 931 to 937, Dương Đnh Nghệ was an administrator. He showed skill, talent while serving under Khc Hạo. In 937, General Kiều Cng Tiễn moved up when he defeated Dương Đnh Nghệ. In 939, Kiều fled and Dương's son-in-law Ng Quyền established the Ng Dynasty. Between 939 and 968, five Ng ruled. From 966 to 968, The 12 Lords Rebellion occurred when local lords seized power from their governments and created court conflicts. The country divided into 12 regions, each administered by a different lord and fighting to expand its rule to the entire country.

 

In 968, Lord Đinh Bộ Lĩnh became victorious over the other 11 lords and took control over the country. He declared himself Emperor under the title Đinh Tin Hang Đế. He established the Đinh Dynasty renaming the country Đại Cồ Việt. The Đinh Dynasty lasted until 980. He strengthened his government by appointing military personnel to important positions. One of his top generals was Nguyễn Bạc., Nguyễn Bạcs oldest son Đinh Liễn became a major figure for the Đinh Dynasty succession and the rise of the L Dynasty.

 

The L Dynasty ruled for three generations and is best known for holding off the Chinese. In 990, southward expeditions to Champa began and occurred again in 994. Che Dong and Che Cai, two successive Cham kings, negotiated with L Đại Hnh for peace and agreed to be a Vietnamese vassal state. The last L Emperor became greatly hated when the people and peasants grew disgusted with his cruelty. Upon his death the court under the influence of Buddhist Monk's enthroned L Cng Uẩn as the new emperor. L Cng Uẩn established the L Dynasty in 1009.

 

The L Dynasty became the first Vietnamese dynasty able to hold onto power for more than several decades. They expanded Vietnam. While the L Emperors were devout Buddhists, the influence of Confucianism from China increased. The first University in Vietnam opened in 1070 (Temple of Literature) for the selection of civil servants not from noble families. The L created an administrative system based on rule of law rather than on dictatorial principles. They chose the Đại La Citadel as the capital (todays Hanoi) showing that they believed in power due to economic strength. The population liked the L. In 1054, the name of the country was changed to Đại Việt by Emperor L Thnh Tng.

 

The first century of L rule was dominated by warfare with China to the North and Chenla and Champa to the South. After successfully overcoming these threats, the second century of L rule was relatively peaceful enabling the L Emperors to establish a Buddhist ruling tradition. Buddhism became a state religion. Royal family members and the nobility made pilgrimages and supported pagoda building. Some entered monastic life. Monks became a privileged class, exempt from taxes and military duty. At the same time, Vietnamese Buddhism associated with magic, spirits, and medicine grew in popularity with the people.

 

The Vietnamese began their long march to the south (Nam Tiến), defeating the Cham and the Khmer. In 982, Vietnamese forces overran the Cham capital of Indrapura, so the Cham established a new capital at Vijaya. Captured twice by the Vietnamese, in 1079 the Cham were forced to hand over their three northern provinces to the L rulers. Soon afterwards, Vietnamese peasants began moving into the untilled lands, turning the land into rice fields. The Vietnamese continued moving south. The L Emperors supported the improvement of Vietnam's agricultural system. They constructed and repaired dikes and canals and allowed soldiers to return to their villages to work for six months of each year.

 

With expanding territory and population, L Emperors looked to China as a model for organizing a strong, centrally administered state. In 1075, minor officials became chosen by examination for the first time. A civil service training institute and an imperial academy were established in 1076. In 1089, a fixed hierarchy of state officials was set up. Examinations for public office became required, and literary competitions determined the grades of officials. In 1075, a 40 day battle occurred with the Chinese. Vietnam became victorious.

 

From 1225 to 1400, the Trần Dynasty ruled Vietnam. Trần Kinh, founder of the Trần dynasty, had become rich and powerful under the L Dynasty. The final L Empress having ascended the throne at six years of age ruled under the influence of the commander of the royal guard, head of the Trần family. The leader of the Trần clan decided to overthrow the L Dynasty and establish a new dynasty ruled by his own clan. First he moved his clan to the royal palace and arranged a secret marriage between the L Empress and a member of his family. He did not inform the mandarins or members of the L royal family. Afterwards, he announced the fait accompli to the royal court and forced the Empress to turn over the throne to her new husband on the grounds that she was incapable of holding office. In 1225, the 216-year reign of the L Dynasty ended and the new Trần Dynasty began.

 

The emperor massacred members of the L royal family to avoid retribution. Still several rebellions occurred but the Trần remained in power. In 1257, the first of several Mongol invasions took place. By December of that year, the Trần Dynasty became victorious and reestablished peace. In December 1284, a second invasion ensued from both the north and south borders. In May 1285, after much fighting, Trần Quang Khải fought the deciding battle and almost destroyed the Yuan navy. In March 1287, the Mongols launched their third invasion. This one ended one year later when the commanding Vietnamese Prince broke the enemy campaign.

 

After the invasions, during the reigns of the next three Emperors, Vietnam experienced a period of prosperity and peace. Many good mandarins served these Emperors. In 1306, the Champa king proposed two prefectures for marriage with the Vietnamese princess. After one year of marriage, the Champa spouse died and by custom the Vietnamese woman was to be cremated with her husband. Anh Tng, the Vietnamese Emperor sent his mandarin to Champa to save her. Finally she returned to Vietnam. The successor of the Champa king, no longer wished to abide by the peace treaty. After that event, Anh Tng with two generals commanding three groups of military units attacked the Champa in 1312. The Champa leader was defeated and captured in this invasion. Anh Tng installed a hand-picked successor, but the relations between Vietnamese and Champa remained strained for a long time afterwards.

 

In 1357, the Trần Dynasty began to collapse during a period of chaos caused by excessive spending. The Emperor appointed his brother's son to secede even though this appointee was not from the Trần clan. The new Emperor continued the wastefulness. Upon the advice of several mandarins and members of the royal family, the emperors father-in-law overthrew and killed the Emperor. The former Emperor's mother fled to Champa and convinced the king to attack Vietnam. The Champa army chased the Trần Royal Court from its capital and looted the city. It took until January 1390 for the Trần to stop the Champa. Another period of struggle for the Trần began, ending in 1400 when the Hồ Dynasty began.

 

The Hồ Dynasty lasted seven years and had only two emperors. In 1407, the Chinese Dynasty took control of Vietnam. Although the Chinese considered Vietnam to be a separate country, they suppressed all Vietnamese literature replacing it with theirs. As the Chinese dynasty grew weak, the Vietnamese rebelled against it. Rebellion leaders included several Trần. However these revolts were short-lived and poorly planned but they helped put in place the groundwork for L Lợi's war for independence which led to the Later L Dynasty.

 

This dynasty began in 1428 when L Lợi drove the Chinese army from Vietnam. During the L Dynasty, Vietnam's territories grew from a small northern state to almost its current size. In addition, large changes to Vietnamese society occurred. The Buddhist state became Confucian after 20 years of Chinese rule. The L emperors instituted many changes modeled after the Chinese system, including civil service and laws. The popularity of the early emperors facilitated their long period of rule. Besides L Lợi's liberation of the country from Chinese rule, L's reign brought Vietnam into a golden age.

 

In 1527, the Mạc Dynasty overtook the throne. In 1533, the L Dynasty was restored. However, they still had to compete for power with the Mạc Dynasty. This period became known as the Southern and Northern Dynasties. The restored L emperor held no real power. Civil strife and constant peasant uprisings occurred. In 1592, the Mạc Dynasty became confined to only a small area. The Nguyễn controlled the south and made its capital Hue. The Trinh held the power in the north.

 

War between the Trịnh and the Nguyễn ended in 1673. Life for the northern peasants under the Trịnh Lords was relatively peaceful. However, the Nguyễn Lords engaged in almost constant wars with the weak Khmer Empire and, later, the stronger state of Siam. The Nguyễn often won their wars. The new conquered lands offered opportunities for the landless poor, but the frequent wars took their toll on the popularity of the Nguyễn rulers.

 

In 1769, the new king of Siam, Phraya Taksin, began a war to try to regain control over Cambodia. They fought against the Nguyễn army and forced the army to retreat from some of the newly conquered lands. This example of governmental failure coupled with heavy taxes and corruption at the local level caused three brothers from Ty Sơn to revolt against the Nguyễn Lord.

 

In 1778, the Ty Sơn wanted to restore power to legitimate authorities. One of the brothers, Nguyễn Nhạc proclaimed himself Emperor. In 1786, he led an attack against the Trịnh and defeated them. The Trịnh fled to China. Nguyễn Huệ married the daughter of the nominal L Emperor, L Hiển Tng. L soon fled to China and requested aid from the Chinese Emperor. In 1788, an attack against the capital of Hanoi occurred with victory going to the Chinese. Nguyễn Huệ assembled an army and attacked the Chinese. He became victorious and forced the Chinese and L, back to China. Nguyễn Huệ controlled Vietnam which was larger than ever before. He assumed the title of Emperor and renamed himself Quang Trung. He distributed land to the poor, encouraged suppressed artisans, allowed religious freedom, opened Vietnam to international trade and eliminated Chinese as the official language.

 

In 1788, the peasant uprising of the Ty Sơn brothers defeated both the Trịnh and the Nguyễn, restoring power to the L Dynasty. Three Ty Sơn brothers became the leaders of the common southern Vietnamese people. Their revolt won battles against the Nguyễn army. The Ty Sơn had popular support from the poor farmers and some of the minority tribes. One the brothers was a skilled military leader. He set a goal to end the people's oppression, reunite the country and restore power to the L Dynasty emperor in Hanoi. The three brothers also promised to eliminate corrupt officials and redistribute land. In 1773 the Ty Sơn army captured the city of Qui Nhơn. Merchants who had suffered under restrictive Nguyễn laws gave the Ty Sơn army financial support. The Nguyễn made peace with Siam, giving up some land they conquered. However the Trịnh Lord, Trịnh Sam, decided to end the 100 year peace by dispatching his army south to attack Hue, the Nguyễn capital. Victory went to the Trịnh. The Nguyễn fled to Saigon. The Trịnh army continued south while the Ty Sơn army also continued its fighting of other southern cities. In 1776, the Ty Sơn army seized the final Nguyễn stronghold of Saigon. The entire Nguyễn family was killed, except for a nephew, Nguyễn nh, who escaped to Siam. The Ty Sơn spent much of the following 10 years building up their control of Nguyễn territory. However Nguyễn nh convinced Siam to invade Vietnam. In 1782, the Siamese king was killed and the Nguyễn nh forces fled Vietnam.

 

In 1792, Quang Trung planned to attack the remaining Nguyễn nh's land in the Saigon area. However he died suddenly while waiting for optimal conditions. His son at age 10 succeeded him but his uncle Bui Dac Tuyen held the power. Bui Dac Tuyen executed many who served under Quang Trung. Within 10 years, Nguyễn nh with help from French and European mercenaries captured the entire country. In 1802, Nguyễn nh ended the Ty Sơn dynasty and the final imperial dynasty of the Nguyễn began when Emperor Gia Long ascended the throne.

 

The Nguyễn Dynasty lasted 143 years. During the reign of Emperor Gia Long, the nation officially became known as Việt Nam (越南). He moved Vietnams capital to Hue. From 1820 to 1841, Minh Mang served as Emperor. He invaded the remaining Champa Kingdom, renamed the country Đại Nam, and suppressed religion.

 

This Dynasty became marked by the increasing influence of French colonialism which began in 1858 when Napoleon III launched a naval expedition to retaliate against the Vietnamese for their treatment of Catholic missionaries and forced the government to accept French presence in Vietnam. In 1861, a full invasion occurred and by 1862, Vietnam handed over three southern provinces which the French named Cochinchina. In 1887, France totally conquered Vietnam. Although the Nguyễn Dynasty retained nominal rule over the French protectorate of Annam, France brought in Catholicism and writing with the Latin alphabet. In addition, Tonkin became a protectorate, independent in name only.

 

During World War I, France maximized use of Indochinas natural resources and man power in its war effort by increasing its diligence against Vietnamese patriotic mass movements. From 1914 to 1917, Vietnam was hit with natural disasters which caused great stress on the agricultural section. In May 1916, 16 year old Emperor Duy Tn left his palace to take part in an uprising of Vietnamese troops. An informant notified the French resulting in the leaders being arrested and executed. Duy Tn was exiled to an island in the Indian Ocean. In 1925, Ho Chi Minh founded the first Marxist group in Indochina, the Vietnam Revolutionary Youth League.

 

During World War II, on September 22, 1940, the Japanese invaded Vietnam to construct military bases. A large Vietnamese resistance developed, tying down a significant number of Axis divisions. With Allied assistance, the Việt Minh continued to fight the Japanese. In March 1945, the Axis attacked French authorities, imprisoned their civil servants and declared Vietnam "independent" under Japanese "protection", with Bảo Đại as Chief of State. After the end of World War II, the French were allowed to reoccupy Vietnam. From 1947, the Việt Minh fought a guerilla war against the French in the First Indochina War. It ended in 1954 when the Việt Minh defeated the French.

 

After Japanese surrender, Ho Chi Minh led a revolt and requested the last Emperor, Bảo Đại, to resign. In return, Bảo Đại was named Supreme Counselor to the new government but he soon went into exile in Hong Kong because he did not agree with Ho Chi Minh's policies. In 1948, the French convinced Bảo Đại to return as chief of state to Vietnamese areas in which France had control. While Bảo Đại enjoyed the good life at his luxurious homes in Vietnamese highlands and Paris, a bloody war with the Viet Minh occurred. In 1954, the Geneva Accords divided Vietnam at the Ben Hai River. The division was supposed to be temporary but in 1956, when Ng Đnh Diệm refused to hold elections, it became permanent. After Vietnam divided into the North and South, the South Vietnamese prime minister Ng Đnh Diệm, in a referendum overthrew Bảo Đại and assumed the position of President of the Republic of Vietnam. This permanently ended Bảo Đại's involvement in Vietnamese affairs.

 

The Second Indochina War known as the Vietnam War began in the late 1950s when the United States backed the South Vietnamese against the communist North. Communism had prevailed in the North because China, the Soviet Union and other communist bloc members provided military and financial backing. In the beginning, communists convinced Vietnamese that their way of life would provide for the needs of the common family. In 1955, the United States sent advisors to South Vietnam. Around 1960, North Vietnam changed its policy of opposition from political to armed struggle. The Viet Cong formed, providing North Vietnam with manpower to transport supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This trail ran through Cambodia and Laos, bringing these countries into the war.

 

In 1964 US involvement increased. In 1965, the US sent its first combat troops. South Korea, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand followed. In 1968, the Tet Offensive occurred resulting in military victory for South Vietnam and the United States. However it coincided with American voter opposition to US support of South Vietnam. In 1970, United States began withdrawing its troops. The Paris Peace Accords set up a cease-fire, prohibiting North Vietnam from sending more troops into South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese were permitted to continue occupation of South Vietnamese regions it had already conquered. Fighting continued through 1973 and 1974, while the North Vietnamese planned a major offensive. Soon after the Paris Peace Accords, the United States increased budget cuts in military aid to South Vietnam. The Vietnamese American trained troops fell into disarray, finally disintegrating by January 1975. The North Vietnamese attacked, meeting little resistance. On April 30, 1975, Saigon surrendered to North Vietnam, ending the war.

 

The Third Indochina War a.k.a. Sino-Vietnamese War occurred between February and March 1979 between the People's Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the ruling Khmer Rouge. As a political ally of China, the Khmer Rouge attack led to retaliation from China in 1979. However they abruptly withdrew. Vietnam became more dependent on USSR economic and military aid. As a result, Vietnam continued to maintain a large army.

 

In the post war period, the communist party outlawed all other political parties. They sent Republic Of Vietnam public employees and military personnel to re-education camps and started collectivization of farms and factories. Millions left the country in poorly built boats while reconstruction efforts proceeded slowly and serious humanitarian and economic problems occurred.

 

In 1986, during the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party, new leadership replaced old. Led by Nguyễn Văn Linh, the reformers made him the Communist Partys General Secretary. The party implemented free market changes known as Đổi Mới or renovation. These managed reforms from a communist state economy to todays market socialist economy. The new leadership encouraged private ownership of companies and farms as well as foreign investment while maintaining strategic control over industry. This facilitated rapid economic growth in agriculture, industry, construction and foreign investment.

 

In 1992, a new state constitution was approved. It mandated that political organizations be affiliated with or approved by the Communist party. In 1995, the US established diplomatic relations with Vietnam. When American-Vietnamese relations normalized in 1994, tourism and trade restarted. Today American tourists rank third in visiting Vietnam, behind Chinese and South Koreans.

 

 

 

Day 4: Saturday, December 13

 

Today we have a full day of Hanoi sightseeing. As we head out, its a hazy day. We ride through the French quarter. First we see Ho Chi Minhs mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh actually did not want this traditional Communist mausoleum. He had requested to be cremated. Built from 1973 to 1975, it consists of natural materials brought from all over Vietnam.

 

History of Hanoi

Much of Hanois history follows that of Vietnams, since from 1010 to 1802, it was the primary political center. The city has been inhabited since at least 3000 BC. In approximately 200 BC, Co Lao became one of the first known citadels. Throughout history it's had many names including Tống Bnh during Chinese domination, Long Đỗ which means dragon's belly in English and Đại La when made into a citadel. In 1010, Emperor Ly Thai Tố built his walled citadel and named it Thăng Long which means ascending Dragon. Remember that in the Orient dragons represent good. The city remained the capital until 1397 when it became the Eastern capital. Today's name of Hanoi, bestowed in 1831, means the city in a bend of a river. The French occupied Hanoi in 1873. In 1887, the city became the capital of French Indochina. In 1940, the Japanese invaded and occupied Hanoi. It was liberated in 1945 when it became the seat of the Vietnam government after Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam's independence. In 1946, the French occupied the city. Fighting ensued between the French and the Vietnamese for nine years. In 1954, the French occupation ended. Hanoi became the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. During the 1960s, the Hanoi government altered its policy of opposing the Diem regime by politics to arms. The Viet Cong were founded to fight against Diem. Ho Chi Minh lived in Hanoi from December 1954 to September 1969. The transportation systems became disrupted during the bombing of bridges and railways in the Vietnam War. Their repair was given prompt attention. In 1975, Hanoi became the capital of reunified Vietnam. However, during the 1980s Hanoi dragged behind Saigon as the latter drew greater attention as Saigon became the financial center. In May 2008, the government decided to merge Ha Tay province, Vĩnh Phc's M Linh district, four communes of the Lương Sơn district and Hoa Binh in to Hanoi. This occurred on August 1, 2008 increasing the city to 334,470 hectares divided into 29 subdivisions. This tripled the city's size. The population became 6,232,940.

Currently Hanoi has become a charming historic city with old buildings gracefully mixed in with modern structures. Where we stayed in the Old Quarter, approximately 1000 buildings were constructed over 100 years ago. The streets still carry the names of the trades of the stores that they contain. The summer of 2010 marks the city's millennium anniversary. A large mural of Hanois history will wrap around the Temple of Literature. The climax will include concerts, history exhibits and art shows during 10 days ending on October 10. While the government understands the importance of retaining the feel of the historic city, it's planning modernization to improve traffic and deal with overpopulation. Archaeologists have found over one million artifacts from the original citadel. The city hopes to become a UNESCO world heritage site.

 

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

When we arrive in the square, Long informs us that my wheelchair is not allowed into the mausoleum. Four soldiers come with another wheelchair into which I transfer. They do not let Steve push me. As we approach the inside, everyone becomes silent. When we get to the stairs, the four guards carry me up and down two flights each way. We silently walk past the corpse which is lit up in a glass sarcophagus. Later Steve tells me and everyone else we happen to meet, that I looked like real royalty. Weve seen other mausoleums of Communist leaders, but never had a chance to go inside any because the lines were too long. We find this mausoleum quite impressive. Were actually lucky that Ho Chi Minh is in his mausoleum because often at this time of year his body is taken to Moscow for maintenance. No cameras are allowed inside the mausoleum, but when we come out we take our share of pictures of the square. Long tells us that approximately 7,000 people visit the mausoleum each day.

 

Next we go to the Presidential Palace but dont go in because Long advises us there are many more interesting things to see and well need the time to do so. The Palace is a European-style large yellow building, quite impressive to look at. Constructed in 1906, the building was previously Indochina's General Governor Palace.

 

From May 1958 to August 1969, Ho Chi Minh lived in a small house nearby, since no good Communists would live in a Palace. He believed that this house on stilts symbolized his way of living in simplicity, modesty, gentleness and dedication to the nation and its people. Steve goes into the house. When he returns he says that this house is decorated in the Oriental custom of much dark wood and, according to Western standards, fairly stark inside. We see a nice lake in front of the house.


One Pillar Pagoda, Hanoi One Pillar Pagoda

International Access SymbolThe One Pillar pagoda stands on another nearby lake. Built by Emperor Ly Thai Tong during the 11th century, the pagodas shape represents a lotus blossom, the symbol of purity, which rises out of a sea of sorrow. Since theres a steep staircase to get to it, Steve goes in and takes some pictures while I take pictures from the outside. Long is very helpful and pushes me whenever Steve wants to take pictures.

 

Next we ride through the streets of Hanoi. I find them quite interesting. Telephone and electric wires hang down from polls in a real mess. Long tells us that its easier to hang new ones than to figure out which ones no longer work and remove them. Most of the wires dont even work. We see banners with communist sayings, written in Vietnamese. Long says that the Ministry of the Interior hangs these banners which contain communism slogans such as young workers unite and government protects human rights". We see a sign with a picture of a horn. It instructs drivers to honk their horn, to warn vehicles in front that theyre approaching them. Since there are so many different types of vehicles, especially the slower ones need to know when someone is approaching. This makes the city very noisy. The quantity and the variety of goods that motorbike drivers pile onto their bikes amazes me. Just when I think that Ive seen the most astounding combination, another load surprises me.

 

Bahnar Community House Bahnar Community House

Next we visit the wonderful Ethnology Museum. It displays exhibits of the diverse ethnic groups which have been constructed by artisans from villages which they represent. Unfortunately we don't have time to see the entire museum, but we see a good amount. First we tour the outside portion. We see a Vietnamese boat, which looks like a very ornate canoe with oars protruding from its sides. It took several months to build due to its design. It holds 50 people.

 

We proceed to the area where homes from mountain tribes have been brought from their indigenous area. The first house comes from the Bahnar tribe of the Central Highlands. It is a 19 meter high community house with a very high roof shaped like an ax. The roof is about two thirds of the entire structure and the shape symbolizes skill and strength, especially of the tribes men. Although we cant see them, later I read that along the top, there are arrows. The house was built in 2003 by 42 villagers from the Kon Rbang village in Kontum town. This and the next tribe are matriarchal societies.

 


Ky Long House Ky Long House

The next house comes from the Ky village, Bun Ma Thut City in Dak Lak province. Its approximately 750 feet in length and called a longhouse. It belongs to one extended family, often housing three or four generations of daughters and granddaughters. Each new couple adds a section. The entrances to both this house and the preceding one are similar. Each has several International Access Symbolsteep ladders which lead up to the platforms on which the houses sit. The ladders into the Bahnar house are fairly narrow. For both communities, the ladders are of different widths. Females use the wider ladder while males use the narrow ladders. The ladders used by females also have wooden breasts on the top. Steve climbs the male ladder and goes into the house. As weve seen in other Oriental cultures, there is very little furniture inside. The floor is bamboo and he says its not easy to walk on. According to the museum brochure, during the 1980s, both longhouses and the Ky communal living organization vanished from the Central Highlands.

 

Ancestor Altar in Vietnamese House Ancestor Altar in Vietnamese House

We go to the area of the Thanh Hoa province inhabited by people of Vietnamese ethnicity. Long tells us that Vietnamese make up 85% of the countrys population making it the largest of 54 ethnic groups. This group practices ancestor worship. The home is one storey, and very wide. U-shaped, it surrounds the front yard and is typical of the traditional living style of the Vietnamese rural area. It has many rooms, each of which has its own purpose. The most important room is set up for ancestor worship. The carved wooden beams are almost 100 years old. Quite ornate, it has an altar with religious objects and items of value on top of it. Several banners hang from the ceiling. The adjacent room serves as an area used for teaching and learning. The family also gathers in this area to discuss matters of importance. Long tells us that this is located next to the ancestor worship room so that ancestors can hear important matters being discussed. We see a kitchen and another family room. Theres a room dedicated to sewing and another room for other crafts including painting and printing. We also see a carpentry room in which they make water puppets and several bedrooms.

 

Next we see a building of the Tay from the Dinh Hoa district in Thia Nguyen province. It is a simple square building with a roof that looks like thatched palm leaves. The final outside building is a Giarai tomb, Arap subgroup, Gia Lai province. It has many figures outside including a pregnant woman and sexually explicit male and female figures facing each other. The figures symbolize fertility and are intended to accompany the dead into the afterlife.

 

On our way to the building which houses the inside portion of the museum, we pass a wedding party preparing for pictures. Weve found this to be a very common site in the Orient. Brides and grooms like to have their pictures taken at nationally famous sites.

 

Fish Traps on Bicycle Used to Deliver Them Fish Traps on Bicycle
Used to Deliver Them

The first item we see inside the museum is the tree of life. Its a tall, thin statue of a palm tree with platforms and ornamentation every few feet. Opposite that we see an old bicycle, covered with fish traps. The man to whom this belonged spent his days delivering the traps. We wonder how he could see over them since they are piled so high. We see an exhibit of a Muong funeral with the figures dressed in traditional costumes. The Muong primarily live in the valley areas in Hoa Binh and Thanh Hoa provinces. Renowned for the richness of their folk literature and repertoire of ritual songs, their language shares many elements with Vietnamese and provides evidence of a common origin. However they developed a way of life and material culture which is similar to their Thai neighbors.

 

Madonna Madonna

Next we go to the Christianity exhibit. In comparison to other interior exhibits, its large. Ten percent of Vietnamese are Catholic. There is a replica of the painting the Last Supper. We see a statue of the Madonna. Her face is very oriental. I comment that its probably closer to what she really looked like than our white Caucasian images. The final item in this exhibit is Santa Claus. There is one large figure with a lot of little figures attached. The whole Santa Claus display is shaped like a Christmas tree.

 

Outside of the museum building, theres a class of girls dressed in Vietnamese traditional outfits of bright pastel colors. Theyre posing for their class picture. It makes for quite a picture especially because a good number of the girls are drama queens.

 

I really enjoyed the Ethnology Museum. I think it gave us a good insight into many of the cultures of Vietnam. We had a good amount of time to view the outside exhibits. However it would have been nice to have seen more of the inside.

 

Back in our minivan, Steve comments that the streets are wet. Long says they spray the streets in the hope that they will be cleaner. We ask him about his family. He says that his father was in the military during the Vietnam War. He contracted malaria and became disabled from it. He spends most of his time inside his home caring for his bonsai plants. His mother worked for the government in office supply. Long and his wife live with his parents and will take care of them when they can no longer care for themselves. Long chose the type of work he does. He enjoys it.

 

We go to lunch in a small out-of-the-way restaurant, a culinary institute named Hoa Sua Training Restaurant, which trains disadvantaged youth. We have a set menu and for our starter course we have chicken and mushroom soup, excellent fried crab, meat spring rolls with nuoc mam sauce and fried shrimp with coconut. We find the shrimp is okay but not as good as we had hoped. The main course consists of grilled chicken with lemon leaves, roasted pork with caramel sauce, steamed vegetables, and rice. We especially enjoy the chicken. For dessert we have caramel crme. We sit on the outside patio which is decorated for Christmas. Afterwards we have our picture taken in front of the Christmas tree.

 

Next we go to the Hoa Lo prison a.k.a. Hanoi Hilton. Steve is looking forward to this famous prison camp, however Im not and become quite uncomfortable early on. According to the brochure, at the end of the 19th century, it was built to contain the growth and development of the anti-colonial movement. The French government increased its police force, built up the court system and constructed an extensive network of prisons. As the largest in the north, this prison held thousands, many in chains and leg irons. It opened in 1896. After the French left, it became a state prison. From April 5, 1964 to March 31, 1973 it served as a POW camp for American pilots and earned the name Hanoi Hilton. After 1993, the south east third became a museum. The other two thirds were demolished and replaced with apartment and office buildings.

 

First we visit the guillotine room. The French brought guillotines to Vietnam. The exhibits deal with both the French occupation and the Vietnam War. We see many rooms and Long describes most of them. One room named the Room of Enemy Crimes contains a wall painting of the burning of a neighborhood and pictures of the devastation. We see the small cells in the sections where each of the sexes were imprisoned. When we enter the first room dedicated to the Vietnam War, we read the comments about how well American prisoners were treated. Theres a picture of prisoners eating a chicken dinner on Christmas. The description boasts of the wonderful meal the prisoners received including half of a chicken. Long tells us that this is utter propaganda. He says that during the war rations were so small that each North Vietnam citizen was allowed only 250 grams of meat per month. He says that there is no way prisoners received half a chicken in one meal. We are amazed that he will openly admit to the propaganda of his government.

 

In the courtyard outside, which was used for exercise, there is a memorial to patriotic combatants. The carvings of the figures in this memorial are of the style we recognize as traditionally communist, extremely boxy. I am so relieved when we leave the museum and go on to our next stop.

 

Phoenix Standing on Turtle with Pearl in Mouth Phoenix Standing on Turtle
with Pearl in Mouth

We ride to Van Mieu, the Temple of Literature, and the first university of Vietnam. Dedicated to Confucius in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong, it became the university for education of mandarins, considered to be knowers of all. Mandarins served as government officials. The outside gate appears large and impressive. It's inscribed with a request to dismount from ones horse before entering. Five courtyards are situated inside. The first contains a beautiful reflecting pool. I find all of the grounds beautiful. We pass through a bell tower gate which is much like those we saw in Imperial Chinese architecture. Long explains the four major symbols of the university, (1) the unicorn represents devotion and loyalty, (2) the phoenix represents wisdom, (3) the turtle stands for long life and (4) the dragon is for power.

 

We see the Confucius Temple. One of the rooms contains an altar to Confucius. Alongside the altar we observe a phoenix standing on a turtle with a pearl in its mouth, representing a long life of intelligence and great strength. Only the best of the best, males of course, were admitted to the university. In 1484, Emperor Le Thanh Tong mandated building a stele for each class going back to 1442 to honor those receiving doctorates. This numbers 82 stelaes. Each graduate has his name and record engraved on a stele. Each stelae sits on top of a turtle for all time. Im not so sure I would want my grades posted for eternity but Steve thinks its a wonderful idea.

 

We see a fish and a bottle which Long tells us is another symbol of knowledge. The bottle holds holy water and it's believed if you touch it, it will make you intelligent. Theres another area dedicated to Confucius, who will provide suggestions to his visitors. The receiver uses them to help decide what will be best for him in his life. This area has a more individualistic focus than similar areas that we saw in China. We visit the small souvenir area. We buy a few birthday cards, necklaces each with a different Confucius symbol for our nieces and a few bookmarks for gifts.

 

Cyclos & Varied Transportation Modes Cyclos & Varied Transportaion Modes

International Access Symbol

We return to our hotel but dont go inside. Instead we get into a cyclo, which is similar to a rickshaw. My driver tilts the cyclo forward and Steve helps me into it. This is much easier than I imagined it would be. Steve and I each ride in a separate cyclo. Its very interesting. We ride right alongside traffic through the old quarter. We see and pass many other cyclos. Later Long tells us that cyclos are not only for tourists. We go through the shopping district. As we ride, we see that each street specializes in a specific type of good. We ride down the shoe street, the metal goods street, at least one clothing street and streets which sell many other types of goods. One of the corner stores looks as if it contains nothing but Santa suits. Both of our drivers are very considerate and slow down or stop, as appropriate, each time we raise our cameras to take a picture. I am amazed at the number of people who are walking and carrying different types of goods which they appear to be delivering. One woman even carries a huge basket, balancing it on her head. We see an interesting electric billboard which is topped by an Oriental type roof, fusing new technology with traditional architecture.

 

International Access Symbol

We arrive at our next destination, a water puppet show at the Thang Long Puppet Theatre. Developed at least 1000 years ago, water puppetry started in North Vietnam. Rice farmers manipulated wooden puppets using their rice paddies as the stage. Traditional music plays in the background. We've been really looking forward to this especially since several people we know recommended it. We are two of the first people to arrive in the auditorium. I try to sit in one of the first rows but Long urges us to climb the stairs and go up higher. Although we take his advice, we soon learn that this is a big mistake. Very soon the rows in front of us fill up. Once the show starts, we can barely see. People in front of us all keep jumping up to take pictures. Even though Steve stands, he doesn't even get one decent picture. He gets the tops of peoples heads. The show is an utter disappointment and when we meet back with Long, I tell him so. I request that we stay to see the next show but he says we cannot do this. The little that we could see was impressive.

 

We have dinner at a French restaurant. Its delicious and includes soup; starters of shrimp, pickled salad, fried squid, crab spring rolls; main course of chicken rice, vegetable with shrimp, a curried vegetable which is not spicy; dessert of pineapple and watermelon, and tea. We purchase wine.

 

After dinner we return to our hotel. Except for the water puppet show, its been a very good but quite long day.

 

 

Day 5: Sunday, December 14

 

We drive to Ha Long Bay. We see people along the highway selling fruit and wares. We pass fields of corn and bananas, and rice paddies. Long tells us that about 60% of the population work in some stage of rice production. The army has approximately one million soldiers. Service is compulsory for men between the ages of 17 and 25 unless they have a job or go to school. Since Longs father served, his children dont have to. Long has two degrees from the National University in Foreign Language and Tourism. In 1997, he led a tour of National Geographic photographers. He learned a lot and became very interested in photography.

 

Working Rice Paddies Working Rice Paddies

We ride through one of the few towns on the way to Ha Long Bay. Long tells us that coal and oil are Vietnams main fuels. We pass a coal power station. It doesnt look particularly special, just an ordinary building. We stop to take pictures of rice paddies. The very manual irrigation process consists of two people holding a cone on a rope. Theres a stream on one side of them and a trench which leads to the paddies on the other. They dip the cone into the stream and pour it into the trench. Off to the side, I see another woman working in a paddy. Im not sure if shes harvesting rice or doing something else. To grow rice, its first planted outside the paddy. After approximately two weeks, it sprouts, and then its transplanted into a paddy. We see a man fishing with batteries. He shocks the fish to stun them. Then he catches them. The paddies are very green and I find this a picturesque view.

 

International Access SymbolWe stop at a craft place to shop. It has a steep ramp at the entrance which Steve helps me ascend. Ha Đơn is a training facility for disabled teens. They are working on the premises and we have the opportunity to watch. Its a vocational school where the students live on the grounds. If they want, they go home on Wednesdays after working for six days. The crafts are very impressive and we buy many to give as gifts. We purchase scarves for our sisters, embroidered wall hangings for Pete and Cathys and for friends new homes. We also purchase two compasses inlaid with hand carved wood for nephews. Im delighted that we have almost completed our souvenir shopping.

 

We see that even in the areas where there is a lot of land, buildings are tall, long and narrow to keep the frontage small and taxes low. Farmers living conditions have been improving so they are building better homes. Coal is used for cooking and some heating. As we get closer to the mines, the streets and sidewalks become black from the coal dust.

 

We pass the province teachers college. Children ages six through 17 attend school six days a week. Theres a three month summer vacation but no winter vacation. Elementary school is five years, followed by three years of middle school and four years of high school.

 

International Access SymbolI find the ride to Ha Long Bay interesting. We see many examples of country lifestyles characteristic to the northeast of Hanoi. Long does a great job of providing the details of these lifestyles. When we arrive at the bay, Long arranges for our boat. He selects one that is as easy to board as possible. Both Steve and Long help me go down the rough concrete stairway.

 

In 1994, Ha Long Bay became a UNESCO world heritage site featuring thousands of limestone karsts and small islands. The limestone evolved over 500 million years with the karsts forming for 20 million years impacted by the tropical wet climate. Historical research has shown prehistoric human beings inhabited this area tens of thousands of years ago. Earliest cultures include the Soi Nhu from 18,000 to 7,000 BC, the Ci Bo from 7,000 to 5,000 BC and the Hạ Long from 5,000 to 3,500 BC. Many artifacts found in Ha Long Bays largest grotto show that Ha Long Bay played an important part during the history of Vietnam. In 2008, Ha Long Bay ranked among Vietnam's most popular tourist destinations.

 

There is a local legend about the formation of Hanoi Bay. The Vietnamese fought Chinese invaders and their gods sent a family of dragons to help them. The dragon spit out jewels and jade. The jewels became the bay's islands and islets and formed a wall against the invaders. This allowed the people to keep their lands safe and later formed the country of Vietnam.

 

Lunch on Our Ha Long Bay Cruise Lunch on Our Ha Long Bay Cruise

As soon as were underway, the staff feeds us a delicious lunch. Its only the three of us on this boat which looks as if it could hold at least fifty people. We start with prawns and crab. The seafood we eat comes from the bay. Long shows us how to make the traditional sauce. One squeezes kumquat into fish sauce and mixes it with salt and peas. Next we have vegetables and rice. Long eats with us and we discuss many subjects such as the food price and quantity eaten by Vietnamese and Americans. Three Vietnamese eat a one pound lobster which they divide into many dishes. It would be used for soup, salad and the main course of a meal. The same lobster probably wouldn't fill most Americans.

 

We discuss medical insurance which the government no longer provides for most Vietnamese citizens. Long gets his from his employer but he does not like the clinics his insurance uses. Long's wife gets her insurance from her company. His insurance cannot cover her. Theres no social security or other government insurance unless one works for the government or military. We explain our political party system. Long thinks the Scandinavian systems are the best but he likes to make his own choices. We ask him about whether he likes his job to which he replies that it depends on the tourists to which hes assigned. He says that the Danish seem to be the best. Steve and Long discuss cameras. Long also uses a Canon. He tells us more about his National Geographic group assignment in 1997, which he enjoyed very much.

 

International Access SymbolThe boat is large and very comfortable. After lunch, Steve and I go up to the top deck using the large stairs outside. Steve pulls me up while Long and a crew member spot. Its nice and sunny on deck but there are only wooden lounge chairs. I find it very difficult to move to move around. I see much of this beautiful bay, but I just cant position myself to take good pictures. Steve makes up for this. He snaps away and gets many nice ones.

Fishing Village Fishing Village

Just when Im thinking that the crew has been so good and helpful, especially the female member, she brings up a tray of jewelry, mostly freshwater pearls, and makes a heavy sales pitch. I get aggravated that she wont take no for an answer! I show interest in a pair of pearl earrings and ask the price. She says $30 which I think is too much. I say no and she lowers the price about four times finally reaching $25. I accept thinking that at least shell leave me alone to enjoy our ride. She only tries to get me to buy other items. Im just about to ask Steve to get Long to ask her to stop, when she quits. She then returns with other items and starts pitching to Steve. After he says NO several times, she leaves. Actually asking Long to have her stop pitching probably would not have been fruitful. Later I tell him that the one negative part of the day was the incessant sales. He replies that the pearls are of excellent quality. The Japanese contracted with Ha Long Bay to seed the bay. They take only the best and leave the rest for the locals. The boats sell the next best. I agree that they are good quality. He says that especially on a cruise like ours with so few passengers, much of the profit comes from what they sell.

Limestone Karsts & Islands Limestone Karsts & Islands

We see some incredible formations of limestone. One is called the hen and chick because it looks like a larger mother hen facing her small chick. Another looks like a sailboat alongside a rowboat. I find the colors and texture of the karsts interesting. We were supposed to stop at some of the formations. We're disappointed that we didn't. Despite this we feel that the cruise has been amazing!

 

Vietnamese Fisher Woman Vietnamese Fisher Woman

After approximately an hour, I get tired of the sun. Since Ive had episodes of skin cancer, I have to be careful not to get too much. We return downstairs. Steve and Long again discuss photography. I admire the scenery. We pass boat villages of people who fish and farm the water. Approximately 1600 people live on Ha Long Bay in fishing villages. They work on their floating houses fishing and performing marine aquaculture. We see other boats like ours and small boats with Vietnamese people fishing or rowing. I get a beautiful quintessential picture of a lone woman in traditional dress rowing her boat.

 

International Access SymbolWe dock at a location which is easier to disembark than where we embarked. I only have to climb three sets of lower stairs. I sleep almost the entire ride back to the city. We return to our room and Steve naps. We go out for dinner to what is supposed to be a Vietnamese restaurant. It seems to be a very high end one. I order a bowl of soup and a glass of gewrztraminer. Steve orders a lobster dish but what comes appears to be more like crab.

 

During the night, Steve gets nauseous. He finally feels better. Then a leak in our ceiling starts.

 

 

Day 6: Monday, December 15

 

We get up at 8:30 am so we can get to breakfast by 9:30. Since we have the day to ourselves, this is early for us. Steve eats light while I have dim sum, salmon, and rice porridge into which I mix meat, shrimp and tofu. I remark to Steve that hes really changed my eating habits. On our first international trip in 1991, I only wanted an American breakfast and while Id eat what locals eat at any other meal, breakfast was non-negotiable. Now I really enjoy local breakfasts. Ive loved Dim Sum since I first tried it years ago and find the porridge a new, wonderful taste.

 

International Access SymbolAfter breakfast, we look for the hotel business center, so Steve can check his work email. We walk to the other wing of the hotel encountering several sets of a few stairs each. We decide to return to our wing by walking outside. This turns out to be a rather long half block but its quite interesting. A vendor approaches us selling hats and says remember me? Steve says yes but he doesnt want her products. Many vendors approach us. We continue to refuse their wares and keep walking. On the other side of the hotel, we have to walk in the street because many motor bikes are parked on the sidewalk.

Back in our wing, we find the business center. We report the leak to reception and return to our room. Soon maintenance comes, inspects the leak and fixes it. He says that its a small leak. Steve reads and I work on my log. We take a rest to catch up on our sleep.

Thap Rua Pagoda Thap Rua Pagoda

When we get up, we head out to Hoan Kiem Lake in the middle of our section of Hanoi. The park is beautiful. I especially like some very nice, colorful flower gardens. We see the Thap Rua pagoda in the middle of the lake, a rather simple pagoda. Hanoi often uses it as its emblem. The name means tortoise tower which I believe comes from the legend of the lake. In the mid-1400s, heaven gave the emperor a magical sword which he used to force the Chinese out of Vietnam. After the war, the emperor was boating on the lake when he saw a giant golden tortoise swimming. The tortoise grabbed the sword, dove deep into the lake and returned the sword to its godly owners. The name of the lake means lake of the restored sword.

 

People in the park are friendly although its difficult to know when to say hello. If a person is trying to sell something, a greeting invites the start of the sales pitch. An older woman with a bag comes up next to us as we are taking a photograph of the street. She greets us and we look the other way. When she doesnt try to sell what shes carrying, we exchange greetings.

 

International Access SymbolThis park is known for a temple on one of its islands. We see the bridge to the temple and decide to take it. I barely notice the military guard at the entrance of the bridge to the island. His green uniform blends in with the shadows and the plants. I very much like the artwork on the gate, especially the picture of a tiger. Unfortunately a graffiti artist has decided to draw a mustache on its face. When we get across the bridge, the ticket taker asks us for our tickets, which we didnt know we needed. Steve tells him this and we begin to go back to buy our ticket, but he lets us go in. We arrive at a stone bridge which appears hard to push the wheelchair over and difficult for me to walk. Steve leaves me facing the water and he goes to see whats on the other side of the bridge. Two groups of men play a game that looks like checkers. They take their game very seriously. Out of respect for their privacy, I covertly take one picture. Others come by and just shoot away, so I openly take more shots. They dont seem to even notice. I enjoy watching many people come and go.

 


Woman Praying Woman Praying

When Steve returns, he says that I can go through most of the temple on the other side of the bridge since there are only a few steps. Built in the 18th century, the Ngoc Son Temple provides a meditative spot for relaxation and prayer. The outside of the temple has an incense burning area. We see several people praying there. We look through a window to the inside of the temple. There is a very large turtle enclosed in a glass case. It looks colorful because it lit up with tinted lights. The turtle supposedly lived in this lake. The temple is interesting and quite different than others we have seen. We think its a Shinto temple since Shinto often focuses on nature. As we leave the temple area, we see the ticket booth and we buy our tickets.

 

 

Motorbike Rider Wears Business Suit Motorbike Rider Wears Business Suit

We start back to our hotel, checking for places to have dinner along the way. It's the beginning of rush hour and traffic is heavy. The many motorbike riders wear clothes ranging from suits to very casual. At this time, motorbikes comprise the most common mode of transportation. While Steve checks menus as we pass restaurants, I see an old woman selling bananas and pineapple. With sign language, she asks me to take her picture by making a circle with two fingers, holding them up to her eyes and pointing from me to her. It takes me a while to get what shes trying to say but when she points to my camera, I understand. I take her picture and she wants to see it. She appears to like it. Then she tries to sell me first bananas then pineapple. Steve returns from menu reading and by this time Ive grown to like my old woman so we buy two bananas for $1.25. She tries again to sell us pineapple slices and we attempt to explain that we cant eat it since it's already peeled. Finally we just say no and walk away. If we had thought it would be safe for us to eat, we probably would have bought it. Since we dont know how sanitary her preparation knife is, its not worth the risk.

 

Its now getting dark and quite trafficy. Were not sure where we are and begin to get a bit panicky. Unfortunately the map we have is not detailed enough to help us determine our location. We decide to head back toward the lake and get our bearings. As so often happens when we make a wrong turn, we find something better than expected. We pass the Viet Kitchen. Its menu looks authentic and we decide to try it. On the back of their flyer, theres a map and we learn were on the wrong side of the lake. We enjoy our dinner. Steve has rice pancakes with scallops and shrimp. I have shrimp, vegetable and shaved cashews in a somewhat spicy red sauce with rice. We share an appetizer of house spring roll. Steve has beer and I have wine. We enjoy dinner very much. The next day we confirm with Long that it was an authentic restaurant, proving that getting lost often provides some of the best experiences.

 

On our way back to the hotel, Steve stops at an ATM. While Steve goes in, a young man begins to talk to me. He says his name is Ming. Hes from the mountains, and is going to school in Hanoi to become a tour guide. He opens his knap sack and its filled with Lonely Planet guides and other books recommended by Lonely Planet. Here comes the sales pitch. When I say no, he tries to sell me postcards of his tribe. Since were not going to that area, I am not interested. Steve returns and he tries again to sell us something. Finally he says all he wants is to earn money to buy dinner. We wonder how much of what hes told me is true.

 

When we arrive back in our room, our hotel has left me a birthday card and roses. (Tomorrow is my birthday. Its also my first birthday on which weve ever vacationed!) We pack since tomorrow we move to our next destination. Then we visit the top floor lounge of our hotel for a drink. The bar is empty so while the lounge is nice, its disappointing.

 

 

Day 7: Tuesday, December 16

 

We get up early and go to breakfast at 6:30 am. However breakfast doesnt open until 7 am. We return to our room to finish packing, and then go back to the restaurant at 7 am. I have whats come to be my usual breakfast which I find delicious. We check out. Another car takes us to the airport because Mr. Tang is caught in a traffic jam. We get pulled over. Afterward Long tells us that the traffic police are very rich because its easier to pay them off than to go through the official fine process where the police take the drivers papers and issue a fine. The driver waits two days before he can report to the payment location, pays the fine, and then he goes to the office which issued the ticket, presents his receipt and gets back his papers. What bureaucracy! In addition, theres no way to fight a ticket. When our driver returns, he tells us that he was pulled over for crossing into a bicycle lane, to which he was not even close. Fines are very high for Vietnamese income.

 

International Access SymbolWe arrive at the airport and Long checks us in. A woman comes with an airport wheelchair and I transfer to it. She takes us through security to a waiting area and says shell be right back. Theres a man sitting opposite us, so I say hello and ask where hes from. He replies Holland. Hes a physician on special leave who came to Vietnam to learn acupuncture. We chat for a while. He liked his travel outside of Hanoi more than in the city.

 

People begin to line up and we get nervous that were being forgotten, since its happened before on other trips. We get on line. In awhile our escort comes for us. We go to the end of a ramp and change wheelchairs once again. Then airport staff load us on to a truck which is level to the ramp. We drive to the plane and they wheel me to the entrance. I proceed to walk to my seat while the crew offers to assist me many times. The flight is quick and comfortable.

 

When we arrive in Hue, the weather is cool with light rain. We meet our guide Van and driver. Unfortunately Van speaks with a very heavy accent. Despite the rain, we see motorbikes and bicycles on the roads since they are the most common type of transportation in Hue. Our hotel, the Saigon Morin Hotel, is beautiful but not very functional. The layout requires a lot of walking to get anywhere. We go to lunch outside the hotel, where I order a pancake and Steve gets a soup and fried rice. We enjoy both.

 

History of Hue

Although occupied much earlier, Hue became prominent when the feudal dynasty of the Nguyen made the city its capital. Over 300 years ago, the city was an important center of Buddhism. From the 17th to the 19th century, Hue dominated most of southern Vietnam. Originally known as Ph Xun, in 1775 Trinh Sm captured it. In 1802, the Nguyen leader won control over all of Vietnam and made Hue the national capital. It remained the capital until 1945 when the Emperor abdicated. In 1949, the French proclaimed the Emperor Head of State and made his capital Saigon because the Communists had taken over and established their capital in Hanoi.

During the Vietnam War, Hues location placed it in South Vietnam but very close to the border between North and South Vietnam. The battle of Hue occurred during the Tet Offensive of 1968. The city endured much physical damage from both sides. The Communists staged a massacre while the Americans bombed buildings in which they believe Communists were hiding. After the war, the Communists regime and other Vietnamese saw the historical sites as relics of feudalism so restoration did not occur for many years. In 1993, UNESCO declared Hue a world heritage site.

 

 

Phu Fishing Village Phu Fishing Village

We start our afternoon with a ride on the Perfume River in a dragon boat. Again only three International Access Symbolof us ride on a boat which probably holds about 20. To board, Steve lifts me down the stairs then across a plank to a large boat. A smaller boat pulls along side. Steve and a crew member lift me over the rail onto it. Once we launch, we see the Phu fishing village. Families live on small boats. Many families have at least five children. Van says they are very poor. They fish the river often dredging it with nets. Sometimes all of the children dont get to go to school because the families are too poor to pay tuition for each of them.

 

It rains for most of the ride so only the brightly and lightly colored buildings look impressive. Hue is one of Asia's most wet cities. Van tells us that most mornings are very wet but it often clears by the afternoon. She's rearranged our schedule so that we'll encounter the better weather for our walking tour.

 

Thiem Mu Pagoda Thiem Mu Pagoda

This boat has a table display of items for sale. Unlike at Ha Long Bay, we don't encounter a hard sales pitch. One of the crew asks if we'd like to buy something. When we say no thanks, she doesn't try to change our mind.

 

We arrive at our destination, the Thiem Mu Pagoda Temple, Hues International Access Symbollargest pagoda and the city's official symbol. Theres a large flight of uneven, high stairs up from where we dock. The view of the pagoda from the bottom of the stairs is very impressive. We're happy to see that the sun has begun to come out. Its not easy but I climb the stairs with a lot of help from Steve. Today is training for young monks so we see a good number on the grounds. The complex is beautiful and peaceful. It has much history. There was no cement in Hue, so the pagoda was built with limestone. We see a large bell. Van tells us that when rung on a clear day, it can be heard five kilometers away. We observe several plaques which contain poetry written by monks.

 

We meet Don and Patty from California. They recognize us from Hanoi. Don gives Steve his card with his email address and asks that if we get a picture of the historical car which we will soon see, would Steve email him a copy. On June 11, 1963, the monk Thich Quang Duc drove this car from this pagoda to the busy intersection of Phan Dinh Phung and Le Van Duyet in Saigon. According to the plaque next to the car, he got out of the car, sat down in lotus position, and set himself on fire to protest the Ngo Dinh Diem regime policies of discriminating against Buddhists and violating religious freedom. The car is housed on the pagoda grounds as a monument to him.

 

We observe several young monks tending a rather large bonsai tree. I wonder why all of them are working on the same tree when there are so many areas to take care of. The grounds are peaceful and picturesque.

 

Main Gate of Hue Citadel Main Gate of Hue Citadel

We drive to the Hue citadel. Modeled after China's Forbidden City, the royal family lived here. Its surrounded by three walls and quite large. Many building were destroyed by US bombing because the Viet Cong took refuge at this site. Built in 1804, a moat surrounds the outer wall. First we see the Emperors Ceremonial Hall which contains the Emperor's throne. The inner wall guarded the Emperor's private world. Most people were not allowed into the gates. They could only see the king

 

International Access Symbolwhen the gates were open. Steve climbs to the top of the inner wall and takes some good photographs, while I take pictures of the lower level and a few of him on top of the wall. Im enthralled with the dragons on roof tops and other ornate work. We find the architecture so impressive that both of us have a hard time stopping our picture taking so we can move on.

International Access Symbol

Next we go to a Buddhist temple with past, present and future Buddhas. I dont go in because theres stairs and those who enter must take off their shoes. Van says I can leave mine on. Steve says hell come back for me if the temple is different enough from others weve seen to make it worthwhile for me to come in. When he returns he says that it's nice but we've seen enough similar temples.

 

Temple of the Emperors: An Altar for Each Emperor Temple of the Emperors:
An Altar for Each Emperor

We walk through the Purple Forbidden City, which is the English name for Vietnams citadel. It has many stairs going up over a relatively narrow platform. As the saying goes, what goes up must come down so we climb down the next set of stairs (just like in China). We go to the Temple of the Emperors. Steve goes in and comes back for me. Theres a separate altar to each of 10 emperors. Two emperors do not have altars because they were deported. Its very impressive. Outside of the Mieu Temple a.k.a. Temple of Generations, Van points out 10 urns, one for each of the emperors for whom we saw altars earlier.

 

We see several museums. Then we walk through the court and other structures. There are a good number of beautiful Hindu type gates. We see the outsides of living quarters. The city goes back much farther than we do but Van tells us its not restored from the bombing destruction. She says Steve can go farther if he wants, but he decides not to wade through the wet grass. Van shares much history and background information, but I have an extremely hard time understanding her due to her accent. I find the complex very impressive.

International Access SymbolNext were suppose to go to Dong Ba Market but its getting dark and Van says the market would be difficult for me. Instead she offers to take us to another market in Hoi An which well visit in a few days.

 

We return to the hotel and well meet in two hours for a cyclo ride to our dinner. The hotel has left me a birthday card and flowers in our room. We take a rest. When we get up, I have a pump alarm for no delivery. Its scary and I only have enough time to do a quick line change. Even with that, we run late.

 

Hue - Our Cyclo Ride to Dinner Our Cyclo Ride To Dinner

We enjoy the cyclo ride although its hard to see much because by now its quite dark. Many of the streets we ride down dont have much light. Its also cold. We cross the Huong River. The bridge is nicely lit up. We go through the old section of the city. Van meets us at the restaurant, carrying a helmet. Like most everyone else in Vietnam, she travels by motorbike.

 

This is my birthday dinner and we enjoy the many different dishes selected for us. We eat at Y Thao Garden and have spring rolls placed on a dish so the arrangement looks like a peacock, vegetable soup, steamed shrimp, Hues specialty pancake, mixed salad fig, fried fish with tomato sauce, mixed steamed rice and desert of fruit and green bean cake formed as fruit. The restaurant is nice, but not what we expected. Our itinerary says wed be treated to a local family prepared dinner so, as we have had on other small group trips, we expected to have a meal with a family. When we ask about this, Van says its called a family dinner because the restaurant is a restored old family house. This is disappointing because we really enjoy meeting local people and learning about their lives. On the way out of the restaurant, Van shows us the family altar. As we look at it, we see several items which give us ideas for our Vietnam chachka.

 

We ride back to our hotel by cyclo. My sugar is still high and I think I underestimated the carbohydrate count of my meal. Tomorrow I will ask Van about the ingredients of pancakes.

 

 

Day 8: Wednesday, December 17

 

Breakfast is okay but not as good as what the Metropole served. They charge for water here. Overall, I am not very happy with this hotel.

 

First we visit the palace outside of the citadel, the Museum of Royal Relics. Most of it is being renovated by a German team since over the years it deteriorated from the weather and lack of care especially during the years of communist isolation. We go through the museum which I find interesting. Built in 1845 and restored as a museum in 1923, its wooden walls have approximately 1000 Vietnamese poems inscribed on them. We see displays from the Nguyen dynasty including clothing, sedans, gongs or bells and decorative art from many of the palaces of Hue. I like the green picturesque courtyard. Steve goes to the front of the palace but I stay behind because the International Access Symbolfront is hard to reach.

 

The weather today is rain off and on. Van reminds us that mornings are typically rainy and afternoons clear. Next we visit the tombs of two emperors. At Tu Ducs tomb, I stay on the down stairs level in the pavilion. I see the lake and one building adjacent to the lake which the Emperor built before his death. He came here to read and meditate. I can see why since its a beautiful, peaceful place.

 

I talk with Van and ask her about her life. She chose this work after studying history and working in the Tourism Department. She didnt like office work. Shes been an English speaking guide for more than 15 years and enjoys it. She has a boyfriend who shes been dating for approximately 10 years. She likes singing, music, karaoke and plays the piano. She didnt realize she had a good singing voice until a friend heard her and encouraged her to develop her talent. Vans parents live with her sister in Danang. Her mother is not in good health. She has four brothers and sisters. She sends money to her sister to help support her parents.

 

Tu Duc's Tomb: Looking Down from Upper Level Tu Duc's Tomb: Looking Down from Upper Level

Vans father worked in construction before and during the war. He did well and invested in buildings. When the North Vietnamese came, he lost everything. The north treated the south poorly. He got a job but it was not nearly as good as what he previously had. The family became poor. All of the children got through school and those who wanted to went to the University. Her mother never worked outside the home. Obviously, Van admires and loves her father. She says that others in similar situations did not do so well for their children. Van sees her parents when she can, approximately every few weeks.

 

Mandarins Guard Kaih Dinh's Tomb Mandarins Guard Kaih Dinh's Tomb

When Steve returns, he tells me that the tomb is up the stairs, around the bend and across the river. As we've seen elsewhere, a stele tablet documents the life and achievements of the Emperor. It's housed within a large ornate arch. He saw a tomb, but actually the Emperor isn't buried in it. Hes buried in a secret location to prevent his body from being desecrated by enemies. Steve also saw carvings of elephants, an important cultural symbol.

 

 

Next we go to Kaih Dinhs tomb which is quite a distance from Tu Ducs tomb. This Emperor wanted his tomb in the mountains. To reach the tomb, we drive through the countryside. For the first time we see the type of jungle vegetation that I remember seeing so much of during the newscasts of the war. We pass many homes which are not well kept. We see shops in front of a good number of homes. When we arrive at the tomb, I stay in the car because there are many stairs and its raining.

International Access Symbol

Emperor's Statue Sits on Top of His Tomb Emperor's Statue Sits on Top of His Tomb

Both Emperors started building their tombs before their deaths. Tu Duc outlived the building of his tomb and would visit it to relax, write poetry and do other solitary activities. The second Emperor died before his tomb was completed so his son finished it. This tomb has a lot of artwork. Steve says that for him it was well worth the climb to each of the three levels. On the middle level, statues of mandarins, who ran the bureaucracy, guard the tomb which is one level above. At the top level the tomb is housed in a beautiful, very ornate museum. There's a gold statue of the Emperor sitting on top of his tomb. His body is buried 18 meters below. His altar is a lavish display with blue and white inlaid tile and Phoenix statue, in front of both sides.

 

On our drive out of the tomb area, Steve asks about the construction we see just past the shops and homes. Van says the rich are building homes. I ask if the present residents will be displaced. Van says that they will be forced to move to another place. They wont have any choice in where theyre moved.

 

We have lunch at the Tropical Garden restaurant. It consists of a good number of dishes including legume soup, grilled pork ball wrapped in rice paper, fried crab meat, grilled beef, fried fish with garlic, grilled aubergine (a.k.a. oriental eggplant) with onion in oil, sauted cabbage with garlic rice and fruit. Its delicious! We try rice wine. Afterwards I ask Van if this is a typical meal. She says that the dishes are authentic but Vietnamese would only have two or three at one meal.

 

Before we begin our drive to Hoi An, we stop to see if Steve can replace his distance glasses. He and Van are in the shop for approximately 20 minutes. He returns with a nice pair of glasses that do what he needs. A staff member measured his eyes with a machine. The total cost was $17! His last pair was about $400. If only the airfare wasnt so high, wed become repeat customers.

 

We take Route One to Hoi An. Its a slow going road with a good number of shops. We ride through villages with shops in front of homes. In the countryside, the typical Vietnamese home is small, one storey and close to its neighbors. We see many rice paddies. Van tells us that children in grammar and middle school attend for five hours a day. We watch a water buffalo munch on roadside vegetation.

 

We stop to taste locally made rice wine and decide we like it. We buy a half liter for 20,000 dong, approximately $1.00. We continue riding through the countryside and villages. We reach the mountain pass. Instead of going over the pass, we take the tunnel. Because its so wet, there wont be a good view from the pass.

 

We ride through Danang and pass China Beach. American soldiers came to the beach for recreation during the war. We ride through Hoi An and Van tells us well come back tomorrow. We stay at the Hoi An Palm Garden Resort, a five star resort outside the city. We have a large room with a patio International Access Symboland a view of the beach. I find the hotel, room and view beautiful. Its quite a walk from the lobby to the room but its all ramped and Steve pushes me easily. I am very impressed with the hotel grounds. The one disadvantage is that the hotel is far from any restaurant where wed feel comfortable eating. There are a few places across the road, but were dubious about the food with my sensitive stomach.

 

We take a rest and go to dinner at the hotel. The food is good and the staff shows interest in us. We talk with one staff member for a while. There aren't many other tourists in the large restaurant.

 

 

Day 9: Thursday, December 18

 

History of Hoi An

 

In 200 BC, the Cham probably migrated to this area from Java. By the first century AD, they established the Champa Empire which extended from Hue to just north of Saigon. Hoi An, then known as Lm p Ph, served as the empires commercial capital. The city had the largest harbor in Southeast Asia and the river system of the Thu Bon River transported goods between Vietnam Highlands, Laos, Thailand and Asian low lands. From the 7th to the 10th century, the Champa controlled the spice and silk trade. Today's boats continue to have a resemblance of the same hull shape used on the ocean by the Champa.

 

In approximately 1595, the Nguyen Lord established Hoi An as a trading port of the Nguyen empire. Once again Hoi An became the most prominent trading port on the South China Sea. During the 16th and 17th century Chinese, Japanese, Dutch and Indians came to Hoi An to settle. At this time the town was known as Hai Pho a.k.a. Seaside Town. At first it was divided between the Japanese and Chinese by the Japanese bridge called Cha Cầu, the only known Japanese covered bridge with a Buddhist pagoda on one side. During the 18th century, Chinese and Japanese merchants regarded Hoi An as the best destination for trade in Southeast Asia. The Japanese believed the heart of Asia, the Dragon, rested below the earth of the town. The city also became a strong and exclusive trade route between Europe, China, India and Japan particularly in the ceramic industry which exported to as far as Egypt and Sinai.

 

By the end of the 1700s, Hoi Ans prominence declined with the fall of the Nguyen empire. When Emperor Gia Long became victorious, he thanked the French for their aid by giving them exclusive trade rights to the nearby port of Da Nang, which became the new trade center of Vietnam. For the next 200 years, Hoi An changed little.

 

UNESCO declared Hoi An a world heritage site as a well preserved example of a Southeast Asia trading port from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Many buildings display a unique blend of local and foreign influences. Currently its population is approximately 120,000. It's a popular tourist destination for travelers from backpackers to cruisers, and especially shoppers.

 

 

On the way into town, we encounter a traffic jam. As usual during our travels in developing countries, this is a traffic jam with cattle not cars. These cattle are very thin and each has a rectangular block of wood hanging from its neck. We wonder what this is for. Neither our driver nor Van has any idea.

 


Unwinding Cocoons To Make Silk Thread Unwinding Cocoons To Make Silk Thread

We ride to the handicraft center Thắng Lợi. As we enter, we pass by many beautiful silk lanterns! Id like to buy at least one but think they would be difficult to pack. First we see a detailed demonstration of the production of silk starting from silkworms and ending at the weaving of cloth. The worms are fed mulberry leaves. They spin their cocoon and become larvae. When cocoons mature, they are put into boiling water. A machine unwinds the cocoons to make silk thread, and then it twists several threads together. Next the threads are died. We see women working weaving looms to make the cloth. Then we go into the embroidery room and learn about the training program.

 

We purchase three sets of table clothes and napkins, one each for our mothers and us. We go into the clothing room and I am in awe of what I see. I buy a blazer which will be tailor made for me. I make every decision about style and materials. They measure me. My jacket will be made this afternoon and tonight and delivered to our hotel lobby by 8 am tomorrow morning! This will cost $75 - I am astounded.

 

Friendship Bridge Friendship Bridge

We go into town on a walking tour. The Chinese settled in Hoi An when they sailed to Vietnam. They left China because they didnt like the Ming dynasty. The Japanese built the friendship bridge because they believed a flood was caused by a monster that lived in the river. They located it over where they believed the monster lived with the purpose of killing him. The Japanese live on the other side of the bridge, which is very quiet. Steve goes over to see the other side. There are two altars inside, one to a dog and the other to what looks like a type of a monkey. At this time of day, the lighting is better on the other side so Steve International Access Symbolgets some nice shots of the entrance on that side. I stay on the Chinese side because the entrance steps are steep and in disrepair and the inside is dark which means it would be difficult for the wheelchair and possibly not safe for me to walk. Also, we have much to see today, so we cant spend too much time here.

 

We visit three Chinese temples and I go into the two of them. I skip the one which Steve says is much like others we've seen. I think the front of the third temple is quite interesting so while Steve's investigating inside, I take a picture of it. Quang Dong Temple, the second temple, is very ornate and beautiful. Built in 1653, dedicated to Guangdong we see his partially gilded statue on the central altar in the back of the Temple sanctuary. The carp shaped rain spouts on the roof of the court yard is interesting. Van tells us that they repaint some of the decor every year for Chinese New Year. They rotate through all the decorations so that everything gets repainted within a certain number of years.

 

Phuoc Kien Temple Phuoc Kien Temple

<We arrive at the Phuoc Kien Temple, circa 1690. Dedicated to Thien Hau Thanh Mau, goddess of the sea, she's regarded as the protector of sailors and fishermen. This temple is designed like a Chinese pagoda and was restored and enlarged in 1900. This temple is also ornate, especially the murals and the figurines of the goddess in three sizes, large, medium and small. I like the decorative roof ornamentation and artwork in and around the entrances. Originally built as the assembly hall of the Fujian Chinese congregation and used for community meetings, it was later converted into this temple.

 

As we walk down the streets, we look in shops for a chachka and I look for earrings. I buy a pair of pearl earrings which I like more than the more expensive ones from Ha Long Bay. We decide that whats available for chachkas are more Chinese than Vietnamese so we dont purchase a chachka.

 

Lanterns for Each UNESCO Country Hang Over Streets Lanterns for Each UNESCO Country Hang
Over Streets

As we walk around the town, many of the streets have lanterns hanging across them. I ask Van about these and she explains that there's one for each of the UNESCO member countries. We look closer at them and see that each displays its country's name and flag. We pass by a statue of a Portuguese man which seems quite out of place. Van explains that he helped Hoi An achieve its UNESCO status. Steve stops to take a picture of the statue. We notice that while theres still a lot of wire hanging from the polls, there's not as many as in the larger cities. One building has vegetation growing on its lower roof. When I ask Van about that she doesn't have any explanation. I enjoy going down the streets of Hoi An where the river is never far away. I find it quite atmospheric.

Next we go to the Museum of Trading Ceramics which contains a collection of blue and white stoneware made in the Dai Viet period which began in 1054. I find many of the pieces quite beautiful and jokingly asked Steve if he wants to buy me something.

 

 

Shoppers & Vendors Come to Market By Boat Shoppers & Vendors Come to Market By
Boat

We go to the market next. Its mostly food. The fruit and vegetable section contains beautiful produce. Many shoppers and vendors arrive International Access Symbolby boat. I dont go all the way to the river, because its wet and appears slippery. This area contains seafood. On the way out of the market, Van sees a soup vendor whom she knows. She stops to buy soup and treats us to some. Since were on our way to lunch, we decide to save it for later. I take a picture of the vendor, a mother holding her baby, as she dishes out soup.

 

The restaurant at which we have lunch backs up to a street on which boats dock. We have a nice view, but any time we show obvious interest in looking out of the doorway, several vendors try to sell us something. We manage to take a few pictures without them. I find our lunch very enjoyable. Its mostly seafood. We have an eggplant dish which we really like. Like many of the restaurants weve been to, this one also has a Christmas tree but it's quite unique. Made of branches which look like birch stuck into a pot of dirt, it has lights, snowflakes and some evergreen decorations hanging from it.

 

Section of Mother of Pearl Carvings Section of Mother
of Pearl Carvings
Carving Up Close Carvings Up Close

Next we go to the Tan Ky House, the oldest home in Hoi An. The family, of a wealthy Vietnamese merchant of Chinese ancestry, has lived here for seven generations. The home goes from the street to the river. The back of the house serves as the business warehouse. The beautiful table and chair set have inlaid mother of pearl. Theres a large portrait of the family matriarch. Along the posts which support the ceilings, we see intricate mother of pearl carvings. From several feet away they look like Chinese characters but up close, one sees that they are actually birds. I wonder if this is the type of Chinese writing described in a book I read, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I see both Chinese and Japanese influences in the decor of this house. As I look around, I notice the family cat, a calico who looks like our cat Tribble, sleeping at the foot of the family altar. As I have on each of our trips, I take her picture and realize how much I miss my cats.

 

As we walk back towards the van, I take some pictures of the river from the main bridge. The homes on the other side of the river are larger and quite attractive. We return to the van and ride back to our hotel. I really enjoyed the day but Steve said that hed rather have spent more time with Vietnamese culture. We sit on our porch for a while. Steve reads and I enjoy our view. Even though its cool, I see someone in the water.

 

Our resort hands out newsletters at the end of each day announcing events for the next day. Each newsletter starts with an article about some facet of Vietnamese culture. The one we receive this evening contains information about Vietnamese weddings. Since we see quite a few during this trip, I will include some of the highlights. Today's wedding ceremonies are much less complicated than those of ancient times. The ceremonies depend on which ethnic group(s) the couple belongs. The Le An Hoi people have a betrothal ceremony. Prior to the wedding, the groom and his family visit the bride and her family bringing round lacquered boxes as betrothal gifts. These boxes contain gifts of areca nuts, betel leaves, tea, cake, fruits, wines and other delicacies. Unmarried girls or boys carry these boxes which are covered by red cloth. During the gathering both families agree to pick a good day for the wedding. In the Le Cuoi ethnic tradition wedding ceremony, guests are invited to come join the party and celebrate the couple's happiness. The couple prays before the altar requesting their ancestors permission for their marriage. Next the couple expresses their gratitude to both sets of parents for raising and protecting them. Afterwards the guests share their joy at a party.

 

Once again we have dinner at the hotel. I eat light because my stomach seems to be bothering me a bit. After dinner, I order cognac. As usual, it clears up my stomach. I also eat a banana that we had in our room. That could have helped too. Steve tries and like Malibu liqueur which is coconut flavored.

 

 

Day 10: Friday, December 19

 

Before 8 am, we go to the lobby to pick up my blazer. The delivery man is late and he apologizes. The sleeves are longer than I had wanted but otherwise its awesome! We enjoy our final breakfast at this hotel.

 

Artisan Carving Marble City HomesArtisan Carving Marble

Today our first stop is Marble Mountain. As we drive up the mountain, we see several marble projections which we learn were once islands. Van points out caves which she says contain Hindu and Buddha temples. I like the simple pagoda which sits partway up the mountain. Although Marble Mountain is no longer mined, the community imports marble so that its craft continues. The mountain is protected by law making mining illegal. The craft is handed down from one generation to the next. We watch artisans doing their craft, one carving and two polishing. One polisher works with water. The other uses sandpaper. Their finish works are beautiful! We purchase a Buddha chachka and I buy a pair of earrings.

 

We return to Danang, a major port in south-central Vietnam at the mouth of the Han River. Currently a commercial and educational center of Vietnam, it has the highest urbanization ratio in the country. It's the third-largest city in Vietnam, preceded by Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Unfortunately we won't have time to see much of it.

 

China Beach China Beach

On our way into Danang, we pass China Beach, a renowned rest and relaxation place for US troops during the Vietnam War, especially those stationed at the major air base in Danang. This morning the weather is sunnier here than yesterday and we see more people on the beach.

 

We visit the Cham museum. Van tells us the history. As groups of people moved down the coastal plain towards the Mekong Delta, they divided into the Cham and Khmer ethnic groups. The Cham Kings ruled most of southern Vietnam until the 10th century. The expansion of the Vietnamese people brought about the decline and eventual fall of the Cham by the mid-15th century. Today less than 100,000 Cham people remain. Most live on the coast or at the Cambodian border. A small group lives in Ho Chi Minh City. Many living on the coast still worship Hindu Shiva and follow the matriarchal practices of their ancestors. They earn their living by farming, silk weaving and making gold and silver jewelry. Those on the Cambodian border practice Islam and are patriarchal. They do river fishing, weaving, border trading and a small amount of agriculture. Most Cham have adopted the Vietnamese way of life and dress. The Cham traditional arts, especially dance and music, have undergone a revival in recent years.

 


Champa Museum: Goddess Vishnu Champa Museum: Goddess Vishnu

The museum contains rooms of Cham carvings most of which are Hindu gods. I'm not very familiar with Hinduism and realize I have a lot to learn before we go Angkor. Vishnu, the female representation of the Hindu god, is prominent. The society was matriarchal so there are many breasts on the statues. I especially like a statue I called Carefree Dragon. It has a dragon like head with its legs and rear end kicked up in back. We see a map which shows Cham International Access Symbolsettlements and pictures of temples and people. Steve goes upstairs to see the display on the people. He says they look a little different than Vietnamese people but its difficult to describe in what way.

 

International Access SymbolWe go to the airport and check in. Security goes smoothly. They take us to an area which is supposed to be a VIP lounge, but isnt. At boarding time, staff takes us to a lift and we ride up to the plane.

 

Our flight to Ho Chi Minh City, still more commonly called Saigon, takes one hour. Although theres a jet way, we disembark via a lift. We meet our guide Cao and driver. It takes forty minutes to drive the seven kilometers to the hotel. The roads are very trafficy, mostly with motorbikes. We even see a motorbike driven by Santa. A woman sits behind Santa. Vietnam is 10% Catholic and December is a big tourist month. I enjoy the Christmas decorations which are everywhere. I find one decoration quite unique, a palm tree wrapped several feet up in shiny green paper crisscrossed with a wide red ribbon and tied into bow at the top.

 

Notre Dame Basilica From Our Room Notre Dame Basilica From Our Room

Our hotel, the Caravelle Saigon Hotel, is large and beautiful. The lobby contains a large sleigh of gold and red with four Christmas trees in back of it. We have a corner room, across the street from the opera house! Of course Steve takes a picture with me sitting in the desk at the corner.

 

We go to dinner at The Blue Ginger Restaurant. The food is okay. Perhaps we would've enjoyed it more except for a large group of loud men at the table next to us. On our way back to the room, we are impressed with all of the Christmas lights. Cao tells us that it's become a family event to come into the city to enjoy the Christmas decorations. From our room, we can see the Notre Dame Basilica, built by the French from 1863 to 1880, all lit up. I am enchanted by all the red and green lights at street level, which were way above.

 

 

 

 

Saigon Christmas Lights From Our Room Saigon Christmas Lights From Our Room

 

 

History of Saigon

 

The city began as a small fishing village named Prey Nokor. Originally swampland, the Khmer people inhabited it for centuries before the Vietnamese arrived. Khmer folklore says that South Vietnam was given to the Vietnamese as a dowry for the marriage of a Vietnamese Princess to a Khmer prince for the purpose of stopping frequent invasions and pillaging of Khmer villages.

Early in the 17th century, colonization of this area by Vietnamese isolated the Khmer in the Mekong Delta from those in Cambodia, making them a minority. In 1623, King Chey Chettha II let Vietnamese refugees fleeing from the Civil War settle in the area of Prey Nokor and set up a customs house. More Vietnamese settlers came. The Cambodian kingdom could not stop them because it was weakened from its war with Thailand. Prey Nokor, the most important commercial seaport to the Khmer, became Saigon. The loss of the city prevented Cambodians access to the South China Sea, making their only access through the Gulf of Thailand.

 

In 1698, the Nguyen of Hue sent a Vietnamese nobleman, Nguyen Hữu Knh, to establish a Vietnamese administration and to detach the area from Cambodia. He's credited with building a large Vauban citadel called Gia Dinh and expanding Saigon into a significant city.

 

In 1859, the French conquered Saigon and built classical western style buildings. The city became known as "Pearl of the Far East" and "Paris in the Orient". In 1949, Emperor Bao Dai declared Saigon the capital of the state of Vietnam. In 1954, when the Communists gained control of North Vietnam, Saigon became known as the government of South Vietnam. In 1955, with the deposing of Bao Dai, the South was renamed the Republic of Vietnam. Saigon and the adjacent city of Cholon combined into one administrative unit called Do Thanh Sai Gon or Capital City Saigon.

 

At the end of the Vietnam War, April 30, 1975, the city was taken over by the Vietnamese People's Army. Those who had been on the side of the South call it the "Fall of Saigon" while the Communists call it the "Liberalization of Saigon". In 1976, at the establishment of the unified communist Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the government combined Saigon including Colon, the province of Gia Dinh and two other provinces into the city called Ho Chi Minh City. The name Saigon is still more commonly used today. During the late 1980s, Saigon benefited from government reforms and became Vietnams financial capital. It's the most populous metropolitan area of Vietnam and of the countries of former French Indochina. By 2020, it's projected to have an area of 30,000 square kilometers and a population of 20 million.

 

 

 

Day 11: Saturday, December 20

 

Today we go to see the Cu Chi Tunnels, a.k.a. the Iron Triangle, about 19 miles northwest of Saigon. Cao gives us background on the drive there. Until 1990, most buildings in Saigon were two storeys. Five storeys made a building big. After 1990, many more buildings with more than two storeys were constructed. The city has many bus routes but most people prefer motorbikes. Saigon has bad pollution especially because of old motorbikes. People keep them for up to 30 years. Buses often run late during commuter time. Cao gave up his motorbike a year ago. He feels better now but has to get up earlier. He makes $300 a month. He has two sons at the University and pays between $100 and $150 each month for each ones education. Saigons population is eight million. We see a funeral truck which Cao says is ornate like their graves. When communist Asia reopened, the west invested quickest in Vietnam because of its former connections.

 

Caos father was killed in the war in 1968 when Cao was eight year old. He went to the University to become a teacher. Hes originally from a rice farm in the north. He taught in a village and liked teaching but the pay was low. He decided to come to Saigon.

 

Vietnamese choose their wedding dates based on the couples horoscopes. Traditional weddings are held in the home with the two families. On the weekend, friends are invited to celebrate. When the home is small only the immediate families can attend.

 

During the war, Vietnamese volunteered with the north because they had strong feeling against invasion by foreigners. North Vietnam had three communist forces. The regular army was well trained and armed. Organized provincial forces fought within their province. Guerilla forces operated in villages. These forces armed themselves by killing their enemy and capturing their weapons and arms. Much fighting occurred at night. Mostly local farmers became Cu Chi guerillas. Communist headquarters sent few regular army soldiers. The guerillas had much success holding the land. The south offered higher pay but since it was controlled by foreigners and minority Catholics, it was not popular with the farmers.

 

From Saigon center, we drive through the expanded new city divisions, then rice paddies and into the highlands. It takes approximately one hour and 50 minutes to reach the tunnel area. Today we see a very green, forested countryside. During and after the war, it was devastated and not much green was left. In the lowlands, Vietnamese grow rice and in the highlands they grow rubber trees. The French purchased rubber trees, the largest export of the highlands.

 

This area was the base from which the Vietnamese mounted their operations for the Tet offensive in 1968. At its height, the tunnels stretched from the outskirts of Saigon to the Cambodian border, making approximately 155 miles of tunnel. Starting in 1940, it took about 25 years to build. During the times of fighting in the area, the tunnel system became an underground city. In some places it consisted of three levels. It housed up to 100,000 people. At night the inhabitants came out to tend their crops. The tunnels were also used to smuggle Viet Cong and weapons into the South.

 

We enter the complex via a large tunnel built for tourists. I think that this large tunnel entrance must have been built to provide atmosphere. We pass a pavilion but Cao says it's too crowded, so well stop on the way out to see the presentation.

 

Cu Chi Tunnel Entrance Cu Chi Tunnel Entrance

We see an example of a hole in which a soldier trying to get back to the tunnel would hide when he needed to disappear from pursuers. A guide demonstrates how it would be used. Theres a top covered with branches for camouflage. We see several examples of tunnel entrances. They are quite small and well camouflaged.

 

Hunting Trap Used to Capture Soldiers Hunting Trap Used to Capture Soldiers

I find the display of several traps gruesome. Used for hunting before the war, the Cu Chi converted these traps to ensnare enemy soldiers during the war. When a soldier fell into a trap, he would become entangled. His unit would attempt to rescue him but become a target for the Viet Cong guerillas. There are a number of different types of traps, each of which was covered with foliage.

 

We go to a US tank destroyed by a rocket launcher. At first, from the front, it doesn't look damaged. When we go around the back we see that much of it was blown off and the inside destroyed.

 

Munitions Factory Bunker Munitions Factory Bunker

Cao shows us a trench. Trenches were dug and then camouflaged. They served to lead the Viet Cong soldiers to the tunnel entrances. Running through the jungle, a soldier followed it until he found a tunnel entrance. Many bunkers were built as rooms on level one, off of the tunnel to take care of all the needs of the soldiers and people who lived in the tunnels. They were built so that no light could get in from above. We see examples of a munitions factory. Here the soldiers used unexploded US bombs to build their weapons. Approximately 1/4 of our bombs didn't explode. Cao tells us that there were also bunkers for cooking, storage, eating, sleeping, family homes, field hospitals and command centers. He shows us an air hole made through natural formations such as hills of dirt and leaves. However the one that's displayed is much larger and less camouflaged than those actually used.

 

Next we go to the rifle range. Steve purchases 10 bullets for an AK-47, for $20. He goes down International Access Symbolseveral stairs into the range and fires an AK-47. Unfortunately he forgot to bring his glasses, but when he returns he says he thinks he did fairly well and got close to the targets which consisted of red polls.

 

Next we see a demonstration on the production of rice paper, a Vietnamese food we've enjoyed for years, used for spring rolls and other types of foods. Cao tells us this technique is still used today. We see a mill used to grind the rice into flour. The cook takes the rice flour and mixes it with water. She ladles it into a flat pan. Next she picks up what looks like a rolling pin covered with cloth. It has a larger circumference but no handles. She rolls this tool over the rice paper which adheres to the tool and lifts it out of the pan. Then she unrolls it onto a bamboo mat and places the mat in the sun for the rice paper to harden. Nothing goes to waste. What's left in the mill is mixed with water and used to make rice wine. Anything else left over from this whole process gets fed to the family pigs. I find the whole process interesting and wonder if the rolling pin might be something we can use when we make our crpes.

 

A little further on we reach a display of how the tunnels were built. The ground is made up of hard clay which made construction of the tunnels possible. The entrances were dug with hooks on long poles. The dirt was placed in a basket, then in a container such as a hollow bomb and carried elsewhere. The container was then taken to a final location far from the tunnel entrance, such as bomb craters and the Saigon River. The builders installed large vents so they could hear helicopters approaching, smaller vents for air and layered vents to dissipate cooking smoke. Cao explains that smoke from cooking went through many vents and filters before it was released outside the tunnel. This served the purpose of preventing tunnel detection.

 

We see a display and demonstration of Viet Cong footwear, sandals made from old tires. Cao tells us that for the jungle these made very effective footwear, especially against bamboo spears used in the traps. They protected feet much better than American army boots and they lasted considerably longer. The complex has a display of eight sandals hanging from a pole, ranging from baby size to that worn by a person with a very large foot. Straps cross the toes and wrap around the ankle.

 

Steve in the Tunnels Steve in the Tunnels

We see craters formed by bombs but the bombs did not get deep enough to destroy the tunnels. International Access SymbolSteve goes down into a tunnel with a tunnel guide. Cao takes me to the place where he thinks that they will exit. When Steve comes back he tells me that first he went down a set of "easy" stairs with four or five people ahead of him. When they got to the first level the other people came back up. In total Steve went through approximately 120 meters of tunnel. He had to crouch very low to get through approximately 40 to 50 meters of tunnel. He said that at first this was no problem but then he got tired because he had to stoop down low and his legs got sore from crouching. The guide asked him if he wanted to go down to the second or third level. He said that he would. When level one stopped, there was a 3 foot drop. He sat on a ledge and jumped down. At the next level the tunnel got narrower and lower. Now he was even more crouched and he told me it was quite difficult to move. His shoulders brushed both side walls. It was dark and at times even black. The guide had one flashlight which he shined in front of Steve but when the guide shined it forward to find his way, Steve saw nothing. During his time in the tunnel, Steve saw a very sparse hospital room with wooden stretchers placed on top of polls and draped with sheets or blankets. The room also has one cabinet.

 

Meanwhile, on top of the tunnels, Cao pushes me to the next tunnel exit. We stay there awhile and when Steve doesn't come out we move onto the next one. After doing this two or three times, we see Steve, my "tunnel rat", walking towards us with his guide. I want to get a picture of them together but the path was so bumpy that it comes out with much motion blur. Cao tells us that the US had to bring in Philippines men to invade the tunnels because the tunnels were too narrow for American soldiers.

 

At one point during the war, the US tried to flood the tunnels. The tunnels had been designed to go to the Saigon River so the flooding attempt failed because the water ran down the tunnels in the mountains to the river.

 

On our way out, we return to the pavilion and watch a video presentation which we conclude was most likely made in 1967. It talks about the great Cu Chi heroes who used their skills to make Viet Cong battles victorious. We see so much anti-American propaganda in the film. At the front of the spectator area we look at a diagram of the tunnel system which shows all three levels. It's done very well and we find it quite instructional, much more than the film. Level I is located three to four meters below ground level, level II is five to six meter below that and level III is seven to eight meters below. Cao says that tunnel guides dont take tourists to level III.

 

Diagram of Three Level Tunnel System Diagram of Three Level Tunnel System

 

Cao gives us more background on the tunnels. The Vietnamese community moved into the tunnels only when the area was under siege. They lived there until the enemy retreated. Tunnel systems were actually designed and used by the French in Europe in World War II. The Vietnamese learned of them from the French which seems quite ironic to us. This was an incredible experience for us both.

 

Saigon: Santa on Motorbike Santa on Motorbike

We ride back to Saigon, passing many motorbikes. We find it amusing that one is driven by a man dressed up as Santa. We enjoy a wonderful lunch at the restaurant Nh hang ng uơng consisting of gi ng sen tm thịt (lotus rootstock salad with shrimp and pork), nghu hấp rợu vang (steamed clams with wine), b nớng sổt mật ong (grilled beef with forest honey sauce), rau muổng xo ti (stir fried water morning glory with garlic), cơm rang l sen (vegetables, pork and seafood fried with rice and lotus leaves) and bnh flan (cream caramel).

 

After lunch we go to the post office to investigate sending a box of items home. We go to the DHL window but they would charge $193 to send our box to our home. We ask Cao about using the post office but decide against it because they don't have any way to track our package.

 

We return to our room. We decide not to go out for dinner because both of our bowels are acting up. I work on my log and realize that while Steve was excited about going to the tunnels and I was interested in doing so, I couldn't imagine that I'd be able to see much. I found some of the path to be International Access Symbolquite rough. As Cao pushed me over the paths, he called them "Ho Chi Minh Trail". I'm pleased to report that the site was doable for someone in a wheelchair. It seems to me that although it was rough, it was harder for the person pushing the chair. Thank you Steve and Cao!

 

 

Day 12: Sunday, December 21

 

Today we tour the city of Saigon. We drive to the Chinese district of Cholon. On our way there, Cao provides historical background. About 350 years ago when the Ming dynasty ended and the Qing dynasty began, Chinese people came to Saigon. They set up a community outside of the city boundaries, in the rice fields. The Chinese were great traders. As the city expanded and encompassed the Chinese community, the entire area became a marketplace.

 

Inside Binh Tay Market Inside Binh Tay Market

Steve and Cao go to the Binh Tay market, a wholesale market where the community still keeps its heritage. Most Chinese still speak the Chinese language at home. The market is used for trade with the Mekong Delta. People from the Mekong Delta bring rice to the market and buy supplies for many rural communities. Store owners from all over the city come here to shop for their supplies. Inside its arranged in International Access Symbolsections by product. The stores are tightly packed with goods overflowing into the aisles, which is the reason I dont go with the men. It would be too tight to maneuver the wheelchair. Shoppers find a great variety of food, much of which is in sacks or on tables. A provider of pots and pans has an incredible variety of every type of cooking utensil and accessory crammed into a small space. Each item touches the one next to it. Steve sees a stand with the fake money that devout worshipers burn in temples so their ancestors can buy what they need in the next life. There is a section of shoes which includes every type and color of flip-flop imaginable. Another sells hats of incredible variety of styles and colors. Steve takes a picture of an escalator which broke a few years ago. It couldn't be repaired so the market carpeted it. While Steve and Cao visit the market, I sit in the minivan and observe people on the streets. It's a busy area.

 

Next we go to the Chinese Thien Hau Temple built to honor the goddess who kept the Chinese safe on their sea journey to Vietnam. It's not as bright as those in Hoi An but appears more functional. It has separate areas for meetings and worship. Upstairs they hold classes. Children come here half a day each week to learn their heritage. Formally the upstairs was used to provide housing for new immigrants until they were able to obtain and pay for their own housing. Since immigration has stopped, it's been converted to classrooms.

 

Thien Hau Temple Thien Hau Temple

We observe many people lighting incense and praying. We see a main altar and another with five incense pots which represent the five basic elements of water, fire, air, earth and ether. A woman is preparing an offering of food which will be set before the altar. We see a glass enclosed cabinet which contains three statues of different sizes of the goddess of the sea. The large one always remains in the case, the medium one is moved outside in front of the temple for special occasions while the small one is carried around town. The prayer wall contains many pink strips of paper which look like thin bookmarks. People donate money and hang up a paper on which a prayer is written in Chinese characters. The wall looks similar to the section of US supermarkets where people tape up business cards.

 

As we leave Cholon, I observe that most buildings are two stories. The first story contains shops and the second story serves as homes. Some streets are organized by product. One of the streets which we ride down features decorations. I see many lanterns and flowers.

 

Next we go to city center, stopping first at Notre Dame Cathedral. Built in neo-Romanesque architecture between 1877 and 1880, its located in Paris Square. All the materials were imported from Marseille, France. It has two 131 foot tall towers which dominate the city skyline. There's a closed gate in back of the pews, preventing us from entering the area in which mass is being said. I find it interesting that mass is in English. Steve tells me that the priest is giving a sermon but it's not loud enough for me to hear. We stay for a while and I pray the Creed and the petitions with the congregation.

 

Family Outing Family Outing

We walk to the post office but since we were there yesterday, we don't go in. Since its a historic building, we take a picture. On our way back to the van, we see a wedding party on the steps of Notre Dame Cathedral, so we stop for another photograph. The bride wears a traditional red gown but has a white veil on top of her head.

 

We see quite a few families and many motorbikes in the heavy Sunday traffic. Many families of one or two children ride on motorbikes with the children between the parents. We're astounded to learn that adults must wear helmets by law but children are not required to wear helmets. We speculate that since children grow quickly, helmets would be too expensive to replace as often as needed. We see one father with a "Finding Nemo" helmet. His daughter behind him wears a baseball cap.

 

Presidential Palace Map Room Presidential Palace Map Room

We precede to the Presidential Palace a.k.a. Reunification Palace, built in 1962 on the site of Norodom Palace. I find it beautiful yet somewhat simple. Today it's only used for tourism. We visit three floors, seeing many conference rooms used by the president, vice president and first lady. Most of the rooms are blocked off and tourists are only allowed to look inside from the barriers. Steve finds the map room, from where the South executed the war, fascinating. We also see the presidential office with a desk on which the red phone sits, and the president's family living quarters. We're moved by the Cabinet room where, on April 30, 1975 the surrender treaty was signed. Cao tells us that after the war most of the Cabinet members spent a few years in reeducation camps and then left the country. Steve goes up to the International Access Symbolroof and takes a picture of the helipad. He finds is quite moving because it contains a helicopter. We recall the scene which we watched on the news of the last American helicopter leaving the palace roof before the North took over.

 

We return to our hotel to check out. We go for a final Vietnamese meal at le Cordon Bleu. I have jo quil and shrimp in a red wine sauce and white wine. Steve has veal cordon bleu and beer. We share a vegetable and enjoy our meal very much.

 

We go to the airport and check in, keeping our wheelchair to be gate checked. They have us wait in a special section close to an area where people weigh their suitcases and boxes. When a person finds his suitcase overweight, he reorganizes the contents until it's within the weight limit. After waiting for International Access Symbolquite a while, a security person comes for us and takes us to the gate. I find a restroom for people with disabilities and find it wonderful especially since it's the first one since JFK airport.

 

They change our gate and an official says someone will come for us again. It takes a while but they do. We sit at the new gate until someone comes for us to take us down the jet way. Our plane to the Angkor area of Cambodia has very few passengers. A flight staff member gives us a visa application, entrance/departure card and customs form. We're required to fill each one out. Our flight time is 40 minutes. The staff hands out box sandwiches, snacks and water. We eat one snack and save the water and other snack. Steve has some of his sandwich but I skip it.

 

Once we arrive in Siem Reap, we have to walk down stairs to disembark. There's no railing at the last step. I get a bit scared when the staff tries to help me but actually pulls me but I am okay. It takes a bit to get through passport control and visa security. A man takes my passport and papers. Steve goes with him and I wait. Steve says about 10 people perform the process. One takes an action then passes it to another who does his task and passes it to the next. This goes on until the process is complete.

 

We meet our guide Hoeun and go to our hotel, the Sofitel Royal Angkor, and check in. Our room in this resort hotel is beautiful but quite distant from the lobby. After a rest, we go to dinner at the restaurant Thida Spean Neak. We have soup, Cambodian cake, beef shish kebab with onion, pepper and pineapple, shrimp stuffed with garlic, pork, pumpkin and vegetable in a leaf cup, fresh fruit and a sweet rice cake. We drink ginger wine

 

On our way back to the room, Hoeun tells us that there's been a problem between Cambodians and Thai people. Currently Thailand wants a Thai temple and land about 25 km from its border. During the past there have been problems when Thailand invaded Cambodia, resulting in Cambodian dislike of Thailand. This has made it difficult for both Cambodians and Thai populations located close to the common border, which formally traded with each other. We return to our room and I go right to bed because I've been tired all day.

 

 

History of Angkor

 

 

Before the 9th century A.D., several politically independent principalities made up today's Cambodia. These were collectively known to the Chinese as Funan and Chenla. The Angkor period began in 802 AD. Khmer King Jayavarman II declared the independence of Cambodia, then called Kambujadesa, from Java. He established his capital of Hariharalaya which today is Roluos at the north of Tonle Sap. He unified the country which stretched from China on the north to Champa on the east and the ocean on the South with a combination of military campaigns, alliances, marriages and land grants. The western border was a place identified by a stone engraved with the saying "the land of cardamoms and mangoes". Today this land is Myanmar. He declared himself "Universal Monarch". The new state religion based on the deity Hirihara which combines Vishnu, a.k.a. Hari, with Shiva, a.k.a. Hara, established the king as god-king, a.k.a. devaraja. Large irrigation systems led to intense cultivation and dense population around Angkor.

 

In 889, Yasovarman I became emperor. He developed into a renowned king and builder, constructing a new city called Yasodharapura. Following tradition, he also built a huge reservoir called a baray. It's believed that these reservoirs had the purpose of either irrigating rice fields or serving as religious symbols of mythological oceans surrounding Mount Meru, the abode of the gods. An elevated temple represented the mountain which contained representation of one or more gods. Therefore Yasovarman built his temple on Phnom Bakheng, a low hill, surrounded by a moat fed from the baray. In addition he built many other Hindu temples and other retreats for ascetics.

 

From 900 to 1200, the Khmer empire produced astounding architectural masterpieces in Angkor. Seventy-two major temples and other buildings and the remains of several hundred minor temples have been found in this area. As far as we know, Angkor never had a formal boundary since medieval Khmer settlements were disbursed and of low density. An area of at least 1000 square kilometers beyond the major temples contained a complex system of infrastructure which included roads and canals with functional integration and an urban core. In physical measurement this makes it the largest urban area prior to the Industrial Revolution, close to the size of Los Angeles.

 

The construction of Angkor Wat occurred between 1113 and 1150, under King Suryavarman II. He ascended the throne after becoming victorious against a rival Prince. Through military campaigns, diplomacy and firm domestic administration he consolidated his political position and started construction of his personal temple mausoleum, Angkor Wat. He dedicated the temple to Vishnu rather than to Siva. Until this, it had been Khmer tradition to devote temples to Siva.

 

After the death of Suryavarman II, a period of internal conflict occurred in the kingdom. In 1177, the Cham to the east sailed up the Mekong River and across Tonle Sap. They sacked the Khmer capital and killed the king. A Khmer Prince, who would become King Jayavarman VII, rallied his troops and defeated the Cham. In 1181, Jayavarman VII became king. He constructed the walled city of Angkor Thom to replace the ruins of Yasodharapura. This included the geographic and spiritual center of Bayon Temple, as well as Ta Prohm and Preah Khan. He dedicated the latter two to his parents. During this time the change of religion from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism occurred. He adopted Mahayana Buddhism as his personal faith. Buddha images were added to Hindu temples. Angkor Wat briefly converted to a Buddhist shrine. King Jayavarman VII is considered to be the greatest Angkor king.

 

After King Jayavarman VIIs death, a Hindu revival ensued. A large-scale campaign of Buddhist image destruction occurred. In 1298, the Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan came to Angkor and stayed for one year in the capital during the reign of King Indravarman III. Zhou Daguan wrote his observations of Khmer society, approximately 40 pages which still exists today. His work became what's regarded as the most important source of information on everyday Angkor life. He described religion, justice, kingship, agriculture, slavery, birds, vegetables, bathing, soldiers, servant woman and concubines, ministers, princes and "the sovereign, standing on an elephant, holding his sacred sword in his hand.

 

During the 13th and 14th century, the Angkor civilization declined. Various reasons have been proposed as the cause. None have been conclusively proven. What follows below are summaries of the possible reasons.

 

1) Ayutthaya, a Thai kingdom, invasions forced the abandonment of the Khmer capital. In his memoirs, Zhou states that the country was devastated by war in which the population was forced to fight. In 1431, Thai invaders sacked and looted Angkor. This is generally regarded as the end of the Angkorian period. After Angkor's collapse, many people, documents and other objects were taken to Ayutthaya in the West or Longvek, the new center of Khmer society, in the south. Within Angkor, internal problems occurred because kings had several wives. This led to princes fighting for power and the thrown. The internal fighting made it easier for the victory of external forces.

 

2) During the 14th century, Theravada Buddhism came from Ayutthaya and became the dominant religion. Some historians believe this to have caused the Angkor decline because the change in religion destroyed the rooted Hindu concepts of kingship and Angkorian civilization. Buddhist denial of the importance of the royal class brought made the building and maintenance of grand monuments unimportant. War weakened the government, destroying its ability to maintain public works including waterways. The new religion of social equality may have led to rebellion.

 

3) Natural disasters including earthquakes and climate changes caused the civilization to decline. Australian archaeologists have found that the transition from the medieval warm period to the Little Ice Age may have caused a drought across Southeast Asia in the early 15th century. Angkors canals and reservoirs could have run dry and ended farmland expansion.

 

4) Others believe that the change of trade routes from land to water caused the decline of this landlocked area. The shift in trade routes could have caused the ruling class to move its capital toward the Mekong River for economic purposes.

 

5) In its July 2009 issue, National Geographic states that infrastructure excavations show that the resourcefulness that changed the fiefdoms into an empire caused its demise. Angkor learned to control its water supply with a great system of reservoirs and canals so that it had abundant rice harvests. However, over time Angkor lost control of its most valuable water resource. Research shows that a large waterworks structure was destroyed by Angkor engineers. At some point an important dam failed and the engineers could not fix it. Instead they took the materials which had not been destroyed and used them elsewhere. When the drought referred to above (in no. 3) came, it could have caused parts of Angkor to hoard water and therefore have an abundance of food. Others parts of Angkor starved. Internal problems ensued. Populations from other parts of Cambodia and outside the country attacked and conquered.

 

 

 

Day 13: Monday, December 22

 

We meet Hoeun in the lobby. Our itinerary states that we will begin today touring Angkor Wat. However Hoeun says that if we first tour Angkor Thom in the morning and go to Angkor Wat in the afternoon, the lighting will be much better for pictures. He also states that there will be fewer tourists if we tour the sights in this order. We tell him that's what we prefer.

 

Angkor Thom Gate with Stone Guards on Left Angkor Thom Gate with
Stone Guards on Left

We drive to the Southgate gate of Angkor Thom. A roadway leads up to the gate and each side of the road has a row of stone guards. All of the statues on the right side frown which symbolizes that they are evil demons. On the left side, the guard smile showing that they are good, happy guards. I find the gate and guard statues incredible. Many of the guards have been restored. It's easy to tell which ones have not. The originals have many features worn away and much discoloration. Those that have been restored have a smooth and clear face. The gate tower also contains several huge faces of Avalokiteshvara, the being believed to embody the compassion of all Buddhas. The middle face looks southward while the side faces look east and west. The middle one appears to me to be meditating. I expect there's a face on the other side looking northward. However once we enter the gate I am too amazed at what's in front of me to look back at the gate.

 

Angkor Thom was a walled city covering four square miles and containing 50 tower temples built by what Lonely Planet calls Angkor's greatest king, Jayavarman VII during the 12th century. The name means "great city". We stop at the checkpoint and have our pictures taken for our pass card. This will be checked at each tomb. Back in our minivan, we ride past Angkor Wat. Hoeun tells us that Cambodians have dark skin. Asians with light skin are not 100% Cambodian. He is half Cambodian and half Chinese. His grandmother is Chinese. She used to speak the language but has now forgotten most of it.

 

Us Just Inside of Bayon Temple Us Just Inside of Bayon Temple

We stop at the first temple well tour, Bayon, in the heart of Angkor Thom. Bayon Temple contains 216 huge faces of Avalokiteshvara. Originally Bayon was built as part Buddhist and part Hindu by Jayavarman VII. After his death, the kings son removed the Buddhist parts. Two guards which appear to be mystical animals, an odd looking lion and a flame shaped nagas, stand at the entrance, one on each side of old worn steps. Later I read that these are spirits trusted to bring rain. Even with International Access SymbolSteve and Hoeun's help, I find the going rough so I only go part way into the temple. Much of the surface on which we walk has cracked and become very uneven. Steve and Hoeun leave me in the shade while they climb through the rest of the temple. Even though I stay behind, I see more than I expected.

 

Some statues have had their heads removed because people and museums want the heads but not the bodies. I sit and watch tourists walk by, amazed by the number and variety of tourists. I see several Buddhist monks pass by and Im happy when I can get a decent picture of one. I find the Temple majestic. It's built from large stones some of which are numbered and stacked off to the side, waiting to be integrated into the restoration. As I look off to the side, I observe a small lake which is in the shade. Many people are gathered there enjoying the coolness. It's a nice scene. After watching the area for a while, I write in my log.

 

Fresco: Woman Holding Turtle Biting Man While He Points Arrow at Her Head Fresco: Woman Holding Turtle Biting Man While He Points
Arrow at Her Head

When Steve returns, he tells me about what he saw. The lower-level which is the one on which we entered, has an extensive fresco system. Most of the frescoes picture war. One shows spear-bearing Champa Warriors packed into a boat crossing the Tonle Sap. Some depict daily life, such as cooking and a board game. The board resembles chess. Although this fresco predates chess by several centuries. Other frescos portray cooking, kickboxing and cock fighting. The fresco with cockfighting also depicts other events such as a crocodile hunting for fish. Hoeun said this is his favorite. Another one shows a father teaching his son how to hunt. Steve says that he found one even comical, a woman holding a turtle that is biting a man in the ass. The man is pointing an arrow at her head. On the second level, the towers each have four faces, one on each side. Everywhere he looked he saw faces, many he said were gigantic. He took an interesting picture of a face framed by a doorway. He saw a traditional Buddha draped in a robe with an umbrella over his head.

 

International Access SymbolWhen we leave Bayon Temple, we see ruins of pyramid shaped Baphuon Temple. We see a large causeway leading up to it. Steve pushes me to the side of the causeway where its easier to navigate the wheelchair. Again we see a stack of large blocks waiting to be added to the restoration. Lonely Planet states that this structure was taken apart by an archaeological team before the Civil War. During the Civil War in the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge destroyed the archaeologists records. Much research has gone into the restoration of Baphuon. It's believed to be one of the most ambitious restoration projects. Theres a line of large windows one floor down from the top. Steve goes into the temple while Hoeun stays with me in my wheelchair. We sit in the shade by a small body of water. Hoeun says that Cambodians catch frogs in this water and use them for food. Especially in the rainy season, frogs are abundant. They eat the entire frog, not just the legs. Hoeun tells me the background of this temple. The pyramid shape represents Mount Meru. The building of the temple began in 1044 probably under Suryavarman I and finished in 1065 under Udayadityavarman. It stood in the center of the city that existed before Angkor Thom.

 


Terrace of Elephants Terrace of Elephants

When Steve returns we go to the next temple, Phimeanakas which is on the grounds of the Royal Palace. Hoeun tells Steve that after he sees the temple he should take the platform which will lead him to where we'll meet him. Hoeun and I enter the gate to the Terrace of Elephants. Kings used the terrace as a reviewing stand and for public ceremonies. First we pass the monument of the three headed elephant, Airvata. In Hindu, it's believed to be a white elephant that carried Lord Indra. It's on one side of the terrace's central stairway. On the other side, I see elephants and mahouts (elephant drivers) hunting. I also see garudas, mythical human birds, and lion-headed figures. Both have their arms stretched so they appear to hold up the platform.

 

International Access SymbolHoeun backs me away from the platform which is on top of the 200 meter long wall so I can see more of the structure. He explains that soldiers stood on the wall which contains elephants. The other wall has carvings of lions and this was for the King and his officers. The kings place was on the highest platform and only he was allowed to go up here. In its day, the terrace was decorated with gold framed windows. All ordinary people gathered on the grass. Only those closest to the King could hear him speak. So the people that heard what he said relayed his message to those behind them and those people told those behind them until all had heard. By the end of all this retelling, the final message was nothing like what the king had actually said. Hoeun asks me if I understand what he just explained. I reply that I did and tell him about the game of telephone we played as children. He says that's exactly what happened.

 

Hoeun points out several towers and says they were jails for offenders who had to spend time in prison. Most of their sentences were brief stays of several days or weeks.

 

Walkway to King's Platform Walkway to King's Platform

Steve returns greatly impressed with what he saw. He shows me some of the pictures he took and I see the grandeur of the structure from a different angle. He tells me that a small girl tried to sell him a fan. He said no but she followed him the entire way through the royal palace area until finally she saw some others who she took off after. I had seen several children trying to sell items. I guess they didn't approach me because Hoeun would wave them away. The hawkers in Angkor are the worst weve seen since China.

 

Hoeun shows us the Terrace of the Leper King. One of the Angkor kings developed leprosy. He gave up his kingship and went into isolation. At his place of isolation he had a six meter high wall built. It contains images of his 1040 concubines to remind himself of them. Hoeun told us that the king's name was Akas. However when I attempt to verify the spelling, I find that several sources identify different kings as the one with leprosy.

 

Next we go to lunch at a place inside Angkor Thom. We meet some tourists from France. We order frog. Unfortunately, theyre out of frogs. We also order Palm Wine. Its quite strong so we only drink half because the sun is very strong.

 

This afternoon we go to visit the incredible Angkor Wat, built in the early 12th century by King Suryavarman II as the state temple and capital city. It's the most famous temple in Cambodia and is depicted on the national flag. According to our itinerary, Angkor Wat is the world's largest temple complex and covers an area of close to one square mile. Over 25,000 men built it in 37+ years. It's dedicated to the god Vishnu and portrays Hindu cosmology. Its central towers represent Mount Meru, the outer walls symbolize mountains which were believed to enclose the world and the moat signifies the oceans. The three layered pyramid temples have towers at the corner of each storey. Each encloses a square surrounded by interlinked galleries. The central tower is 31 meters above the third level and 55 meters above the ground. Local people still use some of the small shrines.

 

Us Entering Angkor Wat Us Entering Angkor Wat

We enter through the kings gate and see the outer structures. We pass several libraries where artisans came to learn the art of temple building. Hoeun tells us that there were no books. Scribes wrote on palm leaves, stones or scrolls. Along the walk to the king's entrance, we see an interesting railing that depicts a snake. Later I read that it's actually a seven headed serpent.

 

We go into several halls in Angkor Wat. We see quite a few statues of Buddha and many Hindu figures. Steve takes a picture of Apsaras, the female spirit of clouds and water. In carvings of her throughout the temple, she has 56 headdresses each with its unique meaning. It's supposed to be good luck to rub Apsaras. The viewer can tell by the discoloration in the carving where most people rub, her breasts and her legs. We see a hallway that appears to go on forever. It has a warning sign International Access Symbolthat says "no access". It's just as well because it has many doorways, each with a doorjamb which would be difficult for me to step over. For most of the way, Steve pushes me in the wheelchair. However, when the going gets rough or the view is down a short hallway, I get up and walk. After a while we encounter too many stairs and I become tired especially in the heat. Steve and Hoeun take me to a shady place.

 

Angkor Wat Angkor Wat

On the way to the shade, we pass a lake which has a nice reflection of the five towers of Angkor Wat. Picture time and I get a nice one!

 

Steve and Hoeun leave me in the shade and return to Angkor Wat to explore. For a while I watch people. Theres a building off to my side into which Cambodia people come and go. One woman exiting the building approaches me and asks if she can move me because she says I am under a dead branch and shes worried itll fall and hit me. I let her move me a little, but am concerned this is a sales tactic. Later I realize that the building she came from is a place for guides. When Hoeun returns, he confirms that this building serves as a place that staff can go for a break.

Monkeys Come Out at 3 PM Sharp Monkeys Come Out at 3 PM Sharp

While Steve and Hoeun explore, I am comfortable in the expanding shade. I watch a quiet path which I face and write in my log. Occasionally I see a person walk down the path which is just to the side of Angkor Wat. I find the view quite peaceful and relaxing. At exactly 3 PM, several monkeys come out of the forest on the side of the path opposite Angkor Wat. They walk over the path and go to some benches closer to the front of Angkor Wat. A few people sit on these benches. Later Hoeun explains that every day at 3 PM a tour group stops at this location and they often feed the monkeys. I guess the tour group was small today.

 

 

 

Tower Where King Often Sat Tower Where King Often Sat

International Access SymbolWhen Steve and Hoeun return, Steve tells me that the inside is incredible. Hes sorry I didnt come, but it would have been too hard for me. He found much of the inside similar to Bayon Temple, but on a much larger scale. On the towers, each stone had a unique hand carved sculpture. Most have been weathered away or otherwise destroyed. The stairs up to the tower where the king often sat are steep and narrow to prevent people from dishonoring the king by running up them. Seems like a good tactic to me. He also saw an inside pool; today it has no water. Like in Bayon Temple, he saw many frescoes. In the southern section of the East Gallery, he saw the Churning of the Ocean Milk which has 88 asura or demons, and 92 deva or gods with crested helmets. These figures stir up the sea to obtain its liquid which is believed to provide immortality.

 

We return to our room for rest. Steve shows me his pictures. I especially like one fresco of a monkey army.

 

We go to dinner at a restaurant in Siem Reap but we're not too impressed. We order two main dishes and two appetizers. Our waiter says that were only allowed three dishes for two people. We tell him that's not our understanding of what we're supposed to get. Finally he checks with somebody and lets us have all the dishes for which we've asked. Actually three dishes would have been plenty.

 

 


Day14: Tuesday, December 23

Banteay Srei Temple Banteay Srei Temple

This morning we see more of the Angkor temples. First we go to Banteay Srei, a.k.a. the Pink Temple. Built in the 10th century out of red sandstone. No one has been able to figure out where the stone came from. Most of the other temples weve visited are gray. Hoeun tells us that this is the only one with pink stone. It has also been called Ladies Temple, not because of the color but because there were three ladies on the outside. However they've been destroyed. From the outside it appears small but it's actually narrow and long. Steve says that he likes photographing it because it fits all in International Access Symbolone photograph. Due to the uneven access path, I go only part way in. Steve and Hoeun continue. Later they tell me the inside was somewhat like Angkor Wat with Hindu religious stories depicted. It also has several towers. I'm amazed at some of the intricacy of the sculpture on the roofs. Steve comments that these temple towers have a different feel from the others we've seen. He took a picture of the Hindu devil (demon god) which has nine heads and nine arms on each side. Some scholars consider this to be the artistic jewel of the temples. I enjoy it but found Angkor Wat and Bayon Temple more impressive.

 

We stop at the East Mebon Temple crematorium. When a person died, the body was cremated here. International Access SymbolAfter washing the pieces in the water, the remnants were put in a container and brought to the survivors home. After a period of time the family drank the remaining liquid. Steve goes into the temple but it's obvious that the climb would be too much for me.

 

Back in the minivan, we ride down a local road. I take several pictures of the homes, most of which are on top of stilts. Many have tables under the house or in the front yard. The families sell produce and goods which they display on tables. Most of the homes are quite poor and made from palms thatched together. Some are more substantial, made from wood. Hoeun tells us that some families have many children and generations living in the same house. There's hardly enough room for all to sleep. Most people farm. We stop to look for a chachka and end up buying a slingshot. Hoeun tells us that mostly children use these for hunting small animals. When he was growing up he had one which he used to kill mice that came into his family's home. The mice ate their food. We're pleased we found a chachka for which our guide gave us a personal story.

 


Ta Prohm: The Jungle Temple Ta Prohm: The Jungle Temple

Next we go to Ta Prohm, a.k.a. the Jungle Temple so named because trees have grown over and through many temple International Access Symbolstructures. Theres a long walkway to the temple entrance. On top of a wall, we see a piece of what used to be a sculpture from a temple tower. Its intricate and I enjoy seeing it up close. On the path into the temple we pass a group of musicians. Cambodia is still filled with land mines and unexploded ordinance which has left a legacy of disability. These musicians were mutilated from explosions and now make their living playing music for tourists. We find them quite good and make a donation. Many such groups work like this throughout the temples in Angkor. Later at a different temple, we make another donation.

 

In the late 12th and early 13th century, King Jayavarman built this Mahayana Buddhist temple as a shrine for his mother. Later a monastery devoted to the temple's upkeep developed here. Today silk-cotton trees, strangler fig trees and encroaching lichen have sent out roots wherever their seeds land. The jungle has not been cleared. Were amazed when we see the first wall where roots surround it. We've seen pictures but seeing the actual structure is incredible.

 

In many places there are piles of large stones, some numbered, set aside for restoring parts of the temple. Steve mentions that parts of the movie Tomb Raiders was filmed here. International Access SymbolWhen the going gets too rough, Steve and Hoeun wheel me into the shade and continue to explore. I sit across from a structure under which groups of tourists come to stand for pictures in which theyll be framed by tree roots. Ive never seen anything quite like it and find it fascinating to watch tourists of all types react to it and pose under this gigantic root.

 

I read that within the temple there is an inscription that states 12,640 people worked in this temple. It took more than 66,000 farmers to produce almost 3000 tons of rice each year. The kings and their administrators relied on revenue generated from rice. Beside farmers, personnel included priests, dancers and temple workers.

 

Within Years This Face Will Be Covered By Roots Within Years This Face Will Be Covered
By Roots

When Steve returns, he tells me that he saw many more and greater structures where trees and especially their roots have grown through the temple. He took a picture of a statue with only the area from its eyebrows to its upper chest visible. In a decade or two, it will be totally covered by the roots. Some of the hallways were obstructed by huge stone blocks which had been pushed into them from the weight of crushing plant growth. The roots pry portions of the building apart. Some Cambodians want to clear the jungle before it destroys more of the temple. Because of the uniqueness of this site, there is much debate on making such a significant change to it. Ta Prohm is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Cambodia.

 

Next we ride to Ta Keo, a.k.a. the Unlucky Temple. King Jayavarman V who began building it, died before it was finished. Another king continued the building but he also died before its completion. The next time building started, it was struck by lightning. No one else attempted to complete it because it was so unlucky. Even though it was never finished its taller than 50 meters. However the towers are International Access Symbolnot as intricate as others we've seen because they were never finished. Theres a large, dry mote around it, so I stay in the minivan while Steve goes in. When he returns he says it goes quite far back. He saw a wall of what looked like red sandstone similar to that at Banteay Srei. He climbed to the top of an incredibly steep set of stairs to see a small shrine. I think the picture he took looking out from the top made the climb worthwhile.

 

Before we leave this area, Hoeun points out Ta Mma Mom Temple across the street. Built in the 11th century, it was the model for Angkor Wat. We decide not to attempt it and settle for taking a few pictures.

 

International Access SymbolI am very pleased at the amount of the Angkor temples that I was able to see. While planning this trip, I was concerned that I would only be able to see the temples from the outside. While most of the going was rough, with Steves and Hoeun's help I was able to see as much as I felt comfortable doing. It wasn't easy, but the effort was well worth it.

 

We stop for lunch at the same restaurant as we had dinner at last night. Hoeun says its the only good one open at this time. We find it better for lunch. We return to our room for a brief break. Were both tired from the heat and enjoy our rest. We meet Hoeun at 4:20 pm in the lobby and he gives us our tickets and other information for our trip to Lao tomorrow.

 

This evening, were scheduled to take a cruise on Tonle Sap, the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia. The name Tonle Sap means Great Lake. It's a lake and river system. According to our itinerary, during the monsoon season, the river which connects to the lake to the Mekong River reverses its flow. At this time water is pushed up from the Mekong into the lake and increases the radius of the lake from 8800 feet to greater than 52,000 feet. After the rainy season the water recedes and leaves rich deposits of sediment which make prime agricultural land for the remainder of the year. In addition, this unique process makes the system one of the world's best sources of freshwater fish.

 

International Access SymbolWhen Steve and I see that the boat is down a steep hill, we dont think theres any way for me to get to it. Hoeun asks if Im okay with being carried because the captain can do this. So once again in Southeast Asia, Im carried like royalty.

 

Lake Village Homes Lake Village Homes

We sail through a community of floating homes. Some are fairly nice and picturesque while others are quite poor. The family toilet is an outhouse on back of the living quarters. They use lake water for washing. When the family can afford it, they drink other water. Hoeun says life span here is about 50 years. We see a floating school, community meeting house, a school with an outside gymnasium and a Catholic church. The community moves with the seasons, staying somewhat close to the bank of the lake.

 

We see market boats which go from house to house selling goods. Hoeun tells us that Vietnamese have been migrating to this boat community. We see a boy fishing in a small motor boat. Hoeun says that this is his afterschool job.

 

Sunset On Tonle Sap Sunset On Tonle Sap

We sail into an area without floating houses and wait for the sunset. It's a beautiful sunset! We watch the yellow sun as it descends into the red sky towards the lake. Steve shoots a wonderful picture of another boat with a man on its bow standing right in front of the sun. It's his favorite picture of the trip.

 

After the sun sets, I'm amazed at how fast it gets dark. Many of the boats on the lake race to get back to the bank. I'm glad our captain isn't in such a hurry because it looks like the ride could get rough in the strong wake. However I find it kind of exciting to watch the race. Hoeun explains that they're racing for the best docking spot. It looks to me like we get the same spot as where we departed from. Once docked, the captain carries me back to the minivan. We thank him very much and give him a good tip.

 

Cambodian Dancer Cambodian Dancer

On our way back into town, we ask on about the tour boats on the lake. Hoeun says many are owned and run by the people who live in the floating community. We ask how these people can afford to buy them. He says that many build these passenger boats themselves.

 

Tonight we go to dinner followed by Cambodian dance show. We're not very impressed with the food selection which is obviously set up for tourists. However we find the quality of the Oriental food excellent and we especially like the pancakes which are Vietnamese. We enjoy the interesting and entertaining dance show very much. It reminds us of Thai dancing. Later Hoeun tells us that when Thailand ruled Cambodia, Thailand stole traditional Cambodian dancing. We're amazed at the position in which the dancers hold their fingers. Hoeun says that many Cambodians have extremely strong and flexible fingers. He shows us that he has the same flexibility. Several times when he's been assisting me I had to ask him to lighten up on his grip. I guess this explains why his grip was so tight.

 

After the show, we return to our room and pack.

 

 

 

 

 

 

History of Laos

 

 

The beginning of Lao has no definite date. Several sources state that authentic Lao history can be traced back to 1353. However, I like to trace a country back to before it was even a country so I will go back to as far as I can find decent information. It's important to note that at least until 1353, much of Lao history is greatly influenced by what's going on elsewhere in Southeast Asia. As appropriate within this section, I will briefly write about countries bordering Lao.

 

Sometime prior to the ninth century, a culture called the Tai originated in Southern China which included Lao. During the first millennium A.D., the Tai began to migrate into Southeast Asia because of the Chinese strength. They displaced the Iron Age people who made the stone jars at the Plain of Jars (which youll hear more about when we get to that area). The Mekong River served as a main migration route. The Khmer strength kept the Tai from achieving dominance in the Mekong valley. The Tai lived in small groups which were influenced by more highly developed adjacent cultures of the Khmer to the south and several Hindu cultures to the West. Most Tai people converted to Hindu.

 

From the sixth to the ninth centuries, Buddhism came to Lao and became the main religion. The first Lao legal document, which is also the first sociological evidence of Lao people, is a set of laws called "the laws of Khun Borum". There is disagreement between Lao people and Western scholars on whether Khun Borum actually existed. Lao believe hes a myth but Western historians believe he existed. In the ninth century, probably during southward migration into Lao, the author wrote the manuscript as a type of indigenous verse. It describes an agrarian society where life centers on subsistence farming and domesticated water buffalo. Stealing or killing a neighbors elephant demanded strict punishment, showing that elephants were expensive and important possessions of these people.

 

The Lao people split into groups. Each group took on an identity determined by where they lived in relation to the Mekong River. The Lao-Lum lived on the valley floor. Since the Lao-Lum had the best land for farming and river transportation, they became the wealthiest group. The Lao-Thoeng inhabited the mountain slopes. The Lao-Sūng resided on top of the mountain. This group included minorities related to the Tai and spoke different languages. These groups influenced Lao history including that of today. The people of the Lao-Thoeng and Lao-Sūng have only weak loyalty to the current Lao-Lum controlled government.

 

In the 11th and 12th century, the Tai-Lao spread into the Mekong valley and todays North Eastern region of Thailand. In 1353, the "official history" of Lao begins. During the 12th century, historians believe that Khun L, the first identified Lao leader, conquered Luang Prabang after attacking the non-Lao people who lived there. Three areas, called mandalas, each with its own capital, developed as a result of the Mekong River geography. The Mekong has three sections defined by river rapids. The Lao-Lum of each area controlled the capital. The section capitals were Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Savannakhēt.

 

In 1253, the Mongols advanced down the Mekong to attack the Khmers. On their way, they invaded Lao. When they withdrew, the Siamese at Sukhothai founded a new kingdom. In 1351, a more powerful Siamese faction took control and made its capital Ayutthaya. At this time the kingdom of Lān Nā containing Lao and Siamese formed. The Tai-Lao leaders of Luang Prabang also formed a new state although they were technically subject to the Mongol leaders of China.

 

The Tai-Lao became the principal strength among Lao people. Beginning in 1271, the dynasty called Phrayā ruled this area. In 1350, following a clash with the court, Fā Ngum one of its princes escaped the Phrayā court. They went to the Khmers in Angkor and the prince married a royal princess. In 1353, as commander of an army, he captured Luang Prabang and set up a new Lao state which included all of the Lao speaking Mekong valley. This became Lān Xāng, a.k.a. the Kingdom of a Million Elephants.

 

History differs on this point in time. The revision by the French during colonial time, states that prior to the 14th century the civilizations of the Mon kingdom of Dvaravati and Proto-Khmer dominated. After the French colonial time, historians try to represent all groups as equally indigenous and interacting with the predominant Cambodian kingdoms to the south. This version highly regards the Proto-Khmer as Lao nationalist for their bravery and struggles against Westerners.

 

During the decade after establishing Lān Xāng, Fā Ngum worked to bring all of Lao under his control. He conquered areas including territory in today's northwestern Vietnam. The Khmer leadership considered him to be one of their lords. However his control extended far beyond what the Khmer could claim. His wife probably introduced Theravada Buddhism to Lao. In 1368, she died. Soon after the Chinese Mongol dynasty was defeated. Both events destroyed associations which kept Fā Ngum in power. In 1373, he was overthrown and replaced by his son.

 

The King of Lān Xāng who resided in Luang Prabang only directly ruled and taxed his town and surrounding areas. Once again Lao was made up of three mandalas. The lords of the other two levied their own taxes and ruled as they thought appropriate. They paid an agreed amount to the King, came to the court for major ceremonies and recruited their own troops to support the King when he went to war. This gave Lao elasticity but demanded that the King have enough authority to keep the country unified. In 1416, the king died. For the next 50 years a series of weak kings ensued, therefore Lān Xāng declined. By the 15th century, Lao's neighbors had become powerful. In 1478, they invaded Lao sacking Luang Prabang. They occupied Lao for more than one year.

 

Lao's King Vixum, who reigned from 1501 to 1520, took two actions to strengthen Lao leadership. He mandated that the chronicle of royal history, the Story of King Brum, be written down to provide legitimacy for Lao. Also he obtained a precious golden image of Buddha from Angkor and brought it to Luang Prabang. These actions showed that the King of Lān Xāng ruled by (1) hereditary right which came from the celebrated King Brum and (2) merit earned by the good that he did, which is a key concept in Buddhism, a.k.a. karma.

 

The next two strong Kings worked to continue the strength and status of Lān Xāng. However, in 1558, the first of a series of Burmese invasions occurred. The Burmese overtook Chang Mai which included the western areas of Lān Xāng. The Lān Xāng King struck an alliance with Ayutthaya. In 1560, he moved the capital to Vientiane because its location was easier to defend and closer to Siamese help. He built a beautiful new temple, the Ho Phra Kaeo and moved the revered Emerald Buddha rescued from Chiang Mai into this new temple. This became a symbol of his reign. He left the Pra Bang Buddha to protect its city. This is when Luang Prabang got its name.

 

In the 16th century, King Photisarath helped institute Theravada Buddhism as the major religion of Lao. However there have been some discoveries which show this may have at least started to occur in the ninth century. While some fragments of Shiva worship existed in ancient Lao, artifacts show that a gradual process occurred over a lengthy duration causing Buddhism to become the predominant religion as Shiva worship decreased.

 

In 1569, the Burmese attacked again. They captured Ayutthaya and left Lān Xāng exposed. In 1570, the Burmese occupied Vientiane. The Lān Xāng King drove them out in a few months. The next year the King tried to invade Cambodia but was killed and his army dispersed, leaving Lān Xāng without defense. For 60 years the Burmese took control.

 

In 1637 Surinyavongsā, regarded as the greatest king of Lān Xāng, became the last to take the Lān Xāng throne. He reestablished Lān Xāngs independence and restored decent relations with the Siamese King at Ayutthaya. This alliance held off the Burmese and Vietnamese for years. Prosperity increased and Vientiane built many temples and palaces. With the temples, it became a renowned center of Buddhist study. Monks came from Siam and Cambodia to study.

 

During this time, the first Europeans arrived. Dutch merchant Gerritt van Wuysthoff wrote an account which interested the Jesuits. Soon the first missionary arrived. He stayed for six years and learned the Lao language, religion and customs. Much of our knowledge of Lān Xāng comes from his records. Although he converted few, he made the outside world aware of Lao.

 

In 1763, the Burmese made their most forceful invasion. All Lao lands were captured. In 1767, Ayutthaya was conquered. The Siamese succeeded in launching a quick counterattack. The Siamese general founded the new capital of Bangkok. He set a goal of capturing Lao. In 1774 he attacked Burma and in 1776 recaptured Chang Mai. This permanently united Siam. In 1778, the Siamese army conquered Vientiane, looting it and taking its most revered article, the Emerald Buddha, to Bangkok. The Vientiane King escaped but didn't survive long. The Siamese deported many prominent Lao families. They forced others to move to Siam. In the eastern lands, some of the Lao groups remained under the control of the Vietnamese court.

 

In 1792, the Siamese conquered Luang Prabang. However, the Siamese were not as harsh there. They allowed the Phra Bang Buddha to remain in the city and the king to keep his throne, providing he submitted to Siamese demands. In 1782, King Rama I took over the Siam throne and began to change his country from a classical mandala to a modern entity. At first Lao was not affected much and only required to continue to perform Siam obligations.

 

Although considered a national state before the 19th century Siam, Lao and other groups which spoke the Tai language had almost identical culture and religion. Therefore Lān Xāng or Lao is not usually regarded as an independent country. Different languages were spoken by different groups including Siamese, Khmer, Lao-Thoeng, Lao-Sūng and various minority languages. The Lao-Lum ruled and treated other groups as slaves or savages. It wasn't until the Siamese adopted European concepts of superiority and forced colonial rule on Vientiane that Lao started to develop a national perception.

 

From 1795 to 1828, Lao became a state of Vietnam. In 1802, Vietnam sacked Vientiane and assumed control of northern Lao. In 1804 when King Ānuvong of Vientiane started rebuilding the strength of his state with secret assistance from Vietnam, Siam was unaware of it. He built Wat Sisakēt to symbolize the revival of Lao. By 1823, he began to go after control in neighboring lands, easily capturing the area around his city. His army crossed the Mekong River and captured Siams northeast. He unsuccessfully attempted to go further into Siam. Luang Prabangs king took Siams side. Vietnam did not provide aid to Vientiane. In 1827, Siam King Rama III defeated Vientiane at a battle south of the city. The attackers burned Vientiane. They left a few temples but deported some of the population. In 1828, Siam captured King Ānuvong and he died imprisoned in Bangkok. The Vientiane kingdom became a Siamese province.

 

In 1848, Lao again became a state of Vietnam. Luang Prabangs king retained some independence by fulfilling the requirements of China, Vietnam and Siam. Siam ruled the rest of Lao with a heavy hand as Siam continued to modernize moving toward the practice of European imperialism. Chinese and Vietnamese immigrated to Lao, displacing Lao people who were forced out of their lands. It seemed that Lao people would become a minority to the Siamese.

 

European arrival saved Lao from Siam. The French and British rivalry divided most of Asia between the two powers. Siam modernized to be able to keep its independence, but was unable to defend its borders where minority cultures lived. In 1883, a treaty between Vietnam and France provided the French with control of the territories formerly under control of the Vietnamese court. Since most of Lao fell into this group, the French claimed what had been Lān Xāng. In 1886 Auguste Pavie, who had 17 years experience in Vietnam and Cambodia, became French vice-counsel of Luang Prabang. He saw the French domination of the Indochinese as emancipation from ignorance and Siamese feudalism since he considered the latter as corrupt and oppressive. When Tai from the mountains attacked Luang Prabang, Pavie organized defense and rescued the king while the Siamese fled. The king requested French protection to replace Siam rule. Pavie could not provide this but did annex a Tai area to French Vietnam, labeling the act as building goodwill.

 

In 1890, the French leadership in Hanoi wanted to annex all of Siam using Lao separation as the first step. In 1892, Pavie became French Consul-General in Bangkok. He insisted that Siam allow French commercial agents in major Lao cities. He believed that he could establish a French protectorate over Lao which would facilitate sufficient weakening of Siam so it could be annexed. Siam quickly sent troops and administration to its Lao lands but two factors prevented it from maintaining control of Lao. The infrastructure in these distant lands did not provide enough capacity for Siam to gain enough leverage and Siam relied on British support which did not come.

 

During 1893, border clashes occurred and French armed vessels sailed towards Bangkok. Siam gave in and France became protectorate over the east of the Mekong River. In 1904, the French induced another conflict. Once again Siam backed down and relinquished two parcels of land west of the Mekong. Another portion of land was reallocated from Cambodia to Lao. Changes were made to the Lao Vietnam border. These changes establish the Lao borders as they exist today.

 

The French wanted to capture more of the land within Siam borders, where Lao speaking people resided. However Britain wanted to maintain Siam as a neutral country between its territory and French territory. In 1909, the French decided it needed Britain as an ally and gave up its efforts to capture Siam. Lao borders stabilized as they exist today. Only approximately half of Lao's population spoke Lao as its first language, although the other half spoke North East Thai which is very similar to Lao.

 

Although it remained a French territory, for approximately 50 years, France did not pay much attention to Lao. The French added the s to Loas name, making it Laos. In this history, from here forward, I will refer to the country as Laos but will continue to call the people Lao. The areas of Luang Prabang and Champāsak formally had internal independence but actually French residents controlled them. This included the king of Luang Prabang who remained loyal to the French throughout his 55 year rule. The remainder of the country was originally divided into two regions, Upper and Lower Laos. Each had its own leader. Afterwards the country was partitioned into 11 provinces. In 1898, all of Laos came under supervision of a Resident-Superior who resided in Vientiane and answered to the French Governor-General in Hanoi. The local authorities were responsible for health, education and justice. Funding of their operations had to come from local funds. Hanoi controlled security, customs and communication.

 

In 1910, the population numbered 600,000 which included many Chinese and Japanese. A local militia of Laos and Vietnamese troops under French officers was put in place. They decreased theft and abolished slavery including the Lao-Lum practice of demanding labor from the other Lao subgroups. Vietnamese staff provided administrative support to the 200 French officials running the country. Vietnamese and Chinese came to repopulate Laos towns and revitalize trade. The head tax collected by the Siamese remained. However revenue increased because the French misappropriated less than the Siamese. The French mandated the Lao each provide 10 days of service per year. Exemptions could be purchased with cash. This was the first time the Lao-Lum had this requirement and they resented it. Chinese and Vietnamese were exempt by paying higher head tax. Additional revenue came from opium, alcohol and salt. However Laos ran at a deficit. Development especially in the Highlands remained slow.

 

Organized resistance to the French did not occur for a while because the Lao preferred French rule to Siamese. In 1901, an uprising occurred in the South. It gained ample support and reestablishment of control did not take place until 1910 when its leader was killed. One of the lieutenants survived and became a Lao Nationalist leader. In 1911, fights occurred in the north. The French tried to regulate the opium trade which encountered resistance in some areas. From 1914 to 1916, a Hmong rebellion brought more unrest to the country.

 

Since French rule seemed to be favorable over Siamese, a number of Lao from northeast Siam returned to Laos. This increased the Lao population and revived trade especially in the Mekong valley towns. The French tried to strengthen trade between Laos and Vietnam. However because of Laoss isolation and rough terrain it didn't become profitable from an imperialist perspective. Subsistence farming remained at more than 90%. Agriculture produced just enough surplus for farmers to pay their taxes.

 

Establishment of an education system happened slowly for the Lao people. Literacy rates did not increase among the Lao in the major cities until the 1930s. The first Lao (men, of course) who received higher education were three aristocratic brothers who became dominant Laos political leaders. Postcolonial history shows that colonialism brought about its own termination when it educated natives who later became leaders of the anti-colonial movement. French encouragement of Lao culture and historical studies facilitated a Lao intellectual class led by Phetxarāt. At first he worked with the French and was appointed Indigenous Inspector of Political and Administrative Affairs. In this highest ranking Lao position, he increased the number of Lao administrators and decreased the authority of Vietnamese. Phetxarāt and other Lao leaders preferred French rule because it gave Laos protection from the Siamese and Vietnamese.

 

When France fell to Nazi Germany, Siam once again became Laos biggest threat. In December 1940, Marshall Phibuns forces in Bangkok attacked French Indochina with secret assistance from the Japanese. They seized parts of Laos. In 1941, fear of Thailand, formerly Siam, and Japan led Phetxarāt to organize the first Lao nationalist association, The Movement for National Renovation. He received support from local French officials. This organization wrote the Lao national anthem and designed the flag. ">

 

Late in 1944, the Japanese staged a military coup in Hanoi during which the French fled to Laos. The Japanese pursued them. In 1945, the Japanese occupied Vientiane and Luang Prabang. The Japanese detained the king. The crown prince prevailed on Lao people to assist the French. As a result many Lao died. The Japanese made Prince Phetxarāt, who had opposed the crown princes position, prime minister of Luang Prabang but not of the rest of Laos. He had no real authority but he believed that Laos independence could be obtained with loyalty to Japan.

 

Another group, the Lao Sēri, a.k.a. Free Lao, formed and became agents of the Thais. Free Lao therefore also supported the Japanese. Vietnamese forces loyal to Ho Chi Minh also came. Despite the official Communist stand of uniting all forces against the Japanese, the Vietnamese despised the French and supported Phetxarāt. By August 1945, Laos was dissolving into a many sided civil war. When World War II ended with Japans surrender, a rush to gain power in Laos by two major factions ensued. A new Lao Nationalist group with Phetxarāt as its leader had formed. The former Free Lao had become Lao Issara. The French had guerrilla forces with Lao support in several areas of Laos. They had no intent of giving up Indochina. However, Allied forces were not united behind France. The United States was officially opposed to the reestablishment of French rule in Indochina and the British could not be expected to assist the French. The nearest Allied forces of the Chinese Nationalist army located in southern China were supposed to march south to receive the Japanese surrender.

 

On August 27, 1945, Prince Phetxarāt took charge of Vientiane from the Japanese. However he had no authority over the rest of the country. The French were in control of Luang Prabang and were beginning to gain control in the south. The king remained loyal to the French. Phetxarāt declared unification of the country and Laos independence. In September, the Chinese army arrived and found that a Laos government controlled Vientiane. The Chinese accepted Phetxarāt and disarmed French forces in Luang Prabang. The Allies did not accept Phetxarāts government. De Gaulle instructed the king to dismiss Phetxarāt as prime minister of Luang Prabang. Phetxarāt proclaimed the king dethroned. Phetxarāt appointed his half brother, Suphānuvong to organize the defense of Laos. Suphānuvong had married a Vietnamese, spent most of the war in her country and supported Ho Chi Minh. Suphānuvong advised Ho to support Phetxarāts government. Vietnam could only spare a few forces from its struggle against the French in its own country. Kaisn Phomvihān came to Vietnam with Suphānuvong. Later Kaisn became Laoss Communist leader and Vietnam's principle agent in Laos. At the end of 1945, all leaders for the next 30 years of political conflict had taken their starting place.

 

Thailand and the Allies became suspicious of the role of communists in the government. In March 1946, the Chinese halted preying on Laos and returned to China. The French advanced and on April 24, occupied Vientiane. When they arrived in Luang Prabang, they rescued and rewarded the king by proclaiming him King of Laos. They attempted to modernize Laos, establishing a Lao National Guard and police force. In December 1946, elections for a Constituent Assembly were held. In 1947, the assembly enacted a constitution setting the status of Laos as a constitutional monarchy and autonomous state within the French Union. A high school opened in Vientiane and new schools opened in other cities. In August 1947 elections for the National Assembly occurred. A royal relative became prime minister and head of the Cabinet made up of members of the powerful Lao-Lum families. These families alternated in office, fighting with each other over the benefits thereof.

 

In 1949, with French status in Vietnam getting worse, a good relationship between the French and Laos became more important. Therefore France gave the Laos more control. France only retained control of defense and foreign affairs. However Laos almost totally depended on French aid for the economy. In February 1950, France declared Laos an independent state which was recognized by other countries. It applied to join the United Nations but was vetoed by the Soviet Union. In actuality Laos remained controlled by France.

 

In 1930, Ho Chi Minh and others founded the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) in Hong Kong. It had responsibility from Moscow for all of French Indochina. Throughout the 1930s, the ICP recruited Lao members, mostly teachers and other middle ranking civil servants with some Western education. However Laos did not have much opportunity for communism since it had few industrial laborers and more than 90% of the Lao population were rice farmers who owned their land. Toward the end of the 1940s the ICP had recruited a group of activists. In January 1949, Kaisn led Lao communists in establishing a military force in Vietnam accountable to the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP).

 

Early in the 1950s, the Laos government in Vientiane became increasingly unstable. The French forces increased and monetary aid came from France and the US. The money led to an economic boom but with it came high inflation. The aid went mostly to towns. Little reached the peasants. Funds were sidetracked to military goals instead of health and education, so the government remained weak and corrupt.

 

In August 1950, the communists organized an association that formed a group called the Resistance Government of the Lao Homeland, a.k.a. Pathēt Lao. Representatives of highland minorities became leaders. These leaders obtained support of the minority people in their areas. However, Communist leadership elsewhere belonged to the Lao-Lum. In 1955, a separate Communist Party was created, the Lao People's Revolutionary Party headed by Kaisn. All members of the governing Council were Lao-Lum. The Pathēt Lao depended on Vietnam for arms, money and training and stayed under the supervision of the Vietnamese party for 20 years. Both Vietnamese and Lao parties fought for the same goals of the eviction of the French and the establishment of socialism. In 1953, the Pathēt Lao gained control of a large area of land in the mountain areas on the Vietnam border and some areas of the South. However after the Pathēt Lao gained control, they depended on Vietnam to maintain their control. This became similar to the relationship of the Eastern European Communist bloc to the Soviet Union. Dependence on Vietnam cost the Pathēt Lao opposition of the majority of the Lao-Lum who hated Vietnam more than France. It took until the late 1960s for the Pathēt Lao to gain support in Lao-Lum areas.

 

The Pathēt Lao with Vietnamese forces continued to gain territory up to 30 kilometers outside of Luang Prabang. In May 1954, the French incurred a political blow. A new Prime Minister came to power with a policy of withdrawing from Indochina. An international conference in Geneva made decisions about Laos. Representatives from both the Laos French government and Pathēt Lao attended. The conference agreed to make Laos an independent and neutral country. They set up a cease-fire, followed by withdrawal of all foreign forces, disbanded the Pathēt Lao army, formed a coalition government representing all parties and called for free elections. Lao anti-Communist politicians became violently angry focusing on their representative for agreeing to these terms. They funded a gang which attempted to assassinate the representative. He was slightly wounded but the Defense Minister was killed. This forced the existing leader to resign and Katāy Don Sasorit organized a new government.

 

Two months after the conference North Vietnam organized a military force called Group 100 with the purpose of organizing, training, directing and supplying the Army of Pathēt Lao. Katāy encountered problems implementing the Geneva agreement because he had no resources to force the Pathēt Lao army out of the highland areas. The Pathēt Lao and Vietnamese considered these provinces as their liberated areas and denied Laos government authority. The communists also expelled Hmong groups loyal to the Laos government and kept underground forces in the south. For a year a stalemate ensued. In December 1955, the government held elections in the non-Communist areas of the country. Katāys party lost and the former leader, Suvannaphūmā, returned to office. Suvannaphūmās goal remained to create a neutral government since he believed Laos could settle their own differences.

 

The US in conjunction with supporting anti-Communist forces in Vietnam set up the Programs Evaluation Office a.k.a. PEO in Vientiane. Although civilian, it worked with the Royal Lao Army and anti-Communist Hmong tribe. In August 1956, Laos formed a coalition government with representation of Lao Nationalist and Communists. The communists agreed to allow the areas of their control and their army to integrate with the rest of the country. Both sides agreed that Laos would be a neutral country. In November, the government officially took office and in May 1958 free elections occurred. In the National Assembly, the Pathēt Lao won nine of 21 seats.

 

In December 1958, North Vietnam crossed into Laos capturing several villages. Laos did nothing and so lost credibility with loyal groups. In July 1959, North Vietnam stepped up its attacks. North Vietnamese forces attacked and captured the resistance but let Pathēt Lao allies claim the victory and occupy the acquired area. North Vietnam formed a new association in Laos called Group 959. Group 959 served as the Vietnamese command which controlled, organized and provided equipment to the Pathēt Lao.

 

The Laos government encountered problems. The US and other providers of aid adamantly wanted economic reform to decrease inflation. Laos resisted and aid payments stopped. Those opposed to the existing government in the Assembly used this to change the government. Prime Minister Suvannaphūmā was replaced by Phuy Xananikn. Pathēt Lao members lost their positions. In December the controlling party suspended the constitution and began ruling under emergency powers. In July 1959, fighting occurred throughout the country. The elderly king died and his son succeeded him. King Savāngvatthanā became the last King of Laos.

 

From July 28 to 31, 1959, North Vietnam regular army attacked Laos at the north border. The Pathēt Lao remained in the captured area to hide North Vietnamese existence in the area. North Vietnamese strategy opened the first path through the very rugged terrain of what would become the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

 

On August 9, 1960 a coup occurred and demanded the reinstatement of former Prime Minister Suvannaphūmā who began his third government. The US evacuated the PEO. Right wing factions went south to form the anti-Communist Revolutionary Committee backed by the US. The coup split the Army with some supporting the coup leaders and others supporting the right wing. The former group could not maintain itself and sought alliance with the Pathēt Lao which the Prime Minister supported. This made great propaganda for the Pathēt Lao and facilitated communist advance and occupation of most of the north and east of Laos. Pathēt Lao began to receive sizable Soviet military and financial aid and advisers came to Laos. In turn the US sent aid to the anti-Communist side. The National Assembly met and opposed the Prime Minister replacing him with anti-Communist Bunūm. In December, the anti-Communist army reached Vientiane and captured the city. Communist forces retreated to Pathēt Lao areas.

 

A second Geneva conference occurred but did not come to an agreement. However, in June 1961, Lao communist and anti-Communist leaders met at the Plain of Jars and compromised on a government of 11 neutralists, four anti-communists and four Pathēt Lao. In June 1962, Suvannaphūmā began his fourth government with the support of all factions.

 

The Vietnam War escalated and North Vietnam used the Ho Chi Minh trail as a supply route. Once again the Vietnamese had no intention of honoring the agreement of the Laos leaders. The Soviets and Vietnamese continued to aid the Pathēt Lao and the US armed and trained Hmong forces in the Plain of Jars. The Laos neutralist forces accepted US aid causing a split within the neutralist membership. In April 1963, fighting occurred again in the Plain of Jars. Fighting became widespread. In April 1964, there was another coup attempt in which the Prime Minister was briefly arrested. The US refused to support the coup. It collapsed and the Pathēt Lao ministers permanently departed from the capital, thereby ending the coalition government.

 

From 1964 to 1968, the Pathēt Lao did not pose a serious threat to the government. Corruption and warlords within the army caused a greater problem because military officers did not cooperate and spent more time on political maneuvering. The Prime Minister continued to push for his country to be neutral. All factions agreed in theory, but none was willing to compromise.

 

In 1968, the Army of North Vietnam took over fighting the war from the Pathēt Lao. In January, they launched an attack which basically rendered The Royal Lao Army ineffective for several years. Laos became a battlefield between the United States and North Vietnam with Hmong and Thai forces against North Vietnam and Pathēt Lao. This divided the country into two zones. About two thirds of the land containing one quarter of the population was controlled by North Vietnam with assistance from Pathēt Lao. Their objectives included keeping the Ho Chi Minh Trail open and preventing the US from using Laos as a base for raids into Vietnam. The US controlled the remaining one third of the land which contained three quarters of the population. US objectives included extending government control as far into the east as practical, preventing Communist forces from holding the Plain of Jars, gaining intelligence and stopping North Vietnam from using the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The war became centered in the Plain of Jars. In 1969, the North Vietnamese resistance collapsed at the Plain of Jars. They abandoned much equipment and withdrew almost to North Vietnam border. Later they counterattacked and regained what they had lost. For us, as US citizens, we were not told about our country's involvement in Laos. Our involvement became known as "The Secret War".

 

In 1970 when the war extended into Cambodia and closed Cambodian trails, the Ho Chi Minh Trail became more important. In 1971, the Royal Lao Army reentered the war. The Thai and other forces built fortification through the middle of the Plain of Jars. In 1971, the US supported an invasion of southern Laos by the South Vietnamese to break the Ho Chi Minh Trail and support the South Vietnamese government as the US withdrew its troops. However the North Vietnamese were victorious and captured more territory.

 

Approximately 200,000 people were killed in Laos during the war, mostly Lao civilians. The influx of American aid allowed Laos to experience an economic boom, grow service industries and move to a cash economy for the first time. The Pathēt Lao attempted to convince Laos and other countries that it would provide a program of modernization and follow a moderate course. Following a peace agreement between North Vietnam and the US, the two sides in Laos signed a cease-fire announcing an Agreement on the Restoration of Peace and National Reconciliation. Provisions included formation of a Third Coalition government, Suvannaphūmā as prime minister, 12 ministers from each side, and the Consultative Council would replace the National Assembly. The Consultative Council would have 42 members, 16 from each side plus 10 nominees. It would be chaired by Suprānuvong and have equal status with the government. This made Suprānuvong, who leaned towards communism, co-ruler of Laos.

 

In March 1975, with communism spreading in Vietnam and Cambodia, the North Vietnamese authorized action in Laos. Demonstrations occurred in Vientiane and rightist ministers resigned and fled Laos as did senior Royal Lao Army officials. A Pathēt Lao official took over defense so the army would not resist the takeover. The Prime Minister instructed that the Pathēt Lao not be resisted and the US withdrew diplomatic personnel.

 

For awhile the Pathēt Lao seemed to keep their policy of moderation by preserving some of the coalition government, making no arrests and respecting private property. In December a big change occurred. Suprānuvong demanded change at a joint meeting of the government and the Consultative Council. No one resisted, the King abdicated and the Prime Minister resigned. The Laos People's Democratic Republic was announced with Suprānuvong as president. Kaisn reappeared and became prime minister. He effectively ruled the country. Elections and political freedoms ceased to exist. Thousands were sent for reeducation. Many professionals and intellectuals who had been willing to work for the new government changed their minds and left the country. Leaving the country was easier to do from Laos than Vietnam or Cambodia. By 1977, 10% of the population had left. This included most of the educated and business classes. Once again Laos and Vietnam assumed roles similar to Eastern Europe and Soviet Union.

 

At first Laos copied Vietnam socialism, after which it followed Soviet policies. Land became state property and individual farms became co-operatives. Peasants passively resisted. Many immigrated to Thailand. Facilitated by the difficulty of controlling the long Laos-Thai border, Lao farmers could readily sell their crops in the free market of Thailand. State food acquisition greatly decreased. With the cutoff of aid from the free world, decreased assistance from other communist countries, and no import goods, shortages and economic hardship ensued. Active resistance to Communism occurred.

 

In 1977, a 25 year treaty between Laos and Vietnam provided Vietnamese advisors and 30,000 Vietnamese troops to Laos. Hundred of Laos Communist studied in Hanoi. As throughout Laos history, the Vietnamese continued to be unpopular with the majority of Lao people. In 1979, the government announced a reversal of policy. The Prime Minister stated that Laos was not ready for socialism. He modeled his new program on China's Deng Xiaopings, starting free market reforms. Agricultural cooperatives disbanded and surplus grain sold on the free market. The government loosened restrictions on internal movement and cultural policy. However the communists retained their political power.

 

In the 1980s, Vietnam tried to create an Indochina Federation with Laos and Cambodia. However with Vietnam military presence gone and Laos reestablishment of good relations with Thailand and Russia, Laos did better obtaining international aid, trading partners and investors on its own. However, domestic corruption, nepotism and self interest still existed and made free market benefits slow to happen. Since Laos remained a poor country with no access to the ocean and most farmers living close to the subsistence level, they could not produce large surpluses. The country stayed quite poor and made little industrial progress. In 1985, Kaisn put into place the New Economic Mechanism, a policy of abandoning state ownership and economic control. It decreased government bureaucracy and encouraged managers to make their businesses profitable. Unfortunately the latter produced layoffs. Deregulation of prices occurred. It didn't take long for inflation, unemployment, resentment and insecurity to occur especially in the cities. Forces which opposed the government were too weak and disorganized to create an effect.

 

In 1990, the Soviet Union totally cut off aid to Laos. Laos requested assistance from other sources including France, Japan, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. The international banks required economic reform. In the 1990s, the original communists left their positions. A main force in the economy became South East Asian growth especially in Thailand. The Laos government withdrew constraints on international commerce and investment. This led firms from outside Laos to establish business in Laos. The government encouraged exiled Lao and Chinese to come back to Laos. The increase of tourism in South East Asia also benefited Laos. Foreign countries and companies have helped Laos fill in the lack of infrastructure needed for tourism. Small businesses and employment have grown. However subsistence farming continues to furnish a good portion of the GDP.

 

Like most of the communist countries weve visited in this century, the communist party has the political power but economically Laos operates under market forces. People must not challenge the communist rule or publicly speak out against it. Those who do so receive severe treatment. The government attempts to control religious freedom somewhat. The state administers the media but the population has access to Thai radio and television. Since the Thai and Lao languages are mutually comprehensible, Lao people can get news from the outside world.

 

 

 

Day 15: Wednesday, December 24

 

Today we get up early to go to the airport for a flight to Vientiane, Laos. The trip is scheduled for three hours but we have a landing before Vientiane. The first portion of the flight takes an hour on a prop plane. The plane staff gives us custom papers which we fill out. We land at the Pakse International Airport and must get off the plane and go through Laos immigration. Steve gets a real workout lifting International Access Symbolme on and off the plane because the steps of the Lao aviation planes are steep and narrow. Luckily they're considerate about allowing me early boarding. Although as soon as we reach the plane, they let the other passengers follow us. The others end up waiting on the runway for us to complete climbing the stairs and getting into our seats.

 

International Access SymbolWhen we arrive in Vientiane we meet our guide Salard. Our SUV vehicle is quite hard to get into and does not have much legroom. After trying many possibilities, I finally sit in the middle seat on top of my boat cushion. Salard gives us background information on Lao. Population is 6.2 million. He reviews the history. Since I've written that previously, I won't repeat it here.

 

 

History of Vientiane

 

Historians believe that the Khmer established Vientiane as an early settlement in the region of a Hindu temple. The temple would later be replaced by Phra That Luang. During the 11th and 12th century when the Lao and Thai people entered Southeast Asia, they murdered, forced out or assimilated the few remaining Khmers into their civilization

 

In 1354, with the founding of Lan Xang, Vientiane developed into a significant administrative city. In 1560, the king established it as the capital. In 1707, when Lan Xang divided into separate kingdoms, Vientiane became one of the kingdoms. In 1779, the Siamese conquered Vientiane and declared it a dominion of Siam. In 1827, when its king launched a failed rebellion, Siam burned Vientiane to the ground and stole most Lao artifacts including revered Buddhist statues. They also kidnapped people.

 

In the 19th century, the French arrived and found the area of Vientiane depopulated, and, in desperate shape and beginning to be overgrown by forest. In 1893, the French assumed rule of the city. In 1899, the French made it the capital of Laos. They restored the city including Buddhist temples and built colonial buildings.

 

The name of the city comes from the language of Theravada Buddhism. It means "royal sandalwood grove". The sandalwood tree is greatly valued for its scent in traditional India. In current Lao, the meaning may be "city of the moon". Originally the city was called Viangchan but the French renamed it to make it easier for them to pronounce.

 

 

 

Wat Sisaket Interior Wat Sisaket Interior

First we go to Wat Sisakēt. Built in 1818 by King Anouvong to symbolize the revival of Lao after Vietnamese domination, its the oldest remaining temple in Vientiane. It contains 2,000 miniature silver and ceramic Buddha statues, many of which are in crevices within the interior walls. Each crevice holds two Buddhas which symbolizes that everybody needs friends. We see many other Buddhas of different sizes. A large beautiful Buddha in the pose of enlightenment, with its left hand in its lap in the lotus position and the right arm resting on its right leg with fingers pointing down touching the floor predominates the inside. According to our Lonely Planet guide book, in addition to the miniature Buddhas, the temple contains at least 300 seated and standing Buddhas varying in age, size and made of wood, stone and bronze. Most were made between the 16th and 19th centuries in Vientiane. A few originated before that and probably came from Luang Prabang. I find the interior amazing. Laos is called the land of 1,000 elephants but Steve says he'll always think of it as the place of one million Buddhas.

 

Back outside, Salard tells us that a temple is only a temple when monks live there. At least in temperate climates, monks sleep outside all year. We see the areas where monks sleep. Its like an open corridor. Constructed in early Bangkok style because at that time Vientiane was a vassal of Siam, a thick wall surrounds it. Coconut, banana and mango trees shade the grounds. Its style may have kept the Siamese from destroying the temple when they crushed the king's rebellion.

 

Next we walk across the street to Wat Prakeo. Built in 1566, it was the original Lao home of the Emerald Buddha, a gift from Sri Lanka to Lao. The Emerald Buddha now resides in Thailand where International Access SymbolSteve saw it when he visited Bangkok in 1990. I climb the many stairs to enter the Wat. A class of hostesses, being trained for the 2009 South Asia Games, is just letting out. The girls are very pretty and most courteous. I'm sure they will make fine hostesses.

 

Wat means Buddhist temple. Since this temple has never housed monks, it's not really a temple. It's actually a museum. Inside we see many Buddhas and other artifacts originally found in areas close to Vientiane. I find the museum nice but not nearly as impressive as the previous Wat.

 

Lokachulamani Stupa Lokachulamani Stupa

Back in the SUV, we ride through Vientiane passing some beautiful buildings. Our next stop is the national symbol of Laos, the golden Pha That Luang which signifies the Buddhist religion and Lao sovereignty. It also appears on the country's coat of arms. In 236 BC, a modest stupa was built here to house the Buddhas breastbone. Stupas hold relics of the Buddha. When the capital was moved to Vientiane in the 1560s, the King decided to build the Lokachulamani stupa to house the breastbone. The name Lokachulamani means great stupa. During the years since then, four wats have been built around the stupa. Two remain, with Wat That Luang Tai on the south and Wat That Luang Neua on the north. The Supreme Patriarch of Lao Buddhism has his monastic residence in Wat That Luang Neua. A high wall with many small windows surrounds the stupa which is 45 meters high. The stupa base is designed to be mounted by the faithful with walkways around each level and stairways connecting the levels. Each side of the wall is 85 meters long and contains many Buddha images.

 

The complex is incredibly breathtaking! In many of the Buddhist structures we notice Hindu gods and symbols. Salard tells us that Buddhism grew out of Hinduism. The Buddha has 45 poses, each of which signifies something. The most usual pose is enlightenment. Each day of the week has its own pose. There is a monument of seven poses which symbolizes a week. A person's pose is determined by the day of the week on which one is born.

 

Back outside the complex, we spend quite a while taking pictures. Even the entrance is stunning. Close by is a statue of King Sethathiraj, who built this stupa. He sits on a throne with a gold Buddha like sash wrapped around him.

 

View from Patousai Arch View from Patousai Arch

Next we ride to Patousai Arch, a.k.a. the Arch of Victory, a.k.a. the Vertical Runway. During the Vietnam War, the United States gave Laos cement to build an airport. Instead, in 1969, Laos built this monument to soldiers who died fighting for International Access Symbolindependence from France. Steve climbs the arch and shoots some incredible pictures including one looking at a beautifully landscaped area and some views of Vientiane. Salard pushes me around and inside the arch. The inside ceiling is beautiful! It has much gold and figures of Buddha within the central dome. I think the outside is also impressive. We see many monks in the traditional orange robe. When Steve returns from his climb, he tells me that there are eight flights of stairs to the top with a large bizarre or market on the middle floor.

 

Patousai Arch Patousai Arch

While we wait for Steve, Salard asks me about my family and tells me about his. He has an older brother and sister. His mother died when he was nine. His father is a farmer and has remarried. His father had a son with his new wife. When Salard was 13, he entered monk training because it was the only way his family could afford for him to get an education. He stayed through college but realized he didn't want to be a teacher. Now he goes to law school at night.

 

International Access SymbolWe go to the hotel. When we arrive we ask if our room has a stall shower. We're told it doesn't, but they offer to move us to a room that does. When we get to the room, there's no stall shower. We lay down to take a nap. About 5 PM as we begin to fall asleep, music comes from a building with an outside stage about half a block away. I can sleep but Steve is not able to. When we travel, we like to take a brief nap between touring and going out to dinner. The stage is beautiful but it doesn't make up for the inconvenience. We just hope it doesn't last long.

 

Tonight were scheduled to go to dinner in the hotel. It's a Christmas Eve dinner of French and American food. It's very good but many of the dishes have milk or cream in them. We think the milk is safe because its a major hotel catering to tourism. I eat as little as possible since Im newly diagnosed with lactose intolerance, but afterwards my digestion acts up. Santa visits each table and hands out Christmas cookies. Although we enjoy the dinner, we're disappointed that we didn't have Lao food. Oh well, I guess well taste authentic Lao food tomorrow. The performance outside of our room doesnt end until between 10 and 11 o'clock. We find it quite annoying especially since they changed our room to this side of the building.

 

 

 

 

Day 16: Thursday, December 25

 

Buddha Park Buddha Park

Merry Christmas! We have a good but unremarkable breakfast at our hotel. Our first stop for today is Buddha Park, a.k.a. Xieng Khuan. Constructed in 1958, designed by a Buddhist priest Luang Pu (a.k.a. Venerable Grandfather) Bunleus Sulilat, it's an open-air grassy park. International Access SymbolPushing the wheelchair isn't too difficult since most of the dirt path has been packed down. According to Lonely Planet, Bunleus was an eccentric yogi-priest-shaman who combined Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, folklore and symbols into this enigmatic site. Luang Pu directed a group of artist in building the numerous Buddhist, Hindu and single Muslim structures.

 

Sculpture at Entrance Sculpture at Entrance

I like Salards explanation better. According to him, the builder wanted to demonstrate the similarity of Buddhism, Hinduism and Muslim religions. At the entrance stands what looks like a pumpkin. It represents heaven, earth and hell on its interior three stories. From the outside we see three rows of windows. At the bottom extending up to the second row of windows we see a large rectangular head with an open mouth that is the entrance of this structure. The tree of life stands on top of the pumpkin. At the base of the tree of life, there's a hole in the trunk so that anyone who climbs up can come out and look down from the top of the pumpkin. It's so high; I'm glad to see there's a railing around it. Salard says that Steve can climb the pumpkin, walk around each level and then go outside of the tree trunk. Supposedly the tree of life exists somewhere in the world but it's blocked by a large waterfall. Anyone who reaches it achieves something significant. I didn't quite get down what that was. There's no way to climb the pumpkin from the outside. I find this pumpkin structure interesting but bizarre. We decide to walk around the park first and then Steve will climb the structure later.

 


Reclining Buddha Reclining Buddha

 

We wander around for quite a while and see most of the 200 Buddhist and Hindu concrete statues. We're especially impressed with the huge reclining Buddha which symbolizes Buddhas assent into Nirvana. Steve takes a picture with me standing next to the feet to demonstrate how large the sculpture is. Even though I stand on a step, I don't even reach the top of the toes. (I'm 5'1" tall.) We see Buddha in many poses.

 

 

Forms of the Hindu God Forms of the Hindu God

I'm no expert on Hindu gods but recognize Shiva, Vishnu, Rama on top of the elephant Ganesha and the Hindu devil. I find the Hindu devil creepy. It has nine heads and at least as many arms. Steve points out others Hindu structures that he recognizes including Arjuna, the Hindu hero often depicted as an archer, and Avalokiteshvara, a Buddha figure which embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. The token Islam monument is in the back of the park next to the Mekong River. It has three human figures which is contrary to the Muslim tenet that life forms should not be depicted on religious structures.

 

Muslim Monument Muslim Monument

After visiting the Muslim monument, I say to Salard that I see the similarity of Buddhism and Hinduism since the former came from the latter, but I ask how Islam is similar to these. He replies that all religions, even those not represented in the park, worship the same God. This includes Christianity, Judaism and other world religions. Each religion just calls its supreme being by a different name. I'm still a bit confused about Hinduism since I'd been led to believe that its gods are distinct and multiple gods, but later I read that each god is actually a different way to depict the one ultimate being. Steve comments to Salard that saying what he just told us can get a person in big trouble in some places. Salard realizes this. I think it's a wonderful thought especially for Christmas Day.

 

Steve goes into the mouth of the pumpkin. Although it's dark inside, he takes a good number of pictures. I sit and talk to Salard and make notes in my log. It seems quite awhile and just as I wonder where Steve is, he pokes his head out of a window in the top row and assures us he's getting close to the top. I coax him to keep his face in the window for a minute so I can get his picture. It can't be too comfortable because he has to put his head catty corner for it to fit in the window. A little while later he comes out of the tree trunk on top. He takes a beautiful picture of the park looking towards the Mekong River and a photograph of Salard and me sitting in the shade of a large statue. I take several of him as he walks around the top of the pumpkin.

 

When Steve returns he says that all of the inside figures are Hindu. They're scattered around the walls of each level. The first level represents the underworld. The steps between each level are very steep. The second level portrays life and the final level heaven. As we leave the park, we agree that it's a very impressive sight.

 

On the way to our next destination, Salard shows us a picture of himself as a monk and his two younger sisters. His married sister and her family live in his father's house and farm. When his father remarried he moved to his new wife's home. His younger sister lives in Tian with his cousin. He will see his father at the New Year in April.

 

International Access SymbolOur next stop is the Friendship Bridge. Funded by Australia, it links Laos to Thailand. I am looking forward to going to Thailand since I've never been there. There's approximately a four foot, steep rocky hill to climb to get to the walkway that leads to the bridge. This makes access to the walkway extremely difficult. We find a small, narrow slightly smoother path going up to the main path. Steve helps me walk up this difficult path while Salard brings up my wheelchair. A dirt walkway goes up to the bridge. The walkway is well packed, so it's not too difficult for Steve to push the wheelchair on. Salard assists whenever the going gets rough.

 

Attempt to Get to Thailand - Blocked Attempt to Get to Thailand - Blocked

The Friendship Bridge crosses the Mekong River. We almost make it to Thailand when we encounter a barrier with a sign that says "No Entrance". What a disappointment! I push my feet through the barrier so I can say I've been to Thailand, but then Steve says there's a sign ahead that is located at the halfway point between the two countries. I ask why all these vehicles that pass us on the road can just drive over the bridge. Salard says that before the start of the foot path, they have gone through border control and will have to do the same in Thailand. Before going back, we take a few pictures of the Thailand side of the Mekong River. Later I wonder why we weren't given a choice of how we wanted to visit the Friendship Bridge, especially because we're skipping one of the parks that were supposed to see. We walk back down the path. Getting down from the hill seems even more difficult than it was to go up. Perhaps that's because I'm skittish.

 

Back in the vehicle, we ride to the market which is the main shopping place in Vientiane. It's similar to many other markets we've seen and packed with goods of every variety. I find the vendors very friendly. Many of the goods are beautiful and colorful, especially the clothes and produce. We find our chachka, a bamboo container used for serving sticky rice. It's quite different looking than anything we've seen elsewhere. When we see it we ask Salard what it is. He explains that rice is served in it and one uses their fingers to pick up enough rice so s/he can roll it into a small ball and dip it into the sauce of the dish one's eating. Since we haven't yet had authentic Lao food, we haven't seen this container used. We hope we'll get to see it soon. We pass an area in which a woman is cooking and serving hot food. She's very friendly and the food looks delicious. Im getting hungry. I also look for earrings but don't find any that I like enough to buy. At one counter we see a roach which is quite large. No one pays it any attention. Salard doesn't seem bothered by it. Actually it isn't a surprise to see roaches in the market since we're in the tropics.

 

We go to lunch and have a fish dish, a pork dish and sticky rice. Even though he doesn't eat with us, Salard demonstrates the technique of forming a rice ball and dipping it into the sauce. Most Lao main courses have sauce. Our waiter also serves us dishes which have raw vegetables. We politely turn these down and explain to Salard that we have to avoid raw foods. We enjoy our lunch very much and are happy to have our first authentic Lao meal.

 

We're supposed to go see Suan Vatthanatham, the Cultural Park. We decide to skip it because Salard says it's not good and Lonely Planet doesn't even list it. By the time we return to our room, there's no time to do anything else so we rest for a while, order room service and pack. Unfortunately there's another outdoor concert which we can hear TOO well, but luckily it's over by the time were ready to turn in. My stomach is acting up and I'm praying that a good night's sleep will calm it.

 

 

Day 17: Friday, December 26

 

Today we fly to Xieng Khuang to see the Plain of Jars. Our flight is scheduled for noon, so we meet Salard at 10:30 a.m. He tells us our flight is delayed until 3:10 p.m. He offers to go to the museum with us but even though we wanted to see it, I'm feeling poorly so we decide to go back to our room so I can get some more sleep. We come back down to the lobby at noon, check out and go to the airport early. Salard helps us check in and comes with us through security to the gate. We're quite pleasantly surprised with this because yesterday when we asked if he could help us check in, he said it wasn't allowed. Salard tells us that Lao flights are always late. There's only one gate at Vientiane International Airport. Our flight goes first to Luang Prabang then on to Xieng Khuang. It looks to be quite full

 

While we wait, we talk to a couple who are also going to Xieng Khuang. One of their sons will be living there for a year, teaching English. Their son visited Xieng Khuang previously and found the people most friendly. He's so excited about living here for this year that the parents wanted to come and see the place for themselves. At boarding time we approach the staff desk and they take us out first. International Access SymbolThe steps onto this plane are even higher and narrower than on the plane on which we flew to Vientiane. I find it a bit scary going up.

 

The Smallest Airport We've Ever Experienced The Smallest Airport
We've Ever Experienced

As we near Luang Prabang, the announcer says that people going on to Xieng Khuang should stay on the plane. We learn that the weather in Luang Prabang is rainy and that's the reason our flight was late. I wonder if our original flight was canceled because the flight number of this one is different. It takes only 25 minutes to reach Xieng Khuang and we're happy to get there. My wheelchair is ready when I get off the plane. About six men stand around and watch Steve lift me off. One man does seem to be making sure we're okay. They show us the way to the terminal but no one comes with us. The airport is one very small building! It's probably the smallest airport we've ever been to. The temperature is quite cold, which isn't surprising since we're up high in the mountains of Laos.

 

We find our guide, Ken, get our luggage and board the van well be using for the next two days. Our itinerary says we will begin our tour of the Plain of Jars. However, Ken says that due to the delay in our flight, there's not enough time or daylight left to do this today. We ride through the small town of Phonsavan in the province of Xieng Khuang. Ken points out sites including a large orphanage. He says that Australians come to adopt children. He also points out that there are many Chinese in Xieng Khuang. He shows us our hotel on the top of a mountain and says it's the best in Xieng Khuang. We turn onto the road that leads up to it. It's a dirt road and quite bumpy. Apparently very few roads in Xieng Khuang are paved. When we reach the hotel, it looks nice. We're not expecting much because we know it's basic.

 

International Access SymbolOur room is a distance from the lobby. It's in the last building on top of the hill. Most of the walkway to get there is level. We pass other buildings of the hotel to which the entrances are down a flight of stairs. At the end of the walkway in front of our room, the family has placed a memorial watt, which is the traditional memorial to dead family members. Our room is nice but cold. When we look out the back door of our room, we find the view awesome! We take plenty of pictures.
View From Our Room View From Our Room

 

Steve tries to find the heater but has no luck. I take a nap under blankets and am warm enough with my heaviest clothes on. We go to dinner at the hotel. I eat simply, having rice soup and green tea which I enjoy. Steve also enjoys his although it wasn't what he'd thought it would be. We ask about heat in our room and were told "no heat, blankets." On our walk back to our room, we notice that some buildings have fireplaces. Unfortunately ours isn't one of them. We find two more blankets in our room, even though we already had enough extra blankets.

 

We go to bed early so we can keep warm! We joke with each other about our insisting we come to see the Plain of Jars. Steve tells me that according to his alarm clock it's not that cold, only 62F. I guess our discomfort is due to the fact that we've been in a very warm tropical climate since we arrived in Vietnam.

 

 

 

 

Day 18: Saturday, December 27

 

When we get up, it's in the high 50s and rainy. Again we wonder why we wanted to do this part of our trip. Given the type of our accommodation were not surprised to see that breakfast is a simple buffet. We head out to the Plain of Jars in the van. To have enough leg room, I have to sit on a fairly hard seat. When we ride on dirt roads, which are more common than paved roads, it's quite bumpy. Oh well, we knew this part of our trip would be rough.

 

 

History of Plain of Jars

 

No one knows the actual history of the Plain of Jars. Several legends have developed over the years. One states the jars came from a community of giants who lived there. Another legend tells of Khun Cheung, an ancient king, who was victorious in a long battle against his enemy. He had the jars made to store vast amounts of rice wine for his celebration. Others believe local tradition used natural materials to mold the jars and fire them in the kiln cave at Site 1. Some believe the jars had the purpose of collecting monsoon rainwater for large groups of travelers when rain came only during the monsoon season. If it became stagnant, travelers would boil it. They offered prayers and beads for rain, leaving the items inside and around the jars.

 

Archaeological research of the Plain of Jars began in the early 1930s. Results showed that the stone jars served as prehistoric burial rites. Lao and Japanese archaeologists discovered the human remains, burial items and ceramics around the stone jars. The site is believed to have been started and used in the Iron Age from approximately 500 BC to 500 A.D. The more than 90 sites of the Plain of Jars have shown great potential for understanding Southeast Asia prehistory concerning the relationship between societies during the Iron Age. Each site has been assigned a number for identification. Unfortunately unexploded ordinance has not been cleared from most sites so these sites cannot be excavated.

 

In the early 1930s, a French archaeologist Madeleine Colani, found materials which showed that the cave at Site 1 could have been a crematorium. Its a natural limestone cave with two man-made holes in the top. The holes served as the chimneys. She continued to work at 12 sites and published her findings in 1935 in which she states that the Plain of Jars was an Iron Age burial site. The makers carved the jars. Embedded in the jars she found organic soil covered beads, burnt teeth and bone fragments all of which indicate cremation. Some of the jars held contents from more than one person. She also excavated human bones, pottery fragments, iron and bronze items, beads of stone and glass, weights and charcoal outside of the jars which indicate burial sites of bodies not cremated. Colani linked the location to trade routes especially those of the salt trade, making the assumption that the inhabitants of the Plain of Jars wanted salt. Traders came there to obtain iron ore available from the area, which the inhabitants may have mined.

 

Archaeological research continued in 1994 with surveying and mapping of Site 1 by Professor Eiji Nitta. He concluded that the stone jars were a monument to mark the surrounding graves. Based on the urn properties and grave contents, Nitta dates the Plain of Jars to the late first to early second millennium A.D. In 1994 and 1996, Lao archaeologist Thongsa Sayavongkhamdy excavated sites. He also found that the stone jars served as a person's primary or secondary burial surrounded by family member graves.

 

In 2001, R. Engelhardt and P. Rogers theorized that stone jars were used for distillation as part of traditional Southeast Asian Royal mortuary practice. Current funeral practices of Thai, Cambodian and Lao royalty place the corpse soon after death into an urn while it's going through transformation from the physical to the spirit world. Afterwards it's cremated and then buried. Burial sites are located across waterways and away from residential areas in high, prominent areas. This is similar to the location of the Plain of Jars sites. Among Tai people of the area, the upper-class people get cremated to release their spirit to heaven and commoners are buried leaving their spirits to remain on earth.

 

Another archaeological data collection occurred from 2004 to 2005 and in 2007 during the clearing of unexploded ordinance. UNESCO archaeologist Julie Van Den Bergh found evidence to support Nitta. Colani's conclusions become questionable because many of the cremation remains appear to be from adolescents and the associated items in the surrounding burials are very similar. Van Den Bergh theorizes that the stone jars had different uses throughout their time. In the earlier ages, dead bodies were put in the stone jars to distill the bodies. Later the jars served as a repository for cremated remains. Jars with smaller openings may indicate that entire bodies were not placed inside jars or may have been for children.

 

Aerial photographs imply that a narrow path could have linked the sites. The differences in the jar sites may indicate that a group of villages with similar cultures inhabited the area. The jars at the various sites have different shapes and are made of different materials. The number of jars at each site varies. Common characteristics include the elevated locations and impressive views.

 

 

We get to Site 1, the largest and easiest to reach. Luckily, it stopped raining at least for a while. I had not read the archaeological findings or much of the extensive Lao history about which I wrote in the History sections, so I will share Ken's explanation of the Plain of Jars and US involvement in the Lao war against communists a.k.a. "The Secret War". According to Ken, there are 18 sites but only three have been cleared of unexploded ordnance.

 

When we get out of the van, Ken gives us Lesson One: Safety. During "The Secret War", the US dropped 2,000,000 tons of bombs on Laos. Thirty percent did not explode and still pose serious risk. Markers have been placed along the path to show where it's safe to walk. The markers are square with one red side and one white. Ken explains and we see a large board which advises

 

"Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has performed Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) clearance on this site

"Coloured concrete markers at ground level indicate the areas that have been cleared.

[ | ] -------------------------------------------------- [ | ]

Cleared Area between white markings

WHITE: Indicates area that has been sub-surfaced cleared of UXO.

 

RED: Indicates area that has NOT been sub-surfaced cleared but has been visually cleared only. (UXO on the surface only has been removed)

 

At the top of the sign there is a rectangle with a skull and cross bones on a red background.

 

International Access SymbolAlthough we had read of this, I find it very startling to actually see it. We trek up the hill through mud and somewhat dry grass. At times Steve's pushes me. When the pushing becomes too difficult, he walks with me and Ken brings my chair. When we arrive at the jars, we are incredibly awed!

 

Ken tells us it's a mystery how, why and from where the jars got here. Experts believe that the jars were carved about 2,000 years ago by a lost Stone Age people. The materials may be from a quarry which is a two day hard trek from this site, over three mountains. Many jars are so large that most people wonder how the jars were brought to this site. No one knows the reason for the jars or their location but it's believed to be for funerary purposes. No jewelry or organic material has been found, perhaps due to looting. Many think that the jars could have been used as coffins or a type of container in which a body was placed. From the shape of some, it appears that they had lids. Human images have been found on lids and on some jars. We see one image on a jar.

 

Cave Used by Viet Cong Cave Used by Viet Cong

Many jars were damaged or destroyed during the bombings of the 1960s and 1970s. We see only one lid, so they too may have been destroyed or removed. Ken points out the cave and tells us that the Viet Cong lived there during the war. It's to one side of the lower part of the site. In front of the cave entrance, we see a memorial watt. It looks much like the one outside of our room except smaller and it has sticks which look like incense on its platform. We also see several bomb craters. Later Steve tells me that Ken never fails to point out any bomb craters they pass. We observe many red and white markers. Not too far from the cave, we see a war trench which is quite similar to the one we saw at the Cu Chi tunnels. Obviously neither side cared about preserving the historical sites.

 

The Largest Jar The Largest Jar

From the upper level looking down to the lower level there are jars as far as we can see! The largest jar is partially buried in a tilted position. When we stand up against it, we only reach the rim on its lower side. I read it weighs a ton. As we walk around the lower site, we agree that this looks like it could have been a graveyard.

 

Inside of a jar, I see what looks like it might be red clay or perhaps rust. One jar has a lid on it, but it's not a good fit so it's probably not the original lid. Later I read that these stones disks were probably grave markers, not lids. Archaeologists believe that the lids were probably made from a less durable material than the jars and decomposed over time. Some of the carvings on the jars have worn away and become unrecognizable over the years.

 

While we walk around Site 1, it begins to rain again. We pull out our rain gear and stay reasonably dry. However this makes pushing the wheelchair even harder. The wheels of my chair quickly become caked with wet grass and mud.

 

International Access SymbolWhen we planned this trip, I wondered how much of the Plain of Jars I would be able to see. I am very pleased that I see as much as I do. By now neither one of us questions why we wanted to come this far off the beaten track. It's an awesome place.

 


Ken tells us that there are two more Plain of Jars sites close by. The next site on our itinerary is a International Access Symbolhistoric cave. Unfortunately, both choices requiring an uphill hike so I will not be able to get to either. Steve says that he would prefer to see the other Plain of Jars sites, so that's where we go. Given the cool and wet weather, Ill be happy to stay in a sheltered area. Even the van works for me.

 

We drive to the next site, through beautiful countryside. Despite the rain, I find it breathtaking. The 15 mile drive takes over an hour because the roads are dirt and bumpy. The smoothest parts are bridges on which the driver has to be careful to keep the tires on planks covering a boardwalk like surface. I'm always happy when we reach these. I'm usually not bothered by bumpy roads, but my seat in this vehicle is so uncomfortable that I enjoy these little even bits of smooth ride. The homes we see are of a good size but very basic. All are farm houses and many are built on stilts. Most have laundry hanging under a roof on their front porch.

 

We eat at a soup kitchen/restaurant located at the beginning of the path to Site 2. It's a very basic restaurant with part in a sheltered walled area and more tables with a roof over them. The floor is dirt. The kitchen area is in the back of the dining area where the heat source is ground pits on which pots sit. We decide to sit inside and hope to stay at least somewhat warm. Dogs roam around freely. Ken explains the choices and asks what we want. We order noodle soup with chicken and a spinach type vegetable. When the food arrives it's basic but good.

 

International Access SymbolI decide to sit in the van while Steve and Ken hike to Site 2. First I use the toilet. It's not quite on the floor but is a squat. The floor is wet from the rain as well as the method of flushing, so Steve helps me the whole time. To flush the toilet, one dips a container into a tub of water nearby. This often causes a splash which wets the floor. It's also not difficult for the water to spill between the basin and the toilet. Then one takes the water and pours it into the toilet.

 

I sit in the van with the door open and watch other tourists. At one point, goats in a single file walk by the restaurant. They break their formation and wander through the eatery looking for food scraps. One goes into a small trash basket. That's when the owners come and chase them away. They resume their line formation and continue along their path. I begin to write in my log but end up taking a nap. I think the rocking of the van, the bumps and the cold rain have made me extra tired.

 

Site 2 - Long Thin Jars Site 2 - Long Thin Jars

When Steve returns he tells me that it was a long muddy clime to get to Site 2. He found Site 1 more interesting. They climbed at least one set of uneven brick steps. This site contains approximately 90 jars on two hills. Most of these tended to be longer (about seven feet) and narrower than those at Site 1. A tree had grown through one of the jars.


Roaming Goats Roaming Goats

Apparently the line of goats I saw earlier took the path to Site 2. Steve said that they came in a line, broke formation and milled around for a while looking for food. Then they got back into line and continued on their way. The line was headed by a large horned male goat. Weve seen a good number of goats in our travels, but never behavior like this. I really enjoy it. I always enjoy seeing wildlife up close in their natural environment.

 

We drive to Site 3 along more country roads and across several planked bridges -- ah a bit of relief from the bumps. In back of a field we see a temple. We also see what looks like a house burning peat and several country homes. I especially like one white concrete home with a bright blue roof.

 

Site 3 - Small Flat Jars Site 3 - Small Flat Jars

 

 

 

International Access SymbolAgain I wait in the van at Site 3. When Steve returns he says that the trek to Site 3 was the most difficult. They crossed a slippery, rickety bamboo bridge, walked around many working fields and climbed over a barbed wire fence via a steep wooden ladder. He saw approximately 150 jars that were smaller but more elegant. They appeared to be more flat. Steve says he found Site 3 interesting but liked the other two sites better.

 

Back in the van, we leave the dirt route for a while and get on a paved road. Soon we take another dirt road to the Hmong village, Ban Tha Chock. The Hmong are an indigenous hill tribe of Laos and other Southeast Asia countries. This village has been designated a UNESCO site. We find the village and the people very interesting. I wonder if the people have ever seen a wheelchair before. Each person we see seems very courteous and friendly. The adults smile and nod to us, but don't stop their work. We see quite a few children; some are eating corn on the cob as they wander around the village. Even though a few children gather to have their pictures taken, they are somewhat bashful when we try to talk to them. One young boy pushes a wagon filled with what looks like a bail of straw. We're happy to see that our visit doesnt disturb the villagers daily life.

 


Hmong Village Hmong Village

All of the buildings are wooden with thatch roofs. They use bomb casings as stilts for their raised buildings. We see more bomb casings lined up against the fence, perhaps for maintenance or future projects. We see a lot of corncobs and husks strewn about on the ground, but otherwise the village is neatly kept. We observe many animals wandering around, including a large buffalo, turkeys and chickens. I see a few pumpkins hanging from tree limbs. Perhaps this is a way of preparing them to eat. We really enjoy visiting this Hmong village!

 

International Access SymbolThe rain stops just before we arrived at the village but starts again about a half hour after we arrive. We continue our visit until it gets too muddy to push the wheelchair. Ken tells us that this is what the weather is like in the rainy season except that the rain is heavier. We've never seen the wheelchair or ourselves so muddy.

 

By the time we return to our hotel, we're all joking that the wheelchair needs a car wash. Ken and the driver tell us to wait in the van. They take my wheelchair out and use the hotel hose to wash it. When they come back, were really surprised to see that my wheelchair is wonderfully clean and has no mud on it! We thank them very much, especially because we were wondering how we were ever going to clean it. Back in our room, Steve does a great job of cleaning our mud caked sneakers. We'll take care of our pants when we get to Luang Prabang and have a place to launder and time to dry them.

 

We take a rest and go to dinner. Again I have rice soup and tea. I've decided to keep my eating light until we're out of Xieng Khuang. Steve has fish with vegetables in a light tomato-based sauce with rice. We pack and go to bed and wonderful warmth early. I get up during the middle of the night and notice that the high jalousie window in our bathroom is open. I tell Steve and he closes it. It warms up slightly.

 

 

Day 19: Sunday, December 28

 

When we get up, the sun is shining and it's a nice day out! There's no buffet at breakfast, but we have the same choice of food as at yesterdays buffet. I find today's breakfast better since it's cooked to order.

 

The only business open on Sunday is the fresh market. Ken says that since it's Sunday, the market is busier than usual especially with a lot of children running around. People stare and not many are friendly even when we smile and offer greetings. The whole experience is a disappointment. It seems to start when Steve sets up to take a picture of a live animal for sale. Several of the active ones look like large moles. An inactive one looks somewhat like a raccoon. The woman who's selling them says no picture. Steve asks why not, since usually people welcome pictures or don't care. She's adamant and Ken steers us away.

 

International Access SymbolBetween the animal incident, the unfriendly stares and the hard walking we agree we've experienced enough of the market. I wonder if perhaps the woman had a problem with me in my wheelchair. It appears that many of the people at the market have not seen a wheelchair before. Perhaps they were scared of it. Steve thinks that perhaps the woman was selling something illegal.

 

Next we go to a wood carving craft shop in the back of a home on a residential street. We see two men working and their completed artwork. The results of their finished work are beautiful. Ken tells us that there are usually eight workers but since today is Sunday, some are off.

 

Interesting Looking Truck Interesting Looking Truck

Back in the van, Steve mentions to Ken that he saw a sign for the Office of Unexploded Ordnance. He asks if it would be possible to visit. We go but it's closed. Ken's suggests a visit to a silk weaving factory. We ride there, with the same result. As we're riding around town, we see an interesting truck. It looks more like a tractor with four wheels, an open engine over which there's a long blue triangle of pipes and a wagon on the back in which a boy stands watching so that the goods dont fallout off truck.

 

We have a leisurely lunch and enjoy International Access Symbolwatching several cats in the restaurant. I use the bathroom, but the toilet is much like yesterday's. Today's floor is not quite as wet since it's concrete. This time I need less assistance from Steve.

 

We head over to the airport, thinking we're a little late, only to learn that they expect the flight to be late. The airport consists of two rooms. From the doorway, one can see registration, immigration and the gate. At registration, when the staff person checks our tickets which take us to Vientiane for our connecting flight to Luang Prabang he says that the flight to Vientiane lands at Luang Prabang first! We ask to get off at Luang Prabang and for Ken to notify the Luang Prabang office of our early arrival. We also wonder why we were ever booked onto two flights with a long layover in between, when one flight was available. The flight planning for our trip leaves a lot to be desired. When we arrive home, I ask for a refund on the flight we didnt take. My travel agent says that the airline does not give refunds.

 

As we wait for passport control, we learn that our flight has been delayed until 4 pm. I check International Access Symbolout both Ladies Rooms in the airport, but theyre both swatters. Thank God for my femme device that allows me to use a swatter toilet. As we sit at the entrance to the departure field, were amazed at the animals which wander around the field. First we see several chickens. When they leave, three cows come and go.

 

Our flight to Luang Prabang goes quickly. It takes about 25 minutes. Only four of us get off the plane so theres no mad rush at the luggage carousel. We meet our guide, Ping, and driver. Ping suggests I sit in the front of the van and I try it. However leg room is tight because the seat is all the way up. Also I cant understand Ping when she speaks.

 

Our Hotel Villa Maydou Our Hotel Villa Maydou

Its not far to our hotel, the Villa Maydou in Luang Prabang, which is a former home in the Lao style that International Access Symbolhas been converted into a guesthouse. This sounds nice but it turns out not too good for me. When we leave the van, theres a decent brick walkway, then an area of gravel which isnt too bad. The final approach to the guesthouse consists of scattered slate, partly level stones. This last part is the killer. I need Steves help. The dining room is also outside. From the hotel its accessed by a similar path of scattered, barely level slate stones. Some stones can be avoided by walking on grass followed by a decent brick walkway. Everything in our room except one desk chair is low. In typical Asian style, its a simple room. In addition the toilet is low and I cannot consistently get up from it without help.

 

We settle in and then go to dinner. Its gotten cold so our food arrives luke warm. Steve orders a duck entre. When it arrives, it doesn't even appear to be what he ordered, but the waiter assures us that it is.

 

At first, I was unhappy with our accommodations due to the many architectural challenges. However, by the end of our stay, I love the experience and authenticity of the guesthouse. I'm sure it helped that the staff were exceedingly nice.

 

History of Luang Prabang

 

In 698 A.D., a Tai priest Khun Lo established a dynasty, giving Luang Prabang the name Muang Sua. The dynasty lasted through 15 rulers. In 709, the Chinese Nan-chao briefly occupied Muang Sua replacing the Tai administrators. It's unknown how long this occupation lasted. When the occupation ended, the Tai dynasty resumed control. Although dates are nebulous, its believed that the dynasty ruled for close to a century.

 

The Khmer established a settlement in Xay Fong near Vientiane. The Champa took over parts of southern Lao. They stayed on the banks of the Mekong until 1070. The Khmer ruler expanded to Muang Sua, where he took control without fighting. He and his son stayed in power, establishing a dynasty. The town was renamed Xieng Dong Xieng Thong, a Tai name.

 

Fighting among groups ensued. During this time, Khun Chuang from the Khmu tribe of northern Lao captured the area. From 1128 to 1169, his family reinstated the Siamese governing system from the 800s. From 1185 to 1191, the Khmer took control. Control changed hands until 1353 when Xieng Dong Xieng Thong became the capital of Lan Xang. In 1560, the Siamese king moved the capital to Vientiane.

 

In 1707, Lan Xang divided into three kingdoms. Luang Prabang became the capital of the Kingdom of Luang Prabang. When the French colonized Laos, they made Luang Prabang the royal residence of the colony. The Luang Prabang leader became the nominal head of Laos. With independence, the King became the head of state.

 

 

 

Day 20: Monday, December 29

 

Our hotel is simple, and breakfast is standard. It includes fruit, bread, croissants and eggs. We enjoy it.

 

International Access SymbolOn our way to today's sites, Ping tells us that wheelchairs aren't allowed in the palace. The tour is about an hour long and visitors are not allowed to wear their shoes. We decide to skip it even though we were really looking forward to seeing it. Well just go to the palace grounds. I suggest to Steve that I wait outside and he can go on the tour. He doesn't like that idea and asks why handicapped people are discriminated against. Ping doesn't have an answer. Between no wheelchair and an hour walk without shoes on floors that are most likely slippery, it's just too risky for me.

 

International Access SymbolWe go to see the departure place from where the Mekong River cruise leaves, since were scheduled for this tomorrow. Because it's the dry season, the water level is very low. To reach the boat, wed have to go down approximately 90 stairs and then walk a plank. Today the boats are docked on the plank and it wouldn't be too difficult but if the river recedes more in 24 hours it would be very difficult. We decide against attempting the cruise, since further recession of the water is likely. We had extended our tour for one day to do this cruise. I am the one who most wanted to do it and am disappointed, again.

 

Confluence of Nam Khan River into Mekong Confluence of Nam Khan River Into Mekong

Next we stop to see the confluence of the Nam Khan River into the mighty Mekong River. The view beautiful with much lush green including palm trees, plantings which I don't recognize and what looks like small rice paddies at the river's edge.

 

We ride to Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, the largest Buddhist temple in the city. The name means The New Monastery of the Golden Land. Built from 1796 to 1797 by King Anourout, it underwent renovation in 1821. King Manthathorat restored it to its present design and renamed it to Wat Mai which means New Monastery. Since it was next to the palace, it had many royal worshippers. We see an exterior front porch with black lacquer and gold leaf polls supporting the roof and ornate gold leaf walls depicting scenes of Ramayana and Buddhas pan ultimate incarnation. I read that it's the most lavishly decorated of the city's temples. We walk around the grounds seeing many monk dormitories and a good number of monks performing their daily activities including hanging laundry. It doesn't appear that monks sleep outside here.

 

Ping tells us that there are 32 temples in Luang Prabang. All have monks living in them. There used to be 65 temples. I guess that communism caused many to close. Since Ping seems reluctant to say anything negative about her country, I don't make this comment out loud. She tells us that there are two types of Buddhism and each has different reasons why boys become monks.

 

<Gilded Buddha inside Wat Mai Suwannaphumahama Gilded Buddha inside Wat Mai
Suwannaphumaham

International Access SymbolSteve goes inside to check out the temple and determine whether it's worth it for me to come in because there are quite a few steps and one cannot enter wearing shoes inside. He's back quickly and says it's definitely a must-see site. It's beautiful! The gold and red interior has an altar on which one amazingly large gilded Buddha sits. We see many smaller Buddhas and miscellaneous offerings surrounding the front of the large Buddha. There's a framed picture of Abbot Pavie who helped open Luang Prabang to the world in 1887. Nestled behind the large Buddha, we observe the original smaller Buddha. This is the gold Pha Bang Buddha, the most important image in Luang Prabang! The city is named for this statue. It's 83 cm high, with approximately 54 kg of gold (thirty three inches high and 119 pounds) statue. It will be moved to the palace temple in the future. Legend says it was made during the first century A.D. and given to the Angkor Khmers. The Angkor King gave it to his son-in-law who was the warrior who founded the first Lao kingdom. I find it most impressive. We also see many gold leaf images of Buddhas on the wall.

 

People come in and pray. Ping explains that praying consists of kneeling, folding ones hands and bowing to the floor three times. The first bow is for God, the second for Buddha and the final for the parents who took care of the praying person as a child. Lao people always keep their parents in their homes when the parents can no longer care for themselves.

 

Market Market

Next we walk through the market. The market sells a wide variety of products, mostly food. We see many types of rice. I'm not only amazed at the different types but each vendor has hers in a different type of container including cloth sacks, metal bins and baskets. We see all types of plant produce and animals which are both live and dead. Chicken and ducks are live. Fish are whole and dead. We're amazed to see tree bark tied in bundles. After Ping tells us what we're looking at, she informs us that it's used for cooking and chewing. We find the people friendly. They don't try to push us to buy anything. One woman wears a Santa hat. I really enjoy the market.

 

Haw Pha Bang Temple Haw Pha Bang Temple

We proceed to the palace compound. Today the palace is the Royal Palace Museum, the primary Museum of Luang Prabang. It combines Lao and French architectural styles. King Sisavangvong built the palace from 1904 to 1909 after the original palace of 1887 was destroyed by invaders. I find the building quite impressive from the outside. We see a good number of people in the compound. Steve and Ping go into the Haw Pha Bang temple which is the Royal Palace Chapel being built to house the Pha Bang Buddha. Started in 1963, the Communists halted its construction in 1975. It's nearing completion. I enjoy the beautifully ornate outside with the faade of gold and green emerald like stone. The banister is a dragon like snake, somewhat like the one we saw at Angkor Wat except it's gold and green instead of blackened cement. Whereas most temples we visit are dull due to the passing centuries, this one sparkles. Our driver offers to push me around while I wait outside. At first I say that I'm fine just sitting, but he kindly says there are a few things which I should not miss. He points out a statue of the King. The grounds are most impressive. When Steve returns, he tells me about the elaborate pedestal he saw inside on which the Pha Bang Buddha will eventually sit. I insist that he go to see the statue of the King.

 

We walk down the street which Ping says is called Friendship Street. Formerly it was Chinatown, but today it has many hotels located on it. I wonder why we aren't staying in a hotel here which is more centrally located. Perhaps it's because we booked late and there are many tourists at this time of year. So far we've met a good number from Australia. We do a bit of shopping and I find a pair of shell earrings, the first earrings that I buy in Laos. I enjoy the street, finding it a nice change from the traditional sites. It also has restaurants and small shops most of which are quite active. We stop to take a picture of a communist flag flying from a window, because its the only one weve seen so far in Laos.

 

Wat Saen Wat Saen

Next we go to see Wat Saen, a.k.a. Temple of 1000 Happinesses, built in 1718 and restored in 1957. The restoration commemorated Buddhas birth 2500 earlier. Saen means 100,000 in Lao but no one is sure what the significance is to this temple. While researching the temple, I found several different spellings of the name and two legends about the significance of 100,000. One states that it was built with 100,000 stones from the Mekong. Another says that a gift of 100,000 Kip was given to build the temple. (Kip is the name official monetary unit.) It's the largest and the most ornate of the smaller temples. We see the Buddha image in the "Calling for Rain" pose and a small picturesque shrine which holds a Buddha footprint. The complex has many buildings and temples within its smoothly paved courtyard.

 

International Access Symbol

 

We go onto Wat Sop, another of the smaller temples in Luang Prabang. During the 15th century, King Theng Kham built it to commemorate his father King Sao Takaphat. In 1479, the father was killed at the end of his 41 year reign. I don't go in here but find a small structure to the side of the main temple quite interesting. It has many Buddhas under its roof, which is supported by red and white corner posts. There is a wicker altar in front of it for offerings.

 

Wat Xieng Thong Wat Xieng Thong

We go on to my final Wat of the day, Wat Xieng Thong, one of the oldest temples in Laos. The name means Monastery of the Golden City. Some consider this temple to be the most magnificent of Luang Prabang and Laos temples. Built in 1560 by King Setthatirath, the crowning of subsequent kings occurred here. It contains a series of charming sloping layered roofs and glass murals which exemplify the classic temple architecture of Luang Prabang. Historically it has been the principal wat of the city. It remained under imperial control until 1975.

 

International Access SymbolOnce again, Steve goes in to check it out and tells me I should come inside. We admire its large golden Buddha. We see stencils of gold leaf Buddha images and other golden structures. The tree of life has been represented in a mosaic toward the back. Im impressed and glad I came in but I find the outside much more fascinating.

 

Mosaic Depicting Rural Life Mosaic Depicitng Rural Life

Back outside we walk around the large complex. It's certainly the most extensive complex we've visited. The mosaics on the outside of the buildings are interesting and elaborate. Steve goes into most of the buildings including one which houses the reclining Buddha, while Ping pushes me around to see the rest of the complex. The exterior of most of the buildings have intricate murals. Ping explains some, including one of a Lao fortune-telling, and the tree of life. My favorite mosaic is on the outside of the Reclining Buddha Chapel. The walls are inlaid with brightly colored glass mosaics that illustrate religious activity and every day life in rural Laos. Most of the people in the mosaic are working while others pray.

 

Steve goes into the Royal Funerary Chariot Hall, built in 1960, which houses a gilded chariot used in 1959 to carry King Sisavangvongs body to a field for cremation. Hes impressed by this elaborate hearse comprised of a dragon boat mounted on tires. Some of the stencils on the wall depict the ornate caskets of kings, queens and kings' brothers. In front of the walls he sees many standing Buddhas of varying sizes some of which are draped in orange sashes.

 

We find all of the temples that we visit beautiful. The last three are within the same block. We wonder why they're so close together. Ping explains that outside of the city there were villages. Each village had a temple in the city, and many of these were built close together. She also tells us that Buddhists go to Temple two times a month. If they can't, Buddhist homes contain a temple at which they pray.

 

Our next stop is Phu Si Hill, a.k.a. Mount Phousi, a hill in the center of Luang Prabang. It's an anomaly that such a hill exists in the middle of this relatively flat city. Everything we've read about the hill has said the view from it is fantastic. While we were planning our trip, I checked with our travel agent to International Access Symbolsee if there was any way for me to get to the top of it. She told me that we would be able to drive at least part way up. Our van pulls up to the staircase. I tell Ping what our travel agent had told me. She checks with the driver but replies that there is no way to do this.

 

Climb to Phu Si Hill Climb to Phu Si Hill

Steve and Ping climb 328 tall steps to the summit. Our driver pulls around to the other side of the hill where they will come down. He tells me it's more picturesque over here and I agree. I sit in the van, look out at the river and write postcards. I look forward to hearing about the hill over lunch, which is next.

 

We go to lunch and enjoy the food. I order a Lao dish which Ping recommends, chicken with coconut milk and herbs. Steve orders buffalo sausage and gets pork and buffalo sausage. We enjoy the pork but dont really care for the buffalo. My main course is like a soup and goes well with the sticky rice which is purple. We don't taste much difference between this purple sticky rice and the usual white variety. For dessert we have banana, coconut milk sticky rice balls which we love.

 

View from Top of Phu Si Hill View from Top of Phu Si Hill

Steve tells me about his trip up Phu Si Hill. Part way up the staircase, he saw a woman holding a small bird cage. For luck one can buy a bird cage with a bird inside, carry it to the top of the hill and release the bird. Wat Chom Si stands at the summit as a landmark temple which can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. Steve says that from here he could see almost a 360 view of Luang Prabang. He shows me the pictures he took of the city. I find them quite impressive. He took several of the Mekong River. One shows the smaller Khan River on the left and the mighty Mekong running through the middle of Luang Prabang. The mountains in the background look magnificent. In another, he zoomed in on a bridge a few blocks away from our hotel. He also points out the distinctive roof of Wat Xieng Thong.

 

Buddha as Teacher of Children Buddha as Teacher of Children

He saw many temples and statues of Buddha including Buddha teaching a group of children. During the climb down the hill, he saw his favorite Buddha image in the pose meaning "Stop Fighting". Buddha stands with arms at about shoulder height. Both hands face outward in the stop sign. He saw another Buddha foot print, supposedly one made when the Buddha walked through this region 2500 years ago. They also stopped at Wat Tham Phu Si on the way down. Rocks have formed grottoes in this Wat. One grotto contained the Pha Kachai style Buddha, a.k.a. the laughing Buddha. Another grotto held the traditional Buddha with what looks like an old man sitting in front of it with an altar in front of him and many large, beautiful flowers surrounding both figures. Steve said that the staircase they descended had a greater number International Access Symbolof stairs which made for an easier descent because they were less steep.

 

At the end of lunch, I want to use the restroom. Steve goes first to scope it out. He says it's down about six steps and once inside the tiles are very slippery. Although I'm disappointed, I think I can wait until we get back to the hotel which is our next destination.

 

We have relax for the remainder of the afternoon. By the time were hungry again, it's late and we decide to eat in the hotel restaurant. Steve had fried rice and we both love it. I have rice soup with pork. It's okay, but I'm sure that it's the nuances of the dish I'm not crazy about. We enjoy our wine.

 

 

Day 21: Tuesday, December 30

 

That Pathum Stupa That Pathum Stupa

Today is our last day of touring. First we go to Wat Wisunalat which is very close to our hotel. Its nicknamed the Watermelon Wat because of the dome of the structure. That Pathum Stupa, closest to the entrance looks like half a watermelon. Since the sim which is the main building was originally built in 1513, this makes it the oldest continually operating temple of Luang Prabang. Built by the king of the same name who ruled from 1501 to 1520, it symbolized the kingdoms unity. It's also known as Wat Visoun, named after the village. From 1513 to 1707, it served as the home of the Pha Bang Buddha.

 

Buddha Statues Inside Wat Buddha Statues Inside Wat

In 1887, a gang of Yunnanese robbers (Chinese marauders) known as the Black Flag Haw set it on fire. It was rebuilt in 1898. Those responsible for the reconstruction kept the new structure quite close in style to the original. Inside of the high ceiling sim building, we see the largest Buddha in Luang Prabang. It's made of stucco and covered in gold leaf. We also view many Buddha statues made from wood, bronze or gold gild which surround the large one. Most are centuries old. Some of the statues have been collected from ruined temples in northern Laos.

 

In the rear we see an instrument which is used in a ceremony to clean Buddha statues, making them holy. Water gets poured into one side. It comes out the other side and runs over the Buddha statue. It looks like a bass drum on a stand. Colorful objects hang around the base. They look like lanterns but are more likely fancy buckets. Water gets poured from them into the base. This is the first time we've seen such an object in a temple and I find it interesting. Ping tells us that these types of devices are usually shaped like dragons. If I stand back far enough and take in all the decoration, I can sort of see a dragon but it's quite a stretch. To me the sim seems more like a museum than a temple.

 

In front of the sim, we see That Pathum Stupa, a.k.a. Lotus Stupa. The structure has a roof that looks like half of a watermelon and gives the complex its nickname. Built in 1514, the building looks very old and much of it is covered in black, possibly soot. All of the complex buildings appear to be made from stucco or cement. When we first arrived, I thought the complex looked drab. However as we're getting ready to leave, I've changed my mind. I really find it quite impressive. It just goes to show, you can't judge a book by the cover. When I comment on the difference between this temple and others we've seen, Ping tells us that both the interior and exterior of temples are usually red and gold because these are religious colors.

 

Before we leave this complex, Steve points out Wat Chom Si at the top of Mount Phousi. Its a beautifully clear day and the light illuminates it nicely. Of course, we take several pictures to show Luang Prabangs breathtaking landmark. Next we stop at the mini post office nearby to buy stamps for postcards and for my cousin Jimmy who collects stamps. Steve wants to stop at Wat Mia Suwannaphumaham, to get a photograph of the original Pra Bang Buddha. When we arrive there, Steve and Ping go inside so he can take the picture.

Luang Pra Bang Buddha Luang Pra Bang Buddha

Once we're done in the city, we head out to the countryside. We stop at a Hmong village, Na Woun. Since we so enjoyed our visit to the Hmong village nearby the Plain of Jars, we're looking forward to visiting this one. Ping tells us that the houses only have a front and back door to let light in. They don't have any windows. One door is for sunrise and the other for sunset. Houses are built on the ground, although I do see at least one built on stilts. People marry early and have many children, usually at least 10. If a woman fails to get pregnant, the man marries again. We don't see any women without at least one small child. Most of the young children are curious and shy. Unfortunately we see little of the authentic village.

 

Hmong Village - Even Children Sell Hmong Village - Even Children Sell

I find the village interesting, but in a sad way. The residents have built a wooden walkway for visitors. All along the walkway, we see women and children selling their crafts. Actually it reminds me of a touristy flea market. Although some vendors are friendly and not as pushy as other places we've been, I find many are pushy hawkers. While we understand their need for commerce, this is overkill. Steve remarks that it is distressing they've given up their traditional way of life to sell their crafts so forcefully to tourists. I agree. Some of the crafts are beautiful, especially the quilts. We purchase a male figure dressed in traditional garb for one of our nephews. The woman who takes our money tries very hard to get us to buy another. Even though its not much more money, the sales technique is obnoxious and we walk away after saying a harsh NO more than once. Toward the end of the walkway, I observe a very young girl who is about 4 or 5 years old, seriously working on an embroidered piece. It seems that they don't get much time to have fun growing up.

 

Hmong Courting Festival Hmong Courting Festival

Across the road, Ping points out a traditional festival in progress. She suggests we go and watch. First we walk by a group of adults who watch the courting ceremony. We see a line of girls facing a line of boys. They look to me as if they are about teen age. The girls are dressed in beautiful native garb that each has made herself. The boys also wear traditional clothes. They toss green tennis balls back and forth to the person directly opposite. I'm amazed at how seldom they fail to catch the ball. They smile at us when they notice us, but keep their attention on the ritual. Steve puts his camera on high-speed shooting and gets great shots with many balls simultaneously in the air.

At the end of each line, close to where we stand, we see some young children. They're attempting to toss and catch the balls. They don't stay in line or catch the balls very often. These little ones are adorable! Many of the older women curiously approach me with their babies in their arms. Even though they're curious, they're very friendly. Although we're very disappointed in the first part of this stop, we really enjoy watching the festival.

 

Back in the van we ride to Tat Kuang Si, a beautiful waterfall with several tiers. It is peaceful even though there are a fair number of people throughout the site. We see an especially picturesque green limestone pond into to which several waterfalls tumble. We observe one lone swimmer in this pond. The other many waterfalls pour over limestone into turquoise-green ponds.

 

I stay on a platform on the first level and take pictures for while. For much of the time Ping stays with me and we talk. I ask her about a topic she mentioned yesterday. She tells me that boys and men become monks for three reasons. When a member becomes a monk, it bestows honor on his family. Some become monks to get an education. I tell her that our first Lao guide had done this. The death of a family member can cause a survivor to become a monk because it's believed that a monk can help the deceaseds spirit get to heaven. Males can become a monk for a day or a week as a way of doing the right of passage. I ask Ping about herself. She's not married. She has one younger sister who's married and has children. She lives with her parents and an unmarried sister.


 

Tat Kuang Si Waterfall Pond Tat Kuang Si Waterfall Pond

International Access SymbolSteve wanders around the good-sized area which is not level. He also takes many pictures. When he returns he pushes me to one of the lower ponds, which is breathtaking. We see a series of pools where one pond just falls into the next. Barely a drop of water falls into another pond. The resulting ripples are just about symmetrical.

 

Girl Poses at Tat Kuang Si Waterfall Girl Poses at Tat Kuang Si Waterfall

Steve shows me some of his favorite pictures including a beautiful shot of a young girl who posed for him in front of a foamy waterfall. We both really enjoy this site!

 

 

 

 

International Access SymbolBy the time were ready to leave, Id like to make a pit stop. Ping checks two Ladies Rooms at the waterfall park but both are squatters. Ping says she knows of a restaurant on the way back into Luang Prabang which has a western toilet. We stop there and I believe it's the best public restroom I've used in Laos! It also looks like a nice restaurant. Steve asks if we can stay here for lunch but Ping says our lunch has been contracted for at the same restaurant as we ate in yesterday. Since we like to experience eating in different places, this disappoints us. Given the rigidity we've experienced in Laos, it doesn't surprise us.

 

Our ride back to Luang Prabang is picturesque. We go down many switchbacks with sharp curves. Lunch is good. We both order Ping's recommendations and she orders a few additional dishes for us. Our lunch includes vegetable soup with pork balls which we like, chicken casserole which is okay but spicy, purple eggplant stir fried in vegetable oil (we love it), and fish in banana leaves which were okay but overly fishy tasting. Earlier today at Tat Kuang Si waterfall, Ping had bought us grilled banana. We eat them for dessert and enjoy it.

 

Homes Along Nan Khan River Homes Along Nan Khan River

We return to our room and relax for a while. It's our last evening in Luang Prabang and our vacation. We decide to go out for a walk all the way around Mount Phu Si, Luang Prabang and perhaps find a place to have dinner. I find that people are generally friendly, especially the women and children. International Access SymbolAfter a while I wonder whether women are supposed to greet men, since when I do I get almost no response. From all the attention I receive, I'm certain that seeing someone in a wheelchair is extremely rare. Judging from the architecture, it's no surprise.

 

We see some interesting streets and walk along the bend of the smaller river, Nan Khan. Using our cameras, we can get a good view of the few homes on the other side. They are small, wooden with thatched roofs, on stilts and surrounded by gardens. When we pass by the staircase that Steve and Ping descended from the summit of Mount Phu Si, we observe some tourists referring to a tour book to determine whether they want to go up. They appear to be a mother who is reading out loud to her daughters who are either teenage or in their early twenties. I like watching the many people we see.

 

Hmong Night Market Hmong Night Market

We turn down Friendship Street passing many guesthouses and come to where Luang Prabang has closed the road to traffic. We see much activity while vendors set up the Hmong Night Market, which starts each night at sundown. Even though the road is closed, there are quite a few motorbikes riding through the aisles. It seems odd to see people disregarding the rules this way, especially since we've found Laos to be the most rigid country we International Access Symbolvisited on this trip. My narrow wheelchair barely fits between the vendor tent poles and where vendors have laid out their merchandise tarps on the ground. I purchase a pair of earrings which I like better than the shell ones. After all, since Laos is landlocked shells are hardly characteristic of the country. Steve buys a T-shirt with a map of Laos. The market is interesting and enjoyable. It feels like we're actually getting a taste of the authentic life of Luang Prabang.

 

Of course all during our walk, we take many photos. We take one of an Internet caf, one of many we've seen during our trip. Even here, the customers leave their shoes outside the door. When Steve needed to use a computer during our stay in Luang Prabang, he asked if the hotel had one available. The man who was staffing the front desk said just a minute, after which he got up. He told Steve that he could use the hotel's main computer.

 

By the time we're ready to return to our hotel, we haven't found a restaurant where we want to eat. We return to our hotel, enjoy a quick dinner at the restaurant, pack and get to bed early.

 

 

Day 22: Wednesday, December 31

 

We get up at 4:45 AM -- ouch! Actually we were awake by 4:30 AM because neither of us could sleep since we're nervous about our trip home. The ride to the Luang Prabang Airport goes smoothly. We're relieved that we can check our bags through to JFK Airport, our final destination.

 

International Access SymbolAs soon as the plane is ready, we board first but with an audience behind us of other passengers that the staff has let go through to the gate. The flight to Bangkok of an hour and 40 minutes goes quickly. Unfortunately we had a spoiled toddler near us who yelled for most of the flight, so the experience was not pleasant. We just hope thats the worst of our trip.

 

Our total trip home will take 42 hours! From Bangkok, Thailand, we fly to Singapore then to Frankfurt, Germany and finally to New York JFK Airport. When I booked this trip, there was so much to look over and little information about the flights except that there would be a refueling stop along the way. I never imagined that anyone would fly us through Europe to get to South East Asia! This nightmare has taught me to never again accept the flight plan without asking questions about the route!!

 

International Access SymbolThe Bangkok airport was closed by anti-government forces just before we left on our vacation. We feel lucky that they got and kept it open. When we arrive in Bangkok, we get my wheelchair back but first someone comes with an airport wheelchair. He brings us to mine. We have a six hour layover until our next flight to Singapore. We proceed to the Singapore Airline terminal to see if we can get our seats. The window has a closed sign on it, even though someone is there. We go to get something to eat, walk around for a while and try to find a decent lounge. In most places, we see seedy looking people sitting in hard seats. Who knows, after traveling as much as we have, we probably look somewhat seedy too. I finally find and get to use a handicapped bathroom the first in several weeks.

 

Bangkok Airport Bangkok Airport

Looking down from the fourth floor balcony at one end of the airport, we see a nice lounge two floors below. Before going there, we check the Singapore Air counter. This time we talk to the person there and she says to come back in half an hour to 45 minutes. We go to the lounge to read, and then return to the counter in about 25 minutes. Now there's a sign up that says the counter will open at 12:30 p.m., so we wait. 12:30 comes and goes. Someone finally arrives at about 1 PM. She checks us in for our next two flights International Access Symbolwhich are both on Singapore Airlines. I'm relieved! The check-in person also tells us to return to the check-in counter because someone has to escort us to the gate.

 

On the way back to the lounge, I say to Steve that since it's a while before we have to report for boarding, we should have a drink to celebrate being set for our last flights. He agrees but says let's wait a while. As we walk around Bangkok airport, we're impressed by how nice it is. We go back to the lounge and read. Steve closes his eyes for a while and when he wakes, he asks if I'm ready for that drink. I check my blood sugar and its 80 so I decide I need a snack with my drink. We go to a place where we can get both and order spring rolls and white wine. Since its New Years Eve, we want champaign but they dont have any.

 

When we go to the counter, a different person is there. While we wait, a line of several people forms. We wait until they are checked in. Still no escort has come, so Steve tells the staff person about our instructions to come to the counter. The staff person makes a call and an escort comes to take us to the gate. I'm not impressed with the ground staff of Singapore Airlines.

 

Our flight to Singapore goes fairly quickly. Several young children are aboard but they behave fairly International Access Symbolwell. The is meal delicious. At Singapore airport, we also get back my wheelchair. The airline offers us assistance but since we have a five hour layover and are familiar with the airport, we say no thank you. Steve decides he wants to walk to the terminal gate, the long way. The airport has four terminals in one building shaped like a square U, making it almost 2 miles long. We observe an amazing number of shops, mostly high-end. I can't even count the number of stores selling pocketbooks. We see electronics, candy, duty-free, clothing and many more. The airport still has many Christmas decorations up, most are of Disney characters.

 

About three quarters of the way around the airport, Steve gets a bit tired and tries the electric walkways. When we arrive at the security gate, it's not even open yet. We find seats but soon a crying baby and his indulgent parents arrive. At about the 10th round of the baby screaming "I don't wanna", we decide to move. As people begin to gather before the security station, another person in a International Access Symbolwheelchair arrives with an airport staff member. We move to where they are, so well be in the correct place when it's time to be processed.

 

Finally the staff opens the station. We get through security and to the gate as smoothly as possible. Once the gate staff arrives, one approaches us to tag my wheelchair to New York City. When I tell her I'll need one in Frankfurt, she goes to her desk to check if I can get my wheelchair there. When she returns, she assures me that there will be an airport wheelchair for me to use during the time were in Frankfurt airport.

 

International Access SymbolIm always careful to make sure we can have a wheelchair for the entire time were in an airport. I once had a horrible experience when I only had use of a wheelchair to go from the plane to the next gate waiting area. At the gate, I was told to wait until boarding time when an escort would come with a wheelchair to take me to the gate. I had several hours to wait and wasnt able to walk beyond the Ladies Room because Steve had to stay with our bags. Anything of interest was too far for me to walk by myself in a busy area. When the escort arrived, he called my name but someone else got to the wheelchair more quickly than I. When I reported this to a staff person, she had trouble arranging for another escort because she was told a wheelchair had already picked me up. We've also seen others have similar experiences.

 

As people begin to gather at the gate, I find it amazing to see some of their behavior. One man decides he wants to be on the other side of several line barriers. Instead of walking around the barriers, he just releases them and walks right through without even replacing them. A few people lie down and occupy several seats even though it's obvious others need seats. When we begin to board, an airport staff member instructs us to wait for him to bring us down the runway. People line up to enter. The staff does a good job of making sure no one except people needing assistance, their travel party and those with small children go through first. There has been a lighted sign instructing people to "Remain in Your Seat Until Boarding Call" but so many ignore the instructions.

 

 

 

 

Day 23: Thursday, January 1

 

Sometime during the flight, it's the New Year, although we're never told when this happens. The 11 hour flight goes well. I eat but mostly sleep. The children around us behave well. Again we find the Singapore Air food good.

 

We have about two hours between arriving and departing Frankfurt. Disembarking is abhorrent! The International Access Symbolstewardess has confirmed there'll be a wheelchair for me. We know we'll get off last with the others who need wheelchairs. At some point after getting confirmation that they'll have a wheelchair for me, I hear a stewardess call to say our flight needs five wheelchairs. This is after at least one person in a wheelchair has gotten off and several of us are waiting. The airport sends only two wheelchairs! Next it's my turn and when I get off they bring me to a seat. They tell me I have to wait for them to get another person off and then I can have the wheelchair back. At this point, I'm not very nice about having to comply. I've done everything the airline requires as far as informing them of my need for a wheelchair during the time were in the airport. I've also re-confirmed the arrangements at every possible point.

 

This is my third time flying through Frankfurt airport. Only during my visit here three weeks ago did I International Access Symbolreceive decent treatment. Originally I flew through here in 1991. Although the treatment has improved slightly since then, it's still extremely poor. It's amazing that in 17 years, the airport still doesn't provide even close to satisfactory treatment of people with handicaps!

 

I finally get a wheelchair to use, only because I told the escort that I really need to use the ladies room. But someone else has to give it up and wait for another one to come. The escort takes us through security and to the gate. I go to use the handicapped bathroom which is a separate room from the male and female bathrooms. There's an older man in the bathroom brushing his teeth! He hadnt even closed the door. I let him know I'm waiting and need the grab bars. After a while he comes out, and tries to tell me it's the men's room. I show him the international access sign and all he says is "okay". While I'm in the bathroom, a person outside obviously tries hard to pull the door open. International Access SymbolI finally yell that I'll be out in a minute. (That handicap person really had a strong pull!) When I leave, no one is waiting.

 

As I leave the restroom area, I see a reserved sign indicating the seating is for handicapped people and their companions. I call Steve to come over. There's an older child playing a game board with earphones sitting in the reserved seat next to where Steve puts my chair. At one point, I see him get up to get something from one of the adults he's obviously traveling with. There's an empty seat next to them but neither they nor the brat make any attempt to have him move from the reserved seat. I've already made a few remarks about the seats being reserved and I begin to make another but Steve says he doesn't need to sit since he'll be sitting for another 6 to 8 hours on the next flight.

 

After a while, another woman in a wheelchair arrives. The staff places her up close to the gate entrance. Steve moves me there as well. Boarding goes smoothly. During our flight, we look through some Singapore Airline information. We find that the airline does have direct flights going from JFK to Singapore! I miss the days when we had a travel agent who discussed options with us. The rest of our flight goes well.

 

So ends our trip.

 

 

Epilogue

 

We loved our trip, despite the excessive flight times! We found it interesting to visit three countries with very similar histories and yet see quite a bit of difference between their cultures. Im not sure whether I can say any country was my favorite. Each had their wonderful uniqueness. Steve says he liked Vietnam the best.

 

First, Id like to thank each of our guides and drivers for their assistance and for sharing part of their country with us. Sita World Travel put together a nice itinerary and VidoTour did a good job executing it. Most of our accommodations were comfortable and well located as close as possible to the heart of each city. The activity we missed most on this tour was the interpersonal experiences we have when we visit private homes.

 

Second, Id like to give credit to the sources I used in writing this journal. Background on the individual sights and cities mostly came from the Lonely Planet guidebook, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring (13th edition). Lonely Planet is our favorite series of guidebooks. We rely on it not only while we're traveling but also as we're making our decisions on places we want to visit. However, history in this book left much to be desired, which is uncharacteristic of Lonely Planet. Therefore, I used http://en.wikipedia.org for each country and city. After we returned, National Geographic published several articles which I used. For Angkor, National Geographic (July 2009) Divining Angkor gave me wonderful insight to the building and decline of the region. For Vietnam, National Geographic Traveler (April 2010) Vietnams Dragon Soars, provided me with additional information on Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

 

Vietnam is by far the most open and has the best infrastructure for travel. However, with that comes hawkers and signs of becoming overly touristy. Our guides spoke freely about their and their families lives and experiences during the war, which we appreciate. They showed no animosity toward Americans. I believe we received a good overview of the country given our time constraints. We also had enough free time so that we did not feel rushed. The only disappointing tour event we had was the water puppet show. In my opinion, thats as much to blame on inconsiderate tourists as anything else another sign of becoming too touristy. We found it wonderful to see this country first hand after seeing it on the nightly news so often while we were growing up.

 

I cannot comment on all of Cambodia, since we only went to the Angkor region. I wish we could have seen more of the country. Anyone who considers oneself to be, or wants to be, a world traveler should visit Angkor! It is truly a breathtaking ancient wonder. I was so pleased that I could see as much as I did, given my physical limitations. Even though its the most toured part of the country, it retains the charm of being authentic. Both tourist industry personnel and other tourists were hospitable and friendly.

 

I began to jot down these final thoughts on Laos as we waited for our flight out of the country. Even though its definitely not an easy place for a person with a physical disability to travel, I'm glad we did it. Since the culture and history is so similar to Vietnam and Cambodia, going to these two countries without going to Laos would have been a mistake especially for us who like to visit similar countries during the same trip. The Plain of Jars is a place that any adventurous traveler interested in history, culture and ruins should not miss. I loved spending our last evening walking around the streets and night market of Luang Prabang. Laos has an underdeveloped travel infrastructure. Our guides were the most guarded of the trip but shared at least some personal information. Laos was rough for us but definitely worth it!

 

To anyone interested in Asia, I recommend all three countries. I especially recommend going to Vietnam and Cambodia before they become overly touristy. While we enjoyed traveling without a large group, we would have liked to have been on tour with others. We enjoy sharing insights and experiences with other travelers. Also, beware of your flight path!

 

So whats next? Coming sooner or later 2009: Chile, Argentina & Antarctica, 2010: Italy and in planning 2011: Caucasus Countries. Stay tuned!