Thursday, April 21, 2016

Port Report - Bangkok (Laem Chabang), Thailand

Port ship actually docks at: Laem Chabang
Attraction/Town you are aiming to visit: Bangkok
Distance from Port: 80 miles, 2 hrs by bus
Mode of transport we used: Ship's tour bus shuttle $40 each
English spoken by locals: Yes
Ships tour necessary? Sort of - if you want to go to Bangkok, I would advise it. However, if you are choosing to go to Pattaya, a closer town, then independent travel would be fine. Again, had the ship given us more accurate direction, we might have know this at the time.
Hassle from merchants and taxi drivers: Funny story on...

On first glancing the itinerary for the cruise, I read that we had a stop at Bangkok. Once again, I didn't know the lay of the land and thus presumed that Bangkok was coastal and a port, but alas the ship docks at a port 80 miles away.

There is a ships tour - a bit of a misnomer since it is just a bus ride... a very expensive bus ride for Thailand... right into Bangkok and back to the ship for $40 each. The bus drops you off, and from that point on, you are independent until it's time to get back on-board and the bus takes you back in time for the ship's departure - the key words are "on time". We fell victim to the scaremongering about how the traffic is crazy and how we'd run the risk of missing the ship if we did go the whole hog independently. So we went the with the ship's tour. If wandering around in Bangkok on your own for a few hours is too scary there is also a "Best of Bangkok" tour for $139, though not for us...We fancied wandering at our own pace, not being herded about and having to listen to a guide.

We'd seen our fill of temples and wats. We only had about 3 hrs actually in the city, so we decided to just drop into the Grand ya do!
The bus dropped us off at the Asia Hotel, which is right on the light rail. The guide on the bus recommended that we take the train to the river and then river taxi to the Grand Palace. To return she recommended taking a cab.

We reckoned that if everyone from the cruise (there were about 7 bus loads of us) was going to do that we'd reverse it, grab a cab from the hotel to the Palace and work our way back on public transport. We'd pulled out Thai Bat from an ATM at the service stop en-route where we also saw these cute solar panels.

We were good to go...

By now My Husband was a dab hand at negotiating taxi fares. The first cab asked for 300 Baht - too much according to what we'd learned from the guide and Lonely Planet. The second driver quoted us 200 Baht - that was more like it. Feeling quite on top of things in this chaotic city we jumped in and headed for the Palace.

When it came time to pay the driver, My Husband handed him a 1000 Baht note. Dismayed the driver waved it away - he'd no change! We had none either. The driver said, hang on, he'd get some and quickly drove us up some side streets, round a few blocks, pulling up across the street from a couple of banks. He left the keys in the ignition with the car's engine still running. He hopped out and disappeared into the throng of people on the sidewalk. We didn't see which building he'd gone into. We sat in the car incredulous. He was hardly going to steal 1000 Baht and leave us his car, but as the minutes ticked by, our imaginations swept into overdrive.

We had time to conjure up several scenarios ... Perhaps he was really a bank robber and we were in the getaway car! ...Or maybe he'd stolen the car. We were sitting ducks and he was 1000 Baht up... Then just as we were beginning to wonder if we should bail out of the taxi he showed up, grinning and waving our change.

He drove us back to the entrance of the Grand Palace and dropped us off thanking us for the large tip we'd felt he'd earned.

The Grand Palace was thronged with tourists but still really worth seeing.
You could walk around here for hours. There was so much to see.
It's worth zooming in on the following photos to take note of the elaborate details in the tile work and painting.
They even have the beautiful tile-work under the eaves!
We didn't take a tour within the Palace preferring to wander at our own pace. We were hoping to hire the audio tour headsets but there were none left. We didn't even have internet coverage so we couldn't google things, like, who was this guy and is he really gold?
We didn't know what we were seeing and had many questions, but it was still lovely to see everything all the same.

But we did recognize this scale model of Anchor Wat in Cambodia...
From the above photo you'd almost think you were at the real thing, until you see the scale against the  rest of the palace
One my favorite things was a wall mural of really vividly colored drawings.
The gold in them really twinkled and caught the light.
I'm sure it was telling stories about great conquests and epic journeys...
The buildings in this part of the painting looked like what we were standing in!

These must have been recounting great legends!
These monkeys are in for a surprise when they cross this bridge!
I surprised myself by being so enthralled by the paintings as I usually don't like art galleries - these were really special!

I liked seeing the guards. The elephants were so Thailand!
Even the stone statues had something about them
Three hours flew by. The place was so crowded that we had to queue to get out! Eventually, we made it down to the river and picked up a river taxi to King TaksinBridge where we picked up the train. We switched at Siam Station to the line that would take us back to the Asia Hotel.

I was impressed by how orderly the lines at the train station were.
We got the bus back to the ship. I would have to say that from my quick glimpse of the city of Bangkok, I wouldn't be in a big hurry back. It's a massive, crazy city and I think there is much more to interest me in Thailand than this.

Byddi Lee

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Port Report - Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Port ship actually docks at: Sihanoukville and tendered ashore
Attraction/Town you are aiming to visit: Sihanoukville
Distance from Port: within 3 miles - you could probably walk from the port.
Mode of transport we used: Minibus via ship's tour
English spoken by locals: Some
Ships tour necessary? No - but we were feeling lazy and took one
Hassle from merchants and taxi drivers: some on the beaches

It it's heyday Sihanoukville was once a happening seaside resort visited by the jet set, and it is very proud to have hosted Jackie Kennedy on her tour of Cambodia. However, those days were short lived as war tore the country and its people to shreds. It suffered further at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, and is only now starting to recover from that violent era.

I have to admit I was nervous about Cambodia. I'd been warned about the poverty making the likelihood of theft high - I can't say I'd blame them. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to be scraping together a living, yet see wealthy people, by comparison, strolling around in my village.

The people here have suffered physically, economically and emotionally. I felt that guilt that I get sometimes when I consider how lucky I've been in my life compared to the harsh conditions other humans have had to deal with. I'm sorry I can't fix it. It's easier to be an ostrich and bury your head in the sand, but doesn't that then make you an accomplice of sorts? These questions haunt me a lot - especially when I travel and see first-hand that I have lived a five star life. Why me? I often wonder, closely followed with gratitude for what I have.

Perhaps if I'm honest, I felt that a ship's tour would be the best way to experience the place from a distance. That buffer, which I usually despise in other ports, would be of use in this case.

As I glanced through the ships literature about the tours, I noticed that they had posted up a new tour that hadn't been offered before - a canoeing tour. It looked perfect and even My Husband, who is not keen on water sports, liked the look of it.

We didn't take the big camera onshore - it might get wet or worse, stolen. We just used the cameras on our smart phones and even then tried not to be to flashy with them, not to mention we kept them sealed in baggies while in the canoe for obvious reasons, so our photos do not represent just how great this trip turned out to be.

Our guide collected us and right form the start he met us with sincerity and warmth. Nothing was too much trouble. His English was perfect, and it was clear that he was genuinely taking pleasure in explaining his homeland to us. It was great. He knew all about the plant life we passed and showed us how the palm fronds were woven to construct the huts.
After taking in the peace and tranquility of the river from the canoes, we beached on a sand bank and went to a coconut farm where we each got a coconut to drink. When all the milk was finished, he produced a fearsome machete and cleaved each coconut so we could scrape out the coconut meat - delicious! The baby chicks were happy to help finish off what we couldn't.
Our guide showed us cashews growing on the trees too - something I've never seen before.
The tour cost only $40. We figured this was because it was new. There was only ten of us and the small group was nice. We also had two of the ship's crew with us. Other cruise folk had been telling us they had signed up for tours to see local houses, local schools, go to wats (temples), beaches etc. We were only expecting to do the canoeing. When out guide told us he would take us next to visit a local family, then a school and finish off with a bit of time on the beach we were thrilled.

The family we visited lived in a traditional wooden house on stilts. The area beneath it was used for storage or to hang out it since it provided shade. Inside the house was mostly the sleeping area.
The kitchen was in a separate shed out the back. Traditionally they cooked over a wood fire using a stove like this, but you can see they also had a gas stove too - progress, I guess.

The bathroom was in yet another separate shed - very clean, though it was a squat toilet - something I think I could get used too if my thigh muscles held up!
Next up was the school.There were about 4 classrooms, each opening directly into the yard. School had two sessions, a morning and an afternoon session. Kids either went to one or the other and so no need for a canteen as they were home for lunch.
No ipads or interactive whiteboards here, though to be fair, I had none of that when I went to primary school and look how well I turned out!
The kids were cute - Especially since I wasn't the teacher this time!

All along the guide discretely let us know that tips were not mandatory but that anything given would be greatly appreciated. At no stage did we feel we were being pressed for money.

The guide dropped us off for a half hour at the beach - plenty of time for those of us who wanted a swim. The water was like a luke-warm bath. It was a salty but happy group that drove back to the port. 

We said our goodbyes and felt like we were leaving a friend, our guide was that  good. I tried to look up that tour again - it was so good and such great value for money, but strangely I cannot find it on the Princess site nor any other site - a magic tour perhaps!

Byddi Lee

Monday, April 4, 2016

Port Report - Ho Chi Minh City (Phu My), Vietnam

Port ship actually docks at: Phu My,Vietnam
Attraction/Town you are aiming to visit: Ho Chi Min City (Củ Chi Tunnels)
Distance from Port: 40 miles - 1.5 hrs by car (60 miles - 2.5 hrs by bus)
Mode of transport we used: Bus via ship's tour to Củ Chi Tunnels
English spoken by locals: Our tour guide was fluent and very easy to understand.
Ships tour necessary? Yes. The ship docks at the Phu My port and taxis are not allowed in. You would have a long, hot, unpleasant walk (2-3 miles) to the entrance of the port, and we were told there would not be taxis waiting there. You can arrange a tour privately, (e.g. before you leave home) but the tour needs details of your passport to gain access to the port to collect you. It seemed easier, in this case, to get a tour, and they had one which really interested us too.
Hassle from merchants and taxi drivers: None, as were on a ships tour and didn't really come in contact with any.

It wasn't until we were on the ship and underway that we realized that the ship wouldn't be pulling up at the dock in Ho Chi Min City. We only had our own ignorance to blame. Ho Chi Min City is in-land - the ship couldn't sail that far upriver. It did however sail quite far upriver to a port called Phu My, a working port, with lots of security. This was one occasion when taking a ship's cruise was practically unavoidable and made a lot of sense.

Because we were on a ship's cruise, we had a much earlier start to our day than if we'd been under our own steam. I'm usually happy about this because I can rise early and get to it - it's My Husband who is the slug in the morning.

This particular morning Robin William's voice saying, "Good morning, Vietnam!" haunted my thoughts as I watched the sunrise in a molten orb over the river while we ate breakfast. Photo quality is diminished by the reflection on the glass, but we don't have many sunrise photos, as compared to sunset photos, because of the whole being asleep thing!
We chose to take the trip to the Củ Chi Tunnels. People might be surprised to learn that one of my favorite movies of all time is Platoon. Not that I'm a Vietnam War buff, or a war monger of any sort, but there was something, besides Charlie Sheen, that captured my attention in that movie. In fact, Charlie's character is quite abhorred by the war, as am I.

When I saw the tour to the tunnels in the brochure, I decided to explore that side of history despite the viscerally unpleasant nature of it.

The Củ Chi Tunnels were dug by the Viet Cong and interconnect with networks that extend for tens of thousands of miles, covering huge swaths of the country. To read more about the Vietnam-American War and the integral role these tunnels played click here.

To get to the tunnels, we had to take a 2.5 hr bus trip which drove through the verdant Vietnamese countryside. It was great to just sit back and have the driver do all the work while I absorbed all the sights with my eyes and my camera.

Some of the dwellings, though primitive, provided great photo opportunities.
This looked like it was straight out of a movie.

The lush green fields and tranquil setting contrasted with the chaos of Ho Chi Min City, which we hit during the morning rush hour!
So many things in this one photo - the hedge shaped to spell out a place name (I presume!) The speed limit - Not sure if it's 80 miles per hour, which seems very fast, or  80 kilometers per hour which seems rather slow for a motorway. Mopeds are only allowed in two of the five lanes (thank goodness). Then there's the unfinished construction in the right of the photo that stretches in line with the road - a public transport rail link? More motorway? Either way - can you imagine this with road works!

There are six million mopeds in Ho Chi Min City, and all of them were on the road that morning!

It's totally fine to be loaded down with pineapples and chat on your phone as you try to cross the stream of traffic! And pineapples are heavy...
 And if the road is too slow, just scoot up onto the sidewalk!
 Just be careful - the pedestrians are working hard.
 This shot gives a great juxtaposition of the old and the new in the city.
 The French colonial influence was still apparent.
The French taxed the width of a building and so the buildings are very narrow, even today. Below you can see five neighboring buildings.
Temples popped up everywhere.
 I think this one was taken in a nearby town, but while we are looking at temples...

I highly recommend this ship's tour if you are ever on this cruise. If you are visiting Vietnam independently, do consider visiting the Củ Chi Tunnels yourself.

What struck me most was how ingenious the tunnels were, and how they enabled so many people to survive when they would have otherwise been napalmed out of existence (though many were.) The tunnels, practically impossible to see from the outside, had ventilation holes that were cleverly disguised on the surface - in this case as a termite hill.

They were dug with very basic tools and the earth scattered, sometimes in newly blasted craters from recent bombs, or incorporated into the soil during farming.
The entry points could be in the floors of the homes. Here it has been excavated out for us to see more clearly and for us to access easily.
The tunnels were about 3 feet high.
At this field entry point it was impossible to imagine how you would fit into it - the foot in the top right corner might help provide scale.
The guide explained that the trick was in bending your knees!
He demonstrated how you could disappear in a matter of seconds... Here is a series of picture I took of him as he entered the tunnels.

You wouldn't even know he was there!

Even if you were the enemy and you found the tunnels, well the fun only starts there ...

The tunnels were protected by a host of different traps all designed to mangle and kill you horribly! They were all on display here.
These charred bamboo spears were super sharp and coated with feces. Even if you managed to hoist your punctured body off them, the bacterial infection was sure to finish you off. Remember - all this while underground in 3 foot high tunnels - the stuff of nightmares!
Yet, I couldn't help but admire these fearsome soldiers.

The Tunnels were not just for the soldiers fighting against the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies. In many of the villages, these tunnels were the only bolthole for the villagers when the bombs dropped, in much the same way as the people of the London Blitz had their cellars and shelters and the Mid Western Americans have their basements during tornado season.

It must have been terrifying cowering down there and wondering what, if anything, would be left of you village when it was all over. The guide's stories were hard to listen too and a part of me wished I'd not gone, but thus is the reality of war - it is never pretty! It hurts humanity whether they have a face, a name, a creed, a side or not. Without exception...
Back at the ship we watched a sand-mining operation vacuum silt from the river bed and pile it on barges.
The barge looked like it would sink at any minute!
But something makes me think it won't - after seeing those tunnels earlier I kind of think that many things are possible if you have the will to make it so...

If only we could just be as inventive and ingenious about creating peace on our planet - wouldn't that be wonderful?

Byddi Lee