Southeast Asia 2020 – wrap up

A quick post, mostly for my own reference, to sum up details of our trip.

It has been just over two weeks since we returned home and the world looks like a completely different place. I don’t know what travel will look like when we reach the other side of this. Right now the idea of going anywhere seems crazy. But someday again, perhaps. So, in that spirit:

Firstly, however, I want to sing the praises of Cathy Larsen, our travel agent/advisor. Cathy is the co-owner of Departures Travel in Sidney, BC. We have worked with her on our trips since 2013. Among her many great qualities, Cathy loves to solve problems – a great thing for a travel professional, no? We know that when we are traveling with Cathy at the helm that if things start to go sideways she will be working tirelessly to get us sorted. And on this trip that is exactly what happened. Those of you who know Wilf and I know that our approach to travel involves Research! Plans! Questions! Cathy has been great every time with our endless questions. And she knows all the neat places to go and things to do. And if you are not all about the research she can build you a fantastic trip so all you have to do is pack your bags.

So – when the world is traveling again I would suggest you think of Cathy. And if you are in Sidney you can stop by to meet her – and her very sweet, very shy dog Sadie. And if you are afar – Cathy and her team have all the tools to help you wherever you are.

Cruise Line – Silver Sea. We cruised on the Silver Spirit, their largest ship which carries 608 passengers and about 400 crew. It is hard to talk about the cruise without referring constantly to the unusual way this particular cruise went. But let me start with some basics. The ship is beautiful and our stateroom was fantastic. It was a room to spend time in, not just get out of. The public areas of the ship are all gorgeous and full of interesting details. They obviously take a lot of care in the hiring of staff ,who were all highly professional and warm and friendly. The food and beverage options were all first class. Shore excursions were interesting and well organized. Embarkation and disembarkation were very well organized, both on shore days and at the start and end of the cruise. The pre-cruise communication was excellent. Really, everything was exceptional.

In the unusual situation of the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic I felt that Silver Sea did an excellent of managing the situation. Their biggest strength was communication – throughout the experience, beginning before we even left home, they kept us informed about what was happening. Onboard we were kept up to date as changes were being made and we never felt that they were hiding things from us or dissembling. At the same time they were managing a huge amount of disruption to their processes – the switch from Hong Kong to Manila as our departure port meant that they did not pick up three containers of supplies before the cruise started. I’m sure below decks it was all paddle paddle paddle but to us they presented an air of calmness and competence.

Tour Companies – for our Cambodia overland tour we worked with Cathy and a company called TourCan Vacations. They took our requirements and came back with itineraries that worked for us and in the end they put together a tour that we were very happy with.

TourCan is an aggregator, and they used a company called Trails of Indochina for the actual delivery of the tour. And it was great! We were met by Mr Sim and our driver at the airport and for the three nights, four days we were in Cambodia they took excellent care of us. We had an excellent driver and a very comfortable air conditioned van to tour in. They kept us hydrated, refreshed with cool towels and spritzed with alcohol hand sanitizer to make sure we didn’t succumb to the heat or germs. I’m sure there were times when they would have like to have hosed us down from top to bottom before putting us back on their lovely clean bus, but there it was. Mr. Sim was a terrific guide. There was not a question, historical, political, you name it that he could not answer. His English was excellent. We really appreciated his candour. We had many questions about Cambodia and what happened in the 20th century. The impact of war, of the Khmer Rouge, the rebuilding of the country. These wounds are so recent and so deep I never know if it is appropriate to ask about that history. Mr Sim shared his history and how he felt about his country and its path forward.

People ask us – why travel so much? And this is it. I will hold close the memory of sitting on the steps of an ancient temple, listening to Mr Sim tell his story and the story of his country, his hopes and his plans for the future. It was a privilege.

Okay – back to the trip wrap up. Trails of Indochina subcontracted our evening food tour of Siem Reap to Vespa Adventures. I’ve written about that adventure – they were great. And they have locations in several southeast Asian countries, so check them out if you are in that part of the world.

Hotels – well, we stayed in some of the most beautiful hotels in the world on this trip. My only regret is that it was only for one night in each one! Based on that short experience I can speak highly of :

The Peninsula Hotel, Manila

The Fullerton Hotel, Singapore

The Carlton, Singapore

And of course, Phum Baitang , in Siam Reap, Cambodia. We had three lovely nights there.

It was a great trip, and now, almost three weeks later it seems like a dream. So much has changed since then. But while we are being socially distant we have our memories of a wonderful experience to linger over.

Fourth Time Lucky

This trip included our fourth trip to Singapore. If you had told me some years back that Singapore would become one of my most visited cities/countries I would have been very surprised. And yet, there it is.

One thing we had never managed to do, though, was try Singapore Chili crab. Never seemed to line up. Last year when we were in New Zealand we met Liz P, who lives in London. She was in Singapore in January of this year and when she posted pictures of a crab fest we were all over it!

And so it came to be!

The restaurant is Holy Crab. I checked it out on Google to find the best way to walk from our hotel and saw that they took online reservations. Being a cautious type I of course made us a reservation – after all, a lot of people live in this city. Yes, it is taking me awhile to adjust to the situation on the ground. We found the place with no difficulty. And were greeted by name, being that we were the only customers, let alone the only reservation.

Anticipation. And beer
Satisfaction! Messy but oh so good!

So many temples!

It is really hard to talk about the temples of the Angkor Wat complex. Everything is so huge in scale. This was a highly developed civilization, supporting as many as a million people back when London May have had 50,000.

Kings being kings they wanted to build things and to be remembered. The empire of these kings did not endure and the great cities were abandoned. People still lived amongst the ruins and knew of the vast lost cities. When Europeans were colonizing south east Asia they ‘discovered’ the ruins and began to explore.

It should be noted that the 20th century was a huge challenge for Cambodia and its people. They have persevered and worked hard to create a better future for themselves and that effort has included preserving their storied past.

Part of the impact of the place is the size. The main temple at Angkor Wat is huge. Pictures hardly do it justice.

The iconic view of the temple
It was a long climb up to this level

And everywhere the carvings. A full panoply of Hindu gods and attendants, images of Buddha. Some in good repair, some not so much. But that any of it has been reclaimed from the jungle is amazing.

We had a wonderful guide who could tell us all about what we were seeing. He also knew all the best places for pictures and how to use features if our phone cameras that we didn’t know about.

Like this picture, taken at the exact centre of this complex looking up into the vault.

And look what you can do with the pano feature of an iPhone!

Truth be told the heat nearly did us in. But a delicious lunch and a rest had us ready to go again.

Next up – the temple of the trees. Famous for being itself, then famous again when Angelina Jolie dropped in to film the first ‘Tomb Raider’ movie. It’s pretty cool!

Looks suspiciously like a stegosaurus doesn’t it!

Last up for day one was Bayon, famous for the faces carved into the towers.

On our second day we went to see the pink temple which turned out to be a little jewel. Smaller in scale it was constructed mostly of a fine grain pink sandstone, which allows for incredibly detailed carvings.

You could spend a lot of time roaming from temple to temple – these pictures are only a portion of what we saw.

As I’ve mentioned before tourism has taken a tremendous hit during the coronavirus situation- as much as a 70% drop in tourists in this area. Huge parking lots with no buses, temples with no lines, vendors with huge unsold inventories. It really brings home how connected we all are and how an event in one place can send ripples out in many many directions.

This is where I give my pitch – hire local guides! They know so much and care so much. Guidebooks are great, but we learned so much from our guide Mr Sim. In a country with such a turbulent history it was really wonderful to sit down on a ledge of a temple that is a thousand years old and hear the story of the temple and the story of the man telling it.

Another day, another infinity pool

I didn’t mention how hot it was in Singapore. And it was. But we found hotter. OMG Cambodia! 35C! We flew from Singapore to Siem Reap in Cambodia, which is the gateway city for the Angkor Wat temple complex. We arrived, visited the museum for an overview of the area history and then had lunch. After lunch we were dropped at our hotel. You guys! This place! It is incredible. It is called Phum Bairang, which means Green Village. We went off the main road and down several very dusty red dirt roads – passed along a white wall – a man opened a gate and waved us in. Almost the first thing we saw was the resident family of water buffaloes munching on the grass. Scattered across several acres were small villas. We were greeted and formalities completed and then we took a leisurely walk across a board walk through a rice paddy to our villa. It is so beautiful! When our guide came the next morning he said it reminded him of the village where he grew up- rice, small houses, water buffalo, etc. I don’t think his village has this, though …

Not too hard to take

Our tour of the temples starts in the morning. The tour we booked had several options for the first night. We thought a boat ride, but it is the dry season and there isn’t enough water in the river. So –

A nighttime tour of foodie places by Vespa. The face masks are for dust and fumes, by the way. Our resort is a ways out of town, so the first adventure was driving first then back roads and then the busy roads to get to the city. Just a weaving back and forth through the traffic. The boss man led the way, and Wilf and I hung on as our drivers kept up.

We visited a brew pub for beers, then walked the local market to see what people were buying for dinner. We then headed to the night market, which sprawled for miles along the side of the highway.

My mother will be so proud of me, strolling the streets, beer in hand.

I think the tour group thought they were going to have a couple of rugby players on their hands ‘cause they had loaded up on beer and kept trying to get us to drink some. Actually they may have been rather taken aback when we appeared – probably old enough to be their grandparents. You should have seen them carefully getting us on and off the scooters, snapping our helmets on. They were very sweet to us.

Oh yes they are. Oh no we didn’t.

This lady was selling a wide variety of deep fried bugs. Crickets. Ants. Grasshoppers. Water beetles. Couldn’t do it, sorry. At the next stop we did have grilled stuffed frog, chicken and quail. You know what I’m going to say – tastes like chicken.

The gal who was my driver was also the photographer. She has sent me a bunch of great photos of the evening but I’m having trouble downloading them on my phone. I’ll have to post them later.

Let’s just say that in addition to drinking beer, eating grilled critters and zooming all over town we also played games of chance, and tried exotic fruit. And then had dinner. It was hoot and a night we will long remember

Next up – temple overload.

Goodbye Silver Spirit. Hello Singapore.

And all good things must come to an end. We really enjoyed our time on the Silver Spirit. It certainly was an unusual experience having so few people on board, but we enjoyed a lovely quiet time with interesting shore excursions.

Our stateroom, ready for bedtime.
Looking the other way.
Big closet!
Big bathroom with both a full sized shower and a full sized tub.
We finally got to the jazz club for dinner – great food, great music. I think that was the only restaurant we ate at that was full.

We departed the cruise ship, hopped on the subway and found our way to our hotel. Given the drop in people travelling we were able to check in to The Fullerton Singapore very early. It was built to be the main post office back in the day and is quite a building. We dropped our stuff and headed off to explore our favourite spots.

Orchard Street in front of the Ion Centre. It seems like there is a Louis Vuitton and a Tiffany’s in every corner.

Lunch was at Clarke Quay – beer at Brewrkz.

Back to The Fullerton. Where every time we went in they took our temperature. Walk around the block and come back? ‘Excuse me ma’am, may I take your temperature?’ It was a perfect afternoon for a swim

Floating above the Singapore river.

We had satay at the nearby hawker court then walked back along the bay. When we were here in 2018 the Merlion statue was under renovation so we had to take a look.

Yep, there he is.
Looking the other way at Marina Sands.
The Merlion with our hotel in the background.

A Thai tourist town

Our cruise stop in Thailand says Bangkok, but it is actually at the port of Laem Chenang, which is about 90 minutes south of the big city. The idea of spending a minimum of three hours on the bus to go to a very hot crowded city had us looking at other options. South of the port is the big international beach resort of Pattaya, but – eh. We decided to take a tour to see the market in a small nearby town of Ang Sila.

It turns out that while the foreigners are whooping it up at Pattaya the people of Thailand have their own beach getaway. First thing we saw was the souvenir market. Our guide told us this town is very popular with people from the northern mountainous part of the country. And they want to take seafood back with them. So – dried seafood it is.

No I don’t know what most of this stuff is.
Each of these bags of snacks is about the size of a bed pillow. I’m not sure what dinosaur flavour tastes like.

Next stop was a fish market. We were curious because fish markets are usually an early morning affair. Turns out it was seafood on offer – mostly live. I expect the fish part happens in the morning.

Big shrimp
Interesting clams
Not everything was fresh – huge variety of dried fish and seafood.

On these tours there is always a stop for shopping. Usually we walk around, observe local crafts people and rarely find anything to buy. This time the product on order was hand made mortar and pestle sets.

These were considered the minimum size for actual use in a kitchen and were of average quality. They weren’t terribly expensive – about twenty dollars. But no one seemed terribly interested in hauling several kilos of stone in their luggage.

While walking through the stone yard we met this fellow.

In the front of the picture is a cockerel in a wire cage. The man has another bird on his lap, preparing it for an up coming fight. He is giving it a bath. With apologies to my mother, this is therefore a picture of a man washing his c!ck.

Last stop was a Chinese temple. This one is quite new – built in the 1980’s – and expanding. It is very…. bright.

This was our last shore visit – next stop Singapore after two days at sea.

Too much coffee, maybe

Our final tour in Ho Chi Minh City was called Saigon Coffee Culture. There were only five of us. And our guide, the driver and the assistant driver (who’s job mostly seems to be to spray our hands with sanitizer every time we reboard the bus. It’s hot – I suggested he just hose us down, top to bottom. He pretended he didn’t understand me)

This was an early tour – we were on the road shortly after 07:00. We drove part way into the city, and then stopped for Pho – noodle soup – for breakfast. It was very good. First coffee of the morning – basically espresso with a shot of sweetened condensed milk. Rawr- ready time face the day now!

Our second stop was to see a building that had been an apartment building for government officials back in the day but has since been converted into a warren of small businesses – bars, coffee shops, clothing stores. Machinery repair on the ground level (it takes a lot of mechanics to keep those millions of motorbikes running). We took the elevator up to the third floor (small charge, refundable if you buy something. Or you can walk)

Waiting for the elevator

We went to see a tiny little artisan donut shop – arriving just as the donuts were ready for display (and purchase)

Donut in that box has popcorn on it.

I did not buy the popcorn topped donut. Mine had green icing, which I assume is either matcha or pistachio. Haven’t eaten it yet – I’ll report back later.

Artisan donut in a cute little box – about $2.20CAD.

When we returned to street level we walked across the street to look back at the building …

Between the two trees – the donut shop is named Dosh. See what I meant about many tiny businesses?

Next stop was another coffee shop for filter coffee. You may be familiar with this – a little metal filter is put on a glass, ground coffee and hot water added and the coffee brews into the cup. Add sugar or condensed milk and voila- coffee number two for the day.

Tiny little cafe – inside
Tiny little cafe outside

By the time we left this coffee shop it was getting pretty hot. Time for an iced coffee! Before you all start yelling about the ice – commercial enterprises here don’t make their own ice. It’s expensive to make and takes a lot of time and space. In fact when we were leaving Dosh, the donut shop, the elevator door opened and there was the ice delivery man with a dolly loaded with a near 5 foot stack of bags of ice. He tossed one out on the landing and headed on up. I said something about ‘The Iceman Cometh, literally’ they all looked at me blankly and we walked down to the ground level rather than wait.

Anyhoo – next stop was pretty much a hole in the wall in an alley with a long lineup. They were making coffee like we’ve seen in Singapore- a long cotton bag with a metal loop handle with coffee grounds in it and then the water is poured through. This is a small operation – literally a charcoal fire powering it all.

Where the magic happens.

It was delicious. However. Three high test coffees before noon may not have been prudent. By the time we got back to the ship I could feel my hair vibrating. The heat was making me sleepy but there was no sleep happening for this girl for awhile! At two pm we cast off and headed down the river. It takes about three hours to clear the river and enter the sea. Which was pretty bouncy in a very strange pattern. It took until about nine pm when we made the turn into the gulf of Thailand before things settled down. Our butler came in to check on us, took a look, came back with a bowl of candied ginger and instructed us to order tomato soup from room service. Which we did, and he brought and we felt better. Talking to folks today there were a lot of people feeling woozy last night. But today we’re back to regular seas and we are bound for Bangkok.

Last picture – Sunday afternoon traffic through the bus window. Few cars lots of motorbikes.

Street Food. Sort of….

Pop up flower shop on the corner.

I talked yesterday about our trip to a local market. That was the first stop on a tour about Saigon street food. The components, as it were. The next stop was a street food street. Basically a stretch of sidewalk, it is managed by a local charity and is an attempt to get people started in small businesses- the first step away from unlicensed mobile carts. The spaces are made available to small business people, and they have the use of the space for one meal service. When we got there the breakfast vendors were just packing up and the lunch people were about to arrive. Our guide works for a telecom company around the corner during the week and this is their go to lunch spot. Not much to see when we were there, but when things are in full swing it’s a very busy place.

And then the tourists started to arrive and they want to try the street food experience. The government thought about it a bit and decided to create the street food market (not street) for the tourists. While the street is licensed and inspected, the market is managed to a slightly higher standard. Can’t be poisoning the tourists, after all. Not quite as authentic but still yummy.

Chicken thighs wrapped in vermicelli noodles. With chicken thigh in the side.

Yum yum! Wilf found a craft beer and declared it good. Besides Vietnamese food there was Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Mexican- you name it.

Tourists – out of the heat and into the food!

After a snack we headed off to a very swanky restaurant for lunch. The lack of passengers on our ship has made for a bit of tap dancing on the part of the tour operators. Usually when we arrive at the pier there is a phalanx of buses waiting for us. In Hoi An both tours I did had sixteen people. In Ho Chi Minh City there was one coach bus per tour – maybe 30 people? Usually the guides are on their phones, making sure we don’t all wind up at the same place at the same time, coordinating arrivals for lunch. With so few people we keep showing up early for things. At our lunch stop we got a very thorough tour of the restaurant – I think they skipped the refrigerators – to get the kitchen caught up to our arrival.

This was really good but hooh! A lot of food.

In Ho Chi Minh City there are three ports. The old colonial port was built by the French. The river is deep enough there, but narrow, so only shorter cruise ships can go there – they need to be able to turn around. About 45 minutes away in the container port where the small and medium ships can berth. The big guys are another 30 minutes away in the area where the car carriers unload. After our huge lunch the guide finally gave up, stopped talking and let us snooze on our way back to the container port.

Where the motorbike is king

Here in Ho Chi Minh City we’ve been told that there are either 13 million residents and 10 million motorbikes, or 10 million people and 8 million motorbikes. Either way that’s a lot of motorbikes. Cars are very expensive to acquire and operate. In the central business district the traffic is heavy, but not mind boggling.

Today is Saturday and we were off on a tour that was about Saigon street food. Our first stop was a local market. Yesterday we went to the central market, which was representative of local food and crafts, but is not where the locals go day to day.

And they’re off.

Around the outside of the market, street side, are food stalls and small restaurants. In a hurry? Just drive right up and pick up your breakfast …

Drive through, market style.

There are parking spaces (paid) on the street side. But why do that when you can just drive right in?

There is a huge variety of delicious looking foodstuffs on offer.

Rice, ranging from 50 cents/kilo to about 1.80/kilo
Festival of dried fish
Not sure if you pay more or less for the potential addition of cigarette ash!

The interior of the market has all manner of household goods, including a big fabric section.

Wilf was trying to take a picture of me but I kept getting distracted.


And no, I didn’t buy any. Local market – no credit cards, no US dollars.

Tomorrow we are going on a tour to learn about Saigon coffee culture. And if you think we’re big on coffee culture in the west coast – ha! Coffee shops everywhere here. Thought the signage for this chain was pretty good…

And the ever present fleet of motorbikes.