As the stars fade and the colors of the sky begin to slowly change, the dark shadows of Angkor Wat’s temple walls gradually emerge. The anticipation builds among the hushed crowd as the towers and their reflection in the moat surrounding the vast complex become increasingly clear. And then, this visually, architecturally and artistically breathtaking scene reveals itself in its full glory, rendering viewers speechless. It’s a “pinch me” moment and I revel in the experience, trying to savor each special element.
Seeing Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat was just one of the many “pinch me” moments I encountered during my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia with Journeys Within, an award-winning boutique Southeast Asia tour company. I confess I stopped counting these memorable occurrences after just a few days into this fascinating cultural odyssey. The moments came fast and furious, one after another, and all I could do was continue to pinch myself to ensure I wasn’t dreaming.
My adventure began in Hanoi, the bustling capital of Vietnam, where modern meets ancient in regards to architecture, traditions and culture. This charming, yet chaotic city overwhelms the senses. The Old Quarter is a congested maze of narrow streets offering a wealth of cheap shopping and delicious, exotic eats from street stalls and sidewalk cafes. The area is jam-packed with pedestrians, bicycles, motorbikes, cars and tuk tuks, the motorized rickshaw or pedicab that is a popular form of transportation in many Southeast Asian countries. The pace of traffic is frenetic and vehicles come from all directions with total disregard for organized rules, making the act of crossing the streets an extreme adventure sport. The stakes are high, the risks are great and he who hesitates (or veers suddenly) is toast!
There are numerous sights to explore in this lively city, from Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and the famed One Pillar Pagoda to the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, the penitentiary built by the French in the 1880s and later used to house American POWs, who sarcastically named it the “Hanoi Hilton.” Another famous attraction is the water puppet shows at the acclaimed Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. The art form of water puppetry is a Vietnamese tradition dating to the 11th century. Wooden puppets are mounted on long bamboo poles, which remain totally hidden under a shallow pool of water. Experienced puppeteers manipulate the puppets, making them appear to be dancing over the water. Shows are accompanied by singers and a live orchestra, which plays traditional Vietnamese instruments.
From Hanoi, I headed to Halong Bay for a three-day trip on a classic junk boat. A visit to this UNESCO World Heritage site is an incredible treat. The bay features nearly 2,000 limestone islands of various sizes and shapes that rise up from the crystalline emerald water, creating one of Vietnam’s most spectacular natural wonders. The isles appear as monoliths or pillars and together with a variety of coastal erosional features such as arches, caves and grottos, combine to create a haunting seascape. Kayaking in and around these formations, especially on a misty late afternoon, is deliciously eerie, qualifying for yet another one of those “pinch me” moments.
Vietnam is full of World Heritage Sites from north to south and all places in between. In the central zone of the country lies the old capital city of Hue, which contains a number of historic treasures. Located on the banks of the picturesque Perfume River, the city is notable for its temples, royal tombs, palaces and pagodas. One of the prime attractions is the Imperial Citadel, an extensive complex that once contained a forbidden city where only the emperors, concubines and those close enough to them were granted access. South of the city are the Tombs of the Emperors, each with a different style, providing excellent examples of Vietnamese Buddhist aesthetics and architecture.
Dinner at Tha Om Ancient House provided another “pinch me” opportunity. Located in a small village near Hue, the 100-year-old home is owned by an architect who is a descendent of a mandarin royal family. At night, the compound’s stone lanterns are lit up, displaying its numerous ponds and gardens, which exemplify the use of Feng Shui in ancient architecture. The menu for the evening’s meal was cleverly written on a fan and included such sumptuous delights as spring rolls, pumpkin soup, green papaya salad, fish, grilled beef on tiles and a host of tropical fruits, among other delectable dishes. The experience included a tour of the property, provided by the owner who enjoys regaling guests with intriguing historical information and details about the house, as well as its original occupant, the owner’s eccentric grandfather.
The south of Vietnam, which is considered the tail of the country’s dragon shape, holds its own when it comes to memorable sights and experiences. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, is the largest and most populated metropolitan and economic center in the country. Located near the Mekong River Delta, this city, like Hanoi, is a melding of Old World charm and modern influences and bustles with life rhythm 24/7. Examples of colonial French architecture, such as the stately Opera House and the grand Central Post Office, remind visitors of the French Indochina period in the country’s history.
For Vietnam War buffs, the Reunification Palace and War Remnants Museum provide insight into the conflict primarily from the perspective of the Vietnamese. The Palace, formerly the presidential quarters for South Vietnam’s president, has been left largely untouched from the day before Saigon fell to the North. A replica of the tank that crashed through the gate, officially ending the war on April 30, 1975, is parked on the lawn outside the building. Inside, the museum there’s a kitschy rec room and an eerie basement full of vintage 1960s phones, radios and office equipment, supposedly left exactly as it was found when the North assumed power. A photo gallery and propaganda film recounting the domination of Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary forces against the South and its American allies completes the picture. The War Remnants Museum is a much heavier and disturbing walk down memory lane.
Outside Ho Chi Minh in the Cu Chi district are the famed Cu Chi tunnels, which are worth a visit if only to get a full understanding of the ingenious underground network that aided guerrilla fighters in their resistance to first the French and later, American and allied forces. At its height, this intricate multi-layered system stretched from the South Vietnamese capital to the Cambodian border and consisted of innumerable trap doors, living areas, storage facilities, weapons factories, field hospitals, kitchens and command centers.
Cambodia, like Vietnam, contains countless cultural jewels. In Siem Reap alone, there are scores of magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th Centuries, including the aforementioned eminent Temple of Angkor Wat. Though Angkor Wat is a “must see,” make sure you venture further out to some of the other temple sites including Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and the lesser-visited Preah Khan. The latter two sites depict a battle between nature and architecture, where it’s obvious that nature is getting the upper hand. The jungle is basically devouring the remains of these ancient structures, as the trees have taken root in loosened stones and wound their way through the buildings. Determining which root belongs to which tree becomes a mesmeric puzzle for the viewer, as does the question of why an entire population abandoned these sites umpteen years ago. Preah Khan, which was built in 1191 A.D., originally served as a monastery and school, and at one time, 15,000 people lived there. Some archaeologists postulate that possibly severe climate conditions forced inhabitants to leave, but the actual reason for their departure will always be a mystery. As I walked among these masterpieces, I could almost hear the voices of the past within the crumbling walls of the ruins. It was truly a mystical, spiritual “pinch me” moment.
For an up-close and personal view of rural life in Cambodia, take a tour of a village near Siem Reap with a local guide, who will show you his community of houses built on sticks and explain how residents eke out a living with their small rice farms and various cottage industries. An average family has six kids, who attend school until sixth grade at the small village school. If they want to continue their education, the children must go into Siem Reap.
The tour motivated my desire to further interact with the local people. Journeys Within gladly facilitated this opportunity via its nonprofit organization, Journeys Within Our Community (JWOC). Founded by Brandon and Andrea Ross, owners of Journeys Within Tour Company, the organization works at the local level to be an active force for change. It invests in future generations by offering scholarships to students who have the ability to succeed, but are unable to afford the tuition fees and course materials. The nonprofit also offers a micro-finance program aimed at addressing the major problem of credit and debt in Cambodia. Additional programs include the Clean Water Project and the Free Schools Program; the latter which offers a variety of English language classes, training opportunities and skills development for children and adults.
I decided to volunteer one afternoon in an English conversation class for adults. The group met at JWOC’s center in a building adjacent to the Journeys Within Boutique Hotel, where I was staying during my time in Siem Reap. Three other volunteers from the hotel joined me in assisting the teacher with different speaking activities. The students were delightful and equally as curious about us as we were about them, which spurred an enthusiastic and stimulating exchange. Their hearty appreciation for our time was genuine, but I know that I got much more in return than I gave. Yet another “pinch me” moment from this incredible trip.