Holidays and Other Excursions

Tag: Buddhism

On to Ho Chi Minh City

Day 18 Friday 2 January 2015

Leaving at Cai Be at 9 was relatively simple – during check in the previous day we saw one couple unable to settle the bill as the credit card machine was not working and having to go into town and use an ATM to get cash – the wife is prepared with cash!

With guide and driver we head for the former capital of the south – then Saigon and now Ho Chi Minh City – and on the way get to travel on one of the two toll roads in the country.  Apart from the toll road most of our way appears to be built up – at least in a ribbon strip alongside the road with a continually changing variety of little outlets – food, cafe, wood store, cafe, engineers, food, clothes, bridal wear shops – seemingly without break.  A lot of the time one can just see that there is countryside behind the shops with no doubt farming of rice and other items, but the roadside is developed most of the way.

The other notable element throughout this journey, particularly visible on the toll road section is the graves and / or monuments to deceased family members in the centre of the field, or at one side.  These typically are elegant structures which look as if they are made of marble and are well maintained.  Obviously there is huge respect for the older generations.

They have not quite got to motorway service stations but we do stop at a busy service area where we get coffee and a toilet break and the place is busy with foreigners on a variety of journeys.  The crossroads of the Mekong I rather think.

HCM City has grown.  It is now larger than Hanoi and has a population of over 9m.  Our guide later explains that following unification the people of the south were given land dependent on the number of family members and in consequence there was for a long time pressure to have much larger families to ensure the maximum area of land was received.

I cannot admit to a great sense of direction but I feel we looped around the city to provide access to the Chinese market and to gain some idea of the size and infuence of the Chinese population.  This is perhaps even more cramped than the other markets we visited and is an absolute riot of colour (as usual there are photos).  Very bright and very busy.  As we found in Hanoi Chinese involvement in Vietnam was important in the first millenium of the Christian era (approx) and Saigon was always an important port on the route to and from the Far East from western Europe so the strength of the Chinese community is hardly a surprise.

Originally there was a separate town here – Cholon – but as they grew the two towns became linked and eventually merged, with Saigon becoming the dominant name after independence from the French.  Photographs:

Near to the market is the Thien Hau Pagoda which is a buddhist temple.  Much of the buddhist related temples we have seen so far have been derived from the Indian heritage with which much of the area is linked.  The chinese heritage however brings different facets to buddhism.   Within the pagoda they especially venerate the Lady of the Sea (Thien Hau) again reflecting the links to the seafaring Chinese.  The photographs again show the roof detail which mirrors that on the Chinese house is Sa Dec.  Internally there is much burning of incense.

Dinner this evening was at the recommendation of our guide – a BBQ outlet.  Careful (mis)ordering means that one of the dishes (wild boar) requires cooking at the table and after we have consumed much of the other food they turn on the hidden burner in the centre of the table and pour some oil on the steadily getting hotter metal plate.  Luckily my wife is travelling with me and so after nearly three weeks without having cooked my dinner she is poking and prodding and turning to ensure that the boar is good enough to eat.  It mainly tastes like fatty bacon!

However we are out of doors, it is a warm evening and the food was certainly freshly cooked.  The rest of the meal was also pretty good.  It has become clear that few restaurants in this part of the world have any concept of “courses” even if they have sections labelled as “starters” and “mains” as the food inevitably seems to arrive all at the same time.  It was all tasty and it was only walking distance back to The Grand Hotel where we are staying but we pass en route, outlets for Versace (turn right), Louis Vuitton and Christian Louboutin, amongst many other major brands.  This City may be in a communist country but there are obviously people capable of paying the prices these concerns demand.


Siem Reap – Day 1

Day 8 Tuesday 23 December 2014

Siem Reap is a huge tourist place.  Much, much larger than Luang Prabang.  The draw here are the temples built in 11 – 14th centuries and which then were lost and became covered in overgrowth until rediscovered by the French when they were in power in the mid-nineteenth century.

At the time of construction Cambodia was a much larger country and covered much of what is now considered to be Vietnam to the south east, Laos to the north and Thailand to the west.  The borders have frequently moved as a result of invasions and disputes and the current borders largely derive from the French arrangements in the nineteenth century.

Our hotel has obviously been selected by the operators for convenience to the main attractions, Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat and not for the quality of the breakfast.  Hard boiled eggs which have solid yolks and runny whites (how do they do that I wonder?) and despite the French influence in the region the knack of good fresh bread (particularly croissants) seems to have been lost.

Never mind – hotels are secondary to the sites and our guide redeeems himself for the previous day and we are off to Angkor Thom where we stop outside the walls and indeed the moat.  The construction of these sites was (to my mind) amazingly well engineered.  The weight of water in the moat around the development holds it all in place,  all very clever.  The target for today is the Bayon temple which stood at the centre of the complex.  Originally the temple had 54 towers, each with four faces above – 216 smiling faces.  Not all survive but all were individual.  The photos also show the associated carving throughout the temple.  Again the work was amazing and given its age it is all based on the Hindu religion and Hindu stories.  There are several clever photos possible of people kissing the smiling face which others achieved!

Angkor Thom photographs are at

Outside the Bayon temple we are taken to the location of the Royal Palace, now long gone at the rear of which there were two swimming pools – and even now both contain water, although perhaps not as clean as they were once.

The engineers who designed the entire area used the main river flows into the lagoons / moats around the major Angkors but also to provide strength to the ground to ensure the building weight was held in place and also to ensure that water continued to flow and therefore provided good clean water downstream as well providing all that was required by what became in the mid-fifteenth century a huge city which controlled most of the entire indo-china peninsula.  These people were clever.

Outside is the elephant terrace – a partially enclosed area with elephants engraved along the walls which was probably used as a parade ground and at the end of the terrace another area known incorrectly as the Leper terrace.  Modern investigation has shown that the statue at the top of the area was a respresentation of the god of justice who decided on individual descent to hell or elevation to heaven!  His fingers were missing and so it was believed to be leprosy – but merely damage it seems!  Beneath the statue however were the remains of a creamtorium which has been partially reconstructed.  This elevated section is also opposite the drive to the fifth “Victory” gate where the King would sit to welcome troops returning from battle.

Following a little light shopping our excursion continues with a gondola trip around one corner of the moat.  This is a peaceful interlude but enables us to gain some idea of the scale of the construction.  The water is currently ten or so feet below the top of the surrounding banks showing that we are now in the dry season and the capacity to hold extra water without flooding the area.  On the inner side there is a high wall so the city must have been considered impregnable.  Once we pass the point at which the water flows into this moat from the network system our oarsman is obviously working much more easily.  We progress around the corner but do not stop to see the temple at the corner.

We turn around, so harder work against the current until we again pass the inlet and drift back to our starting point.  Calm and cooler in the heat of the day.

Time for a break to avoid the heat and we leave the hotel again at 3pm to hear for Angkor Wat the very famous temple.  We walk across the entrance bridge, again another huge moat and water supports the construction inside.  Buddhist monks occupied the temple throughout and these are still on site in more modern facilities close by.  Approaching the temple it looks as if there are only three towers but step to one side in front of a smalll lake and there are five – and if the reflections are working well then 10!  Monkeys abound – living on the droppings from the tourists.

Separate album for this:

The temple when originally built was for the hindu religion and therefore the carvings reflect Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and the associated stories.  However the influences came from India with Buddhism and the top of the temple had the Hindu features removed and replaced by a Buddha.  So there are close links to our visit to India last year.

The original steps to the top of the temple look to be impossible – they are steep and the each step is very narrow plus there are no handrails!  I suppose middle age feet (and I do not mean people younger than us) had smaller feet.  Never mind; the authorities have erected some slightly more modern steps, with handrails and we pull ourselves up the steps and into the top of the temple.  The views down make the people very small below.  We wander around the top taking photos (some of these appear on the Flickr page as usual) before we descend and regroup.  We head for the inevitable stalls and for the first time manage to get Angkor coffee – which is lovely and nutty as well as coffee.  For me without the sweetening of the condensed milk which I am told makes it even better.

We return to the viewing point across the lake as we are told that like the Taj Mahal the temple can change colour as we approach sunset and sometimes it gains a wonderful glint.  This obviously needs a completely clear sky (our lovely guide shows us some recent examples) and sadly there is a cloud in the wrong place at the wrong time.  OTOH on reviewing the pictures later the change in colour which I had not seen at the time does appear in one of my pictures.

With the evening settling in we return to the hotel – but there is further entertainment.  We head out to the Aspara dinner and dance.  There are pictures of the menu and the food at Flickr (I will add links when the technology allows), plus a couple of pictures of the dancers.

The food was excellent, in particular we recall the marinated fish.  The dancing was also excellent and we were treated to a number of dances – the fishermen, where boy gets girl (eventually), the coconut song and the dance of the Monkey king plus some others.  A talented troop and they deserve our approbation.

The music however plus our discussions with our guides overe language and the need for significant tonal inflection to distinguish similar words, leads me to be believe however that ears work differently here as the music may have recognisable time signatures but tonally the music always sounds “different”.

By the time we reach bed we are tired.  {This is the second version of this post; rewards will be offered for anyone who finds the original – it was much funnier}.

Luang Prabang Day 2

Day 5 Saturday 20 December 2014

An early call this morning as we are going into LP with guide and driver to observe the giving of alms to the monks.  All of the many monks start at one end of town and steadily progress through the entire town to end up at the main monastery we had visited the previous day.  So soon after six in the morning one side of the road, towards the end of the procession which is not so heavily populated, are ladies with bowls of rice (some have others items) and on the other side numerous onlookers like ourselves.

A gong sounds to give notice of the approaching monks and in groups, representing different monastries they steadily process past.  Eventually the light improves sufficiently to permit photographs which are on the Flickr site.

Somewhere around the middle of the procession there is a break and the ladies then have the potential to refill their bowls of rice.  At the end of the ladies in or group is a small child and she does not give the monks any food but instead receives and it is explained that it is known that she is from a poorer family and the monks share the food they have received with the poorer groups.

We later find that our guide was a monk for a number of years.  If the land canot support the younger members of the family then joining a monastery  provides food and a good education and is beneficial for all concerned.  So Buddhism rather than a national dependence on the state – are we institutionalised Buddhists?

Heading back to the transport we walked through the morning market – it opens at 5 and the villagers from the surrounding area bring in all sorts of goods to be sold.  This covers  vegetables, meat, fish plus scarves and other goods of all descriptions.  There are photos – but again there do not seem to be any shortages of anything important and indeed in terms of vegetables these seem to be excellent in quality and quantity.

Anyway back to the hotel for breakfast and to shed our overcoats.  We have a big excursion today when we return to the town and the riverside to take a boat upstream for about two hours to visit a cave where the gold buddha was originally kept when brought to the country.  After the climb the previous day we decline the visit to the upper cave as we are told it contains not only buddha statues but also bats!

We cross the river to a small village and we walk through to where they keep the elephants in a small reserve in winter.  In summer they are used to move logs so are still working elephants.  Fed with numerous bananas they seem quite happy and relaxed even if necessarily tethered.

Then we wander back through the village for lunch in a restaurant overlooking the Mekong river – the sunshine is brilliant and it is again a warm day.  On the return trip to LP we stop at a village where they can show us numerous scarves and the wife is able to buy some items for a close friend’s impending birthday.  Here we hear the almost universal request “Do you want to buy a scarf?” in a polite but slightly singing voice which cannot be done justice in print.  This is repeated as we walk through the village as there are numerous sellers ans more scarves and table runners than the one village can possibly produce.  However thy are all very nice pieces and each house appears to have its own weaving loom we do wondr just how much weaving can possibly be achieved locally.

Whilst the village is obviously organised for visits like ours it is also notable that most of the houses have huge satellite dishes (athough rusty) and therefore presumably some form of power supply and television.  It may be rural but certainly they are not cut off from the outside world in any form.  Even here there is a well decorated and maintained temple – it reminds me of Greece where there may be economic problems but the religious houses are well maintained.

Travelling with the current our return journey is a little faster than outward and so towards the end of the afternoon we return to the hotel.

The evening commences with a Baci ceremony for the four travellers where about 20 local people welcome us to Laos.  About 10 ladies plus a couple of musicians sing a welcome and then a dancing group entertain us with their skills  and a number of different dances.  The end of the ceremony requires us to present our wrists and they tie pieces of string around each wrist to represent close ties between Laos and ourselves.  We are also presented with a flower arrangement which I receive from the Village elder (Shaman / priest) and I have to present this the following day at the Watermelon stupa.

We were a little amazed at this being laid on for just the four of us and we were somewhat relieved when a Mexican couple joined us during the proceedings.

Our evening was rounded off by dinner in the hotel and I can report that yet another excellent repast was consumed by the travellers.  The hotel kitchen can cook and the only thing we find difficult is that the concept of “courses” seems to be unknown as the soup arrives and the remaining food arrives almost immediately when the waiting team return to the kitchen!  After such a long day we are glad to retire to bed.

Good night.