People travel for many reasons. For me, I do enjoy the culture, the sightseeing, a good shopping trip, delicious meals (I am a foodie after all), but it is the rich history: past, present and future in the making, that add all of those destinations to my must visit list. I crave to learn more about why a country is the way it is, why the locals do what they do and what their lives are truly like. My greatest souvenir is the one you can’t buy. It is experiencing the complete story a destination has to tell and that is exactly what I brought home with me in March from Indochina, as the world of travel as we knew it came to a standstill.
My adventure started in Hanoi, Vietnam, just as COVID-19 was making an appearance outside of China. Vietnam did not yet have any confirmed cases of the virus that has changed our lives, but that would later change. After meeting our local guide, we arrived at our beautiful new home for the next three nights, a boutique hotel called La Siesta Premium Hang Be. It was the perfect place to rest after the long journey and an ideal hub for our Hanoi explorations. We strolled through the narrow, busy streets of the city and sat with locals, sampling their cultural dishes with chopsticks, right on the street corners. We visited iconic Ba Dinh Square, where the marble mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh stands and is said to still hold his body. We enjoyed seeing the French influence that lingers prominently in the architecture from the former Governor’s Residence to the exquisite French Colonial Opera House; it was history on display.
The strong role the French have played in the history of Vietnam was reinforced at Hoa Lo Prison. Here, my love, appreciation and understanding of Vietnamese culture was strengthened. My heart swelled with pride for the people of this amazing country and the positive outlook they maintained through such trying times when only the strongminded survived. The museum’s exhibits featuring sculptures of people in shackles, brought me to tears as the gravity of life for a political prisoner and prisoners of war sunk in. A difficult, but much needed visit this experience will stick with me and I am thankful for the opportunity to have seen the story this prison museum had to tell.
Moving through history and the country, we arrived at Halong City. We cruised the emerald shadowed waters of Halong Bay (also known as the Bay of Descending Dragons) in a traditional sailing ship. This national treasure and UNESCO World Heritage Site contains 1600 islands and inlets in the Gulf of Tonkin. The setting was surreal and the perfect way to end our day.
Just in time for us to say goodbye to Vietnam, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 had arrived in the country and tourist sites were starting to close as a precautionary measure. We easily boarded our short flight to Laos and as luck would have it, there were no confirmed cases in our next destination, yet.
Arriving in Vientiane, Laos, we made our way to the Mekong Pearl, our riverboat home for the next week. With only 15 cabins on two decks our boutique river vessel was complete with French or private balconies, an indoor restaurant and bar area and a Sun Deck with a retractable roof. My favourite place on the ship was the third, top deck that was completely open. The fresh breeze was so peaceful and tranquil as we passed by animals in their natural habitat on the beautiful riverbanks. We sailed only during the day, meaning we didn’t miss anything. Believe it or not, with all of today’s modern technology, our Captain sailed the new (2017) wooden vessel relying mainly on his experience and vision.
Our pillows were lovingly turned down each night with chocolate mints and the next day’s itinerary waiting for us. Live like this for a week, and a girl can get used to being spoiled. Our days were filled with excursions immersing us in the culture and traditions of Laos. We visited the local market in Paklay, quaint farming villages, the district town of Salakhan and we witnessed local anglers and fishermen at work along the shorelines. A thrilling, fascinating experience was passing through the two-level high Xayabouri Dam, which is also the largest hydropower facility in the country.
One of our days took us to a traditional hill tribe village, where we learned about the locals. Following some shopping for local handicrafts and treasures we saw some of the most beautiful little waterfalls at the Kuang Se site. We completed this perfect day with an evening BBQ on the banks of the Mekong River. What an incredible day! And it was followed by yet another incredible day! At our morning stop we visited an elephant sanctuary where we had the opportunity to feed the elephants green bananas. It was an exciting and terrifying experience to see an elephant so close in person for the first time. Their size can be quite intimidating, but I overcame my apprehension as they were such gentle animals. I even reached out and touched one of them – it was a bit harrier than I thought it would be. Next we were off to another famous UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Pak Ou Caves that house thousands of Buddha statues in all different sizes and colours. The cave is tucked away, in the side of a mountain. From the middle of the Mekong River, as our boat slowly neared, the view of the stairs leading up to the cave, carved beautifully from the stone of the mountain, astounded me. The visit was definitely worth the climb and made for a memorable end to our time in Laos.
In the midst of our grand adventure COVID-19 had started to make its presence worldwide and new policies and procedures quickly followed. We were given the option of continuing on to Cambodia for the last leg of our journey or returning home. To that point the virus had not given us cause for concern on our travels with little to no cases in our visited countries, we chose to continue on. Little did we know about the storm that was brewing back home in Canada…
We arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia for the last 4 days of our trip and checked into the breathtaking 5 star, Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra. Cambodia turned out to be the most enticing, exotic, captivating, yet comfortable countries we visited. Cambodia reminded me of home, in Guyana – fresh fruit, right off of the trees: mangos, guava, sourie, coconuts, star apple, sapodilla and many more, it made me a little homesick, but the excitement set in again with new adventures on the horizon. There was so much to see and learn that 4 short days was not enough to satisfy my craving to immerse myself fully in the history and culture of Cambodia. We did however, get to see the highlight, and they were incredible.
To my surprise the “mother” of all Hindu temples, Angkor Wat, was to be found in Cambodia, and this is where we started our explorations. This magical, spiritual place is the largest temple in the world, inspired by 12th Century Hinduism that gradually evolved into a Buddhist temple over the years. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is rich with interesting tales and events over the centuries and was a great wonder to behold.
Up next was Ta Prohm, a temple built in c. 1186 CE and later abandoned. Nature took over forming a photogenic piece of organic art, a combination of banyan trees growing out of the ruins and the surrounding jungle backdrop serving as its protector. Throughout history the temple of Ta Prohm, originally built as a Buddhist monastery, has transferred back and forth between a Buddhist and Hindu temple several times. The site became popular with the release of Tomb Raider, when Angelina Jolie had scenes from the film shot there in 2001. Since then the temple has affectionately been nicknamed the “Tomb Raider Temple” with one of the most iconic filming sites, where Lara Croft is featured picking a Jasmin blossom, known as the “Tomb Raider Tree”.
Finally we arrived to explore Angkor Thom, the last of the Khmer Empire temples, built in the 12th Century. This monument is known for its “faces”, with over 200 of them protectively watching over you on your visit. This was an incredible experience and something not to be missed on a visit to Cambodia. We learned, after we left Cambodia, that heavy rainfall causing fallen trees, had unfortunately damaged some of the ruins within the complex. The struggle between nature and man continues. Words do not do these three magnificent, ancient temples justice; it is something everyone should see for themselves in their lifetime.
Our visit to Cambodia would not be complete without spending some much needed time getting to know the locals and their culture. We set out to experience the fun things like a ride in an ox cart, some archery shooting and of course teasing out tastebuds with wonderfully spiced food. We also got to take part in daily village activities, which gave me a new found appreciation for the urban lifestyle I was taking for granted at home in Canada. I find I am now showing more gratitude for the little things in life, which is one of the best takeaways from any life experience.
But, before we returned home, me with this new awareness, a few of us opted for a visit to Apopo, a non-profit organization and home of the Hero Rats. These amazingly impressive trained rats are sensitive to the smell of explosive and are used as “bomb sniffers”. These rats are faster than metal detectors at finding buried landmines in the process of returning safe land back to communities for development. The rats only alert to the explosives, whereas metal detectors pick up all trace amounts of metal, making for a more lengthy excavation to ensure safety.
These Hero Rats are well taken care of with massages for their working muscles and sunscreen daily to protect them from burns. Due to the hot days, they only work early morning and at sunset, with rest during the heat of the day. The females are usually the hardest working, but it is a very lax work environment. If the rats aren’t interested in working, they get the time off. It would defeat the purpose, attempting to force the rats to work.
Trained and imported from Africa, the Hero Rats have saved thousands of lives and limbs in Cambodia, safely aiding in destroying over 47,000 hazardous items. With every bomb detection comes a treat for the finding rat of ripe banana. These rewards are a great compliment to their strict diet to ensure their health and minimize the possibility of diabetes. The rats also have a natural talent for detecting tuberculous in humans and when they exhibit this they are trained and returned to Africa where they are in greater need as many there cannot afford testing. We saw a demonstration and got to hear fascinating stories; what a way to end the trip!
I learned so much in my short visit to Indochina. The enriching trip was complete with the sightseeing, learning of the rich history and culture and traditional cuisine complemented by seeing and feeling how proud, welcoming and willing the locals in all three countries are to share what little they have. They embraced our naiveties with answers and smiles and our diverse group of Canadians came home with a better understanding and appreciation of the world and its peoples.
As we returned to Canada in March, COVID-19 had just been declared a pandemic and travel as we know it started to shift. Canadians were being urged to return home and airlines started to cancel flights. Fortunately we made it home with few complications. With the new rules, we were all in self-quarantine for two weeks to help protect our fellow Canadians. Luckily, all was fine and well and I was healthy. I would love to return to Indochina for a longer visit one day to delve a little deeper into other areas of the countries of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. For now, I am looking forward to my next trip, wherever that may take me, when travel restrictions are lifted so I can yet again learn of the stories our world has to tell.
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