Story and photography by Pamela A. Keene
The idea for my three-week trip to Southeast Asia began as a whim last Christmas, but by the time I arrived back home on September 11 — after more than 20 hours each way on international flights — I wouldn’t have traded it for a brand new boat or a million dollars.
The 11-hour time difference quickly faded once we landed in Bangkok, Thailand, to spend almost a week in this bustling city before embarking on a hop-scotch of cities in Lao (people in the know don’t use the “s,” a convention of the French who once dominated the country), Cambodia and Vietnam.
As soon as we stepped off the plane, the differences between these countries and North Georgia were more than evident: humidity at 95 percent, temperatures ranging from mid-70s at night to the high 90s during the day with the sun coaxing our sweat glands to protect us from heat stroke. Even though it was the rainy season, we were blessed with only a few brief showers during our three-week trek.
Bangkok is a bustling city filled with tourists visiting the Reclining Buddha, the Emerald Buddha, and the Royal Palace. People piled on scooters ride beside automobiles and trucks on the main roads; the scooters are a preferred way of travel because they’re more agile in heavy traffic.
Around almost every corner, juxtaposed with skyscrapers, golden-roofed temples and flower-draped sidewalk shrines ensured that we knew we weren’t in the States anymore. But that’s not all: open-air street markets selling fresh foods I’d never seen before and prepared meals of fish, chicken, frog legs, shrimp tempted the palate and provide a feast for the eyes. The spectacle of baskets piled high with unknown colorful and/or prickly fruits and vegetables showed us the real life of the people.
Our trip leader with Overseas Adventure Travel took us to rural areas and ancient ruins, on river trips in nearly every place we visited on the strangest boats, to coconut and silkworm farms, and into the marshes to help reforest the endangered mangrove jungles.
In Luang Prabang, a World Heritage Site in Lao, we cruised the Mekong River, visited a mountain cave filled with more than 4,000 Buddha statues — we added one of our own — and visited more temples. On the country’s rivers, we saw long boats filled with 28 or so paddlers training for an upcoming national championship race. It reminded me of the Dragon Boat events at the Lake Lanier Olympic Park.
A trademark of Overseas Adventure travel, “A Day in the Life” in Lao brought us to the remote Bann Non Saath school where we visited with village children and shared a treat of ice cream cones.
Then we helped prepare our lunch at the village leader’s open-air home before flying to the Lao capital of Vientiane and a home-hosted dinner of Lao cuisine.
We even taught him some Southern — y’all — which he kept repeating for the rest of the evening, a big smile on his face.
Our hosts shared — in English — about their jobs and family. The 20-something son was the most fluent, a great interpreter between our group and his parents and aunt. We even taught him some Southern — y’all — which he kept repeating for the rest of the evening, a big smile on his face.
All us travelers had heard of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, but I for one didn’t know anything about Siem Reap except that the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat were nearby. Our time in Phnom Penh was highlighted by a visit to Champey Academy of Arts, funded by the Kasumisou Foundation and begun by former American banker Mark Rosasco and his wife, who now live in California. Almost 70 percent of the students, who range in age from 6 to their teens, are children of the street, orphaned by AIDS. They study art, the Cambodian culture, including dance, and many are fluent in English. The school relies on donations to survive.
It was appropriate that Siem Reap and the wonders of Angkor Wat came near the end of our trip. A morning ride through the countryside on a wooden cart pulled by a pair water buffalo took us to a boat ride to the floating village of Mei Cherey on Tonle Sap lake.
We were welcomed into the home of the village leader — a female — and her aunt, the village midwife, who gave us insight into their roles in the community, settling disputes, providing counsel and guidance and helping bring new villagers into the world.
The trip held so many surprises, from the differences in the cuisine from country to country, to the openness and acceptance …
Even before I traveled to the other side of the world, friends and acquaintances espoused the beauty and intrigue of 400-acre Angkor Wat, built in the 12th century as a center of Hindu worship. Shortly thereafter, it became a center for Buddhist worship and at one time served as the capital of Cambodia.
As one of the largest existing religious structures in the world; its sheer mass is overwhelming. At one time the five towers and the sandstone structure were covered with gold leaf.
Three days before the end of our adventure, we flew to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. With a population approaching 10 million, it’s whirring with activity. The streets are filled with thousands of scooters, many with three or more passengers, all wearing helmets.
At traffic lights jams, they all jockey for position at the head of the line, so that as soon as the light changes, they can buzz to the next light. It’s not unusual to see them riding on sidewalks, in between rows of cars and darting wherever they can to get a little ahead.
The trip held so many surprises, from the differences in the cuisine from country to country, to the openness and acceptance of the many people we met. It was a non-stop lesson in history, human nature and economics that can’t be summarized in 25 words or less, an experience that still has my mind buzzing. I’m sure I’ll be digesting my adventure for months to come.