I am one of a group of five women friends who like to travel and talk about travel. We consider ourselves young seniors and when we get together we talk about our wish list of places to visit. Asia had been on the horizon for years.
We decided on a tour of South East Asia for 31 days and joined a group led by Intrepid Travel out of Bangkok.
The trip was advertised as soft adventure travel – it was very much on the budget side of travel and it called for some fitness, a sense of humor and an open mind in exotic places. We travelled in small private buses, overnight trains, houseboats down the Mekong and two internal flights.
Occasionally we got rides in the back of trucks, rickshaws and bicycles. Our tour included Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and lastly Cambodia.
We had an excellent 25-year-old tour leader called Leong, he looked after us like a good son and regaled us with his family and life story. He was the son of a rice farmer and just managed to save enough money to build his father a new stilt house. We actually drove close to his village and made a detour to visit his family.
Leong guided us from Bangkok until he safely delivered us back to Bangkok at the end of our tour in time for the flight home.
Leong was patient, kind, and whenever he could, he allowed us off the leash and pointed us in the direction of markets and good restaurants, he knew all the best places.
Our tour included the wonders of Bangkok and Northern Thailand, the beauty and peace of Laos and the contrasts in Vietnam from Halong Bay and Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. We enjoyed all these countries with their different cultures and exotic foods and the days flew by all too quickly.
With only a week to go we crossed the border from Vietnam into Cambodia, I was a bit jaded from traveling but a new country and a new city always refreshes my interest. I fell in love with Phnom Penh the moment the bus wound its way along the wide streets and surprisingly I summoned up my energy for another round of sightseeing.
The beautiful shabby capital city of Cambodia is a stunner, set on a major junction of the Mekong and Tonie Sap rivers. The city is endowed with wide boulevards laid out in the grand style of the Champs-Elysees. The wrought iron railings and ornate gates spoke of colonial days and bygone elegance.
Our hotel was located in a laneway close to the centre; we were within walking distance of the exotically beautiful royal palace. However, the heat was so intense we tuk-tuked everywhere, it helps the local economy and we enjoyed chatting to the drivers. There were several “must see” old historic temples and stupas, the infamous Tuoi Sleng Museum and some very impressive colonel buildings.
The endearing quality of Phnom Penh is that village life continues off the main boulevards as it has for centuries.
Families gathered along the dusty potholed streets to cook and eat together, this ritual eating happens all over South East Asia. Everyone looked happy while they sit on tiny stools slurping noodles or rice dishes , the children play around contentedly.
Gorgeous tropical trees offer shade to groups of men and tuk-tuk drivers who snoozed or lay resting on their machines with one eye always open for the tourists. Women have small stalls selling non-essentials such as hair ornaments, cheap souvenirs and coconuts but commerce is the name of the game however modest.
Everywhere we went we noticed domestic hens with broods of chicks pecking their way along the streets in big cities or small villages. However, in Phonm Penh we had to contend with the local rooster who crowed right under our window before dawn and drove us all crazy.
Yet, for all that, Phnom Penh is a sophisticated city with great coffee bars, restaurants and exciting markets.
Cambodia is emerging from its past, from the heartbreaking era of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. We took a tour out to see the Choeung Ek Memorial, where a Stupa is made up of some 8,000 human skulls marking the site of the infamous killing fields. The people and guides we met told their stories and knew their history, the suffering and oppression was recent and very fresh and real in the minds of the people. The survivors have had to struggle with hunger and poverty and many continue to struggle today as a whole generation of people who were denied an education, remember and keep the story alive. Of course some of the survivors are now part of the booming Cambodia where people have large families and are keen to get on and improve their lot.
We left Phnom Penh after three days of sightseeing; it was the usual cloudless morning when we drove through the Cambodia countryside on our way to Siem Reap. Angkor Wat was our final destination and another highlight of our trip in Cambodia.
I enjoyed seeing the sights and villages from our air conditioned bus; the traffic on the road is always interesting and sometimes entertaining. Scooters were loaded down with passengers, cages of hens, mattresses, furniture and everything in between. One poor pig was strapped on oblong to the back of a scooter; one can only surmise its destination. Of course it is common to see a family of four without helmets on a scooter and sometimes a baby wedged in somewhere between them. The skill and daring of scooter driver’s left us agape, they maneuvered in and out of traffic, dodged carts, trucks, potholes, it looked to us as if they were born on scooters. Yes, there is poverty – great poverty but to our western eyes it was exotic and different.
Sadly landmines are still a huge problem in Cambodia with remote parts of the countryside still uncleared and very dangerous.
The rice harvest was in progress and like France during the vandage the countryside was buzzing with activity. Rickety trucks and buffalo pulled carts were loaded to the maximum with bursting sacks of rice and every man woman and child were engaged in back bending work in searing heat.
It was difficult for me to see how the animals were treated but in a poor country survival of the human population comes first. The cows were a rack of bones – we were told they hate eating the rice stubble, it is brittle and unchewable. Nobody worries about them because they will regain all their weight when the rains comes bringing new lush growth. The land is fertile in the delta and three crops of rice can be grown in a year which is astonishing and very hard work. The houses are built on stilts to give protection from the floods in the rainy season. Little stilt shacks sold bananas, lottery tickets, cigarettes and Coca-Cola.
Soon we were heading into Siem Reip and all roads in Cambodia leads to Siem Reip, the jumping off point for Angkor Wat. We were grateful for the air conditioned hotel, the variety of restaurants and the tuk tuks everywhere to ferry us off for massages, market shopping and to see the sights.
I knew Angkor Wat would be a major highlight of our trip and it didn’t disappoint. The next morning we were up at 4:30 a.m. and out to the temples to see the sunrise over Angkor, quite stunning and worth the effort. After the spectacle of sunrise we gathered for breakfast at the nearby cafes and then with cameras in hand we spent the day temple viewing. These temples were built between the ninth and 13th century and were said to represent the cosmic world. In the late 13 century the temples gradually moved from Hindu worship to Buddhism and continue to the present time.
The temples are very different in shapes and carvings from anything we had seen before. We had a guide for part of the tour which is essential and then we could wander off on our own to enjoy the site. We were amazed by the massive creeping roots of the Banyan trees which covered the walls and crept over the lintels. They formed a symbiotic relationship with the ancient stones, if the roots were cut down the buildings might crumble.
Elephants padded around bringing tourist to and fro, they were in perfect proportion to the temples and elephants have always played a role in Angkor.
The beauty of the carvings and the harmonious style of the temples made Angkor Wat a place I will never forget. Soon we were back in the bus bracing ourselves for the long drive back to the border and on to Bangkok to spend our last night. We had just enough time for that last massage and manicure. Then we faced the long haul flight home.
It was all worth it and we treasure the memories. We came back with our friendships intact, having survived various small ailments, lack of sleep and a fall off a bike into the rice paddy. Maybe in time we will venture forth again on another soft adventure trip after all we are healthy seniors with finite time and the world is vast and fascinating.
Marie Bruce has travelled all over the world and written about her experiences for decades.