Ancient Kingdoms

by Hal Dendurent

One thing you can surely say about the guided tour Ancient Kingdoms: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Viet Nam (Overseas Adventure Travels) is that it is rich and deep in the experience it offers. We traveled there with a small group from February 21 through March 11, 2016.

The People

The part that appealed most to me was the many varied contacts we had with the local people. In Laos we visited a school in the village of Tin Keo. Now, school visits are part of every Grand Circle/OAT trip, because the Grand Circle Foundation supports many schools around the world as part of its program of giving back to the lands we visit. In this case, though, it was more: we not only visited he school, we enjoyed "A Day in the Life" of the entire Hmong village. At the school we interacted with the children much more than on Grand Circle trips. Instead of just offering a program and demonstrating English skills, the teacher asked the students to show us their skills in arithmetic, and then each of us interacted with one or more of the children, seeing how they work and encouraging them. In addition, the village chief showed us around the village. We got a good look at the way it is laid out and how it functions. We saw the blacksmith and weavers and got a chance to try our hand at what they do. We visited with the shaman (the Hmong are animists), who told us about his alternative medicine and demonstrated some of his rituals. We watched him dance, and we were able to try out his musical instruments and test our skill with his crossbow. Then the chief and his wife hosted us for lunch, which we helped prepare. We had the opportunity to ask many questions about the way they lived.

This was only one of the ways we met people. Buddhist monks depend on charity for their food. Early each morning they march through the streets accepting food alms from the people, who gladly give because they value the monks' blessings. We joined this ritual and later were privileged to speak with two of the novices. Then we went to the market where each of us purchased food using a few Lao words we had learned. Later, we helped our hosts prepare the meal at our home-hosted dinners.

In Thailand, Muslims constitute about 5% of the population. We visited an Imam and his wife and got quite a different view of Islam than that of the Middle East.

In the Mekong Delta of Viet Nam, we walked through Ben Tre village and enjoyed a sampan ride before visiting a family that makes coconut candy, witnessing the process in detail. Cruising to Phoenix Island, we heard the strange story of Ong Dao Dua, the "coconut Monk." We also visited the CuChi tunnels used by the Communists during the Viet Nam War and heard from a Viet Cong soldier who had fought in it.

Temples, Temples, Temples

These lands are predominantly Buddhist and the faith (one might rather say philosophy) is reflected in the many temples and the huge number of Buddha statues found everywhere. The gigantic Angkor Wat temple near the resort town of Siem Reap, Cambodia, is the largest religious structure in the world. I found the place exhilarating, with its decorated walls, huge towers, vast spaces, and challenging ascents. Nearby, perhaps missed by the typical visitor to Angkor Wat, are other temples, such as Banteay Srei, built in AD 967 and recognized as a tribute to female beauty. In the ancient capital city of Angkor Thom sits the state temple Bayon with its smiling faces among the many towers. Another temple in Angkor Thom is Baphuon, which we viewed from a distance, as we did the Elephant Terrace, an amusing line of sculpted elephants carved into what was once a 350-meter-long platform. Not far away, under the Terrace of the Leper King, rank after rank of mystical rulers and attendants adorn the walls. Finally, we walked through the fantastic "jungle temple" Ta Prohm, which remains essentially as it was found by the French, its stones intertwined with the huge roots of jungle trees.

Thailand also offered many temples to view, including those in and near Ayutthaya, the capital of Siam from 1353 to 1767. Dating from 1357, they still function as meditation centers today. The vast grounds of the Wat Phra Sri Sanphet complex are situated within the former Royal Palace. The Wat Xieng Thong temple in Luang Prabang, Laos, is also impressive.

These ancient temples have interesting histories, some having been built by Hindus and then taken over by the Buddhists. There is a complex relationship between Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism in Thailand and the other countries. In practice, many people live all three faiths. Everywhere you find statues of the Buddha, from very small to very large. People hold them in great reverence. Modern Buddhist temples house the monks. In Thailand, about 65% of young men become novices and practice the discipline for anywhere from a few months to a few years. Some go on to become monks. I talked with a young man in Laos who had spent three years as a novice, then left to provide support for his family; he said he wished to go back to the temple.

Unusual Places and Experiences

To me, the most unusual places we visited were the floating market (another photo} in Thailand and the floating villages in Cambodia. There, people conduct their lives in highly unusual but practical ways, given the environments in which they find themselves. Elsewhere in Thailand, we visited a palm sugar workshop and coconut farm. We also rode a fisherman's boat to a mangrove forest where hundreds of monkeys came to compete for the bananas we threw to them. In Cambodia, we visited the Killing Fields of ChoeungEk from the terror reign of Pol Pot, as well as the Tuol Sling Genocide Museum, where some 20,000 people, men, women, and children, were tortured and killed. We also heard from a survivor of those terrible days. We visited a museum documenting the C.I.A.'s Secret War in Laos as well as the frankly propagandistic "War Remnants" museum in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Cities

Bangkok is the home of the fabulous Grand Palace of the Old Kingdom of Siam as well as the famous 26-inch emerald Buddha. I was also impressed by the Bangkok skyline: there are very few glass boxes; almost all the tall buildings are uniquely and interestingly decorated.

Luang Prabang was the capital of the Kingdom of Laos until 1975, when the Communists took over. This is where we first encountered the "tuk-tuks" (called remoks in Cambodia) we used for local transportation. There were many attractions within the city and it was a good jumping off point for rural attractions, such as the Hmong village mentioned above. Among other things, some of us had dinner at an excellent French restaurant.

The very interesting Vientiane, capital of Laos (or Lao, as people call it; the 's' was added by the French) was charming. Among other places, we visited the Pha That Luang stupa (site of a stupendous sleeping Buddha as well as Haw Phra Kaew and Wat Si Saket, which contains a total of 6,840 Buddha statues of various sizes.

In Phenom Penh we witnessed a dance performance by children of the Champney Academy of Arts, an organization that preserves Khmer culture.

Saigon (as it is still informally and commonly known) was a big surprise. It is practically indistinguishable from the other large cities in the region. Hordes of motorized cycles, called "Hondas," crowd the streets at all hours as far as the eye can see, driven by all sorts of people, sometimes with whole families hanging on, weaving in and out of the traffic. People seem to know what they're doing, as there are few accidents. "Hondas" are the preferred form of transportation in the other cities we visited as well, and even in small towns.

Viet Nam

The Vietnamese seem to have mostly forgotten about the "American War," the effects of which still reverberate here at home. We enjoyed Saigon's small but interesting Museum of Vietnamese History. It contains the oldest mummy in Viet Nam as well as artifacts from every period and the inevitable bust of Ho Chi Minh.


Cambodia is a Kingdom and it does not want you to forget it, with images of the King all around. We experienced many rural places and people there, for example, stopping the bus along the road to meet a family of basket weavers and another family that makes rice noodles.


Two credit card agents I spoke with (to let them know we would be traveling abroad) had never even heard of this country. Too bad for them. For me and for many travelers, this is the most interesting country of all.


We didn't see as much of this historically almost-always independent country as we might have liked. Unfortunately, it is currently under martial law and there are draconian penalties for speaking ill of the king in any way. So we didn't.

The Travelers

Our trip leader, John, was fantastic! In the southeast Asian tradition, he welcomed us as family. Village people in the region typically refer to others as if they were family: a contemporary is called "brother" or "sister"; someone of the parents' age is "uncle" or "auntie"; and an elderly person is "grandmother" or "grandfather." John took care of us as a father does his family, going much farther than other professional program managers. He is by far the best trip leader I've known with Grand Circle/OAT or any other travel company. He was always available and demonstrated in every way that he cared deeply for us. In addition, he was highly organized. He was funny and knowledgeable and worked well with the guides. He took pictures continuously and built an online gallery with hundreds of photos he made available to us. I consider him my friend.

We enjoyed our family of travel companions, a diverse lot of experienced travelers. Each contributed in his or her unique way to the trip.