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 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.
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
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
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.
Bangkok is the home of the fabulous
Grand Palace of the Old Kingdom of Siam as well as the famous 26-inch
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.
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
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.
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
our family of travel companions, a diverse lot of experienced travelers.
Each contributed in his or her unique way to the trip.