Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Since I've returned home from my cruise, I realize that I neglected to include one of my posts I wrote offline during my trip.  So, out of order, but here it is:

Da Nang and Hoi An

The city of Da Nang has been around since at least the 1600's, but most people today recognize its name from the Vietnam War, as it is where the U.S. troops first landed in 1965.  Nearby, China Beach became the place where troops enjoyed sand and surf as much needed recreation.  The city fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975.  Today, Da Nang is the fourth largest city in Vietnam, with approximately 1,000,000 people in residence.

Hoi An is a small historic town about 22 miles from Da Nang, and is recognized as such by UNESCO.  It's narrow and winding streets are an historian's delight, filled with beautifully preserved architecture evident in its temples, houses and meeting or assembly halls, as well as pagodas, water wells, bridges markets and a wharf.  The village is a wonderful example of symbolic oriental cities in the Middle Ages.

We were picked up by our tour guide and small bus and drove through Da Nang on our way to Hoi An.  Along the way, we passed by the old American base that was used extensively during the war.  It is now used as a naval base by the Vietnamese military, but you can still see a number of the old American barracks along the outskirts of the base.

We also passed by ( and later visited the shop) the Marble Mountains. They are each named for elements - water, metal, wood, fire and earth. The earth is the highest peak.
They make some fantastic pieces taken from the marble of the mountainous area.  

We spent a leisurely day wandering the narrow streets of Hoi An, and hopped onto a small river boat for a 20 minute trip down the river until we reached a small village devoted to ceramic making. An elderly woman and her granddaughter demonstrated the art of the wheel, with the younger one spinning the wheel around with her foot, and the elder forming the clay in the center of the wheel into a small bowl.  She then started a second piece, which was a lid that fit perfectly on the bowl she had just finished.  

We had a nice lunch at a quiet restaurant down a small street and then spent another half hour shopping and walking through the central market before hopping on our bus and heading back to the ship.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Halong Bay

Our last port of call was Halong Bay, A UNESCO world heritage site.  It is located in Northern Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin.  Halong Bay has nearly 2,000 islands, most of which are uninhabited. The total land area is over 500 square kilometers, so you can imagine how big this area is.

Halong Bay means the bay of the descending dragon. Local legends tell how a dragon was sent by the Emperor of Jade to fight the onslaught of attackers.  In the process, the dragon spat jewels that landed in the sea. The dragon then landed in the sea, with just it's humps sticking up out of the water, which are the islands we now see. 

Our group had planned a private tour on our own little ship (called a ship, supposedly, because it had its own tender boat).  We left the dock at a little past nine a.m. and did not return until well past six p.m.  It was a long but lovely day on Paradise Cruises.  

The islands and the bay are gorgeous, but even more so on sunny days, when the green and translucent waters contrast sharply with bright blue skies.  Sadly, our weather was quite cool, and very overcast.  While it may have been a damp day, it did not dampen our spirits.

We visited a cave while on our cruise.  The Sung Sot Cave. We tendered in the cute little boat to a small dock, then had to climb about 200 steep steps up the mountain to the mouth of the cave.  Once inside, we were awestruck at the sheer enormity of the cave.  HUGE.  To walk from the entrance to the other side to exit was one kilometer.  This one was probably three or four stories high as well, filled with loads of stalactites, craters, and thousands of years worth of water eroded floors and walls.  Simply gorgeous.

After the cave, we sailed a little bit longer and then anchored for lunch. First class all,the way, it was a bountiful buffet of meats, seafood, noodles, rice, vegetables, salads, soups and even jelly fish! Yum.

After lunch we visited another small island, called Ti Top Mountain, and climbed 400 steps up to the viewing area at the top.  Beautiful vistas were the reward for that really tough trek up, then another 400 steps down. 


Our last stop while still on our cruise was a visit to a small pearl factory on a floating mini-village.  These people grow and harvest oysters, for the pearls, of course. And so this begins the story of the travesty of the plighted Halong Bay oyster.

Oysters grow for 18 months, then they pull them out of the water and inject them with a little baby nub of something, an irritation. I would give you the proper name, but this little man older than God's father spoke to us in such poor English that we had essentially no idea what he was saying.  I am sure that this was part of their plot and conspiracy to cover up what they are really doing.  Once they inject this little nub into the poor, unsuspecting young oyster, the close the shell up again and plop goes the little oyster (cue the jack-in-the-box music here) back into the bay, in a new roped off section.

There, for the next 18 months, those little oysters, having suffered through OIVF (oyster in vitro fertilization) live huddled together until time has passed and they are once again dragged to the surface, opened up bare, for all the world to see, and prodded for pearls.  

Sadly, 70% have no pearls. Only 13% have full pearls. Guess what happens to the 70%? They are flung into the bay to die. (insert major sob here). As for the other 13%, no one knows what happens to them.  Perhaps they are saved for further experimentation.

Frankly, I believe that this is ecological irresponsibility and therefore I wish to call worldwide attention to the plight of the Halong bay oyster. I am going to form the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to the Halong Bay Oysters. Please send your donations to help these poor oysters who have no voice (nor any pearls) of their own!

And so ends another tour, and another cruise, my friends. We sailed proudly into Hong Kong harbor early this morning, after spending a lovely evening on the ship, and a nice dinner with my cruise critic friends.

Safe travels to everyone and till next time, bye bye!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Cruise Life

I normally have lots of observations and interesting experiences on board cruise ships. 

This cruise, however, has been rather sedate.  Yawn.

Nothing exciting like a few years ago when there was the "Dutchman And the Drapes" encounter. Nothing as sweet as the "Greek Man on Street Bench" incident.  Or the bemusing "Hairy Man at the Turkish Bath" story.

However, there have been some interesting and curious people that I have met on board. 
There are some great people that I have met as part of the cruise critic group, and we've had a number of days together on tour in which to get to know one another more than just in passing.

The oldest members in our group are a pair of women friends from southern California.  They are 82 and 79 years old and are a hoot and a half.  They remind me of the energizer bunnies, because nothing stops or slows these women down! They hop in and out of rickety boats and have an opinion about everything they see and do.  I adored them!

One member of our group is a published author, with several books to her credit, each of which is about a very different subject from the next. For example, one is about auras, and another one is about archeology of the oceans. 

We are a diverse group - we come from Canada, Macau, Greece, U.S., Australia, U.K., Scotland.  We are single, married, aunts, nieces, sons and daughters.  Retired, in school, working. First time cruisers, long time cruisers. 

I've had "anytime dining" option this cruise and it has had its benefits and its drawbacks. Benefits are that you get to meet more people because you generally sit with different people every meal.  The downside to this is that you generally have to reintroduce yourself to people anew each night, you have to try to remember people's names, and as the days go by that list of names grows longer.  You have to repeat where you're from, what you do, how  long you've cruised, why are you cruising alone, do you have children,  blah blah blah.
Ack, it just wears you OUT!

On sea days, there are always at least three things to do in any given hour.  And those are just what's listed on our daily program. That doesn't count eating, reading, swimming, working out, walking, people watching, drinking, gambling, shopping, and sleeping.  Haha!

I downloaded four books onto my iPad, filled with a lofty idea that I would be able to read all of them with all this TIME I was going to have.  Well. I am only into my first book, and while I have nearly finished it, it is still a pitiful showing. There's just been too many other distractions. 

Yesterday was our fourth sea day and I attended three talks - one was a Q and A with the Captain.  People asked him all sorts of questions and I found it fascinating. I might add that Holland America has its first ever female Staff Captain aboard our ship.  The Staff Captain is second in command, although not second most important. That dubious honor goes to the ship's chef.  The Captain told us the ship would sail without him, but never without the chef!  Hahahahahahahahha. 

The second talk I attended was a slide show given by our ship's travel guide. He shared with us his favorite places in the world, and his pictures were beautiful, especially those taken in Iceland. That location just got bumped up a couple of notches on my "must go" list.

The third talk I attended was a presentation, via slides, of the hotel manager reviewing what goes on in dry dock and how our ship was redecorated in just 14 days.  Absolutely amazing what was accomplished in just two short weeks.  Now, if only our mother ship could be so efficient.........(for those of you who don't know what I mean by that, well,  never mind...)

Next came happy hour. Two for one drinks in the Crow's Nest, the bar and lounge area on the top deck. Can't pass that up on a lazy sea day.  Daily trivia game also is during happy hour, and although I did not join a team, I did have a boisterous team of Australians sitting next to my lounge chair, so as each question was asked, I muttered the answer. I was supposed to be reading my book, but i couldn't help butting in.  One of the team members argued with me occasionally and at the end, he was right once and I was right twice.  Either way, his team lost, because the winning team got a perfect score, but it was great fun!

We had a man at dinner the other night who got something stuck in his throat and began to choke. Fortunately, someone was able to perform the Heimlich and the offending morsel was expelled from his throat. The funny thing about the whole incident (since it ended well we can laugh at it now) was that the man was yelling help me, help me, I'm choking, and don't we all know that when you are actually choking, you cannot speak.......first a small woman tried to wrap her arms around the large man to try the Heimlich, and that didn't work. Then another woman, who is a nurse, ran over and whacked him on the back, and that did not work. Then, out of nowhere came a large Dutch woman, a ship's officer, and she grabbed that man from behind and gave him one big thrust and out popped the food. I am just glad I was not at that table. I was there, but on the other side of the dining room, and barely heard the commotion, but for the next two nights, someone at my table had been nearby, including the back-thumping nurse and all were fascinated listening to the re-telling of the "choking incident."

I haven't done the daily quizzes this time because there is some guy who is more rabid than I and grabs the quiz at the strike of 8:00 each morning, rushes away to his little corner of the library, and scribbles his answers in about two minutes, then strides over to the desk librarian like he's king of the world or something, and ceremonially drops his quiz into the box.  Hrrrmph.  I tried to beat him once, but the quizzes are exceptionally difficult and I ended up missing more answers than he, so I gave up trying.  Add to that, when the librarian saw my name on my quiz, she recoiled in horror and promptly informed me that my name was on the list of "Banned Persons For Purposes of Quiz Contests". When I asked her why, she narrowed her eyes, and  hissed at me "you've maxed out at winning - now get out of my library!" I guess my reign as Queen of the Quizzes has ended.


I've also taken a few tech courses with our techspert on board. He is a retired engineer-type guy from Intel and teaches a series of classes on how to use your digital camera, using the new Windows 8 operating system, editing photos, setting up files and folders, etc. Some of the courses are very basic, which I skipped, but others have been quite helpful.  I have learned all about Windows 8, how to use Skydrive, which is the Windows version of the Apple iCloud, and how to edit my photos using Photo Gallery, another Windows application.  I learned how to take a series of photos in preparation for combining them into one panoramic picture once downloaded into Photo Gallery.  Really neat!

Nha Trang

While every port stop has been a great one, I found that Nha Trang was a most pleasant surprise. Hugging the central coast section of Vietnam, I expected it to be a beach town with little else to offer. 

While it is a very popular seaside retreat for Vietnamese and world tourists alike, it is also home to a lot of colonial style architecture, Champa Kingdom relics from the 8th century, and the Truong Son mountains which line the miles of stunning shoreline.  There are also numerous small agricultural villages just a few minutes outside of town. 

Nha Trang's economy relies largely on tourism. In the suburban areas around the city, the shipbuilding industry has developed and contributed significantly to the city's economy. Fishery and services are also important to the city.  Nha Trang in particular is among the largest contributors to Vietnam's annual budget revenues. Lobster farming on the sea is an important industry for the people living in suburb areas of the city.

We docked at about ten AM, which is a bit later than usual for a port, but we didn't leave until eleven PM.  I had a tour scheduled with my group and we met on the dock at 10:15. Into the minivan we hopped, and off we went to explore this port area. My initial observations were that this city is lovely!  Clean streets, pristine white sand beaches, a bustling yet orderly flow of taxis, trucks and motor scooters, all choreographing perfectly on the city's streets. 

Our first stop was at an embroidery factory and store in town. We saw young women hard at work doing beautiful needlepoint, and their completed works were framed and displayed throughout the shop. As is common with most tour companies and guides worldwide, this was more than just an opportunity to see local craftsman, it was an obligatory stop, hoping you would buy things. I don't mind it, because tourism, especially in its infancy here in Vietnam, is a very important and critical industry, as I noted earlier. 

We then continued through the center of the town, eventually making our way out to the countryside, through some small villages, passing by fields of rice patties, finally arriving at the Cai River,  where we hopped on (yes, I mean that quite literally) a small little boat with one of those cute, but smelly, put-put engines. We passed underneath an old wooden bridge, and spent the next half hour meandering down the river, banana and mango trees to our right, old fishing boats tied to tree limbs dipping down to the river's edge, small homes and huts, occasional water buffalo and cows.  It was totally relaxing. After a bit, we tied up alongside a tiny dock at the water's edge, and climbed out and walked about 100 feet to a beautiful old village house. 

Chickens were running around cock-a-doodle-dooing in the yard, a small puppy was tied up alongside a fence by a shed, barking at us, and our guide stopped us to talk about the family that lived there. Now, they are a bona fide family, but they were clearly set up for small groups of tourists, because their main source of income is weaving, and they had a nice supply of woven goods set on shelves in their weaving room. We were allowed to tour parts of their home - we saw their kitchen, which is a combo of indoor/outdoor, and quite large, actually.  We also saw their worship room at the front of the house, the separate sleeping quarters for men and women, and the toileting areas (just off the kitchen, next to their parked motor scooters). 

Many of the village homes are multi-story affairs. The ground floor is for entry, worship altars and bikes and scooters. The next story up houses the kitchen and meeting rooms as well as the men's sleeping quarters. The top floors are reserved for the women and children.  We were told that after the children were asleep, the men would "visit" with their wives, to talk and "be romantic" and then retreat to their sleeping beds in their own rooms.  I found that the Vietnamese talk about "being romantic" quite a lot, and they all giggle when explaining how the villagers live in this regard.  You would think that, with all this romance going on, there would be more than a gaggle of children, but that is not the case. The government has decreed that there can be no more than two children per married couple. You are fined very severely if you have more than two.  

Our minivan had arrived and so, after a nice snack of local fruits and some green tea served by the residents, we headed out and continued our journey through the countryside. 

We stopped to see a new, standing Buddha that was just completed about three months ago. We were the only ones there, and we took that opportunity to have our guide take a group photo.  The Buddha was quite impressive, so tall, like, I don't know for sure, but maybe 60 or 70 feet high.  

About that time, as we drove away, down the hill from where the Buddha was, our minivan made a sudden cuh-lunking sound and lurched precariously forward. Uh oh.  The driver muttered something to the guide in Vietnamese, and before the guide could turn around to tell us what was wrong, a couple of the men in our group all nodded knowingly what was wrong. Words like "shift differential" and "axle" were  bantied about, and serious shaking of heads followed.  Shit. 

Our day was only half over! We were out in the Vietnam equivalent of the boonies! What was to become of us? Would we be forced to slog through rice paddies to find our way back to the ship? Was it a big conspiracy to drag us into forced labor? Would we have to learn how to make conical hats or weave mats to earn our way home?


Not hardly.  The driver just slowed down and drove carefully, everyone settled down again with only a little worry. After all, our ship didn't sail until late into the evening, and we knew if the van stopped altogether that there was plenty of time to get a new one driven out to us. 

We stopped off at a few more places - a grass mat weaving place, where some of us got to operate the loom, a rice paper plant where we watched the full process of turning rice into first a powder, then heat and water steps into rice sheets, drying, and then finally shredding the dried sheets into rice noodles.  I will never eat these again without thinking of what I saw and how much goes into making them!

We sat for a few minutes and watched some women making those famous conical hats, and then we sat by the river and had a leisurely lunch, while our driver crawled underneath our minivan and worked on whatever repairs were necessary.  Afterwards, we stopped off at a very special pagoda - attached to it is an orphanage, housing 120 children. The orphanage is self-sufficient with donations and subsidies provided by the government. There are several teachers that provide schooling, teach English, and several nuns who look after the children. Foreigners are not allowed to adopt orphans at this time. 

It was now late afternoon, so we left the countryside, and made our way back to the main town.  The driver had successfully corrected whatever problem there had been with our minivan, so our journey back was both smooth and quick. 

Goodbye Nha Trang.  You were lovely!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

Vietnam Historical Overview

Vietnam has quite a turbulent history. Humans have inhabited northern Vietnam about 500,000 years ago, but it took until about 7000 BC for the practice of basic agriculture to take hold, and during the Dong Son era during the third century, huge advances were made in rice production and the Red River Delta emerged 
In the second century BC, the Chinese captured this area and held it in dominance for a 1,000 years. It wasn't until 938 AD that the Chinese were kicked out. In 1010, the City of the Roaring Dragon (aka Hanoi) was founded by the emperor Ly Thai To and becMe the country's new capital.

In the 1500's, Portuguese traders landed at Danang, and sparked the start of the European interest in Vietnam.  In the mid 1800's, the French took a keen military and strategic interest in the country and essentially embarked on 70 years of colonial control, until 1945. However, during this time, there were many small uprisings by anti-colonial enthusiasts, with the rise of Communism on the horizon, fueled in large part by a man named Ho Chi Minh. When France fell to Nazi Germany during WW2, the Japanese took control of the country for a time. Uncle Ho, as the people of Vietnam affectionately refer to him, led North Vietnam from 1954 until his death in 1969. He never lived to see the North's victory over the South.

That's a quick and dirty history of Vietnam. Lots of details left out. 


Our port of call today was Saigon.  The city is about 90 kilometers from the port where we docked so once again we were in for a 2 hour ride, one way. The itinerary included a visit to an old (circa 1909) pagoda called the Jade Emperor Pagoda, a visit to the War Museum, Independence Palace ( also referred to as the Reunification Palace), Red Cathedral, Post Office, lunch at a noodle restaurant, and a little shopping at an outdoor market. 

There are about 90 million people in the whole of Vietnam, and 9 million of them are in Saigon. 70% are farmers, either rice or rubber farmers, and these two products are the country's largest exports. For people who do not go to college, they either work in factories or farm. Their average monthly salary is about $200 per month. Almost none of them will ever be able to buy a house or apartment. For those that do go to college, they can expect much better jobs, and they make 2 to 3 times the monthly income of those that don't go to college, on average. 

The Jade Emperor Pagoda reflects the Buddhism and Taoist beliefs in four spiritual animals - the dragon, which represents power, the unicorn which represents wisdom, the Phoenix, for peace, and the turtle, for long life. inside the pagoda, the Jade Emperor presides over the main sanctuary. There is also a famous room off the sanctuary which contains the Hall of the Ten Hells, depicting what happens after you die if you have done bad things. They illustrate the ten torments awaiting evil people. Note to self - don't be bad or evil. 

Saigon is 70% Buddhist, 20% Catholic, and 10% the ubiquitous "other".  You know, it's those famous and oft-referred to "they" that are probably the "other" group, don't you think? I think. Oopsie, I digress.  

Our next stop was the War Museum. Virtually the entire museum was filled with photos and commentary about the Vietnam war with the United States, from the North Vietnamese point of view. While I don't wish to tread down that slippery slope of political opinion, let me just say that I found it extraordinarily interesting to view a very graphic photograph and read the caption beneath explaining what was taking place in that photo. The way I looked at it, there could actually be several different interpretations of the same photo, yet every caption underneath every photo in that museum was 100% anti-American.  I left there feeling pretty disturbed. 

The first Communist tanks that rolled through Saigon on April 30, 1975 arrived at the Reunification Palace, a government building built originally as the Norodom Palace for the French governor general in 1868. When the French left it became home to the wildly unpopular South Vietnamese president NGo Dinh Diem.  His own air force bombed the place in 1962, and although a new building was built, he did not get to see it completed, as he was assassinated by his own troops in 1963.  The place was renamed Independence Palace and is a fantastic example of 1960's architecture.  I felt like I should be catching a glimpse of Don Draper from Mad Men around every corner.  The place is totally groovy, man!  I took a bunch of photos, which I shall post up to my public Facebook album for your viewing pleasure.

The Red Cathedral, also known as the Notre Dame Cathedral, was built under the French influence in 1877. Out front is a statue of Mary holding an orb. Across the street is the Central Post Office, a beautiful building designed by Gustave Eiffel (ring any bells?) and built in the late 1800's. There are a number of historic maps of South Vietnam painted on the walls as well as a beautiful mosaic of Ho Chi Minh, inside. The building had a great aura about it and I really liked it. 

Winding up our tour of Saigon, we stopped in at a local noodle house across the street from the large street market and had a great lunch of seafood noodle soup, vegetable spring rolls and beer. Lip-smacking delish!

A little wandering through the market being hounded by hundreds of vendors to come into their stalls to buy their wares, and I joined my group for the two hour ride back to the Dam ship.  I just love sailing on Holland America because we can always say "dam".  Hot Dam!
Tee hee hee. 

Tomorrow we visit Nga Tran.

Sea day #2

I slept in till almost six AM.  Wow. 

There was very little on my to-do list this day.  At 10:30 I was invited to a mariner's reception, which was to be followed by a brunch at 11.  I arrived at the appointed place and time and was surprised to 1) be handed a glass of champagne (yay, I love free champagne) and 2) have my name called to come up and receive a copper medallion, complete with ceremonial placement of said medallion around my neck, like an Olympic athlete, by the Captain.  Another eight or so lucky recipients also received medallions. We got these because we have crossed the 100 day threshold of cruising with Holland America. I was pretty "dam" happy, but maybe that was partly due to the champagne. 

The brunch was also quite nice. There was a couple at my table that shared with us a horrific tale of a bus crash they were in just two years ago outside of Cairo, where their driver crashed head on into a sand tractor, killing 6 passengers and wounding nearly all the rest of them.  The couple was very lucky and only have a few physical scars to show for it, but they were still very emotional when telling us.  They said the accident has not stopped them from traveling, and they wore their medallions with pride and happiness. 

I went to a lecture in the afternoon about the "cloud", the Internet closet in the sky. It was actually very informative, and the man who is our floating tech expert is a fountain of knowledge. 

After that, there was a wine tasting where a delicious port was being poured and some yummy blue cheese was available as an accompaniment. 

Last night was a formal night, so I dressed up in my pretties, and met up with a group of fellow solo cruisers for dinner.  I had a good time. 

Tomorrow, Vietnam beckons and our first stop is Saigon.


Cambodia is a small country tucked in the upper eastern side of the Gulf of Thailand, neighbor to Thailand, Laos, China and Vietnam. Besides being influenced by China, Cambodia also has a history of Hindu influence, starting with the Funan Kingdom during 100-700 AD, when the Khmers established a powerful empire that lasted into the 15th century.  

Sihanoukville is known as the "agreeable port", and is a province of Cambodia. It is also our port of call for this country.  It is located about 100 miles south of Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital.  It attracts young tourists with its "relaxed" beach atmosphere ( you can buy joints for $1 right on the beach - no thank you) and is also home to the country's national beer brewery, Angkor Beer ( also available everywhere for $1 a bottle - yes thank you).  The brewery there is the main employer for the townspeople at the moment, followed by fishing and tourism. 

Sihanoukville, also called Snooky for ease of pronunciation by Westerners, is named after the Father of the Nation, King Norodom Sihanouk, who was a heavy promoter of independence from the French in the 1950's.  While the riel is the currency, US dollars are widely used and accepted. 

The other notable fact about the history of this city from an American point of interest is that it was the location of the last official battle of the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War, known as the Mayaguez incident on May 12-15, 1975, between US forces and the Khmer Rouge. 

Sihanoukville is Cambodia's only developed port. Traditional boats still bring in the daily catch.  The boats go out at night, staying out until nearly dawn. The boats are small and they use green lights to attract the fish. To keep fishing sustainable, no large troller type fishing is allowed, which helps to keep the fish population healthy and growing. As we sail throughout these waters at night, we can see hundreds of these "green light" fishing vessels dotting the watery landscape.

During our time in port, a group of 25 of us gathered in two minivans with dubious air conditioning - it was screaming hot and humid - and visited the fishing village first thing out. It was good to see the fishing village early in the morning, because later in the day makes for a much more, ah, vivid experience, olfactory-wise. I was able to get some good photos of the village, what the small boats look like, the daily catch of shrimp being rinsed and shelled on the docks, young men mending their nets, and young children doing what they do best, playing and giggling at us. One little boy kept shooting little pea pod pellets at me and laughing hysterically. He didn't know it, but he was glad I was in a good mood, otherwise he might have found himself going for a dip in the harbor water. 

Our tour was arranged through the Don Bosco Hotel School, a non profit organization founded after the Italian saint. There are a number of Don Bosco schools scattered across the world, and this one is the only one in Cambodia, focusing exclusively in hotel trades. Disadvantaged and orphaned teens, once accepted, are provided with two full years of schooling in all manners of hotel operations, as well as English immersion, free of charge. The school only has space available for 300 students in any given year and each year over 1,000 apply. The current volunteer managers, a lovely couple from Germany, formally trained and experienced butlers themselves, came to Don Bosco only 11 months ago on holiday, and were so taken with the work being done at the school and the need for more hands on management and assistance, they left their old life behind and stayed on.  

The kids that are fortunate enough to be accepted into the program view Peter and his wife as their parents, and all are extremely devoted to them. Every one of the students works very hard and they will, upon completion of their program, have their choice of employment at any 4 or 5 star hotel in Cambodia and elsewhere in the region. With tourism growing so quickly here, there is no shortage of jobs, and all will find employment immediately.  These young people's lives, as well as what families some of them have, will be immeasurably and profoundly changed for the better once completing this program.  We were all moved deeply by what we saw and none of us left without offering an additional cash donation to help sustain this phenomenal place and these hard working and determined young students. 

Before we stopped in at the school for a formal lunch, prepared and served by the students, we visited an old but still thriving pagoda. It is built on one of the higher hilltops that partially surrounds Sihanoukville and afforded us a beautiful view of the town and harbor. 

Following that, we ventured out of town, into the countryside, and down a nine kilometer dirt road to a lovely waterfall, a recreational spot for locals. There was a bit of a rickety wooden bridge to walk across to get to large shaded huts, where hammocks abound, some filled with sleeping and soon-to-be sleeping babies, their mothers sitting on rug mats, swinging and cooing them into an afternoon slumber. Oh, how I longed to be a baby again, to be able to be swung into Lala land in a hammock!

We headed back out the dirt road and finally arrived at the school, where we were enthralled and  utterly impressed with their facility and their students. They range in age from about 16 to 25 and each one was dressed in black slacks, crisp white shirts and black vests. They were in a receiving line when we arrived and each bowed and greeted us as if we were royalty. Ha! Once we were seated, Peter had each of them introduce them self, giving their name, age and where they were from. Then, some other students came in, dressed in Cambodian costume dress, and performed a short traditional ceremonial dance,  after which lunch was served. A couple from our tour had spent the morning at the school, cooking with the students, having forgone our other tour activities. Now, they joined us, and I was lucky enough to sit right across from them so I had the pleasure to hear how much fun they had (and how hard they worked all morning, grinding spices, building the grass boats our curry was served in, etc.) and it was clear they had fallen madly in love with these kids. 

Peter is teaching them very formal methods of restaurant service, and as each course was presented and served, a student server came with our plate, stood directly behind each of us, and as each table was ready, Peter called out "serve" and in unison, the students placed our dish on the table at our setting in front of us. They were quiet as a mouse, and you hardly knew they were there. The food was authentic Cambodian fare, spicy but not overly so, and delicious. A dessert of home made mango ice cream over diced local fruit cooled our mouths and was a fitting end to a spectacular morning. 

We said our goodbyes to the students at the school, boarded our two vans and headed back towards town and our ship, stopping at a local beach for about half an hour. I took a short walk along the shore, dipping my feet into the water and finding it quite warm and inviting, and wound up joining others from my group under a big shady tree, and had a bottle of Angkor, enjoying the beach, each of us quiet in reflective thought about what we had experienced at Don Bosco. 

Next up, Sea Day #2.

Thursday, January 10, 2013



The ship docked at Laem Chabang, the port outside Bangkok, and a 2 hour drive to the city itself.

I had booked an all day tour to the city, and joined 7 others in my cruise critic group for the day.  Our guide, Lift, from BKK Tours, picked us up in a beautiful, comfortable and air-conditioned van and off we went.

Grand Palace

Our day's sights were to be the Grand Palace, Wat Po, a long tail boat ride along the canals, the food/flower market, and a nice lunch at a local restaurant.  We left at about 8:30 and returned shortly after 5 PM.  The day included 4+ hours in the van....

Bangkok is the capital of Thailand and has a population of over 11 million.  There are miles and miles of high rise buildings, temples, palaces, canals and busy street markets - something for everyone.

Tuk Tuk

Situated just north of the Equator, Bangkok is a tropical metropolis, full of traffic, people and smog.  Despite these negatives, Bangkok is full of friendly residents, always helpful and smiling.  The Guinness Book notes that Bangkok's full name is the world's longest location name.   Our guide, Lift (so nicknamed because she was born in an elevator) said the name out loud for us and it took her over 30 seconds to say it.  OMG!

Bangkok's growth took off following World War 2 and today the city is a thriving cosmopolitan area.  With that comes prosperity, and millions of Thais moved here bringing with them hopes for better lives for their families.  They have, in large part, succeeded, but there is also massive amounts of pollution and hours and hours spent sitting in traffic.  Our guide said that because of the bad traffic, most people don't cook and many urban dwellers live in small studio apartments with no kitchens.  She referred to herself as a "plastic housewife" because she does not cook, and instead, visits the food markets along the street each morning, noon and evening and picks up food for her meals, and puts them in plastic containers and bags - hence the word "plastic".  Lift is a funny guide.  She had us laughing a lot.

The Grand Palace is a stunning place.  It was built to serve as the official royal residence although the current king (Rama IX) does not live there these days.  It has very unique Thai architecture, and on the grounds sits Wat Phra Keo, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.  Many of the statues, Buddhas, pagodas and shrines are gold leafed - I have put some photos on my album in facebook and will post a full album upon my return home to my photo site - and mother of pearl is used extensively on many of the royal buildings and shrines, including the reclining building at Wat Po.  Simply beautiful when you look at it up close and appreciate how much work goes into building and creating these.

Grand Palace

Wat Po

Wat Po

Bangkok is also known as the Venice of the East, due to the many canals slicing through the city.  An aside - Lift told us she was 24 years old before she even knew that the city had canals - Bangkok is so large that millions of its inhabitants aren't even aware of them, as they have never traveled that far outside of their neighborhoods in which they live.  That, coupled with the fact that her mother continually warned her that if she rode a motorbike she would die, kept Lift from venturing too far from home in her early years.


We took an hour ride on a longtail boat, an easy-to-navigate long motorized canoe type of boat, through the maze of canals hidden inside the city.  Since it was so incredibly hot and muggy, (about 90 degrees with similar humidity levels), the ride was welcome, as we enjoyed cool water breezes and a shady cover over our heads.  There are many small homes built up along the banks of the canals, and for many of them, the only access is by boat.  Boats are not allowed to run, even private ones, after dark, so people that live there plan their days accordingly.  Some areas now have streets and bridges that connect their homes, but large parts are still only accessible by boat.  Residents usually do not sell or buy their homes along the banks - no one is allowed to build anything new, so the houses are handed down to members of the family.

The canals are filled with catfish, as well as water monitor lizards - some big ones at that!  They like to sun themselves along the grassy areas on the canal banks, and occasionally slide into the canals for a bite to eat- of catish,  mostly.  

After visiting the Grand Palace, Wat Po, and our canal boat ride, we went to a local restaurant for a scrumptious lunch of seafood, rice dishes, vegetables and ice cold beer.  

We had a bit more time before having to head back for the 2 hour ride back to the ship, so we visited the flower and food markets that lined the streets.  We walked through blocks and blocks of food stalls, and enjoyed the aromas of thousands of roses, orchids, and other pretty flowers along the flower section.

Food Market 

Flower Market

I really enjoyed being able to visit Bangkok.  Since I am not much of a big city kind of girl, I would probably not desire to visit it again, although I would like to come back and visit Ayutthaya, which is the old capital of Thailand.  It was a Siamese kingdom that was in existence from the mid 1300's until 1767, when it was attacked by the Burmese and fell.  You can visit this city and there are many temples ruins that are in remarkably good condition, even today. To visit this area requires a full day, including another 4 hour round trip by car or bus.  Since our ship departs in mid afternoon, a second day trip was not possible this time.

Next up, tomorrow, is Sihanoukville, Cambodia.  I've got another tour planned that will give us a view of the Cambodian countryside, a pepper plantation (whoo hoo, I can't wait to taste-test some!) and a visit to Kampot, a town with French colonial architecture.  I believe we will also visit a fishing village.  Sihanoukville is also known to the locals as "Snooky".  And no, it has nothing to do with Jersey Shores....

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Singapore and Embarkation & Koh Samui

Day 2

Well, my grand plans to get up early this morning and visit the Singapore Flyer pretty much disintegrated into my sleeping in late (time caught up with me) so by the time I had my coffee, got dressed, etc it was past 9:30. The horror. 

I still needed to do a little shopping to find a couple of lightweight wrap style skirts or something similar for the cruise. It is very hot and muggy in this part of the world  and I just don't have much in my wardrobe that fits the bill. To my surprise, I went out and found that most stores don't open until 11:00!  Seriously? On a Monday in one of the biggest shopping cities? Oy. 

So I wandered around for a little bit and then had a bite to eat - another great brunch of Asian food, and then found what I needed, and by the time I got back to my hotel it was noon and time to check out. I would like to mention here that the Fairmont Hotel is divine.  They bend over backwards to provide outstanding and personal service and I really appreciated that.  My room was lovely and the view fantastic. I give it 5 SPs. (sherita points - scale is 5 for best, 1 for total yuck). They hailed a taxi for me and an hour later I was on board the Volendam and settling in. Check-in was really easy and fast. 

My stateroom is smaller than I am used to, but when traveling as a solo cruiser it costs twice as much than if you share, so my normal balcony suite accommodations were off limits for me price-wise. At any rate, my room is very comfortable, with a large double window, a nice and comfy king size bed and plenty of storage. A small couch and coffee table rounds out the room. My bathroom has a tub and shower and is plenty big for me. There's a nice flat screen tv and DVD player above a small desk. 

My luggage had not yet been delivered to my room, so I headed out to explore the ship.  The Volendam is one of Holland America's older ships, but she is still in good shape and hey, like my Daddy always said - if the captain wants to sail/fly/drive her, I'm in for the ride. Let's go!

Sea day #1 - Tuesday

I love sea days. So many choices. Get up early or sleep late. Daily two mile walk or not. Read book in between napping or update blog. A host of activities on board from which to choose. I tend towards getting up early and doing my two-miler on the promenade deck, which then makes me feel good about myself, and then plopping down on the Lido deck and having an extra large breakfast buffet. Sure sir, hand me one extra of those little hash brown thingies! I will dip it in my plain yogurt to convince myself that it really is healthy. Right. 

Today was not much different. I did get up early. I did walk my two miles. And, I might add, I walked those two miles under tropical storm/depression conditions. During the night we had sailed into the boundary of a tropical storm and as a result, the ship rocked and rolled all night long (and I'm not talking about Supertramp or the Rolling Stones here....). The brave few of us out on deck battled strong gusty winds and a tilting deck as we made our way around. All the more justification for an extra hash brown thingie. 

The Lido deck was quiet, actually. I think a lot of people were a bit seasick from the sea conditions. However, as morning turned into noontime, the sky cleared and the sea became calm again. Disaster averted. 

After lunch, there was a meet and greet for our cruise critic group up in the Crow's Nest, a cocktail lounge on the top deck of the ship that has awesome views looking out over the bow. We were a big crowd this cruise - over 50 of us, and it was nice to put names with faces!  Some of us huddled to finalize some last minute tour planning but we soon dispersed and I went back to my room for a short rest before afternoon high tea in the dining room, where I met up with the folks I had dinner with last night. They are American expats living in Macau and I very much enjoyed getting to know them. 

The rest of the day just seemed to float by. I didn't accomplish anything which is exactly the point of a sea day. After dinner, I attended the early entertainment show, which  was actually pretty nice. Sometimes they're a bit cheesy, but not so this night. 

Tomorrow, we visit Koh Samui. It is one of the larger island of Thailand. 

Koh Samui - Wednesday

Koh Samui is Thailand's third largest island. Its palm-lined sugary white shores in this Gulf of Thailand make it a popular destination. There are quite a few coconut plantations on the island, and products such as coconut milk and oil make up a large percentage of its revenue through the export of these items. 

We had a scheduled tour thru my cruise critic roll call for this (and all of my upcoming tours) which included a visit to a small temple with a mummified monk; a waterfall; sculpture garden; a demonstration of how island monkeys are used to father coconuts from the tall palms; an off road trek thru the jungle in a 4-wheel open bed vehicle (oh my poor back!) and the highlight of the day - an elephant ride.

The tour also included a lovely lunch of some delicious Thai dishes, including a spicy soup which I was enjoying immensely until I ate one of the peppers in it. My mouth began to burn, starting with my entire tongue, moved up along my cheeks and into my sinuses, then straight out my eyes. It took nearly half a beer, and a bottle of water just to get the pain down to something slightly less than tolerable. I was in some serious hurt for a good 15 minutes. I will tell you this - if you want me to shut up just shove a pepper in my mouth. I was rendered speechless which might have pleased my travel companions. Not really, actually I was quite well behaved. 

The mummified monk was really fascinating, but I tend to like things like that. He was a very well respected monk (are there any that are not, I wonder?) He died while sitting in the middle of his daily meditation. He was a successful non-monk until he was 50 years old at which point he decided to devote the remainder of his life to the monkhood.  He became famous for his meditation practices and developed quite a following of disciples. His wish was that his remains be displayed to encourage others to continue their meditation and be saved. 

Now, for the elephant ride - it was a small little place that had just three elephants, a mom and her son and another adult. Since I was a solo rider, they put me up onto the son, a ten-year old named Hero. Hero and I had a quick eye to trunk conversation and I told him that I was honored to have him carry my sorry ass thru the jungle for the next half hour. He actually dipped his head and snorted while wiggling his ears. I sure hope that was a good response.

These elephants appeared to be well cared for, so I hope that is true. In any regard, I really wanted to have this experience, and I was not disappointed.  It is hard work to manage to stay atop an elephant. Halfway through the ride, the guide boy had me slide down off the chair and onto Hero's neck. Then it really became difficult to hold on.  But I felt a bit more connected to him that way, and he was very gentle.  All in all, it was a great experience and I was appreciative of the opportunity. 

The off road ride was both painful and exhilarating at the same time - kind of like biting into that pepper - and I was glad when he hit the main road that circles the island, on pavement once again. 
A fifteen minute tender ride back to the ship from the pier and my visit to Koh Samui was now a pleasant memory.

Once back on board I swallowed a few aspirin, iced my back for a few and then headed up to the Lido for the drink of the day and to watch Koh Samui fade into the distance as the Volendam sailed away, bound for Bangkok. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013


It was a long trip, but I arrived in Singapore yesterday afternoon, after enduring a 45 minute car ride, 1 hour train, 1 hour BART, 18.5 hour flight plus 2 hour layover in Hong Kong. That big jumbo A-380 Singapore Airlines whale delivered several hundred tired passengers to this beautiful city. I had the pleasure of being able to sit in the upper deck of the plane, in a premium economy seat, with about 5 feet of legroom. That was awesome. Sadly, the seat itself was harder than old cement. The nice thing about sitting on the upper deck of a plane, however, is that the floor is warm! None of that cold air that seems to seep in on most flights when you're near a window. That always freaks me out, a little. I mean, how is it that, in a sealed, pressurized steel tube that they call an airplane, cold air can snake its way in, rendering your ankles positively frigid in a matter of minutes after take-off? It is one of life's greatest mysteries.

My seat mate was a nice young man (ack! Did I just say that?) who was traveling back to his temporary home in Indonesia from spending the holidays with his family in Boston. I had really counted on being able to whine about how tired I was going to be after the long flight, but he had me beat before we even left the ground, having just flown to San Francisco from Boston. So I turned my attention to across the aisle and chatted up a brother/sister duo for awhile, Jim and Linda. Jim used to live in nearby Cameron Park, but retired to San Bernardino (one might ask why anyone would retire there, but I won't bore you with the details) and Linda lives in Monterey! They were a hoot and we all stuck together throughout the flight and while we layed (laid?) over in Hong Kong. They were heading to join a Celebrity cruise that would be visiting Thailand's islands, Komodo island, Bali and some other Indonesian locales. We said our goodbyes at the baggage carousel, and I hopped into a taxi and off to the Fairmont.

 I got some decent rest and sleep during my flights, so I felt pretty good. I have less than 24 hours in Singapore before we set sail tonight, and I felt that, to maximize my opportunity to see the city, I opted for the always-fun Hop On, Hop Off bus. I spent about 4 hours, riding around the city and seeing the highlights and stopping off at a few places. Several items of note: Singapore is really clean and pretty, with lots of green spaces and streets virtually litter-free; the skyline is full of building cranes, and they apparently are in action seven days a week; Singapore most likely has the greatest concentration of shopping malls in the world. Orchard Road is always touted as "the place for shopping whilst in Singapore", but don't let that fool you. Virtually every six blocks there is another mall, filled with boutiques, cafes, local stores, high-end name stores, department stores, you name it. The city also boasts a beautiful Botanic Garden, and I stopped off there for a little while. I meandered through various mini gardens and saw some pretty orchids, before I realized I was fast approaching "the wall". By that, I mean that suddenly, I felt very tired and worn out, but I still needed to visit Merlion Park, the place where Singapore's iconic statue of a merlion sits.

A merlion is a mythical creature with a lion's head and a fish body. It represents Singapore's history as a fishing port. I also still wanted to take a ride on the Singapore Flyer, a very imposing ferris wheel, 15 meters higher than London's Eye. A complete round trip on the Flyer takes 30 minutes. Well, perhaps tomorrow morning. I left the hop on bus at the Raffles Hotel stop, which was also conveniently across the street from my hotel and gathered a bit of energy so that I could do a very touristy thing - sit at the Long Bar in Raffles, and enjoy a famous Singapore Sling cocktail.

$26 later (yes, that damn drink cost that much) I walked back across the street and up to my room. By this time, all I wanted to do was take a long hot shower and go to bed, but I was hungry and needed to eat dinner. I usually like to go out to a cafe somewhere and enjoy the local cuisine at an outside patio table, but the idea of walking anywhere at that point was simply too much for me to consider. I opted instead for the hotel concierge's suggestion of the Asia Market Cafe, conveniently located upstairs in the hotel's selection of dining spots. Boy, what a great decision! The place was packed with a combination of locals and hotel guests, most of whom were of some Asian persuasion. I stuck out like an Easter parade in Tel Aviv. The cafe offered a buffet of local cuisines and the wait staff hovered over me like mama bears, giving me a tour of each station, explaining the various foods, bringing me two newspapers to read should I feel so inclined, asking me every few minutes if they could bring me anything, etc. Normally this kind of attention would annoy the crap out of me, but this time, I felt very pampered and well looked after. And the food was AMAZING! I tried all sorts of new dishes, the names of which I do not remember, but everything was delicious! There were lots of seafood, curries, noodles and vegetables.

I finally returned to my room about 8 pm. I had been told that there was a laser light show at Merlion park, put on nightly by the Marina Bay Sands hotel across the little quay from the park, at 9:30. Since the view from my hotel room looked smack dab across to the venue, I decided to try to stay up long enough to see the show. I showered and puttered around and was not disappointed.

The show started promptly at 9:30 and lasted for 15 minutes. My non professional camera captured a little bit of the show, but I enjoyed being able to stand on my balcony from the 20th floor and see the show in my jammies. Good night Singapore!