I can’t go anywhere without visiting the local market so we plodded along in increasing heat and humidity to Ben Thanh market, which was a bit further than our feet wanted to go. It was the huge and warren-like type of market and we couldn’t discern the organization, if there was one. By now we were well past needing a sit down and a cool drink.
The cool drink could be had at the market but not the sit down, especially in air conditioning, so we abandoned the market ramble in favor of a café break, which we accomplished after my obligatory ceremonial sidewalk fall (not a neurological event but a frequent occurrence due to inattention, uneven or broken pavement and a trick ankle that lets me down a little too often for my taste.) I didn’t actually hit the dirt this time but I did end up with a muddy foot and shin, so when I spied a man hosing off his motorbike halfway down the street I jetted right up to him and pointed to my leg. He obliged without hesitation and hosed down my leg while his friend doubled over in laughter. I’m perfectly fine being a source of amusement and thanked them both.
We’re only a few days from Independence Day here, April 30, the day the Viet Cong tanks broke through the gates of the palace and ended the War of Aggression. We can see various venues being set up for celebration and at the Ho Chi Minh memorial we spied a small but quiet group gathering in the park. We were stopped by police from approaching from the back, so Jack circled around to get a photo. Unfortunately we couldn’t find anyone with sufficient English to tell us the significance or identify the groups who were taking turns reading short speeches, respectfully holding a moment of silence and laying the same wreaths over and over while photographers recorded the moment.
On the way back to the hotel we ducked into a silk embroidery shop, mainly to catch our breath in the air conditioning, but the artwork took our breath away again. These are not paintings, but finely detailed stitchery in luminous silk thread. One picture takes up to a year to complete. The shop minders hovered closely so I didn’t feel I could take closeups, but trust me, you couldn’t tell they aren’t painted even inches away, so perfect is the needlework, so subtle the color shading. I’ve never seen anything like it.
As we get older we find we no longer try to squeeze every must-see site into our travels, especially on shorter journeys like this visa run to Vietnam. It isn’t just the decreased range we have owing to Jack’s deteriorating knee and my aching back, but we often think, do we really need to visit one more temple? Do we want to spend a half day in a museum? Is a three hour bus ride worth a photo op? But the real reason, as we’re still learning after seven years of near continuous travel, is that good things happen when we set out with only a vague destination and keep our eyes and ears open.
Saigon was always going to be a challenge. Yes, it’s a city with important historical significance and a widely touted foodie reputation, but it’s huge and sprawling and more than a little daunting as we tried to plan a tourist itinerary for our days here. We consulted online lists of Top Ten Things to Do but in the end we threw up our hands and did what we usually do, picked a direction and started walking.
Because we like architecture we walked towards the old Central Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral, a scaled down replica of the original, sure to be poignant in light of the recent tragic fire in Paris. But as we were rolling our eyes over the huge McCafé on the corner we were delighted to discover an entire street of book stalls and cafés, heaven for readers. We were tempted to stop right there and just soak up the literary atmosphere and we thanked the French for the legacy of café culture they’ve imprinted on their former colonies and possessions.
The architecture didn’t disappoint, although the cathedral is mostly scaffolded and shrouded in tarps and netting.
The post office is also beautiful and inside we watched a public scribe fill out a complicated form for his customer. I’ve never seen that before.
I was 16 years old in 1967 and afraid I’d never see the world beyond the Jersey shore, our usual family vacation destination. Most of my 18th century immigrant ancestors undertook long sea journeys from Europe to reach the docks of Philadelphia and must have kissed the earth and said “That’s quite enough of that, thank you very much,” and didn’t budge from the spot for 150 years before finally bravely venturing 20 miles west to the suburbs where they again dug in for the duration.
I do have one branch on my mother’s side who sailed back and forth across the Atlantic and throughout the Caribbean and it’s those genes I must have inherited, because unlike my parents, I’ve always had itchy feet. So when I heard over my high school public address system that applications were being accepted for the foreign exchange program I saw that as my only opportunity to experience something else of the world.
What followed was an intense and months-long process of written questionnaires, essay-writing and interviews with conference rooms full of men in suits. Nineteen sixty-seven was the height of the Vietnam war and there was much anti-American sentiment around the world. I was questioned extensively about how I will react if and when I’m challenged about our involvement in Indochina.
And it’s one, two, three What are we fighting for? Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn Next stop is Vietnam; And it’s five, six, seven Open up the pearly gates Well there ain’t no time to wonder why Whoopee! we’re all gonna die —– Country Joe and the Fish, 1967
I must have given appropriately diplomatic answers because I was accepted into the program and in the summer of 1968 I flew to Sweden to begin a year of study abroad. During the year I was challenged, not often, but always aggressively and I was in the unenviable position of being 17 years old and having to defend a country I love about our involvement in a war I disagreed with as I was still grappling with understanding the dynamics of world politics, the “threat” of communism and what that meant to America.
Some folks are born made to wave the flag Ooh, they’re red, white and blue And when the band plays “Hail to the chief” Ooh, they point the cannon at you, Lord It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son, son It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no —- Credence Clearwater Revival, 1969
Vietnam was the first televised war and the film footage on the nightly news was terrifying. Vietnam was halfway around the world. The people and landscape were profoundly different from what most of us knew of the world before satellite communication and the internet. Unlike World War II this was guerrilla warfare in the jungle against people who were defending their country to the death against alien invaders using tactics that our leaders portrayed as barbaric. At home, rising anti-war sentiment split the country in two, mostly along generational lines.
War! (huh good god, y’all) What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! (say it again)
War! (whoa, lord) What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! —– Edwin Starr, 1970
All of this was the inescapable context of our teen and early adult years and left its painful mark on my American generation, regardless of political ideology. And it’s this long buried scar that suddenly flared up as we stepped off the plane into the jetway in Saigon. I was hit with a wall of sadness and an internal soundtrack of the Ride of the Valkyrie, Fortunate Son and the whap-whap-whap of a Huey that nearly buckled my knees and brought me to tears. I looked over at Jack and saw the same struggle on his face yet everyone around us appeared normal and stepped quickly towards the scrum at passport control.
In the taxi to our hotel I saw a billboard featuring Christy Brinkley, and we noted the ubiquitous KFC and McDonald’s. American popular culture has dug its claws deep into the flesh of this country we nearly destroyed fifty years ago and it made me feel even worse that even though we lost the war on the battlefield, we must have won the culture war, for good or for ill. We’re going to have to come to grips with this in the coming days.
It’s that time again, time to leave Malaysia before our 90-day visas expire, stay away for at least seven days and re-enter for another 90-days’ reprieve. The easy route is of course a quick sail or ferry over the border to Thailand to hang out on the beach for a week, but we’ve always thought of these bureaucratic constraints as opportunities — excuses, if you will — to do some inland travel. We seriously considered a spiritual journey to the Himalayas (it’s not as far as it sounds) but after weeks of research and planning, we came to our senses when we realized we don’t have appropriate footwear or clothing for the trekking we’d want to do. Even if we could get proper footwear in Langkawi (doubtful) no one in his right mind would head off on a trek of any kind on new hiking boots. We reluctantly nixed that destination for now and set our sights toward Vietnam.
Vietnam is a big country and travelers can spend many weeks or months exploring the diverse cultures, landscapes and historical places from north to south and back again. But as always, we’re limited in time and budget and have to make some hard choices. We’re starting in Saigon, now officially Ho Chi Minh City, but still called Saigon by just about everyone.
And so we set off on the early ferry from Rebak to Langkawi, took a Grab car to the airport for a flight to Kuala Lumpur, and after a few hours layover boarded Malindo Air flight 561 for Saigon, excited to be going somewhere new and hoping to escape the paralyzing heat of Langkawi.
It occurs to me that we haven’t described our current “residence.” Since right before Christmas we’ve been living at a marina, a very uncommon situation for the ever-wandering, usually-anchoring Escape Velocity and her crew. But this is Malaysia, a budget friendly country and a beautiful place to hang out for a while to regain financial solvency after 20 months of what we can only characterize as a spending spree in Australia, and to recover from sailing nearly 6000 miles in 9 months, from Sydney almost to the Thailand border. I think last year was the most distance covered in one season since 2015 when we crossed the Pacific from El Salvador to New Zealand. It was exhausting.
Many of the boats we met while traveling north along Australia’s east coast and through Indonesia and Malaysia have scattered to the winds, some sailing onward to Thailand, India, Djibouti or South Africa.
A goodbye dinner for two of our own who are off to caravan through Europe.
A temporary goodbye to the crew of Impetuous Too who will spend seven or eight months in England. We’ll see them again when they return before Christmas.
For some, this is the end of the line and their boats are for sale as they embrace new adventures. Some have parked their boats for longterm maintenance and upgrade projects, or extended trips home to Europe, Australia, or New Zealand. Others are poking around the general vicinity exploring the lifetime of beautiful anchorages along the Malacca Strait, and a few, like us, have ordered the combination platter.
We definitely need to tackle a few maintenance projects and do some upgrades and gear replacement, but we aren’t under any pressure to do it all at once — easier on our fixed income, gentler on our psyches — and we also want to do more land traveling like our wonderful trip to Cambodia. All of that lead to the decision to tie up at a marina for a while. It takes weather worries off our minds, allows us to step on and off the boat to a dock rather than have to dingy ashore every time we want to take a walk or visit a cafe. And it allows us to do some of the things we enjoy that are difficult if we’re constantly moving from anchorage to anchorage. I’ve been cooking a lot more, enjoying craft projects that I can’t do when everything needs to be stowed for travel every few days, catching up on reading and blogging, and just generally having a recognizably domestic life. It’s been fun!
We chose to come to Rebak Island Marina, part of the Vivanta Rebak Island Resort. This is a high end Taj hotel property in a gorgeous, if somewhat isolated, setting. Rebak is a tiny private island off the southwest corner of Langkawi, a larger island off the west coast of peninsular Malaysia. If that sounds confusing, find us here: https://goo.gl/maps/fxKRrJ3xkVq or here: http://www.farkwar.com/boats/escape-velocity
The resort is beautiful, nestled among mature trees and lovely gardens. There’s a pool with a swim-up bar and a private beach, nature trails with plenty of wildlife and a daily wake up serenade by the considerable bird population. Yachties have our own Hard Dock Café and generous discounts at the hotel restaurants and bars. We have the run of the joint, plus our own services like a small chandlery, yacht and insurance brokers, and some limited technical and mechanical repair services. There’s a tiny gym and a couple of women lead yoga classes three times a week. The hard stand, where boats haul out of the water for bottom work or longterm storage, is one of the cleanest we’ve ever been in.
That sounds pretty posh, you’re thinking, the escapees must have hit the lottery. Nope. As shiny-pants as this is, we are living here for pennies compared to what any longterm marina stay would cost us elsewhere. Most of that is a result of the favorable economy, but we’re aided by a healthy discount the marina offers to boats that participate in the rally that brought us here in the first place. It’s a golden opportunity for Escape Velocity to experience the life of a marina queen (don’t let her hear you say that) and for us to work on projects or travel off the boat without the pressure of a mounting marina bill.
We love the pool, we love the beach bar, we love the multinational breakfast and dinner buffets, we love being in the trees. We don’t love not being able to walk to a cafe for coffee and a pastry, or to a market for fresh produce. There are no businesses on the island beyond the resort, and though there’s a tiny convenience store it mostly stocks snack foods for the resort visitors. That means a grocery or parts run is generally a day-long trek involving a short ferry ride to the big island of Langkawi, then either a rental car ($12.50 a day from Mr. Din, no questions asked) or a Grab car (like Uber) that’ll drive you to the shopping district clear across the island for $6. We like to take our folding cart so we’re not schlepping too many parcels, and a Grab car back to the ferry drops us right at the jetty.
It really couldn’t be easier but we do sometimes feel a little isolated and dependent on the ferry schedule. Then we go to the pool to cool off and read for a while and we forget all about the isolation thing and just feel lucky that we can enjoy this lush life on our budget.
Friends and family, feel free to book yourselves into the resort. We’ll meet you at the beach for sundowners.
After our fun trip to the Silk Island we asked Sambo to take us to the Russian Market, which turned out to be just another crowded, stuffy, sprawling warren of stalls just like every other SE Asian market. We wished we’d gone to the Central Market instead but by that time we were hot and tired and done for the day.
We spent our last evening having a ritual gin and tonic on the upper deck of the Foreign Correspondents Club, followed by a last dinner at the tiny, friendly Ethiopian restaurant. We know it’ll be a long time before we see Ethiopian food again.
Early the next morning Sambo picked us up for the run to the airport, most of which we spent in bumper to bumper traffic.
We had a short layover in Kuala Lumpur and were happy to see no queue at immigration. But when we got stamped back in, we were both warned by our respective officials that we would have to leave the country in six days when our original visas expire. No, we said, those visas were single entry and when we left the country they were void and now we’re eligible for new 90-day visas. Nope, they told us, you need to apply for extensions in Langkawi.
Now, I know this to be wrong. Ninety-day single-entry tourist visas are not renewable or extendable. That’s why we had to leave the country for seven days, to qualify for new visas. But we could see that the officers — who were conferring with each other in Malay– would not be moved and if we argued further we’d risk missing our connection. We took our passports and rushed to catch the flight to Langkawi.
In Langkawi, even though we arrived on a domestic flight, we presented ourselves at immigration and told them our tale of leaving for the required interval but being denied a new visa on arrival. The two agents we spoke with agreed that we should have been stamped for a new 90 days but shrugged and told us they couldn’t fix it. They advised we’d have to appeal to the main immigration office when it reopened on Sunday. It was now Thursday, and our current visas expire the following Wednesday. If we had to sail to Thailand we wouldn’t have much time to prepare.
The day continued to deteriorate when we took the escalator down to collect our luggage only to find our suitcase missing. Was it being held at Customs in Kuala Lumpur? In Phnom Penh it had been checked through to Langkawi but it definitely hadn’t made it here.
We filed a report at the baggage office, ordered a Grab car to the Rebak ferry, and finally made it home to Escape Velocity in time to drop off our backpacks and totes and get to the beach bar in time for happy hour. Our fun and relaxing vacation to renew our visas completely failed to accomplish its purpose, and we apparently sacrificed our luggage, too. More wine, please.
Overnight it occurred to me that we hadn’t listed our boat name on the lost luggage report so when I got up I walked over to the kiosk to give the ferrymen a heads up.
“The airline lost our luggage and they may send it on the ferry if they find it,” I told the guy on duty.
He pointed behind him and said, “Does it look like that?”
Hurrah! We had our luggage back, now it was on to solving our visa problem.
When Sunday rolled around we took the earliest ferry to Langkawi and a Grab car to the immigration office and arrived when they opened. We explained our dilemma and showed our passports. The clerk was puzzled and agreed that we should have been given new 90-day visas. She told us to take a seat while she consulted with her supervisor.
Forty five minutes and 6RM/each (about $3 total) later we have another 90 days to enjoy our new temporary home on Rebak Island, Malaysia. And life is good again.
When we first started to explore the idea of traveling to Cambodia we were focused on a river journey on the Mekong River from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Min City in Vietnam. We had so enjoyed our river trip in Borneo to see the orangutans and we wanted to experience the Mekong in the same way. Turns out that cruise wasn’t even close to fitting our travel budget and besides, the river runs out of water in the dry season and some years you have to be transported by bus to a port closer to the delta until the river is navigable. No thanks, even if we could afford it.
Alternatively we learned of a half day river excursion to the Silk Island that held some appeal, but there’s that aversion to being herded we spoke of before so joining a tour, even to traverse a little of the Mekong, put us right off.
Our driver Sambo solved our dilemma when he suggested he take us across the river to the Silk Island himself and we could have a private tour of the silk production. It was our last day, our last opportunity to get on the river, even if it was only a ferry. We gave Sambo the go-ahead and climbed aboard his now familiar tuktuk.
We enjoyed the long ride that led us out through the streets of Phnom Penh toward the river and a local ferry.
Jack and I walked aboard and climbed to the upper deck, but as the ferry prepared to pull away it looked like there wouldn’t be room for our tuktuk. At the last minute, Sambo drove onto the ramp and that’s how we traversed the river, with Sambo’s tuktuk barely hanging on at the edge of the ramp.
The river crossing was brief but satisfying and transported us back into our familiar water world.
On the other side we found lush fields and a glimpse of rural life. Sambo found it amusing that we asked him to stop so we could photograph the crops, but it’s been a long time since we were in an agricultural area.
The silk operation is a small enterprise I suspect was just created for the tourist trade, but our young volunteer guide enthusiastically practiced her English describing the process from the eggs to the moths to pupae to cocoons. Jack and I had a theoretical knowledge from school days but it was great to learn it all again first hand and to be able to see and touch each step of the process.
I love process, and following the steps from raw material to final product was what much of my work life in industrial video involved. I always thought of silk as a delicate frou-frou material but our guide emphasized how very strong it is, and we remembered that parachutes used to be made of silk.
The fabric woven at this site is sold only here and they weave beautiful complex patterns. It takes weeks to set up the loom and weeks to weave the length of fabric. The colors are mostly chemical dyes now.
After my experience attempting weaving in Buton, I was in awe of the concentration required for these complicated patterns. Most of the weavers learned their craft at the feet of their mothers and grandmothers, just like the weavers we met in Indonesia.
Our “tour” ended, as they always do, at the gift shop where I spent a long time deciding on what to buy. Everything was beautiful but we live on a boat and have limited space or use for fancy silk things. That doesn’t mean I didn’t want to admire and touch everything in the shop while Jack and our guide chatted in the shade outside.
The island is beautiful and quiet and our guide told us it’s a weekend destination for city dwellers needing a break from the urban dust and noise.
We woke Sambo from his nap and began the long trek back across the river to Phnom Penh. This quiet trip was one of our favorite excursions in Cambodia, and in the end satisfied our desire to experience something of the Mekong River.
I read before we left for Cambodia that a certain Buddhist temple in Phnom Penh held several open meditation hours during the week. Only one of those scheduled times coincided with our visit, and I entered it into our itinerary as a Marce must do. The website said it would be “in English” so I assumed a guided meditation, or a spiritual discourse by a monk. It turned out to be just an open quiet space with seat pads and I took a spot, made myself comfortable and settled in for the longest meditation session I’ve done in quite some time. My own practice is generally limited to ten minutes after my morning yoga, so an hour would be a challenge to my attention and my knees. As the beginning hour approached the room filled up with about 20 fellow meditators, most of whom seemed like regulars in their ritual entrance and eventual calm and steady posture.
As I practiced breathing in peace and exhaling love and lifted my internal gaze from the constant drone of my eternally busy brain, Jack explored the temple grounds and made friends with the resident cats and a few passing monks.
At the end of the hour a monk came in and chanted a blessing and I unfolded my cramped legs and joined Jack, refreshed, peaceful and proud that I didn’t fart or otherwise embarrass myself.
We took a tuktuk back to our neighborhood and had dinner at Friends, a wonderful tapas restaurant that’s part of a global alliance of training establishments whose students are former street youth or at-risk kids. The food was incredible, and though priced a little higher than other local restaurants, we were happy to support the cause, and the menu included many vegetarian and vegan options in addition to meat and fish, as well as creative cocktails. We loved it.
The lingering peaceful feeling from the meditation session helped the next morning when our tuktuk driver picked us up for the trip to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, one of many Killing Fields across Cambodia where a quarter of the population were slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.
The site is now a memorial and a beautifully written and produced audio tour guides visitors around the site and tells the horrific story of the Pol Pot regime.
We hadn’t planned much more for this day and took our time touring the quiet memorial. One of the optional tracks in the audio tour is an excerpt from an orchestral piece by a Cambodian composer and we sat on a bench by the river letting the music express the sadness we felt that a peaceful civilization with a rich cultural history could fall victim to a murderous tyrant determined to send the country back to the Bronze Age.
Bullets were expensive so the mass killings were accomplished using whatever weapons came to hand, mostly various farm implements, and these jagged dried palm leaves, used to slit the throats of the victims. The image still gives me nightmares. This is not ancient history but the methods were crude and barbaric.
Babies and their mothers were swung by their feet to bash their brains against this tree, then thrown into an adjacent pit. Hundreds of mourners have hung bracelets on the tree in remembrance of the victims, and I took off an ankle bracelet I’ve worn since the Caribbean to add to the collection. As I tied it on I thought of all the beautiful places it’s been and I made a wish for eternal peace for the lives that were brutally ended here. It’s impossible to conceive how any human being could do these things.
The centerpiece of the memorial is a Buddhist stupa filled with the skulls and bones of 5000 victims.
The condition of the skulls hints at the torture these people were subjected to, or the method of their murder.
Most travelers to Phnom Penh combine the Killing Fields with a tour of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. After hearing firsthand reports from fellows cruisers we decided against more harrowing nightmare fodder and instead took refuge in our hotel for a few hours before countering the horrors of Pol Pot with a celebration of Khmer culture we booked for that evening. If you’re too young to remember Pol Pot or you need a refresher you can find a brief one here.
We spent our last day and a half in Angkor visiting some of the more outlying sites. This strategy served two purposes: we were able to explore temples in the company of far fewer of our fellow tourists, and the distances between the places we visited meant we had lovely long tuktuk rides allowing for a rest and a nice cooling breeze. I really enjoyed this form of travel, slow enough to appreciate the scenery along the way, fast enough that you don’t feel you’re wasting time, and open-air to see real life around us.
We fell into a comfortable routine. We’d arrive at a temple, get oriented and find a bit of shade to shelter in. Then using an Angkor guide app on my phone we read the historical overview about the site, then consulted our guide book for the original layout and the significant features we should look for.
Jack can never resist the urge to climb to the top of wherever we are so he made his way up steep steps to explore the upper bits, while I wandered the lower parts looking for the important carvings or other features.
I was often perfectly content to find a quiet corner taking in the peace, the majesty, the artistry, trying to imagine the place when it was first built and occupied. Often when we visit ruins we see them just as crumbling structures, beautiful in their current state of disarray, and it can be a challenge to paint a mental picture of newly finished monumental works in all their glorious perfection being used for their intended purpose.
Our penultimate stop was the temple of Phnom Bakeng, one of the taller structures, and a favorite for watching the sunset. The temple is so fragile that only 300 people are allowed at one time. We weren’t staying for sunset so our early afternoon visit found the place nearly empty. We both climbed to the top of this one, scary for me, routine for Jaco. The view was spectacular even in the afternoon heat haze.
We spent our last two hours back at the crown jewel, Angkor Wat, which by this time was packed with hot and tired tourists.
It was hard to tear ourselves away, and we both watched behind us as this magical thousand-year-old city disappeared into the forest and our tuktuk delivered us back to Siem Reap for our last evening before venturing on to Phnom Penh. We could easily have spent more time here but there are always more places to discover. Tick tock. Tempus fugit.
In trying to choose the photos for my last blog post on Angkor I realize it’s impossible to post them all, so here’s a link to our online Google photos album. Some will be repeats from the map (the ones that are geotagged by my phone) but the bulk of them aren’t from the phone but from our camera. Sorry, not edited or whittled down yet, just a complete dump of everything we shot.