Travel: Fantastic journey comes to an end
Editor’s note: This is the fifth and final part of a series about Lauren Glendenning’s travels through Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.
The flight from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City was short, and we realized earlier in the day that we were flying down there on the country’s reunification day – when the North Vietnamese Army captured the city, then known as Saigon, and ended the Vietnam War.
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City in the evening and took
a cab to the center of the city, the part of the city that is still referred to as Saigon.
As we walked down a street looking for a hotel, the celebratory fireworks started going off from a park in the city. We watched through a couple of buildings, feeling kind of odd that we were there for this day that basically celebrated the end of America’s involvement in the country.
Saigon was very different from Hanoi. The city is modern, and the population density seemed 100 times larger, evidenced by millions of scooters traveling in every direction.
We spent a full day there before boarding a bus that took us down to the Mekong Delta, in the very south of the country.
We arrived in Can Tho,
a town located on the Hau River, a large branch of the Mekong River. We checked in to a very basic, simple motel – it was clean, which is all that mattered, but it certainly wasn’t the highlight of our accommodations throughout the trip.
We met a couple who was in the Mekong tour with us and we had eaten lunch with them earlier in the day. They lived in Singapore, but he was from England and she was from Norway. We ended up having dinner with them at this cozy outdoor cafe right on the river, where we cooked prawns at the table over hot stones.
We walked through the city and found more delicious sugar cane juice – we found these juicing carts all over the country where they extract the sweet juice from the sugar cane and top it off with a squirt of fresh lime. With temperatures hovering around 95 degrees, with 100 percent humidity, all I could think about was having one with ice, but we had to go ice-less in order to protect ourselves from sickness. Not exactly as refreshing, although it was still very tasty.
We boarded a bus the next morning for Chau Doc, a town also along the river and just near the border with Cambodia.
The next morning we were off to Cambodia via a speed boat up the Mekong River. This was by far the most efficient way to get there after having been on bus trips that took hours longer than we expected. Traffic and road conditions are just too chaotic to get anywhere quickly.
We arrived in Phnom Penh after about two and a half hours on the boat and cab drivers immediately bombarded us to give us a ride.
We had no idea where we were going and had no hotel reservations anywhere, so we told them no and walked a few blocks to a cafe on a street corner. It was hot outside – it felt hotter than anywhere we had been in Vietnam, although when we were in Vietnam we thought it couldn’t get any hotter.
We grabbed a tuk tuk – a scooter that pulls a small carriage – and went to the Killing Fields, a memorial for those who died during the genocidal Pol Pot regime.
I was overcome with emotion when we arrived there. A tall monument with 17 stories of skulls and bones that were extracted from the mass graves in the area made it hard to be there. I cried as we looked at the remains and paid our respects. I knew how awful Pol Pot’s regime was for the Cambodian people, but nothing could have prepared me for seeing the horror that he caused in this country.
We regrouped in the tuk tuk ride back to the center of Phnom Penh and decided to go to the hotel where two gals on our fast boat had told us they were staying. The room was $15, and the place was so great – it had a juice bar in the lobby and we ended up getting massages in the lobby, too. I did a half-hour foot massage and an hour full-body massage for $12.
Later that night we ate some authentic Khmer food and it was some of the best food we had anywhere on the trip. It was very spicy, but had a lot of fresh herbs and spices that gave it so much flavor.
The next morning we were off to Siem Reap by bus and it took about five hours to get there. We found a hotel with a pool and we were sold – it seemed even hotter in Siem Reap, if that was even possible.
Siem Reap is a cool, touristy town just outside of Angkor – the 12th-century compound of tens of temples, featuring the main temple Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat is breathtaking. It’s older than any building I’ve ever seen and the detail, skill and labor that went into creating it truly takes your breath away.
We spent two days there,
but could only manage to be at Angkor for a half-day each day because of the heat. The temples were incredible, with our favorites being the Bayon Temple, known as the temple of the smiling faces, and the Ta Prohm Temple, which had massive tree roots everywhere that have taken over the buildings.
You could spend a week at Angkor and still not see it all, but the heat in May will make you happy to get through it quickly, take in this amazing place and move on.
After three long weeks of jam-packed itineraries, it was time for our reward – we had reservations at the Bangtao Beach Resort and Spa in Phuket, Thailand.
We got on a plane in Siem Reap and took a pretty short flight to Phuket. We were in heaven when we checked in at this beautiful hotel right on the beach.
We laid out and ordered cocktails two at a time and just relaxed. It was the perfect way to spend the last few days in Southeast Asia before we had to fly back to the states.
We did one more tour in Phuket – a speed boat tour through the Phi Phi Islands, including Maya Bay, the island where the movie “The Beach” was filmed. This group of islands are possibly some of the most beautiful sights I have ever laid eyes on – just spectacular.
Back at the hotel, it was more massages, more cocktails and more lounging around the beach and by the pool. We could have stayed there for weeks and would have never wanted to leave, but the vacation had to end sometime, I guess.
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