Today is February 9, 2012 and Sports Leisure’s 3rd Asia tour has come to an end. As I am tackling a mountain of laundry, I have been reading over my journal from our Southeast Asia adventure and decided to write a blog so that everyone can share in our amazing experience from the comfort of your armchair. Five different countries in 19 days, trans-Pacific flights on Singapore Airlines, and 14 days in the comfort and luxury of Holland America’s ms Zaandam…it really was the trip of a lifetime. I’ll be heading back to Asia soon. Perhaps after reading this you’ll consider joining our next adventure.
We began with a direct flight from SFO to Hong Kong on Singapore Airlines. These folks have their act together! Though we flew coach, I was treated better than any first class domestic flight with other airlines. Instead of two choices for entrées (the obligatory beef or chicken) we had menus that included a European/ Continental style offering along with an Asian and Indian selection. Before we touched down in Hong Kong I had the dim sum for breakfast and was thoroughly impressed. The in-flight service was impeccable and the range of television shows and movies offered through the personal entertainment systems at each seat made the time pass much quicker. I’ve tasted the champagne of airline service and it will be hard to go back to wine now. What a time to be in Hong Kong! It happened to be the eve of Chinese New Years and this is the year of the Dragon. The Dragon is considered to be the most powerful of all the animal signs in the in Eastern zodiac so this year was a special celebration. There was electricity in the air.
As a tour director, one of the best parts of the job is being able to share in a traveler’s excitement. Mary Vrablick turned to me as we were walking around Victoria’s Peak and exclaimed with her eyes sparkling,”I can’t believe I am actually in China!”. I remember that same feeling the first time I stepped off the plane in Beijing during my year of study abroad. It’s one thing to see images on TV, but to be physically standing there is exhilarating.
After a tour of the city and boarding the ship I decided to take a walk along the Kowloon waterfront which is situated directly across the water from Hong Kong (it is all the HK metro area…much the way the East River separates Brooklyn from Manhattan). The buildings were all decked out in flashing neon lights. Have you ever seen a lighted dragon slink down a skyscraper? I have and it is a pretty awesome sight as you can see by the picture.
After a relaxing day at sea, our first port-of-call was Halong Bay (the Bay of the Descended Dragon). This place is pure magic. If you’ve ever seen postcards of those magnificent, sheer limestone rock formations jutting straight up from the sea…that’s where we were. Some of us even walked through the Thien Cung Caves which runs through the center of one of these mountains. Loraine Messecar who is 86 years old took my arm and step-by-step (all 300+ of them) made it through…and now I must brag…we weren’t even the last ones to the boat! Go Loraine! Next stop, Sanya, Hainan Island in China. This is China’s Hawaii. I spent a good bit of time here while I lived in Beijing from 2007-2008. I didn’t even recognize the place. We docked on a brand new man-made island that had a series of new condo towers still under construction. In true Chinese fashion, the towers were not complete or ready for occupation but the lights displays had been installed and were fantastic. Neons shimmered up the sides and gave us quite a show directly next to our ship. Several of our folks checked out a Chinese minority village on their shore excursions while others went to Macau known as China’s version of Las Vegas. It’s really more like Vegas on steroids as Steve Wynn and other Western big time gaming enterprises have built properties there that dwarf those in Las Vegas. Central and Southern Vietnam were our next two stops. First we visited Nha Trang a small coastal resort town. The weather was still cool enough to need long-sleeved shirts and the town hadn’t really opened for the tourist season yet which was fine by me. I was able to walk through the center of the small town and really get a sense for how these folks lived. While still rustic, it was obvious that there had been an influx of money there as new ocean front homes were being built or were recently completed. Vietnam is experiencing quite an economic boon and along with China is one of the major Asian economic dragons driving the region’s growth.
As we entered into Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon as it is known to us) our guide explained that in ten years the skyline would resemble Singapore’s because of the many construction projects already on the docket. Elizabeth Fleming and I went on a culinary themed excursion and visited markets where chefs answered questions about the different ingredients and collected everything we needed for the meal we would make. Yes, we cooked our own meal. It was so much fun. We had freshly made shrimp and crab spring rolls, tomato and egg soup, and a white fish with a caramel sauce cooked in traditional clay pots. I ate every bite….and helped with Elizabeth’s too. Thank goodness there is a very nice, well-equipped fitness center on the ship. With all the good food in the dining room and the buffet I can only hope that I didn’t do too much damage to the waistline…wishful thinking at its best! Cambodia offered a real eye-opening experience. Many of our folks went on a shore excursion that took them to a pagoda, a small fishing village, and to the town market. Though Cambodia is still among the poorest countries in Southeast Asia several of the folks reported that this was their favorite stop. There was a genuine quality to the way things were presented to us. They knew their lot in life yet were happy, proud, and optimistic. China has begun to invest in the creation of roads and America has begun to invest in schools. They know they have a long road ahead of them, but generation by generation their situation will improve. It was nice to see….nice to be reminded of our good fortune in America. Regardless of our current economic situation, trust me; it could be a lot worse. I look forward to visiting the country again to see its continued progress. Our next stop, Thailand, is a country that I know well having spent six weeks backpacking the entire country in 2004. Thailand is an anomaly in this region. It is the only country that was never invaded and colonized by European colonial powers. The royal family is very much revered by the people and enjoys a 1,400 year history.
The story goes that when the French approached from the East and the British approached from the west the king told them that he could live without both his left and right arms and legs. The colonial powers divided up the lands to the east and west yet left what is now known as Thailand, originally known as Siam, untouched. This is the reason they avoided colonization and why there is such a vibrant culture here. Because there was never a religion imposed upon the people the practice of Buddhism is very strong here.
Outside most businesses and at the corners of most city blocks there are spirit houses that look like doll houses on a pedestal. Inside there are small figurines in them that embody different Gods which provide health, happiness, wealth, and protection. Offerings of incense, flowers, fruits, meats, even soda and beer are left and people can be seen stopping the pace of their hectic day to bow their heads and say a prayer. Regardless of your religious beliefs there is a definite feeling or emotion that lingers around these places.
We stayed here for two full days of touring. The shore excursions ranged from spending a day touring the bustling mega-city of Bangkok, to visiting the country side, to feeding tigers or riding elephants. Yes, you read that correctly and here are the pictures to prove it! That’s Sarah Smith on a elephant. Hey Judi, watch those fingers! That tiger cub is cute but looks hungry!
One last stop in Thailand at the island of Koh Samui slowed the pace down a bit. This town is a very popular tourist spot for Europeans and Russians escaping the cold winters. I did not join an organized excursion but took a tender to shore and walked all over the little town. It’s very accessible and there are many nice restaurants and shops.
I love Thai food and had fresh squeezed mandarin orange juice and pad thai (a very popular fried rice noodle dish with fresh seafood). I took it to-go and enjoyed it by the water as I watched the fisherman coming back with their catch. If ever there was a place to simple escape to and forget it all, this is it!
As I woke up on the last day of the cruise and looked out my window I realized we had already docked in Singapore. I had never visited Singapore before but just the sight of it made me impatient to get ashore. The joke is that Singapore is a “fine” city. This has a double meaning. It is a fine city in the sense that it is absolutely beautiful, clean, compact and easily accessible. The other meaning is that anything you do wrong here, you will be fined for. Singapore has very strict laws. There is a $50 fine for chewing gum, not flushing a public toilet, or smoking in public. This may seem severe, but it has the civilizing effect of keeping things clean and beautiful. The citizens take a lot of pride in their city, as they should. It is truly a world class city on par with NYC, London, or Paris. I fell in love with the place and will definitely, without a doubt return.
After a very simple disembarkation and customs process we met our local guide, Faridah. I had arranged for us to have a two day extension and we stayed at the beautiful Mandarin Marina Hotel. It was located one block from the water front and connected to a shopping mall so last minute gifts or a McDonald’s hamburger was within easy reach.
The first evening I took some of our group around the block to an outdoor night food court called Glutton’s Bay…and it was gluttonous! There were all kinds of local foods available such as fried noodles, satays (chicken, beef, or lamb grilled on skewers), and rotisserie chicken wings. I must admit that I enjoyed two dinners that night. I ate once when I went to scout out the place before taking the group and then ate again with the group. After waddling back to the hotel, I fell into the most comfortable hotel bed I have ever slept in…and this time it wasn’t rocking with the rhythm of the ocean.
In two short days we saw temples (both Chinese and Hindu), the National Orchid Garden where over 60,000 plants were on display, and visited a museum that explained the history of the Singapore river. We followed in the footsteps of Sir Stamford Raffles who claimed it for the British in 1819, and took a bumboat ride to see the amazing architecture from a different view before having a delicious pan-Asian meal featuring dishes from all the countries we had just visited.
That brings us the end of our trip which coincidentally was the final day of the Chinese New Year. As I sit here now, I can’t believe that less than 48 hours ago I was halfway around the world…immersed in a completely different culture. We are very fortunate to have the ability and means to travel and learn about the world we live in. I’d like to thank the folks that came along with me for letting me share in their adventure. I will begin planning Sports Leisure’s next Asian vacation. Any ideas? Feel free to send them to me at Chris@sportsleisure.com, give me a call at the office or chat with me in person when I see you on a day trip or extended tour. So until then, safe travels!