Reflections on Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

February 5. Generally, in reflecting on the terrific trips that Carol and I have been privileged to taken the past, I remark on how grateful I am to have been able to take the trip and my determination to continue these trips as long as I can, because you never know how long you’ll be able to do that. After this trip, I feel that same way, but with a different and renewed sense of gratitude and a deeper appreciation of my ability to continue these trips.

While I don’t want to get over-dramatic, this could have been our final trip. The accident we had in our van on a downhill road was serious. Had it played out only a bit differently, it could have been fatal. To say that that realization is sobering is a bit of an understatement.

Karl’s handling of this accident was spectacular. He remained calm. He focused on the extent to which people were injured and offered an alternative to individuals of going back to Bangkok. Personally, when we reached Luang Prabang, he accompanied me immediately to the hospital to be examined. His excellent handling of the accident, I believe, was responsible for everyone in the group dealing with this in a way that avoided anyone freaking out over it, which could very easily have happened. Kudos, well done, Karl.

So, while the accident had a major impact on the trip, it did not ruin it. We were fortunate that the accident preceded two days in which we were floating down a river, so the amount of physical exertion was less than it might otherwise have been.

The trip was very good, but, to me, it was too ambitious in its scope. In attempting to cover three countries (four, if you include Myanmar), we wound up not covering any of them in depth. Karl said at the outset that we would be traveling through three different countries and that, by the end of the trip, he hoped we would understand how they fit together, related to each other. I do not think that this hope was realized.

Angkor Wat and the surrounding area was clearly the centerpiece of the trip. Unfortunately we emerged with little understanding of what we were seeing historically, artistically or culturally. It may be that Karl could have presented this himself. If not, we should have had a guide to do it. When we return home and are asked by friends about Angkor Wat, we’ll be able to describe only the spectacular sites we saw and what we may have read about those sites in our own. That’s a problem.

My real feeling is that the trip should have been just Cambodia. That is what Karl knows best. He has lived there for many years, has a Cambodian wife and there is plenty there to occupy a full trip, which would give folks an in-depth experience of and understanding of Cambodia. Karl could have included visits to some of his NGO clients, which would have been of great interest to many people. I’ve suggested that to Karl, so perhaps future travelers will be able to experience this.

I want to mention a few trip experiences that stand out in my mind. I am doing that without going back over my blog, so I’ll be hitting what was particularly memorable to me. In the process, I’ll be omitting several palaces and pagodas. Most of these were interesting enough and worthwhile, but they are not what sticks in my mind. For me, that’s true on every trip—it’s not the buildings that matter most.

The Pink Panther, pole dancing and kick boxing in Bangkok (it’s surprising how little of that Carol and I do in Chicago).

Visit to the long-neck women village.

Early morning with the monks in Cambodia (even though my photos were lousy).

Walking, and seeing life, along the river in Phenom Penh.

S21 prison and the Killing Fields. You don’t come away humming a tune, but it’s important to see.

Night market in Phenom Penh.

Long village street that we walked down before getting on the boat in Cambodia that offered a glimpse of village life.

The Angkor Wat experience, including, especially, the first evening visit to the Victory and Death Gates, and the visit to Ta Prohm (particularly because Karl got us there early enough to avoid the Chinese hordes).

Going to Karl’s house, meeting his family, having Karl and his wife cook a meal for us and seeing the young dancers he invited to perform for us (this was a truly special evening).

The group was a very congenial assortment of folks. As always, one relates better to some than others, but, on the whole, they were excellent travel companions.

Best was that I had my favorite travel companion with me, Carol. At first, she was not going to go on another (damn) photography trip, but she backed off of that when we enticed Robert and Joseph to come along. Then she was going to join us after half the trip, but decided she’d do the full trip when Karl assured her that the two days on the river would be calm. Finally, a day or two before we left, Carol said, well, maybe she’d just take my old camera along. And I have multiple shots to prove that she was into taking photos on the trip.

Thanks for joining us and especially to the many who commented on, or emailed me about, the blog. Sorry for technical difficulties I had along the way. I realize that in my last several posts the photos did not load (even though they show up on my copy). If I can figure out why those photos refused to load, I may do another post of just photos. Actually, if you have time to go back to the previous few posts I think you can now see the photos.

To prove that we’re home, here’s Judson’s greeting of Carol.

Carol and I take off again in two months for a trip we’ve been looking forward to, with great anticipation, for two years.

Hong Kong

February 4. Breakfast with Robert and Joseph at hotel, then minivan to airport. After an uneventful flight, we have some difficulty connecting with our driver, but eventually are driven to the Four Seasons. Meredith has a 10 hour layover in Hong Kong, so we invited her to come to the Four Seasons with us and have dinner at the fancy three star Michelin’s restaurant there. This place is quite beautiful. Here above are a couple of views inside and outside of the room.

Wonderful dinner at Lung King Heen. Pictured below are a flower on our table, the carving of our Peiking duck and Carol and me at the table.

Great breakfast at hotel. Don’t think I’d like a full trip of Four Seasons, but it sure is nice for the last night. Elegant, comfortable… name it. It’s good to be king.

At airport, watching end of Super Bowl game, awaiting flight home,

Villages, Stilt Houses and a Jungle Temple at Beng Melea,

February 2. First we drive to Kompong Khleang, one of the largest settlements on the Tonle Sap Lake, stopping along the way to watch people making “sticky rice”

And then we crash a wedding that we pass.

Next we stop in a market at a small village market

and then walk through a wonderful little town, ripe with photographic opportunities, particularly of children

In Kompong Khleang, over 20,000 people live in high stilt houses which tower up to 10 meters over the water. It is a spectacular place which only gets a small number of visitors.

There is a small island at the centre of the village which has a bustling market. We take a boat tour to see the floating market, then return for a lunch of fresh fish prepared in Khmer style at our boatman’s house and to give a Karl a chance to fly his drone. After lunch we drive to the remote and recently “de-mined” Angkor site of Beng Melea

for some amazing, “Indiana Jones” type temple exploration.

The whole site of Beng Melea is bathed with dappled light from the jungle canopy making it a fabulous temple for adventurous photographers. And climbing over boulders to get around the site is an adventure, as well.

We return to the hotel late afternoon, showered and went back to the Mexican Restaurant with most of the group. Karl’s wife Paov joined us. She is lovely.

Ta Prohm, and More.

February 3. This morning we wake very early to explore and photograph at amazing Ta Prohm, where jungle tree roots still cover the ruined temples. We get there ahead of the crowds and have relatively unobstructed views. The photos below, all taken on an iPhone, include workmen maintaining the site, women who bless people (for a small contribution), some sculpture, a bit of amazing light and, of course, buildings among the tree roots. This is the most amazing of the sites we’ve seen.

Carol and I set out in our own tuk-tuk for what Karl describes as undiscovered temple ruins. There’s a reason they are undiscovered, because our driver has to ask directions four times, and the half hour trip takes an hour and a half. An adventure, for sure, and rather fun. Pictures below include a view from our vehicle and our driver returning from one of his requests for information.

We stop for a rather good cheese and tomato panini lunch, then return to the hotel to Blog, relax, have 90-minute massages (cost: $14) and prepare for our final dinner, a very good one at the Foreign Correspondents Club. From there we go over to Karl’s house to view photos the group took, projected on his large TV. Interesting to see everyone’s work, some of which are a lot better than others. I did not show any, because I couldn’t figure out how to do it from my iPad. Carol also did not show photos, but read drafts of two poems she’d written, which people seemed to enjoy. I read the “real blog” that I traditionally write on these trips, pointing out all the strange/funny things that happened on the trip, with some license for exaggeration. The blog reading was quite well received.

Back to the hotel for preliminary packing and sleep.

First full day at Angkor Wat

February 1. Breakfast at the hotel, then tuk-tuk to Angkor Wat. As we’d been warned, our magical alone time of late yesterday is now shared with thousands of other visitors.

Nonetheless, this is our best day of the trip. It’s impossible to describe or capture in photos the magnitude of Angkor Wat, it’s enormous scope, the setting among trees, sometimes physically attached to trees, the monumental buildings and sculptures, the fine, subtle carvings everywhere, the play of light in passageways. Even the name, Angkor Wat, does not capture it, because Angkor Wat is just one part of the complex of area. The places we visited yesterday and until late this afternoon, were part of an area called Angkor Thom, which is many times larger than Angkor Wat. So, here’s a feeeble attempt to capture a bit of it, including a man being bathed and blessed by a monk, who chants the blessing.

This evening we have a marvelous surprise, going to Karl’s gorgeous modern house, which he designed, meeting his lovely wife and children, eating a delicious meal the cook for us and then seeing a dance performance by young women and men who study at a local school.