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Oct. 21, 2020
10:01 am


Trip of a lifetime: Half way around the world

Lakeside on Lanier’s Senior Reporter Pam Keene recently returned from a three-week journey to Southeast Asia. In our October and November editions, she’s sharing her travels and some of her photos with Lakeside readers.
By Pamela A. Keene
Planes, trains, automobiles, cyclo-rickshaws, tuk-tuks, long boats, rice barges and carts pullåed by water buffalos. For three weeks my modes of transportation took me into a world I never really knew – Southeast Asia. In college during the bulk of the Vietnam War, I didn’t know anyone who served, and the most radical thing we did was tie-dye our bedsheets in our dorm bathtubs and make them into clothes and curtains. Oh, we also painted peace symbols on campus sidewalks.
Southeast Asia was just a place on the map halfway around the world. In my mind, it was too long a plane ride, I didn’t really like Asian food, and it seemed much less alluring than trips to Europe, Africa and Central America.
Was I wrong! When the chance came to spend three weeks in Southeast Asia with Overseas Adventure Travel for less than $4,500, including airfare, I jumped right in. The trip guaranteed no more than 16 people and there was no additional charge for a single room, since husband Rick opted to stay home. Three weeks halfway around the world to explore Thailand, Lao (the French added the “s” but true Laotians don’t pronounce it), Cambodia and Vietnam seemed surreal, but I was ready. 
The trip promised “immersion” beyond the typical tour, taking us out of the main cities and towns to visit roadside craftspeople, local school children and a chance to come face-to-face with real people and their stories. Needless to say, it was life-changing. 
As the capital of Thailand, Bangkok teems with activity – traffic, tourists, residents hurrying to and from work. Photos of the king and queen are everywhere, as are hundreds of sidewalk shrines to Buddha. Sidewalk vendors cook and sell pad Thai noodles, rice, fried and grilled fish, familiar and unfamiliar fruits and vegetables, to eat on the spot or to take home. 
Bangkok’s Grand Palace with the Temple of the Emerald Buddha are the most-visited destinations in the city. Built in 1785, the palace was the seat of royalty until 1925. In typical Thai architecture, the complex is filled with eye-candy at every turn – colorful mirrored mosaic encrusted columns, gold-leaf embellishments along the roofs and pagodas, saffron-robed monks going about their days, hundreds of tourists all removing their shoes to enter the sacred temples. Statues of elephants, dragons, lions, Buddhas and other representations of the Asian culture keep your head spinning and can be a bit overwhelming; that’s why I shot more than 7,000 images during the entire trip.
The Chao Praya River dissects Bangkok and continues to be the lifeblood of commerce. A private dinner cruise on a rice barge at dusk revealed spectacular views of the modern skyline juxtaposed with the roofs and towers of temples. The rivers of Southeast Asia would prove to be a recurring theme. More on that later.
A short bus ride away, the former capital of Ayutthaya is now in ruins. It is preserved as the Ayutthaya Historical Park. Much like the Acropolis in Athens, the grounds are open for free-form exploration of foundations and remains of stupas and chedis, towers and landmarks, and statues of Buddha dressed in traditional saffron robes. The city, home to 35 kings, was active from 1350 until 1767, when it was invaded by the Burmese. The park includes a scale model of the original city, which at one time had more than 1 million inhabitants. 
We boarded long boats, sometimes called “James Bond Boats” because they were used in the movies, to tour the countryside. Then we switched to Sampan paddle boats, guided by sun-browned drivers. They negotiated their way through narrow canals and venture into the crowded floating market, where vendors sold everything from spice and fresh fish to fine silks and tennis shoes. 
Before we left Thailand, we learned about local trade and commerce with side trips to coconut farms and a Muslim Village. We helped the environment by planting baby mangrove trees in an endangered mangrove forest at the edge of the river. 
On to Lao 
Admittedly, I knew nothing about Lao before going there, except that it was somehow connected to the Vietnam War. By the time we’d visited Luang Prabang in north central Lao and the capital city of Vientiane farther south – just days before President Obama was there for the Southeast Asia Summit – that all changed. We were reminded that Lao was a tragic casualty of the war because of its border along the Mekong River where the North Viet Cong sent troops and supplies along the Ho Chi Minh trail to the South, and we heard stories of continuing repercussions from the huge numbers of still-unexploded cluster bombs dropped on the country to try and curtail advances of the Viet Cong.
Lush and green and bounded by two rivers, the World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang is a mix of cultures with strong French/European influence in the architecture and food. From a French-inspired bakery where we had our local lunch to the wood-fired pizza we ate on a side trip one evening, the town is open, friendly and very welcoming to tourists. Tours of temples, several trips to the night markets – where hundreds of vendors set up their baskets, lacquerware, clothing, silk products and more every evening on blankets on the streets – the visit in Luang Prabang was laid back. 
One morning we participated in the daybreak ceremony of daily alms-giving to the monks from the neighborhood temples, sharing sticky rice, pieces of fruit and other foods that would be their two meals that day: breakfast and lunch. The monks do not eat an evening meal. All the monks and novices, some as young as 6 years old, depend on the community for their physical sustenance and equally share the food that has been collected each day. Our visit to a nearby primary school and village introduced us to everyday life in Lao as part of O.A.T.’s “Day in the Life” experience the company is known for. We tasted fried insects at a local beer garden – yes, I ate a deep-fried, unbreaded cricket and a grasshopper – toured more temples and enjoyed a meal that we helped prepare in the home of local residents. 
The capital of Vientiane was busy preparing for the Southeast Asia Summit just a week after we were there. We visited the COPE Center, which provides prosthetics for people injured by decades-old remnants of cluster bombs, to learn more about how Lao was affected, and still is, by the Vietnam War. More sightseeing, more temples and monuments, including the Victory Gate reminiscent of the Arc du Triumph in Paris and the golden-domed Phra That Luang (Great Sacred Stupa), gave us an insider’s look at the country’s capital. We left town 48 hours before the city was scheduled to be shut down for summit security and made our way by plane to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. 
Next Month – Insights in Cambodia and Vietnam, including The Killing Fields and the Viet Cong Tunnels.

Posted online 10/3/16
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