KOREA, CAMBODIA AND MYANMAR September 13-October 4, 2016 Escorted by Cathy Wilkes of Humber Valley United Church

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13-19 Sep Posts below (Seoul - Siem Reap Cambodia)


Tuesday 13 September - Pearson AP @ Korean Air Gate

After a few months of preparation, including getting visas and many vaccinations, we're all packed and ready to go.  A relatively relaxed experience. We parked at our usual Sky Park location and were shuttled to Terminal 3, where it was a bit of a hike to the Korean Air desk (The agent there was most helpful, concerned about my allergies and happy to change our seats on the flight to Siem Reap so we could sit together.  I'm liking this airline). No line-up at security and for once neither of us had to wait while our bags got further scrutiny.  At the departure gate there are comfy chairs and marble tables with built-in ipads - what more could we ask?
 On board the plane the comfort continues. An empty seat between us and lots of leg room, comfortable seats, USB outlets, newspapers. Soon we were offered drinks (including wine) and a bit later a pretty good meal with real cutlery and more wine. The plane was darkened for about 5 hours and I took advantage of the empty row behind us to stretch out. Luxury indeed! At one point we were quietly offered a small sandwich and glass of water.

Wednesday, 14 September – Incheon Airport & Seoul

Sometime while I slept, we crossed the date line and it got to be Wednesday. When the lights came back up, we were given warm cloths to freshen up, then pineapple juice. Looking around, I realized that the English on board is almost entirely for our benefit, since we seem to be the only non-Koreans. Another meal was served before another hour or so of darkness. Our arrival at Incheon was hassle-free and we found our greeter easily. Now we’re waiting for the rest of the Intrepids to arrive on Air Canada. 
 Their flight was delayed, but eventually the other 8 Intrepids came through the Arrivals door. We quickly got organized and onto a spacious bus for the trip into Seoul. Our guide is somewhat difficult to understand and we were all so tired that we didn’t learn much along the way, though she gave us a quick history and geography lesson. At the Yoido Hotel we discovered that there are no restaurants in the immediate vicinity. Most of us opted to shop at the convenience store and go to bed, while Elsie, Brock and Ellen-Mary got a cab to a mall that has a restaurant. Bed felt good.

Thursday, 15 September Seoul to Siem Reap

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Of course we were wide awake at 4:30 am, with hours to wait for breakfast. It’s foggy outside. I guess that’s to be expected. The humidity is so high that even our room is damp in spite of the A/C running at full blast. We celebrated E-M’s birthday at breakfast with song and tiara, then joined our guide, whose name never became clear to us, for our ½ day tour of Seoul. Of course, we had to be packed up and checked out of the hotel first. Throughout the tour we never had a really clear idea what we were seeing. The first stop was, I think, a restored royal palace. 
We thought it resembled the Forbidden City in Beijing, but on a smaller, less-elaborate scale. We were shown where the emperor dwelt and how he was surrounded by concubines and servants. Apparently the dynasty lasted from the 13th century until Japanese occupation in the early 20th century. That occupation lasted until the end of World War II and resulted in the destruction of much of Korea’s historical architecture. The Korean War, in the early 1950s did much damage too, both physically and economically. Our guide spoke of a severe shortage of protein sources in her childhood, resulting in the common use of boiled silkworms as food. They’re now sold as a street food, but meat is plentiful. In any case, there has been and is a great deal of reconstruction and restoration. And new construction, too, by the look of things. We visited a lovely Buddhist temple. 
Everywhere families were out enjoying the national holiday of Thanksgiving and Chuseok (honouring ancestors and deceased relatives). 
Many people were dressed in beautiful costumes, there were activities set up everywhere for children, and street vendors were doing a roaring business. We saw elaborate candy floss creations and laughed at Turkish ice cream sellers’ antics as they created colourful ice cream cones for children. In spite of our guide’s doubts, expressed the evening before, the restaurant produced a delicious garlic-free meal for me, and a garlic-laden one for everyone else. We shopped in a busy street featuring some traditional crafts as well as modern goods, then visited a reconstructed traditional village. 

We were all pretty worn out by the time we got to the airport, with the result that security found forgotten water bottles and we stumbled through the whole process, assisted by unfailingly courteous and kind security staff. Once aboard the plane to Siem Reap, I managed to stay awake only long enough for dinner. Larry had to be awakened for it. I woke a few times when we encountered turbulence from a nearby typhoon, but slept or dozed through most of the 5-hour flight. There were a couple of complicated forms to complete before landing, but we managed to get through that process just fine. On the ground we had no difficulties with customs or immigration. On the advice of our travel company, we all exchanged US dollars for local currency at the airport. This turned out to be a big mistake. The real “local currency” here is US $$! Our guide, Dy (pronounced “Dee”) immediately had our affection as he joked with us in near-perfect English and gave us important information about our itinerary and how best to enjoy our time here. At the lovely Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa we were greeted with cool cloths to bathe hands and faces, and a refreshing drink of coconut milk, sugar palm syrup and mint, then shown to lovely comfortable rooms. By then it was nearly midnight local time (2 am Seoul time and who-knows-what time in Toronto) so we happily turned in.
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Friday, 16 September – Siem Reap Cambodia

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We awoke to dawn at around 5:30 and enjoyed the view from our balcony. 
The grounds and pool are lovely and we could hear birdsong. The humidity is so high that our camera lenses fogged right up. We enjoyed a generous buffet breakfast then met Dy and our driver for the trip to Banteay Srei (Citadel of Women or Beauty), an ancient Hindu Temple. It was about a 1-hour drive on a rather rough road, but very worth the trip. Along the way we saw rice fields, small villages, a monastery and some very elaborate homes as well as very simple ones. 

Lots of cows, water buffalo and long-legged chickens. Dy explained that there’s no electricity or running water to this area, but many people have generators or solar panels to power lights and TVs. The poles are already in place to run electrical service, so it will soon be available. 

We had gotten temple passes for our whole stay so didn’t need to pay admission. Dy explained what we were seeing as we went, giving just enough detail. The temple is about 1000 years old and amazingly well-preserved. Intricate 3-dimensional carvings in many colours of sandstone are nearly intact and inscriptions are perfectly legible. The script is Sanskrit, so they are beautiful too. The temple was abandoned and covered by tropical forest, and Europeans only became aware of it in 1914. Since the country was under French colonial rule at that time, some of the statuary was moved to the Louvre. More recently, some has gone to Cambodian Museums, but much is still in place (or reproductions have replaced originals). Restoration work continues. Of course, like at all such sites, vendors are active. Prices seemed pretty good. Larry used some of our Cambodian currency to buy a guidebook. It’s confusing – I wish we’d taken Ken’s advice a stuck with US $$! It was very hot and humid, so we were pretty bedraggled by the time we came back to the bus. But all of us are excited to be in this beautiful country.
Larry and I decided on a light lunch, so went to a local grocery store (an interesting cultural experience in itself) for cheese, crackers and beer, which we enjoyed in our room. The intention was to swim in the afternoon but we both dozed off and woke just in time to get ready for dinner. Then panic! We couldn’t find the case with Larry’s credit cards. We tore the room apart, went back to the grocery store in the pouring rain, checked the room again and finally dug out the numbers to call and cancel the cards. Just as Larry was dialling the first number, I spotted the case! Phew! It was in plain view, but obscured by a reflection. Crazy-making! Anyway, that meant we could join our friends in the dining room, about an hour late, and enjoy a delicious meal and share stories. Now we wonder how we’ll sleep, after our afternoon nap.

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Saturday, 17 September – Siem Reap/Angkor Wat

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Link to  Video of Janice Receiving a Buddist Blessing

[Note: Click small pics for large view]
This morning we visited Angkor Wat, the largest Hindu temple in the world. It’s huge, which of course makes sense.
It was a very long walk from the bus to the buildings but the grounds are beautiful. There was a lot of climbing and many steps up and down.

Very interesting bas reliefs telling stories of Hindu gods.
It was built around 1000 years ago and certainly shows signs of wear. However, it has been constantly maintained, unlike many other temples and has never been over-run by forest. We visited only the first 2 levels, representing hell and earth.

The wait to climb the very steep “stairway to heaven” was about 45 minutes, in the heat and sun. Since we were all hot and tired we didn’t even consider it. There are now Buddhist monks in the temple and we all (except Larry) had a blessing from one of them. Larry video’d mine.

Link to  Video of Janice Receiving a Buddist Blessing

The monk was young and really hammed it up for cameras, between blessings. I’m now wearing a couple of braided string bracelets that I have to leave on until they fall off of their own accord, to ensure the health and prosperity he blessed me with.

Back at the hotel we happily fell into the pool and floated for quite awhile, easing off the tiredness and cooling down. Dy picked us up again mid-afternoon to visit a nearby killing field.

There are several hundred such sites around the country where the Khmer Rouge murdered tens of thousands of people and dumped their bodies into pits. Most of them have been found during construction projects and the bones and skulls gathered into small memorial structures. Families have never been able to find or identify the bodies of their missing loved ones, so these have become places of pilgrimage, much like cemeteries. Dy explained the politics and timelines of this tragic chapter in the country’s history. After we left, we stopped at a few very nice high-end shops. Most of us bought nothing, but it was fun looking at some of the beautiful silver jewellery and silk pieces.

After a rest we drove to a children’s hospital for the Saturday concert. A Swiss physician founded it 26 years ago and has been the driving force behind it. There are now 5 children’s hospitals that offer maternity services and free medical care to children up to 14 years of age, a real boon in a country with no health coverage and family incomes around $1 a day. He insists that all tests, labs and treatments be to 1st world standards, even though children are often 2 to a bed. This amazing doctor is also a cellist, so on Saturday evenings he plays, talks, shows a movie on the history of the hospitals and asks for donations of blood and/or money. At the moment they’re fighting an epidemic of hemorrhagic dengue fever and he was clearly exhausted, but what a story he told us! We had a very late dinner at a French/Cambodian restaurant. Good local food and not expensive. Then back to the hotel and bed.
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Link to  Video of Janice Receiving a Buddist Blessing


Sunday, 18 September – Siem Reap/Angkor Thom

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At Angkor Thom this morning we entered through one of the many gates, across a causeway with a depiction of the churning of the Milk Sea. Many of the statues have been restored, after losing their heads. At the gate itself there are elephants with trunks to the ground. 

We passed several smaller shrines, but only went into the Bayon. Climbing the steep narrow stairs was a bit of a challenge but once up there we were rewarded by many many Buddhas smiling down from the towers. 
This temple was built specifically to be used by both Buddhists and Hindus since both religions were popular when it was built, about 800-900 years ago. We all agreed that it is a favourite among those we’ve seen. 

As we left, we met a marriage couple in traditional dress and they allowed us to take their photos. We were happy to get back to the cool bus since the heat & humidity were really getting us down. We passed many interesting sites along the road, all part of Angkor Thom, and ancient city 9 sq km in size. 
Monkeys frolicked along the roadsides; vendors sold food and souvenirs; drivers and others dozed in hammocks. On the way back to the hotel, the other 7 ladies asked to be dropped off for shopping, while Larry, Brock and I returned to the hotel to put our feet up and enjoy convenience store beer ($.79 a can). Midafternoon found four of us gathered at the spa for quite wonderful massages. We were treated very well – given tea before and tea, yogurt, fruit and small cakes afterward. Of course, I wanted to use the last of our Cambodian currency, and didn’t have enough to cover the whole bill. There was great confusion over the conversion and the adding and subtracting between the two currencies, and I’m pretty sure the final result was wildly wrong, but was just glad to see the last of those bills leave my hands. I guess I should have emulated the more conscientious members of the group and carried a calculator to do my own conversions. They usually had to negotiate corrections. I am perhaps too trusting, but it does usually seem to be honest error. Not even the locals “get” Cambodian money! While we waited for our bus, everyone shared their adventures, including Tuk-tuk rides (fun, cheap, convenient); Shopping (great bargains at the market and amazing scarves at the bigger stores); and of course our massages (bliss). Dinner was at a local Cambodian/French restaurant. 
They were very careful of our food, to make sure none of us were served something to which we are allergic or sensitive. It was delicious and fun. We were all ready to crash by the time we got back to the hotel.
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