Expedition Stories

Our fleet navigates the world in search of adventure. These are the stories they bring back…

Previous Reports

Daily Expedition Reports

1/27/2012

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The Jahan

From the Jahan in Southeast Asia

Angkor Wat, Artisans d’Angkor, and Banteay Srei What an amazing morning we experienced! Our day began very early, with a departure from the hotel of 5:15am. Our goal: To arrive to the iconic Angkor Wat before sunrise. We drove to the famous temple whose name means “City Temple,” arriving to the moat and causeway in the dark. After navigating the old stonework bridge and steps of the walls and gates, we settled onto the inside walls of the outer structure. It was full dark, but the sky slowly began to lighten as dawn approached. Eventually, light pinks and oranges filled the void behind the great Wat and the sun came over the trees a bit before 7:00am. It was beautiful to watch the great monument to the Khmer empire become more and more visible in the growing light. We walked around the inner walls of the Angkor complex, making our way to the eastern side for morning sun. Along the way, rhesus macaques stole our attention (and attempted to steal our morning snacks!) with their comical mannerisms. Once we entered Angkor Wat itself, we explored the many long corridors, with walls completely covered in carvings depicting stories of Hindu theology. Many of us climbed all the way to the top section of the Wat, which overlooked the whole of the great structure. We returned to the hotel for a break, enjoying time to relax or shop in the Old Market near the hotel. We resumed our explorations in the early afternoon, beginning in town at the Artisans d’Angkor. Employing local people, some of whom suffer from disabilities, the workshops here produce many of the traditional handicrafts of Cambodia, such as woodcarvings, stone carvings, silver work, and lacquer painting. More than a few of our party also visited the gallery attached, adding to the collections of wonderful treasure acquired here. On our journey to our afternoon temple visit, which was farther afield, we drove through the rural landscape and many small villages. This intimate glimpse into the lives of many of the people in this country was wonderful. We saw a great deal of traditional architecture, rice paddies, the production of palm sugar, and many Cambodian people enjoying a peaceful afternoon. Our last stop of the day, and our last stop in the Angkor complex was the beautiful temple, Banteay Srei. Known for its pink sandstone and intricate carvings, this is one of the most unusual temples in the area. Its beauty is renowned and many visitors count it as their favorite Angkor locale. We wandered through in the late afternoon light, enjoying the pinks and light oranges of the stone. After returning once again to the hotel to freshen up, we made our way to AHA Restaurant, in downtown Siem Reap. We enjoyed a lovely, contemporary meal, served with beautiful preparation and a great deal of care. Tomorrow, we conclude our adventure in Siem Reap, and begin our travels down the Mekong River.  

Daily Expedition Reports

2/5/2012

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The Jahan

From the Jahan in Southeast Asia

Cai Be, Mekong River Delta, Vietnam Hats off to those of us aboard the Jahan who were disciplined enough to start their day with a Tai chi session at the crack of dawn. After breakfast, we mingled around getting to know others on the ship, checking out the books in the library, or spending a few moments connecting with home via email and the internet. By 9am, home and the outside world were forgotten with the first boat ride of the day. We rode on two motorboats, 25 aboard each, to discover the Mekong and its small canals, gliding among the ever-present water hyacinths—serving both as a way to stop soil erosion, and a trap that attract fish for the ready fishermen. A while later we found ourselves in the town of Cai Be, amidst one of the many floating markets in the delta. You could begin to understand the gregarious and outgoing nature of the local people: there were plenty of (water)ways for them to travel from their small villages or their small islands outward, to meet others, learn new things. “The big boats are like a home,” one of our guides had explained. “The small boat is like a car.” The small boats brought stacks and stacks of fruits and vegetables—mango, watermelon, tapioca, longan—and offer them to the big boats that are moored and ready to sell the harvests. One looks to the top of a pole pointing skyward. Whatever is on the pole, that’s the fruit offered by that boat. Other small boats carried bags of the fruits to the markets on land. There were also boats that carried fish in big bags half-filled with water and oxygen, destined via land routes to Ho Chi Minh City, to markets and restaurants. Perhaps it was because Lunar New Year was just a mere ten days ago—many of the boats had large pots of bright pink bougainvilleas next to pots of yellow apricots. They stood out on the decks of the boats—which cost about 2,000 US dollars to buy, we were told. It’s amazing how people live so calmly on such boats, their living quarters cramped; their kitchen a mere counter. These are resourceful people with no sofas or big fridges or washing machines. They seem content enough to rock back and forth in a hammock hanging inside a few square meters, and perhaps enjoy a breeze blowing through the cabins. Outside, they are surrounded by the ever-present coconuts, water apples, pineapples and jack fruits and sacks of watermelon. On larger sections of the river, barges carry huge mounds of freshly dredged sand, destined for construction sites abroad. Other barges are full of rice or salt. Along the banks of the river, hundreds of houses on stilts make up residential villages, but the markets, small factories, petrol stations and the buying and selling are clear signs of the energy of the region. In other stretches there are just green trees and shrubs. The one anomaly is the tall Gothic cathedral left behind by the French. It had been built a century before to serve the needs of religious French officers and soldiers. The final destination of this excursion is Phu An hamlet, host to a few cottage firms making coconut candies, rice papers, and other sweet treats. It’s all hand-made: on one side, a few workers shoving rice husks into a small furnace, keeping the fire going under the woks, melting the sugar and rice to make candies that are sold in markets throughout the south of the country, and exported to unknown corners of the world. On another side, a couple lines of women—and children—wrap candies in paper and stuff them into plastic bags, a kerosene lamp used to seal the bags. In the middle of one room, several men take turns molding a paste-like substance—gluttonous rice, sugar, coconut, etc—and placing it in a grid to cut up into bite-size pieces. Done with watching the workers, tour members are invited to visit another part of the house where a few women turn a liquid mixture of rice flour into the thin paper used throughout the country as wrappers for traditional Vietnamese spring rolls. The workers don’t seem to mind the visitors walking around their workshop. Visitors are invited to sample the candies, of course, along with local brew of tea and honey. A few tables are set up to sell artisan products—chopsticks, spoons, combs and handbags made of coconut shells, paper fans, and a few bottles of rice wine with longan or jackfruit flavoring. February isn’t a hot month, the humidity isn’t so bad. Still, on the motorboat ride back, we welcomed the breeze, and we all are left to think of the stoicism, the energetic spirit, and the hospitality of the people in the villages along the banks of the Mekong. Lunch and a quick rest, then it’s another tour to enjoy the scenic rides on yet more canals. We ride for about half an hour to the island of Binh Thanh to arrive at a village untouched by tourism. Here, local people are known for their rattan mats—a humble cousin to the Japanese Tatami. On a narrow street, house after house reserve their thatch-roofed front porches as a work area where women and children squat on the floor or on benches. They weave strands of rattan into simple mats that are sold and also used locally in place of a mattress, which would be too expensive and uncomfortable in the tropical heat. One can’t help but notice that the men were all sitting around, smoking, drinking, taking care of roosters while the women worked. But perhaps it’s a Sunday, or perhaps they are taking a rest from their own jobs fishing or cultivating fruits in fields elsewhere. At the end of the narrow street, we turned the corner to find ourselves in a communal hall over a hundred years old. The back part of the hall hosts a temple supposedly inhabited by divine and kind spirits, while the front is a large room under a tin roof that serves as a meeting place. We were asked to share a few moments with a man and a woman—neighbors—who are keepers of this communal hall, and who told us about their personal history as well as the history of the area. The woman, 70 years old, and the man, 76, have lived through a lot but clearly have maintained a healthy diet, and an accepting and cheerful outlook. They looked much younger than their age. In their words, and in their eyes, we could see how they appreciated the chance to meet us and share their stories and meet the visitors. We left also grateful to them and those in the village who welcomed us. Back to the Jahan, we took in the sunset then returned to our guides who helped end the day with a quick slide show that summed up life in the Mekong Delta and the great efforts of the local people through times of turmoil and development.  

Daily Expedition Reports

3/23/2012

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The Jahan

From the Jahan in Southeast Asia

Kampong Cham, Wat Nokor & Wat Hanchey, Cambodia They make you think of egrets – thin, light, graceful, lithe, gentle… small steps, one by one, rhythmic, unhurried… a joyful harvest dance… They’re girls sponsored by a local non-profit organization helping disadvantaged youths. They were there on the sidewalk in Kampong Cham, dancing barefoot in the dust, and singing in ethereal voices full of innocence to the accompaniment of a five-piece traditional band, also comprised of youths… to welcome us as we go ashore in the early morning. They also make you think of phoenixes: they give you hope as you begin to imagine they will rise out of the ashes of Cambodia’s recent dark history, taking their generation and their nation to a more prosperous and more blissful time. After that beginning, guests are taken on a short bus ride through this town with hints of French urban designs, past bustling blocks of shops and stalls and wide brick sidewalks, towards the past. The past is Wat Nokor, a humble yet impressive temple built of red and black laterite stone. Constructed in the 12th century, Wat Nokor is a square compound with intricate arches and walls surrounding a modern temple. A soft wind relieves us of the unforgiving heat, and creates a monotone symphony among the fig and banyan leaves above us, mixed with the echoes of chanting from a wedding nearby. In some moments, the chants are clearly Buddhist, but in some others, they take on the semblance of Islamic calls to prayers. The ancient walls and carved forms cast a shadow on the courtyard, reaching into the French/Italian-style tiles of the walkways that surround the modern Buddhist temple. Inside, every inch of the bright blue columns and ceilings bear golden images of Buddha, and scenes of devotion and learning in a kaleidoscope of colors that bring to mind sacred paintings in the monasteries of Bhutan or Tibet. There is too a definite Hindu influence here, while outside, half-hidden in an upper corner of the laterite walls, a small cat sits in silence, motionless, an animate expression in its eyes. Zen-like, it contemplates the temple visitors below, while its own presence in this temple also bears hints of a Taoist disposition. Just outside the ancient compound, guests find another structure containing sculptures of warriors, sacred monkeys and snakes, and Buddha in lotus position. It’s all new, but these are testaments to the Cambodian insistence on the nation’s traditions and spiritual devotion. On the way back to the Jahan, guests are given a chance to view a long bridge made of thousands of crisscrossing bamboo sticks – an astonishing engineering achievement, but also yet another symbol of what we have learned of this country and its people: gentle and delicate, fragile yet sturdy, resourceful, and often imbued with an elegant simplicity. Following lunch, the Buddhist spirit is invited aboard with the presence of Cambodian monks who offer a half-hour chanting session, bringing blessings to the guests and staff on the Jahan. Guests then spend the afternoon on the final excursion from the ship. The steps ashore are steep, the expectations tinged with fun: we’re to ride up a hill on the back of scooters driven by local men and women. The ride takes our guests to Wat Hanchey. It is a modern temple complex built upon the site of an ancient site, another pre-Angkorian structure of the 7th century. Guests wander about in amazement at the colors – blue and gold and bright pink pagodas underneath the green canopy of large banyan trees. Blond gibbons with black faces jump around on the branches while below villagers offer fried noodles and fruit juices. In the distance, young novice monks dot the scenery with their saffron robes. On the tree trunks throughout the compound, there are pieces of wood painted blue, sporting proverbs and other sayings in both Khmer and English: many seem to be Buddhist teachings, others seem to be translations of popular idioms in English. “Rather Be Born Lucky than Rich.” “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste.” “Honesty is the Best Policy.” One wooden plaque is apt for our last day on the Jahan and our anticipated journey toward Siem Reap to visit the marvels of the Angkor complex: “Welcome to Your Trip.” A surreal touch is added to the entire area with giant concrete sculptures of alligators, lions, hippos, horses and buffalos, and replicas of tropical fruits, painted in all the bright colors. They’re there to help teach the young children, and they lend a semblance of a children’s amusement park. One temple is a shrine with a dozen larger-than-life cement sculptures of noted monks. You keep walking around and around to marvel at this mixture of religious devotion and playground atmosphere. At some point, the guests will wander over to one edge of the hill to be rewarded with a peaceful scene below – the Mekong, languid and gentle as it snakes its way past the sandy beaches and green pastures. Tonight is our last on the Jahan. Another feast is prepared, and the Jahan staff members take their bows to say goodbye while we silently feel deep inside us the gratitude for their services of the past week, and for their unwavering smiles. Words of farewell are exchanged as guests take up invitations to learn a few Cambodian dance moves, not quite mastering them, but happy that for a moment, we’ve touched and been touched by their grace.  

Daily Expedition Reports

1/24/2013

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The Jahan

From Jahan in Southeast Asia & the Pacific

Kampong Tralach, Angkor Ban, Mekong River We rose with the Mekong sunrise on the banks of Kampong Tralach, with an enthusiastic turnout for an authentic oxcart ride through the rice paddies and lotus ponds along the Tonle Sap River. This was the real deal, as the local villagers organized their oxcarts and oxen to greet us at the high-water mark of the riverbank. As promised, it was not the most comfortable local transportation of our voyage, but where else could one rumble through the rice fields with pond herons, egrets, and pied kingfishers fluttering about in the first light of day? Besides rice, we passed ponds of holy lotus flowers, the seeds baked and eaten and the flower pods sliced and boiled. Clay from the annually replenished mud banks was molded and cooked in small brick factories, fueled by the fires of discarded rice husks. Our oxcart adventure ended at the local schoolhouse, where we were treated to the ritual raising of the Cambodian flag. We then entered two of the classrooms to talk to teachers and students about rural education in Cambodia. The first-graders enthusiastically showed us their writing, art, and singing abilities, and we treated them to a few animated classics of our own like the Hokey Pokey and the Eentsy Weentsy Spider. It was an absolutely unforgettable interaction that inspired us all for the future of this rebuilding culture and nation. As we left the classrooms, our ship’s doctor Greg Holzman presented the schoolmaster with a huge pile of elementary English workbooks, maps, and posters that our shipmates from our previous voyage had purchased to support the school. Big projects and an enduring relationship were now underway… Words cannot describe the dizzying fishing activities on both the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers as we cruised through most of the day, and it was hard to pull ourselves away from the ship’s rails. However, a colorful crew demonstration of Khmer dress and a comprehensive talk on current Cambodia by former Canadian ambassador to Cambodia Gordon Longmuir were lively variations in a very active morning. In the afternoon Captain Quy eased the ship into the Mekong riverbank and we walked ashore at the unadulterated Khmer village of Angkor Ban. It is hard to imagine that almost nowhere else in the country are these types of 100-year-old traditional houses found anymore. Finally, we traversed the river and Captain Quy beached the ship on a sandbank for a Mekong sunset sandbank party. Drinks and dancing made for a joyous evening, but the highlight was watching the Buddhist fire balloons carry our wishes up toward the waxing moon. How much can the senses absorb in a single day on the Mekong River…?

Daily Expedition Reports

3/8/2013

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The Jahan

Wat Hanchey & Kampong Cham, Cambodia

We have been tied to the river for a week. It has been our highway, our conduit to adventures and enlightenment. We have glimpsed into the world of those whose lives depend upon the bounty delivered by the mighty Mekong and, although we have not lived as they, we have risen with the sun and watched and learned as they moved by. Tomorrow we transition, going back in time to complete our journey through the ups and downs of the Khmer people’s history. The rooster chased a Cheshire moon barely visible in a lightening sky. As with every morning the swallows were the first to respond to his awakening cry. The noise of traffic, both terrestrial and aquatic, added a harsh element to what visually was a soft and gentle morning. The wind and currents drew patterns on the surface of the waters while the sun struggled with a thickening cloudy layer on the horizon. Just as it seemed to reach the edge it was smothered once again. Over and over, the pale orb came and went until, just as we reached our morning’s destination, it seemed to overpower the opposition and glow fiercely overhead.  The colors of Wat Hanchey certainly more than compensated for the paleness of the morning. Borne on the backs of motorbikes half of us climbed the rocky hillock with ease, while others meandered along a winding wooded path. Flamboyant flags flew everywhere as if the vibrant shades of the temples weren’t enough to shock our eyes. Monks in saffron robes, both singly and in clusters, were busy at their tasks. Children swarmed to demonstrate their communication skills, putting us to shame with their proficiency in English while our Khmer is limited to maybe just one word. Nestled in a quiet corner, a 7 th -century Hindu temple could almost be overlooked — its clay colored bricks quiet and nondescript, a silent sentinel to a stepping stone of beliefs. The temple and monastery are Buddhist now, a philosophy we are only beginning to comprehend. Blessed by chanting monks we continued on our way. The colors of Wat Nokor were subtle , its deep rusty red lateritic blocks forming a maze of walls. Sandstone carvings scattered here and there introduced us to the ornate Angkorian style that will become our focus for the next few days. Buddha sat within a tower wrapped in his golden robe. Above him fruit bats murmured, restlessly awaiting evening light.  The modern town of Kampong Cham was restless too as the sun dropped lower in the sky. Cars dashed across the river on a modern concrete span or tested the strength of a unique and annually constructed bamboo bridge, its fragile appearance a frightening prospect for us but navigated easily by scooters and automobiles. Farewell and thank you to the crew of the Jahan . Their happy smiles and kindness will be remembered for a long, long time.

Daily Expedition Reports

3/10/2013

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The Jahan

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Today began with an incomparable and climactic experience that we have all been awaiting: a sunrise visit to Angkor Wat. It is hard to capture the essence of this singular experience with the written word. This architectural wonder served as the Khmer Empire’s great state temple in the early 12 th century and also as a mausoleum for its builder, the Sun God-King Suryavarman II. It has been described by observers throughout nine centuries with virtually every superlative available to writers in all languages. The temple’s 19th-century French “discoverer” (of course, it had never truly been lost), the intrepid Henri Mouhot, wrote in his journal in 1862: “This grand temple, a rival to that of Solomon and erected by an ancient Michelangelo, is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.” Its unparalleled enormity is not disputed and its artistic depth and unity, along with its engineering genius, complete the picture of a structure that represents the apogee of classical Khmer architecture and one of the greatest human achievements of all time.  We set out at zero dark 5:15 and carefully walked down the long stone causeway over the 700-foot moat, designed for protection and irrigation purposes but, most importantly, to create an earthly reflection of the ancient Hindu mythological home of the gods, Mt. Meru, which was surrounded by a celestial ocean. We watched in awe as the ruby disk of the sun spread its soft bath of light on the majestic quincunx (a rectangular arrangement of five towers with four at each corner and one in the middle) of Angor Wat’s prasats, or lotus petal-shaped towers, which represent the five peaks of Mt. Meru. Of all the superlatives used to describe Angkor Wat, three seem most apt and encompassing: spectacular (the wow factor is certainly the first reaction), timeless (isn’t this well-nigh proven by the fact that today we stood in the Kampuchean jungle to watch the sun rise over the tomb and funerary temple of Suryavarman II, who left this mortal coil in the year 1150?), and captivating (the fascinating history and culture of this great Hindu temple city, which later became Mahayana Buddhist and then Theravada Buddhist, is endlessly absorbing and intriguing). In the full light of a pleasantly cool morning by Cambodian standards, we followed our sunrise homage with an exploration of this amazing structure including its three-quarters-of-a-mile of finely carved bas-reliefs depicting innumerable scenes from the Hindu epics as well as the pomp and ceremony of the Sun King’s battle processions. We slowly ascended the temple mount, crossing three progressive enclosures and rising higher and higher until we reached the upper level of the temple mount from where we gazed down at the vast jungle below in which this improbable jewel of a temple is ensconced. We had to imagine this expansive jungle once peopled with over 1 million inhabitants in long-gone wooden and thatch houses in the glory days of Angkor. We returned to our hotel for breakfast feeling awed, pleasantly overwhelmed, and marveling that our tremendously high expectations were actually exceeded by this indescribably beautiful and impressive monument to the great Khmer civilization that ruled the Indochinese Peninsula for more than 600 years. We enjoyed the restof the morning and early afternoon at our leisure, each of us choosing some combination of rest, reflection, more temples, more delicious Khmer food, museums and exhibits, retail therapy at local markets and crafts unions, or just strolling around the exceptionally hospitable town of Siem Reap just a few blocks from our elegant hotel, La Residence d’Angkor. Our late afternoon activity provided the perfect complement to the morning of taking in Angkor Wat’s grandeur. We visited Banteay Srei (Citadel of Women), a small and exquisitely wrought temple constructed of a rare rose-hued sandstone. Banteay Srei is renowned for the refinement of its intricate carvings on every pediment (the triangular area above an entrance doorway) and lintel (a cross-beam over an entrance doorway or wall) as well as most walls, doors, and arches. Innumerable dramatic episodes from the mythopoeic Hindu epics are finely carved, as if by a jeweler’s hand, at every turn. The carving was so exquisite that the temple was felt to date from the early 14 th century, about 200 years after the building of Angkor Wat, when it was first “re-discovered” by the French in the 19 th century. Decades later the consecration stele was unearthed and the temple was able to be precisely dated at 967 AD —150 years before the building of Angkor Wat was even begun. We marveled at this artistic tour de force made all the richer by the soft golden glow of the late afternoon sun. The glories of ancient Kambuja continue to amaze. We capped off an amazing and unforgettable day with a gala farewell dinner at Siem Reap’s trendy Asian fusion restaurant, Aha. The small plates approach allowed for sampling of a variety of tasty and creative dishes, with the highlight for many being the chocolate sticky rice crepe with fresh-made passion fruit ice cream as a final course. “Indochic” at its best. After dinner some of us chose to stroll through Siem Reap’s friendly night market before retiring for the evening with a sense of awe, accomplishment, and anticipation of tomorrow’s further explorations in this spectacular, timeless, and captivating Kingdom of Angkor.

Daily Expedition Reports

1/31/2012

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The Jahan

From the Jahan in Southeast Asia

Phnom Penh Phnom Penh beckoned. We’d docked by its riverbank at night, and the blinking lights held promises of a break from the countryside. In the morning, the excitement was clear at breakfast, as we had been promised a ride on a pedi-cab—a three-wheeled contraption. Getting on was fun and we realized it was like sitting in a mobile armchair with a friendly driver pedaling behind us, pushing us forward into the energetic streets of Cambodia’s capital city. Some twenty minutes later, we arrived at a plaza in front of the expansive Royal Palace. “That was fun,” someone said. “Fantastic!” came the reply. We could visit the palace freely, as King Sihamoni was not in residence. He had accompanied his father, Norodom Sihanouk, on a customary medical visit to Beijing. The old king, though often ill and now 90 years old, remains feisty even if his life has been a rollercoaster ride through an eventful history. The tropical sun was beating down on us, but the tour members gamely walked the grounds, marveling at the golden roofs, the murals, the grandeur of it all. Then it was the Silver Pagoda, full of artifacts and Buddha statues of all sizes and postures. There were more statues of ancient kings and Buddha at the National Museum, a striking red building high off the ground. It is imposing and yet inviting at the same time: an open and airy space, with halls set around a large courtyard with cooling palms and greeneries. We spent an hour absorbing more history and seeing red and brown stone sculptures, somehow more revealing in isolation than in their original settings in the temples around the Angkor complex. Tapas seemed an odd if original choice for lunch—until we realized it was in fact a visit to the august Topaz Restaurant. “Only for VIPs,” said Sam, our guide. No Spanish food, but a traditional dish called Fish Amok, tasty, slightly spicy, and definitely presented with elegant style in an artfully folded banana leaf. Then it was time for a visit we all knew would be difficult but important and necessary: The Killing Fields and then S-21, code name for Tuol Sleng. Four buildings that had been a school until the Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison, S-21 was a torture center—and now is a devastating museum. It is here that one comes to gain some true sense of the madness, the enormity of the cruelty that had descended upon the Cambodian people. Each of the people that had been brought here were methodically photographed, then tied to iron beds, tortured, interrogated, made to write impossible confessions, and left to die, or executed not far away. An estimated 17,000 people suffered this unspeakable fate, and it drained us to walk past the brick walls that had held them, and to look into their eyes: portrait after portrait, lined up in rows and rows of photographs. A visit to Tuol Sleng makes you question humankind; it drains you, and it changes you. After that, an energetic lecture aboard the Jahan by the eloquent and unbelievably knowledgeable journalist and scholar Jean-Michel Filippi was an apt ending for the day. His hour-long presentation traced events in Cambodia since it gained independence from France in 1953, to 1993 when the United Nations successfully organized the first mass elections in this battered country. It was like reading an encyclopedia on the personalities, the historical contexts, and the wars and sick aims of sick men that destroyed a nation in a few years. Later, the devastation we all felt was temporarily and mercifully erased with a performance by profoundly graceful traditional dancers and musicians. It was obvious the extreme beauty—and the severe ugliness of the recent history—will remain inside each of us long after this Cambodian journey has come to an end.  

Daily Expedition Reports

3/9/2012

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The Jahan

From the Jahan in Southeast Asia

Siem Reap, Cambodia Shocking, the morning after a splendid reception and dinner at La Résidence the previous evening, to rouse ourselves a little after 4a.m., gather up camera, insect repellent, sunscreen and, most important, powerful little LED flashlight. Then down to poolside to be fuelled for our morning excursion with coffee and croissants. At 5:10a.m., we board our three buses for the short trip out to magnificent Angkor Wat, the largest Vishnu temple and arguably the largest religious building in world. It is still pitch dark, but we have been advised that we must be at the west entrance at least 45 minutes ahead of sunrise (which, today, is at 6:20a.m.). Our objective is to observe the spectacular sunrise over the iconic Wat. Our flashlights are a “must” as we navigate the long causeway, which seems much narrower than it does in daylight (no guardrails, so hug the centre) and enter the west gateway. We are escorted around a narrow ledge (watch that drop-off) inside the massive outer wall and take our places where we can get the best view of the towers. As the sky over the temple turns pink, cicadas break into song over by the modern Buddhist monastery to our left. And then, emerging from a low cloudbank to the east, the sun: just to the right of the tallest central tower, exactly as ancient Khmer astronomers predicted. We are a few days short of the Spring Equinox, when the sun will rise precisely over that main tower. The photographers go mad. Making our way to the “happy room” and beyond, we are treated to a concert of Khmer music played by young disabled acolytes near the monastery. We stop by the reflecting pool where the avid photographers can zero in on the wat and its image—unfortunately a little obscured by the low water of the dry season in Cambodia. We continue along the north side of the temple and stop to greet a large family of fearless, and very healthy, macaque monkeys, which are not hesitant to snatch food and items of clothing from unwary tourists. They are of all shapes and sizes from a newborn clinging to his mother’s breast to large and torpid grandmothers squatting along the pathway supervising the brood. Interesting how these animals have settled in this one area of the wat, with swift access if need be to the greenery nearby. But our attention is drawn to our main goal: the wooden stairway built to permit access to the lower platform of the Wat without further damaging the stone steps, eroded by a thousand years of use. On the way, we notice a single Buddhist nun, in characteristic white robe, meditating on a patch of grass, oblivious to the stream of visitors passing by. We realize that this is, and has been for centuries, an active Buddhist place of workship. In spite of the numbers of travellers, and probably because we are not here at the height of the tourism season, there is an air of tranquillity. Entering the lower galleries, we walk by some of the magnificent bas-relief friezes; if one should be really serious about understanding and analyzing the stories depicted here—the Ramayana, the Mahabaratha, the depictions of the king and his court, the interactions between heaven and hell and the “churning of the sea of milk” (which we will return to as we later enter the neighbouring Angkor Thom)—we could easily spend a day or more here, but time is short. On the second level, we note again the magnificently rendered carvings of Apsara dancers. Someone comments that “these cannot be Khmer women; they are far too well endowed on top”; I respond that these are celestial virgin dancers and “Indian” in provenance. We can look up at the temple mountain where the Hindu gods, to whom this confusing Hindu/Buddhist temple was dedicated, reside. Those who care to brave the 47 steps to the top have a wonderful view of the vast temple grounds and beyond. To the west, we see that some clever entrepreneur is offering rides in a tethered hot air balloon: no more than 200 metres off the ground, but a great adventure, especially for local tourists from the Cambodian countryside. An encouraging feature of the Angkor complex is that Cambodian citizens may enter free of charge. La Résidence provides its usual excellent breakfast/brunch, which might be enough for any ordinary mortal to skip lunch. Off go the more energetic participants to visit the markets or to try lunch at the classic Grand Hotel d’Angkor and to be disappointed that the “Elephant Bar,” strongly recommended by an old Siem Reap hand, who shall remain nameless, is closed until 4:00p.m. In the afternoon, we board a convoy of “tuk-tuk”s, a Thai name for what the Cambodians used to know as “ramok” (from the French “remorque”), a large rickshaw-like vehicle drawn by a powerful motor scooter. Arriving at the giant gate of Jayavarman VII’s “Angkor Thom” (Great City), we head immediately for yet another iconic temple, the Bayon. Originally built along the lines of other Hindu temples, with high towers, this was converted by Jayavarman VII, himself a late convert to Buddhism, into a Mahayana Buddhist edifice. It is unique in the world, as it features an endless display of human (or godlike) heads on the towers, most of which are topped by double lotus blossoms. In the jungle that had obscured most of the Angkor ruins by the 19th century, the French explorer André Mouhot, claims to have been surprised to see this giant face peering down at him from within the foliage. The tuk tuks take us further along the road through Angkor Thom to see the Elephant terrace and the Terrace of the Leper King, upon which once stood the gilded wooden palaces of the Kings of Angkor. Our stay in Siem Reap is topped off with dinner at Restaurant “AHA” near the old market in the centre of the city—a fitting celebration to see us on the next stage of our expedition. Those who wish to venture further, to visit the market or essay another attempt at the Elephant Bar, are free to do so; many, however, will head back to our superb headquarters at La Résidence to prepare themselves for an early start on the road to Kampong Cham tomorrow.  

Daily Expedition Reports

3/24/2012

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The Jahan

From the Jahan in Southeast Asia

Kampong Cham to Siem Reap; Ta Prohm Temple We say farewell to the marvellous crew of the Jahan, who, after helping us and our baggage up the precipitous bank of the Mekong (the river is lower than most of us have ever seen it this dry season) to our buses, stand and wave goodbye. The buses are roomy and the road is good; traffic is fairly light and the drivers are skilful in avoiding the sudden turns of goods-laden trucks ahead. We pass through a series of rubber plantations, some quite recently planted, and see stands of cashew – a good cash crop for this area. We are kept entertained by two fresh and excellent guides from Trails of Indochina. One stop at the “happy room” just beyond Kampong Thom and we arrive at Siem Reap slightly ahead of schedule. We are early to check in at the luxurious La Résidence d’Angkor, so are invited up to the bar area where we meet Karin the General Manager and are provided with refreshing fruit drinks. This is a modern, comfortable hotel, but built and equipped with distinctive Cambodian touches. After taking the time for the briefest wash and brush-up, we head out to the Angkor temple complex. It has been raining intermittently on the way up from Kampong Cham – a rare phenomenon at this time of the year – and the sky opens as our buses move toward our first stop: the exotic and mysterious Ta Prohm, a monastery built by the Buddhist King Jayavarman VII and, after his time, dedicated by his Hindu successors to the god Brahma. Amid all the clearing of forest growth and reconstruction of the Angkor monuments undertaken over the past century or so, Ta Prohm was left very much alone: it is overgrown with large Ficus trees, the huge roots of which have become part of the structures themselves. If they were removed, much of the temple would come crashing down. The rain turns out to have been a considerable blessing – we suffer the indignity of getting quite wet and/or muddy wading through inches-deep puddles and scrambling over low rock walls to get to the inner courtyard, but it is all well worth it. The laterite walls and sandstone superstructures, when soaked from the earlier downpour, take on a life and color that stuns the senses. This is a truly beautiful experience. In recent years, a number of wooden stairways and boardwalks have been constructed to make it easier for visitors to get around in a comfortable and orderly way, but that does not take away from the overall loveliness of the temple, with its simple structure and massive towers. There is a fair amount of reconstruction going on, but it is aimed only at safety, not at changing the experience of this unique site. After a short rest in the evening, we enjoy a group “barbeque,” moved to the dining room because of the earlier rainfall. All are happy to retire early in anticipation of a 5:00am departure the following morning to view the iconic Angkor Wat at daybreak.  

Daily Expedition Reports

1/26/2013

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The Jahan

From Jahan in Southeast Asia & the Pacific

Kampong Cham –Siem Reap At 5:30am the fisherfolk, mainly the Cham, are out again on the Mekong River just up river from the Friendship Bridge at Kampong Cham to try their luck at fishing. It is the last day before the full moon. At least sixty boats are out there working in pairs with a large net between them. It is a rhythm of setting out the net, waiting and a sudden frenzy of 10 to 12 people, adults and children, hauling up the net. This routine is repeated over and over again as far as we can see. Shortly after 8am, after saying our goodbyes to the wonderfully friendly Jahan crew, we are on our way to Siem Reap with two new guides. There is a lot to see en route from a large privately owned rubber plantation to busy market villages. The dry season is a perfect time after the rice has been harvested in December for weddings, celebrated in pink and yellow festooned tents, house building and roof repairing. Our guide mentions the interesting fact that the Khmer adhere to the matri-local system, which means that after the wedding the groom moves to the bride’s family. Nearing Siem Reap the traffic becomes more congested and lively markets are on both sides of the road. A French architect designed our hotel, La Residence d’Angkor. Both the entrance and lobby are airy teak constructions in traditional Khmer style. Lunch is waiting for us after our bus trip. Even those who are not interested in desserts have to taste the delicious dark chocolate mousse. To get a first taste of the temples in the large Angkor Archaeological Park, we explore the extensive late 12th century temple Ta Phrom, built by the great Buddhist king Jayavarman VII to commemorate his mother. It is known as the jungle temple as the French archaeologist decided in the first half of the 20th century to leave this ruin temple, overgrown and embraced by gigantic strangler fig and silk cotton trees, as was found. The idea is to just stabilize walls and entrances, so that no further damage occurs and to make it safe for the visitor. However, recently some restoration of a gateway, the causeway and some galleries has been undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India, which has funded and carried out the project with about one hundred Khmer workers. The high pitched sound of the cicadas was interrupted only by the screeching sound of red-breasted parakeets. An elegant dinner served on the terrace of the hotel ended another very interesting and enjoyable day. By 9pm most people had left to get some sleep before the early morning departure the next day.

Daily Expedition Reports

3/9/2013

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The Jahan

Kampong Cham to Siem Reap & Ta Prohm Temple

At 8:30 a.m., we bade a fond, even tearful, farewell to Jahan and her magnificent crew, led by the competent Captain Quy as well as the hospitality staff, under the superb General Manager Win Min. On our five-hour bus ride to Siem Reap, we passed a rapidly growing number of rubber plantations, which are becoming a major element in the economy of Kampong Cham province.  It has been found that natural rubber, the product of these plantations, has once again become competitive, due to the increased cost of petroleum products and, more importantly, because the natural product is better for certain applications. Our Trails of Indochina guides joined us for this last leg of our Mekong journey, which will culminate in our visit to the Angkor temples. Sometime after noon, we arrived at the luxurious La Résidence d’Angkor, where we were warmly welcomed and provided an excellent buffet lunch before being assigned to our boutique accommodations. This luxury “boutique” hotel is just ten years old and is a most congenial base for our explorations over the next couple of days.  Our first introduction to the classic Angkor ruins was Ta Prohm, a monastery built by the Buddhist King Jayavarman VII and dedicated to his mother. We learned that, after his time, it was dedicated by his Hindu successors to the god Brahma. The four heads of Buddha (or Brahma) that adorn the entrances to all of Jayavarman’s many religious structures, welcomed us — in this case, they had been uncovered fairly recently by the removal of trees that had covered them for centuries. Indeed, amid the clearing of forest growth and reconstruction that has taken place over the previous 100 and more years, Ta Prohm remains unique because of the interdependence of the sandstone and laterite that went into its construction and the variety of large and invasive trees and vines that literally hold it together. It is a marvel, richly engraved with imagery that is easily identified with either Hinduism or Buddhism; every corner unveils new images and new mysteries. This is a wonderful way to begin our all-too-brief adventure among the temples of Angkor. We regrouped in the evening to enjoy a “barbecue” in the lovely gardens of our hotel, overlooking the pool. We retired early in anticipation of a 5 a.m. departure on the morrow to visit the centerpiece of the Angkor temples, the fabled Angkor Wat.

Daily Expedition Reports

3/11/2013

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The Jahan

Bayon, Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Our minds are jumbled. The time for farewells has arrived and yet there is more to explore. Our thoughts are cluttered with questions, with new images yet to be synthesized and complicated concepts to be understood.  We do not complain about our confusion for this is why we venture to the far corners of the earth. We collect ideas, sift and sort and, in time, see everything in a different light. The morning light is golden and the anticipation of sunrise shook us from our beds in the early hours. The cool breeze would soon be lost and we were not the only ones afield. School children in their blue-and-white uniforms energetically pedaled bicycles past as we sat enthroned in comfort in shaded chariots (tuk-tuks) pulled by motorbikes. Devas and asuras guarded the gates to Angkor Thom as they have done for generations, still churning the sea of milk. Inside the narrow gates, families of macaques dashed about as if they too needed to deliver their progeny to some unknown site. It takes time to see the order in the chaos of Bayon. From a distance the lichen painted sandstone seemed all in disarray. Giant blocks with fragments of figures waited like a massive jigsaw puzzle yet to be tackled and solved. With each passing moment, little-by-little, fragments fell into place. Four roads converged. Bayon is the center of Angkor Thom. The orientation does make sense. Two concentric galleries in a compact rectangle tell the history of the past. Bas-reliefs, as intricate or maybe even more so than those of Angkor Wat, record the lives of the people from a thousand years ago.  A military procession, a naval battle, the flora and fauna of the time are all recorded here for those who take the time to stop and look. Faces stared back. No corner or direction could be found where the bodisattva could not see us. Fifty-four towers with four faces each, watch in the each of the cardinal directions. Nearby elephants paraded along the walls of the Terrace of the Elephants, while sportsman etched in stone played the same game they have done for centuries. The maze of the Terrace of the Leper King hid intricate carvings too.  Time passed too rapidly and now the time has come to scatter in all directions. Our expedition has come to an end but our search for knowledge continues.

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