17 October 2009 – day 1 – Saturday – 33000 feet in the air
As I've done in the past, I'm writing this first entry from 33000 feet in the air. This time the plane is bound for Tokyo, a long, grueling 12-hour flight. After that, we get on another plane for another long, grueling 8-hour flight to Bangkok Thailand. Ugh.
Vietnam was not my primary goal for this trip. In all honesty, I just wanted to see Angkor Wat, the ancient ruined Buddhist temple in Cambodia that I've heard so much about. It first captured my interest when the rock band Yes, headed by Jon Anderson, put out a song on their Union CD. The song is appropriately called Angkor Wat, and the main theme is “To return to the center”. The song ends with a very long poem, in Cambodian (I think) read by a woman. It's a spiritual song, as many Yes songs are.
In fact, Angkor Wat was once “The Center” of spiritual life in the ancient Buddhist world. The city of Angkor that surrounds the temple was once one of the biggest in the ancient world. As I understand it, this was a city of a million people! I'm anxious to learn more about the place and get some good photos.
Kathy and I decided to use OAT (Overseas Adventure Travel) again for this trip because we could get huge discounts and we were very happy with their India and Chile trips. But with OAT, there were only two ways to see Angkor Wat. The first was as a post-trip extension to a Thailand trip. Although I'm sure it's a good trip, Kathy and I have already been to Thailand. Back in 1990, we toured Thailand on our own (without a tour). The other way was as a post-trip extension to Vietnam. So we decided on some place new: Vietnam.
There's a funny story about our trip to Thailand, and I've got nothing better to do for 12 hours, so I might as well write about it, especially since it was back before I had my first digital camera, and before I started writing travelogues of my trips.
Back in 1990 (if memory serves) we decided to go to Thailand because Kathy wanted to see the famous “Golden Triangle” which is a beautiful area where a river confluence separates three countries: Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and Laos. Of course, I was in it to see the beautiful ruined Buddhist temples that riddle the countryside.
Back then, we were more brave and the world was a safer place, so we decided to tour Thailand on our own, driving from city to city and hiring local guides along the way. The first few days we spent in Bangkok, which was great. Then we took a taxi to the airport, rented a car and drove to the first big city north of Bangkok. When we got to town, we parked our car at a hotel where we decided to stay, then talked to the concierge to hire a local guide. The guide picked us up first thing in the morning and gave us a whole-day tour of the area. It was wonderful and informative. All throughout the trip, the local guide asked us subtle questions, like “Where else are you going? What else are you planning to see?” We told him all about the cities we planned to visit and how we wanted to see the Golden Triangle area. At the end of the day, he dropped us off at our hotel. Then, as we were getting out of the car, he asked us how much our rental car cost. It was like forty dollars a day of something. When we told him, he mentioned that for less than the price of the rental car, he would be happy to drive us around the entire country and give us a personal guided tour of his country! We agreed!
The next day, we drove back to the Bangkok airport, returned the rental car, and drove away with him in his car. For the next two weeks, we had the most wonderful, personalized tour with our own private guide. He had family and friends in Northern Thailand, so he got to stay for free with relatives almost everywhere we went. Because he was Thai, he shrewdly negotiated good prices for all our hotels. He also bartered for us when we were shopping: we would just point out what we wanted and he got everything for a fraction of what we would have paid. He saved us a lot of money. When the trip was done, we drove us back to Bangkok and dropped us off at the hotel we had already made reservations for, but again, he negotiated a good price and saved us about sixty dollars! When it came time to part company, we were very good friends. He had saved us so much money, we paid him a very big tip—hundreds of dollars—and we were sad to see him leave.
Now we're older and not so brave, and the world is a more dangerous place. We like the comfort of an organized tour with a knowledgeable guide. We also like having companions on the trip and other people on the tour to talk with. So now I'm flying to Bangkok on my way to Vietnam. Because we have such fond memories of Thailand, and because the trip starts in Bangkok, we decided to extend our trip, leave a few days early and spend them in Bangkok. This time I'm approaching it with a digital camera, and I'm a much better photographer than I was back then. I'm psyched. Too bad it takes so long to get there.
I've also learned a lot about traveling. This time we're traveling lighter, leaving room in our luggage and I feel better prepared. I've got a newer laptop now, so we can download and view photos faster, at higher resolution. My only concern is that we're going at the end of the rainy season, so we might get wet. However, we're prepared for that too. At least the temperatures will be warm. I read on the Internet that the low in Bangkok yesterday was 77F/25C or so. Compare that to Minneapolis where the low yesterday was 32F/0C. So I'm looking forward to extended our summer season.
I guess that's all for now.
Well, we landed in Tokyo's Narita airport. They've improved the airport a lot since we went through here last. Now it's comfortable and roomy. The last time we transferred through this airport, it was small, cramped, crowded and uncomfortable. This is quite a contrast.
I was hoping for free Internet access, but no such luck. We met several people here who are also on OAT trips to Vietnam, but most of them aren't on the same tour. We're all flying to Bangkok though.