This voyage is my penance. Remember my report a few posts back on how I saved $1500 on flight tickets from Sao Paulo, Brazil to Melbourne, Australia? All we had to do in order to achieve such a feat was to take the 56-hour route from Campinas (by car) to Sao Paulo, then go by air to Orlando, Florida; to Los Angeles, California; to Sydney, Australia; and finally to Melbourne. Remember how I said I knew I had to make it up to Joy somehow? My quickly devised plan was to take her on a cruise from Singapore to Hong Kong with stops in Ko Samui and Laem Chabang, Thailand; Sihanoukville, Cambodia; Phu My (and Ho Chi Minh City), Nha Trang, Da Nang, and Halong Bay, Vietnam? This plan would cost a whole lot more than the $1500 I saved us. Well, the plan worked. Our marriage is still together. There are worse things than doing penance. Divorce, for one.
At first blush our ship had all the appearance of a floating old folks’ home, the inmates in varying degrees of decrepitude shuffling along from meal to meal with compulsory stateroom naps in between. We feel right at home among them. The ship was newly renovated just before this cruise. It’s in good shape, but the decor is muted, appealing undoubtedly to people who don’t want any visual violence in the decorations. (I might not have noticed it if my younger wife, with her eye for color and beauty, hadn’t pointed it out.) Each evening’s entertainment is also subdued: no exotic dancers, no throbbing disco and strobe lights, no edgy Broadway extravaganzas. They feature instead a concert pianist, for heaven’s sake. And a violinist! As I said, we belong here.
(I wrote the above observations early in the cruise. As time went on I noticed more younger people; I also noticed that the on-shore excursions were totally subscribed. These oldsters and their younger traveling companions paid good money for this cruise and they were determined to get their money’s worth. So were we.
We thought we’d have a little time in Singapore, our port of departure, but our plane left Jakarta late which meant a late arrival here. Add to that tardiness our taxi driver’s confusion—he drove us to the wrong marina—which meant missing closing time at the right one’s gate by five minutes. Fortunately, our patient (and subsequent fairly well tipped) porter knew how to lead us, bags in tow, through the terminal maze to the upstairs gangway. All we can tell you about Singapore is what we saw through the taxi’s windows. Joy has only mentioned that a dozen times, followed by, “I’d sure like to see more of Singapore sometime.” Another addition to the bucket list.
Our first stop, after a couple of sea days, was Ko Samui, on Thailand’s southern coast. It wasn’t to see the town, though. We were pretty desperate to find an internet cafe. The connectivity on board the ship is so bad even the crew advised us not to waste our money on it. Later, others who did buy time told us we had been well advised. So we went ashore. We had a post to send, probably the only one we’d be able to get out during this two-week cruise, and some correspondence to catch up on. We did get last week’s blog post off and took a quick look at our email, but had to postpone answering until later. This is the most disconnected we’ve felt since going on the loose. I’m afraid we’ve been ensnared by the allures of cyberspace. I remember when being aboard a ship felt like a wonderful retreat from all responsibility. Where did I go wrong? Anyway, after several minutes of hard labor at the computer, I returned to the ship while Joy toured Ko Samui’s plentiful sidewalk shops offering the same touristy stuff you can find everywhere else. Sometimes I just don’t understand…
Laem Chabang, our next stop, was a surprise. We had made careful arrangements for this one, since it was advertised as Bangkok’s port. Bangkok was a top priority. We were to connect with Mark and Princess Bernardino and their fellow Globalscope campus minister Michael Tomczak. We’ve been on the loose since May 2016 with a goal of visiting all CMF Globalscope ministries. By fall of 2017 we had met with the leaders in all of them but one: Puebla, Mexico; Birmingham and Nottingham, England; Edinburgh, Scotland; Brisbane, Australia; Santiago, Chile; Montevideo, Uruguay; Valencia and Salamanca, Spain; Tübingen and Freiburg, Germany. The one exception was Bangkok. We promised ourselves we would not abandon our globe-trotting until we’d visited here, too. Mark and Princess hadn’t been able to attend the annual Globalscope Celebrations which bring together these leaders from around the globe; visa complications kept them away. So, since they couldn’t come to us, we’d go to them.
We chose the Volendam because their propaganda promised a couple of days in Bangkok—we thought. We wrote the team we were coming. Could we meet them, take them to dinner, be briefed on their work? We told them we’d be docked in Laem Chabang. Could they name the time and place for our dinner and discussion? They could. They did. Not until the day before we arrived, though, did we discover that Laem Chabang is not a section of Bangkok. It is not even near Bangkok. They had to drive 2 1/2 hours, book hotel rooms for an overnight stay, and then drive back the next day. Can you guess how the arranger of our travel plans (that would be me!) felt when I discovered what I had asked of them?
They were gracious and forgiving and our brief time together couldn’t have been better. In addition to Michael and Mark and Princess we were able to meet their beautiful boys and Princess’ brother Preacher (Princess and Preacher are their given names, by the way). The Bernardinos are from the Philippines, Michael from the States. They all fell in love with campus ministry when they themselves were university students and, in spite of the challenges they face as “aliens” working on this predominately Buddhist environment, they are being rewarded as the young people they work with respond to their love and teaching. Meeting them was a positive conclusion to our Globalscope visitation project. We’re ready to do it again!
Pattaya was our chosen onshore tour from Laem Chabang—we’d been to Bangkok proper before. Intrigued by what we’d heard of the Sanctuary of Truth, we signed up on the excursion that included it and a quick look at the city itself. Joy’s pictures capture a bit of this remarkable pseudo-temple.
It’s the brainchild of Lek Viriyaphant. The all-wood 105-meters-high Sanctuary has been under construction since 1981; 250 wood carvers ply their trade here, enhancing the exterior and interior with jaw-dropping sculptures of gods and goddess and symbolic representations of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions and philosophies. Mr. Lek is dead but his elderly son presides over this privately owned tourist attraction which is as much a tribute to the family’s business acumen as their interest in religion and philosophy. Paying crowds throng the place.
I was eager to see Pattaya again to neutralize the bad impression of my first visit here. Then I was attending a conference of Christian leaders, a positive experience. One evening, though, three of us skipped the session to get a better look at the host town. Often in business travels I arrive at the airport, am whisked to the conference hotel, attend to business from early morning to late evening, and am whisked back to the airport without learning anything about the city. So we went out for a look-see. What we saw was one an unforgettable, heartbreaking scene. We drove past blocks where crowds of women, some very young girls, were on display, scrubbed and draped and painted as provocatively as possible for the sake of the shopping tourists (men, of course) ready to buy what the girls were selling. I’m the father of girls, as were my companions. After awhile we couldn’t stand it any longer. We were back in our hotel room by 9:00, subdued and dejected. We’d seen all we wanted to see of Pattaya.
That’s the memory I wanted to erase. This trip helped. Pattaya is a boom town, with new towering high rises and other buildings dominating the once quiet beach front. The resort city seems loosely stitched together by a tangled maze of telephone and electrical wires. The vista point reveals the secret to the city’s growth: a long strand of sandy beach, an almost irresistible lure for city dwellers in Bangkok to the north and tourists from all over the world.
Our only stop in Cambodia was in Sihanoukville. The ship’s cruise director and others repeatedly warned us pampered Westerners in the language printed on the list of tours : “NOTE: Life in the third world: be prepared.” We were prepared. We’d been in other third world countries. We hadn’t been to Cambodia, though, so we decided not to stay in the port town but signed up for the “Town and Village Exploration” excursion to Kampot Town, stopping on the way to visit a local pepper plantation.
We learned Kampot pepper is “renowned as one of the best peppers in the world.” This pepper (as in “table salt and pepper,” not the green and red vegetables) is shipped far and wide.
Kampot is a riverside town featuring only a couple of buildings left over from the French colonial period, which we walked by but didn’t find as interesting as the large tourist restaurant where several busloads of us were treated to a feast including local fish, shrimp, squid, clams, rice, vegetables, jackfruit—and black peppers like those we saw on the bushes at the pepper plantation. They were served and eaten like the other veggies. It’s an acquired taste. The scarcity of buildings from the French colonial period reminds us that the Vietnam War was also fought on Cambodian soil.
If you are of a certain age you remember the horrible Killing Fields of Cambodia. We didn’t visit the burial places (I saw the movie; I didn’t mind not going to the actual fields.) Our guide said that after the demise of Pol Pot’s murderous regime, Cambodia had only one lawyer. Only 53 teachers. The “intellectual” class had been decimated. And not just that class. Out of a population of eight million, two million were killed. The population now stands at 15 million; the majority were born after 1980 and have no personal memory of the genocide. Have you noticed a recurring theme in these posts? We have yet to visit any place that has enjoyed uninterrupted peace.
Another surprise was Angkor Wat. Early in our planning I told Joy that something I really wanted to see in Cambodia was this famous Hindu temple, the world’s largest. It was named in the advertisement, also. Turns out we could have gone there if we wanted to take a two-day excursion from the ship and pay too much money in addition to what my penance has already cost me. So we skipped it. We have gained so much else on this trip we can’t complain about this omission. Besides, I’m learning how important it is to carefully read the fine print!
For those who lived through the awful days of the Vietnamese War (over here it’s called the American War), a visit to Ho Chi Minh City (which we knew as Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam) was imperative. We saw Tank 390 on proud display; this was the vehicle that crashed through the gate of the presidential palace, signaling the imminent defeat for our side. We saw the hotel building with its helipad on the roof where Americans and sympathetic South Vietnamese were rescued from the angry mob below. We paid a brief visit to the city museum, taking in its display of instruments of war and reading the story as told from the Vietnamese point of view. Sobering. Choices had to be made; we couldn’t go on all the tours, so we did not climb down into the tunnels (250 miles of them!) in which N. Vietnamese soldiers slept and ate and recovered and prepared to emerge to fight again. And again.
If you hadn’t known of the war you wouldn’t have guessed it just driving through this bustling metropolis of 12,000,000 people—and 8,500,000 scooters and motorcycles! It’s a thoroughly modern city. As in Cambodia, most of the population is youthful; many of the buildings are new. Construction cranes are everywhere. The communists may have won the battles but capitalism obviously won the war.
JOY’S PICK OF THE PICS