Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Indochina adventures, from the sacred to the mundane
Angkor Wat, a modern odyssey
Pedalling into the sun’s glare, the sound of laughing children flutters in my ears. Through a modern adventure I witness the historic epic of people’s lives intertwined with the past, striving to survive amongst the ancient ruins and modern riches of Cambodia’s prime time attraction, the temples of Angkor Wat. Hidden amongst the stones and structures are stories of power and love: Angkor Wat’s historic legends are sculpted into etchings which cover every surface of its walls and lattices.
Energised and inspired by our historic wanderings by day, our evenings in Siem Reap enchant us with the discovery of local artwork based on quintessentially Cambodian and Indochinese motifs. Here, the essence of life is concentrated into images of wise monks traversing the countryside in orange robes, village life and eternal rice paddies. We enjoy ultra-modern evening venues, providing an oasis of calm and reflection amidst the bustling town city. There is more to see in Cambodia than I could possibly do justice to in my few short trips, and from Angkor Wat we head to the capital city. Phnom Penh’s vibrancy always astounds, and I like to contemplate the evening activity on the central square where the older generations take refuge from the trials and torments of their day to stretch, relax and exercise together, creating a collective consciousness that one can only imagine should foster peace and collaboration. Feeling the calm and joys of the elderly, of families, of the occasional mother and daughter flicking a badminton racket, keeps me mesmerised for hours; happy to remain here and delay having to contemplate the array of options waiting to tantalise my palate in Phnom Penh’s multiple dining options.
Vietnam to Laos, a gateway to experience
Onwards and away, further adventures in Southeast Asia take me through Vietnam and Laos, where indelible memories have been printed in my mind, each one accompanied by a whirlwind of senses – smell, touch, sight and sound. Having survived the roads of Phnom Penh, and later of Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, the night train to Sapa is an adventure that should not be missed. Unlike many travellers, we are lucky to be invited by local acquaintances working in the outreaches of rural Vietnam to join their field visits in Van Chan district. Seeing the simplicity and restrictions of rural dwellers is humbling, yet witnessing how local people are working to improve their own communities is an inspirational part of our trip. Our meanderings into non-tourist territory allow us an afternoon in Yen Bai, a city of 750,000 people, where we slurp ‘pho’ noodles in the evening along with other locals sitting along the railway tracks.
Our epic journey then takes us through the wonders of Sapa’s rice-field laden mountains and the towering Fansipan peak, and onwards along the treacherous road to Dien Bien Phu. From there another adventure commences across the border as we wind our way through the remote mountains of Laos where simple villages survive off rice and small farming in the most rustic of settings. Our long and dusty days of bus travel eventually reward us with the sights of Luang Namtha in western Laos, a mecca for cyclists and hikers wishing to learn about local life, traditional rice wine brewing, temples and the wild countryside. Our guide takes us mountain trekking through crunchy bamboo forests and cold streams, staying in remote homestays where we are met by welcoming villagers and children who play and sing and dance and host a warm party for their temporary guests. It is heart-warming and humbling to see how villagers make do in such remote and challenging conditions, and how creativity and hard work keeps them going. Our journey onwards from Luang Namtha entrances us in a daze as we leave the isolation of the forgotten mountains for the riches and colour of Luang Prabang. Here my tale ends, to entice you, my reader, to come and experience the sacred and the day to day of the vibrant and much loved Indochina. From the sacred to the mundane, travelling in Southeast Asia is always an adventure!
By Sonia Fevr, Singapore