Experience Indochina

Experience Indochina

Photo-journalist Allan Hartley has recently returned from Indochina and thoroughly enjoyed the journey though this fascinating part of the world. Read more about his trip in ‘Walk’ magazine, Spring 2017 issue, published in early March.

We’ve just returned from a fabulous tour with Ramblers Walking Holidays to Southeast Asia and Indochina. We started off in Bangkok, the City of Angels. Unfortunately, our arrival coincided with the sad demise of his Majesty King Bhumipol, Rama XI, the world’s longest-serving monarch, so plans to visit the Royal Palace and Wat Phra Keo were thwarted. Our guide, Mr Tee, suggested we visit the old summer Royal Palace at Bang Pa-In. An hour’s drive from Bangkok we arrived at Bang Pa-In, with its beautiful gardens, manicured lawns, ponds andcanals and an eclectic mix of pavilions and pagodas.

Later we visited the old capital of Siam at Ayutthaya, with its many ruined but fascinating temples. Here in 1767 the Burmese sacked the city, defeating the army of General Taksin. Defeated but with the army largely intact, the vanquished fled down the Chao Phraya river to Thon Buri to establish the new capital at the site of the iconic Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun. Meanwhile the Burmese looted and burned the city, taking all the gold back to Yangon (Rangoon), with most of it used to decorate the Shwadagon Pagoda.

Leaving Bangkok, we travelled to Chiang Rai in the far north of Thailand for an immediate contrast – gone are the high-rise buildings and noisy traffic-clogged streets, now replaced by mountains, lots of greenery and friendly shops and stalls. A short drive from here we visited the border town of Mae Sai and the Scorpion Temple.

We walked to the Thai-Burmese border where the archway portico proudly declares this to be the most northern place in Thailand, next to the town of Chiang Khong on the banks of the mighty Mekong River. We climbed the steps of the Wat Mahathat temple to the famous Golden Triangle viewpoint, where the countries of Thailand, Laos and Burma meet.

During the opium wars, opium was worth more than gold, hence the name the ‘Golden Triangle’. It’s a splendid view of the Mekong, the world’s 12th longest river.

Leaving Thailand, we crossed the Mekong via the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge into the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the ‘Land of a Million Elephants’. We boarded our pick-up truck bus, headed to the boat landing stage at Huay Xai and set off on our two-day journey down the mighty Mekong to the old Laotian capital of Luang Prabang. Stops included a visit to a Hmong Hill Tribe Village and an overnight at the village of Pakbeng, overlooking the Mekong and the Elephant Sanctuary.

We resumed our cruise with the river’s persona changing; the wideness had gone and rapids now threatened, along with exposed rocks. A boat wreck appeared as a reminder that the Mekong can be a dangerous place, reminding me of the quote from the 1860 French expedition:

Marvelling at the wonder of the Mekong, you cannot help but be unnerved by the inhospitable face of the river.
— Francis Garmier

Later we stopped at the Pak Ou Tham Ting caves filled with Buddha statues before resuming our journey down the Mekong to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang.

There, we climbed the 328 steps up Pousi Hill to enjoy the view of Luang Prabang, despite the rain. We visited the Royal Palace with its giant gold doors and explored the National Museum. A bumpy drive to Vang Vieng, the ‘Adventure Centre’ of Laos followed. It was scenically stunning with karst limestone mountains, caves and the Nam Song River. We walked to Jang Cave and climbed the steps with their Nagar serpent-styled balustrade handrails to the cave entrance – a real wow factor! 

A speed boat ride on the Nam Song river followed that was worth every cent of the ten dollar fee.

But such good times did not always prevail around Vang Vieng. Laos was involved in the Vietnamese War of the 1960s,with the North Vietnamese invading to secure the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In response, the Americans set up Air America and an airstrip known as Lima Site 6 from where they tried to disrupt the flow of war materials through Laos. Many Lao took sanctuary in the area, with 300 families alone living in the caves we had just visited, and by the end of the war 50,000 Lao had died in what is now known as the ‘Secret War’.

Off now for the Laos capital of Vientiane, 160km away to the south. There we went to Pha That Luang, the Royal Square with its famous Pha Luang gold stupa and statue of King Xaysettha who is credited with fighting off the Vietnamese to the north, the Khmer to the east and the Siamese to the west many centuries ago.

It was the penultimate day of the Water Festival, a very special colourful day with everyone dressed to perfection, particularly the ladies, with parasols, silk sashes and sarongs, reflecting a time when Laos was also known as the ‘Land of the White Parasol’. We walked the tree-lined boulevard of Xang Avenue to the Patouxay Victory Monument, similar to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, then toor Phra the Hor Pkakeo temple cum museum, built in 1565 by King Saysethathirath to house the Emerald Buddha, sacked by King Mengrai of the Lanna Kingdom.

Phnom Penh,   Royal Palace 12  (1 of 1).jpg

Cambodia

From Laos we headed south to Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

It was sad but essential that we should visit one of 300 Killing Fields established by the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979; the memorial at Boeung Choeung EK (Crows Feet Pond) Genocidal Centre has sign boards that illustrate what horrific things took place here. After, we visited S-21 Interrogation Centre at Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, turned by Pol Pot into a brutal prison. Here in this grim place, with its photos of victims and sinister memorabilia, 20,000 innocent people were murdered. We met Chum Mey who survived the prison and the era of the Khmer Rouge, though his wife and children did not. A very brave man.

Later we visited the Royal Palace, with its beautiful buildings, manicured lawns and carefully pruned trees. We walked to the nearby National Museum, an all-red building that houses great treasures of Cambodian history.

With just days left of this fabulous tour, we headed up country to Siem Reap, Cambodia’s jewel in the crown, and to the UNESCO World Heritage site at Angkor.

First to the Angkor Wat temple complex, then further north to Bansaey Rai, and Ta Thong, with its massive gum tree roots spreading through the ancient ruins like the tentacles of a huge octopus. Overwhelmed by Ta Throng, we then entered the city of Wat Thom and Bayon with its moat, complex architecture and multi-faced facade columns that look at you at every turn. Awe-inspiring, but everything has an end and it was time to leave and return to Bangkok.

A marvellous trip, where the fascinating sights, sounds and smells of Indochina linger long after there turn.