I left off at Xiamen in my previous post. From there I returned to Hong Kong to begin the next leg of my cruise. Hong Kong, despite the hordes of people trying to sell you "Rolexes" and perfectly tailored suits while you wait, is always a welcome respite because of its British heritage. It has an amazingly clean and efficient metro and signs in english which is so welcome after spending so much time trying to decipher directions from kanji. Also, they have a genuine appreciation for the tourist and put on a harbor wide light show every night at 8:00 pm.
Hong Kong Harbor Light Show - click to view the whole panorama
Our next stop was Sanya, Hainen - an island province of China - Things got a little scary here as half way through the day, shortly after we returned to the ship for lunch, Chinese immigration told our security team that we were no longer welcome and no one would be able to leave the ship. They even halted passengers returning for a short while. Our best guess was a power struggle between provincial officials and the central government. We had arrived with Central government officials who had gotten on in Hong Kong and they were clearly not pleased in Sanya. Sanya itself has a lot of potential as a tourist destination and they are building an island (where we docked) called Phoenix Island with architecturally fantastic buildings ala the Dubai islands in the Persian Gulf. Sanya has a splendid esplanade along its main river and a wonderful up and down "dragonback" foot bridge that straddles the river mid-town.
The "dragonback" bridge in Sanya
Poster for Phoenix Island which is well into construction
The current state of construction
Next stop was Da Nang and the nearby ancient Cham Kingdom port of Hoi An. OK, This place was a treat and got the historical fiction juices flowing. The architecture, setting and history all seemed out of sync here and I learned that South Vietnam was actually the Kingdom of Champa from the 7th century to 1832. A long-lived monarchy that ruled the malayo-polynesian-indian-chinese-vietnamese polyglot that made up southern Vietnam for most of its history. Most recently archaeologists have shown similarities in the Cham origins and bronze age kingdoms in Sarawak and Borneo. The Cham Language was in the austronesian group of languages and is closely related to Acehnese. Champa's greatest city and capital was at Vijaya not far from Hoi An and archaeologists are currently excavating the site. The remaining towers look more Hindu-Indian inspired than Southeast Asian. Vijaya was sacked and destroyed by the North Vietnamese armies in 1471. The Cham capital was successively moved south to a variety of sites as pressure mounted from the aggressive expansion of the North Vietnamese emperor. The Cham had a long history with colorful figures like the Red King, Che Bong Nga, see-saw wars with the Cambodian Khymer Kingdom and the fading power of the last Cham Nobles in the 1800's. Wow, plenty of fodder for historical novels there.
The characteristic eyes painted on the Hoi An boats
Hoi An was long the main trading port of the Cham Kingdom until its harbor silted up and the merchants moved to nearby Da Nang. The village has been restored and even has a multi-generational merchants house you can tour. The 6th generation occupant is even available for questions. You'll note in the photos the characteristic curved roof lines that look so much more naturalistic than the sharper lines of the chinese inspired vietnamese architecture of the same period. There is also a museum dedicated to the Cham kingdom in Da Nang situated on the esplanade.
Bridge built by a Japanese merchant prince in Hoi An's waning days
Saigon - again - and I decided that a day by the cruise ship pool would be more relaxing than trying to maneuver through the crowds of hawkers of that bustling city. From there we went to Bangkok, Thailand where I stayed overnight off ship. Bangkok is a crazy city with a shimmering temple every few blocks and some of them are blocks long like the temple of the emerald Buddha near the royal palace. Bangkok has a well organized system of ferries that cruise up and down the Chao Praya river that bisects Bangkok. You can buy a day pass cheaply and get on and off at stops to your heart's content. I cruised up as far as the King Rama suspension bridge which is spectacular and I hope the new Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco and Oakland looks as good whenever it is finished. I love Thai food and ate my way up and down the city getting off the ferry wherever a restaurant looked promising. And, guess what? Everyone makes Pad Thai their own special way. Bangkok is prosperous and loud (and just as skanky as you can imagine in certain districts) with a skyway metro that serves a good portion of the city. It connects to the ferries and to the train terminals.
A temple on every corner
The King Rama bridge over the Chao Praya River
And then we went (unsuspecting) to the island paradise of Koh Samui for a bumpy, hilarious circumnavigation of the island. We stopped at Buddhist temples (big Buddha, Bigger Buddha and biggest Buddha), beaches, resorts, waterfalls, fed elephants, took refuge in a temple to escape a torrential downpour, and hiked. It was exhausting and refreshing. We travelled in a jitney which was just a toyota 4x4 with a cover over the back and two benches where 8 of us off the cruise ship bumped along the potholed uneven highway. Next, was Singapore where some guests departed and others joined the cruise.
Secluded bay on Koh Samui
Temple on Koh Samui
Festive detail from Big Buddha temple on Koh Samui
We sailed to Cambodia next and docked at Sihanoukville. This was mainly to pick up some passengers who had purchased a particularly expensive excursion that left Saigon to fly to Siem Reap and explore the temples at Angkor Wat. I went ashore but not for long. I had never been in such an impoverished place. The people were sweet but only the recent, tragic history of Cambodia explains why the country is still in such a bad state. The central market was mesmerizing with vendors selling completely unrecognizable fruits and vegetables. In all my travels I have never been more acutely aware of my sense of smell - odors alternately wonderful and terrible.
Cambodian vegetable seller
From Cambodia we sailed south, crossing the equator and sailing east along the Indonesian Archipelago heading to Semarang, a port city not too far from the capital Jakarta. Then we were off to Bali which was crazy. Their hawkers were even worse than Saigon's. I didn't think that was possible. The architecture of the Hindu temples were fascinating, reminding me a little of Hoi An.
Hindu temple detail in east Bali
East Bali vista
Next was my favorite stop in Indonesia, Komodo Island, home to the legendary Komodo Dragons. Komodo Island is a closely regulated National Park, protecting both the dragons and, the visitors from the dragons. You weren't allowed onshore unless you had an excursion or tour guided by a national park ranger and interpreter - I use interpreter in the same sense that NPS educators use that term.
One of the interpretation kiosks on Komodo island
It was frustrating for the interpreter for he was trying to build an understanding of the unique ecology of the island - an ecology that had preserved a species of reptile not far distant from their giant ancestors the dinosaurs - but almost everyone was solely interested in catching a glimpse of a dragon. The first we saw was a youngster zipping across the trail a few yards ahead of the ranger. The young ones have to be fast and agile and able to climb trees because the dragons are a cannibalistic species and will eat their young if they can catch them. Finally, at a watering hole that was supplemented by a drip system the park had constructed to help in times of drought, we saw four dragons lazing in the shade of large spreading trees. I was afraid they would just look like dusty crocodiles but they don't. They look primitive and they look cunning. Their eyes, when not covered by a nicatating membrane is a bottomless watery black - no iris, no cornea, just black. And, even sated they keep a careful eye on the meaty tourists.
Portrait of a 6 foot dragon
The rangers have a thin stick with two prongs about two meters long that we were assured was an effective defensive weapon. They also carried rifles. The hike to the watering hole and back down a brush bordered watercourse was about a mile but seemed longer in the still, humid air of brush and forest. Everyone was glad to again reach the beach and surf and feel the air move. I felt like i had emerged from a sequence in Jurassic Park.
Komodo island panorama