Thursday, September 3, 2015

Cambodia and Vietnam the Easy Walking Way

AmaDara on the Mekong River
I first was attracted to AmaWaterways by their three levels of excursions each designed for different levels of activity. Now, having taken one of their cruises, I am attracted to them by the quality of their ships, cuisine, personnel and also those different levels.

The trip to Cambodia and Vietnam is not an easy one. It seems to take forever to get there and even longer to return, definitely a factor of Korean Airlines' choice of planes. From Atlanta to Seoul, Korea's Incheon Airport, the wide-bodied plane was remarkably comfortable in coach; the 34-inch pitch gives even tall people decent legroom. On the return leg from Saigon to Dallas-Fort Worth a smaller, less comfortable plane was used with miserable results.

Tip: Find out the type of craft and its configuration before booking. Seat Guru, is an excellent resource.

Angkor Thom
I began with AmaWaterways' optional stay in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and tour of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Both of these UNESCO World Heritage Sites are a challenge for Levelers with crumbling and uneven steps and surfaces and multiple flights to be climbed.

Thanks to AW's "Gentle Walkers" option, we had our own guide who not only explained the history and meaning of the temples but led us to short cuts and areas where we could enjoy the significant elements without risking limbs. He also offered a steadying hand whenever needed.

Me and hiking stick on steps up to Angkor Wat. Photo by Alana McGrattan.
Tip: Bring along a collapsible Nordic walking stick to provide extra balance and stability.

The hotel, Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort, is quite attractive with gentle steps (rarely more than three) and elevators to the three levels of rooms.

Motor coaches used to transport guests from hotel to river ship are comfortable.

AmaDara is the newest AW craft on the Mekong and, by little over a meter longer and three or so feet wider, larger than AmaLotus, her sister ship. On AmaDara there are only three decks of cabins but no elevator.

Tip: Sixteen steps, with a landing midway, connect each deck.

Public spaces are fore, cabins aft. The Saigon Lounge is on 2, dining room on 1  The pool and sundeck are on the third deck, so I recommend rooms on the second deck for Levelers.

Tip: Rooms 222 and 221 are closest to Reception and the lounge where most activities occur.

River vessels are easier for Levelers because there is no high coping to step over between you and the cabin or bathroom. Another advantage, smaller waves mean less chance of seasickness.
Excursion boat
Excursions often involve going from AmaDara to much smaller boats. The transition is deftly handled with lots of helping hands to steady you and the boats are equipped with regular chairs. In your cabin you will find shoulder or cross-body bags to carry the bottles of water passed out as you leave the ship. Also in the cabin are VOX audio boxes so you can hear what the guides are saying.

Landing on shore can be difficult with steep steps up or down to wobbly walkways. This is where those helping hands and that hiking stick are lifesavers. Add in the heat and the experience can be rigorous. Despite artificial knees, a dicey artificial hip and general klutziness, I managed and was always glad I made the effort.

Tip: When you hit Vietnam, buy one of those conical cane hats the women wear.  They are light weight and keep you much cooler than what you probably packed. Best $1 you will spend.

Warning: The most challenging excursion step-wise is in Oudang, Cambodia, where passengers visit the country's largest Buddhist Center. The main temple requires visitors to navigate 41 steps up to the forecourt. They begin quite shallow but deepen toward the top. Take your time and you can make it but if it is too onerous, there are nice gardens on either side in which to stroll. Just know you are going to miss receiving the monks' blessing and permission to photograph them at their prayers and chants.

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Tip: Another spot that confronts you with stairs is the royal palace in Phenom Penh. You won't want to miss it so prepare. Reaching the forecourt of the palace will take 22 steps, the Silver Pagoda 26 steps.

Saigon can be a challenge thanks to very uneven pavement and millions of motorbikes whizzing around. Westerners are often afraid to cross a street. Don't be. Stay in the crosswalk and go with the light in a slow but steady pace. That way the motorbikes can avoid you. Other than that, your paths will be on the level. Uneven in surface, but level.

The city tour AW provides will take you to the Presidential Palace, the War Remnants Museum and the Ben Thanh Market.  

Tip: There are a few steps up to the Palace and many more going from floor to floor. Look to the left after you enter; an elevator is at the end of the hall. The museum has three floors, 29 steps between each. There is an elevator here, too, at the back left at ground level. No steps at the market but narrow aisles and lots of people.

You will love the lunch and breakfasts in Mezz that come with your hotel, the Sofitel Saigon Plaza, An amazing display of food stations with favorites from Western and Asian cuisines. Still, you ought to try the local fare at a local restaurant. Again, be warned.
Warning: Restaurants in the big cities of both countries are very tempting, offering excellent fare for extremely reasonable prices. Count on steps, though. The higher the floor, the better the decor, the view and desirability. Often only the upper floors are air conditioned. I found two well worth the effort, the Chandry Tree in Siem Reap; Quan Bui in Saigon.

Cambodia and Vietnam, both with significant war-torn histories, welcome tourism which is improving their economies. A river cruise on AmaDara introduces passengers to a world rarely seen, where villages and stores float, where fish farms proliferate like basements below these floating worlds and where smiles mask the hunger that is a reality for many.

There are moments of breath-taking beauty - Mekong sunsets are particularly dramatic - and other times when man's inhumanity to man is hard and painful to comprehend. Altogether, this is an experience you will not forget like last year's souvenirs.

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