A Bololo

In our recent tour of Colombia, our guide taught us the word “bololo” (sp.?) meaning something that turns into a real mess. Our second day in Bangkok turned into a bololo for many of the passengers. Our ship is too big to dock inside the city, so we are docked in an industrial port more than 2.5 hours away from the city by bus. Our port is filled with Toyotas, Nissans, and other cars ready to export. On the second day, most people were scheduled to take the included tour into Bangkok to visit the Royal Palace, the official home of the King of Siam since 1782. About five days ago, we got a letter that the Palace was going to be closed for an event the morning when we were supposed to visit and that it was expected to be overcrowded in the afternoon.

As a result, they offered us the option of transferring to one of two new included tours. Since we had been to the Palace previously, we elected to tour the flower market and cruise on the river flowing through Bangkok. We had done this previously also, but we had pleasant memories of the boat ride through the numerous small canals that lace the city. The tour lasted over eight hours and in that time we spent 30 minutes in the flower/vegetable market, twenty minutes in a boat that only covered a short distance of the main river, 30 minutes in the world’s largest gem store (where we didn’t want to be), and 60 minutes at lunch in a Ramada Inn. The rest of the time was in the bus and that time was just not worth the less than an hour of actual sightseeing. We were wishing we had stayed with the Palace.

However, when we got back and compared notes with friends, they were the ones with the true bololo. The Palace was indeed overcrowded and it deteriorated into a true mob scene of pushing, shoving, and elbowing to get into the room to see the primary sight: the Emerald Buddha. Our passengers were describing near panic attacks and fear of being trampled. Many decided it just wasn’t worth it, but it was harder getting out than moving with the flow. You often hear of the “ugly American”, and sad to say we have seen some of that in our fellow passengers. But I think today the “ugly Chinese” are more prevalent. After hearing all the horror stories, we were glad we had made the change. After the trauma of getting in to see the Emerald Buddha, most people were shocked to learn it was only 26 inches tall!

The day before we had visited yet another Big Buddha in Pattaya. Most Buddhas in Thailand are gold color.The steps leading up to the Buddha had the requisite dragon railing.We had learned in the Sanctuary of Truth how important the day of the week you are born is in determining your persona. They had a display that I used to confirm my belief that I was born on a Tuesday which makes me a hard worker. I’ll take that. Here I am with the Tuesday Buddha – but it sure doesn’t look like he is working very hard. I think I look particularly dashing in my cooling scarf, and you really need one of those if you are going to work hard in Thailand.

The most popular flower in the market was yellow marigolds. There was bag after bag of yellow marigold petals and strands of flowers. The strands are often placed around the neck of Buddha statues.The skewers of chicken feet on the bottom left of this street vendor’s grill looked particularly appealing. We saw several temples from the river. The bottom temple, Wat Arun or Temple of Dawn, is covered with porcelain tiles and sea shells.Fortunately, this is as close as we got to the Royal Palace. After a beach day in Thailand and a day at sea, our next stop is Singapore.

The Most Amazing Religious Building I Have Ever Seen!

And yes, I have seen Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The Pattaya Sanctuary of Truth is located in Pattaya, Thailand. It is constructed entirely of wood. No nails are used in its construction except for “temporary” nails they are a little slow in removing. It is nearly 350 feet high and covers more than 0.8 acres. Construction was started in 1981 by a Thai businessman. The work is being carried on today by his son and it is expected to be completed in 2050. Thus, the building is privately owned and contains religious images associated with both the Buddhist and Hindu religions.

According to its web site (with some grammatical enhancements):

The building was constructed according to ancient Thai ingenuity and every square inch of the building is covered with carved wooden sculptures. The purpose of these sculptures is to use art and culture as the reflection of the Ancient Vision of Earth, Ancient Knowledge, and Eastern Philosophy. Within this complex, visitors will understand Ancient Life, Human Responsibility, Basic Thought, Cycle of living, Life’s Relationship with the Universe and the Common Goal of Life toward Utopia.

That is pretty deep! In my words, the purpose of the sanctuary is to show the relationships between humankind and the world that will result in a better life for all. But whatever the goal and whether it accomplishes the goal, it is an amazing building. I will let the pictures speak for themselves.The picture is the king of Thailand.You will note that there is some grey weathered wood and some brown, newer looking wood in the structure. The wood used is teak, redwood, and ironwood; so I wouldn’t expect it to rot. However, on the way into the grounds we passed piles of discarded old wood and piles of new logs.There was a workshop where people were creating carvings with a hammer and chisel and turning large columns with a lathe. There are few sections of the temple that seemed unfinished so I am not sure whether they are replacements for damaged sections or new pieces for unfinished sections. If the wood is going to rot and need replacement after twenty five years, construction is going to be a never ending job.

I submit this is the most amazing religious building I have ever seen. The religious eliminates Petra and the Taj Mahal from the comparison.

An Impoverished Area of an Impoverished Country

Talk about instability! In my lifetime, Cambodia has had twelve different official names. Today it is Kingdom of Cambodia. It is a poor country ranked 141st in wealth (right behind Bangladesh) on the IMF list. Despite that, it has one of the fastest growing economies in Asia and we did see a lot of construction cranes. According to our guide, the cranes are due to Chinese investment in the country. It is a young population with 70% being under 35. Much of the countries problems can be traced to the four years of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 70’s when two to three million people were killed, people were forced from the cities to the fields, and everything western or religious was targeted for destruction. In particular, educated people (wearing eyeglasses was an indicator of being educated), teachers, and doctors were sought out and killed.

We visited the port city and beach town of Sihanoukville. The economy seemed to be based on tourism, fishing, and the port – though there was one modern looking factory outside of town. These colorful fishing boats go out in the evening and bring their fresh catch to the market the next day. In the morning when we we were there they were packaging fish for shipment and preparing fish for sale.The children of the area seemed excited to see us with everyone waving or giving us the “number one” sign.The handrails of all the Buddhist temples in Cambodia are what the guide called dragons but they looked more like cobras to me.The temples had stupas of various colors and designs that were used as graves. This is the unusual flower of the shala or sal tree. The tree is important to Buddhists as the Buddha is said to have been born while his mother grasped the branch of a sal tree. Thus, in Cambodia, holding the branch of a sal tree is thought to result in an easy birth.

The area is a popular beach resort for Cambodians. Other than a few floating pieces of styrofoam, the water looked pretty good. Susan took the opportunity to dip her feet in the water.in the afternoon we visited a school with an adjacent Temple before going to Ream National Park. The children from the school were interested in seeing us as well as the monk pressure washing the temple. The school just got electricity two years ago and that was only in the principal’s office.We took an hour long boat ride through the park on a large estuary. There were only a few homes on the river banks.It was tight quarters on the boat and my neck was loaded down with binoculars, my beloved cooling scarf, my water bottle holder, my whisperer to hear the guide, and my camera. It was a lot to ask of one neck so everything had to be put on in the correct order to be functional.Our destination was this long pier leading to what our guide called a village. In reality it was the houses of three families at least two of which were related.One family was this 93 year old man and his 78 year old wife. A lot of young children were running around, so there must have been children and grand children of theirs who also lived in the area.The family had seven water buffaloes.The woman was cooking supper on this open wood fire on the floor of her home.

On our way home from the park, we passed the entrance to the new factory on the outskirts of town. Van after van was literally packed with workers going back home after the end of their shift. This gives you an idea how packed the vans were.In town, the sidewalks were packed with vendors and the streets seemed to be total chaos as people did their shopping for the evening meal. Notice the two children riding the motorbike with their father in the bottom right of the picture. The poverty and litter were reminiscent of past trips to India. We will be interested to see how India compares this trip.

Today we arrive in Bangkok for an overnight stay.


Is Vietnam a Communist country? That depends on who you ask. Our tour guide said yes while another tour guide told her group no repeatedly. According to Wikipedia, it is one of four remaining “one party socialist states officially espousing Communism” (Cuba, China, and Laos are the others). The Economist described its leadership as “ardently capitalist communists”. As they say in Cuba, “It’s complicated”. As far as religion, it is 73% non religious, 12% Buddhist, and 8% Christian. Based on the religious statues, churches, and temples we saw in our first tour to the fishing village of Vung Tau, you would think it was a very religious country.One of the tallest statues of Jesus in the world looks out over the sea. There are over a thousand steps to reach the base of the statue, so this is the best view we had.Our next stop was a Buddhist Temple spread over a small hill. Most temples consist of several buildings with various shrines and places to make offerings and burn incense. In the bottom picture the monk is striking the bell four times. It did not seem to be on the hour or quarter hour, so I am unsure of the purpose. Maybe he just wanted his picture taken.The hill provided a view of the fishing boats in the harbor below.The main statue of Gautama Buddha sitting on a lotus leaf is at the top of the hill. We had a young guide who probably had never been to the sites visited on the tour. She never found this statue so we were just lucky that we spotted it through the trees and made a quick detour.Our next stop was the Whale Temple where fishermen come to prey for their safety. The temple contains several bins of whale bones you can touch for good luck. This alter looks more like it belongs in a penny arcade. Everything that looks like a row of lights in the picture is in fact a row of flashing lights.

Our second day we went to Ho Chi Minh City as it is officially known. All the people call it Saigon in their conversations and the papers call it HCMC. It has a population of ten million people and an estimated seven million motorbikes every day.We were lucky to be there on a Sunday when traffic was not so bad. There are few traffic lights, so the guidance in crossing the street is to look for a small opening and walk at a steady pace so the motorbikes can swerve around you. If you stop or change pace, it only makes it harder for the motorbikes to avoid you. Alternately, cross with a local.it is common to see parents and a child riding on the motorbikes. I have seen as many as both parents and two children riding on the same motorbike, and it would not surprise me to see more on a bike.You see small markets on the street, in small storefronts and in larger markets with numerous stalls. The top picture is a sidewalk vendor in Vung Tau who is selling food to the bike riders on their way home to dinner. The bottom two pictures are a shoe store and a food stall making dishes from snails in the Saigon market.Our first stop in Saigon was a temple in Chinatown dedicated to the sea goddess Mazu. Despite the open courtyard in the bottom picture, the aroma of the incense was overwhelming.The Saigon Cathedral is being repaired from damage suffered in a recent cyclone.The Saigon post office is a landmark in the city. While it is a functioning post office, sight seeing and souvenir stands dominated.What appeared to be high schoolers were dressed up to have their picture taken in front of the post office.The dilapidated building was made famous during the fall of South Viet Nam by the picture of a helicopter on top of the building evacuating the last of the Americans in Saigon. The head of the CIA in Saigon lived on the top floor. It is scheduled to be torn down next year.The Reunification Palace or Independence Palace was the home and office of the president of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It is also the site of the end of the war when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the front gate. It is a museum today with a helicopter on its roof and a tank in the front yard.The rooms in the palace are relatively modest. This is the reception room where the president would host European and American dignitaries. It was the nicest room in the palace.The two dining rooms we saw had both a round table with a lazy Susan for Chinese visitors and a rectangular table for American/European visitors.

The central area of Saigon appears as we remember it when we visited ten years ago. However, the outskirts of Saigon have prospered with many new high rise apartment buildings and cranes reminiscent of what we saw in China. Our guide attributed much of their new found success to Bill Clinton opening up trade between the US and Vietnam.

After a day at sea, we will visit Cambodia on Tuesday.

Yet Another Small City

Today we visited a Chinese City you probably never heard of but has a population over two million. Haikou is a port city on Hainan Island, the second largest island in China after Taiwan. Yes, they definitely consider Taiwan to be part of China. While it had only one skyscraper, it had an abundance of high rise apartment buildings. From our ship we could see over thirty construction cranes working on what appeared to be even more apartment buildings.

In the morning we took the shuttle to the old town. We spent most of our time on a pedestrian shopping street with European architecture and covered sidewalks to protect us from the light drizzle. They don’t have a lot of foreign tourists in town, so virtually no one spoke English. There was a woman in town with a nice camera who kept taking pictures of Susan. I suspect she is going to show up in an article on curly hair in the morning paper. There was a film crew and reporter filming our afternoon tour and interviewing some of our group. I think we were probably featured on the evening news in a piece about the Viking Sun.There was a band playing under the arcade. The instrument in the center is a hammered dulcimer. Ironically, I had heard a virtuoso performance on a 144 string hammered dulcimer the night before covering everything from classical to country.These are a few street scenes on the shopping street. The little boy in the window seemed fascinated by all the strange looking people below.A number of statues depicting life scenes were scattered along the street. Here Susan decides to lend a hand to the bargaining. You will notice she is holding a package. This took all her bargaining skills as the seller spoke no English, would not take credit cards, and was very reluctant to take dollars.We ventured off the shopping street into a more local area featuring food markets and a food court. The top picture appeared to be an assortment of goodies you could put in your soup. The bottom two pictures show how appetizing animal feet can be – both chicken and hog feet were for sale. The above sign was placed over each urinal in the food court rest room. I was very careful to avoid “litteting”.

The first stop on our afternoon tour was The Temple of the Five Officials. During the Tang and Song dynasties, disgraced court officials were expelled to the remote Hainan Island. The Temple was built in memory of five such officials who were banished between the ninth and twelfth centuries.The Temple consisted of a number of small buildings and gardens.The rack held small plaques with good wishes such as a long life, happiness, and good grades on tests. You could tie these to the branches on several trees to help make your wish come true.The employees of the Temple wore traditional dress.

Our other stop was the Hainan Museum which covered the history and culture of the island.The museum was huge and was undergoing a major renovation.This picture is not embroidered or painted, but is created by using pieces of rock.Some traditional furniture was included in the exhibits.I was interested that one of the indigenous groups used backstrap looms that were very similar to those used by the Mayans.

Susan is still looking frantically at every jewelry store she passes for cool earrings like these. They take the “ring” in “earring” to a whole new level! We now have two sea days before arriving at Ho Chi Minh City.

Hong Kong Wrap Up

Both our Hong Kong guides described their relationship with China as “One country. Two systems”. They have two separate currencies that are not tied to each other. They have two different leaders. China limits the number of children to two without paying a penalty while Hong Kong has no limits on the number of children. You go through immigration when passing between the two. These are only a few of the ways their systems differ.

We took the funicular to the top of Victoria Peak to take in the views. I remember doing this many years ago when I overnighted in Hong Kong on business. At that time, I remember walking around the top of the mountain to take in the views on all sides. Today, the area at the top of the funicular is much more commercial; and the path was not evident.This was the early morning view from the top of Victoria Peak. The column of smoke to the left is really a flaw in my camera that shows up when there is a clear blue sky in a certain area of the frame. It is much more pronounced in this panorama shot. I am getting a new camera when I get home.Susan took this typical view of me when I am on a tour.We also took a sampan ride around the Aberdeen area, which is noted for its floating village and restaurants.This is an example of one of the fishing boats that makes up the floating village.Looking out the front of the sampan you see an interesting mix of this huge traditional floating restaurant combined with modern boats and skyscrapers.You see a lot of red since the Chinese consider it to be a lucky color.

Because this is the first time Viking has ever been to these ports, we sometimes get special attention such as accompanying vessels and pier side entertainment. Viking also usually has the press and travel agents touring the ship during the day to promote future business. There is a photographer on our ship using drones, helicopters, and creative angles to get the beauty shots of the Viking Sun and the Sydney Opera House or the Shanghai Skyline that you will soon see in the Viking ads.

Karine Hagen is the daughter of the founder and chairman of Viking Cruises and is their public face in ads and educational videos.She has been on our cruise since the inauguration in Shanghai. Here she is at the Big Buddha with her own team of two videographers. I suspect you will see her online soon talking about the Big Buddha.I will bid farewell to Hong Kong with some pictures from our arrival and of the sunset the night we spent there.

One Big Buddha

On Monday we visited Lantau Island, the largest island in Hong Kong. It is over 50% national park.We first made a rest stop at a scenic beach. The temperature was only 70 F, so no one was there. If you can see a yellow line in the water, it is a shark net to protect the swimming area.This is a prison with a view – one of six prisons on the island.Our first stop was the fishing village of Tai O.Tai O had a lot of stores selling fish. A few were selling live fish from tanks, but most were selling dried fish or even dried fish heads. The top picture is dried puffer fish which was totally unappealing. The bottom picture is of a squid hung out to dry.Susan and Donna are standing in the doorway of the temple in Tai O. The bottom picture shows the intricate detail of the roofline.The Big Buddha is one of the main attractions of Lantau Island. At 112 feet tall it was once the tallest outdoor, sitting Buddha statue in the world. As our guide said, China wants to be number one in everything; so they built a bigger one. The statue is made of bronze and is more properly called the Tian Tan Buddha. Most people have to climb 268 steps to reach the base of the statue, but our bus was allowed to drop us off at the top.The Big Buddha is located in a beautiful mountain setting.Facing the Buddha at its base are six smaller bronze statues called “The Offering of the Six Deva”. These statues represent the characteristics you must achieve to obtain enlightenment.Adjacent to the Big Buddha is the Po Lin Monastery where we had a vegetarian lunch. The pictures above are from the Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas. At first I thought there can’t possibly be that many until I realized that each of the wall tiles had a Buddha on it.We took a gondola from the Big Buddha area down to sea level with many beautiful views of Lantau Island. Hong Kong’s new airport is located there. Our ship is actually docked at the runway of the old airport. I remember the exciting views of the adjacent apartment buildings when I landed at that airport on business trips some years ago. The landing was so tricky that pilots had to have a special license to land there.

I will wrap up Hong Kong on the next blog.

A Piece of Jewish History

One of the excursions I did in Shanghai without Bruce was a Jewish Heritage Tour. Prior to the tour I knew very little of the relationship between Shanghai and the Jewish population there. I found out a surprising piece of history.

Starting in 1937 Russian Jews started to come to Shanghai. They came with their accumulated wealth and were very successful in their new homeland. The next wave of refugees came from Eastern Europe to escape the Holocaust. Shanghai became a city that accepted the “Stateless Refugees “.  Between 1933 and 1941 the ghetto absorbed 14000 Refugees. These Jews came with no possessions leaving everything behind. Per our Chinese Tour Guide, the people of Shanghai gave them food and basic jobs. He also pointed out that no wall or fence was needed around the ghetto since it was easy to identify the Jews from the city population. Our tour included walking around the streets where the ghetto was and visiting the Synagogue which now included the Jewish Refugees Museum.

When the war was over, the entire population of Jews in Shanghai (which they claim was up to 30000) immigrated to other countries – mostly Israel,US ,Canada and South America. There is no presence of Jews today and the Synagogue is a museum. The Chinese take great pride in pointing out how benevolent they were to the Jews when no other country opened their doors.

This picture is the site of what was the branch office of the JDC, NY based American Jewish Joint Distibution Committee. They helped the refugees find shelter upon arrival.

Typical Ghetto street.

Inside Ohel Moshe Synagogue

Front of the Synagogue.

Sent from my iPad

Something of a Dud

As I mentioned previously, Viking held the christening ceremony to officially name the Viking Sun on our first night in Shanghai.The event was held on a high tech stage with a covered viewing pavilion all constructed especially for the occasion. A red carpet led along the pier to a reception tent and beyond to the stage and seating area. All the world travelers were invited to a Chinese dinner in the low building to the far right of the picture.This is the rehearsal in the afternoon. There is a symphony orchestra in the lower area of the stands and the seating area is on the upper level.This is a better look at the building where our dinner was held. You can see all the tables awaiting us on the lower floor. While the building is only a five minute walk from the ship, the port authority required us to take a bus there despite the fact we could have walked across the dock where the VIP guests were arriving and through a door to access the building. The buses took about twenty minutes to deliver a load of passengers and return for the next load. As a result, it was several hours before everyone got transferred to the venue. It was necessary for us to eat elsewhere so Viking could host 300 VIP’s on the ship.The food was served from eight buffet stations with each station serving food from a different region of China. The food was nothing special. Since we had little view of the stage from the banquet hall, it was broadcast on televisions located throughout the venue.The traditional way to christen a ship is to break a bottle of champagne across the bow. Since Viking is Norwegian, they break a bottle of Akvavit which is released by cutting a red cloth with an axe wielded by a Viking and the godmother of the ship. The entertainment included classical music but it was hard to hear in the banquet hall. Returning to the ship was so chaotic that the Port Authority relented and let us walk home. The consensus was that we would have been better off eating on the ship and watching from there. Viking put out an email hyping the event. The overwhelming majority of passengers would tell a different story!

As I mentioned in the last post, the drive from Shanghai to Suzhou was over miles of elevated highway.There are two things to notice in this picture. First is the blue mood lighting on the sides of roadway in this multilevel interchange. Second is the continuous planters on the top of the barrier walls for the entire interchange and other parts of the elevated roadway. I believe planter watering must be part of the Chinese full employment program.Two final pictures from Suzhou. While the top picture is fuzzy, you can see that this house is drying meat along with their underwear, and in the bottom picture someone has hung their bird out on the clothesline to enjoy the crisp morning air.

And finally, the Shanghai building pictures I promised.The bottom picture should be a movie as the building was continuously changing colors and images. This was accomplished with lights surrounding each window.

Our next stop tomorrow is Hong Kong.

The Humble Administrator in a Small City

Friday I visited what our guide referred to as the “small” city of Suzhou, China. With a population of over six million people, it is small relative to the 24 million people in Shanghai; but large relative to most of the cities we call home. Suzhou is laced with canals which leads to comparisons with Venice. We had a two hour drive each way past miles and miles of high rise buildings. I am going to do a separate blog on the buildings of Shanghai.

Our first activity was a cruise along the canals of Suzhou’s historic area. The buildings are typically white with a gray roof. Most houses face a street with steps down to the canal in the rear. The inhabitants of the area are primarily older people who have been there for years and don’t want to leave their neighbors. It is somewhat of a communal lifestyle as many homes share kitchens, porches, and other facilities with their neighbors.This woman was mopping the steps leading down to the canal. This appeared to be a common activity as many houses had a mop in the back. Many people also wash their clothes in the canal. While we only saw a few people doing that, we saw laundry hanging everywhere.Many of the houses needed a little work on the water side.Friday must be the day to wash the quilts as there were way more quilts than underwear drying. The column tops of the bridges even had quilts tied around them to dry. The weeping willows along the bank coming into leaf and a few redbud blooms indicated spring was near.Pagoda roofs also dotted the skyline.This vendor didn’t seem to want to have her picture taken, but her colorful cart of fruit for sale was a work of art.We even saw a traditional Chinese boat plying one of the canals.It is hard to believe that this mass (mess?) of electrical wires could exist so near to the modern city of Shanghai. I would hate to be the one who had to find the bad wire!

My second stop was at a silk embroidery workshop that specialized in two sided works where the back was the exact reverse of the front. One of the works in their lobby was a portrait of Princess Di. From as close as several feet away, you would have sworn that it was a photograph.I wasn’t allowed to photograph Princess Di, but this will give you an idea of the quality of their work. They are all mounted so you can swivel them between front and back to appreciate the two sidedness.A picture such as the one above would take one person over a year to make. The details are achieved by using thread that is one fourth the diameter of a human hair. In addition they have dozens of shades of each color. To the amazement of Susan and myself, I bought a piece of art despite the fact that Susan was on a different tour. I even used some of the negotiating skills I had learned from her including the essential one of walking away.The shop had a garden where this duck was trying to warm up in the sun.

After a lunch served family style on lazy susans, I went to the Humble Administrator’s Garden. The garden was built between 1513 and 1526 by a government official who had suffered many demotions and promotions in his life. He decided to retire from public life and create a garden that would show his fine taste. His friend said it was a way of ruling for a failed politician. The creator’s son lost the garden in a gambling debt and it was divided and passed through many hands before being purchased and restored by the Chinese government in 1952. Today it is a UNESCO Site and one of the finest gardens in China.

A Chinese garden is composed of four elements: rock, water, plants, and buildings.The zig zag bridge to the pagoda is designed to keep evil spirits away. It is believed that they can only travel in a straight line. There is a lip to step over in all doorways because it is believed that evil spirits cannot rise over them. The walls had windows to frame the views. There was a different design in each of the dozens of rectangular windows.I liked the twisted trunks of this tree.Very few plants were in bloom, but I don’t believe that flowers are a critical element of a Chinese garden.Bamboo was used as an artistic element that also protected the trunk of this large vine.

There was a small exhibit of Chinese flower arrangement. I thought this was one of the better tour days on this cruise.

Susan took a Jewish Heritage tour which I am urging her to write up. Feel free to increase the pressure on her! I plan to do a third Shanghai post on some of the buildings and roads by day and by night. We have two days at sea before reaching Hong Kong.

The Travel Blog of Susan and Bruce