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Yearly Archives: 2015
Southeast Asia Travel -11/12 – Day Fourteen: Was it really necessary for us to be up and ready to go at 7:15 AM? (We’d be glad later.) With a limited serving schedule, breakfast was a rush. At least we enjoyed a beautiful sunrise to start the day.
Koh Samui is an island belonging to Thailand. There is not a port or large enough dock to accommodate our ship so we were tendered in to shore.
Of the excursion choices we had, we decided to take the Jeep & Elephant Experience. We soon learned that ‘jeep’ meant a small Toyota pickup truck with two benches and a plastic tarp for a top.
Maybe I expected too much but I really thought we’d be exploring some rural terrain in an actual jeep. I thought the jeep ride was part of the experience. In fact, it was just the vehicle that transported us from location to location.
Most of the tour was spent at Namuang Safari Park. First we visited a waterfall, hidden largely by too many trees. We then had a few minutes to wander a little shopping village. Instead, Michael and I watched an elephant bathing in the water downstream of the waterfall.
From there we went to the elephant camp. I have to say, riding an elephant is a pretty incredible experience. We got on from tall loading platforms. Our guide rode on our elephant’s shoulders while we sat on a bench seat on his back. He encouraged our elephant to walk by rubbing his ears with his feet. At one point, our guide got down and let me ride on our elephant’s shoulders.
After that we watched a short elephant trick show in the same park. This was followed by a monkey show… or, as we renamed it a ‘coconut show’. There was only one monkey– they made him spin coconuts before climbing a tree and dropping prop coconuts. Then he was gone. The rest of the ‘show’ was spent watching a guy open and shred a coconut. If that wasn’t enough, we then had to move to a different pavilion to watch a cooking class. By cooking class, I mean they made a salad. One of the ship’s photographers was with our group and laid down and took a nap.
By this point, it had started raining. As we were leaving we saw others holding umbrellas, riding the elephants. We were so glad we had our rides before the rain started.
The ‘jeep’ took us to the temple, Wat Khunaram to see the mummified monk, Loung Pordaeng. The monk died in 1973 at the age of 79. His body is displayed in a glass case at the temple. Sunglasses were put on him to hide his deteriorated eyes. No one can explain why his body has not decomposed with the humidity and high heat. Many Thai people believe it is a miracle.
I was sitting in the very back of the pick up… er, I mean jeep; and got completely drenched with rain on the way back to the dock. I couldn’t wait to get back to the ship and dry out.
Before dinner, we attended a reception for past BOTHS cruisers and the stars. It was just a nice way to thank us for supporting and traveling with Playbill Travel.
Our only Broadway performance today was Seth Rudetsky’s Deconstructing Broadway. It wasn’t until nearly halfway through the cruise that Seth became a more active part of the daily entertainment, aside from accompanying the performers. So we were ready for some Seth-time. He is a total showman—super funny; and knows more about Broadway than anyone else alive.
Our last sea day is tomorrow and there are four big Broadway events scheduled. Can’t believe how fast the time is flying!
Southeast Asia Travel -11/11 – Day Thirteen: We had a much-needed day at sea today. Very few people were up and about during breakfast after yesterday’s whirlwind day in Bangkok. Michael and I tried to catch catnaps in between the scheduled events.
I forgot to mention before that due to a previously scheduled engagement, Norm Lewis left the cruise yesterday in Bangkok while Kerry Butler and Rachel York joined the cruise there.
At 11 AM, the second and last autograph session was held. We got our posters signed and chatted a bit; then enjoyed watching the stars interact with the guests. Today featured Hunter Foster, Jennifer Cody, Kerry Butler and Rachel York.
Mid-afternoon, John Fahey hosted a talk called, Being a Broadway Mom with Kerry Butler, Liz Callaway and Christine Ebersole. Towards the end Rachel York was brought in to the conversation. It was interesting to hear how they try to balance family with career and fun hearing how Broadway casts so warmly welcome the children into their show families. There were many touching moments as these moms expressed their love (and a few regrets) for their children.
Kerry Butler and Seth Rudetsky opened the concert tonight with Suddenly from Xanadu. It was the first time I’d heard Seth sing that way – he’s really got a nice voice. Usually when he sings, it’s in his Seth-schtick voice. If you’ve listened to him, you’ll know what I mean.
Together they basically did part of a recent concert they performed at 54 Below. Seth interviewed Kerry and she sang up a storm. One of her songs, A Change In Me, was not in Beauty and the Beast when she was Belle on Broadway. It was added later for Toni Braxton. It was a great concert and many wonderful stories were shared.
Southeast Asia Travel Day Twelve: Today was the second of our most anticipated tour days of this vacation. One day in Bangkok is not nearly enough time to see everything, even on a surface level. Bangkok has such a rich cultural history with many historic landmarks dating back centuries in time.
A couple months ago, Michael and I found ourselves unable to decide between two of the excursions that were offered; wanting to visit the main attractions of both tours. It took some time but with the help of our travel agent, we were able arrange a private tour that allowed us to see both and then some.
Instead of breaking today up into separate posts, I’ll just hit the highlights. At some later point I’ll try to add another photo essay (post) like I plan to do with the Angkor photos.
Grand Palace. The Grand Palace has been the residence of the Kings of Siam since 1782. The incredible maze of buildings in the complex feature intricate and highly ornamented details that are simply breathtaking.
One of the most famous attractions at the palace is the temple, Wat Phra Kaew and the Emerald Buddha. Emerald is used to represent the color of the statute that is actually made of jade.
Bang Pa-In Royal Palace. The Summer Palace dates back to 1632. Most of the existing buildings were built by King Chulalonghorn; son of King Mongkut of The King and I fame. These newer buildings reflect Victorian architecture in style.
We buzzed around the site on a golf cart in a relatively short amount of time. In addition to several of the buildings, we stopped at the Aisawan Thyphia Art Pavilion because Michael wanted to feed bread to the fish and turtles in the pond.
Ayutthaya. There are at least 18 temple ruins in Ayutthaya, north of Bangkok. At one point in history, it was the capital of the Kingdom of Siam (Thailand). We had time to visit the ruins of five temples plus one temple that is still in use. Unlike the temples in Cambodia, the Thai temples are primarily composed of brick covered in stucco. Surprisingly, even with the small bricks, most of the temples here took a shorter time to build than the stone Angkor temples of Cambodia.
At Wat Mahathat, one of the must-see curiosities is a Buddha head peering from surrounding tree roots. There are several theories but no clear explanation for how this came to be.
The Reclining Buddha. Also located in Ayutthaya, The Reclining Buddha at the ruins of temple Wat Lokayasutharam is an amazing piece of history. Like many of the temples, it is made of brick covered by plaster (stucco) and is 138 feet long.
Playbill After Dark. With everyone on 8 to 10 hour tours of Bangkok, the only event scheduled onboard was Broadway Buzz at 10:30 PM. Seth Rudetsky used the opportunity to tell Broadway stories and gossip– initiated by prompts from the audience.
Today was completely overwhelming and exhausting. I’m so glad that tomorrow is a day at sea. Bangkok is an impressive city that really requires at least three or four days to adequately explore. I’m just glad we were able to see as much as we did. I’d certainly like to go back but there’s still so much of the world we want to see.
Southeast Asia Travel Day Eleven: Beach & BBQ day today in Koh Kood, Thailand. It was just what you’d expect of a fairly secluded beach on a tropical island– loads of palm trees and lush foliage. There was a huge sandy clearing with tables and chairs for eating and many beach chairs for sunning, down by the water. The crew from the ship hauled all the food and supplies out early before the rest of were tendered to the island dock. We stayed a couple hours- ate and walked the shoreline; then went back to the ship.
The first of two mingle and autograph sessions were held before dinner. Tommy Tune designed the poster for this year’s cruise. About half of the performers did the signing today: Tommy Tune, Christine Ebersole, Norm Lewis, Lindsay Mendez, Seth Rudetsky and Liz Callaway. It was a good chance to talk with them without feeling like you were imposing on their vacation time. On a day-to-day basis, some were more friendly and accessible than others; and we often found an opportunity to chat in passing.
After dinner, Broadway couple- Hunter Foster and his wife Jennifer Cody performed. They did more of a ‘chat and sing’ style performance, hosted by Seth Rudetsky. This was the perfect format for them. Especially, since most of us were less familiar with Jennifer Cody, by name… but most had probably seen her in at least one show if not more. From the shows that were mentioned, I figured Michael and I had seen her at least three or four times in different Broadway shows. We last saw Hunter on closing night in The Bridges of Madison County. They both gave impressive performances together and alone. It was also fun to listen to their witty banter and learn more about their careers and the two of them as a couple.
Southeast Asia Travel Day Ten: Michael and I woke up ridiculously early, considering we didn’t get to bed until after midnight. We were both up before 3 AM. I took advantage of the time to upload pictures to Facebook and for future blog posts while everyone else was asleep—meaning a faster Internet connection.
I worked on my blog, we watched some TV and explored the ship a bit before getting ready for breakfast. Breakfast has turned out to be my favorite meal of the day on the ship. The bacon is the best I’ve ever had. Apparently, some people were complaining it wasn’t crispy enough and I thought that was pretty funny.
This morning, Phil Birsh gave a talk about Playbill and its long association with Broadway and theatres around the country. It’s been in his family a long time and they do a wonderful job supporting the theatre community, from Broadway all the way down to providing services for schools.
This afternoon we were anchored in Sihanoukville, Cambodia and many people had excursions planned. We’d researched it before the trip and decided not to leave the ship. Re-entering Cambodia meant we needed another Visa and we felt it wasn’t worth it. None of the excursions appealed to us; besides, it was a short stay of only about four hours. Instead, we took a long nap.
We made the right choice. I didn’t hear one person say they enjoyed their excursion and there were some horror stories from people as well. One group ended up hiking through swampland to get back to dry ground after rain and an aborted tour.
The Norm Lewis concert was tonight. He’s always phenomenal. There’s just something really extraordinary about the way he connects with an audience—his powerhouse voice is pretty astounding too. Norm was on the Baltic cruise (BOTHS3) too. He’s one of the nicest people you could ever meet.
Southeast Asia Travel Day Nine: Michael and I woke up this morning just as we set sail, leaving the port in Ho Chi Minh City at 5:30 AM. We sailed along the Saigon River heading out to sea. Little did we know that for the next hour we’d be part of some craziness that would be the talk of the ship.
As the Le Soleal was maneuvering through the river, we’d feel the ship slightly tilting as we sailed. I had jumped in the shower while Michael was dressing. The ship rocked a bit tilting to the left and I heard a loud rushing sound like someone dragging something across the floor. When I came out of the bathroom Michael explained the sound– and our morning adventure began.
It seems that when they were getting the ship ready for boarding, someone forgot to lock the wall adjoining our cabin to the one next to us. (With the wall open it is reconfigured as a suite.) So every time the ship tilted to the left, the wall would slide open revealing our neighbors who were sleeping in the next room. I emphasis WERE sleeping.
As the wall opened, Michael was staring directly at them and said he couldn’t think of anything else to say besides, “Good Morning!” Luckily, it was a couple (Peggy Sue and Champ) we’d already met and toured with, so they weren’t complete strangers.
After an hour of repeatedly shutting the ‘wall’ (and trying to hold it shut) and four phone calls, three men finally showed up at our door to fix the problem. I’d been sitting there working on my computer and holding it closed while Michael finished getting ready.
Phil Birsh, President and CEO of Playbill, stopped us in the hall later in the day, apologized and asked us if it was okay if he used it as a funny story to tell that night before the concert. We said ‘yes’. He, of course, embellished the story and had everybody laughing. He added that Peggy Sue and Champ and Michael and I had already booked Italy (BOTHS7) and had requested adjoining rooms. It was pretty funny.
A day at sea is a little more relaxed than an excursion day but full of programing with the Broadway stars. First, Seth Rudetsky hosted a talk about Miss Saigon with Liz Calloway who played Ellen in the original Broadway company (and had a baby a month before it went into production), and Norm Lewis who played John later in the run.
That was followed by a talk, later in the afternoon, with the legendary Tommy Tune– who’d been a surprise guest on the cruise, talking about his career.
Before dinner, Michael and I went up to the deck that overlooks the pool and found a bat hanging in the corner, just inside door. We had to get a crew member to come remove it because we thought it might scare someone, or God forbid, start flying around inside the ship. Yes, these things happen to us.
The concert that night was with Lindsay Mendez. Of course it was wonderful. We were thrilled to finally see her performing live for the first time.
The finally event of the night was Playbill After Dark. Seth Rudetsky hosted a Broadway trivia game and we won a 2016 Playbill calendar. It was quite an adventure for the first full day aboard ship.
Southeast Asia Travel Day Eight: We had breakfast early and then had to check out of the hotel before our tour this morning. We almost didn’t book this Vespa tour… so very glad we did! It made up for the shortcomings in yesterday’s tour and then some. If we had only gone on yesterday’s and not today’s, I’d have said I didn’t really see much in Saigon. Luckily, choosing to ride all through Ho Chi Minh City on a motorbike was the best thing we could have done. The experience itself was pretty thrilling. Add to that, all the sights we visited and we really got an opportunity to see and feel the vibe of the city.
The tour was with Vespa Adventures and there were 10 in our group plus our guide, Yu. We each had a driver—all we had to do was enjoy the ride and not fall off. My driver was Gai and she was definitely skilled at manipulating the bike through some pretty tight situations. I have video I’ll try to post later. It’s too difficult to just describe how crazy the traffic is; combining all the motorbikes and cars is intense for an outsider.
We started out at what is known as a bird park. Residents bring their birds (in cages) to socialize and learn how to sing and fly from other birds. I thought this was pretty unique and certainly something you don’t see in the states. There’s a little outdoor café there and people sell treats for the birds like grasshoppers and crickets.
Next we visited the monument for Thich Quang Duc. He was the Buddhist Monk who burned himself to death at a busy intersection in Saigon. He did this to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government on June 11, 1963. This was a pretty powerful moment. Our guide Yu, turned us around from the monument and showed us the exact spot where it happened. One person can make a difference. The photo of this tragic event was seen around the world; for the first time bringing worldwide attention to what was happening here.
We visited three more beautiful temples, each as different as they were alike. We did have to remove our shoes at one of them, as is the custom, showing our respect.
At a pharmacy, we were able to watch natural medicines being assembled for a variety of ailments. Many are delivered to customers and then brewed into teas by the person in search of a cure.
Pho 24 was our stop for lunch. I can now say I’ve had authentic Vietnamese Pho soup. Pho soup is basically a fresh clear broth with noodles, meat and seasoning. I prefer Pho Ga (chicken). It is both delicious and filling.
After talking with our guide, we made a little change in our tour and she took us through a fish and flower markets. In the flower market we also went down a maze of alleys and were able to see some of the small rooms and apartments people call home. I’d guess most of these tight alleys couldn’t be more than three feet wide.
We were supposed to go through the highway tunnels out to a spot for a great view of the skyline, which we did—as it started to pour. We pulled over long enough to put on rain ponchos and then continued but didn’t stop at the spot due to the rain. It was a typical tropical downpour and didn’t last long.
Our last stop was near what was the U. S. Embassy during the Vietnam War. From that spot we could see where the last helicopter lifted people to safety from the roof of the Embassy. It was another powerful moment personalizing history to childhood memories.
The Vespa Tour made the trip to Ho Chi Minh City complete. It’s a must do for anyone wanting to get a great, short introduction to the city.
All Aboard. In the afternoon we were driven to the port and finally boarded the Ponant ship, Le Soleal for the actual Broadway On The High Seas 5 cruise. We had the always annoying (but mandatory) safety drill (this one was especially bad) followed by dinner.
The first concert of our cruise was given by two-time Tony Award Winner, Christine Ebersole. It was magical. The perfect start to many wonderful performances we’d be blessed with on this year’s BOTHS5 cruise.
Southeast Asia Travel Day Seven: We were fortunate to be staying at the beautiful Intercontinental Asiana Saigon. We got a good night’s sleep and enjoyed a breakfast at leisure to start the day. This morning everyone boarded buses for an all day tour of Ho Chi Minh City. The older population and those in northern Vietnam still refer to it as Saigon.
Our first stop was at Notre Dame Cathedral. While an overwhelming majority of the population is Buddhist (over 90%), the Catholic cathedral is still a popular location for wedding photos because of the beauty of the building as a backdrop.
Near the cathedral is the historic Saigon Central Post Office. We met an 85-year-old man that goes there daily to help anyone that needs assistance translating letters. He offers his time as a free service from the goodness of his heart.
Next, we visited the Reunification Palace. Formerly known as Independence Palace, this was the location of the final assault during the Vietnam War; where a tank crashed through the gates at 11:30 AM April 30, 1975.
This spot was of personal significance to me– linking history to my childhood memories of a war I was well aware of; but didn’t understand, while I was growing up.
Following lunch in a large garden restaurant, we visited a small temple, tucked peacefully into the chaos of the city.
I have to say I was a little disappointed in the tour. Even though we visited a variety of locations, I didn’t feel like I’d gotten any real feel for the city. You can’t absorb everything in such a short time but it’s nice when you can get enough of a taste to feel the essence of the city and its people.
Michael and I were both amused by the way electric service was maintained. Need power? Just run another cable… and another and another. Throughout the city you see large bunches of tangled wire stretching from pole to pole.
After a break back at the hotel, we were bussed out to Binh Quoi Village for the big welcome dinner. Everyone (200 plus) on the Broadway On the High Seas 5 cruise were together for the first time, celebrating the kick off of the actual cruise. The ‘village’ is a beautiful park and pavilion decorated with Chinese lanterns and colored lights. We were greeted with drinks and appetizers as we strolled down a path past a wide variety of artisans demonstrating their crafts, a clever puppet show and Chinese dragons leading the way to the center of the village.
As part of the entertainment, we were treated to two numbers from the musical Miss Saigon as teasers for what we’d see on board. Liz Callaway, the original Ellen (Chris’ wife) in the Broadway production; was joined by Lindsay Mendez on the wonderful duet, I Still Believe. Then Norm Lewis who played John on Broadway, energized the audience with his dazzling performance of the anthem, Bui Doi.
Local talent filled the rest of the evening; a pleasant backdrop as people mingled and relaxed under the stars.
Southeast Asia Travel Day Six: Our last morning in Cambodia, breakfast then off to the airport. We were sad to say goodbye to our guide, Jun. He’s a great guy and a terrific guide. One of the best I’ve ever encountered. Jun didn’t just point things out and spout memorized facts. He was genuinely passionate about it. Jun and Peaches from Trails of Indochina really made everything about our three days in Siem Riep perfect.
There was a little drama when we got to the airport. First they were shifting our group from one counter to another and we had to deal with some awfully cranky ticket agents. I think I jinxed us by posting that we had no delays with our previous flights. Our flight from Siem Riep, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam ended up being delayed about two hours.
When it was finally time to board, Michael went through and I got pulled to the side. One of our friends, Mary, was laughing— “What did you do?” Then she and her husband George got pulled too. The laughing stopped. The gate agents moved us from the front of the plane to the back, a row in front of each other.
Once onboard, the woman next to me wanted to switch because her friend was in front of her. It worked out great because then I got to sit with Mary and George. Michael was still at the front of the plane and we were about 30 rows behind. The good news is that we were able to board and exit at the back of the plane and didn’t have to wait for the usual crowded aisles.
When it came time for the safety video, the screen above our heads decided to throw a fit. It kept lowering and raising, opening and closing, over and over. This got Mary and I laughing, though George, who isn’t crazy about flying—was not amused.
The bus ride from the airport was insane. Traffic, amplified by the ridiculous number of motorbikes, made traffic in New York City or Chicago look like driving in a small town. Michael compared it to the swarm that develops when you step on an anthill. It was pretty intense.
Instead of getting to the hotel after 4 PM, we didn’t get in until after 7 PM. We were pretty tired. After checking in, Michael and I just went up to the lounge on the 19th floor, checked out the view and had a snack. We had a full day tour the next day. I think I fell asleep as soon as I hit the sheets.
Southeast Asia Travel Day Five: We slept a little later this morning and still managed to beat most of our group down to breakfast. It’s so quiet and relaxed here. Even with the rush of people coming and going there’s still a peaceful air about things here.
After breakfast, we boarded coach buses to transport us out to the river that would carry us to the floating village on the banks of Tonle Sap Lake. There was one rather lengthy delay with traffic stopped in both directions due to road construction… just a subtle reminder of home.
Tonle Sap Lake. It was nice and hot by the time we reached the boat launch for our cruise around Tonle Sap Lake. There is a whole community that literally lives on the lake. Homes, stores, schools, churches and restaurants float near the shoreline. What’s really interesting is that they don’t use the water for anything–not even washing clothes– because it is pretty muddy and not safe to drink.
There was a young boy on our boat that gave nearly everyone on board a short back and shoulder massage. We were each encouraged to give him a dollar. He goes to school and this was how he helps support his family.
From the boat, we headed to a local restaurant for lunch before returning to the hotel.
Welcome Dinner and Show. Our last night in Cambodia, the entire group that came to Siem Riep for the BOTHS5 pre-cruise were together for the first time. About half were staying at another hotel nearby.
Behind the pool area at our hotel (Raffles) was an open air space with a stage. It was set up– with no better words to describe it—like a large wedding reception. Around the perimeter of the space were many food stations with different foods being prepared, similar to a buffet.
After introductions, the show consisted of young local performers sharing different forms of traditional dance. We recognized a few of them as wait staff from the hotel.
The best part of the evening was a pleasant surprise. We were reunited with a wonderful woman named Janet we met on the Baltic cruise two years ago.
Cambodian Takeaways. Dogs. I saw quite a few dogs in Cambodia. They all appeared to be descendants of the same breed. Dogs in Cambodia are not domesticated the way they are in the U.S. and can be seen wandering about and sometimes sleeping in the parks and streets. I didn’t see much interaction with people; they seemed to just coexist.
Bug Spray and Shorts. We were told ahead of time to bring bug spray for our excursions. It may just be the time of year but we never needed it. We were also told we needed to dress modestly; no bare shoulders and no shorts when visiting temples. As it turned out, this didn’t apply to the ancient ruins or any of the other places we visited in Cambodia. I didn’t even bother to pack shorts because of the advance warning and I really wish I had. With temperatures in the 90s and high humidity, I spent most days soaked in sweat and more uncomfortable than I needed to be.
A Proud and Gracious Culture. In spite of its shortcomings, Cambodians seem to be proud citizens. They are realistic and still thankful for they have. I never got the feeling from anyone we talked with that there was anger towards the government; or a sense of entitlement that so many Americans seem to possess. All the people we saw or met were friendly and gracious. Not one person ever responded with anything less than a smile.
Tourism is still a small but very important part of the economy in Cambodia. The people are well aware that it (tourism) is growing by leaps and bounds in other nearby countries such as Vietnam. A day didn’t go by without multiple people thanking us for choosing to visit their community.
It’s difficult when you visit other cultures and see people that work so hard and have so little—they might have little food or lack conveniences like electricity; yet they still seem happy and content. It makes you stop and reevaluate what you have and what you take for granted.