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Observations from the Mekong River

It was a thing of beauty.

Standing on the bank of the Siem Reap River near the Terrace of the Leper King in Angkor Thom, Cambodia, the young man cast his fishing net much as his ancestors had done over the centuries. My camera froze that moment, but it was the timelessness I wanted to capture.

The practice of heritage conservation works within a world touched by the passage of hours, days, years, decades, and centuries. Landmarks, you see, are not created by architects and builders alone. What really makes a site a landmark is the place it holds in a community’s memory. Memories are created over time. Memories are poets, not historians. Memories can be deeply spiritual.

The spirit of place comes alive not just in the ways a site is conserved and presented and not just through memories, but in the way it is used and valued by people, the way a community animates the space today. How a place is animated by its community gives it meaning. Part of what gives that temple at Angkor meaning is the casting of that fishing net. The placing of flowers in veneration. The thousands of little actions by the people who live near what are still sacred places — taken time and time again — over the centuries.

There were many occasions during the past two weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia to confront the fact that the cyclical understanding of time, found in civilizations that are much older than ours in the West, is ever present in this most fascinating of places. Each day the sun rises and sets, the seasons follow one another, the heavenly bodies revolve around us, people grow old and die, but their children reconstitute the process. Cyclical time is not a scarce commodity. There seems to always be an unlimited supply of it just around the next bend.

And scholars who work in heritage conservation in Southeast Asia suggest that the cyclical nature of time contributes to the authenticity of these places. Authenticity comes not only from the physical structure, but from the history, traditions, memories, myths, associations, and continuity of meaning connected with people and use over time; what’s known as the intangible heritage of a site.

The past two weeks were an extraordinary journey into the intangible heritage of Southeast Asia.

Exploring the traditions and cultures of the world

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

One of the joys of this time in my life is to serve as a study tour leader/educational expert for National Trust Tours. * For over 50 years, National Trust Tours has been offering life enriching programs that explore the traditions and cultures of the world, placing a special emphasis on the roles of art and architecture. It was because of National Trust Tours that I was in Vietnam and Cambodia along with Candice and some 21 other travelers, cruising the Mekong River, from October 17th – 30th.

This was such an extraordinary experience that I have already placed six posts on More to Come examining different aspects of what we encountered and highlighting specific regions of these two countries. Throughout this wrap-up of the trip, I’ll reference those posts and provide links. This overview is filled with pictures and is organized using my traditional Observations from… format, which entails pulling together a series of random observations into one post.

Feel free to jump around to find the headlines and sections that interest you the most.

First, the logistics of getting from HCMC to Seim Reap

Our group gathered in Ho Chi Minh City (which is often abbreviated HCMC and was formerly known as Saigon). For two days we explored sites within the city as well as nearby landmarks, such as the Cu Chi Tunnels. In the post Body and Soul, one can see more images from those days as well as read excerpts from my first talk on the differences between conservation practice in East and West.

Old Post Office interior in Ho Chi Minh City

On Thursday the 20th, we embarked on the Mekong Princess for a seven-day cruise up the Mekong River.

Mekong Princess

Photos from the cruise can be found in the posts Scenes along the Mekong and Exploring the traditions of Angkor Ban.

Building a traditional sampan

The final three days were spent in the carefully restored historic Grand Hotel Angkor in the beautiful city of Siem Reap.

Grand Hotel Angkor, our home as we visited the temples of Angkor Wat
The famous Three Elephants Bar in the Grand Hotel Angkor

This was our home while the group explored the wonders of the temples of Angkor. Two posts that cover this portion of the trip are Sunrise over Greater Angkor and The appealing mysteries of Ta Prohm.

Sunrise over the Greater Angkor landscape

The Mekong is a busy — and threatened — river

The Mekong at morning outside Phnom Penh in Cambodia

Life never seems to stop along the Mekong River. It is beautiful. It is polluted. It is the lifeblood of the traditional communities that still line its banks. It is being choked at one end by the massive dams being built by the Chinese as part of their Belt and Road Initiative and it is being killed at the other when those dams result in hydrological changes that push brackish water back up the river. It supports a wide range of boats day and night, from traditional fishing vessels to weekend party boats around the major cities. It hosts floating markets.

It is endlessly mesmerizing.

Ferries are everywhere along the Mekong, although we saw a number of new bridges — usually built by other countries as reparations for war — along the route as well. This ferry seemed to specialize in motorbikes.
A traditional wooden boat for transporting fish. The eyes on the front of the boat are also a traditional touch.
Vietnam has built this dam and catchment area to stop brackish water from traveling further upstream and killing the fish and wildlife along the river.
One of literally hundreds of barges and boats we saw carrying goods along the river.

Speaking of transportation

This Vietnamese woman riding a bicycle on one of the island roads along the river was something of an anomaly.

The traditional bicycle which so many of us associate with Southeast Asia is being replaced by the motorcycle. Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh reminded me of the controlled chaos that is Delhi. Seim Reap — as befits its tourist-oriented focus near the Angkor temples — was more subdued.

A very typical street scene, full of motorcycles, in Ho Chi Minh City
It was difficult to find a place in HCMC that was not served by motorcycles
Motorcycles were everywhere, even in the most remote of villages

Candice and I (and our fellow travelers) took just about every mode of transportation imaginable over these two weeks.

Our Tuk-Tuk in Phnom Penh (credit to our Tuk Tuk driver)
Rider’s view from the Tuk-Tuk
Traveling around the moat at Angkor Thom via gondola (credit Sylvia Griffin)
A typical traditional boat to move off the ship and travel up the small waterways around the islands.
The launch point for our ship-to-island ferry.
Traveling by sampan in Ben Tre
And this historic mode of transportation was the way to our rooms in Seim Reip

These markets are not your typical Whole Foods

Part of the wet market in Phnom Penh’s Central Market

I included a number of pictures of the famous floating markets in an earlier post. But we saw markets everywhere, selling anything and everything.

Our group visits the floating Cai Rang market in Vietnam
Saigon’s Central Market (above) seemed crowded and chaotic…until we saw the Central Market in Phnom Penh. After that experience, this seemed rather orderly.
The Phnom Penh market had endless rows of clothing, including many brand-name outfits! (Including clothes where two well-known brand names were prominently featured, just to let you know it was quality!)
The central hall of the market in Phnom Penh. If you need a watch, you can get it here!
Flowers for sale beside the Buddhist temple in Siem Reap
Flower detail in Seim Reap

The museums were not always up to western standards, but they more than delivered in terms of educational enlightenment and emotional impact

Skulls from those who lost their lives at the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh

As I wrote in Understanding and honoring difficult history, our tour did not shy away from visiting the places and hearing the stories of horror and inhumanity. You are invited to click on the link to see more photos of places like the S-21 torture center and the Killing Fields. Throughout our visit, we were challenged again and again to look at the region’s history from fresh perspectives.

The photo exhibition at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City was especially powerful
Stark reminders of inhumanity at the War Remnants Museum
Cambodia’s national museum
Part of the collection at the national museum
Interior courtyard at the national museum
Detailing on the national museum
Khmer classical dance theatre in Seim Rep

The many islands held endless fascination

River scene on a Vietnamese island

We visited a number of small villages and islands throughout the trip. There was something new to see and experience around every bend.

Traditional house at Angkor Ban
Some traditional scenes — such as the pens for these roosters, kept separated to help train them for cock fighting — challenged our sensibilities
We saw numerous instances of single craftspeople working to create traditional and handmade pieces of clothing or items for use in the home
Family-owned coconut candy factory in Vietnam

Given our personal interests, we encountered local food and heard traditional music everywhere we turned

Our Cambodian meal one evening in Siem Reap

Candice and I both enjoy exploring the food of the countries we visit, and we had some excellent meals in both Vietnam and Cambodia. There was also a great deal of street food that looked exotic, but that would not have settled in well on our western digestive systems. We chose to simply capture those parts of the culinary experience via pictures.

Meat skewers — sometimes with feet and head attached — were very popular with the locals
The food in this small Vietnamese market was typical of what we saw on the street
This view of a family taking food from the floating market to use and/or resell is one of my favorite images of food from the entire trip
Flattening rice using traditional tools (but with an electric generator to supply the energy for the pounding mechanism)
Countless markets such as this one lined the roads in Vietnam and Cambodia

One of the street foods that our Cambodian guide swore tasted great…but did not entice us given our western sensibilities…was the 21-day-old egg. Yes, you can guess what emerges when one is cracked open.

Street vender selling the 21-day-old egg
Tek, our Cambodian guide, eats one of the eggs as we all declined his offer to join in
Fruit was everywhere we looked
Many of our travelers joined Candice in enjoying a Three Elephants drink at the Grand Hotel Angkor
Gathering for the trip’s final dinner together before we head home

Traditional music, also a deep interest of mine, could be found everywhere, but especially in the temples and on the streets. We heard a great deal of Khmer music once we reached Cambodia.

Traditional musicians playing in a Phnom Penh temple
Traditional dancing was always accompanied by a small group of musicians playing Khmer music on traditional instruments

Greater Angkor lives up to its reputation as a bucket list heritage site

The temples in the Greater Angkor area near Siem Reap, a UNESCO World Heritage Area and the largest religious monuments in the world, are not to be missed. We spent two days there and could have spent two weeks.

Angkor Wat
Hallway and carvings at Angkor Wat
Lotus flower in the moat around Angkor Thom
Our approach to Bayon Temple
Bayon Temple…note the faces in the towers

The carvings at Bayon Temple are simply extraordinary.

Marker for the Terrace of the Leper King
Terrace of the Leper King
Terrace of the Leper King

Both Vietnam and Cambodia are one-party countries ruled by authoritarian leaders, and the wealth inequality is staggering

Presidential Palace in Phnom Penh

Everywhere we turned on this trip, we could see disparities of wealth. The amount of outside investment, especially from the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and some Middle Eastern oil countries, was huge and unrelenting.

Old and new architecture juxtaposed in Phnom Penh
New construction was everywhere in Phnom Penh

Unfortunately, along with the shiny new buildings, the sustenance living of so many of those we saw on the streets and in the villages was also extensive and unforgettable. Western style investment and development has not been the tide that lifts all boats…a fact that we see in our country as well.

This Vietnamese woman cooking with rudimentary utensils in an open-air kitchen was an all-too-typical scene on the islands along the Mekong
Farm animals live side-by-side with families in Angkor Ban
Children in Angkor Ban were enthusiastic learners, even though they had to use sub-standard reading materials in their English classes
Children in Angkor Ban wish us well at the end of the school day
Residents at a Phnom Penh orphanage that is supported by the owners of the Mekong Princess entertained us with traditional music and dancing. The impacts of war, poverty, and policies to encourage Western-style development can be hard on the country’s youngest citizens.

All of the cities had their special charms and attractions

The entrance to the Old Post Office in Ho Chi Minh City, bringing to mind the French colonial past
The presidential palace in Ho Chi Minh City as seen from our bus. Unfortunately, the building was off limits for parts of our stay, due to a state visit by the President of Singapore
One of the networks of parks in Ho Chi Minh City, as seen as we drove past on our bus
The independence monument in Phnom Penh
Cambodia has a history associated with drumming. This drum is part of one of the main temples in Phnom Penh
View in the heart of Phnom Penh

Siem Reap had the best bridges.

And who even knew that a fish pedicure even existed!?

With thanks to the young lady who gave me permission to photograph her feet swimming with the fishes

I’ll end where I began…

Our group of travelers in front of Angkor Wat

National Trust Tours can be a life enriching experience. Come and join us.

More to come…


*As a staff member serving as a representative for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I took my first NTT trip in 1998 to Northern Ireland. Over my more than two-decade career with the Trust, I joined tours stretching from the Black Sea to the Gardens of the Caribbean, from the coastal civilizations of Europe and the beaches at Normandy to Japan.

Presenting one of my lectures aboard the Mekong Princess (credit Candice Brown)

After my retirement from full-time service at the Trust in 2019, the NTT staff asked me to join them in this role of study tour leader, sharing my expertise and experience in historic preservation and international heritage conservation through lectures and other presentations on several trips each year. While the pandemic scuttled the first couple of tours, we were finally able to begin this new journey in 2021 with a tour to explore the architecture, art, and craft of Asheville. That was followed earlier this year with our tour of Glasgow, the Scottish Highlands and islands, and the fiords of Norway.

In 2023, I am scheduled to serve as one of the study tour leaders/educational experts for two tours: Alaska’s Glaciers and the Inside Passage (July 13 – 20) and Antiquities of the Red Sea & Aegean Seas including Suez Canal (October 31 – November 13). I’d love to see you on one of these journeys.

All images by DJB unless otherwise noted in the captions


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