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Exactly what is Fathom? It is a new way to cruise that focuses on local culture and impact activities that help the communities you visit. It is the type of trip that changes you by interacting with wonderful people and learning about their lives. I had the pleasure of experiencing Fathom last Summer with my 18-year old nephew. On board the ship, the Impact Guides teach you about the culture of the DR and Cuban people so one can better understand the daily challenges they face. They also lead you in activities to learn more about yourself such as story telling and problem challenges. It was surprising how these activities made a bond between passengers that made the trip even more special. On land we worked alongside the women of a chocolate factory cooperative that also had some sweet surprises included. The Repapel Recycled Paper Factory left me on such a high, singing and dancing with the local women who work there. And it was nice to see the products of our labor. I also planted trees as part of a shore protection activity to help the environment. Opportunities also exist to work with children at an arts/sports school, teach English in a local community, make water filters and deliver them to families in need and pour concrete floors to give a family better quality of life. All of these impact activities leave the participants with a sense of purpose in doing good for others. In Cuba, visiting Santiago de Cuba, will provide participants with the opportunity to engage with the Cuban people. The history is amazing and their love of music and dancing is absolutely contagious! I promise you won't be able to sit still! There is also plenty of time to enjoy Amber Cove, a purpose built cruise port with a huge swim up bar, zip line and waterfront cabanas. On board, the food and service are fantastic and a great band performs every evening and on sea days. And they have the best Latin Dance instructor on board. He will have you doing salsa, merengue and bacchata in no time! Join me on this adventure on May 7th. It will be a trip of a lifetime and you can do it all from less than $800.00 per person for a week! You can find details on my specials page under Adventures With Toni Tours.
The answer is yes. Technically, Americans are still not allowed to freely travel to Cuba unless they meet one of 12 criteria with the two most common ones being mission trips and people to people cultural exchanges. The cruise lines sailing to Cuba from US ports have qualified to do so by meeting the people to people cultural exchange requirements.
As per NCL, who will be operating cruises with an overnight in Havana: A people to people exchange is defined as a traveler who maintains a full time schedule of educational exchange activcities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people and that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and the people of Cuba. The traveler must self certify that they have met these requirements, by keeping a log of their activities and impressions whether they explore on their own or through a shore excursion offered by NCL. The traveler must retain this log of activities for 5-years from the dates of travel. Travelers must fill out a form indicating they meet the people to people requirements as set forth by OFAC, they must have a valid US passport that does not expire less than 6-months from your last date of travel in Cuba and must obtain a Cuban visa. NCL can process this visa for a $75.00 fee.
I have visited Cuba and the advantage of visiting by ship, means consistency in the level of accommodation and ensures the traveler a place to stay. Cuba's infrastructure is struggling to meet the increased demand, and accommodation levels are not yet up to US traveler's expectations.
I would be happy to assist you in planning your Cuba cruise. But don't delay, as there is limited space and it is bound to sell out quickly.
When I tell people I am traveling to Siem Reap, it is usually met with questions of where is that and why are you going there? I answer that it is in Cambodia and home to one of the best preserved temple complexes dating back to the 12th century including Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom; the one featured in Angelina Jolie’s movie Tomb Raider. That usually brings a glimmer of recognition to people’s faces. I tell them the main reason this is my third trip there in six years is that Siem Reap is brought to life by some of the most humble, resilient people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I try to explain the recent history of genocide by the Khmer Rouge and how the tenacity of the Cambodian people have helped them forge ahead to rebuild their lives and provide hope for a better future.
We checked into the beautiful Victoria Angkor Hotel and were met by the hostess in Khmer dress with the traditional greeting of hands together touched to the head with a bow at the waist. The hotel was built in 2003, but looks like a 1930s colonial building. It is located in the center of the city and encircles a central courtyard with lush tropical gardens and free form swimming pool. The rooms were large at 355 sq. ft. and furnished in traditional Khmer hardwood furniture with comfortable beds and French doors leading to a lanai that overlooked the courtyard.
We enjoyed an early afternoon at the pool with ice cold Angkor Beer on draft at the L’Explorateur Lounge in the outdoor wicker seating area. It was hot and steamy but pleasant to sit under the porch canopy as a passing rain shower tapped rhythmically overhead.
The hotel had a lovely spa with indoor and outdoor treatment areas and services reasonably priced at about $35.00 per hour but when I am in Siem Reap, I prefer to use the smaller businesses in town. I hired a tuk-tuk for roundtrip transport to Seeing Hands IV, a spa that provides jobs to the blind located near the night market. I chose the treatment room with A/C and was assigned a young man named Devit as my therapist. He spoke pretty good English and I enjoyed our conversation during the massage so he could practice his conversational skills. He lost his sight
when he was 12 years old due to some type of accident which he couldn’t find the words to explain. He was able to say that it was not due to a land mine explosion, which is the cause of so many debilitating injuries in Cambodia. These land mines were left behind during the Khmer Rouge rule and there is a massive project underway to try and extract them all safely which will take several years. Davit asked if he could call me “Mommy” which is a sign of respect from younger to older folks and is a common request in Cambodia when a rapport is formed. The treatment was top quality and I felt relaxed and refreshed after my 60-minute full body massage with oil for $12.00 USD. I always tip heavily on the cost for treatments in Southeast Asia, knowing that the bulk of the cost goes to the owner of the spa. The money that goes directly into the hand of the therapist goes a long way in making their life better, so paying $20.00 to $25.00 total is money well spent.
We visited Pub Street for dinner and ate at the Red Piano that specializes
in Khmer and Italian food. Red Piano was the favorite hangout of the cast and crew of Tomb Raider and their autographed photos hang on the wall. We sat on the upper level with a ring side seat overlooking the sea of humanity and activity below. Pub Street comes alive at night with tourists, and locals trying to make a buck hawking dinner menus for the various restaurants, tuk-tuk drivers looking for their next fare and the Land Mine Victim’s Band playing for donations. I made eye contact with one of the musicians in the band who wasn’t going to give up waving between songs, until we finished dinner and put our dollars in their bucket with a thank-you for providing our evening entertainment.
We joined the masses and did the Pub Crawl for a few hours and had fun chatting with the persistent tuk-tuk drivers. It was sad to see an increase in the number of street children begging just past the secured pedestrian zone. While it tugs at my heart strings, I don’t believe in encouraging begging. I ease my conscience by sending an annual donation to one of the orphanages in Siem Reap that takes in
these street children and sends them to school, teaches them skills such as farming, Khmer crafts and English, to help them get jobs in the tourism industry when they turn of age.
The last tuk-tuk driver who attached himself to us for about 30-minutes, finally scored the fare to take us back to the hotel. Riding in a tuk-tuk is one of the most fun things to do in Siem Reap. You need to muster some courage, close your eyes and hold on tight for an experience similar to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in Disney World!
We arrived at the hotel in time to greet the rest of our group who arrived on a late flight. Several hugs and handshakes were exchanged and it was off to bed for an early rise in the morning. We were now ready to begin our tour arranged by J Yang Tours.
We woke up to a lovely buffet breakfast that included fresh baked breads, and Western and Asian items. After being sufficiently fueled up for the day, we met our bus driver and guide Suphon.
Suphon was young and spoke English with a heavy Cambodian accent which is common
in Siem Reap. There is a shortage of native English speaking teachers in Cambodia so this presents them with a challenge. But their enthusiasm and eagerness to improve by conversing with the guests, reaches beyond the difficulties in always being able to understand their speech.
We headed off to the Angkor UNESCO World Heritage Park a few minutes ride from the hotel. We began our visit by walking across the Naga Bridge past the impressive warrior statues into the Angkor Thom complex. Our first stop inside the complex was the Bayon Temple built in 1190 AD by Jayavaraman VII and was the center of the Angkor Thom complex. I loved hearing the name spoken so musically by our guide as the rest of us struggled to say it correctly. We wondered why seven different people chose such a tongue twister name. Maybe their friends and family just called them "Jay"!
I never tire of seeing the wall surrounding the complex with its carved relief of over 11,000 figures depicting the history of daily life, naval and military battles with the Cham people and victory parade, a river teeming with life and a panel depicting Jayavaraman VII as the all-seeing and knowing king.
The upper level of the complex is accessed via steep, worn steps and provides a close up view of the huge stone faces of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Buddah to be), thought to be a self-portrait of Jayavaraman VII. Four faces grace each stone pillar pointing in North, South, East and West positions and represent love, compassion, joy and equanimity.
Our next stop was the Terraces of the Elephants and the Leper King. It is part of an open air complex that is thought to be a place of ceremonies and cremation. The Elephant Terrace was used as a platform by Jayarvarman VII to view his victorious returning army and is lined with Elephant statues along the foundation. The Leper King Terrace got its name when a statue of the Hindu god Yama, the god of death, was excavated in the area and found to be covered with moss which resembled someone with leprosy.
From here, we needed to catch the Heritage Park bus to Ta Phrom Temple. This is something new they started to reduce the amount of traffic within the park and evenly distribute the number of guests visiting the site. Ta Prohm known as the jungle temple and was the site where several scenes from the movie Tomb Raider were filmed. When I first visited in 2006, I was free to roam through all parts of the temple in its beautifully eerie overgrown state, with roots growing through the walls and trees growing on top. Unfortunately, this has caused damage to the temple and authorities have feared collapse of certain structures. So, some of the romance of the place has been lost to barriers and scaffolding in an attempt to remove most of the growth.
The temple was built in the 12th and 13th centuries by Jayavarman VII as a Buddhist Monastery and University. It was known as the Rajavihara (Royal Temple) and was built in honor of his family. The temple’s records indicated that more than 12,500 people lived here including 18 high priests and 615 dancers.
We noticed a park policeman hard at work on our way out, sound asleep in a hammock under the trees. The heat of the day was starting to get to us as well, so we headed to the only air conditioned restaurant within the Heritage Park Complex, called the Blue Pumpkin. I guess they don't have any donut shops around ;-))
We had to pass through a gauntlet of children selling handmade woven bracelets, scarves, post cards and other assorted souvenirs on our way from the bus to the restaurant. Once inside, we enjoyed a lovely 4-course Khmer style lunch and had some free time to browse the adjacent Artisans d’Angkor gift shop. Artisans d’Angkor is a special art school located in Siem Reap that teaches the traditional Khmer art forms. Woven silks, hand painted lacquer ware, wood carvings and silver sculpting are some of the handmade items they produce.
After lunch we began the long afternoon hike through the Angkor Wat Temple Complex. It is the largest Hindu Temple complex in the world. It was built in the early 12th century by Suryvaraman II. It is the best preserved temple at the site and was the only one that remained a significant religious center since its foundation. It was first dedicated to Vishnu and in later centuries Buddah. The king had it built as the state capital and later his mausoleum.
A carved stone relief telling the story of the time was left unfinished when the Cham people defeated Suryvaraman. The kingdom was later restored by Jayavaraman VII
who moved the capital to Angkor Thom.
The temple was never abandoned by the local people and it was protected from severe overgrowth by the presence of the moat that surrounds it. Parts of it are still used as a Buddhist Temple today. The temple serves as a symbol of great pride to the Cambodian people and it is featured on their national flag.
After our tour, we took the requisite photos of the neighborhood monkeys and the temple reflected in the lotus pond and then headed back to our hotel for a well-deserved rest and shower.
We headed to Koulen Restaurant and dance hall for a Khmer style buffet dinner and a classical Khmer dance show. The food was institutional style Asian and Western food that was luke warm at best, but plentiful. Several cats roamed the floor and rafters of the restaurant freely and caused muffled screams from diners as the critters rubbed unexpectedly against their legs. The staff chased them with high pitched yelps from a portable radio and brought chuckles from the crowd.
The show demonstrates several of the local folk dances that tell stories of Khmer daily life with the best being the traditional Apsara dance that was performed in the royal courts. The dancers are elaborately dressed in silks and golden head dresses and perform slow and figurative gestures meant to mesmerize the viewer. The contorted hand positions are learned early on in child hood. The dancers and musicians were enthusiastic and posed for photos at the end of their performance for several minutes.
A heavy thunderstorm cut our night short, so instead of visiting the open-air night market, we retreated to the hotel for a good night’s sleep. A fond farewell was bid to Suphon who thanked us all for our tips. He told us how his work with tourists has dramatically improved his life by being able to afford building a home for his family and having enough money to get married. It was touching to see how much he appreciated the interaction with us and our gift of thanks.
A few of us headed to the L’Explorateur Lounge at the hotel and had a good giggle with our server when I ordered a club soda and got a club sandwich instead. Something lost in translation!
All in all, it was a wonderful short visit to one of my favorite places. I look forward to a lengthier return stay soon. For more information on Siem Reap and other destinations in Southeast Asia, contact me via email firstname.lastname@example.org