Compass Blog

Between Hanoi and Angkor Wat

Kerstin Sowden, Asia Specialist, had grand expectations of Angkor Wat. Delving deep in to research and reveling in countless pictures she romanticized about standing amidst the ancient ruins, lit by the soft hues of day break. She transformed her imaginations to reality last month on her private-guided Vietnam and Cambodia tour and she's returned more enraptured than when she left. Kerstin gained novel experiences and heartfelt moments that have contributed to her already profound knowledge and understanding of Southeast Asia.

Here are her tales from the path to Angkor Wat:


I was quickly reminded of my Canadian heritage when I was happily basking in the 10-12 °C temperatures while the locals shivered under layers of clothing! Much of Vietnam's history was revealed to us during our visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where Vietminh leader Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence on September 2, 1945, establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The Temple of Literature is Vietnam's first national university and is one of the several dedicated to Confucius. Visiting these significant historical places reminded me that the country's past goes much further back than the American War for which it's most commonly known for.


From the luxury Paradise Peak cruise ship, we had a breathtaking view of countless islands emerging from the emerald waters. As if taking in every detail of an art installation, we couldn't pull our gaze away as we floated along on the luxury ship. Each spacious cabin had an en-suite bathroom with Jacuzzi, we savored each exquisite meal and we were spoiled by our attentive personal butler – Paradise Peak made our experience of Halong Bay a true masterpiece! One morning we had breakfast out on the deck and watched as the bay came to life as fisherman rowed their boats out.


My Son was built by the ancient Cham Empire. Influenced by Hinduism, they built temple complexes in central Vietnam. Most tourists who visit the My Son temple complex take a popular circuit that follows a natural order that points out significant details. We arrived just as a few buses unloaded a large crowd of eager tourists. Our guide took immediate notice and decided to do the circuit in reverse so as to avoid the crowds. It was a beautiful private-guided moment!

I love Vietnamese food. I loved it more when I had the opportunity to shop in the local markets for ingredients and learn how to make some of my favorite dishes. Red Bridge Cooking School offers a guided tour of Hoi An's colorful central market, boat trip on the Hoi An River, 2 hours hand on cooking class and the best part – you get to eat the food you made yourself! The market experience exposed us to fruits I'd never seen before, locals who joked and laughed with us and a whole new approach to shopping for meat - it included being able to feel the raw pieces of flesh before purchasing!


A PRIVATE-GUIDED KENSINGTON MOMENT: On our first morning in Siem Reap, we finally beheld the awe-inspiring sunrise at Angkor Wat. Standing at the edge of the pond in front of the main temple, I absorbed the meditative vibe around me. Slowly, the emerging day light brought every vivid detail of the temple to life. Our private guide was phenomenal not only for his in-depth knowledge but his attentiveness to creating the best possible Angkor Wat experience for us. He took us to the perfect viewing spots for sunrise and sunset, recommended fantastic local restaurants and pointed out significante details we would have otherwise missed.

Despite its relatively recent violent history, Cambodians are the most proud and grateful people I've ever met. Their infectious smiles and curiosity humbled me greatly. On our second day we were having breakfast on the grounds of one of the temples and a small boy happily approached us. Dressed in his school uniform, we assumed that he was skipping his morning class! "Where are you from?" he asked inquisitively. When we told him we were Canadians, he immediately stated that Ottawa is the capital. Then he excitedly rattled off the capital cities of various countries around the world. He seemed proud of himself and we encouraged him by continuing to ask him what the capital cities of some more, less common, countries. I was surprised by the correct answers he provided. His warmth and affability touched me profoundly. We had made a new friend in this wonderful place.

Another highlight of our time in Siem Reap, and perhaps the entire trip, was at a local orphanage. We arrived baring a bag or rice and several pens and notebooks all purchased for a mere $30 USD. It was a small donation to give in return for the multitude of smiling children who welcomed us graciously. Again, I felt humbled by their gratitude for items I take for granted in my daily life. Their jubilant spirit and wide-eyed enthusiasm will forever remain in my heart and memories of this beautiful country.

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