It's strange when you get to an age where you can remember what a place looked like 20 years ago and you have the opportunity to come back and revisit it. Angkor Wat in Cambodia was one of those places for me. The first time I went to visit was back in 2005 when the tsunami hit Thailand. I happened to be in Thailand, narrowly escaping the tsunami myself and the entire country was in chaos, so I decided to go backpacking (as one does in their 20's) and retreat to their nearby neighbor in Cambodia for a few days. Lara Croft Tomb Raider had just recently come out and I was OBSESSED with Angelina Jolie and her female version of Indiana Jones, so I went in search of this temple, not realizing that it was a whole kingdom of temples that spanned 500 acres in the middle of the jungle!
The sheer vastness of walking around these temples is overwhelming. Every square inch of stone was hand carved and chiseled to create elaborate statues or faces and back then there were no rules. You could swing on vines and climb all over the ruins and feel like a true explorer. My only regret is that I didn't have the 20 years of photography expertise that I do now and a good camera back then, because revisiting today was a completely different experience. Now, there are hundreds of tourists fighting to get the same "insta famous" shots and wooden walkways have been built with cordoned off areas and you are not allowed to climb on the ruins any more...in case they get "ruined". But even though it was swarming with tourists, the ruins are SO vast that you could still get epic photos and be wowed by the sheer complexity and beauty of these temples. But that was not the only difference between my trip 20 years ago and today. Now that I am in my 40's backpacking is a thing of the past
What was also vastly different on this trip was the level of comfort that I was traveling in. Back in my 20's I remember staying at a cheap hostel nearby and having to take cheap flights to get around to Thailand and Vietnam. This time, I decided to do a completely different approach that involved no planes and a lot of comfort, and that was booking a cruise down the Mekong River on the Mekong Princess luxury riverboat. It never occurred to me that you could sail from Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam down the Mekong River and that you could see a completely different side of these countries from the water, yet also be able to get off and explore villages and cities along the way. The best part is that you never had to unpack and repack while we were on the move. You have your luxury stateroom, that is your bed onboard your floating home for 12 days and that is a rare thing to be able to have while traveling through Asia.
Pats and I booked this trip through the luxury tour operators Abercrombie and Kent known for their bespoke voyages. Their 12 day luxurious, boutique river cruise was like a work retreat for Pats and I. Every day , we would have a packed itinerary that intertwined the river culture and land excursions with local villagers and monks in pagodas. We always had some down time on the boat while we cruised to different locations and we would take advantage of that time working on our laptops on deck chairs with cocktails brought to us. The staff on the boat knew exactly what we wanted always a step before you think to ask for it. The service was impeccable. I am not a "cruise person" and I have always been anti large cruises, but I have to say smaller boutique boats can give you access to places otherwise not accessible, and you can get a more authentic view of less touristy locales ranging from little-known islands to a port nestled in the heart of vibrant Saigon. What I LOVED most about this cruise was that you could spend the day taking in the chaos of asian markets and cities and checking out temples and riding around in tuk tuks, but then have a clean, luxurious place to go back to to change, shower, have a cocktail on the water , a nice dinner with friends and wine, and have a oasis of calm in the midst of Vietnam.
One of my favorite experiences of the trip was floating through one of Vietnam's famous floating markets and being able to buy fruit and vegetables from boat to boat and just witness the chaos and beautiful madness of floating grocery shopping. Honestly, I hate grocery shopping, but I swear I would buy more fruits and vegetables at home if I could do it like a pirate on a boat jumping on board another boat stacked with berries and bananas! It was so much fun! It is definitely a unique experience to be able to visit Vietnam via riverboat.
As a photographer, this trip was beyond rich with vibrant temples, local experiences in villages, getting a private tour through one of my favorite UNESCO sites in the world,Angkor Wat, floating through markets, experiencing the nightlife in Saigon and the museums in Ho Chi Minh and just experiencing dinners with other guests prepared by amazing chefs and great conversations about everything we had just seen that day. One moment that will always stay with me was a man from our boat was a Vietnam War Veteran and he had not been back to Vietnam since the war. It was a therapeutic trip for him and at one point we met a former Viet Cong Vet in one of the villages....and I got a photo of the two men shaking hands and forgiving each other in a time of peace. It made me emotional to see these two men that had once had their homes, families and lives torn apart by war shake hands as fellow brothers. The Vietnamese man thanked him for choosing to come back to see the "real Vietnam" in peacetime. It was a powerful moment that I will never forget...