Family vacation includes Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia

The Alifrangis family finished their vacation in Cambodia, where their stops included Ta Prohm, one of the ancient temples in Angkor.
The Alifrangis family finished their vacation in Cambodia, where their stops included Ta Prohm, one of the ancient temples in Angkor. (Family photo)
Sunday, May 9, 2010

Cathy Alifrangis of Herndon is the latest contributor to Your Vacation in Lights, in which we invite Travel section readers to dish about their recent trips. It's a big, confusing travel world out there, and you can help your fellow travelers navigate it. You won't win a million dollars if your story is featured; in fact, you won't win anything but the thanks and admiration of your fellow readers. To file your own trip report, see the fine print below.

THE TRIP: Southeast Asia

WHO? My husband, Spiro; our college-age daughter, Christina; and I.

WHERE? A 16-night cruise from Shanghai to Bangkok with stops in Okinawa, two ports in Vietnam, Hong Kong, Taipei and Singapore. Afterward, we spent eight days touring Thailand and Cambodia.

WHEN? Winter break from college.

WHY? As a former ESOL teacher, I wanted to see the homelands of many of my students. Spiro agreed to join us because he had missed us when he opted out of our last two winter adventures.

AIRPORT EXAM: Although our daughter had checked out the exam schedule before we confirmed booking, a professor acknowledged about three weeks before the trip that he had the wrong date on the syllabus. He said that she had to take it that day, but we reached a compromise: She took her exam during the layover at the Frankfurt airport.

SHANGHAI SURPRISE: We had to pay $450 total for visas to enter China and go directly to the ship. To make the most of the visas, we tried to get off the ship and go into the city. We stood outside freezing as various guards discussed what to do. Finally, one went through immigration and got our passports stamped. By then we were too cold to want to continue, but we were embarrassed to tell the guards. So we walked around the building and tried to mix in with the arriving ship passengers.

IT MADE ME NERVOUS . . . when we couldn't get a cab back to the ship in Singapore. We were unaware that they pick people up only at taxi stands. As cab after cab ignored our frantic gestures, we hurried to the MRT, the subway. We switched lines with little trouble, ran through the terminal and passport control, and arrived at the ship's entry only five minutes late.

HELI-HIKE: My daughter and another passenger took a hiking excursion to the Dragon's Back in Hong Kong. The guide pointed out the route he would have used to get down if everyone were young. Christina and Marc decided that they'd beat the rest of the group to the bottom. Long story short, the path became less and less defined and then disappeared. They held on to vines and crawled through bamboo only to find themselves on the edge of a cliff. Marc had service but limited battery on his iPhone; Christina had battery life but no service. Because of her Girl Scout background, she knew that you could call 911 even without service. Marc turned his phone on long enough to access his GPS application and get their coordinates. They were rescued by helicopter.

SLEEPLESS IN SIEM REAP: One night, at about 9, we started hearing cymbals and drumming, loud music and a voice on a microphone. We eventually fell asleep, only to be awakened at 4 a.m. by the same barrage of noise. A sign at the front desk apologized for the noise, which was typical of weddings and funerals. To top off the night, Christina was bitten by a bug and woke up with her eye swollen shut.

FAVORITE MEAL: Coconut spaghetti at the Red Piano in Siem Reap.

MOST EXPENSIVE DRINK: An $18 Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel, where the drink originated.

TUNNEL VISION: Having grown up during the Vietnam War era and taught so many of the boat people, I found it fascinating to crawl through the Cu Chi tunnels and hear the communist view of the war.

TASTY MOMENTS: Drinking juice from a just-picked coconut, eating sticky rice cooked in bamboo on the side of the road, and sampling food at the various markets.

SPA TIME: During our last three days in Bangkok, we found a massage spa near the hotel. The total bill for the three of us for three days' worth of Thai massages and scrubs was less than the cost of one massage in the States.

VILLAGE LIFE: In a small village along Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia, an elderly woman called to us in French and invited us to taste the sweets she was making. Then another person invited us to her porch, where we watched a man with a fever being treated by cupping. (Hot cups are attached to the body, allowing the welts to heal the fever.) I also visited a school.

FAVORITE SOUVENIR: The one I didn't have to bargain for. At a porcelain store in Amphawa, Thailand, where hand-painted plates are made for visiting dignitaries, I purchased an intricately painted bowl for the set price.

TOILET HUMOR: You don't appreciate Charmin until you've used the thin sandpaper available in bathrooms across Asia. And practice squats before traveling.

I WAS TORN . . . when I saw children performing tricks on water buffaloes for money or when they would try to sell postcards or other knickknacks with adorable memorized speeches and pat responses to a "No, thank you." I could certainly afford a dollar here and there, but was I perpetuating a form of child labor? In a country where $20 can feed a family of four for a month, what is the right response?

PARTING THOUGHTS: The gracious, smiling Thais, the simple lives of the villagers, the progressive nature of various Asian cities, the encroachment of American culture and business, the food, the sights, the practices of various religions, the history and the potential. The world is changing, and much of this part of the world will be gone in decades. We learned so much and can better appreciate the history of that region.

Want to see your own vacation in lights? We'll highlight one report each month. To submit, use the categories above as a guide (use as many as you wish, or add your own), and send your report to Your Vacation in Lights, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071; or e-mail

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