Posts Tagged ‘Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf & Spa Resort’

Mekong River Voyage of Discovery: Connecting Past and Present

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2018

THE MEKONG RIVER…The artery that led us on our hearts’ life-long mission…to trace where our fathers once walked in time of war…we now walk in time of peace.

“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage- to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness. ” ~ Alex Haley, author of Roots, whom I had the privilege and honor of working with in the early 90’s impressed upon me the importance of knowing who we are, by researching the lives of those who bravely paved the path before us. 

 

THIS IS OUR STORY.

 

By Mel Gee Henderson
with Maynhia Yang Stott
Photography by ESCAPESEEKER,
unless otherwise indicated

Prologue: Part 1

A.S. Peapealalo“Your Dad, Sgt. Major Peppy saved my life!” This was the remarkable sentiments expressed by soldier upon soldier as they shook my hand during my father’s packed Memorial Service. For you see, my father, a U.S. Marine whose military career spanned more than three decades, volunteered for deployment during the Vietnam conflict, not once, twice, or three times, but five!  It only seems natural then that he would have had occasions to save equally as many lives.
Back home, during my father’s absence, my mother served as CEO of our home.  My elder brother was in his prime (sometimes rather wild)  teen years; while I was still in the thick of my formative elementary school phase. My mother worked full time in order to stay sane and keep her mind off the Vietnam War fueled further by nightly news reports of the conflict only escalating. We, along with other military families in our Oceanside, California neighborhood learned to cope with our soldiers’ absence.  But underneath the calm exterior, even as a child, I knew full well that everyone dreaded the mere sight of the Chaplain’s black sedan slowly cruising our streets, looking for the designated address.  It only meant one thing: another life had been lost to the Vietnam War.
 

My Mission

Fast forward, 42 years after the Fall of Saigon, I am now granted the opportunity to walk the very same Asian soil my father walked.  The stark difference:  He walked as a soldier through enemy-thick jungles in sweltering heat, and marched with boots laced with leeches across verdant rice [mine] fields in war-ravaged Vietnam; I, however, now walk in time of peace.  I see a country that bears only a small resemblance to the images that lit up our TV sets, accompanied with disturbing, grueling reports about a war that few understood.  I feel compelled to learn all that I can about this Southeast Asia region that occupied a major chunk of my father’s life, and impacted our entire family…a familiar story that was repeated in homes across America’s vast landscape.
  

Part 2: Enter… Maynhia Yang Stott

 


​Maynhia with ESCAPESEEKER during our “Astonishing Australia” film shoot

How It All Began

In mid-October of 2017, I enjoyed a Chinese lunch with one of our most ardent ESCAPESEEKER Travel Series supporters who had accompanied our film crew on an epic, month-long Australia filming assignment in August of 2017. Her name:  Maynhia Yang Stott, a Hmong Laotian-French-American. She began to recall the story of how her family narrowly escaped from Communist-ruled Laos after the Fall of Saigon. As she spoke, I realized for the first time, the depth of how far this young entrepreneurial woman had come from that singular moment that her  2-year old self had literally been plucked from the grip of an extremely difficult and dangerous existence.  She looked me right in the eyes, and pointedly expressed,  “Mel, I want to go back to Laos, and learn more about my family’s past, and more importantly, I want to find a way to give back and help the Laotian people.  I want to improve the lives of impoverished children, who like me, need a chance for a better life.  Will you help me?  Remember, I was only 2 years old when I left. It is so foreign to me, and I know little about how to navigate that part of the world.”After giving it a great deal of thought, I suggested to her, “If we’re going to go back and learn more about your family’s heritage, then we must also explore the other countries that have impacted Laos history–the countries that make up Indochina:  Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.  Throughout its history, the horror of wars that impacted one, impacted all three.  And, the best mode of travel since we are both unfamiliar with this part of Asia, I think we should consider joining the AmaWaterways‘ River vessel, the AmaDara, designed specifically to navigate the Mekong River and its complex arteries which embarks from a tiny port–a 5 hour drive from Siem Reap, Cambodia, and winds through the Mekong River until it reaches its final destination:  Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.”

Maynhia agreed. But before we join the AmaDara River Cruise Voyage, we shall first travel to the land of her roots, Laos, officially known as Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

The AmaDara, our chosen vessel for exploring the Mekong River and its tributaries.

The AmaDara, our chosen vessel for exploring the Mekong River and its tributaries.

Map

Thus, the stage is now set for two friends to accomplish two distinct missions. Yet, both reasons for their journey are actually similarly tied; we both seek to understand our father’s past–a past that has played such an integral part in shaping our most formative years. 
To understand Maynhia’s motivations to return to Laos, you must first gain a glimpse into her family’s vivid past. 
Laos, a foreign name and an even more foreign land for a little girl who escaped the country as a two-year old toddler.

In her own words… 

My mother describes vividly how our family left Laos when the Americans pulled out of the Vietnam War. 

Xiang Khouang Deputy Governor Youa Pao Yang

Xiang Khouang Deputy Governor Youa Pao Yang

Because my Father,  Xiang Khouang Deputy Governor Youa Pao Yang, was a high Hmong official, and the first recognized Hmong Lao government official (along with General Vang Pao), who fought along side the Americans, his life was in real danger. In May 1975 the Americans sent choppers to evacuate the Hmong officials from Long Tieng. Choppers carried out air lift missions to Long Tieng for three days. Long Tieng was a Laotian military base located in Xiangkhouang Province.

During the Laotian Civil War, it served as a town and airbase operated by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States. At that time my family lived in Ban Naso, a little village where we took refuge for four years after the capital seat of Xiangkhouang, Satong fell under the communist regime.

I was born in Ban Naso. We arrived in Long Tieng the second day after an arduous five hours drive. For two days my family tried to board with no success; the airport was crowded with people. When the helicopters arrived, they would rush and scramble to get on. The soldiers in charge of helping us couldn’t control the crowd. My mom was with child. She was holding a suitcase and carrying me on her back with a nyaaj, a traditional baby cloth carrier. I had just turned two years old. My dad was holding my older brothers’ hands. Kou was six, and Yi was four.  My sister Bao who was eight was old enough to walk by herself. My mom says this time was the scariest time of her life. She wasn’t scared of the enemy as much as she was of the crowd of people. They were so ruthless. It seemed that no one cared about anyone. Prior to the helicopters coming, the Americans told the people that they will only send helicopters to evacuate the officials and that the people were safe from the Viet communist since the communist will only punish or kill the officials.

The first day, the people let the officials board but like anywhere in times of war, fears and doubt creep into the peole’s mind and chaos acrrues. The second day, when we arrived the airport was crowded with people fighting to get on board the choppers. No one listened to the Americans anymore. It was survival of the fittest.

Whenever I doubt if I possess the courage and strength to undertake a new challenge, even a foreign venture, I think of my Mother and the tremendous strength and resolve she demonstrated to do what was necessary  to save our family and begin a new life, I question it no more.  Our family overcame huge financial, cultural, language obstacles to thrive in France, and ultimately settling in America as citizens. We've come so far since that terrifying river crossing.  Today, my mother still stands at the head of our family, reminding us that there's nothing we cannot conquer.   Where do I get my ability to easily adapt to any situation?  Her name is By Ly Yang, and she is my Mother.

Whenever I doubt if I possess the courage and strength to undertake a new challenge, even a foreign venture, I think of my Mother and the tremendous strength and resolve she demonstrated to do what was necessary to save our family and begin a new life, I question it no more.
Our family overcame huge financial, cultural, language obstacles to thrive in France, and ultimately settling in America as citizens. We’ve come so far since that terrifying river crossing.
Today, my mother still stands at the head of our family, reminding us that there’s nothing we cannot conquer.
Where do I get my ability to easily adapt to any situation? Her name is By Ly Yang, and she is my Mother.

 

After two days of trying to board to no avail, my mom suggested that my dad leave for Thailand by himself and she and the children will stay behind with my grand mother since his life was in imminent danger and ours was not. My dad refused to let us stay, and said he will find a way. We hired a taxi to drive us to Vientiane– an 8-hours drive through a small dirt road. It was just our little family. When we left Naso my dad told his body guards to go home and take their family to safety. Once in Vientiane, my dad’s 3-5 body guards  who were already there at our house, refused to let him go out since the city was already occupied by the communist. After three days they finally found a boat from a Thai man who agreed to help us. The body guards snucked us out of the city to the river bank and we finally crossed the Mekong river. They placed us in a boat and watched us cross, hidden from the river bank. When we reached the other side which was the city of Nong Khai, they returned to our house and gathered their families to make the same crossing we had just made. All of them made it safely across.

Fast forward–they now reside in the United States, or in France. Because my dad worked with the French government most of his life he chose to emigrate to France. We lived there for 14 years. This is my Dad in his civilian attire, thriving in his newfound, conflict-free, adopted country.facebook_1513140648467

After my father’s passing we moved to the United States to be reunited with my mom’s family. I was born in April of 1973. If you ask my mom, she will say that I was born when “we were planting.” That’s how the Hmong remember when their children were born. One would say “you were born just during the rice harvest because I remember that I couldn’t help since I was with child.” Another one would say, “you were born the year our dad passed away, at the beginning of the planting season. That year we didn’t farm much because we didn’t have a dad to help us anymore. You uncles were young so we didn’t have any men muscle to help us till the land. Farming was very small from then on, until your uncles were big enough to clear trees for a new farm land.”

As you can see everything was based on the agriculture calendar. It is bitter sweet to finally be in Laos. It’s a beautiful country. I love it already. I can imagine living here myself surrounded by the emerald forests, the majestic mountains, the deep valleys, and narrow roads; the hillside farmlands caressing the mighty Mekong River. The sad part is that we’re not able to visit the actual places where our family lived. They say the road to Sathon is too dangerous, and that we are likely to get mugged. They say that Long Tieng is now a closed base.  And, Ban Naso, where I was born, is now under an artificial lake. I hope to come back soon with my family.  Perhaps I can gather three  generations to return to Laos–to recall, to learn, and to pass on our family’s legacy. We will always be grateful for the sacrifices of our parents, for their courage in leaving their homeland, and the resilience to start over in a total foreign country with a vastly different culture. Most importantly, our parents stressed the importance of making a success of our lives so that someday, should we return to Laos, we can give back. This is the reason I have journeyed to Laos. It is my own personal journey of discovery, to learn more about who I am. And, equally important,  it’s time for me to find a way to give back.  ~ Maynhia Yang Stott

Lovely Laos...Gives whole new meaning to "A River Runs Through It."

Lovely Laos…Gives whole new meaning to “A River Runs Through It.”

First Sighting of the Mekong River: We fly to Laos’ Paksi Airport, and travel by car to Champasak.  Our Laos base of exploration–The River Resort, on the emerald banks of the Mekong River,  Champasak Province.

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The bamboo-lined entrance to The River Resort revealed an organized, naturally sculpted landscape captured in the image below, reflective of the fertile soil, and abundant flora along Mekong River’s edge.

IMG_3627 (1) [Photo Credit: The River Resort]

River Resort VillasThe minute we stepped into our clean, bright, simple, yet well-appointed villas, it’s clear that the architects and landscape artists of The River Resort put a great deal of thought behind its Southeast Asia design.

 After our long, multi-transpacific asiatic flights, we easily sunk into a deep slumber, serenaded by the sounds of the Mekong River’s rippling currents.

At dawn, I awoke to this glorious sight! The tiny silhouette of a Laotian fisherman in his boat already hard at work before sunrise.

Mekong from the River Resort

Fully energized after our hearty River Resort buffet breakfast, we spent the early morning learning more about The River Resort and making new friends with several of the local guests.  What an eye opener. We learned that many of the guests live in nearby Paksi, and travel to The River Resort for weekend get-a-ways because “it’s beautiful and they serve the best food in all of Champasak!”  By day’s end, after exploring and photographing the resort, and even receiving the most jet lag-curing massage from the Resort’s Spa therapist,  I eagerly created the following collage from the images I captured, accompanied by the following entry from my journal:

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Our Sunday was spent exploring our Laos #homeawayfromhome, The River Resort,  savoring the Chef’s unique culinary offerings, and making brand new friends, like 4-year old, Lin [pictured above in my Sunday collage] who can speak Lao, English and Chinese! Her beautiful Mama, Kitar also speaks beautiful English. Kitar says she learned to speak via the internet! How brilliant is that?#splendidsundaysentiments…After just two days, this is what we know: The beautiful Laotians we have met are warm, friendly, and oh so kind-hearted.

22885795_10156744730818032_2819682524662395027_nIt’s 1:08 a.m. on Monday morning and I’m too excited to sleep! I can’t wait for the sunrise so our adventures can continue. We’re heading towards the mountains to experience a plethora of waterfalls, and you know how I am when it comes to water, water, water! Have a beautiful week everyone, and remember, no matter where you go, be the kindest person you know. Honestly, the world is full of engaging friends, just waiting to be met. So…SMILE…and I bet you’ll make a new friend or two this week!  May we all strive to make the world a more loving place by learning to understand one another, and savoring cultures different from our own. You know what you’ll discover once you get to know one another? Beyond the differing language and religious faiths, the national attire, and really spicy foods, we’re really not that different after all. We all need to know that our lives matter…and we’re all striving to create meaningful, joyful lives infused with love by family and friends.  Goodnight for now, from#lovelylaos and The River Resort

We  awaken to such a flawless view of the mesmerizing Mekong River from our suite at The River Resort rested and ready yet again for another Champasak Province adventure.  And, the best part, Maynhia and I were able to share our adventures with our brand new friend whom we only met during our lunch at the Resort! She’s a Filipina (via Cyprus and Pakse, Laos that is), and we instantly became friends. It is as if we’ve known her forever. Her husband welcomed us to their beautiful home upon our return, and treated us to the most fabulous Italian dinner! Indeed, my ESCAPESEEKER theory rings true once again:  #theworldisfullofengagingfriendsjustwaitingtobemet

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To understand the present, you must first study the past…
Temple (1)

  WAt PhuWat Phu (meaning ‘mountain temple’), is situated on a hillside and offers stunning views over the surrounding land and Mekong River. Those who appreciate art and history will be amazed by the magnificent workmanship in this ruined Khmer temple complex in the form of temple pillars, barays, lintels, pediments, terrace, courtyard, walls, doorways, sanctuary, shrine, library and palaces. There is also a natural spring that is believed by locals to emit holy water. Older than the great temple complex at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Wat Phu was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2002.

Wat Phu (Vat Phou) is opened year round. It is located in Pakse, the main city of Champasack Province in southwestern Laos.  Visitors can travel to Wat Phu from Pakse via land or by boat along the Mekong River.

23032862_10156750438458032_5541436916855339063_nThis “Tuk Tuk” was our preferred land transportation for our temple visits. By the way, I didn’t really drive it. Best to hire a local driver who really knows his way around. Your task will be merely to wave to all the friendly locals because it will quickly become apparent that your driver knows everyone in town!

If you really want to get to know a place, get to know the locals.  Respectfully see, feel, hear, taste, embrace their country, and their culture through their eyes!  I promise, they will welcome you with open arms.

If you really want to get to know a place, get to know the locals.
Respectfully see, feel, hear, taste, embrace their country, and their culture through their eyes!
I promise, they will welcome you with open arms.

Our stay went by all too fast, and we knew we were going to have a really tough time saying goodbye to our new Lao friends, not to mention our delicious feast prepared by their French Chef, who thoroughly enjoyed conversing with Maynhia in her perfect French. Our private sunset cruise on the Mekong River with The River Resort Champasak  multi-tasking, multi-skilled team was exceptional. Honestly, their amazing native staff know the Mekong like the back of their hands, having grown up along the River. And, they seem to be able to do it all, wherever their skills are needed, and do so with a SMILE! Their pride in being part of “The River Resort family” is reflected in everything they do, and especially in how they extend the VIP treatment to all the guest!  We sure picked the perfect place for Maynhia to get a beautiful re-introduction into the land of her native roots:  LOVELY LAOS already has Maynhia and this ESCAPESEEKER longing to return!

#amazingasia Mekong River Voyage of Discovery… to be continued…Next Stop, The Splendor of Siem Reap!

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Angkor Wat, Cambodia at sunrise is absolutely worth the 4 a.m. wake-up call. Thanks to our guide extraordinaire, Ben Bond, we were able to document our most amazing visit to the largest and oldest religious monument in the world, which has become a must-see destination in Asia. Now, the temple is part of Angkor World Heritage Site and is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The name– Angkor Wat means “Temple City” in Khmer.  Ben advised us exactly where to stand to capture the very best images, and provided one mind-expanding, scholarly narration about each Temple we visited. It is easy to see he is absolutely passionate about his work, and so very proud for the opportunity to share his country’s most famous treasures. Please stay tuned tomorrow when ESCAPESEEKER brings you Part 3: Cambodia…There’s so much more than meets the eye! 

We can’t wait to show you where we stayed during our Siem Reap exploration. Talk about an absolutely luxurious “oasis” right smack in the heart of Siem Reap splendor. Just a short 10 minutes away from the famous ancient temples, we found French colonial elegance thriving amidst the manicured gardens of Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf & Spa Resort!

Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort

 

Oh, less I forget, we will also introduce you to a boatload of AmaWaterways’ “AmaZing” guests who share our insatiable wanderlust, many of whom we now count amongst our roster of global, brilliant friends.  My ESCAPESEEKERisms (things I personally believe to be true) clearly applies here:  If you wish to meet amazing friends, engage in amazing things. Yes, like traveling and discovering the sheer majesty of our wondrous world!

"Amazing Journeys" is an international travel program designed for Jewish singles and Jewish adult travelers of all ages. President and founder Malori Asman, brings with her over 30 years of travel industry experience.  Her travel experience speaks for itself—she has sailed on more than 100 cruises and has traveled to over 110 countries on seven continents! No wonder we instantly felt like soulmates. The seasoned team of Amazing Journeys plan, implement and personally escort 10-12 trips a year for Jewish singles around the world.  We had the good fortune of being on the same AmaDara Mekong River Cruise as Amazing Journeys, and well, it was exactly that:  AMAZING!

“Amazing Journeys” is an international travel program designed for Jewish singles and Jewish adult travelers of all ages. President and founder Malori Asman, brings with her over 30 years of travel industry experience. Her travel experience speaks for itself—she has sailed on more than 100 cruises and has traveled to over 110 countries on seven continents! No wonder we instantly felt like soulmates. The seasoned team of
Amazing Journeys plan, implement and personally escort 10-12 trips a year for Jewish singles around the world.
We had the good fortune of being on the same AmaDara Mekong River Cruise as Amazing Journeys, and well, it was exactly that: AMAZING!

[Photo Credit: Amazing Journeys]