Dr. John Freedman
    Scholar At Sea®     
Dear John,
Thank you for your 
fabulous presentations on China, Japanese history and culture, and the Buddhism series. 
Your talks represent a phenomenal amount of research and under-standing of the Asian cultures. I want to thank you for that and for the way that you present everything in context so that we can understand how and why things happened as they did. 
In my end-of-cruise comments survey, I told them you were 
the highlight of the journey. 
So congratulations, and thanks for making this a special trip!
Dr. Richard M.

 Regent Seven Seas Voyager, Singapore-to-Beijing

click HERE


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Many thanks John, for being so good at what you do — we were so lucky to be with you! Thank you so much for your wonderful enthusiasm and availability on behalf of the group.  It was indeed a pleasure to travel with you! 

-Carol R
Smithsonian Host
Inland Sea of Japan

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Komodo Island, Indonesia – Land of the Dragons

© Dr. John Freedman 2023


Komodo Island is one of over 17,000 islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago. It is a small, surprisingly dry island in the eastern end of the archipelago, part of an island group known as the Lesser Sunda Islands in the province of East Nusa Tenggara. This small island group sits between the larger Sumbawa to the west and the smaller Flores to the east. Komodo Island is part of Indonesia’s Komodo National Park, which is known for spectacular diving and snorkeling, and of course for its namesake Komodo Dragons.


Meet the top of the food chain. The ”dragons” are giant monitor lizards- the world’s largest by far - which roam freely on the island, keeping a tenuous peace (most, but not all, of the time) with the island’s 2000 inhabitants. They are unique to Komodo and a few small neighboring islands, and only became known to Westerners in the early 1900s.


And what fearsome creatures they are. Known as 'ora' to the Indonesians, adult male dragons run up to 500 lbs. and reach about 10 feet from snout to tail. Their tails and limbs are extremely stout and strong, with huge bear-like claws that serve as shredders. In addition to row after row of serrated shark-like teeth, it has recently been discovered that they are venomous (this is where the word “overkill” is truly apt). Their favorite prey is the island’s hapless Sunda deer, but they’ll gladly feast on a horse or pig or water buffalo – or any other meaty meal – when they can get it.


The dragons have an exquisitely sensitive olfactory apparatus in their forked tongues- they can “smell” prey (through chemoreceptor cells that can detect a few airborne molecules) from over 3 miles away. They can find the direction of the prey through the differential smell on the left versus the right fork of their tongue. When they find and kill their prey, they consume huge quantities of flesh and everything that comes with it, with stunning rapidity. An adult male dragon can consume up to 80% of its weight at one meal (do the math on that: that’s equivalent to a 150-lb. human eating a 120-lb. meal). Not surprisingly, after gorging like that, they may not eat again for 1-2 weeks, as is common in super-sized reptiles.


Another amazing aspect of dragon biology was discovered by accident in 2 separate stunning incidents at English zoos: female dragons who had never had male companionship laid a clutch of eggs. These 'virgjn births' were real, confirmed, and resulted in both male and female offspring. This asexual reproduction is called PARTHENOGENESIS and is rare but not unheard of among vertebrates.  Scientific American did a nice piece on these virgin Komodo dragon births which explains why the offspring are not true clones of the mother and also why all the offspring are males:

The Strange But True Virgin Births of Komodo Dragons


At Komodo National Park there are ranger-guided walks similar to African safari-style experiences. Only you’re not in a vehicle and the only thing between you and a dragon may be a stick-wielding ranger. Nevertheless, tourist injuries are exceedingly rare by all reports (though a few villagers get the bite every few years and a ranger was once attacked inside his office a few years ago). Your best bet to see dragons in the bush is to arrive as early as you can in the morning since the dragons laze in their large and ominous-looking lairs by mid-morning. Ask your ranger/guide to stick to lowland dragon habitat such as riverbeds during this time, rather than hike the hills which stud the island – the hills provide beautiful views but less opportunity to see the dragons.


The island itself is pristine, and quite arid - it is Australia-like in its clime and flora and fauna, being east of the famous Wallacean line that divides the ancient Sunda shelf of southeast Asia from the Sahul shelf of New Guinea and Australia. It is home to a plethora of birdlife and other interesting fauna and flora. And rest assured that if you don’t encounter a dragon in the wild, there are some old 'pensioner' dragons which hang around the park entry area and can be docile enough to sit for photos whilst you marvel at their huge girth and fearsome countenance.


If you make it to Komodo, which is best booked as a side trip from Bali or Flores or as part of a cruise, do not miss the fabulous Pink Beach and its gorgeous reef – a true snorkeler’s paradise (...although I must admit it was a little disconcerting to learn that all monitor lizards are semi-aquatic, and the dragons can swim – the ones on Komodo are actually thought to have possibly swum there from Rinca or Flores or other nearby islands).


Without doubt, Komodo Island is one of the world’s most fascinating, beautiful and unique places in a less-traveled part of the world. Check it out.


My Favorite Everest Shot

And Some Mind-Boggling Insights it Promotes

© Dr. John Freedman, 2023

I have hundreds of photos of Everest from every angle (including a thrilling flyover), from both the Tibetan and Nepali sides. This natural wonder of the world in the Himalayas (‘Home of the Snows’ in Sanskrit) tops out at 29,035 ft  (8850 m) – the peak of our world. Of all my Everest photos, my favorite is that one above – a shot of the summit – because of what it says about the geologic provenance of the mountain.  And what it says boggles the mind.


I took the shot from Everest Base Camp on the Tibetan side. Let me avoid any mis- representation of my mountaineering skills: I drove there. Thanks to an amazing serpentine road through the wilderness of the Qomolangma (more on that later) Natural Nature Preserve, opened in 2015, it’s an exhilarating and magnificent drive – to Everest's North Base Camp in Tibet. My wife and I did make it to Annapurna base camp in Nepal on our honeymoon many moons ago, but the 12-day trek to Everest’s South Base Camp on the Nepali side eluded us (or should I say, we eluded it).


The picture above required a long zoom lens and a lot of luck. With clouds usually socking everything in on most days, I didn’t expect to see much and was more focused on staying warm in the freezing cold morning at 16,900 feet/5150m. But to my surprise the mountain gods decided to open a window – at the summit of the mountain only - for just a few minutes.   I grabbed my camera and got this great summit shot, proving once again that the most important ingredient in travel photography is sheer luck.


So what does this summit shot say that boggles the mind? If you look closely at it you will see striations. These are linear bands or streaks of sedimentary rock. And not just any sedimentary rock – they are streaks of limestone. Limestone comes only from the bottom of the sea, formed over millions of years by pressure on layers upon layers of calcific skeletal fragments of marine organisms. So this photo tells us that Everest's summit- Earth’s apex- was once at the bottom of the sea. 

To be more precise, it was around 20,000 feet under the Tethys Sea, which was really an ocean separating the giant paleo-supercontinents of Laurasia (in the north) and Gondwana (in the south). These were formed when the giant single supercontinent of Pangea broke apart about 200 million years ago. A huge chunk of Gondwana broke off about 180 million years ago – a chunk comprising what we know today as Australia, Antarctica, India, and Madagascar (with scattered remnants we call the Seychelles). But Mt. Everest’s story hits its stride about 80 million years ago when India broke off from that large chunk and began  careening northward, eventually slamming into Asia about 20 million years later. When giant tectonic plates collide, one can go under the other. This is called subduction, and the world’s best known subduction zone is the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ zone of volcanoes and earthquakes where multiple tectonic plates such as the Pacific, Nazca, Australian, and Filipino plates converge. But the real crash scene occurs when tectonic plates collide ‘head on’ and the Earth’s crust is forced to buckle upward, forming mountain ranges such as the Alps and the Himalayas. This is called convergent orogenesis, and the uplifted folds of vast mountain ranges are called orogenic belts. The Himalayas, with Everest as its crowning peak, were formed in this way when India slammed into Asia about 60 million years ago. The Himalayas are the world’s highest orogenic belt and are still moving upward today. So the summit of Mt. Everest – and all the Himalayas – were once a deep seafloor.


There are two mind-boggling aspects of pondering this process. One is the sheer enormity of the scale and the forces. Prodigious, like the mountain itself. But the other is equally profound and contributed to one of the greatest scientific insights in the history of our species. An insight with far-reaching philosophical consequences as well. That insight is Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. How does this cornerstone of biology relate to Mt. Everest and geological history? The answer lies in the comprehension of time.


We humans are not designed to comprehend the enormous intervals of distance and time that characterize our cosmos, like the distance to our next-door neighbor galaxy, Andromeda -  15 quintillion miles, which if we could travel at the speed of light would take 2.5 million years to reach. It took about 300,000 years from the dawn of Homo sapiens in Africa until St. Augustine (the saint, not the city in Florida) put a number on the age of the Earth in about 415AD. In his book The City of God and other writings, Augustine tackles creation and the age of the Earth. Interestingly, the devout Christian theologian doesn’t buy the Bible’s 6-day creation story. He says it is a metaphorical framework, a heuristic device only, and in fact God created everything simultaneously. This is consistent with Eastern religions which see God as existing outside of time. Augustine does provide a schema, a periodization of history in line with Christian religious events, that dates the Earth’s age (and in fact the Universe’s age) to 6000 years. This was to be widely quoted and  believed over the next 1400 years, and is widely held even today as ‘the young Earth’ hypothesis. But by the early 19th century, the 6000-year-old Earth was being seriously called into question. Why? Science, of course. But science requires insight, to drive experiments which then gather evidence. It was the geologists of the early 19th century – including young Charles Darwin’s teachers – who first appreciated the true antiquity of the Earth. As they examined evidence and came to understand the processes that created rock formations on Earth, it forced them to scale. Only millions and millions of years could explain the transformation of metamorphic rock or the creation and sculpting of mountains. (No problem, if one comprehends, as we do now, that the Earth's age is around 4.6 BILLION years.) Darwin's geologist contemporaries came to understand what we now think of as geological time – and it was far, far, far longer than Augustine’s 6000 years. No way could geologists reconcile the objective evidence with ‘human-sized’ concepts of time. Enter young Charles Darwin, who studied geology more than biology in his early years. So he was very attuned to the idea of mind-stretchingly long periods of time needed to fashion the Earth itself. The budding amateur geologist’s life took an unexpected turn when he fell upon a most interesting job offer and took it despite his father’s objections (who wanted him to stay in school at Cambridge where he was studying to become a priest). The 22-year-old Darwin  took the job – unpaid but no matter, as he was of a very wealthy family – which was to sail on HMS Beagle‘s hydrographic world voyage as a dining companion for the captain and a naturalist. Naturalists of the day were both geologists and biologists. Darwin leaned heavily into the latter. But when he chiseled out fossils of deep sea creatures from the high mountaintops of the Andes, he was reminded of the enormity of geological processes and their time scale. It was this grasp of the true time scale of Earth’s history that enabled him to make the cognitive leap to his theory on the origin of species through evolution over millions of millennia. Without the ingredient of geological time, evolution of life on Earth to its spectacular variety and complexity was not only invisible, but impossible.  Darwin’s geology teachers and colleagues gave him the gift of time, which made his theory plausible. And all the evidence he gathered and studied for the next 20 years, before his famous tome On The Origin of Species was published in 1859, supported his disarmingly simple, stunningly profound, and entirely plausible theory. Time above all was the key ingredient, as it is for so many things.


So there’s a lot in that picture of Everest’s summit. It sheds light on the provenance of the mountain, the greater Himalaya, planetary geologic processes, and even life on Earth.


One more thought on provenance: the origin of the mountain's name. Why do we call it Mt. Everest, and should we, really? The Royal Geographic Society gave it that name in 1856, honoring Surveyor-General Sir George Everest who had actually retired some years before. Quite the honor. Yet several reliable sources report that he preferred giving the mountain a local name. But his 'woke' wishes were derided as 'disrespectful' to Britain, and resoundingly overridden. Still, the mountain had long had a Tibetan name, dating back to pre-Buddhist times when  The folk religion called Bon was dominant in the region (Tibetan Buddhism in fact is a syncretic mix of the indigenous Bon and the Buddhism imported via China in the 8th century). The Tibetan name for the mountain is Qomolangma, which refers to a benign goddess of the Bon folk religion. Exact translations of the ancient tongue vary but all involve the goddess Qomo: ‘Mother Goddess of the World’, and ‘Holy Mother’ are common translations of QomolangmaThe mountain has an ancient Nepali name as well, though it was only re-discovered by historian Baburum Acharya in the mid-20th century. That name is Sagarmatha, and it is variously translated as ‘Sky Head’, ‘Forehead of the Heavens’ and the like. So what should we call it? I like all three names, depending on where I am, and the context of the conversation. I do not see them as mutually exclusive. The snapshot surely makes me think of Qomolangma.

One last note: The snapshot is showing you the absolute apex of our planet's topography. Everest is in fact about as tall as a mountain can get on Earth. Why? Because an equilibrium is reached between any massive upward mountain-building force, be it tectonic or volcanic, and the force of gravity. If Earth had less gravity, Everest would be taller. Case in point: Mars has just 38% of Earth's gravity. And - you guessed it - its tallest peak, Olympus Mons, is a volcano 72,000 ft high. That's 13.6 miles tall, 2.5X as tall as Everest, making it the largest mountain in our solar system. 


A lot in that snapshot!


© Dr. John Freedman, 2023

The island of Borneo in southeast Asia is the world’s third largest island and one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. It has been isolated from the Asian mainland for over 10,000 years ago and is home to many organisms which exist nowhere else and provide endless fascination for nature-lovers. Perhaps my favorite of all of Borneo’s rare denizens is the unique proboscis monkey, aptly named Nasalis larvatus due to its long, rubbery-looking nose. These creatures look like no other primate. Though some may say they are comically homely, the monkeys themselves would beg to differ. They frolic, preen and show off with an air of haughty superiority- seemingly very aware that they are decidedly different from all their primate brethren, and quite special at that. The monkeys proudly sport an uncommonly large, fleshy, and pendulous nose that hangs down over their mouth. This trait gave rise to an alternative Malay name for the monkey in the 17th century: Orang Belanda,  which means Dutchman, in a less than flattering reference to the Dutch sailors and traders whom the natives thought the monkey resembled. The monkey’s pronounced proboscis can be up to 8 inches long in mature males. The purpose and evolutionary significance of the outsized organ is a matter of some contention in these little-studied creatures. Most primatologists would say it is the result of sexual selection, with females preferring the better-endowed males. The males make a honking mating call, and because the nose is an echo chamber, the sound is louder and more resonant in the monkeys with the biggest honkers. Thus in this case, in terms of ability to attract a mate, (nasal) size matters. An alternative and not mutually exclusive theory is that the largest-nosed males can emit the loudest alarm call when a predator is endangering its brood (and in the jungles of Borneo, there is no shortage of predators, including crocodiles, pythons, clouded leopards, eagles, and huge monitor lizards almost as fearsome as their cousins on nearby Komodo Island in Indonesia.) Thus the larger-nosed males may have an evolutionary advantage in a louder warning call to protect their offspring as well as their social and mating group.


These monkeys are quite large, with males growing to over 50 pounds and females about half that. The males are among the largest of all the Old World and New World monkeys, and they have a very noticeable and protuberant pot belly – perhaps another feature that caused the indigenous inhabitants to liken them to well-fed Dutch traders. Their coloring is beautiful: a soft tan body with a radiant reddish-orange on the crown of the head and the shoulders, and taupe-gray limbs.


These creatures live in coastal regions of the island and thrive in mangrove forests and riverine rainforest. Borneo is the only island in the world which is home to three different countries - Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei - and the proboscis monkeys inhabit the coastal areas and estuaries of all three. They are folivorous and frugivorous (leaf- and fruit-eating) and are primarily arboreal. They do take short jaunts on land, where they mostly move quadripedally but it is a real treat to seem them saunter about bipedally sometimes. Proboscis monkeys are world-class jumpers, usually from tree to tree, but also frequently catapulting themselves from the trees into the water. They are excellent swimmers, with webbed feet and hands to facilitate this skill, and are the most aquatic of all primates.


Proboscis monkeys are highly social animals, which adds to the pleasure and drama of viewing them. They organize into groups usually consisting of one dominant male and a harem of 10-20 females and their young. Interestingly, the females commonly switch groups. Some groups are made up only of young bachelors, aspirants to adulthood and harem-ruling, which will come in time. The groups are non-territorial and actually have a “fission-fusion” lifestyle in which they tend to coalesce at the coast or riverside at night and then separate and move inland to forage during the day.


Sadly these unique and amazing creatures are dwindling in numbers. The population island-wide has diminished by over 50% in the last 3 generations, over the past 40 years or so. They have been hunted for food and also for their bezoars which are valued in traditional medicine. The governments of all three countries on the island have now outlawed hunting or capturing or harming the animals in any way. These delicate creatures do not survive long in captivity due to their very specialized dietary requirements. They require young leaves and unripe fruit from coastal and riparian trees which have a high mineral content. They also have a complex multi-chambered stomach and rely on a specific microbiome of symbiotic bacteria for digestion. Changes in habitat or diet thus wreak havoc with their digestive processes.


The proboscis monkey is designated as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They are still subject to natural predation, but the primary cause of their diminishing numbers is ongoing habitat loss due to destruction of the mangroves and rainforest by logging and oil palm plantations. By most estimates, only about 7000 or so of these marvelous creatures remain.

Fortunately there are over a dozen sanctuaries and protected areas throughout Borneo for these very special monkeys. For those cruising the South China Sea, which skirts the north coast of Borneo, excellent opportunities to glimpse these fantastic creatures can be found at Bako National Park outside of Kuching in Sarawak (the western part of Malaysian Borneo), on short river cruises into the mangroves in Brunei’s capital city of Bandar Seri Bagawan, and very best of all 

at the extraordinary Labuk Bay Sanctuary just outside of  the city of Sandakan in Sabah (Malaysia’s easternmost province). 

Seeing these whimsical and unusual creatures may take a little effort, but you will be well rewarded with an unforgettable wildlife experience. 
You are an inspirational teacher!
-Lynda R

I have enjoyed your lectures so much. They have been both so informative and hugely entertaining.



Greatly enjoying your lectures on board the Voyager. So grateful for your generous intellectual contribution to our trip. Truly enriching. Thanks!!



The Seychelles: A Unique Destination

© Dr. John Freedman, 2023

In my many interesting conversations with fellow travelers at sea, I’m often asked about my favorite destinations. I have a taste for the exotic and unusual, so a number of my favorites

fall into that category. High on the list is the unique granitic archipelago of the Seychelles.


A sovereign state since its independence from Britain in 1976, the Republic of the Seychelles is certain to intrigue those with a taste for the exotic – and the spectacularly beautiful. The exoticism starts with the archipelago’s remote location 1000 miles off the coast of Kenya in the warm turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. The islands’ uniqueness begins with their geologic history. About 80 million years ago a giant fragment of the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana split into two pieces which were destined to become India and Madagascar. But there were tiny shards strewn between the two larger pieces in the breakup. These fragmentary bits were what we now call the Seychelles. The India piece drifted northward from its southerly oceanic position, eventually slamming into Asia (and creating the Himalayas in the process) while the Madagascar piece stayed close to the African mainland. But the lonely Seychelles – all 115 islands – were stranded between the two in the middle of the ocean. They now compose the only oceanic archipelago on the planet which consists of granitic continental fragments. This extraordinary geological provenance also makes the Seychelles the world’s oldest islands, by far. The great antiquity of the granite megaliths has allowed them to be sculpted over eons into a breathtaking variety of sizes, shapes and configurations, and the granite formations are as stunning in their curvaceous beauty and delicate texture as they are in their impressive size and heft. Much of the granitic substratum of the islands became carpeted with lush tropical forest over millions of years, while white sand came to fringe the islands’ innumerable coves. Nature was in an excellent, bountiful mood here.


Yet the Seychelles have another special card to play: the islands’ biogeographic isolation and gentle climate gave birth to a profusion of wonderful and unique life forms. With one of the highest endemicity rates on the planet, the Seychelles are a naturalist’s paradise. The Aldabra tortoises provide a sterling example of the evolutionary principle of “island gigantism”, and they are the only giant tortoises on the planet besides their famous cousins in the far away Galapagos. The diminutive Seychelles frog provides a stunning example of the obverse evolutionary phenomenon of “island dwarfism”: this tiny amphibian is about the size of your fingernail. The endemic black paradise flycatcher can be seen only on the island of La Digue (the best chance of seeing one is at the renowned Veuve Nature Reserve – and there are only 100 left). A particularly fascinating avian denizen is the Seychelles warbler – incredibly, the sex of its offspring is determined by the availability of food. During times of plenty, only females are born, to nurture the expected burgeoning population of young in the next generation. During times of more constrained food availability, only males are born, as they are the key foragers. The mechanism of this extraordinary adaptation – exactly how the sex-specific reproduction occurs biologically in the organism - is unknown but under intense study. Equally extraordinary and more whimsical is the coco de mer  - the world’s largest and unquestionably most erotically-shaped nut. Actually a giant seed of the world’s tallest palm tree which grows only in the Seychelles, the coco de mer's enormous seed/nut bears an uncanny resemblance to the female buttocks and pelvic area. You can see it growing on the 30 m/100 ft-tall palm trees on the island of Praslin, where the tree is known as the longevity tree because it has been known to live for up to 800 years. Or just enjoy the many coco de mer nuts which are decoratively displayed around the islands. The swashbuckling British Victorian General Charles George Gordon believed that the Seychelles were the Garden of Eden and the coco de mer was the forbidden fruit. Eve must have been in very good shape to hand it to Adam given that the seed weighs up to 45 kg/100 lbs.


But the Seychelles offer more than natural wonders. The history of the archipelago is rich and colorful. Although likely visited by Malay seafarers and others over the centuries, the archaeologic record indicates that the islands were never inhabited before the coming of the Europeans. The first recorded sighting is in the chronicles of Vasco da Gama’s third Indian Ocean crossing in 1503. He humbly named them the Islas Amirantes (Admiral’s Islands) after himself. The first documented European visit was by a ship of the British East India Company in 1609, whose chroniclers described the islands as “a paradise” where they replenished their stores with fresh water, fish, coconuts, birds, and the ample meat of turtles and giant tortoises. The British, being quite busy with conquests elsewhere, were slow to follow up. Without a colonial overlord, the islands became a pirate haven in the latter 1600s, a satellite of the much larger pirate stronghold on Madagascar. Most famous among the pirates was Olivier Le Vaisseur, better-known as “La Buse” (The Buzzard”). La Buse plundered a Portuguese ship carrying the treasures of the Catholic church, including the 7-foot high solid gold, jewel-encrusted Cross of Goa – with an estimated value of $250 million in today’s dollars. This and the rest of his treasure were supposedly buried somewhere on the north end of Mahé before he was captured and hanged in 1730. At least one cryptogram from the time has survived, allegedly hinting at the location of the treasure, which is still actively being sought by treasure hunters. The pirate period would end in 1742 when the French sent a colonial mission from their outpost in Mauritius to take possession of the highly-reputed islands. They aptly named the main island Ile d’Abondance (Island of Abundance) though its name was soon officially changed to Mahé (its name to this day) after the Governor of Mauritius who had sponsored the colonizing endeavor. The French named the whole island group after Louis XV’s Minister of Finance, Jean Moreau de Séchelles, and that name has stuck through thick and thin. The French colonists imported and planted nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and black pepper – all enormously valuable spices at the time – and brought in African slaves to work the plantations. This dark history importantly gave root to what is today a vibrant and beautiful creole or “Seychellois” culture, rich in folk traditions and famed for its ginger-spiced cuisine which mixes African, French and Asian influences and capitalizes on the islands’ abundant fresh seafood. The mix of African and European cultures also gave rise to the colorful Seychellois patois which enriches the island’s culture to this day.


The British and French would tussle over these (and innumerable other) island chess pieces in the period of colonial conquest and European imperial power politics during the 18th and 19th centuries. French hegemony over the Seychelles would officially come to an end in 1814 when the British formally took possession of the islands as part of the spoils of the Napoleonic Wars, the islands would remain British until independence in 1976.


Cruisers usually visit one of several ports in what is known as the Inner Islands. That’s good, because the Inner Islands are the most dramatic and granitic, whereas the outer islands (most of which are uninhabited) are more coralline. Yet there is plenty of coral and wonderful snorkeling around the granitic islands, so it’s the best of both worlds. The most commonly visited port is the capital city of Victoria on the “big” island of Mahé. The capital itself offers interesting architecture and history, but the island’s greatest draw is the natural beauty of its granite-pillared beaches. Another draw on Mahé is the Morne Seychellois National Park, which covers 20% of the island and offers great hiking, though primarily in the thick forest of the interior rather than on the granite-studded coast. A second port often visited is the fabulously beautiful island of La Digue with some of the Seychelles’ most iconic beaches, including Anse Source De L’Argent and Grand Anse (the French word anse means handle, as on a teacup, which reflects the shape of these gently curved beaches). La Digue is the 4th largest inhabited island in the Seychelles (after Mahé, Praslin, and Silhouette) but you can still walk most of it in a couple of hours. Bicycles and oxcarts are a great way to get around this tranquil island. La Digue is considered a birder’s paradise, but don’t miss the Aldabra tortoise preserve. A third port often visited is Praslin, which is known for one of the Seychelles’ most scenic beaches, Anse Lazio, as well as the Vallée de Mai preserve where the coco de mer grows in stately abundance. Praslin is where General Gordon came up with his theory that the Seychelles were the biblical Garden of Eden.


Depending on your itinerary, you’ll have lots of great options in the Seychelles. The main Inner Islands are quite close together - ferries between Mahé and Praslin take about an hour, between Praslin and La Digue only about 15 minutes.


That begins to scratch the surface of what’s in store for those lucky enough to visit the amazing Seychelles. It is surely a uniquely beautiful and interesting destination to set your sights on. Open your mind and get your camera ready!



My wife and I were on the Oceania Insignia from Singapore to Abu Dhabi 

and were lucky enough to attend all of your outstanding lectures - 

the best that we have ever attended in over ten cruises.

Thank you and kind regards,

Chris and Joanna Thomas


Check out my online presentations on 


© Dr. John Freedman, 2023


Vietnam’s most vibrant city makes not only my short list of My Favorite Asian Cities, but also my short list of My Favorite Cities of the World. It has all the requirements for a city that one can delightedly go back to again and again:  a rich and emotionally involving history, friendly and upbeat people, a peppy and positive vibe, eminently walkable streets and byways, unending color and diversity, a thriving economy assuring dynamic growth and change, and a local cuisine second to none. The ubiquitous pho (the city’s signature dish, an ultra-savory meal-in-a-bowl soup infused with fresh cut basil, chili and lime) is to me a metaphor for the city itself – always simmering day and night on every street corner, full of varied and colorful ingredients, redolent of exotic spices, and offering something different in every spoonful.


The city was officially re-named Ho Chi Minh City after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, but its original historic name of Saigon still has staying power, so you can feel free to use it without fear of political incorrectness. The area was first settled hundreds of years before the Vietnamese arrived, starting as the small port town known of Prei Nokor under the control of Cambodia’s imperious Kings of Angkor. After falling under Vietnamese suzerainty in the late 17th century, it quickly became an important farming area and bustling mercantile hub.  The hyper-industrious Viet people saw their city grow into the country’s largest city, its major commercial center, and its gateway to the world. The French were quick to make Saigon the capital of their showcase Indochinese colony in the 19th century. Even today the city retains and leverages a charming air of its “Indochine” aesthetic history with a rich heritage of French colonial architecture including the wedding cake City Hall, the old General Post Office designed by Alfred Eiffel, the Franco-Romanesque Notre Dame Cathedral, and the elegant Opera House – all within a leisurely walk of each other in the city’s central District 1. The French café spirit lives on in Saigon where you’ll find the best coffee, baguettes, croissants and ice cream in Asia. Also in the easily walkable central district are the storied old hotels of yesteryear like the Continental (1888), the Majestic (1925) and the Rex (1927) – all doing a brisker business than ever. Within a short stroll is Saigon’s iconic Reunification Palace – a 1960s-era structure which formerly served as the Presidential Palace of South Vietnam’s leaders until it became the site where the Vietnam War decisively ended when a North Vietnamese tank bulldozed its way through the wrought iron front gate at 10:45AM on April 30, 1975. Another short stroll will take you to one of Saigon’s busiest and largest markets, Cho Ben Thahn. Just a short taxi ride away is Saigon’s energetic and culturally-rich Chinatown, known as Cholon. And any meanderings through the city will also take you to innumerable temples representing the region’s 4 major religions in all their syncretism: Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and ancient shamanistic folk religion.


In addition to its rich history, the city exudes a modern and youthful energy. Over 2/3 of its 8 million residents were born after the war, and they are busy-busy-busy – working, making deals, chatting, and eating. Saigon is one of Asia’s great “Marx meets Mammon” cities, and it is certainly one where Mammon has always had the strongest foothold. Most of the city’s youthful denizens are perched on one of the 5 million motorcycles which add even more color and kineticism to the cityscape. Just a few blocks from Saigon’s super-convenient downtown cruise port is the Bitexco Tower, a sleek modern skyscraper symbolizing Saigon’s headlong rush into the future - but surrounded by historic buildings which anchor it to its intriguing past. The indefatigable Vietnamese are constantly at it with urban improvement projects, yet they are seeing to it that the city remains one of the most walkable in the world, from its wide French-style tree-lined boulevards to its quaint sidestreets with endless opportunities for “people-seeing”.


Easy day trips from Saigon include the unique Cu Chi Tunnels where the Viet Cong impossibly lived underneath the feet of US and South Vietnamese troops, the astoundingly fecund Mekong Delta with its floating markets and picturesque towns such as Sa Dec (of Marguerite Duras’ The Lovers fame) and the whimsically Disney-esque Great Cao Dai Temple of Tay Ninh.


All in all I find “Simmering Saigon” to be one of the world’s most interesting, invigorating, and easy cities to enjoy. It is always a most welcome stop on any voyage to Asia!


Dr. John is THE BEST lecturer we have ever heard on all our cruises - bar none.
Marilyn K, Oceania Insignia World Cruise


Spectacular Angkor!

© Dr. John Freedman 2023

Of all my experiences in Asia, there is perhaps none more stunning and climactic than watching the sun rise over the incomparable Angkor Wat. It is difficult to capture the essence of this singular experience with the written word, but let’s try.


This architectural wonder of Angkor Wat served as the Khmer Empire’s great state temple (Angkor=Capital, Wat=Temple) in the early 12th century. It also was designed to serve as a magnificent mausoleum for its builder, the Sun God-King Suryavarman II. It has been described by observers throughout nine centuries with virtually every superlative available to writers in all languages. Intrepid French explorer Henri Mouhot, the temple’s 19th-century “discoverer” (of course, it had never truly been lost) wrote in his journal in 1862: “This grand temple, a rival to that of Solomon and erected by an ancient Michelangelo, is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.” Its unparalleled enormity is not disputed – it is the largest religious structure ever built. Its artistic beauty, depth and unity, along with its engineering genius, complete the picture of a structure that represents the apogee of classical Khmer architecture and one of the greatest human achievements of all time.


To watch the sunrise over the great temple, one has to set out not long after 5:00AM and carefully walk down the long stone causeway over the temple complex’s 700-foot moat. The builders of Angkor were masters of hydrology and the entire city was one of moats, canals, and great reservoirs known as baray. Angkor Wat’s huge moat was designed not only for protection and irrigation purposes, but also to create an earthly representation of the celestial ocean which surrounded the mythological home of the ancient Hindu gods, Mt. Meru. Angor Wat’s five grand towers or prasats are each shaped like a lotus bud and taken together they represent the five peaks of Mt. Meru. They are arranged in a quincunx (put that down on a Scrabble board and you win the game) which is an ancient Hindu pattern with four towers on the four corners of a rectangle and one majestic tower in the middle.  The saffron disk of the sun spreads a soft bath of light as it rises behind and then over this expansive and richly metaphorical “temple mount” scene.


Of all the superlatives used to describe Angkor Wat, three seem most apt and encompassing: spectacular (the wow factor is certainly the first reaction), timeless (thus one stands in the Cambodian jungle today to watch the sun rise over the tomb and funerary temple of a ruler who left this earth in the year 1150AD), and captivating (the fascinating history and culture of this great Hindu temple city, which later became Mahayana Buddhist and then Theravada Buddhist, is endlessly absorbing intriguing).


Once the sun has risen, in the full light of the pleasantly cool morning, it is then a treat to follow the sunrise homage with a personal exploration of this amazing structure. Imagine three-quarters-of-a-mile of finely carved bas-reliefs depicting innumerable scenes from the Hindu epics as well as the pomp and ceremony of the Khmer Sun King’s court and gripping depictions of his epic battles. It is was said over a hundred years ago and still true today that Angkor Wat is the most richly and intricately carved building in the world. As you ascend the temple mount, you will cross three progressive enclosures, rising higher and higher until you reach the upper level of the temple mount from where you can gaze down at the vast jungle in which this improbable jewel is ensconced. Imagine the expansive jungle as it was in Angkor’s glory days:  peopled with over 1 million inhabitants in long-gone wooden and thatch houses. Today, only stone survives.


If you have very high expectations for your trip to Angkor Wat, prepare to have them exceeded by this indescribably beautiful and impressive monument to the great Khmer civilization that ruled the Indochinese Peninsula for more than 600 years. But there’s more! : The great imperial city of Angkor had hundreds of magnificent temples besides Angkor Wat, and many still stand today as testaments to this grand civilization. One should not miss the famed and exotic-looking Ta Prohm, with its symbiotic armature of giant fig trees, or the enigmatic Bayon with its 256 giant Buddha-like faces (actually the God of Mercy, Lokeshvara, before the later Buddhists gave him a sex change to the Goddess of Mercy– or perhaps the face of God-King Jayavarman VII who built the temple and fancied himself as the earthly incarnation of Lokeshvara). A perfect complement to a morning taking in Angkor Wat’s grandeur is an afternoon visit to Banteay Srei, a small and exquisitely wrought temple constructed of a rare rose-hued sandstone. Banteay Srei is renowned for the refinement of its intricate carvings on every pediment (the triangular area above an entrance doorway) and lintel (a cross-beam over an entrance doorway or wall) as well as its innumerable walls, doors, and arches. Dramatic episodes from the mythopoeic Hindu epics are finely carved, as if by a jeweler’s hand, at every turn. The carving was so exquisite that when the temple was first “discovered” in the late 19th century it was felt to date from the early 14th century, about 200 years after the building of Angkor Wat. But decades later the consecration stele was unearthed and the temple was able to be precisely dated to 967 AD — a full 150 years before the building of Angkor Wat had even begun. One can only marvel at this artistic tour de force and it is made all the richer by the soft glow of the late afternoon sun on the rose-hued stone.


For those who want to get (just slightly) off the beaten trail, the stunning temples of the Ruolos group just southeast of central Angkor predate Angkor Wat by over 200 years and can be seen in a solid half-day of exploration. The sacred mountain and waters of Phnom Kulen and the striking temples of Koh Ker to the northeast can easily be combined with a visit to Banteay Srei on a day trip. These forays will more than amply reward you for your initiative. The entire area in and around what is now the tourist mecca of Siem Reap (meaning “Defeat of the Thais” – though ultimately the imperious Siamese did successfully overrun and sack Angkor in 1431) is a vast array of magnificent architectural and cultural treasures.


The glories of ancient Angkor will never cease to amaze. Spectacular, timeless, captivating!


We thoroughly enjoyed your interesting and thought-provoking discussions!


Clint B


The Grandeur of the Great Wall of China

© Dr. John Freedman 2023


For me, there is simply no other experience on the planet like walking on the Great Wall of China. It is astounding on so many levels.


Its history and its great antiquity grip the imagination: from its origins in the 7th century BC, to its famous consolidation by China’s very first Emperor in 221 BC, to its remarkable enhancement into its current state of architectural grandeur by the great Ming emperors of the 14th and 15th centuries. The sheer scope boggles the mind. Can it really extend over 5,500 miles east to west across the vast expanse of northern China? Indeed it does. It stands without peer as both the largest and longest building project in human history. As a technological feat, it inspires awe. Looking around from any vantage point, it is an engineering marvel that seems to border on the impossible, carving a massive serpentine path along the crests of steep and craggy mountains. The natural beauty of its setting is breathtaking. The wall offers undulating mountain vistas, and its thousands of towers are never-ending, changing magnificently with the seasons.


From a functional standpoint, the wall is intriguing — and full of irony. Its principal function was always to serve as a defensive military barrier to protect the realm against invasion from the north by barbarian assailants. Secondarily, it served as an east-west transportation corridor for merchants and messengers, through otherwise impenetrable terrain. It also served important social functions, controlling migration and dividing civilized society from the hinterlands. Yet despite its grand extent and great utility, the wall ultimately failed in its principal military function: China – not once, but twice - succumbed to foreign invasion by northern intruders.  The Mongol hordes of Kublai Khan penetrated the wall in the late 13th century and ruled China for almost 100 years.  Less than 300 years later, the fierce Manchurian armies breached the wall in 1644 and stayed as ruling overlords into the 20th century. China’s final dynasty and last emperor trace their provenance to the Manchu invaders.


Today, the changcheng (“long wall”, as the Chinese very aptly refer to it) is China’s premier tourist attraction and undeniably qualifies as one of the world’s greatest wonders. Indeed, there is great accuracy as well as important irony to the common witticism that the wall - which was historically built to keep foreigners out - now brings them in by the millions.


Whatever part of the wall you visit, you will be impressed. There are several easily accessible spans around Beijing. The Badaling and Mutianyu sections of the wall are nearest to the city, northwest and northeast respectively, each 1-2 hours from city center by road. The Huangyaguan Pass section is nearest to the cruise port of Tianjin. All are striking and awe-inspiring as they carve their sure and mighty path over miles of rugged mountain terrain, enduring as a powerful symbol of a massive and mighty country with a fascinating but turbulent history. 


Our cruise proved to be full of learning opportunities with four good lecturers. 

Our favorite lecturer was Dr. John Freedman, a retired medical doctor who had worked in Brazil,Tanzania, Zambia, Rwanda, Cuba and Haiti.

His lectures gave meaning and insight to our ports of call.

- Carol H

Oceania Insignia World Cruise


The Indian Ocean: Crossroads of the World

© Dr. John Freedman 2023

The Indian Ocean is a spectacularly beautiful destination. Those who love sun, sand and sea will find more than their fill of joy in this part of the world. But beyond its magnificent beauty, the Indian Ocean is also a region of unique geopolitical and economic significance – perhaps moreso than any other ocean on our planet, and perhaps now more than ever.

 Of course there is really only one ocean on planet Earth, the saline hydrosphere that covers three- fourths of the earth’s surface and contains 97% of our planet’s water. That’s a lot of water – billions of billions of gallons – and it is roughly, if artificially, divided up by geographers into 3 major ocean systems: the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean. (Some geographers count the circumferential ocean around Antarctica as a separate “Southern Ocean” and the northernmost arms of the Atlantic and Pacific as a separate “Arctic Ocean”, but we’ll just consider the Big Three for now.) The Indian Ocean is the smallest of the 3 major oceans – but still of impressive extent: it covers over 27 million square miles and is over 5 miles deep at its deepest point in the Java Trench. It is the warmest of the planet’s oceans, and it is getting even warmer as the heat energy from global warming is transferred into it from the Pacific via a massive oceanic heat transfer mechanism known as the Indonesian Throughflow. The warm waters of the Indian Ocean combined with its relatively low salinity and its exquisite clarity and soft aquamarine tones make it my favorite ocean for swimming, be it in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, the Seychelles, or Zanzibar.

The Indian Ocean has long been the least studied of the world’s great ocean systems, yet that seems to be changing as more and more attention is focused on its economics and the overlay of geopolitics. Indeed, the Indian Ocean connects the Atlantic and Euro-African and Middle Eastern worlds to south Asia and ultimately through the Strait of Malacca to the greater Asian and Pacific worlds. Ancient Egyptian mariners traveled from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean via man-made canals which connected the Nile Delta to the Red Sea (pre-dating the Suez Canal by at least 3000 years). At the dawn of the first mil lennium, Greek sailors of the Alexandrian world were the first to grasp and master the unique and powerful monsoon system of the Indian Ocean. Understanding how to harness the energy of the monsoon was revolutionary, in that it made truly long-distance sea travel practical for the first time in human history. We think of the monsoon as a terrestrial rain phenomenon, but at sea it is actually a seasonally reversing wind regime of prodigious power over a vast ocean expanse. Every summer the warm air over the Asian landmass creates a low-pressure zone, and cooler air over the Indian Ocean comes rushing toward the Asian continent. That pattern reverses itself in the winter. For centuries, seaborne traders harnessed the powerful reversing winds of the monsoon to go back and forth to India, the “Spice Islands” of Indonesia, and to and from the exotic realms of Southeast Asia, China, and Japan. Persian and Arab traders dominated these routes for centuries, and many grew spectacularly rich from the enormous profits on ivory and gold from Africa and spices, silk and porcelains from the Orient. Their extensive trade activity went hand in hand with the Islamicization of much of south and Southeast Asia, a legacy which exists to this day. The monsoons also propelled immense Chinese treasure ships to and from Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Horn of Africa. Indian and Sri Lankan traders rode the winds to Southeast Asia, where both Hinduism and Buddhism followed in their wake, with Buddhism’s profound influence throughout Asia enduring to this day.

Famed medieval traveler-explorers such as the Venetian trader Marco Polo and the Moroccan pilgrim Ibn Battuta sailed across the Indian Ocean en route to China and wrote of its charms and mysteries – and its mercantile importance. They and other navigators since the 2nd century AD depended on maps created by the great Alexandrian mathematician and astronomer, Claudius Ptolemy. Ptolemaic maps depicted the Indian Ocean clearly enough, but incorrectly showed it to be a giant landlocked sea. Ptolemy and his centuries of disciples in the ancient cartographic world believed the southern end of Africa was connected to a large landmass known as Terra Australis Nondum Cognita (Southern Land Not Yet Known). This purely mythical land, amazingly, did turn out to exist – we know it today as Antarctica. But we know today that Antarctica is actually a separate stand-alone continent.

It was not until 1488 that the intrepid Portuguese sailor Bartolomeu Dias was able to definitively prove all the mapmakers wrong by rounding the southern tip of Africa by sea – a feat which changed the world forever by showing there was indeed an oceanic route between the Atlantic world of Europe and the Indian Ocean, which would then serve as the great crossroads and gateway to all of Asia. Vasco da Gama took the next giant step when he made it from Lisbon all the way to India in 1498. This opened the way not just for a new Age of Imperialism by the Portuguese and a host of other European powers who followed quickly and rapaciously, but also for world-changing globalization of trade and cultural diffusion between East and West – processes which continually accelerated over subsequent centuries and which are today more robust and of more importance than ever.

Steamships freed traders from the tyranny of the monsoon regime in the 19th century, and trade increased exponentially, a pattern which shows no sign of slowing down today or long into the future. Today the Indian Ocean is a vital shipping lane for the world’s goods and is also an energy superhighway. China, for example, gets 80% of its petroleum products from the Gulf States, via the Indian Ocean. The key geographical “choke points” of the Indian Ocean trade route have for centuries been coveted geopolitical loci, and remain so to this day. Two of the most important – the Strait of Hormuz which is the “neck of the wine bottle” of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Malacca which is the “funnel to East Asia” – have been sites of great strategic value, continued political intrigue, and intermittent warfare for over 500 years.

The Indian Ocean has long been a major theatre for?global geopolitics, and this is especially true today as?China definitively assumes the mantle of a world superpower. China and India are two Asian giants who vie for economic dominance and political hegemony in the Indian Ocean sphere. China’s “soft power” approach through robust economic and diplomatic initiatives has been carried out on a massive scale in Africa over the past decade – so much so that some pundits have gone so far as to call Africa “China’s second continent.” The Indian Ocean is China’s sea bridge to Africa and the Middle East. Along the route there are numerous countries whose political and economic kinship China is very actively courting, such as Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Bangladesh, and Pakistan (Karachi itself, the second most populous city in the world by some calculations, is a major Indian Ocean port city). China has developed what the U.S Defense Department has referred to as a “String of Pearls” of ports and potential naval bases spanning the Indian Ocean from Asia to Africa. A new Chinese naval base for “peace-keeping and anti-piracy activities” opened in Djibouti in July 2017. The U.S. also has a base in Djibouti as well as a major naval base on the remote Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. The Maldives, a stunningly beautiful archipelagic nation in the northern Indian Ocean, is today in the throes of a dynamic internal confrontation between democratic and authoritarian forces – China, India, the U.S. and other western powers have all begun jockeying for an advantageous position as the political drama plays out.

So while the Indian Ocean is indeed spectacularly beautiful and “exotic” and a destination full of picture postcard natural beauty, we should not forget its dynamic economic and geopolitical importance throughout human history and into the present day. As the “crossroads of the world” it will surely play a large and pivotal role in the future evolution of world history. 


You are an excellent presenter - 

your material is not only informative but entertaining. 

- Alex L


Sunset at The Temples of Bagan

© Dr. John Freedman 2023

One of the greatest wonders of Asia is the visually striking landscape of thousands of ancient religious structures spread over the vast plain of Bagan in central Myanmar, a site known as the Temples of Bagan. This forest of “payas” (temples or pagodas) and stupas (holy shrines containing relics) was built along a wide bend of the Iriwaddy River between the 10th and 14th centuries when the ancient Kingdom of Bagan was thriving. The Kingdom covered much of present-day Myanmar, and Bagan was its political center and spiritual heart. Little has changed over the millennium to take away from the splendor that Marco Polo described as “one of the finest sights in the world.” Over two thousand temples remain today, from an estimated 10,000 that were built. The structures are of a seemingly infinite variety of shapes and of every size. Some are gigantic, majestic edifices while others are humble pillar-like tributes to the Buddha’s grace and wisdom. The sheer number is overwhelming, and even today the Bagan plain remains host to the greatest concentration of religious monuments ever built anywhere. Many consider it to be one of the “hidden” jewels of southeast Asia, as it receives just a small fraction of the tourists who visit other epic sites such as Angkor in Cambodia and Borobudur in Indonesia.


You can spend days exploring the temples, and for every one you climb to take in the expansive 360-degree view, you will see hundreds more beckoning you. Like other religious sites in southeast Asia, there are early Hindu influences which gave way syncretically to Buddhist architectural elements and iconography.  Many of the temples were built during the reign of the legendary King Anawrahta (1044-1078AD), who was a devout Theravada Buddhist and is considered by many to be the father of the Burmese nation. The plains of Bagan remained an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists even after Bagan was overrun by the Mongols in 1289, and they remain so to this day. 


Small roads, mostly unpaved, snake their way throughout the expansive plain, and you can travel them by horse cart, bicycle or automobile. I recommend trying all three modes of transport as each has its allure and advantages. The myriad of structures of every shape and size, and the refraction of light by the mist and dust that sit over the endless plain, give the vistas of Bagan an ethereal and other-worldly quality. In Bagan as nowhere else on earth, I get the sense that I could be looking at the remains of an ancient civilization on a distant planet.


Unquestionably my favorite activity in Bagan is viewing the sunset from the top of one of the innumerable temples which have giant open terraces that serve as grand viewing platforms. There are so many temples to be climbed and you can choose your angle, decide how remote you wish to be, and even determine how many temples you want to see dotting the landscape before you. One of my favorites for a sunset view is Pyathada Paya, a 13th-century structure which is a bit off the beaten path in the eastern section of the plain. As the sun sets over the western plain, Pyathada’s easterly location means you will see a huge number of temples silhouetted before you, as well as the mighty Irriwaddy River in the background. The sense of other-worldliness is accentuated at sunset when the sun reflects off the saffron-tinged land and the pagodas become scattered jewels in every shade of pink and gold. The sun first reflects brilliantly off the gilded portions of the tops of many of the pagodas. Then, as it sets, all the structures slowly become more and more distinctly silhouetted. The scene is made all the more striking by the orange- and then purple-streaked sky, the rose-colored mountains, and the silver ribbon of the Irriwaddy as a backdrop. There is an ineffable sense of mystery that pervades, as is always the case when one is given to ponder the almost incredible story of our species and its amazing accomplishments.  A wonderful added bonus is the cool air that wafts in at sunset, bringing with it a sense of comfort and respite. The sight is one to behold, and the feeling is one of tranquility, beauty and wonder. 

All text and photographic content are copyrighted by Dr. John Freedman, 2023 - All Rights Reserved