A Travellerspoint blog

Đà Nẵng

sunny 38 °C

Back on the Reunification Express heading to DaNang, some further 600km north up the coast. Quickly leaving NhaTrang behind me… which is exactly where I want it. I didn’t have a great experience in NhaTrang and quite glad to be leaving. I settle into my sleeper berth for the overnight 12 hour journey hoping that my next destination will prove to be a better experience.

The following day I stepped off the train into DaNang. It was midday and incredibly hot already, the traffic intense and noisy. I headed to the river front in a metered taxi to find my hotel for the next few days.

DaNang is one of the major port cities in Vietnam and the 4th largest city in terms of population making it the central coasts’ largest centre. The city sits on the South China Sea at the mouth of the Hàn River and is the commercial and educational heart of central Vietnam.

The city itself dates back to the early Champa Kingdom in 192AD. At its peak, the Chams' sphere of influence stretched over most of central Vietnam. In modern times this is where the French first landed in the 19th Century in their quest to control the area and where US forces established a large air base during the Vietnam war.

Almost immediately I like this place, the vibe feeling good and the people friendly. No one has tried to rip me off yet. The roads are broad and inviting, the boulevards that run along the river front are clean and filled with quaint little riverside cafes. The mix of old and new buildings in many parts of the city gives you a real sense of how much this place has changed over the years. A lot of money has been pumped into this city and it shows. The local government wants to turn it into Vietnam's most liveable city.

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You don’t get hustled continuously and the city has a relaxed laid back feel to it. Even though DaNang is a large city, its peoples until recently had a reputation for being a bit provincial in attitude. This city hasn’t seen the massive development of other locations in Vietnam until recent years and just maybe this is why it’s so nice.

However, it’s changing fast and you see the new high-rise office blocks, hotels and restaurants flying up everywhere. They say if you leave and come back 12 months later you almost don’t recognise the place.

The beaches here are lovely too. Long stretches of white sand with clear water, sheltered within a large bay surrounded by mountains covered in rich green forests. One of the more famous beaches is My Khe, or China Beach. This beach was once an R&R location for American troops and today is still used for relaxing, and enjoying the sun. The beach stretches unbroken to Hội An, a charming historic city some 20km down the coast.

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Clean waters and a reduced amount of beggars compared to other beaches in Vietnam make a refreshing change. In 2005 this beach was hailed as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world by Forbes magazine and I can certainly see why.

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I stayed for 5 day in DaNang then headed north again to Huế about 300km up the coast. Huế (pronounced ‘hway’) is an old historic city which should be worth seeing and from there I can catch a bus over the mountains and through the border crossing into Laos, not an easy or straight-forward leg but the only option if you don’t want to fly.

The train journey to Huế is magnificent, probably the most interesting stretch of the Reunification Express. The mountains and jungle come down to greet the coast, the train line dramatically winds its way around the thick rich green mountains and over magnificent bridges spanning deep canyons. The sea and occasional white sand beaches present below as we snake our way slowly up the mountain sides.

Unfortunately the sealed thick plastic windows on the train didn’t allow for any good shots, which is shame as this part of the journey was truly magnificent and dramatic.

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Huế

I arrived in Huế and booked into the guesthouse I’d previously arranged. I’d been feeling a bit off-colour during the journey up and it was getting worse. Turns out it was the onslaught of a head cold… or rather, because I’m a man, full blown flu!

Feeling pretty ropey I went to ground for 2 days in my guesthouse. Only adventuring out to eat and fetch medicine. I’d brought an impressive assortment of drugs with me from Sydney to tackle a wide range of ailments, but alas nothing to help with a snooty head and hacking cough. It’s true that you should bring your own medicine to this region, what I bought in the nearby chemist was next to useless and expensive.

I resorted to eating lots of chillies to burn out the cold… this actually worked remarkably well and after a couple of days I was starting to feel better, although I’d developed a hacking cough which persisted for many weeks after. The sound of my cough familiar, resembling what I’d heard from several sources in the over packed train station on my way up.

During my delirium I’d had a good think about my next move and decided to completely change tack. Instead of spending the next two and half weeks slogging through Laos and North Thailand on slow busses and trains to eventually return to Bangkok, I decided to return to DaNang and spend my remaining time in Vietnam.

Sure I would miss Laos, which was regrettable but I was feeling exhausted with all the travel and wanted to relax and stay in one place for a while. Add to this I had made good friends in DaNang and was really enjoying Vietnam. So the newly formed plan went something like this; return to DaNang, then eventually make my way to Hanoi to get a flight back to Bangkok, this was certainly a more relaxed plan for my remaining few weeks here.

Before I returned to DaNang and after I’d recovered enough to adventure outside, I decided to spend a few hours sightseeing around Huế.

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Huế being the capital city of Thừa Thiên–Huế Province and between 1802 and 1945 was the imperial seat of the Nguyễn dynasty. The city rose to prominence in the 17th century as the capital of the Nguyễn Lords, a feudal dynasty which controlled and dominated southern Vietnam up until the 19th century. From around 1802 Lord Nguyễn Phúc Ánh succeeded in controlling the whole of Vietnam thus making Huế the capital of Vietnam right up until 1945 when the Hanoi became the capital of the country.

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The city sits on the banks of the Perfume River a few miles inland from the South China Sea. A picturesque and atmospheric river lined with many palaces and pagodas, tombs and temples. The most magnificent being the Citadel occupying a large walled area on the north side of the Perfume River. The Citadel being the seat of the Nguyễn emperors was a forbidden city where only emperors, concubines and the very close were granted access. The punishment for trespassing was death of course.

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This place has a grand history of culture and cuisine and also heartbreak. The glories of imperial Vietnam are still seen here, even though many of its finest buildings were destroyed during the American War. And sadly the massacre at Huế committed by the communist North during the Tết Offensive of 1968 leaves a bloody stain on its recent history.

There is also large market here which I spent a couple of hours walking around.

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Back in DaNang

I return to DaNang feeling recovered after my bout of man-flu and looking forward to relaxing and enjoying the remainder of my time in Vietnam and Asia at a more moderate pace.

There are so many things that fascinate in this country, and I find myself slowly falling in love with this place of striking contradictions and beauty. It seems to me the more you delve and investigate the more you find, scratching the surface always presents deeper fascinations below. This is a culturally and historically complex country emerging head-first into the modern world, still finding its feet and identity after so much devastation and heartbreak. But you know what - they will do alright in this new world - never have I seen such a resilient and determined peoples.

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Eating and drinking bia hoi style

Often the best cuisine is to be found on the street, Vietnam’s street food, just like the economy, has thrived in the past two decades. Colourful, light and bursting with flavour, it’s a vibrant yet subtle food that keeps flavours bright with the use of abundant fresh herbs and balanced chilli, nuoc mam fish sauce, lime juice and spices. The cooking has adopted many elements from two of the world’s great food cultures – French and Chinese – there is an obsession with fresh ingredients and dedication to detail. It can even be seen in the exacting technique of the street cook whipping up mouth-watering snacks from a kitchen that fits on a bike!

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When you come here you really notice the bia hoi culture of eating and drinking on a street corner, often surrounded by the consistent buzz of motorbikes, cars and horns. This street eating culture originated in Hanoi along with the curious practise of using kid sized furniture to dine on. Small plastic chairs and tables sprawling out over pavements; I am not certain where this bizarre use of furniture came from but it is everywhere in Vietnam. You get used to eating with your knees higher than your backside, and for someone tall like me I may as well be squatting most of the time.

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Bodhisattva of Mercy

Today we’re doing some sightseeing. Hồng, a friend I’ve met whilst in DaNang, is taking me on her motorbike to see a large Buddhist temple on a mountain overlooking the city.

It’s a hot clear day approaching late morning when Hồng arrives to pick me up on her scooter. She wears a face mask and long sleeved jacket, like so many of the woman in Vietnam.

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When I first arrived in this country I mistakenly assumed the face mask was for protection against pollution in the air. But actually the mask, along with helmet and long sleeved jacket, are to protect against the sun. The women obsess with having pale skin, thinking it to be more beautiful and I’ve seen this all over the region, Vietnam is no exception.

We head off and ride through the city winding our way through the traffic, narrowly missing bikes and pedestrians as we make our way across town. The roads so thick with traffic you can reach out and touch three or more other motorists at any moment. Horns, brakes and throttle are used constantly. All I can think is were going to hit, shit we missed, look out!

It’s fair to say there are no road rules here, nobody gives way to anybody and everyone just angles, points and directly moves towards their destination, pretending it is an all-or-nothing gamble. All vehicles are equally determined to get the right of way and sometimes swerve away at the last minute, giving inches to spare. That said it is amazing how it seems to flow and work, every driver continuously alert and ready to join this crazy flow of bikes and cars.

As a pedestrian it is no less exciting, there is a method to crossing roads here which until mastered will leave you teetering and scared at the side of the road, unable and too nervous to take the plunge. I remember early on, when I was still nervous crossing; an old granny came along side me on the sidewalk and just crossed without breaking step or looking either way, she strolled out into the sea of traffic seemingly oblivious. I quickly follow, mirroring and staying parallel until I reach the other side.

Until you get the hang of it mirroring is a good way to learn. Sometimes you get a friendly hand from a local, smiling and keen to escort you safely to the other side. The method is to just step out, make eye contact with the nearest approaching vehicle and keep walking. The first few times it takes nerve, but you soon get used to it. The traffic expects this and flows around you like a stone in a stream.

We were heading for a large Buddhist temple that overlooks the bay to do some sightseeing. The temple overlooking the city on the side of a mountain sports this massive Buddha standing at over 67 metres.

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We rode out towards the beautiful green mountains which surround DaNang, leaving the busy city with its hair-raising traffic behind. I was thankful that Hồng was such an expert bike rider and was feeling safe as billiard. The scenery was great as we wound our way up the mountain in the mid-day sun; to our right the South China Sea, green and tranquil as it stretched out to distant islands on the horizon, to our left the mountains climb steep covered in rich green foliage.

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Hồng chatted to me as we rode along pointing out sights and stopping for good photo opportunities, it was a glorious day and just perfect for a polariser.

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We made it up to the temple and I was blown away by what I saw. We walked up a large set of stairs through giant gates and were greeted by a courtyard filled with gardens and large statues of Buddhist Gods. The trees sculpted like oversized bonsai resplendent with colourful flowers.

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At the end of the courtyard was a large Buddhist temple. Taking off our shoes we went inside. Kneeling we prayed our respects to Buddha in front of a large colourful alter, it felt peaceful here and had a magical air to it. Surrounding the walls were large paintings telling the story of Buddha.

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Outside is an impressive 67 metre statue of the Bodhisattva of Mercy which overlooks the bay below, sitting in front is a large statue of Happy Buddha, fat and content as always with that big happy grin.

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To finish we spent a few minutes in silence, almost in a trance, enjoying the magnificent views over the bay below.

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Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism

A thing to admire about the Vietnamese is their tolerance with religious attitudes, there has never been religious fanaticism or religious warfare in Vietnam and officially the country is an atheist state. In government surveys over 81% of the population confess to being "non-believers", although many reported as “non-believers” in formal religions still have some adherence to informal religious customs and practices such as worshipping local spirits, gods and ancestors.

A very popular belief here is the custom of the ancestor cult. A legacy of the Chinese, in every household including hotels restaurants, an ancestor altar is installed in the most solemn location. And in true Vietnamese style beer is often served up as a gift.

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Religion is far from clean-cut and simple in Vietnam. The three main religions, and the earliest established, are Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism (called the three teachings or tam giáo). Also around 8% of the Vietnamese are Christians (mostly Catholics), and there are smaller minorities of adherents to Hinduism, Islam and Protestantism.

The religious belief of the common Vietnamese is a synthesis of the three traditional religions (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism) which have been coexisting peacefully for centuries in Vietnam. This is very different to their regional neighbours Thailand and Cambodia where Buddhism is a state religion and followed by 95% of the populace.

The Vietnamese fear of ghosts and spirits, especially of the dead is common and I’ve seen this first hand with their irrational fear of water, all water and not just the sea. At first it seems quite crazy that a seafaring nation such as Vietnam, with so much of the country living on the coast and 16% of the country being rivers and lakes, should have such a fear.

Then you realise that most Vietnamese can’t swim and unfortunately drowning is by far the biggest killer of children in the country. Parents and children bathe at dawn and dusk across Vietnam but relatively few can swim. There is a fear of water and it is not normal for a family to teach the children to swim, because the parents can’t swim, because they are absolutely petrified of water.

Around DaNang there has been recent investment from the Americans and the Royal Life Saving Society of Australia to teach kids to swim at an early age which has certainly improved the situation considerably and the beaches, which come alive at dusk with bathing Vietnamese, have fenced off save swimming areas closely policed by life guards.

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When a life is unfortunately lost to the water the Vietnamese will strictly avoid the area for fear of bad ghosts and demons until an appropriate ritual can be performed to expel them. The ritual needs to be held on the same day of the month as when the incident occurred and involves loud music and chanting from monks over a number of hours.

Traditionally in Vietnamese religious belief death does not mean the end. The dead move on to an afterlife in which things are the same as in the living world. The dead therefore need their home comforts like washing machines, mobile phones and new clothes. So the relatives buy effigies of the items and simply set fire to them and the objects are transferred to the afterlife in the smoke. Last year the Vietnamese government estimated that people spent around $20 million buying paper objects to burn.

The Journey’s End

Well I’ve spent nearly seven weeks in Vietnam, and over two and half months total travelling the Mekong region but now alas the time has come to end my journey and fly to the UK. I’ve had one of the best experiences of my life in this region, and although at times it has been hard going, it has also been a great adventure. The things I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, such a civilised place that will surely be missed.

The things I carried include a Nikon D7000 DLSR Camera with Nikor 18-55mm zoom and Nikor 55mm lens, a compact tripod with remote controls, a small 10inch laptop, used mainly for email, blog writing and storing images. The rest was clothes, toiletries and drugs (of the pharmaceutical kind only!).

Having a laptop computer with me was indispensible, there is free wifi all over the region and being able to use the internet to check on travel routes and read travellers forums on the way was a tremendous help, I don’t know how I could have done without. Certainly it would have been harder and I wouldn’t have found a lot of the places I visited, nor have been able to travel to them so easily.

I am sitting back in beautiful Wales as I write these last few paragraphs, so far and different from where I’ve been. It is nice to be back in the familiar and I do love this country but I keep wondering where all the smiles have gone…

Posted by Logan Crerar 05:11 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Mui Ne & Nha Trang

sunny 35 °C

Finally managing to tear myself from Saigon I decide to head up the coast about 300km to Mui Ne, a picturesque beach town near the famous fishing city of Phan Thiết, a favourite getaway for the Saigonese seeking a break from the bustle and pollution of the city. I was certainly looking forward to some peace and quiet after Saigon, I had a wonderful time in the city but it is an exhausting place.

I took the train from Saigon travelling up the Reunification Express. The trains in Vietnam are a reasonably good way to travel, they can be a bit slow as they clicky clack up and down the country but they’re safe, inexpensive and the sleeper carriages make long journeys durable. Also travelling the trains in Vietnam is a cultural experience in itself and you often meet people on the way. Walking between the carriage classes is like a dissection of Vietnamese life, from the hard seat carriages full of men drinking beer (any time of day) to the restaurant full of various vendors who will regularly walk the length of the train hawking their baskets full of fruits and cooked foods. You will also see whole families spilling out of sleeper berths and business travellers in the soft seat class.

Vietnam has one railway line called The Reunification Express running from Saigon in the south to Hanoi in the north a distance of some 1,800km (1,200 miles). This railway originally built by the French in 1936 and then cut half way up the country when the North and South separated only to be reunited after the American War (what the Vietnamese call the last war here). There are many trains on the line regularly ferrying the population up and down the country, for longer journeys the sleeper class is actually quite good, 4 berth to a cabin with good beds that you can stretch out on.

As I finally leave the sprawl of Saigon behind me the countryside opens up with an endless patch work of rice paddies and small holdings interspersed with clusters of palm and coconut trees. The land is rich, green shooting up everywhere – out of the paddies, along the river, between the cracks in the roads. I pass peasants minding their crops in the fields, hiding from the mid-day sun under their conical hats and leaning lazily on their bamboo walking sticks. Water buffalo mingle passively around them not even noticing the clicky clack of the train as it passes. This is Vietnamese life as it has been for thousands of years and no doubt will continue for many more.

Phan Thiết

I got off the train at Phan Thiết to take a taxi the final 20km up the coast to Mui Ne. Phan Thiết itself is the Fishsauce capital of Vietnam and one of those odd Vietnamese coastal towns steeped in the history of one trade and never quite sure which cloak it wore. The surrounding province lies on rich red clay and sand dunes, massive sand blows run up the coast to the north and in the rainy season the red clay swamps the province, plastering itself over the buildings and people. The hot season brings winds which cover the streets in sand and dust making the old women complain that it grits their joints. As I walked out of the station the air held that ting of briny decomposing fish which is consistent in so many of the fishing towns here.

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of Fishsauce in Vietnam, it is hugely popular often eaten straight as a dip or spread and making its way into just about every dish. Phan Thiết has a sea-heritage dating back many hundreds of years and at one point everyone in the town knew how to make Fishsauce, placing fresh fish unwashed and ungutted into salt barrels to ferment. Like fine wines there would be expensive bouquets that would fetch incredible prices and Fishsauce was often used as a currency, stashed away under beds for rainy days when it could be brought out and sold. Fishsource is as important as air to the Vietnamese, as necessary as life itself.

Mui Ne

Short taxi ride took me to Mui Ne, a beach lined with coconut trees and a single road running the 5km length surrounded by hotels and guesthouses. Popular with tourists for its natural beauty and nearby sand blows, it has a relaxed laid-back feel to it which I welcomed after nearly 3 weeks in Saigon.

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I booked into the Sea Winds Resort, a lovely cheap guesthouse about 100m off the beach run by a man called Mr Tan. He has a collection of small independent 1 and 2 bedroom huts surrounded by a lovely well maintained garden of palms and flowers. With his wife they run a good guesthouse, clean and tidy. Mr Tan is ever helpful presenting me, when I arrived, with one of his handmade maps of the local area outlining the best routes to see the local attractions.

I decide to spend 2 nights in Mui Ne, then I will head north again, I still have a lot of distance to cover in this country before I can head west to Laos. One day was a washout, raining all day with frequent heavy bouts, coming down like sheets of water. There is a cyclone in the China Sea off Hanoi in the North, it recently caused havoc in the Philippines and is now sitting off North Vietnam - down here we’re experiencing the tail end of this massive storm some 1,000 miles away. Power has been out all day in Mui Ne leaving nothing to do but read books and drink beer.

Power cuts are frequent in this country (in fact the whole region has problems with generating and buying enough power to meet the needs of their growing population and heavy industries), especially outside the larger cities in the country. Most places have backup generators used to keep minimal power to fridges until the power can be restored. Mr Tan tells me today they have cut the power to this whole area, rationing what’s available to other areas of the province. Tomorrow it will be some other part of the province experiencing a rostered black out.

The next day I wake to clear blue skies, already stifling hot by mid morning. I take Mr Tan’s advice and hire a scooter from a trust worthy friend three houses up, I was planning to go and see some of the local sights today. For 250,000 Dong (5 quid) you get a scooter for 24 hours.

It’s actually illegal to ride a motorbike or drive car without a Vietnamese license, but as with everything in this country there is a way around provided you know how. So this is how it rolls; police, especially in tourist areas, will turn a blind eye to Westerners riding bikes. As long as you wear your helmet and don’t drive too stupidly. Of course you can still be stopped at anytime but it’s rare. If you are stopped and checked you’ll be $100 out of pocket. The police will issue an on the spot fine of $30 plus confiscate your motorbike for 10 days which results in a further $60 fee to the rental company.
Mr Tan assures me I’m at low risk of being stopped so I decide to risk it and head off up the coast, camera slung over my back, hot morning sun beating down on my steel helmet fashioned like an old GI army hard hat.

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My first stop is the fishing port of Làng Chài about 15km up the coast. A sprawling fishing and market town with a large fleet of fishing boats anchored in the bay. The fleet of what must be a couple hundred boats lies dormant in the day, anchored near the beach whilst the fisherman sleep and the women wash and sell the fish in the market. The fleet fishes at night, using bright lights shone into the surrounding water to attract their catch. You notice them at night lighting up the entire horizon out to sea.

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The town has an active market at its heart and a maze of small streets all zigzagging their way eventually down to the sea. The narrow streets full of baskets drying shrimp from last night’s catch and the air full of that fermenting fish smell which seems to grip your nostril’s not letting go. I weave the bike down the narrow alleys being careful not to run over pans of drying shrimp which seem strategically placed to test your bike skills.

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The people of this town are poor, everyone is busy head down with the fishing trade, you see the poverty and endless hard work in their faces. They are not particularly interested in a white man riding a scooter around their drying shrimp beds, although occasionally I did get a wave and a smile, especially when taking photos.

I carry on and pass several lads working on a 4WD beside the road, their bodies and limbs disappearing into the vehicle at impossible angles as they tinker and fix.

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The fishing fleet itself looks impressive floating 100 yards off the beach, a riot of multi coloured wooden boats huddled together bobbing in the hot mid day sun, some with flags and engraved dragons on their bow.

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The smell of fish getting to me I decide to head up the coast about 30km to Bàu Trắng, an area of huge white exposed sand blows. Before leaving the fishing town I fill the scooter up with fuel costing me $3, I will be riding quite a distance today. As I leave town I pass motorcycle police busy checking over local Vietnamese bike riders, after a quick glance in my direction they seem to ignore me and I carry on more than slightly relieved.

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The White Sands of Bàu Trắng are impressive; I approach on a dusty track battering my little scooter over the pot holes, I pass farmers in ox-drawn carts transporting their goods like they must have done for hundreds of years. I leave my scooter in the designated parking spot and take a walk up onto the white sand blows, impressive in their size – only in the deserts of Australia have I seen such large dunes.

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I head back down the coast towards Làng Chài and stop to check out the Red Sand Dunes just outside the town, also impressive. These large red sand blows overlook the fishing town below with its sleeping fleet in the bay.

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The afternoon is pressing on so I ride back towards Mui Ne. I was keen to see one last sight before heading back so stopped at the famous Fairy Stream (Suoi Tien) just north of Mui Ne.

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The Fairy Stream is a small river that winds its way through a bamboo forest and small canyon, resembling a miniature version of the Grand Canyon. You walk up the sandy ankle-deep stream barefoot, the warm red/brown water delicious around your feet in the hot tropical heat.

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You can climb up the red sand hills overlooking the river valley and slide back down. The sand seeping into the river giving it a red colour. There are also spectacular out crops of limestone that have been carved by water running down them, looking like upside down stalagmites.

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After a few kilometres walking you come to a lovely waterfall with a bathing pool. There were a couple of Vietnamese families enjoying the cool water when I arrived, I jumped in and joined them – it was so refreshing in the hot afternoon. I took some photos then headed back down the river.

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On the way back I saw a man offering Ostrich rides. Funny to behold, these creatures can actually run quite fast even with someone on their back. I decided not to ride the Ostrich, mainly because the previous night I may have eaten its brother. Ostrich meat is common in Vietnam and actually quite tasty, akin to beef in texture and taste.

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Nha Trang

My next stop will be Nha Trang some 400km north up the coast and Vietnams premier beach resort-town. I’d had a nice few days in Mui Ne and was now feeling relaxed and recovered. Ever helpful Mr Tan advised me to take a tourist bus to Nha Trang, according to him this would avoid backtracking to Phan Thiết to catch the train and would actually be slightly quicker and cheaper once you factor taxis into the cost.

A large air conditioned sleeper bus picks me up outside Mr Tan’s Sea Winds Resort for the 7 hour journey to Nha Trang, costing a little over $7 in total. The bus already being 1 hour late when it picked me up we set off and soon found our way to National Route 1A road which will take us all the way to Nha Trang.

Similar to the railway line National Route 1A runs the length of the country from north to south, built by the French in the early 20th century and recently upgraded with loans from the Japanese ODA and the World Bank. During both the French Indochina and the recent American Vietnam war road 1A was the site of a number of battles between Vietcong and French or American troops.

We arrive late into Nha Trang but I soon find a nice little guesthouse near the tourist district run by a lovely French speaking Vietnamese family. The guesthouse is full of French families on vacation and I find myself having to brush off my French as English doesn’t go very far here.

Nha Trang has traces of human settlement dating back to the Cham Empire, though during Vietnamese rule, there wasn’t much more here than small fishing villages. The French recognizing the beauty of the bay, with its islands and white sand beaches, began the transformation into a resort town. American soldiers agreed, and Nha Trang became a favourite holiday spot during the war.

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Nowadays there are a lot of French here and an extraordinary amount of Russians. The Russians have direct international flights into Nha Trang from many of their cities and they come in their thousands to avoid the cold Russian winters. Many Russians, married to Vietnamese, purchase apartments and prefer to stay here whilst renting their places in Russia. They treat Nha Trang the way many Europeans treat Mallorca or Costa del Sol, unfortunately also creating a similar vibe.

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The beach and the surrounding bay are beautiful with its warm clear waters and near all year round sunshine. But I must admit I didn’t feel so comfortable here, especially around the tourist heavy areas. There is a lot of scamming and you get hustled almost continuously. Theft is rife with a lot of handbags and wallets being stolen and the general atmosphere not really to my liking.

One day, as if to confirm my dislike of this place, I had my camera stolen whilst swimming with friends up the coast at a quiet beach. We rode scooters up the coast about 20km to a lovely sheltered beach. It started to rain heavy, a chilly hard rain which soaked and made us shiver. In the sea was the best place so we jumped in, deliciously warm compared to the chilly rain storm around us. We swam, keeping an ever vigilant eye on our belongings which were only 10 yards off the beach behind a small rock.

To our shock, when we returned to our belongings to dry off after swimming we found that my camera and 4 mobile phones had been stolen, they also emptied our wallets of cash but left my cards thank god. Thankfully the camera was my small Sony snapper camera and not my Nikon but it was still a nice little camera for carrying in your pocket when out and it had a number of shots still on it from Nha Trang which are all gone now.

This incident cementing my dislike of the place, the final evidence confirming my judgements and making my mind up to leave as soon as possible. I’d stayed 5 nights already in Nha Trang and the following day bought an overnight sleeper train ticket to Danang.

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The railway stations are interesting here. Everyone is kept off the platform behind locked doors in a large waiting room until the train arrives and the guards swing the doors open. Like a pen full of agitated cattle everyone bursts out onto the platform. You often have to traverse train tracks to get to your designated carriage and once there you throw your luggage up onto the high step of the carriage then clamber up the vertical metal stairs. I image train travel in 1950’s Europe would be similar, high stepped carriages that you have to climb up into. The trains also look like they were built in that era.

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Posted by Logan Crerar 07:05 Archived in Vietnam Comments (3)

Saigon

semi-overcast 35 °C

Saigon is such an evocative name that can conjures up a thousand images in one’s mind. As I approach on the bus from Chau Doc, weaving my way through the Mekong Delta, I can’t help but imagine that great film Apocalypse Now. The early scenes in Saigon with Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) half drunk in his GI hotel room, single roof fan beating the humid air and waiting for his orders to eliminate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) up the Nung River in Cambodia.

My imagination can run wild but from what I’ve read of Saigon is that it’s now one of the fastest growing economies in the world, this city alone is driving most of Vietnam's growth at a phenomenal rate. A power house of commerce and culture which is the envy of the region and even China to the north.

The official name of this city is now Ho Chi Minh City, renamed in victory after the communist North won the war (the last one that is). Ho Chi Minh was the leader of the NVA in the North and a revered figure in Vietnam. You see statues of him everywhere with his little goatee beard. He was educated in Paris but returned to Vietnam to set up the communist resistance party in the north, at the time against the French and then South Vietnam and the US. Although this is the official name just about everyone in the city calls it Saigon and to make things more confusing officially the city centre is still called Saigon?? It’s best to just call the city Saigon, especially to locals.

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As we approach it takes hours to make our way through the busy traffic and sprawling suburbs. Saigon has a population of over 10 million now and growing – it also has an extraordinary 6 million scooters!

When the bus dropped me in District 1, the most central and touristy area, I set off on foot to seek out my hotel which was apparently not far away. Evening was dropping and the lights of the city coming alive around me, with its spectacle of street stalls and flashing neon signs everywhere. I had been dropped near the centre of the city and instantly I could feel the energy and the frantic pace, crazier even than Bangkok. The scooters rushing clogging the vast roundabouts all weaving in and out, combining and recombining like a vast synchronised swimming performance, continuous movement all around giving a slight feeling of vertigo as I walked through the hot evening.

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I’d settled into my hotel fine and the next evening did some sightseeing at night with my camera. I went to AB Tower to visit the famous rooftop Chill Skybar as it boasted fabulous views over downtown Saigon. They wouldn’t let me take my tripod onto the roof so I had to settle for taking some hand-held shots on a high ISO setting. They came out well enough for an impression of this city’s skyline. I image Saigon is like a young Chinese Shanghai, maybe 30 years in the past - the tall buildings covered in colour and neon, slightly gaudy like only the Chinese can do. Of course Vietnam was part of China for 1,000 years and before the Chinese were expelled a lot of their culture was adopted and flourished here.

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Of course the French have left a big mark on this city too and the magnificent Opera House in the centre with the surrounding buildings are good examples. Along with that particular French habit of naming their boulevards after their generals they also attempted to recreate an Asian Paris here, there is even a cathedral modelled on Notre Dame. Some of the old American GI Hotels still stand, nestled amongst the new gleaming skyscrapers and shopping malls.

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War Remnants Museum

I spent a couple hours at the War Remnants Museum which is housed in the old US Information Agency Building. In the entrance courtyard there are several old tired looking US aircraft – A huey helicopter, an old bomber and a tank all crammed into the small courtyard.

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One building reproduces the "tiger cages" in which the South Vietnamese government allegedly kept political prisoners. Other exhibits include graphic photography, accompanied by a short text in English, Vietnamese and Japanese, covering the effects of Agent Orange and other chemical defoliant sprays, the use of napalm and phosphorus bombs, and atrocities such as the My Lai massacre.

The photographs displayed on the top floor are all from war photographers who died in the field and I must say the imagery left me with a disturbed feeling for several hours after I left. Some very graphic images of results from bombing and atrocities committed by US Soldiers.

However, this place is heavy on propaganda and even the causal historian will question some of the displays. The entire place is committed to giving the impression that every US Solider (and the puppet South Vietnamese army) committed atrocities, when in fact it was a very small amount of Soldiers who went mad. If you can get past this and take it with a grain of salt then it’s definitely worth a trip as it does graphically portray the horrors of the Vietnam War.

Bia Hoi

The Vietnamese men are massive beer drinkers. In fact Vietnam is one of the world’s largest consumers of beer, the all year round hot and humid climate making a cold beer very favourable. They jokingly say here that the next top visited place of a man, besides his mother’s or wife’s kitchen, is a
Bia Hoi restaurant.

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All along every sidewalk and street corner in Vietnam you will find the Bia Hoi’s, men sitting all day and night drinking in these dens often with just a white neon strip lighting the interior and large roof fans beating the air, small plastic chairs and tables sprawling out onto the street with men playing draughts or “Quatre Cent Vingt-et-un” the game famously highlighted in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American which literally means four hundred and twenty one. 421 is a dice game that is won whenever a player throws three dice that show a 4, a 2 and a 1.

I joined some men one night drinking in the Bia Hoi next to my hotel. They beckoned me over to sit with them, one of them pushing a chair out with his foot for me to sit on. They ordered me a draught Bia Hoi, one of the Hanoi Beer products that has been brewed in this country for over 100 years. They where jolly enough and quite drunk already. I managed some limited conversation using my Tarzan English and a lot of hand gesturing, however as we grinned and drank it didn’t seem to matter much and somehow I even managed to get some of their jokes.

Vietnamese Cuisine

As I think I’ve mentioned already I simply love the food of this region. I’ve been a great fan of Thai food for years but never really been exposed to much Vietnamese food. Well I can tell you it’s something else, appearing at first similar to Thai but with more range, particularly with seafood. There is so much fresh seafood all along Vietnam’s long coastline this is no surprise and it incorporates itself into just about any dish.

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There are a lot of fresh ingredients used with minimal use of oil, and reliance on herbs and vegetables making for a fantastically healthy cuisine. They look to achieve this balance between fresh herbs and meats and a selective use of spices to reach a fine taste.

One of my favorable everyday dishes is Beef Pho, a staple here similar to Noodle Soup in Thailand. It’s eaten anytime of the day and available just about everywhere. Nasi Goreng is famous here too and also one of my favorites.

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Clay pot cooking is popular here, particularly with fish. One evening I had Catfish cooked in a steel pot over a burner on my table. They bring it already hot and light the burner on your table, you simply add in the fresh vegetable and herbs as you like and let it cook

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These trolley vendors are everywhere in Vietnam with the ladies selling small fresh Baguettes that are filled with a selection hams, herbs, vegetables and then completed with a dash of soy and chilly sauce, absolutely lovely.

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Other items that are popular but I’ve avoided are various forms of Snakes Head soup and Frogs. They also eat dog and think it quite a delicacy here. You need to watch out if you bring your pet here, in fact I would advise against it. I’ve heard stories of people who have lost their beloved pets right on the street. A moments lost concentration walking your dog and a vans pulls up, man jumps out and shoves a bag over your dog then chucks it into the back and off they go, all happening very fast.

There are cases of snatched bags and cameras from drive by motorbikes, so good to keep your bag and camera safely strapped around your body. But apart from the odd tourist theft Saigon is actually quite a safe place to walk around, even at night. There is low crime in the city and you can feel safe most places. Saigon does have an active Mafia and their is an element of organised crime in the city but if you asked me to compare how safe I would feel in Saigon as compared to say London, I would say Saigon for sure but then that would go for any city in Southeast Asia compared to London.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Whilst here I had to go and see some of the extraordinary tunnels built by the Vietcong during their wars against the French and then the US so I booked a half day group tour out with 15 other tourists in a small bus with an English speaking guide. We travelled about 50 miles out of Saigon to the Cu Chi District North-west towards Cambodia.

Cu Chi is one of the largest tunnel systems built by the Vietcong with over 200km of underground tunnels and bunkers linking local villages in a network. These tunnels had three different levels and played host to barracks, medical facilities, storage rooms, classrooms, even a small movie theatre!

The District was heavily fought over during the Vietnam War and the Americans never knew the extent of the tunnel system until well after the war. The Americans had several fortified villages and bases in the area and heavily bombed parts but never managed to eradicate the threat from the tunnels. The tunnels themselves were supplied with fighters, arms and supplies coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail from the North passing through
Cambodia only 50km away, the reason the US bombed the hell out of North East Cambodia.

Conditions in the tunnels were pretty bad with air, food and water being pretty scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin. The VC would come out at night and tend to local crops and because the system was networked to the local villages fighters could emerge in civilian disguise to mingle amongst the locals, and of course the villages helped supply the network, all this caused much frustration with the Americans who unfortunately in some cases committing atrocities that wiped out whole villages, men, women and children.

We arrived after 2 hours travelling and disembarked from our bus into the tourist car park surrounded by humid green jungle. This small area of the tunnel system is a designated war memorial and tourist park. They have a well signposted route around the displays and almost everyone comes with local guides.

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The place felt quite haunting to me, maybe because I’d read about the history beforehand and the jungle and heat are quite oppressive. We started off by watching a video and given a lecture on the history by a local, both impressive and informative. Then onto the tunnels; there is a 100m stretch of tunnels that they have widened to accommodate more robust western physiques that you can climb down.

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First our guide takes us to a concealed tunnel entrance in the floor of the jungle that is the original size and was used by fighters to jump in and hide or come out and ambush. Staggering I never noticed it was there until our guide lifted the lid which was camouflaged with dead leaves. It was small and our guide fitted his way down to demonstrate, arms raised above his head to fit his shoulders in. Then, if you want, you can have a go. A few of the small members of our group tried quite successfully, but there was no way in hell I would get my shoulders through the hole and not wanting to get completely stuck I refrained :)

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Along the way we were shown booby traps that the VC built to ensnare and kill, or at least badly injure US Soldiers. An injured Soldier is out of the game and needs expensive Evac. They built a dizzying array of traps including Panji, Spike Board, Arrow, Mace, Tiger, Whip, Grenade and Venus Fly Traps. Most of these utilising long nails or long sharpened bamboo stakes to do the nasty work.

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We then came to a section of tunnel that had been widened for us to scrawl down. Our entire group but one decided to head down the tunnel so we started off in single file procession. Once you’re in there is no turning back literally, there is not enough room to turn your body so forward is the only way. Every 20m they built in escape hatches so if you freak out too much you only need to make to the next hatch. Plus the tunnel gets smaller as you progress along the 100m length.

I jumped down into the bunker keen to see what it was like crawling along this extraordinary underground network. The going started well, enough room to shuffle along on your feet, back hunched over and shoulders squeezed together. The bottom half of the tunnel has squared corners with top half arching to a point above your head, this was to give your head room to bob along but also to strengthen the roof from bombs and you see this approach in their underground bunkers too.

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As I shuffled along the tunnel got smaller and after about 60m I was on my hands and knees scrawling. It would also drop down a level suddenly requiring me to dive down head first to continue. I also noticed how hot it was getting and before long I was a dusty sweating mess. Finally I made it out the 100m and popped out much relieved into the hot humid jungle, knees and hands covered in red dust and hair mopped with sweat.

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We passed a B52 bomb crater, a massive depression giving you an appreciation for how much earth must have been instantly excavated when it hit. In fact I’d noticed quite a few craters as we walked, this area was carpet bombed on many occasions and was what the Americans would call a ‘bombs free’ area meaning no US bases or friendly villages within range so can be completely flattened… the tunnels still remained functional afterwards, with some speedy repair work on collapsed sections they were soon up and running again.

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1 in 200 US bombs dropped did not explode. So the VC would collect them and re-purpose into land mines and grenades. Some of the unexploded bombs would weigh over 500kg.

To finish off we were given the opportunity to fire an AK-47 or M16 at a firing range. I had to have a go at firing a Kalashinkov, the most famous assault rifle in the world. A noisy brute famous for its inaccuracy but robust and dependable and even works underwater. I managed to hit the largish cardboard target once with my allotted ten bullets and then walked away blaming the AK-47 for its inaccuracy :)

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Back in Saigon…

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One day sitting down in one of the many fine cafés around the Opera House, like I had so many days here to sip the coffee and watch Saigon go past, maybe writing some of my blog. I noticed this procession of woman approach all looking resplendent in their long colourful silk trousers, long jackets slitted up the sides to above the waste. They are probably a group of PR girls working for some hotel or bar, you see so many of them here, beautiful and smiling as they hand out leaflets trying to entice you go somewhere. The woman’s clothes in the South are full of colour, long silks or dresses printed with flowers depicting the beautiful water lilies you see in the countryside.

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The Saigonese will tell you what they think of people in the North and it’s often not good, there is still resentment about being invaded here and they will often say people in Hanoi have ‘hard faces’ and don’t know how to enjoy themselves. I’ve heard that in Hanoi they think the Saigonese are too liberal and business loving and they don’t use “vâng, dạ, ạ” (additional words to show politeness in Vietnamese language when you talk to older people) or when they sometimes leave food on their plates after eating. The North are far more conservative and traditional but they also control the country and that’s the seat of power. The cultural divide between North and South is still large here. Of course what can the North do, they can hardly deny the benefits that Saigon has brought to the country through the staggering economic growth of recent years, like a runaway spouse who is tolerated but frowned upon.

I ended up staying in Saigon a lot longer than planned, does this happen to everyone who travels here I wonder. I have met so many Americans and French who have come here and stayed years, admittedly often men who find work here and end up marring a Vietnamese woman. But I’ve met western woman too during my stay, that’ve lived here many years. I met a very interesting Canadian woman, an author writing novels out here. She had been here 4 years already, falling in love with the place.

The reason I extended was because I met some great local Saigonese friends whilst here, who I will miss and certainly be in contact with after I leave. They have lived and worked in this city most of their life’s, mainly in the fashion industry and doing very well for themselves.

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Particularly I’d like to thank Imma Thu Phuong for the wonderful time spent together and for introducing to me to so many of her good friends. Also for giving me such a first-hand experience of this wonderful city and its culture, from the dazzling parties and nightlife to the evenings spent on a scooter in the hot Saigon air driving around the suburbs to pick up Beef Pho and fresh grab from the street vendors to take home and eat. An experience I will never forget and something that will forever pull at me to return to this intriguing city.

Posted by Logan Crerar 07:03 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

Vietnam and Mekong Delta

overcast 38 °C

Today I leave Phnom Penh and Cambodia and head down the mighty Mekong River by boat to Vietnam. As we castoff I give a wave goodbye to the capital and the wonderful time I’ve had here.

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Soon we join the main Mekong, its vastness of width making me realise this is actually the biggest river I’ve ever seen. It may only be the 10th largest river in the world but down here as we get closer to the sea its size is impressive.

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The colour is this consistent light muddy brown with occasional grouped bunches of green plant material floating by, no doubt coming from some far jungle location up river. In all honesty though it’s not that exciting and once you appreciate the sheer size it soon becomes mundane, hours of plugging your way slowly down river in our small boat.

The river is lined with population and activity the entire way, people living and working on the river banks. Fishing, cleaning or transporting building materials and other minerals. I noticed several large coal depot loading large barges on our journey.

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After a couple of hours we arrived at the border, a much more efficient process that entering Cambodia the other side of the country. We moored up at the Cambodian border exit for a quick disembark to get our passports stamped by 2 customs officers lazing in their hut, hardly a look up as they stirred enough to get the stamps printed in our passports.

We jumped back on the boat to travel the 100m down river to the Vietnam border, only two other young Americans sharing the boat with me. The Vietnam border entry was seamless; we didn’t even need to get out of the boat as our attended took our passports for stamping. Of course we already had Visa’s purchased in Phnom Penh as there is no Visa on entry for Vietnam. Getting a Visa is easy but takes 24 hours as you need to give you passport to a travel agent whilst they ferry it down to the Vietnam Embassy along with $60. The price has gone up this last year from $35 for a month’s Visa in Vietnam.

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And now we were in Vietnam we castoff again to continue our journey down river. Another 3 hours saw us approach Chau Doc up a side artery of the Mekong which narrowed considerably.

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Chau Doc is a river town on the Vietnam Delta only 2 miles from the Cambodian border to the North and quite a sweet little place, the town sprawling onto the river with use of floating house boats and restaurants.

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We disembarked and I said to farewell to my travelling American friends and headed to find a Guesthouse for the night. The boat drops you at the only speedboat jetty in the town and I walked 100m along the river to the Thuan Loi Gueshouse which itself faces onto the river and has a floating restaurant. Cheap price at $8 for a night and I checked the room quickly, it seemed tidy and clean and didn’t smell, it also overlooked the river below so I booked in for 2 nights.

I decided to stay 2 nights in Chau Doc so I could arrange a bus ticket to Saigon the next day and also do some sightseeing, apparently the area has some good stuff to see including an accessible mountain with great views from top over the Cambodian Jungle and the snaking Mekong. Also there are killing Fields and Museums nearby plus we’re on the Vietnam Delta, a vast area of South Vietnam that is the rice bowl for the country and has a good chunk of the counties massive 90 million population.

That night I didn’t do much as I was tired. I had dinner on their floating restaurant beside the lapping water and retired. As I walked up to my room the old ladies were squatting on the landing gossiping in their pyjama coloured clothes, maybe they were there because it was too hot in their rooms I wasn’t sure. They gave a shy smile as I said hello and passed, then they were back to gossiping. It was hot but the powerful fan that scans the room on its articulated gimble giving periods of relief that I was thankful for and I was soon asleep.

Unfortunately sightseeing was off today, it had started to rain early and didn’t look like it was going to stop. I was planning to hire a motorbike and see some of the local area but it would be no fun in this rain. Instead I spent most of the day just watching life on the river, writing some of my blog and enjoying a few beers.

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The river must rise considerably during the height of the rainy season, I noticed the height of the stilts on the permanent buildings lining the river to be over 3m above the current level. The anchored river houses and restaurant will rise and fall with the river, but still a considerable amount.
There was a brief respite from the rain allowing me to check out the local market and town.

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Time to travel to Saigon through the Delta today. The bus, only costing about $7, picked me up outside my hotel late morning for the 6 hour journey. This was a Vietnam sleeper bus, I’d never seen one of these before and instead of normal upright seats they had rows of reclining beds, 2 high and 3 wide. Very nice and I had one of the front beds, which for tall people have a bit more room.

We thundered along winding our way through the maze of small roads and waterways of the Delta. Rice paddies out the window and continuous traffic on the road, again the horn being used liberally by the bus as it stormed up behind slow moving cyclists and loaded trishaws.

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We had a small incident on the way when the bus driver reversed into a scooter behind when trying to reverse off a single lane bridge for an oncoming truck. The scooter must have been right up his ass and bus broke his front bumper. At bit of a scene pursued resulting in the police being called. It took them 45 minutes to get this resolved with lots of noise and shouting, and then we were on our way again.

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We made a ferry crossing in the bus and then about an hour outside Saigon we crossed a large modern bridge over the Mekong giving an impressive view of the mighty river.

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The rest of the journey was uneventful and we arrived finally a couple hours late into Saigon but I was getting used things not running to schedule and I already had a hotel booked to fall into once I arrived.

Posted by Logan Crerar 04:26 Archived in Vietnam Comments (5)

Phnom Penh

semi-overcast 36 °C

Today I’m leaving Seam Riep and travelling to the Cambodian capital city Phnom Penh, down in the southeast of Cambodia and not too far from the Vietnam border. I have spent nearly a full week here exploring the town and the magnificent Angkor temples, my legs and feet hurt from all the walking but I feel satisfied that I’ve at least seen a good chuck of the complex.

There is no functioning railway in Cambodia, although they’re working on it and you can expect a line from the Thai border to Siem Reap in the next few years. Bus is the main means of transport so I booked a mini bus to take me to the capital, about a 6 hour trip on the main road.

The bus picked me up from outside my hotel and we were on our way. The main road from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh is one of the largest in Cambodia but is only 2 lanes and very rough in places. I was sat right at the back of the bus most of the journey and my head actually hit the roof on several occasions as we hit large pot holes or the driver went off-road to avoid oncoming trucks. Traveling on Cambodian roads is not for the faint-hearted and can be dam hairy at times, continuous use of horns is mandatory and no obvious traffic rules make for a riveting journey.

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh has been the national capital since French colonisation and sits on the banks of the mighty Mekong River. Once known as the “Pearl of Asia” it was considered one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochina. The city only has one large bridge spanning the river, which is a side shoot from the main Mekong and most of the city life is based on the west bank.

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When I arrived I booked into a hotel, out a bit from the main central district, as it’s significantly cheaper and is only a $3 tuk tuk ride to the centre.

Royal Palace

I spent a few hours sightseeing around the Royal Palace, one of the tourist highlights here and a magnificent complex of buildings serving as the royal residence for the king of Cambodia. Built in 1860 the palace is a good example of Khmer architecture featuring a defensive wall, throne hall, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, stupas, towering spires and mural paintings. Definitely the main attract is the Silver Pagoda adorned with over 5,000 silver tiles.

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Out around town

The city has some pretty good nightlife, mostly clustered along the riverside strip on the west bank. When out around town you notice the stark divide in this country between the very few rich and the vast majority of poor. Poverty is still quite bad and effects most people here, although it is improving at a fast pace with foreign investment and the opening up of the country to the outside in recent years. Unfortunately corruption at high levels is still rife here and the inner-circle of elite still control most aspects of industry and commerce. The vehicle of choice for the elite seems to be high end LandCruisers and Range Rovers, jamming the streets amongst the sea of scooters and tuk tuk’s.

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I didn’t realise when I arrived in Cambodia that the country is gearing up for elections on 28th July, well I certainly do now and was wondering why everyday in Seam Reip I would see or hear large election floats parading with megaphones blaring, of course they are all for the CPP (Cambodian People’s Party) the ruling communist party who’s Prime Minister has been in power for the last 28 years. Although elections are held they are mainly a farce and the CPP controls the media, military and justice systems. Military police keep the party rule and the only real opposition is the Cambodian National Rescue Party who really don’t stand much of a chance.

I also didn’t realise when I arrived in Phnom Penh that I would bearing witness to a significant moment in Cambodian history. When travelling around town I would come across these mass noisy rallies with packs of young Khmer on scooters all wearing white baseball caps, hundreds of them waving flags and blocking the streets up completely. I found out afterwards that apparently masses of young people are being mobilised and organised using Facebook to come out and support the opposition party against the CPP.

This may be historic but the CPP have been quick to address this new threat and have launched counter Facebook campaigns and organised even larger rallies of young Khmer’s all wearing the same white baseball caps. It was chaos in the city and it was hard for me to tell who was supporting who, I guess this was the CPP’s aim and it was quite affective. In the end the CPP had their predicted landslide but this was historic for the opposition who managed to double their seats.

The use of Facebook to subvert the controlled media and organise so many young people freaked the CPP out and whilst I was in the city the US embassy issued a warning to tourists to avoid the city due to threat of riots and unrest during the election. Great news and after hearing this I actually started planning an escape route… just in case.

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But I never saw any trouble, a lot of noise and energy but I never felt like it was turning nasty. Apparently there were a few incidents but not nearly as much as feared. Most Khmer people I spoke to seemed quite ambivalent to the politics, they would say quietly to me the CPP are no good but I didn’t detect any resentment or anger, they will just smile and get on with their life’s.

People say that Cambodia is still a wild country and still only really suitable for the more hearty adventure travelers. Whilst I think there’s truth in this I can also say that not once have I felt under any threat or felt any aggression towards to me. You can walk around the capital at anytime of the night and be quite safe, even if you’re women. Sure you can get scammed if you’re not careful but in all I’ve noticed less scamming than Thailand or even Vietnam, the worst you may get is being charged too much for tuk tuk if you’re not aware or prepared haggle.

The Khmer people I’ve encountered and made friends with have been genuinely friendly and kind with more than a little heart, sometimes if the language barrier isn’t too bad you will be treated to an astonishingly cheeky wit which is just charming.

I guess it’s true to say the country still has rough edges and is not nearly as tourist adapt as Thailand where English proficiency and better transport makes things a lot easier. The roads are the only way to travel and are rough and dam hairy sometimes, buses break down and plans change often but if you can handle this and not get to upset or stressed and don’t mind a bit of discomfort you will love it.

Another good thing is it’s thinned out the more annoying travelers, those that make it here are certainly a better breed and a lot more tolerable. Of the foreign travelers there are a few Brits, Germans and Aussies floating around but the majority are Americans and French.

Well I must leave this charming city tomorrow and head down the Mekong river on a boat which will take me to the Vietnam Mekong Delta on my way to Saigon. I’m kicking myself for not being able to make it to the hilly North-east of Cambodia where it’s remote and even wilder, mainly small minority tribal villages living amongst the high hills and patches of emerald green jungle, there are also elephants there. Alas I can’t do everything and if I went up North-east I would have to back track all the way to Phnom Penh on a 15hr multiple bus journey because travelling to Saigon over the border is going against grain of roads in Cambodia, even though Saigon is quite close. It’s just too hard and would take me days and I’ve found no one who has done that route yet.

Posted by Logan Crerar 04:47 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

Angkor Thom

semi-overcast 33 °C

I feel another post needs to be dedicated to some more of the tremendous temples at Angkor. Mainly because they are absolutely amazing and have taken my breath away on several occasions with their sheer vastness. But also because just documenting Angkor Wat would not do this place justice, although Angkor Wat is massive and the biggest single temple, it’s only part of a far larger complex with many temples nearly as large. I visited 13 or more temples during my 3 days exploration, here are just a few of the most impressive I came across.

Another tuk tuk right north from my hotel about 12km, past Angkor Wat, brought me to the southern gate of Angkor Thom then through to the Bayon temple at the centre. After being dropped and paying the agreed $3 for the trip I was ready to start exploring. Again it was hot and humid but more overcast today, perhaps it may rain shortly.

Angkor Thom literally meaning “Great City” in Khmer and is undeniably an expression of Khmer genius when their Empire was at its greatest. It’s the last capital of the Khmer Empire and was a fortified city housing priests, officials, the palace military as well as buildings for administering the vast Kingdom. Most structures were built of wood so have long perished but the remaining stone monuments and the massive city walls and gates still remain testifying to the grandeur this place had.

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The city was established in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII and covers an area of 9 km². The old capital contains many grand temples and at its centre is Jayavarman's richly decorated state temple of Bayon, famous for its multitude of serene and massive stone faces on the many towers that jut out from the upper terrace.

Prasat Bayon

The Bayon temple lies at the centre of the city and was built late 12th early 13th century and is dedicated to Buddhism. The Japanese government who have been responsible for safeguarding this moment describe it as "the most striking expression of the baroque style" of Khmer architecture, as contrasted with the classical style of Angkor Wat. You can see this in the bas-reliefs which depict unusual scenes of mythology, history and the mundane.

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For me the large serene stone faces overlooking you from the towers as you walk around this building are the most striking, they must have looked fabulous in their original state.

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After the Bayon I decided to head west down one of the 4 roads that radiate straight from the centre to the 4 cardinal points east-west and north-south. I was trying to get to a hidden temple in the jungle but I never found an entrance and instead after about 1.5km of walking came to the west gate of Angkor Thom. The 23m high gates host large stone faces, similar to the Bayon faces. The wall itself runs 3km to each side and is made from laterite buttressed by earth standing 8m with a parapet on top.

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As I headed back east to find another way around the heavens opened with a clap of thunder. I was beckoned over to take cover under an umbrella by some local Khmer girls selling coconuts beside the road. It came down like a sheet, like it only can in the tropics and I was thankful for the shelter, I knew it would probably only last half an hour to an hour.

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By the way that V-sign she is using (either palm in or out) is an indication of cuteness when being photographed and not the sign we know it to be in the UK! As we huddled under the umbrella I gave the girls a dollar and in return got a cold can of coke and a fresh coconut to drink. The older of the two girls produced a machete and hacked off the top a coconut, shoved a straw inside ready for drinking. It was absolutely lovely and sweet tasting.

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The girls were charming and their English surprisingly good and they told me about their life living in the jungle and selling fruits to tourists. They actually live within Angkor Thom, in a house in the jungle nearby. They harvest fresh coconut, mango and bananas from the jungle to sell. They go to school in the morning and sell fruits to the tourists in the afternoon.

Baphuon Temple

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As predicted the mid day down poor only lasted 45 minutes and I was back on my way exploring Angkor Thom again. Next was the Baphuon Temple close to the central Bayon and build in the mid-11th century. It is a 3 tiered Hindu temple mountain dedicated to Shiva. It measures 120m east-west by 100m north-south and at its base stands 34m without its tower. It’s thought the tower was lost during installation of a reclining Buddha in the 15th century when it was converted to Buddhism. With the tower it’s estimated to have been 50m tall.

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Unfortunately the temple was originally built on land filled with sand and due to its immense weight much of the temple had collapsed, probably before the Buddha was installed in the 15th century. A huge effort by the French starting in 1995, and still going today, has seen most of the temple restored.

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Preah Khan

On my 3rd day I explored some of the remaining temples outside the city of Angkor. Preah Khan is an impressive temple for its scale, built in the 12th century lying north east of Angkor Thom. It was the centre of a substantial organisation, with almost 100,000 officials and servants.

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The temple is a flat design and the best example I’ve seen of the galleried temple design. It has a basic plan of successive rectangular galleries around a Buddhist sanctuary complicated by Hindu satellite temples and numerous other additions. Like Ta Prohm it has been left largely unrestored, with numerous trees growing among the ruins.

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Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm is probably one of the most famous temples here as it resembles something out of an Indiana Jones film. This was the last temple I visited on my 3 day exploration and certainly one of the more unique sites built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries and located 1km east of Angkor Thom. The temple was built as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university.

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Unlike most temples it has been left just about as it was found. There are many trees growing out of the ruins with their roots twisting around the ancient stones, this along with the surrounding jungle gives it a haunting atmosphere. Also another claim to frame being the place they filmed that bad Tomb Raider flick with Angelina Jolie.

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As I mentioned before this is just a sample of what, in my opinion, are the most impressive sites. But in all I explored over 13 individual temples. I will post the rest as image sets once I get back to the UK.

Before I even arrived at this magnificent place I was already curious. But now after experiencing a good chuck of this complex, clambering up and down the many stares and walking a considerable amount of miles I’m leaving with some even bigger questions on my mind. How did they do this? Why did they do this? And most of all, how hell did they afford it!

Posted by Logan Crerar 06:23 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

Angkor Wat

sunny 36 °C

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Siem Reap

Now in Cambodia I’ve decided to stay in the charming town of Siem Reap for a spell. From here I can explore the vast Angkor temple complexes nearby.

This town famous in the 1960’s as the place to be in Southeast Asia and frequented by the rich and famous. Now after a quiet 4 decades it’s on the up again and becoming a huge tourist attraction, mainly for the nearby temples. Tourist numbers are exploding here and doubling every couple of years, last year saw over 2 million visitors. There are now more hotels than temples and when I arrived was surprised at the amount of very high end 5 & 6 star hotels I passed.

Cambodia is an ex French Colony (protectorate to be precise) and their influence is noticeable in Seam Reap from the architecture of the buildings to the naming of the boulevards. This laid back charming town also has a slow running river winding its way through the centre, making it feel like you could be in French Provence. I’ve had the best coffee so far here, from one of the many cafés sprawling onto the streets, I feel this must be a French legacy also.

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I’m slowly getting my head around the currency. US dollars and Riel are used openly together here but there are no US coins so when you break a dollar you get Riel notes in change. This seems to be general practice but Riel of any amount is also happily accepted, working out the exchange rates can be a bit of a headache but you get used to it pretty quickly. Also the ATM’s all spit out dollars. The mind boggles how they keep both these currencies in open circulation together.

I have to tell you a little bit about the history of this Kingdom, as I find it extraordinary. Cambodia is the land of the Khmer and has a very long and grand history. Way back in the 9th century the Khmer people built the most impressive empire the region has ever seen, which at its zenith dominated Southeast Asia and encompassed modern day Thailand, South Vietnam and Laos. It was comparable to Rome at its height. They built the massive temple complex around their huge capital city of Angkor which at its height had a population of over 1 million, this when London was just a small backwater town. Similar to the Roman Empire they build a massive road system radiating out from Angkor, some stretching a thousand miles. The massive population was sustained by a huge complex irrigation system which can still be seen today. This splendour lasted for 4 centuries before starting decline after the 13th century, neighbouring empires then started chipping away at their land.

More recently the Khmer people have been through hell and back witnessing some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. After the French left and after a series of revolutions saw the communist Khmer Rouge come into power, allied to the Vietcong in North Vietnam they performed genocide on the population and left the country in famine, and during the Vietnam war the secret bombing of the East by the US saw more bombs dropped in during their 14 month campaign than all the bombs dropped by allied forces during World War II, unexploded ordinance still litters the country here and you should be very careful wondering off designated paths.

But now the Khmer people are rising again and prosperity is returning to this lovely country. It’s still a 1 party communist kingdom but now part of the WTO (World Trade Organisation) and open to investment and foreign trade. Cambodia, along with Vietnam, is one of the fastest growing economies in the region.

As for religion, Theravada Buddhism has been dominant since the 13th century. Before this however, Hinduism was the main religion and you can see this transformation clearly in the temples of Angkor. Some have a fusion of Hindu and Buddhism styles which is quite interesting, whilst other early Hindu temples have been rebuilt into Buddhist temples.

Angkor Wat

The temple complexes here are truly vast, I’ve given myself 3 days to try and explore as much as possible but it would take weeks to see everything. Today I will start with Angkor Wat, the 8th wonder of the world and the most impressive temple of them all being the largest religious building in the world.

A short 7km tuk tuk ride north from Siem Reap brings you to Angkor Wat, the nearest temple. As I approached this massive mote came into view. The temple is surrounding by a large rectangular mote 3.6km long by 190m wide that would put any medieval European castle builder to shame.

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The temple itself was built in the 12th century and contains two basic Khmer temple building plans, which I’ve noticed are common throughout the temples here, the temple mountain and the galleried temple. The mountain represented at Angkor Wat is Mount Meru, home of devas in Hindu mythology. The galleried temple usually has a passageway running along the wall of an enclosure or along the axis of a temple, often open to one or both sides. With Angkor Wat half galleries were used to buttresses the structure.

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As I walked over the mote pathway to the entrance the place was crawling with tourists and the temperature was getting pretty hot. The temples are surrounded by jungle and in the humidity it gets very sticky, add to that the walking and clambering up and down stairs and I was soon soaked in sweat.

There are significant walls running along the inside of the vast mote creating this large courtyard or grounds and the temple itself is one of many structures within this enclosure. Entrances come in from the east and west over the mote, this is unique as all other Khmer temples have north-south entrances, no one knows why. The temple outer enclosure wall is impressive at 1024 by 802 m and 4.5 m high wall and is made from huge carved stone blocks.

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Inside the main enclosure you’re presented with the central structure which stands on a terrace raised higher than the city. It is made of three rectangular galleries rising to a central tower, each level higher than the last, walls are adorned with bas-relief carvings depicting scenes from Hindu epics.

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The sheer size of this monument takes your breath away. They used enormous amounts of sandstone, as much as a pyramid in Egypt and over 5 million tons all transported from Mount Kulen 25 miles away. In modern times it’s estimated it would take 300 years effort to construct this temple but originally in the 12th century it took a mere 40 years!

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Phnom Bakheng

After spending several hours exploring Angkor Wat I headed off to a nearby by hill about 2km away to experience the sunset on the Phnom Bakheng, a temple on the only real hill in the area giving views over the surrounding jungle and temples. Phnom Bakheng is a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva and was built in the 9th century.

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At sunset it attracts crazy amounts of tourists and they limit numbers to 300 so I headed up early around 4:30pm. It’s well elevated but I was a little disappointed I couldn’t see more through the surrounding trees and they didn’t allow me to put up my tripod. However you can get a peek of Angkor Wat through a gap in the trees and it’s worth the climb just for the temple.

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Posted by Logan Crerar 03:20 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

The road to Cambodia

sunny 35 °C

Time for me to tear myself from this paradise, I’ve been here for nearly 2 weeks and now need to make my way to Cambodia. I could quite easily stay longer I’ve had such a great time.

To reach Cambodia requires me to travel back to Bangkok in the centre of Thailand and then head east to the border. I checked with the hotel on travel options back to Bangkok and the Lomprayah company offer some good combination tickets all the way. First a taxi, then fast catamaran to the mainland followed by a modern air-conditioned bus all the way to Bangkok, all up about 12 hours of travelling. I didn’t buy my combo ticket at the Hotel, instead I shopped around the various travel agents in town and after some haggling managed to get 400 Baht off what the hotel were offering.

I was up early to catch my 7:30am taxi which took me to the Ferry port about 40 minutes drive, slung my pack onto of the roof of the hard-back pickup taxi and jumped in the back to join the other backpackers sharing the cab.

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Thirty minutes waiting for the Ferry and we were off. The Catamaran took a couple of hours then dropped us on the mainland, it was approaching mid day and starting to get very hot. Waited an hour sweating in the heat with everyone else for our bus to turn up with lot of people milling around at the port, this is the main ferry port out to the Islands and you have buses and ferries coming and going continuously. Four modern buses turned up on time at 1pm to take us direct to Bangkok about another 7 hours up the road.

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The scenery wasn’t spectacular, mainly flat farm land broken by outcrops of coconut and other palm trees. The roads are pretty good here and we traveled most of the distance on a modern 4 lane motorway. The bus was full of backpackers all making their way to Bangkok and I did manage to get some sleep.

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After several hours we stopped at a motorway service station Thai style and stretched the legs for 30 minutes. Was also a chance to grab some food from the various food vendors sprawled across the service station. I opted for some noodles with chicken. Fresh noodles are cooked then dropped into spicy watery soup along with fried chicken, one of Thailand’s staple dishes and absolutely lovely - surprisingly filling too.

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We arrived in Bangkok near the Democracy Monument around 8:30pm. As soon as the bus doors opened smiling heads popped in… ‘Mr, where you going, taxi taxi taxi’… Jee-zus I thought, welcome back to Bangkok! I got out and started walking ignoring them with ‘Mr, Mr, where you going…’ trailing off behind me. I carried on until I was free then sat down for a quiet beer at a street bar to gather myself after the long trip. I still had to get myself about 10km across town to my guesthouse for the night.

I chose a cheap place called T.T. Guesthouse about 1km from Hua Lamphong Railway Station (Bangkok’s central railway station) as I needed to catch a really early train out to the Cambodia border tomorrow. There’s a train out to the border that leaves 5:55am each morning running 7 days a week. I hailed a taxi to take me across the city, the address for the guesthouse was a little obscure, down a small side alley. I showed the taxi driver my address written on a small piece of paper along with my map of Bangkok circling the address. He looked at both quizzically for a long time whist still talking to someone on his mobile phone then suddenly brightened and looked confident. After a spot of haggling over the price we drove off. The city was really just starting to come alive, bright lights and teaming people everywhere.

After he dropped me it took me a further 30 minutes of wondering around the hot humid streets to realise I was nowhere near my guesthouse and in a completely different part of the city… Jee-suz! Another cab journey which I ended up directing myself in the front seat, to be fair I don’t think his eyesight was that good so I left him to concentrate on driving whilst I squinted at the map. Made it finally after squeezing the car down some really narrow back streets, it was now approaching 11pm when I arrived at my guesthouse.

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The T.T Guesthouse is cheap and only cost me 400 Baht (10 quid) for a night, not bad for Bangkok and for that you get a basic private room with double bed, aircon and shared bathrooms. The place seemed tidy enough and I was greeted at the door by a guy called Woh (I think that’s how you spell it, pronounced Woo). He was nice and we got on well, he pointed out we both came from the same generation, him being a couple of years older, generation X-ers. He runs this place along with his sister for their parents who have now retired and the place seemed tidy and well run. It was late and his kitchen was closed but he recommendation I fetch some noodles from the vendors on the street corner and bring back to eat here, more chicken and noddles along with a beer from the 7 Eleven was fetched.

As I ate we talked and he told me his main clientele are Thai workers who come to the city for periods of work, along with tourists but generally no backpackers. I was actually relieved not to be staying somewhere with backpackers for change. Large groups of Western early 20 something’s all listening to the same techno and looking like they’ve been cloned from the same vat! I know technically I’m a backpacker and their not all like that but it was a relief to get some distance for a while :)

We also talked about the weather. Bangkok has 3 seasons (South Thailand has 2), starting now with the wet season for 5 months, then a short winter for 2 months from Dec to Jan, completed by the hot season. The winter is the busiest time in Bangkok and prices sky rocket and you can expect a temperate 23 – 27c. He noticed I was still sweating, it was close to midnight, and told me it was 25% cooler now than the previous 3 months. They had 3 days of 45c temperatures in Bangkok during April. I’ve experienced 45c once in my life in Sydney but that was a dry heat, I can’t even imagine what that would be like with this humidly!

Train to Aranyaprathet

I pulled myself reluctantly out of bed at 4:45am to catch my train thankful for having my mobile and its alarm clock with me. After the short walk to the Hua Lamphong station before dawn, the streets already busy with activity I bought my ticket and grabbed a welcome coffee, I’d only had about 3 hours sleep. You can only buy tickets for the train out to the border on the day but no problem as the ticket office is open from 4am.

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I boarded the train and got a seat. The train soon fills up to standing room only after leaving Hua Lamphong. The trains in Thailand are well run with good friendly service, clean and mostly punctual. It’s around 250km from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet, a small town only 6km from the Cambodia border but it takes over 5 hours as the train is quite slow and has many stops. You only have 3rd class on this train but it’s fine and quite comfortable, if you have a seat. No aircon just a large fan in the centre of carriage with large windows that slide down to give you a nice breeze and view of the country passing as you clickety clack along.

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The scenery was flat the whole way, Bangkok giving way to mile upon mile of rice paddies, in places stretching as far as the eye could see, each rectangular paddock a different rich green hue.

Now comes the interesting part. I’d read up about the border crossing and its damned easy to get scammed by touts selling you Cambodian Visa’s. The trick is not to, under any circumstance, purchase your visa until you are through the Thai border and have the official Thai border control stamp your passport for exit. Then you will be directed to the official Cambodian visa office to purchase your visa for $20 (US) before heading through Cambodian border control.

As you come out of Aranyaprathet train station you get swamped by a sea of tuk tuk drivers (3 wheel motorised taxis) all offering to take you to the border crossing. I ignored them and walked past until I found a driver relaxing in the back of his tuk tuk, he offered to take me for 80 Baht so I agreed. You should pay between 80 – 100 Baht to be taken the 6km to Poipet the order crossing town.

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Even though I made it very clear I wanted to go direct to the Thai border exit he still dropped me about 300m short in front of a very official looking Visa office. I didn’t realise until after I’d paid and he left. Very cunning, people are directed through the office by very official looking staff with badges and they will check your passport. I side stepped this by walking around the office, not easy and meant diving down a narrow side alley, and headed on foot to the border crossing, not obvious and most people where being filed through the office to buy there visa.

About a 15 minutes queue saw me through the Thai border exit. I noticed about half the tourists had been scammed, some got angry, some didn’t even realise or were ambivalent. The visas sold are genuine but just cost around $37 instead of $20 if you wait until the official Cambodian Visa office. I was then directed to the official Cambodian visa office. You need a passport photo for your Visa, luckily I brought a bunch with me from Sydney, otherwise they will charge you 800 Baht ($18) to have your photo taken. It still cost an additional 100 Baht anyway for bringing your own photo.
There was quite a crowd queuing now for the final stage of passing Cambodian border control and it took me about 45 minutes to get through, after they’d taken a full set of finger prints. And finally I was in Cambodia with a 1 month tourist visa :)

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Once through border control you come out onto a large roundabout and there are free shuttle buses that will take you to the International Bus Terminal about 10 minutes away, just ask one of the officials there and they will direct you to the free bus.

I was heading to Siem Reap, a large town about 190km from the border and near the famous temple complexes of Angkor where I was planning to stay and do some sightseeing. $9 gets you a bus ticket to Siem Reap and the buses every hour. You really want to try to get all the way to Siem Reap in one day as having to stop over near the border didn’t look favourable.

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The 52 seater bus filled up and we headed off. The old bus was air conditioned which was a relief as it was getting mighty hot outside but then about 5km down the road the engine started losing power and we slowed to a 5mph crawl… obviously something was wrong with the bus. The air conditioning was struggling to keep us all cool, the windows wouldn’t open and a few people on the bus started to get upset. But then after a further 5km of crawling along we stopped over and changed buses and on we went.

The roads are noticeably worse than Thailand with large pot holes and chaotic make-shift road works everywhere. A continuous chorus of horns can be heard, kindly alerting other road users to your position, as it could be anywhere on the road…. 2 or 3 lanes of traffic overtaking at once on blind corners… slightly hairy until you get used to it.

4 hours later I arrived in Siem Reap completely knackered. You get dropped near the airport a good distance out of town so more haggling required from the sea of tuk tuk’s that suddenly appear once the bus stops. Finally arrived in town and booked myself into a nice looking guesthouse for $15 a night, it had large room with double bed, hot showers, TV and aircon and pretty swish all round. This was a good place to stay as it was out of town a bit so cheaper but also nearer Angkor Wat and the temples.

Cambodia, like Vietnam openly use US Dollars as a preferred currency, this along with the local Riel which are equally accepted but is prone to inflation and wild fluctuations. Currently you get just over 4,000 Riel to a dollar. I’m glad now I brought a good amount of greenback with me.

I was tired after the last two days traveling but before hitting the sack I went out to fetch some food. I was keen to get into the Cambodian Khmer food as I’d read great things about it but the restaurants can be quite pricey in Siem Reap so I opted to try out one of the many local Khmer food outlets sprawling across the pavements. I found this great place opposite my guesthouse with the Khmer chefs pumping out fresh quick food for mainly locals. I sat down and ordered a beer whilst mulling over the menu… the top half of the menu consisted mainly of different variants of cooked frog… deep fried, boiled, spiced… I decided against anything adventurous tonight given the state I was in and read further down the menu and found Pork Larb with boiled rice. Larb is originally from Laos and is a mince meat salad quite popular in this region and absolutely fantastic, one of my favourite dishes.

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Posted by Logan Crerar 03:55 Archived in Thailand Comments (2)

Koh Tao

sunny 35 °C

Whilst writing this post I realise this is probably going to evoke jealously in whoever reads, you’ve been warned and I apologies in advance. I also feel a little ashamed as there really haven’t been many marvellous adventures, or significant cultural uncovering these last 2 weeks. I’ve been spending my time in a tropical paradise - sunbathing, drinking beer, snorkelling and having a jolly good relaxing time all round.

After the first week in Bangkok, and the previous 2 weeks in Sydney I was feeling a bit drained. Bangkok’s exciting, impressive and exhausting all at the same time. So needing a rest I decided to travel south to check out the famous Islands off the Thai coast.

My sister gave me some good advice, she’s been to Thailand before and recommended Koh Tao as a good destination. I also realised, after doing some research, this Island is the closest to Bangkok - I need to return to Bangkok afterwards to travel east towards Cambodia – so I started planning my trip. Koh Tao is the smallest of 3 islands located 70km east of the coastline near Chumphon, in the Gulf of Thailand. Chumphon itself a large town situated about 450km south of Bangkok.

There are several options for getting there and I’d ruled out flying at the start of the trip, this is a land and sea adventure only. Thailand has the best metre gauge railway system in the world and provides an overnight 1st class sleeper train from Bangkok to Chumphon or you can opt for the 2nd class day express train. Once at Chumphon you can buy a bus and ferry combined ticket to Koh Tao, in fact you can buy a combination ticket all the way from Bangkok but I decided to take the day express train from Bangkok, stay the night in Chumphon then travel out to the island the following day.

Koh Tao, which means ‘Turtle Island’, is a small tropical island barely 21km square. You can walk around it in a day and its name comes from being rich with sea turtles, nowadays they have mostly moved on to other breeding grounds. It’s only been inhabited since 1899 and from 1933 was used as a political prison. Then in 1947 a royal pardon was given and the prisoners released. Not a bad place to be imprisoned if you ask me. Fisherman and farmers started to arrive shortly after by Thai traditional sail boat (a dangerous journey even in 1947) to fish the waters and farm the rich soil. In the eighties it was discovered by the first backpacker travellers an soon became famous for its natural beauty, especially for its marine life and coral reefs. Nowadays famous for being a paradise getaway and one of Thailand’s biggest dive spots.

After the train down from Bangkok I slept over in Chumphon. Not the most inspiring place, mainly a transit town for tourists heading to and from the Islands but served my needs well and then I was at the Ferry port to pick up the Catamaran. The trip was fast and took just under 2 hours, I could see the first of the days thunderstorms brewing on the horizon as we travelled. Then when I landed at Koh Tao I got soaked to the skin by a tropical down poor, even in the ride to my hotel it insisted in getting me through the opened sided taxi.

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It was the start of the wet season in Thailand which runs from July to November, although the first 2 months aren’t that bad and you can expect one almighty down poor once a day for about an hour, usually in the afternoon then it clears up. Quite nice air clearer after the hot humidity and when it comes down… it comes down like a sheet and usually accompanied by thunder and lightning.

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Before I arrived I’d booked 1 night at a reasonably cheap hotel 300m from the main Sairee beach called the Sairee View Hotel. I booked a further 6 nights once I arrived avoiding the 10% tax by paying direct in cash and they will usually give you a discount on top. A good tip for Koh Tao, law and tax are pretty lax in this place. The hotel was basic but clean and tidy with really friendly staff. Large rooms with a big fan in the centre of the ceiling, no aircon or hot water but it didn’t matter much, cold showers are fine in this heat and you get free nightly entertainment from the Gecko’s climbing the walls! The hotel is elevated on the hill giving you some nice views of the bay, this was the shot from my room and I climbed up onto the roof for an even better view.

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I hired a cheap scooter from the hotel at 150 Baht a day and spent the rest of the week exploring and snorkelling in the many secluded bays, sunbathing and generally having a relaxed chilled time. This island is very laid back and friendly and I’d soon forgotten what day it was or how long I’d been here :)

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Sairee Beach, which is the only large beach on the island and where most people stay. The nightlife is pretty good to. I took these shots during a night time trip onto the beach with my tripod. You can see the green light over the horizon being given off by the Thai fishing boats.

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On the last day I hired something a little more serious to explore more of the islands rough off-road tracks. There is only one sealed concrete road here stretching along Sairee beach and connecting the small southern town, only about 4km in length, the rest being dirt tracks up and down the steep mountains.

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You should check you brakes thoroughly before hiring bikes here because you’ll need them! I’ve heard plenty of stories of unmaintained bikes being hired by tourists who don’t find out until it’s too late. There are very steep rough tracks here some with over 40% inclines.
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I found myself having to brush off my off-road bike skills pretty quickly, some of the tracks were even unpassable on the Kawasaki 150 I’d hired. It had been many years since I’d done this kind of riding, it was great fun through and I found some quite interesting place tucked away up and over steep mountains down to secluded bays.

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In the end I’d extended my stay at the Sairee View Hotel some more days and spent 12 days in all on the Island. I had a great time and felt relaxed as well as several shades browner when I left. High recommended if your ever out here.

Posted by Logan Crerar 04:37 Archived in Thailand Comments (3)

Bangkok

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After completing my Australian 4WD camping adventure and swapping the Land Cruiser for a backpack it’s time to start travelling again. I’m moving back to the UK and plan to do some more travelling on the way. The plan is to fly from Sydney to Bangkok and travel around the Mekong region before returning to Bangkok for a flight to London. I’ve just spent 2 weeks in Sydney catching-up and saying goodbye to good friends, selling my beloved Land Cruiser and preparing for the next adventure. I was planning to travel as light as possible and managed to get my overall backpack down to 20kilos. I’d purchased a 55 litre main pack with an additional 25 litre day back zipped on the outside. I’d filled both with all my stuff, I was keen to take my Digital SLR with lens and kit plus a small 10inch laptop for image processing/storage, blog writing and to keep in contact with family & friends over email. I didn’t pack much clothes, you can buy plenty of clothes out there. It was still a challenge to get the weight down but I’m pleased with 20kilos. They say ideally you should carry a quarter your body weight, half at most but that gets really hard work.

The Mekong region

The Mekong is one of the world’s great rivers, winding its way down from the foothills of Tibet to the South China Sea and encompassing some of Asia’s most dramatic and exotic landscapes. The river passes through and is surrounded by Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The region has a history as long and dramatic as the river itself, more recently its played host to some of the most brutal wars of the 20th century and the bloodiest revolutions. But now and only in the last generation peace and relative stability has come to the region, this has brought tourism and prosperity which means it’s now quite safe to travel these countries.

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I’m hoping to spend some time in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. I’ve given myself 6 weeks for this adventure – too ambitious? very likely given the distances involved. Again I’m not planning a detailed itinerary as it’s constrictive and doesn’t allow the freedom to change course on the road, you meet people and hear about great places to explore, you may find you want to spend longer in certain places. However, a high level plan is a good idea with an outline of which areas you want to explore and a rough time allocation for each, just keep the details fluid. I’m still working through my high level plan as I hurriedly read the Lonely Planets’ Mekong region book and also do my online research and so far it goes something like this; fly into Bangkok and spend up to a week there, then possibly shoot down South Thailand to check out some of the islands and enjoy some sunbathing on the beach. Head back to Bangkok and East to the Cambodian, after spending sometime in Cambodia head East again to Vietnam. Travel up Vietnam as far as time will allow and then head West through Laos to return back to Thailand’s and Bangkok. Coming in to Thailand by plane you’re given 1 months free Visa (only for UK, US, Canadian, EU and Australian/NZ citizens), if you come in over the border from Cambodia or Laos you’re only given 2 weeks so I plan to spend most time in Thailand at the beginning.

Bangkok

I arrived in Bangkok after 9 hour flying from Sydney on a Thai Airways 747. Thai Airways are good and I recommend them – modern, clean and efficient and the stewardesses certainly made the flight seem less mundane :) . Coming out of Bangkok international into the humid tropical air felt like you had been wrapped in a wet Asian rice pancake, but it was great after the chilly Australian winter.

I managed to negotiate the train and subway to my hotel without too much dramas, although the spelling of place names varies depending on which map you’re using which threw me a few challenges on the way. This is a vast city - I travelled 25 miles from the airport to the city centre continuously passing residential high rises, occasionally you’d see a huge poster of Man United splayed across a building. The city is split down the middle by the main train line running north-south. To the west is new Bangkok with its high-rises and teaming modern shopping malls, to the east is old Bangkok with most of the temples and teaming street markets. I booked into a hotel in the west for the first few nights near Silom, mainly for me to settle in and acclimatise to this exotic frantic city. I then spent several nights in the east side down amongst the street markets and backpackers.
My hotel overlooked Silom from the 15th floor giving a dramatic view of modern Bangkok with its gleaming white skyscrapers.

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At street level you come out of the lobby into the heat with jostling people everywhere, street vendors spilling out onto the road, the noise and the smell of wafting charcoal and spices overwhelming your senses… this is indeed an intense, vibrant and exotic city. It took me several days to find my feet and brush off the haggling skills, I got ripped off several times until this happened, everything is negotiable here and it took me a while to figure out what you should be paying for things like taxis. But even being ripped off it was still very cheap.

Muay Thai Boxing

I was keen to see some traditional Muay Thai whilst in Bangkok so bought a ringside ticket at Lumpinee Boxing Stadium near Silom for the Friday night. Lumpinee Stadium is the oldest boxing stadium in Bangkok and the cultural centre for Muay Boxing. I was particularly keen as I used to practice Kickboxing as a teenager, but even if you’re not into boxing it’s still worth going to see as Muay Thai boxing as it’s a very authentic Thai cultural experience.

I was hurled across the city on the back of a motorbike during the evening rush hour with no helmet on. The artful rider dodging and weaving through the think traffic. I’d jumped on the back of a motorbike taxi man, they’re numerous in the city and I wouldn’t have made it time otherwise as the city becomes gridlocked during peak rush hour. If you’ve got the stomach it’s the fastest way to travel in Bangkok. There are also rickshaws and normal taxi cars but not being as slim they can't dodge between the traffic and get held up, fine if your not in a hurry and don't need to cross the city.

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It’s a bit expensive for ringside seats at 1,500 baht (30 quid) but still worth it, the standing areas behind are a lot cheaper and still had good views (I will go for these next time). The Stadium is hot with no aircon just large fans whirling in the roof, the place is stuffed full of people all screaming and you can smell the testosterone in the air. Turn around between fights to see all the locals betting and shouting (even though it’s illegal to gamble in Thailand). Surprisingly enough I noticed as many women in the audience as men.

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The fighting starts with kids and works up weights through the night, they also have at least one traditional exhibition bout where they wore rope instead of gloves on their hands. Each fights starts with a traditional dancing ritual which was spectacular to watch and when they fight there is a lot of heart and respect between the fighters, you have to appreciate the culture of this sport in Thailand. There was a traditional live band playing in the corner and their tempo would increase during bouts driving everyone into frenzy. I'd had a great night and highly recommend it to anyone visiting Bangkok.

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Wat Phra Kaew, Grand Palace

I spent an afternoon sightseeing in Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) which is one of Thailand’s cultural wonders and houses some of the oldest temples. It is architecturally stunning with gold gilded monuments, mosaic porcelain pillars and rich marble. The temple houses the most revered Buddha, the Emerald Buddha. You need to have covered ankles and elbows to enter the site and take your shoes off when entering the temples themselves.

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The Grand Palace is the former royal residence and still used for state occasions.

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Wat Pho (temple of the sleeping Buddha)

Wat Pho is the oldest and largest temple in Bangkok dating from 16th century. The temple is the traditional training ground for Thai Massage and they still operate massage pavilions on the grounds. In my opinion Thai Massage is one of the world’s best forms of massage and this is the cultural home.

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Golden Mountain

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I took a quick trip up the Golden Mountain for sunset, a golden temple perched on top of a hill just east of the Grand Palace. It’s one of the only hills in Bangkok and give you a great view over the city. They have some excellent Buddhist ringing bells and gongs which you can play. On the steps coming up from street level you walk through this garden with what seems like vaporous mist pouring over the path giving a surreal mystic feel as if you’ve arrived after your long spiritual journey to meet Buddha at the top… I figured they have cunningly concealed water vapour nozzles somewhere in the garden… that or I was hallucinating from all the chillies, either way it was a nice experience.

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Night Markets

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My last few nights in Bangkok where spent in Banglamphu the popular travels district with bustling night life and the most amazing night markets. All the along the north side of Sanam Luang park these huge markets springs up after dusk from what seems like nowhere. They are a spectacle of light, noise and smells and you can buy just about anything at them.

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I love Thai food and have been earnestly trying to teach myself to cook some of their dishes over the last year with some success but of course the food here puts me to shame. It’s hot with a lot of chillies used, my ears had steam coming out of them for the first few days and my stomach has taken as long to acclimatise (even with my cast-iron gut). For something a bit more calming on the gut you can’t beat fresh chicken and egg Pad Thai cooked for you on the street :)

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Posted by Logan Crerar 20:25 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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