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IndochinaRainy Season After All

On 30 October 2008 from Hué, Vietnam | comments closed

Monday 27 October we had a slow start in busy Saigon with coffee at Sozo, where we spent quite a few hours in the last few days. It is a stylish place with good coffee and free internet, run by disadvantaged Vietnamese. Therefore it is the perfect way to help the underprivileged in this country, by supporting them in making a living. The remainder of the day was spent on a train journey to Nha Trang.

When the opportunity to do 2 dives for USD 40 (incl. everything) presents itself, it is to be taken. Hence we got up early on Tuesday to dive the South China Sea. It turned out to be 2 of the longest dives I did so far, although I was not too impressed with the coral and visibility. I guess I got spoilt a little bit by my dives in Australia and Egypt. There were some interesting fish though. As soon as we were back at the hotel the rainy season started, with long torrential downpours and very short dry intervals. That pretty much cancelled the plans for the rest of the day, as temples are just not very fun in the rain.

To save some precious daylight hours, we took the night train from Nha Trang to Hoi An, arriving there early Wednesday morning. Because it was not raining at the time, we booked a tour to the Cham ruins of My Son. However, at the ruins it kept raining cats & dogs, and the nice little path through the forest alongside the temples was knee-deep with water at certain places. The jungle did not seem very happy to give up its treasures that day. In between some showers in the afternoon, I explored the Hoi An Old Town, a Unesco World Heritage site.

Thursday morning we took a bus to Hué. It turned out to be one of the overnight sleeper busses, with 3 bunk beds next to each other. Weirdest bus I have ever seen, pretty comfortable though. In Hué we explored the Imperial Enclosure in the Citadel in the afternoon.

South-East Asia is really easy to travel in. In every place where we arrive people are waiting at the bus or train station, touting their accommodation. When the price, location and facilities are alright (they usually are), we take them up on their offer, and otherwise Lonely Planet has plenty of alternatives (although guidebook-listed places seem to be a bit pricier). There are plenty of restaurants around with good, healthy food. And getting a bus or train for the next day is usually no problem. Only for the bus to Laos today we needed to go by a few traveller’s cafés to find one leaving tomorrow.

IndochinaThe Dark Past

On 26 October 2008 from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam | comments closed

Wednesday 22 October we got picked up by a pickup, thinking we were the last passengers on the route of hotels around town. We were wrong. I never knew one pickup truck could fit so many people and backpacks. Luckily the boat to Battambang was not as crowded. Patricia and I went for seats on the inside, fearing we would get sunburned on the roof. Turns out that getting wet by rain was the main risk of the roof. On the way to Battambang we passed several floating villages, where the entire life of the inhabitants is taking place on the water. Progress has not passed by these towns though, as one of the houses was a (non-floating) platform with a tall mobile phone tower. I am still not sure if the captain took a wrong way somewhere in the wetlands (my GPS travel recorder may provide the answer), or if we went slower than usual (it did not appear so), because it took us 7 hours instead of 5. That left very little time to see some of the sights outside the city of Battambang, since sunset is around 17:30 and at 18:00 it is pitch black. We decided to call it a day.

On Thursday we took the bus from Battambang to Phnom Penh, once again arriving in the afternoon. We explored the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda the same day, leaving plenty of time for the other sights on Friday. That was a good thing, because Friday morning it rained and therefore we had a slow start of the day (it is vacation after all). In the afternoon we chartered a tuk-tuk driver to bring us to the other Phnom Penh attractions. We started at the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, where opponents (in the broad sense, basically everyone with education or glasses) of the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime got tortured before being killed at the Killing Fields of Cheoung Ek. That was the next destination of the afternoon, but it failed to leave a big impression, except for the stupa with the thousands of skulls that were dug up.

On a completely unrelated note, the last attraction we went to in Phnom Penh was a base of the Cambodian Army. In return for my sponsorship I got to fire an AK-47 (aka Kalashnikov) in their shooting range. I fired shots both manually and semi-automatic (mostly manual though, seeing it was USD 40 for 30 rounds). In the evening I went on a little pub crawl with some English (Ian, Tony & Sarah) & Australian (Dickbee). Besides playing pool in the last bar, the other game to be played was spotting the girls that are not actually girls. We ended the night (danced the night away would be a more accurate description) in the club Heart of Darkness.

So with little more than one hour of sleep for me we got into the bus to Vietnam on Saturday. The border crossing here was the easiest non-Schengen I ever encountered while travelling by bus. We only had to get into the bus (out of Cambodia), or through a security check (into Vietnam) when they called our names. Easy does it. In the afternoon we visited some more reminders of the wars in South-East Asia, but this time the focus was the Vietnam war. The Reunification Palace was not very interesting, but the War Remnants Museum was, with shocking photos of the Vietnam war, and examples of US military equipment outside. Notre Dame Cathedral was the last stop of the day.

Sunday we booked a full-day tour to Tay Ninh and the Cu Chi tunnels, in a big bus full of tourists. Something went wrong there. In Tay Ninh we visited the very colourful Caodai Great Temple and watched part of a mass. In the afternoon we visited the Cu Chi tunnels, built by the Viet Cong. The tour started with a very bad propaganda film with footage from the 70’s. After that the different tunnel entry points and traps were showed. The tour ended with a run through a narrow, dark and hot tunnel, which was obviously not designed for a Dutch guy with a backpack. Good exercise though.

IndochinaAncient Angkor Temples

On 21 October 2008 from Siem Reap, Cambodia | comments closed

Friday 17 October 2008 my 5-week 4-country Indochina trip started. I flew from Düsseldorf, as LTU had the best rates I could find at the time (the useless Dutch vacation tax may have something to do with it). Düsseldorf is the closest major airport as well, and I like the convenience of direct flights. I do not like to have a window seat without a window though, which is precisely what happened. I guess I should track down the airplane seating schema before next online check-in. The flight itself was pretty uneventful and we arrived at BKK on schema time.

My arrival day (Saturday) in Bangkok was mainly used to arrange the bus to Cambodia, recover from the jetlag (i.e. get some sleep), get a haircut, catch up on e-mail, and wait for Patricia to arrive. We had dinner together and went to sleep early, because the taxi to the bus terminal was arriving at 07:00 (it gets worse).

Sunday was a true travel day: taxi to the airport bus terminal, bus to Aranya Prathet (Thai side of the border), getting Thai passport stamps, getting a Cambodian visa, getting Cambodian passport stamps, walking into Poipet (Cambodian side of the border), taking a bus to the bus/taxi company, and getting a taxi to Siem Reap with a Danish couple (Kim & Mia). Unfortunately I realised in the taxi that I left my rainproof jacket in the Thai bus. And it does rain in the rainy season. Soit. The hotel in Siem Reap was already booked, based on the tip of an ex-customer-colleague. So after checking in we arranged a tuk-tuk to Angkor for the next day, leaving at 05:00 (yes, it is still vacation).

On Monday I finally would get to see Angkor Wat, “one of the most inspired and spectacular monuments ever conceived by the human mind” [LP]. When walking through the huge, almost empty temple complex right after sunrise, I wondered which New Wonder of the World should be taken off the list in favour of Angkor Wat. The Redeemer of Christ in Rio de Janeiro, for sure. Never been there, but it simply cannot be as impressive. It took a few hours of wondering around in awe and making many photos, before we continued our tour of the Little Circuit. The first stop was the South Gate of Angkor Thom, the fortied city. We walked through and our tuk-tuk was nicely waiting on the other side. Next stop was Bayon, where Big Brother was watching us. Although, so it seemed, because 216 gargantuan faces of Avalokiteshvara were looking down on us. So there we were, at 09.30 of the first day in Angkor we had already seen the most beautiful temples. Luckily every temple offered something special. Baphuon is the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle, Ta Keo had the steepest stairs I ever took, and Ta Prohm had trees coming out of the temple. The last is actually the most similar to how it was rediscovered in the 1860s, when the jungle had taken over Angkor. This was not too hard to understand, as even now they kept hundreds of locals at work by manually mowing the grass (an engine-powered lawnmower would really cost many jobs around here). Well, at least the USD 20 entrance fee was put to good use. To watch the sunset, we went up Phnom Bakheng, from where Angkor Wat was visible in the distance. On the way back to Siem Reap we stopped for some Angkor Wat by night photos, arriving back at the hotel after 14 hours of wandering around temples. I rightly deserved a massage.

Tuesday morning was the first morning where waking up felt like vacation. At 08:00 we had some real bread, croissant and coffee at the Blue Pumpkin. Western food, almost for western prices. After breakfast the tuk-tuk was waiting for me to see some more temples, while Patricia took the day off and spent hours getting massages. The second day of Angkor consisted of the Big Circuit and Banteay Srei. I started at Pre Rup, which offered outstanding views over the surrounding area. Then it was Banteay Srei’s turn to astonish with the most beautiful carvings in the Angkor area. On the way back to the Big Circuit I visited the landmine museum, founded by a former Khmer Rouge soldier who already manually defused 50.000+ mines. The temples of Eastern Mebon, Ta Som, Preah Neak Pean and Preah Khan followed. I finished my visit to Angkor appropriately by watching the sun set on Angkor Wat. After the golden light had shone on the temple complex, dark clouds came down, and a torrential downpour followed. Luckily I could shelter in the temple. So far being here in the rainy season has only been good, as it mainly rains at night and for no more than an hour during the day (knocking wood). And the rain keeps the air clean (it would be very dusty otherwise) and the fields lush and green.

IndochinaBack to the Land of the Smiles

On 12 October 2008 from Reuver, Netherlands | comments closed

Ever since my last trip to Thailand in 2003 I have been wanting to go back there. Inspiring temples, gorgeous islands, breathtaking beaches, smiling people and coconut milkshakes with banana pancakes for breakfast, is there more to wish for? Mountains, I guess. But I hear those seem to be present in the North. And as it happens, every traveller I met in Thailand recommended me to visit Chiang Mai in the North, so that is my first must-see. The second must-see is Richelieu Rock, Thailand’s only top 10 dive site. Ko Tapu (aka James Bond Island) is the third must-see in the land of the smiles.

But Thailand is only one of the Indochina countries on this trip. Cambodia is next, where Angkor is my must-see. The temples here almost made it to the list of New 7 Wonders of the World. Vietnam follows, where the Củ Chi tunnels are the must-see. The last country on this trip will be the enigmatic and relatively undeveloped Laos, as I have heard only good tales from other travellers. Luang Prabang is the must-see here.

Since you probably lost track of my must-sees by now, I put them in the Google Map below 😛

Travels Indochina

And for those of you who want to know more in detail where I am going when, my
Travel Planning @ Google Docs provides all the answers. Just know this is a continuously changing draft.