A Travellerspoint blog

Hanoi, Halong Bay, Sapa to Dien Bien Phu

all seasons in one day 30 °C

We arrived in Hanoi in the morning, slightly dazed and overwhelmed by the city after spending so much time in relatively calm little towns and having just woken up after a bumpy night’s sleep! Because of this we decided to just stay where the taxi would drop us off for free – this ended up being the Hello Vietnam guesthouse north of the Old Town. The first room we got was fairly horrendous, air-con which didn’t work, a big gap in the door to the balcony and a shower that wouldn’t drain almost flooding the room! We asked to be moved and the second one was OK but the stay there was blighted by the overenthusiastic manager who was extremely persistent in trying to flog us a tour to Halong Bay. By the state of affairs at this particular guesthouse we decided his tour would probably be an absolute rip-off so we booked it with Explorer Tours for a discount as we once again met our friend Heidi who decided to come with us (however, the guy at Explorer tours later lied to us about there not being a night bus to Sapa WHICH THERE IS making us get the more expensive train – do your homework, folks.) With Heidi we did some sights of Hanoi; the lake, the Temple of Literature and the obligatory jug of Bia Hoi with the locals! After some food and a wander we once again decided to go for a Bia Hoi this time at Bia Hoi junction where we met a French gentleman and his son who lived in New Caledonia. We got an early night nonetheless as we had to get up early for our tour to Halong!


The minibus ride there was fairly painless and we were soon on the boat – the Party Cruiser! A party was not really to be had as it was quite empty – the three of us, a couple from Birmingham and Sweden respectively and a large family of Vietnamese. We had some lunch then set off to see the islands, stopping to see a big cave and to do some kayaking around. That night we had some more delicious food this time with some langoustines which Richard delighted in prodding, poking and holding up for photos. A few Singaporeans and a girl named Catherine from Edinburgh joined us that night on the boat as theirs was boring, apparently! As the beer was expensive on our boat we kept buying contraband beer from some floating saleswomen, having to keep it quiet as there was a ‘corkage’ fee of 20,000 dong (per bottle on the boat! We got away with it in the end which was pleasing. We had seen several large jellyfish in the day but this didn’t stop us jumping off the top deck at night when everyone had gone to bed just to be naughty. Our guide was less than amused although he’d let us swim around all day. He told us the next day the jellyfish were ‘very dangerous’!


The next day after a peaceful night’s sleep on the boat we moved to another boat which teamed us up with Caroline from Edinburgh again. We headed for Monkey Island (monkeys spotted: zero, Guybrush Threepwood: not spotted either) and then to Cat Ba island for some cycling around. It was good fun and our guide chatted to us quite frankly about eating dog but never, and I stress, NEVER eating a pet dog! (Though if you lose your pet dog you should try to steer away from dog-meat for a while because you never know who has stolen it and why!) He also showed us some snakes in rice wine which he told us is good for gentlemen of certain age who may have certain... circulatory issues. We cruised off to Cat Ba town on the other side of the island then checked in at our hotel. As this day was RICHARD’S BIRTHDAY we headed out for some local Bia Hoi then met up with Caroline for some drinks and some pool.


In the morning we had our trip back to Hanoi which was a fairly hungover one but best not to dwell on these things! We arrived at about 4 and hopped on a night train to Sapa at 8.30! Worth noting was a burger Richard ate before catching the train (See picture below for WORLDS SMALLEST BURGER). At the station we met a Scottish authoress named Deborah who had lived in Vietnam for about 10 years. She told us a few tricks of the trade, helped us find our carriage and was generally enthusiastic about the country which made us shut up about our hangovers and the stress of travelling and enjoy the ride! We shared our carriage with Heidi and a Vietnamese man who at first looked a bit wary of us but soon got chatting and told Richard he looked like Andy Murray, much to Joy and Heidi’s amusement. The train was definitely more luxury than the bus would have been and it was a good experience so we’re glad we did it in the end.


We arrived in Lao Cai at about 6.30am and got a minibus to the town of Sapa. We stayed at Luong Phong family guesthouse which gets 10/10 for friendliness and the view of the mountains! We booked our trek to Tai Phin village with Heidi and Mattius from Chile who we had met at breakfast and did little else that day but admire the view as we needed to recover from all the travelling.


The next day we headed off on our trek with our lovely guide, Mai Nhi – a Red Dzao lady who was absolutely hilarious. She liked to scare Joy by constantly shouting ‘SNAKE!’ then laughing her head off. We had a good trek over the hills looking over the rice paddies which took about 5 hours before we arrived at the homestay. We all had to have a nap because it was an unseasonably hot and sunny day and the walk nearly killed us all. We later got up and had tea with the homestay family who fed us copious amounts of rice wine and ‘medicine’ (wood soaked in rice wine - Whatever it was, we were all pretty happy so the medicine worked!) and delicious food. The lady we stayed with whose name escapes us was a medicine woman who had travelled all around Asia to hone her skills. After dinner Mai Nhi invited us to her house for some Karaoke and beer! Heidi gave us a stunning rendition of Bon Jovi’s ‘Bed of Roses’ whereas Mattius shone during ‘Guantanamera’. His crowning moment however was Aerosmith’s ‘Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing’. Richard butchered ‘Dr Jones’ and ‘Hey Jude’ and Joy did a rousing rendition of ‘Beat It’ in a very English accent.


The next morning we awoke to pouring rain so the trek back to Sapa looked like it would be cancelled. After some banana pancakes and general recovery the rain had worn off so we went for a trek around the surrounding area for a couple of hours before getting a jeep back to Sapa. That night we couldn’t stay at the nice hotel we had previously so moved to the Princess Hotel just up the road. It was the start of the World Cup so we all met up with Ash from London who we had also met at breakfast on our first day in Sapa. We had a rather large night of it playing pool and chatting and watching the football, loving the Vietnamese enthusiasm for the game!


The next day we did very little except get kicked out of our hotel at 3pm because allegedly someone had booked the room! Even though ‘someone’ had booked the room, we could stay if we paid extra! It’s a long story but basically we weren’t amused as they insisted on charging us half a day fee even though we’d told them we’d be staying 2 nights! Charming. Fortunately they forgot to charge us for our laundry and there was no way we were pointing that out! At lunch we met a Black H’mong lady named Pai who we bought some jewellery off and got chatting. She told us she was married at 14 to a man much older than her and has a 9 year old daughter. She is 24 – the same age as Joy. We kept seeing her through the day and chatting and fell in love with her, a very amazing lady.


Next day we got the minibus to Dien Bien Phu – the last town before the border to Laos. It was an absolute trial – the roads were muddy from rain during the night not to mention the fact that about 200km is being moved further up the cliff and made wider as they are going to flood a large area for a hydroelectric dam. Due to this mess we kept stopping to fix the buckled wheel – seemingly with a foot long piece of wire each time – you have to love the Asian ingenuity. We didn’t question it and we got there safe and sound after a mere 10 hours! The trip was made better by meeting some Spanish men called Antonio and Unie who liked to clap and shout every time we got out of a sticky situation – calling the driver ‘El Torro’ and generally being amusing. We headed out to get some baguettes for the next day and eat some Pho from a street cafe before retiring to watch Ghana vs. Serbia – we’d missed the England game the previous night as it was on at 1.30am in the morning! Would have been annoying to stay up for a 0-0 game before a 10hr bus ride though so we think we made the right decision.


The next day we were up early for our 5.30am bus to Laos! It was a bit of a rickety old thing but it made it to the border without any real hiccups. As it hadn’t rained for a while we were spared too many near death experiences – also we’d learned not to look out the window at the 200ft drops. We reached the border crossing and after an hour or so of faffing we all managed to get our visas for entry to Laos!


Posted by RichardJoy 07:08 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Dalat, Nha Trang, Hoi An and Hué

sunny 28 °C

We arrived in Dalat in the evening and decided to stay at ‘Phong Huong’ guesthouse which is owned by a very friendly and helpful man, is cheap and has big rooms. Dalat is up in the mountains and as such has a very cool climate – exactly what we needed after HCMC! The city of Dalat is renowned for its flowers, fruit, vegetables and wine (which Joy recommends). As our coach had taken two hours longer than anticipated we got there so late we had to just go to whichever restaurant was open. This process was made about 100 times more annoying by an ‘Easy Rider’ (man on motorbike) following us wherever we went trying to get some custom to see the local sights. He had met us off the bus and he seemed to be driving around every corner we turned, stopping to chat every time! Argh! A very pleasant man but no exactly what we needed at that point! We went to a vegetarian restaurant near our hotel which had photos up on the wall of famous faces such as David Duchovny, Gandhi and Ashley Judd. The proprietor must have noticed the perplexed looks on our faces so he explained they are famous people who don’t eat meat! Easy when you think about it - not too many other reasons David Duchovny could be compared to Gandhi, but then Gandhi wouldn't have made a very good Agent Mulder, would he? We had an average dinner and headed off quickly as they began turning all the lights off apart from the one above our heads and wheeling their mopeds inside past our table.

We decided to rent a moped the next day to see the sights on our own as it was a third of the price we were quoted by the Easy Rider. We managed to rent a brand new automatic Yamaha for $6 and had an awesome day going to see a waterfall and a pagoda before stopping for lunch. After lunch we went to the 'Crazy House', a guesthouse and restaurant which is a kind of Vietnamese version of what you'd find down the rabbit hole in 'Alice in Wonderland'. It is made entirely out of concrete (Vietnam's favourite material) and painted in an array of colours. The rooms are really odd shape and tend to be based on an animal - our personal favourite was the kangaroo room, complete with glowing-red-eyed kangaroo in the corner to haunt your dreams. The beds are all kinds of crazy shapes, the mattresses must have been specially made for the house. They wouldn't be much good for anyone over 5ft8 though! The stairs are all spiral, some leading up 30ft in the air and with a flagrant disregard for health and safety they are about a foot wide with a barrier either side which barely reaches above your ankle! Some literally lead to a sheer drop at the moment as they are doing some renovation work and are buiding another structure. Rather than telling you this they like to let you figure it out yourself. We left the Crazy House after Richard stomped on a half full carton of sour milk which sprayed on the ceiling of the house and all over joy's hair, back and legs. (Richard wishes to point out he also got a couple of splashes.)


After we showered and changed to remove the stench from ourselves, we went to see Duy Viet, an 80yr old poet and artist. He served us cherry tea and homemade cake and gave Joy some flowers and fruit from his garden. He was such a lovely man and we had a nice chat and bought a big scroll with one of his own poems on. We even got to meet his grandson who was great fun but got very shy when we tried to take his picture. We decided to cruise further and see some of the Lat villages north of Dalat that night and took in some nice scenery before it got really cold and we had to turn back.


The next day we got picked up from our hotel and headed off to Nha Trang! We had arranged to meet Katie and Freddie (friends from Phnom Penh) and they had already found a great hotel - $7 for a brand new room with air con! We dumped our stuff and went straight to the beach to lounge for a couple of hours before meeting Katie and Freddie at the hotel. We headed out for some beers that night and it turned into quite a big one as we met a few more nice people from London and Scotland. We ended up in the beachside Sailors Club, an expensive but classy joint. Thankfully the proprietor, an Aussie, was in town and he showered us with free drinks! After this we ended up with the obligatory night swimming made more amusing with Katie and Freddie’s waterproof camera. The next day we didn’t really have any plans but as we had woken up early with hangovers and another all day power cut (the norm in Nha Trang) we decided to head to see some local sights and then to the beach to lounge some more. We also booked ourselves onto an island tour (dare we describe it as a booze cruise?) the next day.


We got picked up at 8am and headed off to the first of four islands off the coast of Nha Trang. The first had an Aquarium which we opted not to visit as it wasn’t included in the price and we’d seen lots of marine life in the wild in Australia. At the second island we did some swimming offshore and although there were masks and snorkels to use we opted to jump off the top of the boat and sit in rubber rings chatting to the people we met on the boat. Next on the agenda was lunch and it was an amazing spread with lots of tofu and seafood dishes. Food was followed with a performance by the ‘Nha Trang Boyband’ - our tour leader Mr. Binh was the lead singer and the captain and kitchen staff made up the rest of the band! The captain/guitarist was amazing and the drummer was excellent, especially considering he was using the smallest ricketiest looking drum kit we’ve ever seen! After the performance we went to the ‘floating bar’ – an elderly member of staff who had worn a coconut bra and played the tambourine during the musical performance was now sitting on a big ring in the ocean, tied to the boat with a piece of rope. The tourgoers then sat in our rubber rings and enjoyed our free drinks whilst trying not to be carried off to sea by the current. Within 20 minutes the fun was over as we’d drank the bar dry. We moved onto other islands to continue the theme of jumping off the top of the boat until a storm came in and we headed home in some refreshing cool wind and rain. We had really good trip for $5 including food, cocktails at happy hour, use of snorkels and all the entertainment. That night we headed out for pizza and a few ‘bia hoi’s (7000 Dong for a litre – about 25p, not bad) with Katie Freddie and Tom – another guy who was staying at our hotel. All in all it was a good day!


We decided to move on to Hoi An after Nha Trang so we spent the day on the beach before catching the night bus there. On boarding the bus Richard looked across and to our surprise Heidi was on one of the beds (this was the first of many unexpected meetings we had with Heidi). It was a relatively easy journey until we were woken up at 6am by loud Vengaboys style music, with a strange interlude of ‘2 Become 1’ by the Spice Girls. We headed to a hotel near the market which was cheap if not cheerful and proceeded to doze ‘til midday! After that we headed for lunch, opting for Cao Lau – a Hoi An specialty. It is another noodle soup but with thicker noodles and less sauce. We dare say it was tastier than our Pho in HCMC! We then went out and spent a lot of money (relatively speaking) getting some fabric for our mums from the cloth market and ordering a tailor-made suit for Hussey and a nice coat for Joy!

We spent a few days in Hoi An as we had to make sure our clothes fitted properly. It was also a good place to pick up some cheap souvenirs such as lanterns and a set of chopsticks (for all the Pho we're going to make at home). We rented a moped one day and headed to the Cua Dai beach before we realised a big storm was coming and had to ride home in the driving rain! We spent other days just wandering up and down the river and having a relaxed time after the busy few days we’d spent so far in Nam. While wandering we again bumped into Heidi so we had a chat and decided to meet up for dinner. Heidi also brought her friend Choo a South Korean girl who was sharing her dorm. We tried some other local delicacies, White Roses (open wontons with prawns) and some pancake things we forget the name of which you roll up in rice paper with prawns and salad which were again very tasty! The next day all our clothes were ready so we sent them home via Seamail, as with all our souvenirs and gifts for people airmail would have cost $120! Expect your presents some time in September, folks!


We moved onto Hué the next morning, arriving in the afternoon. We decided to stay at Phuong Nha guesthouse for a reasonable $10 – the room was lovely and the fridge was stocked with beer! Dangerous. Once we had sorted ourselves out we went for a walk around, heading to the Perfume River which looked a bit of a non-event in the daylight but came to life at dusk when the floating lanterns were turned on and the many boats cruising up and down turned their lights on. We had a little wander down the riverbank where we met a gentleman selling some paintings on silk. We swatted him away initially (not really – we smiled and said ‘no thank you’) but when he said they were only a dollar each he had caught our attention so we bought 3 as he offered us a discount! He was very friendly and told us he painted them himself which we enjoyed – later discovering one of the three paintings had a different signature to the other two. Oh well!


We next walked towards the citadel for which Hué is famed – we were approached by many tuk-tuk drivers who simply couldn’t fathom why we would want to walk there! We got chatting to one of them about English football for a while and he only followed us shouting prices for about ten minutes after that which was very decent of him. The citadel was lovely at sunset and was made even better by the fact they were setting up for the Hué festival which would start a couple of days after we left! Many people were in the main area flying kites, playing football and generally having a look at how the preparations were coming on. We were about to get a sugar-cane juice from a streetside vendor but just as we approached the police came and ushered them off, confiscating their plastic chairs! We left the citadel and managed to catch some drummers practising on the walls. We managed to sit down and get a sugar cane juice this time without police intervention.


We walked back over the bridge over the perfume river and met two lovely Hue University students (of English and Japanese) who we chatted to for a good while as they were keen to practise their English! We have found the people in Hue to be some of the friendliest in the country despite the general preconception that people get a little less friendly to tourists the more North you get.


We hopped off to the backpacker district as we had spotted some cheap restaurants there earlier. We sat upstairs in an empty looking restaurant (as ever choosing it because it had the cheapest beer) and had a decent meal but were most chuffed when a 10 piece band turned up at the hotel directly opposite and after a few minutes faffing around started to play! They also seemed to have some breakdancers as part of the act, by the end the whole staff of the restaurant were upstairs looking through the windows and we had the prime seats! An enjoyable moment was when a Vietnamese onlooker started joining in with a strange floaty dance of his own creation! After a couple of beers we started discussing staying for a few days of the festival, but in the morning realised this was somewhat foolish as we were running out of pennies once again. In the end we moved on by another night bus to Hanoi, arriving in the manic city at 7am...


Posted by RichardJoy 20:53 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Mekong Delta, Chau Doc, Can Tho and Ho Chi Minh City

sunny 35 °C

We began our Mekong trip with an hour’s ride in a minivan stopping intermittently to pick up our fellow travellers. Some didn’t turn up and there ended up being only five of us: ourselves, a French couple called Audrey and Antoine and Heidi from Austria. (Believe it or not, these are not made up names!) At first it seemed like we would be driven all the way to the border but eventually we stopped at someone’s house, walked through his garden and found his boat moored on the Mekong. We hopped in and the man and his pyjama clad wife took it in turns at the helm for a two hour trip to the border.


During the trip we got a real taste for life on this huge river. We saw many interesting sights, people washing their cattle and water buffalo, people doing laundry, washing, fishing and kids playing. It was brilliant to see right into normal people’s lives on the Mekong, everyone we saw was happy to wave and smile at us and as a result we have about a thousand photos of kids waving frantically!


We soon arrived at the Cambodian side of the border crossing and got off the boat to have our visas stamped as having left the country. We then got back on the boat for a two minute journey to the Vietnamese immigration area - a floating building on the river. We didn’t even have to see any immigration personnel as our boat driver took our passports away and came back 30 minutes later with them all stamped. We had been warned this process could take hours but it really was easy for us. After this we changed onto a smaller craft manned by a Vietnamese dude who spoke pretty good English who was to be our guide for the next couple of days.


We turned off down a tributary of the Mekong as the guide informed us it would offer a closer view into the lives of the Vietnamese river people. He wasn’t wrong as the river in this area was less than 10 metres wide and lined by stilt houses on either side. Here we saw many more interesting sights - the photos below will show better than an explanation. We took this route for about 3 hours until we rejoined the Mekong on our way to Chau Doc, the closest town to the border and our first nights stay.


On arriving at the town we saw the floating village we were to visit the next day and on land we saw a huge government building adorned with colourful communist flags right next to a shanty town on stilts! We docked at said shanty town and walked across slippery wood planks 10ft over the water. It dawned on us perhaps we weren’t going to be staying at the Victoria Hotel! The people here were all very curious and lots of staring commenced as we walked through the town to our guesthouse. We noticed hardly any other tourists in Chau Doc while we were there.


Whilst wandering around looking from somewhere to eat (as the lack of tourists seemed to have the knock on effect of no restaurants) we bumped into Heidi from the boat and asked her if she wanted to join us in our quest for food. We had a meal at a street restaurant which was nice but every meal seemed to contain processed sausage... mmm! Even Joy and Heidi’s vegetarian options had nice slabs of sausage-meat placed daintily upon them! Later that night we had a couple of beers at our hotel and were intermittently harassed by a group of children who must have been at a birthday party further down the road. They spent a few hours running around screaming and playing with balloons and fake guns. In his attempt to hit on Heidi, our tour guide asked if she would like to join him to an English lesson as she is an English teacher back in Austria. She accepted and extended the offer to us so as not to be left alone too long with Mr. Tour and his lovely comb-over. The English lesson was good although the teacher was a little boring. We think the few beers before helped with our nerves (due to being thoroughly unqualified and inexperienced) although the girl sitting next to Richard clearly thought he was an alcoholic (at least he gave her all the right answers!)


The next morning we went to see a fish farm on the Mekong which is a farming method used by a lot of the river people to make a living. As their houses are on the water, they keep a large net underneath the home and in it they raise fish. This makes catching the fish pretty easy and also means the fish can be fed on any scraps of food from the home. Admittedly we found it a bit grim as it was unclear how much room they had and they were quite big! When the tour guide threw some fish food into the water to illustrate the fish went mad for it, there were so many fish packed in like sardines (haha!) that when the food was thrown in the fish thrashing about soaked us with Mekong water. We imagine if you accidentally fell in there wouldn’t be much of you left. We can see why it makes sense to raise fish this way for the people in the area though and it didn’t put us off our food for too long!


The next stop was to see the Cham, a minority Muslim sect found on the Mekong. We saw how the changing water levels affects the community – it was at its highest ever in 2002 (see photo below) – when the water gets this high all the villagers have to move all their belongings to the upper levels of their homes – this includes their animals! Nice. After this visit we got a minibus to Can Tho where we did very little apart from go to see the large gold statue of Uncle Ho, have a wander round the market and have some food. Something worth noting here is the menu of a restaurant next to our hotel which offers among many other delicacies – fried or grilled rat! Mmm!


Next day we got up early to see the floating markets on the Mekong. It was good to see how the locals go about their food shopping but for some reason our boat took forever to get there so it seemed quite quiet - the optimum time to go to the market is about 6 or 7am! Also, our boat wouldn’t really stop so we could buy things – it was a very community (as opposed to tourists) oriented market but it would have been nice to get a mango or two as it was a long way down the river and a long way back! Our tour guide managed to keep our spirits up by being generally amusing, knowledgeable and enthusiastic. After the markets we went to see a rice noodle making factory which was sort-of interesting but we think the boat must have been a lot slower than they intended as we only seemed to spend about 15 minutes there. There were some pigs in the back of the factory which they feed the husks of the rice once they’ve been removed. After slathering on some DEET to hopefully prevent encephalitis we went ahead to have a look at them and one in particular was quite simply the biggest pig we’ve ever seen. Unfortunately you can’t really see the true scale of the pig from the photo but it must have weighed about 400lbs! Terrifying. The pig was admittedly more exciting than the rice noodle making process.


Our Mekong tour was over and we headed off to Ho Chi Minh City in a nice air-conditioned coach with neck pillows and everything! It was an easy journey and we managed to snooze throughout most of it. Once we arrived we decided to stay at Mai Phai which was rather steep at $17 a night but it was an amazing room and had free internet and a/c. We’d also heard how manic HCMC can be so we wanted a haven to retreat to if the city got too much!


That night we had a wander around but weren’t up to much after lots of early mornings and a long coach trip. Next day we did the walking tour as recommended in our Lonely Planet. We saw the big central market and nearly got scratched by some 15yr old Vietnamese girls for suggesting that 6 dollars was too much for a fake Abercrombie and Fitch strappy top! They wouldn’t let us go! To recover we went for some ‘Pho’ - a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup dish - with chicken for Richard and Tofu for Joy. It was absolutely delicious! As a side note apparently Bill Clinton came to this particular restaurant (‘Pho 2000’) on his trip to HCMC – the first US president to visit Vietnam since the war.


We wandered around some more of the city but the War Remnants Museum was a high/lowlight. Well worth going to see but very sad and difficult to stomach subject matter. When first entering the museum you see all the weaponry used during the war but as you move further in and see the cells and torture methods it gets hard to bear and even more so when you start to see the effects of the napalm and Agent Orange chemical warfare used by the Americans. With the war being reasonably recent there are many photographs, one that sticks is of an American soldier delighted to be holding up the head of a Viet Cong soldier and what we left of his body – truly disturbing. We had to give up our walking tour after that as the heat and depression finally won out, naturally easing the pain with a Saigon beer or three in the city. We alternated between a nice classy cocktail joint near our hotel and a rickety-plastic-baby-chair-on-the-street joint where we were briefly joined by a massive rat. We had enjoyed HCMC but by this point we knew we had seen all we needed to. We booked a bus to Dalat for the next morning and looked forward to the cooler climate and stunning views!


Posted by RichardJoy 04:23 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Sihanoukville, Koh Ru and Koh Rong Saloem

all seasons in one day 36 °C

Via a few quick Facebook messages and emails we had more or less agreed to meet Michaela and Lindsay at a guesthouse and bar in Sihanoukville named Monkey Republic. We arrived there knackered, hungry and very sweaty hoping that the girls had received our email agreeing to meet there and hoping we could get to a room quickly for a much needed shower! We had literally just sat down in some comfy chairs out front when we heard deafening squeals and quickly got crushed by a big Michaela hug. We all squealed a bit more (Richard included) before trying to find a cheap but decent guesthouse – sadly Monkey Republic was booked out.

After much faffing we settled on the Sea Horse guesthouse not far from Serendipity Beach which was cheap but by no means decent. We were all too excited to care so we had quick showers and headed out for food and booze. We made a rather large night of it and ended up at the Nap House on the beach drinking buckets of vodka and mixer – Joy going so far as allowing the bar staff to paint her in UV much to the others’ disapproval. After a swim in the hot, soupy sea we headed back to the delightful Seahorse to get eaten to death by mosquitoes.


The next morning we awoke to find that Michaela and Lindsay had packed up their stuff and gone to book in at a guesthouse further along the road called Cool Banana. It was $7 per night but was much cleaner and more acceptable for a prolonged stay! We went to relax on the beach in the morning but got swamped by children selling bracelets and women selling fruit and manuicures. Usually we wouldn't complain - they are just trying to make a living, but we were not in the mood to spend the day saying no thankyou and feeling bad! Also one 9 year old boy did look like he was going to kill Richard, it seems that was his sales technique - looking angrily at someone about 2 inches from their face! It turned into a staring match for about 5 minutes before the kid just started giggling and walked away.

After Michaela had purchased an armful of bracelets we decided to call it a day and moved to Utopia - a guesthouse and bar across the road from our lodgings with a pool - free to use! In the evening we met up with some friends Michaela and Lindsay had met in Vietnam - George, Alex and Laura. We had another big night as it was Alex’s Birthday, again ending up at the Nap House and again winding up swimming in the sea at some ridiculous hour of the morning.


We spent the next day lounging around the pool once more and that evening we stumbled upon our favourite (albeit rather lame and uncultured) place in Sihanoukville – Top Cat cinemas! For $4 we could watch a film in a private room with comfy sofas and AIR CONDITIONING. Any film we liked! (All illegal copies we assume.) We opted for Sunshine Cleaning followed by Sherlock Holmes. It was blissful to get out of the heat! It also is a very good diversion from the cheap beer... We enjoyed some chai tea instead.


The next day we booked onto a boat to Koh Ru – a beach on Bamboo Island with 10 bungalows and one bar and restaurant. The boat took just over an hour and the sea was very calm. As the island came into view we kept pinching ourselves to make sure we were really there! The beach was virtually deserted – about 3 or 4 western staff at any one time, around 6 Khmer staff and about 10-12 guests milling about including us. We spent 4 blissful days there, snorkelling, playing volleyball, cards and connect four (a Cambodian staple game it seems), swimming, lazing around in hammocks, poi, reading and crafts. The craftwork involved making our own ‘Milky Joe’ out of a coconut, some red nail varnish and whatever flotsam we could find. Our tribute to Mighty Boosh unfortunately had to be left behind but the bar staffs were looking after him on the counter so hopefully he will live a long and happy life on the island.


In the evenings we tended to go for a swim once the power went out in the bar (at around midnight) to see the phosphorescence – little glimmers of gold in the sea caused by algae. When you swam they would light up in the wake of the sea as you moved it and the further out you went the brighter they got. It was pretty much the most amazing thing any of us had ever seen which we decided to keep repeating over and over and over (although we had been drinking it was an amazing sight).

On our last day we decided to walk through the jungle to the other beach – Koh Russei. It was a bit more built up there with more guesthouses, bungalows and people, plus sadly noticeably more rubbish. We had lunch there with chickens, chicks and cats wandering around all over the tables and a few zillion flies diving at our meals. The icing on the cake was when Joy found a fly cooked into her stir fry. We hotfooted it back to ‘our’ beach as soon as possible!


We were sad to leave Koh Ru but we felt we should move on as we’d already stayed two more nights than we had intended! As soon as we got back to the mainland we decided to book to go to another island, Koh Rong Saloem to a place called Lazy Beach. We had to wait another couple of days before we went so we had another trip to Top Cat cinemas to detox and watch Invictus and District 9 – a South African themed cinema trip! While we were there a massive thunderstorm broke out right above us! It was quite terrifying as we could see the lightning striking about 100 metres from the cinema when we looked out of the window and the rain was absolutely driving down! It also caused two power cuts while we were in the cinema which was annoying but all part of the fun at the same time.

After the cinema Michaela, Joy and Hussey headed down to the beach to see the amazing fire show by 'T' at Sessions Bar. It was awesome, we have never seen anyone so talented! At one point he had a fire staff in one hand and a fire poi in the other! Astonishing. Joy was taking videos when a gentleman came to sit next to her and chat - Michaela came over to see if there was any trouble brewing but swiftly returned to her seat, telling Hussey - 'No problems here, he's just a harmless stoner!' She was very right - if you see our videos of T and you can hear words such as 'Man that is deep!', 'Oh my days!' and 'That is sick, man!' then that will be Joy's friend Kai.

The boat to Koh Rong Saloem was bigger than the one to Koh Ru but for some reason it had a serious lean to the left! As they turned the boat round to set off it almost toppled over! Joy legged it to the right hand side of the boat and stayed there, arms clasped round the seat for the duration of the trip. Joy and Michaela also played the celebrity name game for about an hour – a desperate ploy to forget they were on a boat miles out to sea which seemed to have some serious buoyancy issues. Frequently when a big wave threatened to knock the boat over one of them would squeal “Peter Andre” or the like in an extremely high pitched, terrified voice.

On arrival at Lazy Beach we were all greeted by the owners and staff – Chris, Rich, Carrie and Jake and their two dogs Spoon and Boyce. It was a very warm and friendly welcome and we realised as much as we loved Koh Ru we had potentially found an even more amazing and beautiful place! The bungalows were slightly more expensive but they had private bathrooms, more space and best of all, super thick mattresses! We had some food as soon as we got there which was more expensive at around $5 a meal but the quality was probably the highest any of us have had in Asia.


We spent our days on Lazy Beach doing much the same as the last island – snorkelling, swimming, lazing and playing games. The array of games at Lazy Beach was also of a better standard and we must have played about fifty games of Jenga – realising in our more pissed and infantile states that it is hard not to come out with many rude innuendos when playing this game, our favourite being – “You’ve touched it now, you have to take it!” We also enjoyed the array of crap magazines they had at the island so hangovers there were great – hammock? Check. Mango Shake? Check. Sunday supplements from the past 2 years? Check. View which looks like a photo-shopped screensaver? Check! (We apologise for rubbing it in but it was AMAZING. That’s the last time we’ll say it.)


On the last night on the island we went to bed early to be good. The rain started driving down just as we were drifting off so we all got up to sort our possessions out. Joy grabbed her towel to hang over the mosquito net to catch most of the rain which was coming in through the thatched roof. Simultaneously she got bitten by some unknown creature and spotted a large, red spider on her towel leading to a rather large hissy fit. Richard came to the rescue and tried to kill it – at first however he told a barefaced lie in saying it was dealt with as when Joy tried to climb back in the mosquito net it was still there on the net! The second time she stood around to make sure it was disposed of before she would get in. We never did find out what bit Joy but at least she lives to tell the tale.

On the way back from the island we had a bigger boat which was seemingly chartered just for us as they were getting their other boat fixed! They offered us a free nights stay on the island instead but we had spent a lot of money and I think the thought of a new, fully functioning boat was very tempting for us all after the hell of the journey over there. That plus a couple of underwater attempted hand-holding and leg-stroking incidents between Chris and Michaela had soured relations somewhat.


The journey back was literally plain sailing, it was only us four on it apart from the crew, the sea was as still as a lake and Lindsay and Joy decided we were essentially on the Duran Duran ‘Rio’ video. When we were returned to the mainland we realised they were taking us about 5km from the beach we set of from and became rather concerned. We landed at the boat drivers stilt-house and spent 20 minutes sitting in silence due to the language barrier (luckily a cute baby and stupid faces were all we needed), eventually figuring out they were sending a tuk-tuk to take us back to Serendipity Beach.


It was our last night in Sihanoukville together which was very sad as we had shared such an amazing time but to keep up tradition we decided to go to Top Cat once more for some aircon goodness! We watched Precious and a really crap George Clooney film. In the morning we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways, promising to meet again in Laos to do some tubing down the Mekong! It was a brilliant last few days in Cambodia but Vietnam was calling! We got a bus to Phnom Penh and stayed once more at Number 9, setting off the next morning at 7am for the slow-boat down the Mekong River to the Vietnamese border town, Chao Doc....

Posted by RichardJoy 23:58 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (Ankgor Temples)

sunny 34 °C
View Asian and Australasian Adventure on RichardJoy's travel map.

We arrived in one piece after the 8 hour flight and managed to catch the coach from the airport to KL City Centre (KLCC) without any issues. We then caught the train to Pasar Seni – Chinatown. We made our way to the guesthouse as recommended in our guide book. It was an absolute dive. The room was essentially a cell with a rickety old fan in it and a threadbare, fagburned sheet. Nonetheless it was only a few ringitts for the night so after inspection Richard said a knackered, ‘Yes we’ll take it’ to the proprietor. Joy was not amused and less amused still when she discovered rats fornicating in the bins near the toilet in the middle of the night. GRIM. That night we had a couple of drinks in the reggae bar downstairs to drown our sorrows of the bed and celebrate being in Asia!

The next day we packed up our stuff ready to go but got the chance to wander around the city for a few hours first as we’d woken up really early. We grabbed some delicious food from a little stall near Central Market, we had a stroll through the market but didn’t buy anything despite seeing lots of nice stuff (as we’d have to lug it around for the next couple of months) and then took and little tiki tour around Chinatown.


Next we headed to the bus stop to go and visit the Batu Caves which are huge limestone caves housing Hindu shrines where huge festivals are held every year. It is also home to the world’s largest statue of Murugan, a Hindu deity. This place is also rife with monkeys and it was fun to watch tourists tease them with food and then wonder why the monkeys tried to attack them. Bloody tourists! We didn’t tease them, namely because we’re not idiots and we didn’t get our rabies shots.


On our return we decided to move to the Grocer’s Inn – a guesthouse recommended in our budget Lonely Planet, so it was still cheap but a little more cheerful than ‘Bang Kwang’ as we’d come to know our previous lodgings. There was a nice roof garden and it was right amongst the busy night market so we spent the evening wandering the stalls and purchasing ourselves some ‘Ray Bans’ and a Tiger Beer singlet for Richard. While in KL we managed to eat our first noodles for breakfast and Richard his first curry for breakfast which we are sure is going to become something of a norm over the coming weeks.


The next day we had to leave KL which was both a ballache and a bit of a shame as we had come to enjoy it and found the people very friendly indeed. We got the same train and bus back to the airport and hopped on our flight to Cambodia! The flight was a mere 3 hours this time and we arrived at about 5 in the evening. We hopped in a taxi to get dropped off on road 93, the home of ‘Number 9’ Lakeside Guesthouse. Our first impressions when arriving in the city were astonishment at the traffic! Coming from Australia – literally open road for miles, there seem to be no rules here! 90% of the traffic is motos and tuk-tuks and there can be up to about 7 lanes on the road by the looks of it! People generally tend to drive on the right but it is not uncommon to see someone driving on the left if they so choose, ‘til they can swerve out and join the right lane! Indicating doesn’t happen, you just go for it and hope - everyone is going at a maximum of 40 miles an hour so it is feasible for the oncoming traffic to slow down or stop to prevent a crash! Crossing the road as a pedestrian roughly works like this also – you just make sure there are no SUVs or cars coming and just walk.... Miraculously the motos just weave around you, sparing your life.


On our first evening at Number 9 we took our first sip of 50 cent beer. 30p for a jug of beer. Amazing. We are proud to say this is where we first drank Angkor beer which is very tasty indeed. We went out for a Khmer curry at a nearby restaurant named The Lazy Gecko which was to become a favourite. This was where we saw ‘Chook’ the Pug as seen in the very poor photo below. The next day we hit the tourist sights – the temples, a stroll down the Ton Le Sap, a visit to the National Monument. Sadly the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda were shut! We had managed stupidly to be out in the hottest part of the day and by about 3pm we were pooped and decided to head back.


The next day we didn’t do much other than chill out and play pool – it was Sunday after all. That night Richard met a guy called Freddy from London who he got talking to and over the next few days we spent a lot of our time with him and his girlfriend Katy.

The next evening we all headed out to the Night Market but sadly as it wasn’t the weekend it was shut! This was a bit gutting but the Tuk Tuk driver (who suddenly realised as he set us down next to the closed market that it wasn’t open on a Monday) pointed us in the direction of a more makeshift local market, parting with the words – ‘Be careful, keep hold of your bags, there is no security here,’ before riding off into the night. We had a wander through on the hunt for some cheap food but the deep fried crickets and chicken claws didn’t take our fancy. It was an interesting experience though, nice to see some of the more traditional foods and there were less people pushing their wares on your here as I guess not many tourists go. We opted to get some noodles at a restaurant as a treat, reasonably priced and very tasty.

The next day we decided to visit the Killing Fields. We knew we would have to confront the country’s shocking history at some point. We had a wander around guided by a gentleman we met on the inside (of the Killing Fields, not Bang Kwang). His mother, father and sister had died during Pol Pot’s regime, probably at the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh. It was quite harrowing to hear his stories at the same time as walking around the holes where mass graves had been exhumed. Quite often after there has been rain, bones, clothes and teeth get washed up from the mud, all of which we saw. We were all in silence pretty much the whole way home, til Katie and Freddy picked up their Vietnam visas and had something to be happy about!


While Katy and Freddie entered the embassy our tuk-tuk driver, Arun, got chatting to us and asked if we would like to hear some music to which we said yes. He got out an instrument we cannot remember the name of and played us a few tunes which was nice! We decided to make the most of the day and stop off at the central market where we got some food from a local cafe who charged us over the odds, but this is par for the course when you wander in with a white face and no command of the Khmer language! We had a wander past the guards with their AK-47s and into the market where we picked up a plug adaptor for $1 and Joy got two big traditional Cambodian scarves for $4. We all went back and had a well-earned shower before getting a few drinks.


The next day we were to leave Phnom Penh for Siem Reap! We got our bus at around 11am and made it there just before the sun set. The journey was pretty crap as the air con wasn’t working in one seat and the coach was full to the brim. At one point half way there a few more people got on and they pulled out baby stools and put them in the aisles for them to sit on! When we got to Siem Reap we had a tuk-tuk driver waiting for us (thanks to the excellent and trustworthy travel agency dude we met!) who took us to Garden Village. Now admittedly we wouldn’t have stayed at the Garden Village if they weren’t affiliated with the tour operator we booked through, but to their credit they made the whole journey pretty easy for us and the place looked nice so we decided to stay. We got a huge room for $6 a night which was so big and airy it almost felt like it had aircon.

That night we weren’t up to much but we got an early night ready to see the Angkor temples. We had enjoyed Phnom Penh so much we realised we hadn’t left ourselves a lot of time before we would meet Michaela and Lindsay in Sihanoukville! So we hopped in a tuk-tuk (with the world’s shyest tuk-tuk driver whose sister had to negotiate for him) and headed to Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is actually just one temple but a huge one surrounded by an equally huge moat! It was fascinating climbing through all the old rooms (and nice to be in the cool as it was another scorching day). It was like stepping back in time – work started on the Angkor temples in the 11th century. It was spectacular.


Next was Angkor Thom – an area with several temples and pools. Again these were amazing, it was like wandering around a lost village. Restoration work is still being done on the area and each area seems to have a different country as a sponsor for the work which is pretty cool, as Cambodia can’t really afford to do it alone. It must rake in a fair amount in tourism though, it was heaving. This is reflected in the hundreds of fervent salespeople running around screaming ‘COLD DRINK!!’, ‘LADY, YOU BUY!!’ and ‘BUY BRACELET FOR LADY FRIEND!!’ at you when you leave each area.


Next was Phnom Bakeng. Richard enjoyed this area especially as there has been less interference here and the temple is roughly how it was found in the 1850s. Huge trees grow out of ancient monuments and buildings, so Richard took a few thousand snaps .


Next was a quick stop to the Royal Baths, but by this point we were absolutely pooped, the sun had beaten us so we decided to go back for a shower. We had done a successful 5 hours temple ogling though! We went back to the Garden Village and decided, after a shower, ANOTHER haircut for Richard and a lie down in the cool room, that we would go for a nice meal in the town, to try and see a bit more of it as we would have to leave the next day for Sihanoukville. We went to ‘Butterflies Garden’ – a restaurant enclosed by a huge net full of butterflies! Sadly we forgot that Butterflies tend to go to sleep in the evening so we had to make do with a few frogs and mosquitoes. The food was INCREDIBLE though – a little more than we were used to paying but at $4/$5 a meal this is still not bad! It was absolutely delicious and we also got to try a Beerlao. After the food we went to the night market which was in full swing. It was a really good market, completely aimed at tourists but a friendly, happy place to be with lots of options for eating, drinking, buying thai pants and singlets and getting your feet massaged/nibbled by fish! We didn’t do all this though, after Richard tried on every Angkor Beer singlet in the market, finding his Angkor beer gut too big each time, we merely bought some scarves at 3 for $2 as gifts for MJ, Lindsay and Eva and wandered home, knowing we were going to have to catch the bus early the next morning.


Next morning we were up and at reception at 6.30 as we had been told to do by the receptionist to wait for the coach. Bear in mind we were wary of the time it would take to get us to Sihanoukville so we changed from the 8.30 bus to the 7.30 one at reception (which seemed to consist of the receptionist just crossing out 8.30 on her whiteboard and writing 7.30). So we’d got up at 6 and rushed to get dressed then we waited.... and waited.... By 7.20 a friendly tuk-tuk driver offered us a lift to the bus station, getting us there at about five to 8, so we ended up hopping on the 8.30 bus anyway. We aren’t sure there was ever a 7.30 bus but we’re sure the receptionist had a good laugh about it!

The bus was nice though, aircon and a toilet too! It took about 6hrs 45mins in total which was a annoying as we had set off late to begin with so we missioned it back to our travel agent dude who said the last bus for Sihanoukville would leave at 2.45. It was 2.30!! DUN DUN DUNNNNN!! This was where the Cambodian’s relaxed attitude to time keeping would work in our favour. We took a leisurely (and free) taxi drive to the bus station, picked up some pastries to munch and some water and hopped on the bus, setting off at about ten past 3. The bus was nice and empty too so the aircon actually worked. Four hours later we had arrived at Sihanoukville after eating no proper food all day and 10 hours of bus rides we were ready for the party to begin!

Posted by RichardJoy 02:46 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

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