Another long day by bus. Interesting views along the way. One thing we learned today is that recycled glass soft drink bottles are used to hold gasoline for selling to motorbike owners. We had wondered what that yellow fluid in the bottles was. There are official service stations with pumps but the majority of the bike owners fillup at the small roadside stands. Also passed spirit house manufacturing central 🙂
The Thai border went relaitvely smoothly. Some tips if you go. An extra $15 “tax” will get you through the border without waiting in line. Our crossing went well, despite me getting into the wrong line at the final check point. Apparently there is a ladies line and a men’s line. I went into the mens line – chaos ensured with officials waving at me and shouting – I froze and did my blond deer in the headlights routine – worked well – a line of people was building behind me and I got waved through along with all of my group 🙂 without the final check.
The scenary changed dramatically once we were in Thailand. It seemed like one long strip mall until we reached Bangkok – which is huge. Very western and very boring after the colour and acitivity in the Cambodian countryside. Bangkok did greet us with a spectacular sunset.
We fly home tomorrow. It has been an intense trip and a life changing one. Thanks to you all for following along and see you next time!
This place is immense. 100,00’s of thousands of steps and a couple thousand photos later here we 🙂 temples visited included Angkor Wat., Angkor Thom, Preah Khan, Ta Prohm and East Mehon. I have included a schematic of the complex below.
They ranged from 1900 to 600 years old. The speed at which the jungle takes over the temples is amazing – most are under restoration by foreign agencies working with the Cambodian governemnt. We managed to cover a great deal of ground today.
Tonight we visit the night market in Siem Reap.
It seemed like the entire population of Cambodia was headed in the same direction at 5 am – to Angkor Wat to see the dawn over the main temple. The dawn didn’t disappoint as faint pinks intensified the sky and reflections in the pool in front of the palace. The appearance of the sun a few minues later completed a magical morning.
Angkor Wat park is a UNESCO world heritage site that covers about 400 square kms and contains temples constructed from the 9th to 15 centuries during the rule of the Khmer empire. The temples started out as Hindu and are now Buddhist. The area was heavily mind by the Khmer Rouge and wasn’t safe until the last 20 years. We focused today on Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom with the wonderful Banyon temple. Stairs are steep and high in Angkor watt in particular.Wooden stairs had to built in many areas as most dignitaries and religious figures arrived by elephant in the past. As they dismounted 20 feet off the ground, stairs were not required.
A visit to Ta Prohm – the overgrown temple where the Lara Croft Tomb Raider movie was shot – rounded out the day . This temple is similar to most of the Angkor Wat complex before restoration was started by the French in the 1860’s . The entire Angkor complex had been overgrown by the jungle following its abandonment by the Khmer in the 15th century . A bad drought at that time forced the relocation of the court to Phnom Penh.
A slow bus took us to Siem Reap over a period of about 7 hours. The bus meandered through the countryside and small towns and exposed us to a fascinating cross section of Cambodian life. Most of the houses in rural areas are built on stilts. This provides a room under the house which is shaded and used for activities during the heat of the day, the stilts also protect the house and inhabitants from flooding caused by monsoons and provides a shelter for livestock at night. People fish with hand thrown nets in most reasonably sized bodies of water
Transportation styles can be varied 🙂
Our first stop was at a country market. The long history of war and strife in this country has resulted in an interesting diet. One vendor sold deep fried insects – the cockroaches were 3 inches at least and the tarantulas even bigger. There were also a lot of bugs I couldn’t identify – must admit that I didn’t try very hard 🙂 .
We rolled into Siem Reap about 4 pm, had a quick rest and then caught Tuk Tuks and went out to a dinner at a local house in a village bordering the town. What a magical evening. Our hostess was a young woman who after learning english and getting a good paying job, returned to her village and is now sponsoring and educating 20 children in the village. Our group went for a village walk, met the children and their parents. We were then served a wonderful home cooked meal. We headed back to our hotel under a lovely orange moon and a cool breeze.
Tomorrow is day 1 at Angkor Wat
I am not sure how to approach this blog post – so will just put my shoulder into it and get it down the best I can. Choeung Ek is one of the many Khmer Rouge killing fields in operation from 1975 to the end of 1979. Many others are found across Cambodia. Our route to Choeung Ek included a stop at the infamous S-21 prison and torture centre that housed over 20,000 prisoners from 1975 until 1979 when the Khmer Rouge was driven from power. Our local guide lost two younger siblings and many other family members in the genocide. The best I can do in describing S-21 is to direct you to Internet sources for photos and more information. What you will see and read is not exaggerated.
Choeung Ek itself was an orchard that proved the final resting place for 9,000 people executed by the Khmer Rouge. Mass graves are everywhere. Although most have been excavated, remnants of human bone are plentiful even though most of the remains have been removed from the graves. Babies, women, children and men were executed at Choeung Ek. The wooden shed, which housed hundreds of skulls and which was featured in the infamous photos which made the world aware of the extent of what had happened, has been replaced by a Buddhist Stupa. The Stupa houses 5,000 skulls as well as other bones.
I have visited Belsen in Germany and the genocide memorial in Rwanda. Both were powerful reminders of mans inhumanity to man. S-21 and Choeung Ek were like a punch in the gut.
Saigon bid us farewell with still more noise 🙂 about 10 minutes after we boarded public transport for the Cambodian border, the bus’s horn got stuck in the on position. A long 10 mins later we changed buses and got back on the road. it was just over 2 hours to the Cambodian border. The bus was set up with a huge TV screen so we passed the time watching a movie and the countryside passing by.
The Cambodian border was interesting. If you go – here is the drill. The first thing you have to do is line up to exit Vietnam. If you don’t have a broker (for want of a better word) and pay the extra “tax” you will wait a long time to exit Vietnam and a long time to enter Cambodia. The two borders are separated by about 100 meters which you will need to walk. Our company has it down pat and we moved quickly through border formalities and got back on the road.
The decrease in traffic on the road is marked as soon as you are in Cambodia. The country lost 1/4 of its population during the rule of the Khmer Rouge and population levels are much lower than in Vietnam. Our route to Phnom Penh took us to the Mekong River again which we crossed by ferry and finally wound our way on dusty roads into the city.
Phnom Penh is a mix of old and new. Opulent houses of the governing elite line some beautiful blvds, just a street away are slum like streets. We were introduced to the city via a cylco tour on a beautiful early evening. The cyclos took us to the Mekong River promenade that is the home of countless restaurants, bars and the Kings Palace. It is high season here now and the people watching is first class 🙂 A tuk tuk trip after dark revealed a seamier side of the city with the local ladies of the night plying a brisk trade.
Our gateway to the Mekong Delta was via the city of My Tho about 2 hrs from Saigon. The Delta covers about 15,000 sq miles and is an incredibly rich ecosystem. We took a boat from My Tho out to the first of two large islands we visited in the Delta. 6,000 people live on the island which supports a wide range of cottage industries including bee keeping, orchid growing, large market gardens and active fisheries.
The second island we visited has a small restaurant where we had the best meal so far on the trip. Local elephant fish was steamed in coconut milk, lemon grass and green onion. it was then rolled in rice papers with basil, lettuce, rice noodles and drizzled with tamarind sauce. The islands are completely off the grid, the fish was cooked over wood and finished at the table using paraffin burners. A server was dedicated to each table to make the rolls for us. The lack of refrigeration makes for interesting restaurants. It hit home today when our guide ordered chicken. A number of small cages at the side of the restaurant housed individual chickens which I was photographing after we ordered. As I was snapping away a young man grabbed one rooster out of a cage and walked around to the back of the restaurant where the bird made its demise and reappeared as a saute about 20 mins later.
The Delta is a world in itself. House boats, fishermen, a huge highway leading to the sea and deeper into the continent and Cambodia – where we head tomorrow as we travel to Phnom Penh.
Th Cu Chi tunnels are about 55 km outside of Saigon and were a military stronghold for the North Vietnamese army throughout the war. The fighters and their support staff lived in the tunnels during the day and came out at night to tend crops, go on patrol and replenish supplies. The tunnel complex was huge. At one time 16,000 people lived in the tunnels. The US tried for years to destroy the tunnels on bombing raids and on foot but never entirely succeeded.
The tunnels have been enlarged to allow safe passage for tourists if you wish to go through them. We also saw examples of booby traps and trap doors used in the war.
Perhaps the most profound thing was the jungle. Distance of sight is about 10ft in all directions – moving through it is like being blind. Visibility is zero
Our guide was an officer in the south Vietnamese army and worked as an interpreter for the US during the war. Following the war he was arrested by the north Vietnamese and spent 2 years in a re-education centre. He was 65 kilos when he went in to the camp and 37 kilos when he came out. His memories of the war and of the changes during and after the conflict made for some fascinating stories today and added immensely to the quality of the day.
Saigon sprawls over 2000 sq km and it took a while to escape the suburbs on the way to the tunnels. We were entertained by the usual street life – also passed orchid farms and fish sellers.
Headed out this evening to a roof top restaurant for our final dinner here. We head to the Mekong Delta tomorrow.
Our dinner in the sky was fabulous. Eating wonderful vietnamese food overlooking the skyline of Saigon. The night air was like warm silk.
Our journey to Danang airport for our flight to Saigon took us through the suburbs during morning rush hour. Millions of scooters covered the road (virtually no cars) – the bus driver really knows his stuff as he got us through the chaos without anyone getting bumped and delivered us to the airport.
There are no front lawns here. Just about every yard we passed on the road was intensively planted with vegetables and had a resident chicken population. Orchards of small oranges are also common. Open air cafes were full of people eating the traditional Pho – noodle soup – for breakfast. This morning we were up before dawn and had a chance to look out over the city while it woke up. There are no street lights here, just an occasional light from a house, cocks crowing, and the smell of smoke and incense from the celebrations last night associated with the Lantern / moon festival. The morning sky was lovely and the pre-dawn light gently lit up the red tile roofs of many houses – it is going to be a nice day today in Hoi An.
Noise – that will be my abiding memory of Saigon – 8 million motorbikes (all seemingly on the road at once, honking their horns at the same time) – buses and cars adding to the cacophony – I am amazed everyone here isn’t deaf……. Our flight went seamlessly and we ended up at our hotel by around noon. After a quick lunch we walked to the War Museum which is mainly dedicated to the Vietnam War. This is a very sad, sometimes horrifying museum which charts the war through photos and stories from 1965-1975. I spent quite a bit of time in the gallery which showcased 130 odd photos taken by 11 photojournalists who were killed during the conflict. This is a must see place if you make the trip here.
A city tour of Saigon followed by cyclo – kind of a rickshaw. 11 of us each had our own cyclo and peddlers and toured the city. Our trip took us to the centre of Saigon to the French built Notre Dame cathedral and the post office which was designed by Gustav Eiffel who designed the Eiffel tower in Paris. The central square looks like you could be in France. We also visited the old presidential palace – now called the Reunification palace. The gates of this building feature in the famous photo of the North Vietnamese tank crashing through them on April 30, 1975 – the day that the south Vietnamese government surrendered.
A cycle along the opulent district with high end hotels and shopping, followed by a trip through some slum like areas and roads filled with cheap hotels and foreign back packers – took us finally to the Ben Thanh market in town where our trip ended. many thanks to Carol for the photos today. I left my camera in the safe as snatch and grab of cameras is a big business here in the city.
The Dr yesterday knew his stuff because today is much better 🙂 A local tour guide at the hospital suggested rice and soy sauce as a good diet for today and it works – wasn’t sure about the soy sauce but it went down well. Once we were up and about – quickly negotiating the chaos of the morning market and entering the motor free zone took us to the oldest part of Hoi An. The Japanese bridge built 400 years ago still is used to enter the old Japanese quarter of the City.
Based on the height of the monsoon season flood waters it it is amazing that the old buildings and structures are still here at all. The photo above of two flood water height marks in the last few years in a restaurant we ate at today gives you an idea of how major the flooding is. Many buildings have trap doors in the ceilings of the first floor. When the flood waters start rising the furniture is pulled up on pulleys to the second floor.
After crossing the Japanese bridge we visited a communal house – Cam Pho – as well as an old house Tan Ky – that has been occupied for 400 years. Descendents of the founding family still live there. Our final cultural stop was a Lantern manufacturing factory.. I keep looking for a small one to bring back but they are all huge. The city is decorated right now for the Vietnamese new year Tet with Lanterns hanging in all the streets and in front of all the houses.
It is our final day here – we fly to Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow.
On the 14th day of every lunar month – Hoi An celebrates with a Moon Lantern Festival. The town shuts down most artificial lights, and the river is covered with paper lanterns with candles. Street performers can be found on corners and the town is like it must have been 400 years ago. We were incredibly fortunate that February’s festival fell tonight our last night here in town. What a magical send off 🙂