A Travellerspoint blog

Detour to Bangkok on our way to Laos

Still heading north as we wind our way through South East Asia

semi-overcast 28 °C
View Asia / Oceania / North America on howlett's travel map.

It would have been possible for us to travel directly into the south of Laos from where we were at the top of Cambodia, however we decided against it in favour of detouring to Bangkok. We heard from several people that the border crossing between Cambodia and Laos is 'unofficial' and therefore you may have to pay a bribe on the way through to the border guard. We were told, depending on who you got this might be very small or quite sizeable, so we thought it best to head west into Thailand instead then we were to get an overnight bus north into Laos. Believe it or not it actually worked out cheaper doing it this way – even before the bribe! Sure we didn't get to see any of southern Laos, but apart from home stays it seemed there wasn't a great deal to do there anyway. Everything seemed to be situated in the north.

On arrival in Bangkok after a relatively painless border crossing, we departed our bus not far from the legendary Khao San Road, the main backpacker street in all of the capital. We then began hunting down a good (cheap) place to stay for the night. After a few unsuccessful attempts we started asking some fellow travellers, and they pointed us in the direction of a quieter street that was also loaded with restaurants and guest houses.

For some reason Bangkok wasn't quite as crazy as I had pictured it. I had imagined the roads crammed with traffic, people everywhere (even hanging out of buses) and a booming sex industry. It actually seemed more like a friendly area, overwhelmed by backpackers who were enjoying cheap drinks, socialising and shopping from the many market stands. It might have been that we didn't visit the part of town that I had pictured in my mind, but it didn't matter, I wasn't disappointed in the least.

The next day we decided to go for a walk around and escape from the bustling backpacker area. We stopped off at a tourist information office, where we were greeted by around 10-15 smiling faces, all eager to help. We chatted with them briefly, then with the help of their map, went on our way. We wandered past some of the major temples, and the Royal Palace, and worked our way down to the flower market, which was quite remarkable. Stacks upon stacks of colourful, immaculate flowers, some crafted into wreaths and others simply sold by the bag.

We worked our way through and continued on to another huge market, this time lined from floor to ceiling with clothes! It was like a maze trying to escape. Steph found an incredibly cheap manikin shop, which would be perfect for when she makes clothes, however we will have to shop by mail order as it wouldn't be piratical, nor economical to purchase a life-sized manikin to cart around while backpacking!

On our way back to the guest house we took a walk through the large area that has been taken over by the 'Red Shirt' demonstrators. It reminded me of walking to White Hart Lane on the way to see a Spurs game. Everyone we saw was dressed in red, some sporting bandanna's and neck scarves, and many carrying red and white clappers. The mood was very relaxed and peaceful, as we ventured onwards through the crowds. It was plain to see there solidarity and commitment. As we watched one of the leaders on stage giving an inspiring speech (or so we guessed from the reaction of the crowd) I had a chat with one of the protesters. They were intent on demonstrating non-violently, with the intention of getting the corrupt Thai government to dissolve, making way for a peoples democracy once again.

After lunch we decided to try out one of the very reasonably priced massage parlours along our road. It was certainly worth the money! Although parts were quite painful, Steph and I both walked out feeling thoroughly relaxed (and a bit bruised)! We had managed to book a bus for that evening, so our stay in Bangkok was only brief, now we were headed for another border, this time to cross into Northern Laos...

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 06:54 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The Temples of Angkor

The 'Eighth Wonder of the World' and a national icon for Cambodia

sunny 29 °C
View Asia / Oceania / North America on howlett's travel map.

I was really looking forward to visiting the temples of Angkor. I'd read a lot about them and couldn't wait to go and see them for myself. Steph and I managed to persuade a tuc tuc driver to take us to see the sunset at the temples, as well as the sunrise the next morning (usually you only get to see one).

To see the sunset we climbed a long winding dirt path, and scaled the side of one of the many temples. Loads of people gathered together in anticipation, waiting patiently for the sun to slowly become hidden by the distant horizon. It was a gorgeous sight to witness, and quite mystical because of the ancient history of the temples.

The next morning we had a very early start. One of Steph's least favourite things. We left the guest house at 4:30am, giving us time to get a good spot at Angkor Wat before the sun reclaimed the sky. Again a large crowd began to gather, and we watched as daylight illuminated the sky behind the temples 5 famous peaks. We left the crowd behind as we start exploring inside. The large expanses of carvings told stories of violent wars and joyous celebrations.

We visited a couple of different temples during the day, each a short ride from the last, until we reached our final stop Angkor Thom – the place where 'Tomb Raider' was filmed. It was incredible looking around at the gigantic trees growing on top of the temple walls, and the many vines that were desperately trying to recapture the area. It was a truly incredible sight, unlike anything I've seen before.

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 06:51 Archived in Cambodia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Next Stop – Cambodia!

The fifth country on our trip since leaving the UK

sunny 33 °C
View Asia / Oceania / North America on howlett's travel map.

After a few weeks of travelling the east coast of Vietnam it was finally time to leave. We were heading by bus to the capital of Cambodia – Phnom Penh. After we were dropped off we grabbed a ride with one of the many tuc tuc drivers, heading for the budget accommodation area near the big lake, situated to the north west of the city. After settling in to a nice, but very basic place called 'The Drunken Frog', which was precariously perched on stilts hovering over the lake (some of the planks shifted quite a lot as you walk over them) and where the walls were paper thin (we could hear every word of the drunken English next door), Steph and I headed out to get some dinner.

Money is a funny thing in Cambodia. Their official currency is 'riel', but strangly ATM's only spit out US dollars, and to add to the madness, most places will accept left over Vietnamese dong as well! We found ourselves paying in dollars, then getting riel back as your change! The majority of prices are stated in dollars, and therefore everything generally works out a bit more expensive for us.

The next day we took a trip on a tuc tuc around the city, and stopped off at a few of the tourist sights along the way. We chose to visit the 'Killing Fields' first, which were horrifyingly used by Pol Pots men to carry out genocide, killing anyone they felt posed a threat to their regime. Pol Pot had this insane ideology that involved removing every intellectual, emptying every city and making everyone work the land in an effort to 'reset' society.

At the killing fields we were stunned by the sight of a huge stupa that contains the skulls of 9000 people killed at that spot, encased in a large glass case. The brutality of Pol Pot's regime was brought home when we learnt how they killed babies by holding there legs and swinging them into a tree, smashing their tiny skulls. It was truly shocking. The distant sounds of children playing in a nearby school made the experience even more real.

We climbed back on our tuc tuc and headed for an orphanage just outside town. Steph had wanted to do this for a while, so she was really looking forward to the visit, and bringing some smiles to the childrens faces. It was my first time visiting an orphanage, and if I'm honest I was quite nervous about what it would be like. We pulled in through the gates and were immediately greeted by loads of excited children of varying ages, eager to say hello to the strange foreigners. They jumped on us as we tried to get off the tuc tuc, and their faces filled with excitement at our gift of over 100 bread rolls. They all wanted to hold our hands as we were taken on a tour of the grounds. Steph had some fun playing pater cake with some of the young girls, and after lunch I went off and played some volleyball with a few of the younger boys. The experience was extremely rewarding all round, and it was a real shame to have to say goodbye!

Next on our agenda was a visit to S-21, a building which once served as a high school, but was turned into a prison by Pol Pot, and then used to interrogate, torture and kill anyone thought to a threat to the evil regime. The make-shift cells were small and cramped, and the photographs and graphics dipicting the methods of torture were gruesome.

Our flyby visit of Phnom Penh took us through a spectrum of emotions, by which we saw both the evil and the good that mankind is capable of.

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 02:21 Archived in Cambodia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

A Trip Down the Mekong River

Alligators, Bee Hives, Snakes and some tasty local treats

sunny 32 °C
View Asia / Oceania / North America on howlett's travel map.

We booked onto a 1 day trip to visit the Mekong River - a river that originates in China, and runs all the way through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before finally reaching the sea. It's supposedly the longest river in Asia, and the third longest in the world!

On our trip we visited a number of small islands with exotic names, such as Pheonix Island. At one of the stops we watched as locals produced 'Coconut Candy' – a sticky fudge like sweet, and a speciaility in the area. At another stop we sampled some fresh fruit and enjoyed, traditional live music. We also took time to see an alligator farm, get up close to hundreds of bee's buzzing around a hive and try some traditional 'Bee Pollen Tea' (which was delicious by the way)!

However, my highlight of the day was getting to handle a live Anaconda! It wrapped itself around me and gripped on tightly, but I somehow felt completely relaxed the entire time. It was a really strange feeling to handle what is essentially a large mass of pure muscle, but it was not in the slightest bit slimy as I had imagined previously. The experience certainly gave me a whole knew respect for them. Steve Erwin certainly had a fantastic job!

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 02:03 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

A Backpackers Haven in Ho Chi Minh City

Everything you'd want and more, all in one place

sunny 31 °C
View Asia / Oceania / North America on howlett's travel map.

There is a central road that caters directly to the many backpackers that travel through Ho Chi Minh City. 'Bui Vien' is loaded with guest houses, restaurants, bars and travel agents. Needless to say it's a good place to catch up with fellow travellers. As it turned out a lot of our friends arrived there at the same time as us. We went for dinner a couple of times with Ben, Becky and the other Aussie couple we met in Nha Trang, Scotty and Amanda. Then our friends from Hoi An, Marina and Rhiane arrived along with the Canadian couple we met way back in Hanoi, Jon and Kelly. It was Rhinne's birthday so we all went out to celebrate, which turned out to be a very funny night involving a number of dance off's, random screaming, Micheal Jackson press-ups and more!

Another memorable place we stumbled across in Ho Chi Minh was a coffee shop called 'Bobby Brewers'. We went there to satisfy Steph's Starbucks craving, and it certainly did the trick! The drinks they served were amazing, with flavours such as 'Caramel Crunch' and 'Oreo Blend', but what made Bobby Brewers stand out was the addition of a FREE cinema on the top floor! With regular showings screened throughout the day, there's always something to watch, and all films are shown in English, so there's no problem with language. We ended up watching 'The Collector' (one of the most gruesome films I've seen – Steph watched through her fingers) and 'From Paris with Love' (an action thriller). Who'd of thought we'd wind up sitting in a coffee shop cinema in the middle of Vietnam! Random.

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 01:47 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (0)

Chu Chi Tunnels and the Brutality of War

We walked the tunnels of the Viet Cong, and saw their horrific man traps

sunny 30 °C
View Asia / Oceania / North America on howlett's travel map.

While we were in Ho Chi Minh City we took a trip to visit the Chu Chi tunnels, which is a place where you can see first hand the improvised traps of the southern Vietnamese army.

On our way to the tunnels we stopped off at a huge workshop, where the staff were made up entirely of handicapped people who had been affected in some way by the chemical weapons used during the war. We were fortunate enough to see them working on decorating some stunning pieces delicately using shards of egg shell. The skill of the workers, and their craftsmanship was impressive.

On arrival at the tunnels we spent some time learning about (and witnessing first hand) the brutal weapons used by Viet Cong soldiers to deter, trap and ultimately defeat the invading American troops. All I can say is that whoever was responsible for developing these weapons, must have had no remorse. However, it is difficult not to marvel at the ingenious ways everyday objects were turned in to vicious killing instruments. They even found a way of creating land mines out of unexploded American bombs! If that isn't resourceful I don't know what is.

During our tour we were given the opportunity to try getting in to one of the tiny rectangular hides that are positioned throughout the forest floor, completely covered by leaves. A couple of scrawny American guys took up the challenge and jumped right in, no problem. Then I rocked up with my broad shoulders. There were a few chuckles from our tour group, as no-body expected me to fit into the tiny space, but I somehow did it! It was quite claustrophobic down there, but an ingenious hideout.

If you're brave enough, there was also the opportunity to crawl through the actual tunnels that were used by Vietnamese troops (although they have supposedly been widened to 3 times there size) while they hid from the invading army's. The task was extremely uncomfortable and even more claustrophobic than getting into the hide. We could only be impressed by the fact that some of these tunnels actually stretched for miles, all the way back to Ho Chi Minh City!

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 01:22 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Sand Boarding in Mui Ne

Very hot, very silly... but very fun!

sunny 32 °C
View Asia / Oceania / North America on howlett's travel map.

Mui Ne is set entirely on a long single road running along the east coast of Vietnam. Half of it has hotels set directly on the white sandy beach, and the other half hotels offer steps straight down in to the sea. Whilst we were there we met up with, Danielle and Matt, and ended up staying at the same hotel.

We did a cheap trip on our penultimate day in Mui Ne, which had us speeding around in our very own private jeep, stopping off to see all the local sights. These included: 'Fairy Steam' – a long, shallow stream you can walk through that leads to a beautiful waterfall; 'Red Canyon'; the local 'Fishing Market'; the 'White Sand Dunes' – where you can try sand boarding; and the 'Red Sand Dunes' - a great place to watch sunset.

We'd heard about sand boarding from Steph's mate, and we couldn't wait to finally give it a go (even though it did seem pretty stupid to throw ourselves, hot and sweaty, down a steep sandy bank). It was hard work trekking to the tops of the dunes to start with, and the boards didn't go quite as quick as we'd hoped they would, but with a few adjustments to our boarding technique we actually got some good speed up!

It was fun messing around in that vast sandy expanse for a couple of hours, however, by the end of our session we both felt exhusted, like wandering the deserts of Egypt! Fortunately, our mirage came in the shape of a green army jeep accompanied by a friendly Vietnamese driver named Tim!

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 09:26 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Tuc Tuc Man? Where you go?

Every Hour is 'Happy Hour'

semi-overcast 24 °C
View Asia / Oceania / North America on howlett's travel map.

After an 'interesting' journey down to Nha Trang we found a nice hotel near the beach and checked in for some much needed kip (even though it was still only about 9am in the morning). As soon as you start walking the streets of Vietnam you are consistently pestered by tuc tuc drivers who open with the ever predictable line: 'hey man, where you go?'. After a while we became experts at brushing the constant barrage of offers a side, but still maintaining good old fashioned British polietness.

We stayed at the same hotel as the Aussie couple, Ben and Becky, who had kept us entertained on the journey down, and also shared a room with a Slovenian girl called Nadja, saving us both a few Dong.

Over the next couple of days we became pretty good friends with the Aussie couple, Ben and Becky, who had kept us entertained on hellish journey down, and also with a Slovenian girl called Nadja. That evening we all went out for dinner, and then finished off the night at the famous 'Why Not?' bar for some drinks and laughter.

The next day we headed for the beach. Ben and I got a little bit bored, so we went looking for some kind of small ball that we could chuck around. Unable to find what we were looking for, we settled for a swim instead. Only then did I spot a coveniently placed mango, floating passed in the water. Boys being boys, we took full advantage of the opportunity and started chucking it around like an american football. It's always fun to throw stuff. Even more so when you're in the sea.

If you spend any time on the beach in Vietnam you'll notice a reoccurring trend - numerous sellers pester you constantly selling food, drink, sunglasses (even if you're wearing some) and jewellery. Their opening line never failed to make me smile, 'happy hour, 2 for 1' simply because it seems every hour is 'happy hour'!

That night we went for dinner then on to the infamous 'Sailing Club', where there is a fantastic bar/club set right on the beach. Ben had invited some more people he had met earlier in there trip – an English couple from Essex (Epping to be precise, which is only 5 mins from my house!) and another Aussie couple called Scotty and Amanda. We had some fun swapping travel stories for a while, and telling each other about what we'd seen and done on our trips, until finally we all decided to call it a day. Another fun bus ride to look forward to in the morning. Let the good times roll...

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 08:47 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

'You don't always get what you pay for'

We were warned about open bus tours, and finally we had our own story to tell...

sunny 31 °C
View Asia / Oceania / North America on howlett's travel map.

We had read reviews online and heard horror stories of fellow travellers who had also opted for the cheapest way to travel the coast of Vietnam via the open bus tour. It was all going so well for us, apart from being dropped in random places, but now it was our turn to experience the rough side.

We turned up at the booking office as normal, ready to board our sleeper bus when it arrived. There were about 10 of us waiting there, and the bus arrived on time just outside the office. All good. Then as we started to get our things together and move towards the bus the lady who worked in the booking office came running outside saying 'not yet, wait 10 mins'. We thought to ourselves 'OK, no problem' the bus was nearly full with
Vietnamese people, so we guessed we would have to wait for them to get off before we got on. Then the bus pulled away. 'Hmm', we thought, 'that's not right'. That was definitely our bus as they only come twice a day, and now it was gone, something was wrong. Steph asked what was up and she eventually found out that we were due to be on a hard seated bus instead of the sleeper our ticket had promised us. I wasn't impressed, along with everyone else that was waiting so I went to talk to the lady.

After a long time digging I eventually got her to tell me what had really happened. Long story short, she had over booked our bus, so when it arrived she had tried to get some of the Vietnamese people to get off and wait for another, they obviously didn't want to. One thing you learn while in Vietnam is that the locals always get preferential treatment in every situation, and us lowly tourists are there to pick up the slack. While I was talking to the lady a small mini bus turned up, much like the ones they sometimes use to transfer you from your hotel to the travel agents. The lady then informed me that she had rented the mini bus herself to take us on the 12 hour overnight trip from Hoi An to Nha Trang. The news enraged all of us, as we had now been unwillingly downgraded. The fire was fuelled even further when I found out she had known the bus was overbooked from 2pm! We'd been waiting there for our 6pm bus since 5:15pm, which gave her plenty of time to tell us what was going on.

What angered people further was that most of them had paid over twice as much as Steph and I had for our open bus tickets, because they had booked them during Tet (the Vietnamese New Year). Two girls from Israel had paid far too much for their ticket, so they were pretty much screaming at the lady asking for some form of compensation. I was there trying to talk to her and get her to see it from our side, so we kind of had a good cop, bad cop routine going. The lady kept assuring us 'complain when you get to Nha Trang and they will compensate you', but we weren't having any of that. We all knew that if we boarded that bus we wouldn't be getting anything but a smile from the other side.

After a few hours of complaining and talking to her superiors on the phone our routine eventually wore the lady down, and she agreed to pay out compensation amounting to about $6. Although we wanted more, we settled for it and decided to battle the other side of our journey. It is apparently unheard of to get any kind of refund in Vietnam as we know many people that have tried, so we were pretty pleased with ourselves to get anything.

After finally boarding the mini bus, with our luggage crammed into the back the lady then informed us that we now had to go and pick up 5 other people! Amazing! It all kicked off again, but knowing that we had no choice in the matter we headed off. 3 Indian men and two girls from Norway boarded from a hotel, apparently already aware of the situation they jumped in pretty calm, even though our bags were getting battered as the bus driver tried ever harder to fit more and more stuff into a limited space.

We then drove back to the travel agents and picked up two more people! This time it was an aussie couple who had been waiting with us while we argued. They had tried to book while we were arguing and the lady had told them that the buses were booked up for the next 3 days. No willing to wait that long their fate rested on whether we all eventually decided to board the mini bus and travel to Nha Trang that night, or to wait for the next available sleeper bus a few days later.

Eventually we got on the road and started our 12 hour journey cramped in a tiny bus with no space to even move our legs let along try and sleep. The journey itself was actually quite good, but this was mainly down to the group we were travelling with. We shared funny travel stories which got us all laughing along the way, and the mood was actually quite jovial. When life throws you a lemon, make lemonade.

We did try to get further compensation when we reached the office in Nha Trang, but the slick guy there, who was obviously fully briefed before we got there, wouldn't budge. His excuse was 'sometimes in Vietnam you don't get what you paid for'. Lovely. After a couple of hours arguing, we weren't getting anywhere and he didn't care in the slightest so we conceded and headed for a hotel.

Since that journey Steph and I have become very good friends with the Aussie couple Ben and Becky, and also a girl from Slovenia called Nadja. We all stayed at the same hotel, which was actually really nice considering the low price. Together we spent the next couple of days chilling at the beach and wandering the town, and at night we all went out for dinner and then to the famous 'Why Not?' bar for some drinks. On our last night we took a walk down to 'The Sailing Club' which was a very plush bar set out of the beach with lots of mood lighting and 'banging tunes' from back home. Ben had arranged to meet up with some other people they had met earlier in their trip, so we had quite a large group to socialise with. Two of which were an English couple who turned out to be from Epping, which is just 5 mins from my house in Essex!

We all swapped contact details at the end of the night, and headed for our bus which would take us to Mui Ne. Hopefully there would be less drama this time around.

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 00:21 Archived in Vietnam Tagged bus Comments (0)

Hoi An – Tailor-made

Get any item of clothing custom made, from designer replica's to random one-off's

sunny 30 °C
View Asia / Oceania / North America on howlett's travel map.

Hoi An is a very beautiful place. It's ancient heritage still very much preserved, yet a large number of restaurants and tailors cater specifically to the hordes of visiting tourists.

Yet again we were dropped at a random hotel, far from where we were supposed to be, so we picked up our bags and trekked to where we had booked. Yet more hotel drama. This time where we had booked was 'fully booked' so we were offered a free transfer by mini van to their second hotel. This turned out to be located very close to where the open tour bus had originally dropped us, so as you can expect we were not at all impressed!

Fortunately the hotel was even nicer than the one we had booked, and even though it wasn't located where we had wanted, we still weren't too far away. We'd met a couple of English girls on the open tour bus, so we decided to meet up with them and grab some dinner. On our way to the town we were hit by a mass of people (and bikes) and we later found out that the town was having it's monthly festival, which also happened to coincide with a gig by a popular boy band from Ho Chi Minh City! The streets were lined with colourful lanterns, and outside nearly every house was either a golden shrine or some burning sticks of incense, which filled the air with a refreshing odour.

It turned out that the girls we met were paying slightly less than we were for accommodation, so the next morning we decided to transfer across to save a bit of money. The first hotel we stayed at was incredible. The room was beautiful, particularly the bathroom, and our stay included the use of a nice size outdoor swimming pool as well as a huge buffet breakfast, which we took full advantage of! Even the cheaper hotel was pretty decent, just not quite as plush.

While in Hoi An we took advantage of the free bicycle hire at our hotel a number of times to get to the beach, to ride along the riverside and to explore the rest of the ancient part of town together with a famous Japanese style bridge. I've always loved the beach, so I was really excited about reaching the first of the trip, and even though it was extremely windy I wasn't disappointed! The staff at the cafes along the beach front were very friendly, and they served the best iced mango juice ever!

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 00:17 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

(Entries 11 - 20 of 46) « Page 1 [2] 3 4 5 »