Seeming as it has become a rule I dispense advice at the beginning of my travel blogs, I say this, Be careful with supposed internal transfers at Mumbai Airport. You might end up with a gun in your face. The story goes thus, I had an eight hour stopover in the airport. Somehow my supposed internal transfer ends up taking me around the front on the airport. It is here I am told I am not allowed to go in until three hours before my flight and I have to wait on the road side in 32 degree heat. As those of you who know me, I am having none of this. I already had a boarding pass and there was no need to check in. When an argument breaks out involving a gun been pointed at me, a jet airlines rep turns up. After much debate I am let in to the check in part where I can sit and wait to go through immigration at 9pm, some two hours later. The whole thing leaves me angry and frustrated and wonder what the hell just happened.
Its 7 am as my flight touches down in the now familiar territory of Bangkok international Airport. Its nice to be somewhere I know so well for a change, a specially after the previous nights antics in Mumbai. As I walk out of the airport in Bangkok the usual rush of heat is not present and its turns out to be modest 18 degrees. To be slightly cold in Bangkok is new experience and a bit weird. We are soon in the early morning rush hour traffic and it is a good hour before we pull up outside The Royal Hotel by Grand Palace. I notice several people from my flight have also arrive and I start to wonder if these are people I will spend the next month of my life with.
I chill out in the room until midday when my roommate turns up. Ian is a middle age guy from Scotland on his first tour of this type, it is also his first time in Asia. We share a cab to a large shopping centre called MBK where I had to get a few supplies. I introduce him to the Thai food malls and we have a nice lunch. We brave a Tuk Tuk back to the hotel and its not long before we are seating in our first group meeting. Just like my first India meeting, people nervously chat about what they are doing and we try to remember people names knowing full well that it will be a few days before any of us know all our fellow groups names. It is quickly apparent that the British members are outnumbered by young Australians. I make a point to hold my own and start remembering all sporting victories in the last year, not to mention the word convits.
Our tour leader is surprisingly an Indian guy from Mumbai, not the best place to be from at this point for me. He has been operating tours in China, but this is his first on time of this one. He is called Hanif. This his first tour is South East Asia.
I soon find out that the tour is in fact a three stage tour and not everybody is doing the full thing. My room mate is jumping off at Hanoi in Vietnam. I am a little surprised by this as I had not been informed. It also turns out that this is what they called a roaming tour which basically means that everything is an optional extra, something else that STA neglected to inform me of.
Most people have got plans for dinner so only five of us and Hanif end up going out. We find ourselves in Bangkok’s famous Koh San Road. After a nice dinner, its decided we will go for drink. I am tired, having had about an hour’s sleep in the last 36 hours, but not to be one to miss out on bonding time, I tag along. Several drinks later we find our self’s going for what is ment to be a nightcap in a club. I am stopped and told the water I had just bought had to be left outside. This gives me the excuse to jump ship, I need to pack and I am very tired. I go back, pack and try to sleep. After half an hour I realise my roommate is not coming back and I really can’t sleep with the door open, so I get dressed and head back to the club.
Many drinks and several shots latter it is two in the morning as we all stagger through the doors of our hotel. We are all proud of ourselves at been the hardcore ones still up and partying.
At 7.15 am my alarm rings and being hardcore might not have been one of the greatest ideas we ever had. When my fellow drinking buddies turn up we all look like death and the days travelling to Cambodia is not such an appealing start to the trip. After a snooze we all begin to wake up and have a good chat. On the Thai boarder we have lunch and begin the cross over. This ends up taking two hours of queuing in a stuffy hut waiting for passports to be stamped.
We are soon in another bus and trying to get our head round Cambodian money. Luckily the US dollar is widely accepted here. After another four hour drive we arrive in Siam Rep, home of the famous Ankor Wat. Our hotel is very nice and even has Wi-Fi in the room. This something of luxury since the last time I had this was all the way back in Delhi over a month ago.
Cambodia seems to be much more expensive than Thailand, something I was not ready for. Even in the road side restaurants, food is at least triple the price. Our first restaurant is a place where they have traditional Cambodian dance. The food turns out to be Thai food renamed. A Kumare curry is in fact a Penang curry. Dinner is a pleasant affair and the dancing afterwards was great. As it is an early start tomorrow only a few drinks are had before bed beckons.
4.45 alarm, really 4.45,” groan”. On another bus at 5am and off to watch sunrise over Ankor Wat. This is a spectacle, but unfortunately several Japanese tourist were nearly murdered by an angry fat man & and firey blond for standing straight in front of them as they are taking pictures. My friend Laura is of the same feeling as me and although the event was incredible, it left us somewhat frustrated. We breakfast back at the hotel before we are back on the road at 8.30 bound for the Ankor Complex once again.
Little did I know that Ankor Wat is only a small part of much larger complex spreading over more than one hundred square miles. Our first stop is a temple in the middle of a lake. The walls that surround it have very detail carvings coving them from top to bottom. After while I explore the temple myself, climbing up as far as I can. I light a incense stick in one of the small rooms and pray to Buddha, at which point I am charged for the service. I look at the person and hand over the dollar in disgust and make a mental note not light any more incense sticks.
We meet back at the bus, and it is on to an elephant wall and palace. Tiredness overcomes me and I elect to catch a bit of shut eye on the bus. It turns out I am not the only one to do this, and two 18 year Auzzy Girls are also asleep. After an hour or so, we spy and eye icecream van. One magnum latter, the rest of the gang come back and we are off to what our guide calls his secret spot.
After several inappropriate jokes, which I am pretty sure came mostly from me, we arrive at the second gate on the east side of the city. It turns out it’s not so secret as there is another bus load of people there. We all pose for what our guide calls a Kodak moment.
Lunch is at a restaurant stroke shop which charges me five dollars for what was on the menu as noodle soup but turns out to be Maggie noodles. I complain bitterly about this, as I could of got five packs for a dollar in any super market.
After lunch we go to a temple in the trees. This is where they filmed Miss Jolie entering the tomb in Tomb Raider. Our tour guide explains that took many days to get a couple of minutes film, then talks about how much the Cambodian people love Angelina. Every time he talks about her a boyish smile appears on his face. I think he has a bit of a crush on her, in fact several of us reckon he probably has posters of her all over his bedroom, something he does not deny.
For me this was my favourite temple. The trees which had grown up over the temple, really give you a sense of just how old the temple is. Myself and an English Girl called Caroline, end up going on a bit of an explore of our own. After clabbering over walls and going through dark tunnels with god knows what we appear on the other side of a blockade right in front of group of American tourists. Trying to look inconspicuous and not really succeeding, we jump over the barrier and quickly go off to find the group.
Our next temple is more like a Mayan pyramid with its ridiculously steep, all most sheer steps up. Most of us decide to climb it and after several minutes of climbing up on hands and knees we reach the top. I am left wondering how many people end up killing them self’s climbing up this. At the top the view is out over the tree tops. Ankor Wat’s tower tops can just been seen poking out above the tree line. I climb out on a ledge and sit for awhile taking in everything in, a sense of peace falls over me and it is several minutes before I realise everybody has already started climbing back down. The climb down is slow as I take my time, one wrong footing and it might be the end of me.
Our final stop of the afternoon is the famous Ankor Wat. When we get inside, we find we cannot climb up to the famous towers as all of it is shut off for conservation work. Instead I find Laura and Caroline sitting out around the back of the temple, talking to a monk. Well when I say talking, it was more like Laura was practically interviewing him Parkinson style. Jokes a side she asked some very interesting questions and we spend the rest of our time talking to him before we have to leave for the day.
We decide to get dinner in a road side restaurant and after several minutes of confusion, we finally get our order in. I sit next to Ian, Marco, Laura and Caroline. We are harassed by some kids which at first is harmless, but after awhile one of the little girls who could not have been more than ten, starts getting what really I can’t think was anything else but suggestive with Ian. It is at this point I lose my rag and shoe them off.
After dinner we go in search of a massage. The girls stop off at a place at the end of the night market, it does not seem to be well organized and when I am invited in to the same place where Laura is having a back scrub I chose to give it a miss. Why the gang watch the killing fields doc, I get some provisions and meet up with the rest at a Bar aptly named Ankor What. Many cocktails latter, Laura, Ian and myself catch a Tuk Tuk back to the hotel, where it is decided we will have a couple more beers. What is becoming obvious to all us, is when we say a couple of beers, we mean many. We spend several hours chatting away and talking to our security guard who is very nice chap and eager to please. He makes a massive impression on all us and is some one I do not think I will forget. He tells us all though he does not earn a lot , he is happy to be working. The mood slightly darkens as he talks about his parents and losing most of his aunties and uncles when Pol Pot and his henchmen sized power. He is practically in tears and we change the subject as quickly as possible.
At about three thirty Caroline, Marco and Hanif turn up all somewhat worse for wear and the others are not far behind him. After we left they took to dancing on the tables, something they all seem to be very proud of.
Next day I do not have to get up until eleven which is lucky as I have the mother of all hangovers. One rehydration pack and several paracetamol latter, I feel much more alive and ready for long public bus journey to the capital of Cambodia Phnom Penh.
The bus journey is fine until about half an hour before we reach our destination, they unexpectedly turn the AC off turning the bus into an instant oven. We arrive in the city under the cover of darkness. All though not quite on the same scale as Bangkok, Phnom Penh is by no means a small city. It sits on the bank of river and seems to have many river side cafes. You can easily see a French influence here.
Dinner is on the water front where I try frog for the first time. It turns out to look and taste just like chicken, and I am not entire convinced that it wasn’t chicken. Afterwards we take walk down the river front before having a quick drink. Myself and Hanif return to the hotel. Where I catch upon internet stuff and talk to home. Ian and Laura tern up and in what seems to be repeat of the other night we crack open a few beers.
At 8 am we board a bus bound for the killing fields. I have mixed feelings about this. I am ashamed to admit that I did not know much about Cambodia’s violent past. It is only when I got here, did I learn anything about the Kamear Rouge.
Upon arrival, you are almost immediately confronted by a tall building filled with human skulls. It is both shocking and humbling. Our guide takes as around briefly, explaining what happened here. With each sentence he utters I left am feeling more numb. I only snap out of it when a rather stupid Japanese tourist decides to walk across one of the mass graves. Had several girls not been in the way It might not have been a pretty sight. I resort to yelling at him, and glaring utterly disgusted at the lack of respect, this not helped by what I have seen and been told. When he decides to hang round pointing a video camera in the face of the guide, I give him the kind of look that says “if you don’t bugger off I am going to shove that video camera somewhere” you can guess the rest. He scarpers unsurprisingly
I can’t help but notice bits of what I think are white stone in the ground, I am soon corrected and told this is human bone. This is by far not the most shocking thing we see or hear, but it is too difficult to write about. I am glad I have seen this. Although it was very hard to see, I am a big believer that the events that happened at places like this should not be forgotten, it is one of the biggest memorials we can give to the thousands of people who were killed like vermin here.
Next stop is the S21 prison. The boss of which has been featuring on the international news . Ironically today was the day he asked to be released. Having seen what I had seen today, it fills me with anger and shock. S21 before Pol Pot, was a schoo, ironic really considering this was another site of great atrocity. When power was sized by the Kamear Rouge and the people moved out into the countryside , it was turned into a prison for anyone who dared speak out against them. One of the blocks contains thousands of pictures off all the people believed to have died at the prison or shipped to the killing fields and executed. Another room contains some of the various torture instruments used and some of the most graphic paintings I have ever seen.
After awhile I have had enough and go meet the rest of the group. We have lunch opposite which is very pleasant, although like all of Asia, the food takes time to appear and comes in dribs and drabs when it does. Caroline decides she wants longer in the prison, I arrange to meet back at entrance in an hour and go off in search of a Canonstore and pharmacy. I find a eventually and purchased a fixed focal portrait lenses for $50. One small problem, they do not accept card. As I have 10 minutes to get back for Caroline, I run to nearest ATM. Having not run years in funny enough feels great and I laugh at people reactions as they see a big men is legging it down the main road faster than most of the traffic. I suppose they don’t see it every day. At one point I pass a noodle bar and I notice several people spit food out of their mouths. I reach the ATM, get the money and leg it back with little time to spare. I complete the transaction, leap into the Tuk Tuk and it true Hollywood style ask the driver to step on it, bunging him an extra ten thousand note (about 30p). Oh yes!!!
I arrive five minutes late, grab Caroline and return to the hotel just in time for the afternoon cycle rickshaw ride around town. We spend a pleasant hour visiting the sights like the Grand Palace. Last stop is a giant clock built into a grassy hill. I notice monkeys dotted about and point them out to Caroline who accompanies me over to see them. I take a few photos before sitting down on a wall. It is at this point one them bounds over and promptly sinks its teeth into my thigh. I push it off somewhat shocked. As I take in what happens it decides it wants a second go. But this time I am ready, a well aimed blow to head with my bag soon sees the little @~#$ off.
When I get back to the rickshaw half the drivers start fussing over me, it then dawns on me I did not get a Rabies injection. I call Hanif and inform him what had happened. He tells me I really should get checked out. So we hot foot it back to the hotel where he is waiting for me and I am bundled in to a Tuk Tuk. We pull up out side SOS international Hospital Cambodia. I tell them what happened and after filling out a couple of forms I am seen by a doctor almost immediately. The doctor turns out to be from England, not too far from where I live. She tells me this is not the first time this happened. She also reckons they have been seen sniffing glue. Great I have to be the one that gets bitten by a Junkie monkey.
After giving her the details of the trip, she disappears, Several minutes later she reappears and tells me I going to have to carry a couple of needles and self inject. I won’t be able to get another one until I get to Hanoi, in Vietnam. But that’s not the worse bit. The initial injection is going to be nine voiles of antibodies which will not only be painful, it is going to cost $1600 plus the cost of the rabies vaccines which I will need five over the next month. Hanif is dispatched to get a suitable cool box why I get multiple painful injects in the thigh and bum. Not the best day of my life.
We make it back just in time to go to a school where they teach kids English. We meet the kids then are treated to a delightful dinner above. We pay for the meal, the funds of which is put back into the school. The kids are great and I mange to teach them a secret hand shack which they take great delight in repeating as many times as they can. We get some great pictures before we return to the hotel for well deserved beer or two, maybe it was three…
Next morning, vaccines on ice and bags ready we board our next public bus bound for the beach. I ending up sitting next to Caroline who needs some repair work done to here money bag. So for the next half hour or so we chat as I fix her bag. Its messy but effective. Being tired from the night before most fall asleep. For some reason I am wide awake, so I bung the ipod on random and chill out to music, boring bus journey sorted!!
On arrival, we transfer to a shuttle bus that takes us to our hotel which turns out to be a number of huts. The whole place reminds me very much of an Island called Koh Samet in Thailand. It is very much the same atmosphere with bars lining the beach. A group of us go off in search of a private beach and some $6 latter we are messing about in the sea before moving to the resorts swimming pool where we mess about some more and have a few beers. No honestly I am not an alcoholic.
Next day we opted for an all day trip to several islands. We are up at 7am and down to the same place as dinner night before for a spot of breakfast before we board our boat. First stop is off shore of a small island for a bit of snorkelling. There something incredibly free about diving off a boat into the sea. I have never done real snorkelling and all though the sea is not as clear as I like, it was like falling into the middle of Finding Nemo. There were all kinds of tropical fish which I had only ever seen in a tropical fish tank or on the telly box. It really is another word.
After 45 minutes we climb back aboard and are taken to a beach on another island where within five minutes I manage to get stabbed in the big toe by some exotic creature. When I pull my toe out the water with a yelp of pain, three large black and white needles are protruding from it. Several minutes and much faffing about latter I am patched up and bathing in the sun. It is at this point several of the girls start to do a spot yoga, nothing really out of norm, except one of them decides to do this with a can beer, an achievement in its own right. One of more funny moments of this trip and something I will always remember her for, utterly brilliant.
We are treated to a BBQ fish lunch with fresh salad which was delicious and fresh. We are told by one of the boat men, there is a more secluded beach on the other side of the island and is only a ten minute walk through the Jungle. Normally this would not faze me, but what with costly monkey bites and creatures of the deep taking a liking to my toes, I walk through with some reluctance. The beach on the other side turns out to be much nicer and we spend hour bathing and mucking about in the sea before we are back aboard our trusty boat for our second snorkelling session.
There is a Kodak moment of us jumping off the boat all taken by Hanif who seems to get more exited with every passing shot, to point it becomes somewhat concerning, the men needs to get laid. Joking aside, the sea is clearer here, and I spend some time gliding over reefs trying to find Nemo.
For dinner Marco one of the original Bangkok hardcore lot has found a seafood place up the beach, so we all descend on it for dinner. Although t takes some time for all the food to come out, we have a great dinner before converging on several bars for after dinner drinks. I have really enjoyed my stay here, after the emotional turmoil of the killing fields and my now famous monkey encounter, it was a nice rest bite.
Before I left on this trip I did not know much about Cambodia, and I have to say I only booked on this tour as a filler before I spend Christmas in Thailand. But Cambodia had an effect on me that I was not expecting. I met some great people including the security guard at our hotel in Siem Rep who I will remember for the rest my life. I count myself lucky as I have a great group of people on the tour, and all though we have been together for six days it already feels like much longer.
The next morning its time for another Jab. Luckily we have a nurse on the group. Cathy preps the vaccine with ease and it’s all over in seconds and to be honest I did not feel it. We board our first bus of the day bound for the Vietnam boarder. My cold has come back with vengeance and I have a nasty cough. I mange to pick up some meds on rout and four hours later we pull up to the boarder nestled in the middle of paddy fields s far as the eye can see. With have to cross the border on foot with all our luggage which is not the most enjoyable thing to do in the world. The border crossing is far less painless than the Cambodian, and before long we are across and into our next bus heading to the border town of Chow Doc.
In the early evening we take a bike ride up to a nearby mountain. The view we are presented with is amazing. The sun setting over the paddy fields is awe striking. We can see as far back as Cambodia and we all bid one last fair well to an amazing country that effected us all in ways none us thought it would.
On the way back we get our first taste of a communist country as we pass by a set of megaphones blasting out proper gander. Upon arrive back at the hotel we have to submit out passports so that the nearby police station can be informed of our presence. Until now it had not really dawned on me that Vietnam is a communist country. I soon find out that things like facebook and hotmail are blocked. Thankfully my friend set up a proxy server for me before I left, so I am able to bypass government blocking and use facebook., My little netbook becomes very popular until some bright spark discoverers that the government has obviously not heard of facebook lite which still surprisingly works.
Next day we board a bus going to Ho Chi Min City or Saigon to most people including most southern Vietnamese. When we arrive, the modern Saigon is totally different to what I was expecting. The city is a modern expensive city racing to catch up with likes of Bangkok. It is easy to see that Saigon has embraced capitalism in a big way and there are many well known brands on display. Whatever cultural sites I was expecting to find seem hidden bellow a blanket of a fast expanding city. The girls dressed in white ridding the bicycles down the main high roads that you see in the movies are nowhere to be seen. Cycles are out and the motor bike is very much all the rage. Saigon is defiantly a city that has undergone a huge amount of change in a very short space of time.
I join in on what we call one of Marco’s little tours, and end up seeing most of the sites in the city. Within hours I manage to get a good bearing on the city. Since I have regained the ability to walk distances, I have to say I much prefer walking around a city. You see so much more.
Dinner is in a restaurant some distance from our hotel in the backpackers district. Tonight is already our last night with four members of the group. Cathy the nurse, my saver and her sister are leaving, I am sad as I don’t think I got enough time to get to know them, but they are coming on one last trip with us in the morning to the famous VC tunnels.
After dinner I return to the hotel briefly before setting out to where I think the group are. Not been able to find the gang, I ask a local rickshaw driver where this place is. After cycling some half way across town to a bar called apocalypse now, the name of place I was given by Hanif. The rickshaw driver charges me a ridiculous amount and after refusing he starts to get aggressive. Spying a police man with a gun I decided not to have a repeat of Mumbai and hand over cash, he smiles knowing full well why I gave him the cash. Several low muttered expletives latter I am in the club which is dead and there is no sign of the gang. I decide to return to the hotel and call Hanif. It turns out the hotel gave the wrong name of the bar. I finally catch up with them in a bar close to hotel where we watch a band that turns out to be great. There is even a guest appearance by an awesome harmonica player.
Latter we pile the gang in to a taxi going to the same club I had already been to once this night. Myself and Hanif follow behind on the back of a couple of motor bikes. Again they try to charge a stupid amount even though we had agreed a price before leaving, not willing to be done a second time I hand over a reasonable amount by any standards and walk away leaving a torrent of abuse behind. Hanif, is not so lucky having handed over a 100,000 dong note expecting change only to have his man jump on the bike and make a clean get away, 100,000 dong richer.
The club is now much more lively and after several tunes that involved us making prates of ourselves on the dance floor, most the of group want to leave. We end up in another bar around the corner from the hotel where several more beers are consumed before we drift off to bed in the early hours of the morning.
At eight in the morning we board a bus which takes us to the VC tunnels. At first our tour guide seems a nice chap, talkative and amusing. But it soon becomes obvious that he is very much a supporter of the VC and to him the Americans are an evil race. I wondered why he had checked to see if I was a yank when I first got the bus. When we arrive at the tunnels we are presented with a video which is very much a proper gander tool for the VC. It talks about American Killer heroes with much pomp and circumstance. All though the area is fascinating, I find the very bias history hugely confronting, and thanking god we have no Americans on this tour. When our guide takes us to the section displaying some of the traps he is positively jubilant as he talks about all the American soldiers that died very nasty agonizing deaths at the clutches of these traps.
The way the Americans are described here are an evil race of mindless killers who invaded the country of Vietnam killing everything in their wake. This not strictly the truth. Although there were many atrocities committed at the hands of Americans, the same can also be said of the VC. Nowhere does it mention that the USA was invited in by the south Vietnamese government. When the “reunification” after war is talked about, it is painted as a joyous event, which again is not strictly true. The north pretty much sized power after the Americans pulled out and many South Vietnamese were forced to flee the country in fear of their lives. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Min city after the VC leader, a massive insult to the south. Still to this day many people refuse to call it Ho Chi Min city and refer to city as Saigon.
I believe the tunnels are an important bit of history and a testament to group of people who managed not only to survive constant attack including chemical, but to triumph over what was easy a far superior force in terms of man power. The way it is painted here is far too bias, and it leaves me feeling uncomfortable and quite angry. I truly believe there was no need for this, It is after all a place that tourists come to visit to learn about what happen here. Is that not what they want? The truth of place alone says far more than any proper gander or bias views can ever do .There really was no need for quite open hatred. A lot of people lost their lives here on both sides. Let us not forget that many Americans that died were drafted in and probably wanted to be there even less than VC wanted there presence. They were no less good of evil than the men forced to live and fight in the tunnels. There is always a story to both sides.
This is why places like this should be preserved and visited, so we never forget, and hopeful learn from it in the future. They could do with taking a look at the way the killing fields in Cambodia are presented. Here they have even more reason to show it in a very bias way, yet they don’t, they present the facts and you are left to come up with your own views. Most people would conclude the same thing. Yet here I feel we are not trusted. This is something they need to overcome if they want people to see this place for what it is. As it stands I can see a lot people giving up trying to learn anything about what happened here and that is tragedy to both sides.
After this I elect not visit the war museum and return to the hotel. I have lunch with two of our departing members at a noodle bar on the corner of our street, all though basic it serves up the best noodle soup I think I ever had. Afterwards I decide to get a haircut, and although it takes some time, she does a good job and I even mange to get a shave out of it.
At seven o’clock in the evening we board our first night train bound for Natrang. Whatever I was expecting it certainly was not this. The train is well air conditioned, with clean western toilets, a smart siding glass door at both ends. Each cabin contain four clean bunks with a TV in each cabin. This is a far cry from the Indian sleeper, there is even a lock on door. Like most best laid plans, they never go quite to plan and we end up spending most of the trip drinking and having those travel style deep and meaningful conversations.
We arrive in Natrang a whole hour early and have seconds to leap out of our bunks and get off. Somehow we mange to do it and leave nothing behind. We pull in to our home for the next day at 5.15 am. Luckily they have all the rooms available and within minutes we have fallen in to bed.
At noon, feeling far more refreshed, we meet and decide the course of the day. Because we are very tired, code for hung over, it is decided we should go to the nearby mud baths for a pampering session. The mud baths turn out to be a great fun and the massage I have after the bath is the best I have ever had.
The evening somehow turns in to a heavy drinking session again, and some of us end up jumping in the pool at around midnight. One of whom repeatly dose this until she perfects a perfect photo. We then return to our room balcony where the drinking continues with Laura and Caroline from next door. I end up having another deep and meaningful with Caroline in which at one point we found ourselves walking down the main high street barefoot looking for beers. Safe to say it was a great night and one I shall never forget, largely down to a one liner Caroline mentioned, priceless!
Next day feeling somewhat worse for wear, I spend most of day hanging round with Caroline, Laura and our younglings, shopping. I mange to pick up some tea shirts in a normal cloths shop, Result.
The next night train we take makes even the Indian sleep look five star. I am in with my roommate, Caroline and Laura. Laura mages to find a pubic hair in her bed, and we all immediately grab our sleeping sheets. The nights journey is an uncomfortable one and I do not sleep much. We arrive in Dnang at 5 in the morning again. After an hours bus journey we are in Hoi An, an charming French influenced town on the bank of a river. Our hotel is comfortable and has a very good breakfast. It even has the world service on, so after a nice English breakfast with news I decide to catch forty winks.
In the late morning we take a walk around the town, stopping off for a bite to eat overlooking the river. Because hoi an is Vietnam’s Savel row, I get fitted for two linen shirts. Having been desperate to get on a bike, I rent one for the afternoon. The rain is heavy but I don’t care and spend a glorious four hours riding around and exploring the town. I even take a trip out to the sea to set eyes on the Southeast China Sea. Two men I fishing off the beach and I amazed that they can stand there in torrential rain. The fish seem to be biting and every few minutes one of them brings up a large silvery fish of some description. Looking at their catch it almost seems worth it. At 5pm I pick up my shirts and return to the hotel for a shower.
The evening meal turns out to be bar far the best we have had of the trip. The cargo club restaurant is a Vietnamese restaurant heavily influenced by the French. Somehow the food works. The restaurant has it’s own patisserie and we spend several minutes deciding on which one of the incredible deserts we want. We end up picking one or two each and sharing them out amongst each other.
The next day we take an early morning trip to My Son ruined temples. They are nice but not a patch on Ankor Wat. We spend a few hours looking around and genuinely having a laugh before returning to Hoi An for lunch. In the afternoon we were booked to go on a cycle tour, but myself and Caroline, decide to find a bar instead. We are joined by one of aour younglings Ann Mariee and end up drinking by the river as the sun gose down. On our way to the river we inadvertently walk through what appears to be a film set. Several actors are dressed as peasants and there is a horse drawn cart full of people slap back in the middle. There is even a man with the old clapper board. The afternoon is a pleasant one and I enjoy chilling out and chatting. The evening event turns out to be a party in which the girls dress up as geishas why the men have to come as sumo, no problem for me, all though I can’t help feeling it would been far more amusing if I had gone as a geisha girl. The night is a messy one consisting of one drinking game after another including the famed “i have never” where we learns things none us really needed to know.
Hoi An for me was my favourite place in Vietnam. This little river side town oozes charm, it has a pace far less frantic than anywhere else I have been to in Vietnam, something I think we all welcomed. For me this town restored my faith in a country until now has been difficult to fall in love with. I look back at my time spent here and smile, I could have lived here I realise.
The next morning, all rather hang over we board a bus for Hue. Most us sleep until we reach the truly spectacular High Van pass. A winding road that climbs up over a set of mountains. On the other side were rewarded with a view like no other. The view was featured on the top gear Vietnam special. Clarkson is speechless at it, and really when you see it with your own eyes, the TV dose not begin to do it justice The sheer seamless mix of an old Vietnamese fishing village with old fishing boats out on the river setting out to sea and the morden industrial world. I am almost devastated that we will not be able to stay here. This is really the first time we have seen Vietnamese culture on show.
The rest of the trip is pleasant and we even see the traditionally dressed ladies in white on bikes, the first time I have seen it. When we arrive in hue, it is a small but very pleasant hotel in what feels like just another generic Vietnamese town at first. We have lunch across the road then some of the gang go out on a tour. I am all toured out and spend the afternoon catching up on blogs and picture uploading. In the evening we have nice dinner before myself Caroline and Marco hit a Casino. This is my first time to a casino, but Marco and Caroline are pretty clued up and soon teach me the basics of black jack. Yet I lose five dollars and they seem to be up ten each.
The next day I go for lunch with Hanif across the river. We go to a restaurant run by a Depth and Dumb guy, the food is excellent and at the end he gives us each a bottle opener that he makes there. It is a piece of wood with a bolt at the end, simple, but effective. We are to get pictures of us using it round the world and send it back to him.
We board the night train at three thirty in the afternoon, we are heading for Hanoi. This will be a long train ride, yet we pull in early in the morning again. This train is better than our last but still not up there with the first. They seem unable to get the air con right ,it is either too hot or too cold. We end up watching the ugly truth before slipping off to bed. Because of the air con I don’t get much sleep. When we arrive at Hanoi, we have a four hour bus trip to Hai long Bay. I mange to sleep almost the entire way there.
I feel a sense of foreboding, Hai long bay is our last destination before we lose half the group. These people who I have spent almost every waking moment with are about to leave and I have to say I am sad. I have grown attached to them and it does not feel right to lose them before we make it back to Bangkok.
Hai long bay is truly one of the most awesome places on this planet. Even though the weather is very hazy it and you cannot see much, we can just make out the first of the great big jutting limestone rocks towing out of the ocean. After breakfast and a rest, We board our junk. Our first destination is a bay containing a cave. The cave its self is incredible, but the way it is lit takes away from its natural beauty. We spend half an hour touring the cave before climbing back aboard our boat and enjoying an excellent sea food lunch. It is a shame the weather is not clear, but even so, the sheer beauty of the bay leaves a mark on me, and I realise that the last week and half in Vietnam has been worth it just to see this. We go past a floating village where people live that have never been on dry land. I can not quite imagine that and I am humbled just at the thought of it.
When we get back we are left to our own devices. Dinner is a subdued affair, most of us realising that tomorrow will be our last day travelling together.
We board the bus early heading back to Hanoi. Hanoi is a city I recently read about in Michael Palin’s Full Circle. He was there thirteen years ago. Back then the city was very much the way it had been thirty years ago, and security was tight. You could not walk around free without a close eye been kept on you. It was very much a flat city with none of the Huge office builds that Saigon has. The Hanoi of today is dramatically different. Thirteen years ago, the first set of traffic signals was installed, now they are everywhere. It has a motorway network to rival that of any European city. High rises are poping up all over the city. The ever strengthening Asia economy has reached Hanoi. Banks are popping up and western companies seem to be creeping in. There is even a big KFC sign on the way in. I am shocked at how a city has changed so much in such a short time. Sure there still the busy narrow streets with signs of its French colonel past, yet there is also the unmistakable sign of capitalism taking over. Hanoi is defiantly a city growing at incredible rate. When we walk down it’s busy streets, there is no sign of us been watched,. The only place we encounter this is outside government buildings.
I spend the afternoon chilling out before I meet the group at six at a water puppet show. The combination of live music and these puppets makes for my first real cultural experience in Vietnam and I enjoy every second of it. All thought the whole show is in Vietnamese, I did not have to understand it to appreciate it.
The next day we set out on another one of Marco’s Tours. We cover much ground and end up having lunch in a Vietnamese restaurant with not sign of any other foreigner. Afterwards Emily, Caroline and myself set out on a mission to get a cake for Laura’s birthday. We are successful and by six we have a cake with her name on it. The meal is in what appears to be a nice hotel and consider some bottles of wine are over a hundred quid you would think it. Yet my starter appears after my main meal, and normally I would not say anything, but this restaurant is trying to market itself to western visitors and prices are not the cheapest. I mention to them that really if you going mark it down as a starter on menu, make sure it comes out at the start. Caroline presents Laura with her cake which is a nice affair, and we all sing happy birthday.
We move on to a club where much is drunk. I decide to leave feeling tired and to be honest depressed and say my goodbyes why I am still composed. Ian my roommate turns up at some early hour of the morning. It is not long before my alarm goes off and we on bus leaving behind friends we wished were with us. It is a sombre couple of hours, only uplifted by the fact that Hanif the man who nags us about leaving stuff behind, leaving important documents in the safe of the hotel. This he says is the first time it has happen in six years, not sure if I buy that.
I leave Vietnam with mixed feelings. It is a country of stark contrasts, I feel that what is suppose to be a communist country is becoming less so as the years go on. Vietnam is defiantly opening up to the western world. They even have a name for the process, Doi Moi, it mean renovation, or new thinking. This process has informed government policy for the past 23 years . It is visible to see that a managed Market economy has replaced the Communist Command Economy of old and it is debatable how much longer Vietnam will hold on to its Communist rains. Foreign participation in business is encourage and it is obituary that all Vietnamese civil servants to learn a foreign language. These are all signs that indicate that the future of Vietnam is not in Communist Doctorate. Yet I am left wondering if all this growth is to the detriment of the country which seems to be losing something of its self in its eagerness to grow and welcome in the west.
The cultural side that I saw of Vietnam, I liked, and it is certainly one of the most interesting countries I have ever visited. I would very much like to come back in a few years and see what has changed and maybe branch out into the countryside where it seems it has been untouched by Doi Moi. Part of the problem is our tour did not visit places like this and I feel that I cannot judge Vietnam purely on what have seen, when there is so much more to see.
It begins to dawn on me I am the only boy left, and spending the next week with seven girls becomes suddenly appealing. It is only when they start talking about boys and which ones are fit, that the novelty quickly wears off. The drive to the boarder is a long one. What is a surprise is the Laos board is high in the hills, which as border crossings goes makes it a very picturesque one. This is quickly ruined by several trucks turning up filled to the brim with howling dogs. The noise is so upsetting that two of the girls break down in tears and I end up not far behind them. What should of been an ok board crossing is suddenly blotted by the sights and sounds before us, and leaves us shocked for several hours afterwards.
Another hour in the bus and we arrive at the boarder town of Lao Sec. Our hotel is basic and Laura’s sheets appear not to have been changed. The view though is something to behold, Lac Sec is nestled in a mountain valley and the sunset over the mountains is one of the most beautiful I have seen since Nepal.
Our meal that night is the aptly name Only One, because likes its name sake it is the only restaurant in town. We go to bed early s it is another early start. Because of my cold I decide not use the air con and sleep with the door onto my balcony open. When I wake up in the morning, it is very cold, the views of the mountains are gone to be replaced by a thick blanket of fog. We have breakfast which although basic is just right, and at 7am we are on our bus again heading for the Capital of Laos Vientiane.
On our way we are stopped several times by police roadside checks. It soon becomes apparent why. We pass a big stadium, there is a Olympic style torch alight. It turns out Laos is the host of the SEA (South East Asia) Games which it seems is a big thing here.
When we arrive in Vientiane, It is not what I was expecting, the city is very quiet, there are hardly any cars on the road. The guest house we are staying is two story place we a nice courtyard in the middle. When we set out for lunch, there is almost no one around. Afterwards Laura and myself decide to go on a walking tour. We visit the famous golden stupor and surrounding temples. Afterwards we go to Laos artdertriupof nicked name the vertical runway. The reason this is known as this is because some money was donated to the government to build a runway, and instead the cement was used to build this rather imposing moment. Laos is also communist and this building would not look out place in the heart of Moscow. Doted around it are a number of team members from the SEA games participating countries. I bump into what turns out to be the Thai football team. When I greet them in Thai they are surprised and impressed and we have several seconds of yelling out cheers for Thailand. Laura looks at me like I am nuts, but seeming as I have a home in Thailand I should support them.
Afterwards we try to go to market, the one we pick on the map turns out not to be much and by the time we get there and realise this, its nearly time to meet the rest of the gang on the on other side of town. Now at this point I should mention, one of the group found a description which really dose sum up Laos. It goes something like this “in Thailand if you take a Tuk Tuk, he will either try to take you to a silk shop or for a lady massage. In Vietnam they practically run you down to try and win your business. In Laos, you first have to find them, wake them up, and then try and persuade them to take you somewhere”. Laura and I get our first taste of this when we locate a guy who is passed out in the back of his cab, so I wake him and point to where we want to go on the map, he just looks puzzled. Even when I wave a five dollar bill in his face he seem reluctant to go. Finally after several minutes of persistent pestering he finally agrees and we are on our way. We stop short to look at the Mighty Mekong Delta river. We find a bar that seems far closer to our hotel than the one we were meeting the group at. So after several phone calls and me standing in the middle of the street waving like a mad man, we all convene on the bar. Sun set over the river is amazing and as I gaze over the water into Thailand a tinge of longing to be at my home in Rayong over comes me. It passes soon enough as I realise that Mekong as been with us most of the way since Cambodia. We have crossed it twice, once by ferry and will in a few days be spending two days on her, travelling to the Thai border.
We have dinner in a typical back packers place which is very nice, afterwards Myself, Laura and another girl called Mini board a Tuk Tuk back to the hotel. This one dose not take so much persuasion, a welcome change. Laura needs a cash point and we set out to find one, soon enough myself and Mini get involved in one those deep and meaningful conversations that seem to becoming a theme of this trip. I learn a lot about her and I am left full of admiration for what I think is one of the bravest people I have ever met.
Next day is Laura’s birthday, I miss my alarm and end up sleeping in past what was planned, I spend the morning stocking up on previsions and get some lunch in a street side restaurant full of manly Laos people. It turns out to be a good pick and the food is great. Afterwards feeling tired I walk into the nearest massage shop and spend an hour getting pampered. We depart for Vang Vieng at two clock on the dot, our destination is the notorious tubing town.
The drive is lovely, we are again in the mountains. Vang Vieng is nestled at the foot of a formation six giant lime stone monolith and is very striking. I would like to say I like this town, but unfortunately it seems to be filled we young arrogant drunk idiots. I am left wondering why people like this come here, it is ten times cheaper to go somewhere like Ibiza and leave what is a very beautiful area like this alone. I get speaking to some Laos people who despise the most of the foreigners who come here, but they bring in the money, so they grin and bear it. It saddens me that most of the foreigners here really give them self’s a bad name, and I do my best to convince my Laos friends that not all of us are like it.
As we arrive in the early evening and there is birthday to celebrate we head out into to town very quickly, we end up in a restaurant which is playing friends constantly on the TV. After an ok meal I begin to come over very tired and it’s not long before my head begins to throb continually. We go to bar which is full of young chavs walking around in there underwear drunk as skunks. I feel terrible, and it’s not before long I make my excuses and return to my little cottage.
At around two am awoken to the sound of a high pitched scooter been driven past my room. When I walk out I find several very drunk people driving it round the grounds nearly running over a couple returning to their room. This is final strew for me and I proceed to lambast them on their idiotic antics and for waking me up. Somewhat taken back by a half naked fat bloke yelling abuse at them, they soon decide it might not of been the best idea and return to their room. Feeling somewhat better about myself and laughing at their reactions I return to bed, contented.
The next day, I have a day off from doing much and spend the afternoon checking out the town. The rest of the gang have go kayaking. I meet up in the evening with the gang who seem to be nursing the last remnants of nasty hangovers and we have a quite night.
Next day we are back aboard our bus bound for our final destination before our river trip. I have to say all though this town is one the more beautiful places we have been to, I am not sad to be leaving it behind, I did not travel all this way to be surround by the same type of idiots you get in Ibiza.
Luang Prabang is suppose to be the cultural capital of Laos. After a six hour trip through the mountains we arrive in the town. We have lunch in a tapas place own by French guy. Myself an Hanif decide to sort out emails as we have free Wi-Fi. Young Laura wants to go straight off to a temple, but needs to cover up, whatever possess Hanif to suggest he will swap tops we her, I will never know, but it provides one of the funniest moments of the trip. I will never forget the sight of the a hairy chested man in skin tight women’s vest top, reduced to hugging a pillow in embarrassment, for as long as I live. Eventually after much torture for poor Hanif, the barmen takes pity and lends him a jacket so he can hot foot it home to change.
In the evening we have dinner at a garden restaurant aptly named the Lao Garden, whoever wrote the cocktail menu, also seems to dabble in philosophy, as there seems to be a fair few quotes on it, strange but nice and some seem to be very apt for a few of us.
After the restaurant we end up at the only place you seem to be able to get a drink after 11, the bowling alley. We play a game in which we discovery that Hanif’s method of bowling is equal to that of Adam Saddlers golfing method in the movie Happy Gilmore. Somehow even though he seems to mange to throw the ball halfway down the alley before it even touches the ground, he gets one or two impressive strikes.
We when get back to the hotel, I produce some more beers which are consumed before we are told by the half dressed boss lady of the hotel that we really should go to bed. Off to bed we go.
The next day I decide not to do much partly because of a mild hangover, electing instead to spend the day chilling out, finishing off blogs and so forth.
Laura and I end up having dinner at the same place as the night before, conducting another one of those deep and meaningful conversations. We all have an early night as we need to be up for the river boat in the morning.
5.15 am and I am up with surprising ease, when did this become the norm? We walk down into town to see the giving of arms to the monks. When we get there we discover it seems to be a bit of a tourist event and not the respectful event it is in most places. There are foreigners sitting there will the soles of their feet showing, quite clearly displaying they have no idea what this is and why.
The best part of two hundred monks begins to walk down the street. This not something you see every day, and I pause for a second forgetting my disgust at the ignorance of the tourists and stare at what is an incredible site. I regain my composure soon enough and snap a few pics. Its not long before Laura and myself decide to walk away as we have had enough. We discover that we could waited outside our hotel as the long procession of monks are filing past as we turn up for breakfast.
At 7am I am scrambling down a sandy back with all my worldly possessions on my back, about to board long boat for our two day river cruise. Boarding the boat is a feat in itself as we have to walk across a single plank of wood with a 21kg bag on your back. Lucky half an hour latter I am staring out onto the river bank masked in the early morning fog. It is quite cold and most of us are wrapped up warm. Our boat was described as basic, but for most of us we would not chose to call it basic. It has 9 chairs that go flat to form very comfortable beds. There are two very clean toilets and most of the interior of the boat is finished in polished wood. The boat is run by a family. Father drivers it, why son helps out, Mum looks after a delightful little child who seems completely at home on this boat. The boat is there home. At the back is a small living space.
The fog lifts by mid morning, the high reaching mountains that line the river bank are site to be seen. Discretely placed in between these mountains are small sleep villages with the odd fishing boat moored at the side. Most of these villages belong to Lao hill tribes who barely ever make contact with the outside world. Most of these villages are without running water and electricity and usually only reachable by the river, cut off from the rest of Laos by impassable mountains.
I spend most of the day chilling out, watching the endless miles of river bank go by, snapping away with the camera every time I see anything of interest.
Our last night in Laos is in the village of Pakbeng. It is obvious that this is the stop over point for all the river boats. The port is busy with the best part of thirty long boats moored up. We have no option but to scramble up a sandy bank which proves to be both tiring and funny all at the same time. Once at the top, there is the welcome site of truck which will take the luggage to the guest house.
We are told that this village only has electricity for four hours a night before been plunged into utter darkness. Torches after ten are ensile items. As we walk down the main road of this small village, it is dotted with guest house and restaurants. One person spots an Indian restaurant, which considering we are in the middle of nowhere is very random. We end up eating there as Hanif has been craving some Indian food I think. The food is good and we have a very pleasant meal before returning to our guesthouse for a drinking session. At ten the lights don’t go out, and in fact we end up having electricity all night, although there seems to be sense of preserving what they have, so any light that is not in use is turned off with rigours precision by the guesthouse staff.
Next morning we are back climbing down the sandy bank is a repeat of the previous morning antics of boarding this boat. Yet somehow, once again we manage to board without mishap. I spend few hours catching up on sleep in one of the beds, before again sitting a chilling watching the world go by. This time we are provided a meal which was just amazing and very tasty. Not bad for a couple of quid and considering it was all cooked aboard, even better. The relaxed pace of the last two days has been welcome and I have seen a part Laos that not many people get to see. I really enjoyed this part of the trip and for me was probably my favourite part of the Laos trip
When we eventually pull up at the boarder town of Chiang Khong. We are sorry to say good bye, but like all good things, they must come to end. We leave this wonderful family and there lovely boat behind we some sorrow, but we will have a memory of an amazing two days imprinted our brains forever I think.
We arrive at Laos departure gate where we get our passports stamped at the cost of $1 before pilling into a river taxi, again something of a feat to board before been whisked across the river to the Thai arrives.
The contrast between the two sides immediately apparent. Everything seems well more western hear. There are many banks, restaurants and mini super markets lining the main high street. We are defiantly back in Thailand
Having never been to the north of Thailand before I am surprised how affluent it is. The drive from Chiang Khong to Chiang Mai next morning is an interesting one. Chiang Mai is much bigger than I was expecting. It has a network of motorways running it. Having spent the best part of a month in countries where the infrastructure is basic in most places, its not hard to see that Thailand stands apart from all of its neighbours. The road networks here are on much bigger scale than any other place I visited. Its not hard to see why the Thai’s are known as the business people by their neighbours. There is certainly visibly more money here than anywhere else in SE Asia.
We are so tired having not had much sleep the night before, choosing to drink and talk rather than sleep, that five hours we have here are mostly taken up with massages sessions in a local spa.
At around 5pm we climb aboard our final night train heading back to Bangkok. I find myself excited about being back in a city I love, but sad that the end of this amazing, emotional rollercoaster is nigh. Upon boarding we find there is a problem with one of seats, somehow a double booking has occurred. Hanif disappears of to sort, coming back ten minutes later to announce he will have to fly down in the morning. Immediately the group all bounce into action and block him from leaving. There is no way at this late stage we will lose one of our members. The younglings decide to bunk together and a ticket is bought to keep Hanif with us. Get off the train indeed!!!
The night train is ok, but I get little sleep as the bright interior lights remain on throughout the night, and the air ventilation systems are not great.
We eventually pull up into Bangkok’s main station at 8am. We are split into three groups and I am given the task of getting a cab to the hotel with some of the group. After several minutes and one disgruntled taxi driver (because I insisted on using the meter) latter we are moving through the rush hour traffic back to where it all started.
After checking in, having a bite to eat and freshening up, I take the Young ones and Laura to Biote Tower where there four levels of pure cloths shopping. We spend some time going around before we move on to the famous MBK shopping centre for a bite to eat in the food hall. I then break off leaving them to shop, there is only so much standing around out side girly shops I can take.
The evening is another Koh San special full of buckets, photos and general roundness as we all get very drunk.
The next morning Laura and myself are somehow up at 7 ready to board a bus for the River Kwai. We both end up sleeping on the bus before arriving at our first destination, the famous Bridge over the River Kwai. Its not quite what I was expecting but interesting to see. We latter take an hour’s train ride on the railway built by all the prisoners of war, it’s nice but at the same time a bit sombre in remembering all the people who died to build it. They say at least 280 people died for each Km of track laid. When you see the territory they had to build it in, it’s not hard to understand what the conditions must of been like. It is another one of those things I never learned about in school, but I am glad I have had the opportunity to learn about here.
On our return to Bangkok we sleep in the bus. We are dropped on at the top end of the Koh San road, and Laura in which is a minor miracle manages to do all her present buying in just half an hour, amazing for a girl, especial on the Koh San Road. She even manages to barter the prices right down, I was left impressed to say the least. Hanif is heading home this evening, and we spend the last hour with him in an Israeli restaurant that serves up some really good humus. When its time for Hanif to leave, we are all a bit emotional. All though several of us remain, departing over the next few days, this feels like the end.
We have a few drinks before drifting off to bed. This is Laura’s last day, as she will leave early next morning. She really has been my best mate on this trip and I realise how much I will miss having her around. After yet another emotional goodbye, I fall into bed wondering what the rest of the trip will bring.
I spend the next day getting my last rabies injection then saying good bye to the last of the gang left. It really is now the end. Each and everyone of these people I have spent the last month with has made a mark on me, and I will never forget any of them. I really hope that I stay in contact with them as they were just a great bunch of people and I count myself very lucky that I got to meet them.
I reflect on what I have seen on this trip. It really was an emotional rollercoaster. There were so many highs from all the nights spent drinking and laughing, but there were the lows. Visiting some of the places like the killing fields makes me realise what Human beings are cable of doing to each other. I am glad that I booked this leg of the trip and will never forget it
I now face the next month of a more relaxed pace of life in Thailand. I am not sure what will happen and you know what for the first time in my life I am ok with that.