A Travellerspoint blog

Colombo and Kandy

19th March to 21st March 2014


Our morning heading to the airport for our flight to Bangkok turned out to be a bit hectic. A café we wanted to eat at was shut so we had to find another, we tried to locate Susanne’s expensive hiking sock which she lost and Matt didn’t get the passports back off the reception lady so we had to go back to the hotel with the taxi. Luckily, Matt realised only a couple of streets away so a disaster was averted. Eventually we made it to Hanoi airport on time and got our quick flight to Bangkok. In Bangkok we had about 4 hours to kill before our next flight but it was too much of a mission to get into town so we just hung around. We found a very cheap food hall selling nice Thai food, but we had forgotten how spicy Thai food can be particularly on our already-sore bellies. Our next flight to Colombo was only three and a half hours, but we had a fancy new entertainment system with large, crystal-clear touch screens – it was great to relax and watch a film! We arrived into Colombo at around 10pm and then faffed around trying to organise a taxi to two different hotels with another traveller. We eventually got into a minivan (not really a taxi) with a manic driver – they seem to drive just like in Southeast Asia. The driver missed the hotel we had booked which Matt luckily saw just in time and so we asked him to turn around. The room was lovely with a big bed and shower – a little bit of luxury compared to what we’re usually used to!

The next day we lounged around in the hotel for little bit and then took a tuk tuk into town with a smiley driver. People in Sri Lanka seem to be a lot friendlier than in the other places we’ve been and they even smile and joke when haggling prices. We walked around the Colombo Fort area which has some nice colonial buildings and marvelled at the massive pelicans sitting on top of security camera poles. After some tasty ‘short eats’ (which are like savoury pancakes, samosas, rolls etc) we met up with Nick at the train station who already had a nice shade of red from his time spent on the beach. He has now changed from an avid blog reader to a participant! After booking our train to Kandy, we had some lovely lunch at a local restaurant. It was a so-called ‘curry and rice’ which isn’t really a curry at all – it is more like a thali with a mixture of smaller dishes served with rice. The train journey took about 4 hours through beautiful, lush countryside with palm trees, rice paddies and loads of wildlife. Halfway through we were hit by a massive thunderstorm and manically tried to shut the windows before everyone got soaked. We arrived in the evening and shared a tuk tuk with Rima a German-Syrian woman we got chatting to on the train. We headed to the lake area up a really steep hill and found a nice place where we had two rooms, a communal area, no other people and an out-of-tune piano – it was like we had rented an apartment. Nick managed to haggle the price down so it only cost £8 a night for a room – bargain. After freshening up, we headed out for dinner at a local place that had practically run out of food and then had some drinks in a cool upstairs bar. The girls headed back a bit early and Matt and Nick tried to order another beer, but were saddened that the bar shut at 10.30! The girls on the other hand where harassed by Sri Lankan men as they walked home – male protection needed next time!

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The next day we got away really late because our Sri Lankan breakfast took ages (even though it was damn tasty) and Nick of course needed to faff! We went for a wander around the lake in town and even though there was busy traffic, we still saw loads of wildlife including monitor lizards, pelicans, bats, cormorants, egrets, turtles and loads of other birds we couldn’t identify – it was a wildlife haven. We then went to the Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic which is a holy Buddhist site in Sri Lanka that allegedly houses the Buddha’s tooth in a gold casket. Despite the steep entrance fee, there wasn’t a great amount to see even though the temple was quite nice. You didn’t get to see the tooth or even the casket, and the whole place was swamped with children but it was still interesting. We later learnt that it was the one day in the year in which schools from all around Kandy and beyond come to see the temple – typical! After the temple, we found Udawattakelle Sanctuary which was a lovely forested area with loads of very cheeky monkeys and the sounds of lovely birds (even though we didn’t see any). We took a nice stroll around the sanctuary before heading back to see a Kandyan cultural performance. It was a mix of traditional dances from around the country that had been repackaged for tourists on the stage. The show was okay, but the performers were pretty amateur and the show wasn’t well put together. The fire breathing and fire walking at the end was pretty amazing though. After the show, Nick and Rima wanted to head to Dambulla which is an important cultural town a couple of hours’ north of Kandy so that they could continue the journey to see Sigiriya rock in the morning. We were put off by the $30 entrance fee and so Susanne went back to the hotel while Matt watched a ceremony at the temple and we decided to meet up with them tomorrow. When he arrived at the temple there was drumming going on and hundreds of people crammed in the building as the tooth casket was put on display so that people could pay their respects and give offerings. It was hot and sweaty, but quite amazing. Tomorrow we’ll meet up with the other two to continue our Sri Lankan adventures!

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Posted by mattandsusanne 06:06 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

Halong Bay

16th March to 18th March 2014


In the morning we were picked up promptly at 8 by our bus and thankfully it was the right company (Alova Cruises) – a good start so far! On board the bus we had a very friendly and outgoing tour guide called Kim who kept cracking bad jokes throughout the journey. Half way through our ride to Halong City, we stopped at a workshop for disabled people which displayed loads of embroided pictures that had been painstakingly put together one stitch at a time – they were quite incredible. At 12ish we arrived at the harbour and took our tender boat to our cruise ship with the rest of the group. When we arrived at our cruise boat, it looked a little battered from the outside but was beautiful inside with lovely rooms and a great bar/restaurant area. There was also a sundeck with sun loungers, although the weather wasn’t really conducive to sunbathing! We were welcomed by a nice mocktail and then had a stunning lunch which was some of the best food we have eaten in Vietnam. It was quite special to eat lunch while cruising through the karsts as they emerged out of the mist. The only problem was that we kept stopping our lunch to go outside and take pictures. Afterwards though, we had the chance to chill on the top deck to take in the beautiful scenery as we cruised through the bay.

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After a bit of cruising, we arrived at what appeared to be a boat parking lot full of other cruise ships and was where we were going to anchor for the night. We were taken to the summit of Ti Top Island which had a pagoda at the top of a forested mountain with stunning views across the bay – we didn’t want to go back down! After Ti Top, we took some kayaks to explore the karsts around the boat as well as a traditional floating village. However, it felt a little awkward because when we were looking around the village a little boy rowed up and started shouting at us trying to get us to move on, and so it felt a bit like an invasion of privacy. The evening was spent making fresh spring rolls with our tour guide followed by another spectacular dinner. It was also a good chance to get to know the other people on our group who were all really nice. We all had a go at squid fishing off the back of the boat, but it was slightly tricky given that we had rods with no bait and the tiny squids simply bounced off the hooks. We did, however, realise that there was a net as well so some people (including Susanne) managed to catch some squids. They were too small for eating though and so they were thrown back into the water where they released all their ink as they hit the surface and then swam off. Susanne’s squid was the biggest and did loads of summersaults as it hit the water and sprayed its ink all around, much to the delight and amusement of everyone watching. We then spent the rest of the evening with some of the group, particularly two really nice Egyptian chaps who live in Dubai. They were planning on travelling through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 10 days, so Matt tried to convince them that it wasn’t possible – in the end a route was planned that did take in all three countries but we still don’t know whether they have made it or not.

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The next day the rest of the group left to go back to Hanoi and we joined two other Brits on a day boat to explore more of the bay. We did some kayaking in the lesser explored parts of the bay, including caves in beautiful secluded areas and through water caves. The only downside was the bits of rubbish in certain areas and the masses of dead fish floating around. We weren’t quite sure why there were so many dead fish, whether it was man-made or natural. We also saw loads of black kites flying around the karsts and fishing in the water. The lunch on board the boat was again really tasty and well prepared. We also got to see a pearl farm and learnt about the rather crazy way in which pearls are made, which put Susanne completely off pearls. After our day trip it was back to the cruise boat for another night on board. Unfortunately, Matt got really sick which our guide thought might be because of some shrimp thing he ate at the Hué restaurant in Hanoi. However, Susanne got involved with making spring rolls again (fried this time) and enjoyed another lovely dinner even though it was the same as the previous night. Matt was eventually able to get out the room to chill out on the top deck with some music and stare out at the shadowed karsts and the lit-up boats spread across the bay. The next day we went to Sung Sot Cave (which translates as Amazing or Surprising Cave) which was spectacular despite the hundreds of other tourists we had to share it with. Then we cruised back to Halong City to have some lunch before heading back to Hanoi. Tomorrow we begin the long journey to Colombo in Sri Lanka – a new country, so we can’t wait!

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Posted by mattandsusanne 05:35 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Cuc Phoung National Park

13th March to 15th March 2014


Having spent a day in Hanoi city we wanted to escape the hustle, bustle and millions of motorbikes and get out into the countryside, so we looked around for options on getting to Cuc Phoung National Park. Apart from really expensive private tours, the only way to get there was through the rather complicated public bus system. So we started our journey by taking a bus to the big bus station where we were horded by people trying to get us on different buses. The bus we got was actually a crammed minivan complete with a used nappy in the seat in front of Matt and a child’s shoe wedged into Susanne’s seat – nice! Luckily we got dropped off at a village just 1.5km’s walk from the park visitor centre which was nice and easy. When we arrived at the visitor centre there were some fairly basic rooms, but we had a fridge/minibar and a heater which considering the rain and cool temperatures was a complete blessing. We then headed to two conservation centres for monkeys and turtles where they try to rehabilitate animals that have been rescued from poachers with the aim being to send some of them back into the wild. The monkey sanctuary was actually partly funded by Bristol zoo which was good see! Before it got dark we climbed up a steep and very slippery/rocky hill to an observation tower which would have had amazing views if it wasn’t for the blanket of mist – it was still beautiful though.

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The next day we rented a motorbike to get further into the park as the main park centre was 20km away. Our observant blog readers will know that by doing this we have broken our ‘no motorbikes in Vietnam’ rule. However, there was no public transport, the bicycles were taken by some tour group and 20km just to get to the start of a trek felt like a bit of a long walk! So we grudgingly went for the bike, but the drive was easy and stunningly beautiful through the forest and we only saw one other motorbike and no cars on the road the whole day! After about a 7km drive we hopped off the bike and started on a trek through the rainforest that was supposed to lead to an ancient tree. It was pissing it down with rain, but the dense jungle was beautiful and there were no other people at all. However, after about an hour and a half the path started to get harder and harder to find so despite Susanne’s love of round trips we headed back the same way to our bike before getting lost in the jungle. After finding our bike again we made the journey up to the main park centre and had some lunch there. We were the only two people and the staff sat there watching us eat, probably wondering why some mad foreigners were walking around in the rain. They were also quite horrified when leeches started appearing that had been attached to our clothes! They kindly helped us 'catch' them and burn them in the fire. We then did a 7km circular walk (this was very pleasing for Susanne's love of round trips) which was on a really easy path but which was very pretty.

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On the way back to where we were staying we stopped at a ‘prehistoric man’ cave where the remains and tools of humans from thousands of years ago were found along with burial sites which was really interesting and eerie to see. Our jammed packed ‘nature’ day ended with a coffee by the lake and we were lucky enough to have a kingfisher flying around which unfortunately we couldn’t get to stand still for long enough to take a proper photo – he was just teasing us or maybe he was camera shy! In the morning we wandered around the botanical garden nearby and then made our way back to Hanoi with the local bus again. However, we did the traveller’s sin of being separated from our bags – basically we went down at about 12 to get the bus at the local village which was leaving at 12.30. When we arrived the bus was there and the driver/conductors got some lunch, so Matt thought he’d have a soup. They spoke no English and then a women working there said that they are leaving now to go to the park to pick up people before our food had even arrived. In the confusion, the bus drove off with our bags inside. Luckily they had stopped up the hill near the park and were playing cards and we got on with our bags intact. What a moment of stupidity on our part to let them leave with the bags on-board and not us! In the late afternoon we arrived back into Hanoi and Matt went off to a traditional Ca Tru music performance after a tasty street food-style restaurant with specialities from Hué while Susanne continued with reading her book in a local cafe. Tomorrow it’s off to Halong Bay for our long-awaited cruise – hopefully it’ll be one of the highlights of the trip in Vietnam.

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Posted by mattandsusanne 07:11 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hué and Hanoi

11th March to 12th March 2014


We began our marathon trip to Hanoi with a four hour journey to Hué, the old capital of Vietnam. After our last bus experience, we waited with bated breath to see whether we would get what we actually paid for. The bus arrived and it was a proper sleeper bus, with no extra crammed in beds, no boxes, no extra locals and lo and behold….a working toilet! So far so good! The journey had some really beautiful parts as we approached the mountains, but unfortunately that was short lived as we went through a massive tunnel. When we arrived in Hué we had a few hours to spare before our overnight bus to Hanoi, so we headed to see some of the sights. Over the river were the ruins of a massive citadel which were heavily bombed by the Americans and so not much remains. However, there were still some impressive old palaces and temples dotted around the complex, and it was all blissfully peaceful with gardens and not many tourists. After a bit of dinner, we hopped on our bus for the 15 hour journey up to Hanoi. We had booked a seat right at the back where there are four sleeper beds with extra leg room for Matt – and unlike other journeys we actually got the seats we ordered. Apart from a bit of a bumpy ride in some parts, the whole journey was a success so we were glad we did our research and went with the company we did.

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We arrived into Hanoi around 9.30am welcomed by English-style rainy weather and much lower temperatures. The bus dropped us right in the old centre of the capital which was ideal as that was where the majority of the accommodation and sights are. The city was incredibly busy with bikes everywhere beeping around you on the narrow roads – it all felt a lot more hectic and claustrophobic than Ho Chi Minh City. It was also quite interesting to see the old and new crammed up against each other, with old wooden traditional buildings interspersed with newer buildings. After finding a rather average and quite expensive hotel room, we began the hunt for agencies to book our Halong Bay cruise for a couple days’ time. In between chatting to various agencies and looking up reviews online, we also saw a couple of sights including a beautiful old temple that is the oldest in Vietnam. We arrived when there was some ceremony going on which appeared to revolve around one woman who changed into different costumes and did various dances – we thought that it might have been something to do with an upcoming wedding. But the strangest thing about it was that during the ceremony she started to chain smoke while sitting in front of a mirror. She must have had about 10 cigarettes while we were there and was then dressed up by two men into a beautiful costume with a stunning headdress. We also walked around the lake and to a temple that was in the middle of it. Apparently there is a very old and massive turtle that lives in the lake which brings good luck and long life to anyone who sees it – we unfortunately weren’t so lucky. Tomorrow it’s off to Cuc Phoung national park to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city – we feel that a good trek is in order.

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Posted by mattandsusanne 20:27 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Hoi An

8th March to 10th March 2014

When we arrived into the centre of Hoi An, we were met by the usual hotel touts offering rooms. One offered a free ride to the hotel even if we didn’t like it, so we went with it – the room was okay and there was a pool (!) so we decided to stay there, even though the room was slightly moldy. Hoi An is renowned for its tailors and was one of the reasons we wanted to come here, and as we checked in the women at reception was already trying to recommend us tailors (everyone in Hoi An can get commission from tailors!). We spent a couple of hours trying to explore all options of how to get out of the town – we were so put off by the night bus that we started looking at train and flying options. Then it was off to Kimmy’s, a well-known and respected tailor that we were recommended, to get our coats made! Matt already had it in mind that he wanted a nice long, black and simple trench coat, but Susanne had no ideas. At Kimmy’s they gave lots of ideas and she found a nice winter coat that looked lovely. We looked around at some other places but ended up going with Kimmy’s and after a bit of bargaining ordered the two coats for 150$. After they took our measurements, we headed off to the old town to actually see some stuff having spent the last few hours faffing around sorting out transport and clothes. Hoi An was an old trading port particularly during the silk trade and has a lot of Chinese and Japanese influences. The town is full of small, winding streets, beautiful old houses, bridges and is then lit up like a fairyland at night – it was really touristy but utterly beautiful so we didn’t mind.

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The next day we went for our first fitting at Kimmy’s, but the coats needed a bit of altering so we had to wait a little longer for them. We spent the rest of the day wandering around the old town taking in the atmosphere and some of the sights. In the morning, we went to a nice traditional music and dance performance in a lovely old wooden house, another ethno-heaven for Matt. However, just like in Laos, the performance ended in Auld Lang Syne (for the Germans reading the blog, this is a Scottish song played at New Year’s Eve) in Vietnamese – god bless tourism, unless somebody can convince us that the tune is actually from South-East Asia! We also visited a couple of temples, museums and old townhouses to get to know the town a bit more. But really it was nice just meandering around the streets, particularly as the evening came and everything lit up with boats on the river and candles floating downstream. After picking up our coats and chilling at the hotel trying them on, we headed back into the old town to have some dinner and passed by some Vietnamese folk bingo, very funny played with random flags and a coupe continuously singing. We were drawn into another tailors and ordered a dress and a shirt, particularly for Rosie and Finn’s wedding. For dinner we went to a slightly fancier place called Morning Glory (it’s the name of a vegetable, honestly!) and the food was spectacular, especially the shrimp mousse skewers wrapped in rice paper – yummy! Matt also relished in the incredibly cheap draught local beer at some of the restaurants and bars. Wait for it…….a 330ml glass costs from about 11p, yep you read that right…11 English pence. It didn’t taste great, but for that price and considering that it tastes better than Carling, who cares.

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On the final day, we firstly had our dress and shirt fitting and then took rented bikes (don't worry Dawn, the peddled version!) around the surrounding area to see some of the countryside. It was incredibly flat but quite pretty and we passed by a nice temple, some rice paddies, fishing areas and a nice beach where we chilled out for a bit. In the afternoon we headed back into town before heading to the hotel for a refreshing swim. The rest of the afternoon/evening was spent picking up our shirts and chilling around the old town again as we loved it so much. We also passed by another folk game where you have to attempt to smash a hanging pottery pot while wearing a mask and walking up to it from a distance. We both had a go and Susanne managed to get it – her prize was a tacky little Hoi An bag, but she was very proud and her old one broke anyway! In the end we booked another night bus as the trains and flights were quite a bit more expensive and more of a hassle. But we researched the company thoroughly and booked with the original Sinh Tourist Company which started the whole tourist bus travel and tours system in Vietnam. As they have a reputation to uphold and have good reviews online we felt safer going with them – fingers crossed it’s a better journey than the last one! So tomorrow it’s off to Hué for a quick stop over before making the long journey up to Hanoi.

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Posted by mattandsusanne 07:39 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

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