A Travellerspoint blog

Dalat

4th March to 7th March


We have noticed that less people are looking at the blog, so we thought we’d put something funny in to boost numbers! ;) Here is a picture of Matt’s ticket from Angkor Wat which put us in stiches. If you like this, tell others!!

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From Ho Chi Minh City we were popped in a nice sleeper bus for our eight hour journey to Dalat in the central highlands. As we approached the town, we ascended into the hills through beautiful scenery and pine trees – it reminded us of the Alps! We were supposed to be dropped off in town, but of course this being Vietnam no-one really does what they promise and we stopped at the bus station. Some moto driver tried to rip us off by charging us a fortune to get in, but we waited it out and got a free minivan to the centre. We are learning more and more that the Vietnamese love to scam tourists and it appears to be a national hobby – they are even worse than the Thais! Their roodness is evenly on the scale of the Thai’s. Dalat itself was a lovely little town with a nice lake in the middle, flower gardens everywhere, parks and a golfcourse. It is called little Paris because of the eternal spring climate, florescent lights everywhere and the tiny ‘Eiffel’ tower which is really just a signal tower. The spring climate was also quite apparent with the chilly evenings. In the evening we had a spectacular white hot chocolate at a café which was made all the more enjoyable by the mistranslation of the male toilet cubicle – it was called a ‘defecation room’!

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On the first day we rented a tandem bike which if anyone hasn’t ridden one before is really difficult to cycle particularly when lunatic motorbike drivers whizz around you! Eventually we got the technique right and headed around the lake to a massive flower garden which was beautiful (our mums would have loved it) apart from the poor horses tied up to stationary flower carts in the sun all day. After the lake, we headed up to the cable car which took us across the pine-covered mountains to a beautiful temple/monastery. Buddhism in Vietnam follows a different branch than in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, and so the temples are a lot more simplistic with big wooden structures, tranquil sounds of perfectly tuned windchimes and ornate gardens. And they are so peaceful, so we chilled there for a little while before finding the well-hidden path back through the pine forests to where we had left our bike. We thought we did really well finding the path until we were sinking into a little ‘swamp’ right at the last ascent where the path suddenly ended. Then it was off to an attraction called crazy house which was just fantastic. It is basically a hotel, but has some of the most unique architecture we have ever seen resembling Alice in Wonderland meets Harry Potter with a maze of steps and passages weaving around different house structures that looked like trees with paths that went over roofs and into other houses, formed like animals – it was quite amazing and challenges the whole idea of conventional architecture. We thought about staying there but couldn’t be bothered with the hassle of moving rooms so decided to stay where we were. In the evening we wandered around the lively and not touristy market and then Matt drank his Dalat wine – it wasn’t really wine but more alcoholic fruit juice so Susanne had a try too!

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The next day we rented a motorbike and braved the roads to head to Lang Biang Mountain. We later learnt that you actually need a licence in Vietnam for small, automatic motos so if you have an accident and it’s your fault, any insurance you have won’t cover you – and it is ALWAYS your fault in Vietnam anyway because you’re western and naturally that means you have to be richer than the Vietnamese person even if that isn’t the case! We survived the journey though, but definitely won’t hire one again in this crazy country. When we arrived at the mountain entrance we were greeted by very rude ticket people and missed out on a free jeep ride half way up the mountain because they didn’t tell us, so we had to walk up the road for 3kms. We then found the entrance to a small path that lead to the top of the mountain through beautiful pine forest with no cars and few other tourists. After a couple of kilometres, the surroundings suddenly changed into dense jungle-like forest which led to 650metres worth of steps that went straight to the top – it was an exhausting climb but well worth it with the wonderful views from the top. After the mountain, we took our motorbike and headed to the so-called Valley of Love which is basically a big lake with a theme park type feel. It was the most kitsch place we have been to with massive love heart shapes everywhere and My Heart Will Go On playing out of the speakers! After a drive around looking for another lake which turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, we stocked up on stuff from the supermarket and then went for dinner. Before bed, we milled around the market again and thought we’d brave eating some quails’ eggs that were on the street stalls – what a mistake that was. They were actually fertilised eggs, so inside the shell was a nice quail foetus looking back at you, it was quite disgusting. We had heard that they did it with hens’ eggs but we’d never heard of it with quails! Basically don’t trust any eggs you buy off the street in Vietnam!

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In the morning we had a lovely breakfast on our balcony from the stuff we had gathered yesterday as well as another sublime white hot chocolate. Then it was into a minivan for our trip to Nha Trang where we needed to change to a sleeper bus for Hoi An. The journey through the mountains was absolutely stunning as we descended down to the coast; it rivalled the scenery in northern Laos. The bus was luxurious as we shared a 21 seater bus with another 4 people. Once in Nha Trang, we had a couple of hours to wander around before our bus. It is a really large city right on the coast with massive mountains looming in the background. The beach was nice but packed and had a busy road behind it so we were glad we didn’t stay here. After dinner it was off to the tour agent’s office to catch our sleeper bus to Hoi An. We were picked up by a crammed minivan full of luggage and other tourists which took us to the bus station – not a good start! The people dealing with us were unbelievably rude ordering us around like cattle. We were shepherded onto a banged up old bus full of more sleeper beds than should be allowed, and crammed full of boxes and luggage at the back. Our bags weren’t put underneath the bus but instead were forced into the toilet – so obviously the toilet was out of action! Then they started to cram more local Vietnamese people in so that there were people lying on padded cushions in the aisles – it was awful. The driver was also a bit of a nutter, but we made to Hoi An early in the morning safe and sound and even managed to get some sleep – what a journey! Hopefully famous Hoi An will cheer us up!

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Posted by mattandsusanne 08:20 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Ho Chi Minh City

3rd March to 4th March 2014


Our night bus experience to Ho Chi Minh City was far better than in the other countries we’ve been too. The bus was new and we actually had two drivers which is always a bonus – good if one of them falls asleep! The bus was a ‘sleeper’ which basically consists of little pods with fully reclining seats so they are basically like beds equipped with blankets, although Susanne appeared to have been bitten by something (maybe bed bugs or someone else’s fleas!). We arrived into Ho Chi Minh on time for the sunrise and rush hour at about 6.30am in a bus station 8km out of the centre, but luckily some Vietnamese guy helped us get on a local bus that dropped us right off in the busy backpacker area. Unlike most backpackers’ areas in Asian cities, this one was a great mix of locals and tourists and had a great atmosphere. We found an alright little hotel right in the middle and then went for some amazing breakfast at a little local eatery – we had squid curry and claypot fish which was supposed to be lunch but we were hungry after our long journey!

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Ho Chi Minh City is a great and really exciting city full of traffic and motos but actually really nice and well presented – it wasn’t as dirty as other cities we’ve been to. Crossing roads was always a bit of a challenge as motorbikes just weave around you, but really all it takes is a bit of confidence and some practice! The city is described in the Lonely Planet as having the buzz of a million motorbikes, which is very true. We have never seen so many motorbikes driving all sides of the road, beeping and rushing around. The city was full of grand colonial buildings, churches, temples, a palace and very well kept parks. We did a little walking tour where one chap, in an attempt to get us to buy his fresh coconut, made friends with us and then got us to take his carrier on our shoulders (which was incredibly heavy) before thrusting an opened coconut into our hands which we didn’t actually want, trying to charge us nearly £5 – we politely refused! We then headed to the war remnants museum which was built in 1975 after the Vietnamese War to commemorate the reunification of North and South Vietnam. The museum housed loads of US military hardware such as planes, tanks, canons and so on. It was also full of photographs from the war, historical accounts of the circumstances surrounding the war and descriptions of the atrocities carried out, as well as the lingering presence of Agent Orange a chemical that was used to defoliate the forests making it easier for US troops to fight the Viet Cong. People are still suffering today from the side effects of this chemical, children being born with all sorts of disfigurations. The museum was harrowing and quite propagandist, but it was an eye opening account of the war which many westerners may not get the chance to see. After the museum we went to a traditional water puppet show which is apparently a 1000 year-old theatre show with intricate, colourful puppets being used on a water-filled stage backed by traditional music, which was amazing. After dinner we strolled around the backpacker area which has loads of cool bars as well as little local, pop-up bars that line the streets. Outside each of them are loads of tiny plastic stalls facing the road in rows – it was quite weird, but it was great to see locals and tourists drinking there. As with the rest of the city, it was still full with horning cars and racing motorbikes. Tomorrow it’s off to the central highlands and a town called Dalat – it will be good to get away from the city and get some fresh country air!

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Posted by mattandsusanne 07:42 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Kampot to Vietnam

28th February to 2nd March 2014

We woke and had to say goodbye to our lovely Ko Ta Kiev island. We had planned to eat at the restaurant looking out to sea, but someone told us the wrong time and the boat left half-an-hour earlier than we thought! But we made up for it by having breakfast on Otres 2 beach after our boat journey which was just as nice. After breakfast we had to make our way back to Sihanoukville main town to get our minivan onto Kampot. Before we took the bus, Matt needed new sunglasses, as he managed to snap his in two pieces. He thought he found some pretty cheap ones and thought his bartering skills were up to scratch with £2.50. We thought the quality would be lacking and snapping soon, but what we did not expect is that they would start melting on his sweating face within 1 day and provide him with lovely eyebrow make-up and a black line under his eyes…
When we arrived, we searched out a little cheap guesthouse street which was slightly out of the centre. We stayed at Blissful, a backpacker place recommended in Lonely Planet – this was unfortunately a bit of a Lonely Planet f***k up as the place was far from ‘blissful’! There was a nice bar, garden and friendly vibe but that was as far as it went. This was singly the worst place we have ever stayed in – the room was really dirty and their water wasn’t working so the bathroom hadn’t been cleaned, the toilet remained unflushed, no running water, no sheets etc. However, because of the troubles the guy said we could have the room for free and we just used the shared bathroom. As we were hot, sweaty and knackered we thought we would just go for it and see if the situation improved in the morning!

Kampot itself was a lovely little place, perched right on the river with beautiful old French colonial architecture, boutique shops, restaurants and bars. There was some beautiful countryside surrounding the place as well. After a little wander around, we headed to a Vietnamese traditional music rehearsal for young orphans where tourists can come and watch musicians and dancers practise. The next day we decided we had had enough of Blissful and so decided to look at the place next door – Pepper Guesthouse. For 10$ (only 3$ more than Blissful) we got what was a palace when compared to the last one – it was clean, had a large and comfy bed, free water, towels, a big bathroom, TV, lovely wood furnishings etc. It was probably too nice for the price! For the rest of the day we rented a moto and made our own tour of the surrounding area. First we headed to some local rapids where loads of Cambodians come to spend a day or the weekend all having lunch by the river in little makeshift huts. We had this really delicious sticky rice cooked in banana leaf. Then we went up a steep, rocky path that led to a peaceful temple perched on the hill with lovely views of the surrounding area. We tried to cross to the other side of the river but the Chinese had built a dam and there was no way through. So instead we went back round the other side through town and then into some lovely Cambodian countryside where there were ethnic Muslim villages. After a little sunset drink on the river we headed back to town and feasted on the infamous crab with Kampot pepper dish which was lovely. The resident rat running around, on the other hand, was not so lovely!

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The next morning was spent chilling around town and having breakfast at a great little backpacker place (Bodhi Villa) on the other side of the river. Then it was time to say goodbye to Cambodia as we took our short minibus journey to the border. Apart from the first part of the journey, we had the minivan all to ourselves! We were wondering when the scam was coming, as it was too good to be true. Suddenly the driver was going rather slow, then stopped and put eye drops in his eyes. After that the journey went downhill, as he was swaying to the other side of the road, missing other cars, but luckily going very slowly! At the border we waited ages for them to check our passports; clearly they were doing a very thorough job (perhaps they thought we looked dodgy). In the meantime, our minivan driver turned around and left so we started cursing his name and the company we booked with, thinking we would now have to find onward travel ourselves. But we were wrong as a nice Vietnamese man came up and we got our bus to the next stop which was Ha Tien, the first town in Vietnam. We were considering staying here as the place had a good right-up in Lonely Planet. We were glad we didn’t though as it was a complete dive – not a very good introduction to Vietnam! We had a bit of time though to wander around the market and along the riverfront before having some dinner and drink in a bar owned by a British expat. Then it was back to the bus station before getting on our sleeper bus to Ho Chi Minh city!

Posted by mattandsusanne 22:25 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Sihanoukville and Ko Ta Kiev

22nd February to 27th February 2014


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Our journey down to the coastal town of Sihanoukville was supposed to be 10-11 hours, but it took more like 14 (this always happens in Southeast Asia!). So we rocked up into Sihanoukville at about 9.30pm after leaving at 7.30am and eventually found an average guesthouse to stay in. The next day we spent milling around the area trying to work out how to get onward travel to Ko Ta Kiev island and where to stay there (someone we met on a train in Thailand said it was an awesome island so we thought we’d try it). We also managed to spend some time along the beach at Sihanoukville which was okay but very overdeveloped and quite touristy. So we walked down the beach for a few kilometres and found a nicer beach called otres which was a bit more chilled out and less developed and dirty. After a bit of beach bumming, swimming and a sunset beer we headed back to Sihanoukville to go for one of the infamous fish BBQs. We found a great place with comfy seats right on the beach and the food was delicious and a bargain – for two bbq whole fishes, potato, salad, two beers, one shake and two cocktails we paid about £6!!

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The next day we made our way to Otres 2 beach to catch a daily boat to Coral Beach, the accommodation we had arranged on Ko Ta Kiev. It turns out that Otres 2 was really pretty (nicer than the others in this area) with some lovely places to stay (oh well, maybe next time). The boat journey was slightly bumpy so we got a little wet but when we arrived the island was sheer paradise. The whole place is covered from tip to tip with forest, except for a stunning stretch of soft white sand and crystal clear water, fringed by corals. The whole island only has four places to stay and no roads or shops – so it was as remote and as chilled as you can possibly get. We found out that the whole island is owned by the Chinese, so the owners of Coral beach do not pay any tax to Cambodia, but money to the Chinese, as well as 'protection money' to the Cambodian military. All very alien to us, but I guess that it is a small part of being Cambodia. Even though the owners (French) have paid for their place, the Chinese can throw them off the island any time without paying them. The Chinese plan is to create a huge beach resort, and Coral beach will be the garden! What a loss of paradise... Coral Beach had told us that they only had dorms and hammocks to stay in, but luckily someone had cancelled so we were able to stay in their 20$ open bungalow which does what it says on the tin – a bungalow right on the beach with an open front, big round bed and nothing else. The accommodations here were lovely but uber basic all with shared bathroom and bucket shower (so 20$ was really steep for what you got, but it is an island!). The place had a really nice chilled out restaurant/bar perched out over the water with comfy seats, and Mika the French chef turned out some incredible food (mostly western but often with an Asian twist). The place was also party central – some people stayed on for a few weeks/months and helped out as staff, and so we witnessed a birthday party and a leaving party. They also all liked their reefer – breakfast, lunch and dinner were punctuated with the sweet smell of skunk wafting over our heads!

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Our time on the island was pretty much what you expect – laying on the beach, swimming, snorkelling, reading, drinking and eating. We did a little bit of walking around the island, mainly to other beaches but there was some lovely birdlife around (the feathered kind!), most of which you heard and didn’t see, but we did identify a hornbill, which was very exciting. One particular highlight was a late-night swim in the sea where we could see glowing, florescent plankton – it was quite amazing. You had to dip your head underwater with goggles and you saw an array of different colours glowing at you, it was like you were in a different world. To add some excitement to our stay, we tried out sleeping in one of their hammocks complete with a mosquito net. It was nice to be so close to the water, but Matt had next-to-no sleep and Susanne not much either. We think it takes getting used to... So the next day we moved to their monkey bungalow (a slightly smaller and cheaper, but cuter option). During one night in the bungalow, there was a massive storm (lucky we weren’t in the hammock!). We were then woken up with water falling into the bed during the middle of the night. However, we couldn’t work out how this happened as we were in the bottom bungalow and the one on top didn’t have any water coming through the roof. We found out in the morning that some animal (probably a rat) had bitten through a full bottle of water in the bungalow above, which had then fallen down onto us (so it wasn’t the rain after all and just coincident that it came down exactly when it was raining!). After a few days dossing on the island we felt ready to leave and in need of a proper shower – next stop is Kampot before making our way into Vietnam!

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Posted by mattandsusanne 06:51 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

Siem Reap and the Angkor Temples

19th February to 21st February 2014


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We woke up early to catch our boat to Battambang, which surprisingly left pretty much on time. The boat itself was a bit of an old tub of a thing, but luckily it wasn’t crammed full of people which was one of the common criticisms we had read in reviews. After all the uncertainty about whether to take it, we were really glad we did – it was amazing! It took around eight to nine hours, but the time passed by quite quickly particularly because of the beautiful scenery along the river. Susanne sat for most of the journey on top of the boat catching some sun rays while Matt mostly stayed in the boat to avoid burning! Along the way, it was really interesting to watch villagers going about their daily business along the river. Some parts of the river were extremely narrow so we were able to see close up traditional life on the river. This also meant that it was a lot harder for the boat to get through and at a couple of points we banged into the river bank or some overhanging bushes! We have also heard that the locals aren’t too happy with the boat as the wake can topple fishing boats and destroy nets. Our driver seemed to be fairly considerate so we didn’t appear to have any problems – one boat we heard from another traveller had stones thrown at it. Further along the river we saw some incredible floating villages some of which were more like floating towns complete with floating schools, temples, shops and police stations! This was topped with eating in a 'floating restaurant' (more like a floating house, converted into a canteen during the day) where the boat stopped for lunch. We also had the opportunity to see some beautiful birdlife along the river and particularly as we entered the Tonlé Sap Nature Reserve – Matt finally saw a kingfisher! After crossing the lake, we made it to Chong Kneas, a very touristy floating village that was nowhere near as nice as the others we saw on the way. We were met by an army of tourist boats. Some organised tours with loads of Japanese even took pictures of our boat, a more 'authentic' local form of transport.Then it was a short tuk tuk transfer into town. Siem Reap itself is a fairly small and compact town but is really bustly with loads of bars, restaurants and markets and a great atmosphere – at night it reminded us of a mini Bangkok complete with what appeared to be its own version of the Khao San Road called ‘Pub Street’. After a really crap dinner (a very bad fish amok) we found a groovy rooftop bar where there was live music, including a samba group from Madagascar who were doing a tour of Southeast Asia to raise awareness for women’s rights. The place had a great vibe and was a clear example of Siem Reap’s place on the party map of Southeast Asia!

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In the morning we decided to rent some bikes to head around the town and to go to the bus station to get more information for onward travel. We had to cycle a long way out of the centre of a chaotic and dusty road to get to the station and the trip turned out to be a waste of time as there was next to no information and the tickets weren’t any cheaper than in town! After cycling around a little more in the town we went to a great café called Butterfly Garden which was quite literally a tropical garden full of butterflies and with chairs dotted around – very nice! We then decided to head up to the Angkor temples to get our tickets as we wanted to head up early in the morning. In order to get a ticket they took a picture of us which was printed on the ticket – Matt’s photo looked really quite ridiculous; we didn’t realise people could pull such faces! After cracking up over the picture, we headed quickly over to the main Angkor Wat temple just to get a glimpse before heading into town. It really was a majestic sight and when standing in front of it you realise why people make such a fuss – this taster really wet our appetite for our temple tour tomorrow. We quickly made it back into town to watch a traditional Khmer music and dance performance put on by children at an orphanage (Acodo). The concert was preceded by a tour of the orphanage which was set up independently to rescue orphaned children and those from extremely poor families. The charity exists purely on donations and the money gained from the nightly concert, a daily event which really gives the children something to work towards and to be proud of. The children performed beautifully some traditional dances and extracts from the Ramayana, a famous Hindu epic which still underlies a lot of the traditional arts and culture in Cambodia.

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The next day we woke up at 5am to get our bikes and then head up to the Angkor temples. After a long and slightly scary ride in the dark, we arrived at Angkor Wat for sunrise and what an incredible sight it was. We were preparing ourselves for masses of tourists but we were pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t that full. It is quite hard to describe the building and the sheer size of it (the pictures don’t really do it justice either). We watched the sunrise behind the building and then walked around the temple itself, taking in the old ruins and the intricate wall carvings depicting scenes from Hindu mythology and the history of the Angkorian empire. After Angkor Wat, we began to head to some of the other temples. Cycling around the complex you begin to realise the size of the place which stretches for kilometres in all directions – in order to see all the temples, including the ones 30-40kms away, you would need at least a week. We just concentrated on the main ones. We first headed to a less famous one called Banteay Kdei which was less well preserved and far smaller than Angkor Wat but more mysterious and romantic. After stopping at a scenic lake we headed onto Ta Prohm which is a famous set of temple ruins that has been taken over by trees which makes it look stunning (this was where some of Tomb Raider was filmed!). The only slight downside was the number of tourists filling the place! The next stop was the old Angkor Thom city passing through beautiful gates and onto the massive temple of Bayon (full of faces looking down at you) and the temple mountain of Bauphon. We finished the tour by looking at a tiny ruined temple hidden away in the forest and founded some carvings of elephants and five-headed horses hidden away in trenches that would have been part of an older palace complex. It was a tiring day and the heat was almost unbearable but it was well worth it. In the evening, on Nick’s recommendation, we went to see the Cambodian circus where all the performers have come from poor backgrounds and have been trained up by an NGO. The show was spectacular and included some amazing, deaf-defying stunts. The stunning tricks were part of quite a funny storyline about a drop-out young Cambodian guy who works in a bar. Tomorrow morning we are taking the long bus journey to Sihanoukville to do some beach bumming again – it’s been a while since the beaches in Thailand!

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Posted by mattandsusanne 07:37 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

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