Hello everyone and sorry I havent written for a while. We have been off exploring and enjoying it too much to write on the blog.
We flew to Bangkok with Jet Airways from New Delhi. Arriving in Bangkok, it's warm and sticky. Everyone else has already arrived for the tour so we have our own car to take us to the Vientgai Hotel. Bangkok seems quiet and organised compared to India. Car are not using their horns every second and drivers drive in the marked lanes. Not sure why I am surprised Bangkok seems fairly western, it caters for all types of tourist. The Vientgai Hotel is a great choice if you are a party animal or like neon lights and disco music whilst you try and sleep. The hotel is on Rambuttri road which runs parallel with the famous tourist haunt of Kao San Road. There are plenty of restaurants, bars and food stalls to pick from however Pen Thai was a recommendation and it's seconds from the hotel. It has seats and tables spilling out onto the street and a real buzz (KB: when she says seats, she means kiddies plastic furniture!). Locals occupy the majority of the seats, sipping cool beers and eating fried fish. We order food and then get the chance to sit back and absorb the surroundings. There are ladies trying to sell bangles, hats and general tat, a man selling fried scorpion and a guy with a giant collection of helium balloons. The street is crowded and a bar has an 'english' singer outside an Asian chap murdering western hits in broken English. It's fascinating to watch, locals crowded in by tourists all eager to taste yum Thai food, drink cheap beer and experience Thai night life. We are not that eager to experience Thai night life tonight as tomorrow we have a 6 hour drive across the border to Siem Reap.
The bus journey to Siem Reap in Cambodia is about 6 hours including stops at 'Happy Houses' - toilets to the uneducated. Just before we cross the border, we stop at a typical Thai service station. I try the South East Asia treat of Sticky Rice with black bean cooked in a bamboo cane. It is okay but a bit bland to eat the whole stick [KB - it was crap, it made tofu look interesting!].
The border crossing is hot and sticky, we have to change vans and walk through the Immigration check points it takes about an hour.
We finally arrive in Siem Reap about 1600, we are staying in Hotel Freedom. Our pool view room is nice, clean and cool. In the evening our tour leader hails some tuk tuks (sorry, motor remork, tuk tuk is an banned term in Cambodia) to take us downtown for dinner and to the night markets. Siem Reap has huge night markets selling tourist tat, cheap clothes and electronics. The most interesting thing about the night market we visited were a group of blind men playing instruments. They were playing traditional Cambodia music and it sounded good. No doubt hard work for them to learn and play.
Siem Reap is on the outskirts of Angkor Archaeological site, famous for it's temples. First stop is the central Angkor Thom complex, here we see Bayon Temple, Royal Palace, Baphuon and the Terrace of Lions. The most striking thing about the temples are the carved faces, four on each side of a tower and lots of them all staring down with big happy faces. Apart from the faces there is some amazingly beautiful stone carvings shimming in the sunshine. The ancient people of Thom seemed to like very steep stairs, it is really hard work getting to the tops of the temples but the views are worth it. You can stand at the top looking down over the temple absorbing the architecture and see the carvings close up. This was only our first stop in Angkor park and we had already lost 2 people on the tour, they finally turned up an hour later in a tuk tuk [KB - they got absorbed with the temple and missed the collection time and point, delaying the whole group by an hour]
We had lunch in a small roadside cafe over looking Angkor Watt. Angkor Watt is without a doubt the most famous temple in the Angkor site, it is printed on the Cambodian bank notes. The cafe owners sister was selling acrylic paintings of local scenes and life. The paintings were excellent quality and only $25 for a large one. Keith spots a local scene painting, its beautiful and depicts life on a river. We get the painting and the lady packed it up in a small weaved case. After lunch on it was on to Angkor Watt temple. There are entrances on all cardinal points leading to the temple area. We enter from the least crowded direction which also happens to be tree lined - pretty good considering the mid afternoon sun. The path is dotted with entrance gates which host large colonies of bats in the roof. Looking up, Keith figured out what the 'liquid' dripping from the ceiling was and warned the rest of the group! Obviously bats go to the toilet whilst hanging upside down! The temple itself is one large spire surrounded by four smaller ones - when I say 'small' they are up to about 100ft tall. Tourists are welcome to explore all around the complex and look at the ornate carvings of various scenes and images. You can even brave a very, very steep flight of stairs to visit the main temple which contains many chambers and corridors, each housing various carvings and statues.
That evening we went to a traditional Cambodian dance show which included an all you can eat buffet with enough room to seat 1000 people. The dance show was not very interesting [KB - the food was pretty low quality 'all you can eat buffet, full of chubby westerners that would mill around like zombies wandering into people with plates piled high. The show was the traditional slow cambodian pace - it looked like kung fu in slow motion. Lesson learnt, don't go there again!].
We went and watched the sunrise at Angkor Watt, it was a very early and dark start. The tour guide expertly navigated us onto a ledge directly opposite the temple and we watched the sunrise with hundreds of other people. Surprisingly, flash photography does not illuminate the temple from a couple of kilometres away, despite the best efforts of most photographers.
After a spot of food we visited Banteay Seri Temple, widely considered the most beautiful temple in Angkor. A lot of the temple is destroyed but it does have gorgeous carved doorways.
Next we visited the temple that was in the tomb raider films, Ta Prohm. Lara Croft disappears down a hole next to a big tree, you can have your picture taken next to the tree. It appears like it is in the jungle but there is a road right up to it. Trees have destroyed this temple. You can have your picture taken next to huge tree roots with the tree tops sticking out of the top of the temple. Everything in Angkor is one dollar according to the child street hawkers. One of the guys on the tour gets caught out by this, one dollar Angkor guide book but its actually 8 dollars.
Time to do something different tonight, so we signed up for a Cambodian cooking class at Tiger de Papier. It's a small family run restaurant in the centre of Siem Reap. We arrive at the class via tuk tuk, sorry motor remork, and are given the restaurant menu. We can pick a starter and a main course from it that we shall cook. So much to choose from. Keith picked Fresh Spring Rolls and Chicken Amok and I picked Fried Spring Rolls and Tom Yum Soup. Then it was off to the market for a wander and gawp. The market is compact and rammed full of produce. The sales people sit on the stall in the middle and wander around the produce to serve you. All the fresh ingredients we need are pointed out to us and we get some Mangosteen fruit to try later. Back to restaurant for some cooking. Someone has kindly put out chopping boards with the ingredients we need for each dish and a very sharp knife - we fear finger loss at some point. The chef sings out instructions and we follow along, chopping and pounding. Keith got yellow fingers from the fresh Turmeric. For dessert we are having a group Pumpkin Custard with Jack Fruit. The custard is whipped up and then cooked inside the scooped out Pumpkin. Whilst the dessert is steaming we are called in to cook our starters and mains in a giant hot wok. It was quite easy, spoon of this and pinch of that. Everything ended up cooked and being served at the same time. The food was yummy. The class was great fun and we got the recipes too.
Leaving Siem Reap behind we headed via bus through little rural towns to the Cambodian capital Phomn Phen.
On the way we stop at Silk Farm for lunch. Here you can see how silk is extracted from the cocoon and then weaved into beautiful items such as scarfs. It is owned by an American and a local lady who shows us around in her silk pj's. A traditional Cambodia lunch is served and it is great. Then the table of silk scarfs comes out for sale, they are actually very cheap. I buy a blue and gold silk scarf and then head back inside to the weavers area. The lady who made my scarf stands up, thanks me and then let's me have my photo taken her.
Nearer to the capital we stop at Spider village! The locals in this village eat insect stir fries and fried spiders. Ever stall we look at there different bugs for sale. It is creepy! Our tour guide hangs a bag of spiders and grass in the bus and we leave for the capital.
At dinner the tour guide brings the spiders around so people can hold them. After a little touch I let it sit on my arm but then it starts crawling up. I did not like that, the spiders then get fried. Time to try the local treat of fried spider leg, Keith goes first and says it tastes like chicken but crunchy. Then I try it, I can not say it is my favourite treat, you can feel the hairy legs as you eat.
Our tour guide was a child during the Khmer Rouge period and was sent from the town to the fields to collect dung for burning. The guide takes us firstly to S21, it's a collection of concrete two floor buildings where intellectuals and people who spoke out against the Khmer Rouge were tortured before been sent to the Killing Fields [KB - basically the hierarchy were so afraid of revolt, they captured, tortured then murdered anyone capable of stringing a sentence together. It's scary to think this has happened in our life times]. We see rooms with beds and chains and horrible pictures of dead people. Then we see the special picture chair, they took pictures of all the people captured, including children to document their work. The chair held them in a correct position. There are hundreds of photos displayed and they look so scared because they know what's going to happen. There are a few survivors (six) of S21, one was a painter. He has written a book and sits at S21 talking to people and signing books. It is a sad place. After visiting S21 we travel to the Killing Fields. This is where they found mass graves of people taken from S21. The mass graves are tiny for the number of bodies found. People have tied coloured bracelets to the fences around the graves. The bones found now sit in a glass stupa at the site, all arranged into an order. It's a memorial and a very strange modern art piece, spooky.
Right, off to Chau Dock in Vietnam via tourist speed boat. The boat is dark, cramped and hot and its a 2 hour journey to the border crossing. We get to the border point at Vietnam and are waved into a cafe. Not standing in line or passport checks, we just sit for 20 mins in the cafe and are then told we can carry on into Vietnam. We change $50 with a lady in the cafe and get back one million dong, thats right Keith married a millionaire! [KB - the boat was dark, cramped and hot if you stayed inside.....!].
There is nothing to really say about Chau Dock, its a small village in the Mekong Delta and tourists only go there as a stopping point to Saigon [KB - I can say something else, it was smelly]
With nothing else to do we head to Sam Mountain for sunset. We arrive at the town where Sam Mountain is located and have to pay to visit the Mountain. We buy the tickets and head off but stop less than 20m down the road. Ticket check! Really. Finally we head up the mountain but we have to stop half way up, the bus is overheating. However the bus does have an amazing reversing horn which plays a song! We get off to find the bus has a hole in radiator, the driver is busy putting bottled water into it and it was coming straight out the bottom! We decide to walk the rest of the way, we did underestimate how steep the hill was, but made it up a fraction behind the struggling bus. Finally reaching the top, we find the hammock bar, it does as it says on the tin - a bar with hammocks. It is great, swinging side to side admiring the scenic view. Definitely need a hammock [KB - and a beer!].
Saigon, capital of South Vietnam or also called Ho Chi Minh City. It is a large and fairly busy city but we feel safe walking round. We decide to visit the Rex Hotel roof top bar. The Rex hotel was famously where the US troops Officers' mess was based and where press releases where held during the war. It also has a giant light up crown on the roof. It is an excellent place for a cocktail whilst people/traffic watching - it is not cheap though.
The tour changes over in Saigon, so some people leave the tour and we get a new tour leader.
As we have a free day, we do a walking tour of the city. We visit the main sights, the Hotel De Ville, Opera house and small version of Notre Dame cathedral. Then we head for lunch at #19, this small seafood restaurant is where the journalists filed their reports during the war. The food is excellent.
On the way back we wandered through designer mall mingled with local handicraft shops and street sellers. The shops in this city are comparable to London, if not cleaner and bigger. We also see lots of locals sat on child sized, pre-school chairs on the streets drinking soft drinks to cool down - I suppose in the uk we'd call it al fresco.
Time to learn about the Vietnam war and visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. The 200 km of tunnels built outside Saigon by the Vietcon (the communist north) were used to survive living so close to the enemy and for attacks. We see the tiny entrances and have a go at fitting in [KB - one of us slips in, the other struggles with her lumpy jumper!]. The entrance's width is the same length as my foot.
We tried the everyday food of tapioca root, its been boiled to make it soft and it is bland. We see the horrific traps the Vietcon used to maim and kill soldiers of the south. Then we went down an enlarged tunnel designed for tourists to see what it was like underground. The tunnel is still tiny, a little bit of crawling is required and it's hot. Leaving the tunnels behind we visited the War Remnants museum in Saigon. This museum shows how Vietnam views the Vietnam war. It has some military aircraft, tanks and weapons in the front courtyard and then inside there are the graphically depicted horrors of war [KB - including a US chinook I challenged Stacey to fix. She failed]. Pictures of people hurt by Agent Orange - a chemical used to defoliate the jungle, including US soldiers and their children. Not a place to go if you are sensitive. [KB - Stacey is very anti America until I point out the museum is very one sided (maybe correctly some may argue). She hasn't watched any Vietnam films, so when we get home we are having a Apocalypse Now, Platoon, MASH and Forrest Gump extravaganza!].
It's lunchtime and we are off to try the local dish - Pho (pronounced 'fur'). It's a broth with noodles and meat and surprisingly good depending on the restaurant! We visited Pho 2000 which is famous for entertaining Bill Clinton a few years back when he was the first US president to visit after the war. His picture adorns most walls and the food is very good.
Another overnight train to Hoi An, this train journey is 17 hours. Not just overnight but half the day as well. Luckily this train does have compartments with 4 beds, lockable door, air conditioning and western style toilets. It is a relative good nights sleep. [KB - it's a great journey, both in comfort and social. The feat itself is pretty cool considering there is only one rail track, 1m wide (not standard I'm told), put in by the French in the mid 20th century. The whole thing runs very well, considering!]
In Hoi An we are staying on Cam Nam island which is about 5 mins walk from the town centre. Hoi An is a small town but it is very famous for its made-for-you trade. You can get everything made here, suits, handbags and shoes. After a short walk we picked 2 shops to have clothes and shoes made in. Sun Tailors is a family affair and they are really friendly. They have hundreds of catalogues to chose items and lots of different materials. They will even post back the stuff, great! Keith gets a suit, shirt and blazer and I get 2 dresses, blouse, trousers and a blazer made. From Kim Anh shoes I get a pair of comfortable sandals made and Keith has a pair of grey trainers. We have to go back tomorrow to try on everything.
After having so much fun at our Cambodian cooking class we decide to do a Vietnamese one too. It is a different setup, we are cooking a set menu together. Everyone has their own part to play chopping and mashing. We learn tips about the temperature of the oil for frying things and how to cook in banana leaf. The lady running the class learnt english from karaoke songs and therefore recites lines from songs, she's very good and it is very funny. Everybody helped cook: spring rolls, chicken soup, banana leaf cooked tuna and aubergine in clay pot, yum.
During our time in Hoi An we got to know two locals who owned little shops opposite the hotel. At Mrs Tonk's we got drinks in her little street bar and our washing got done at Mrs Honk's. Great names, nice ladies.
Our tour leader took us on a morning cycle ride around Cam Nam island. It was very beautiful cycling down small fishing village lanes and through fields of rice. On the way back we visited the beach. It was a gorgeous white sand beach with lots of people out in little round fishing boats. Here we had a coconut drink straight from the coconut. The drink was massive and very sweet. No time for a dip unfortunately, but I know we'll return here one day!
We had to cycle back quickly to Hoi An for clothes fittings. My stuff fitted great but Keith needed some alterations. We agree to come back later and they also invite us for family food of Cau Lau as they think Keith is very funny. On the way back, we have lunch in the Brothers Cafe in main Hoi An, this cafe has a great riverside garden which is beautifully landscaped it has a strong 'colonial' feel to it. There is also a wonderful water fountain. The food is good too.
Back at Sun Tailors we try Cau Lau - a broth with udon noodles, pork, wontons and fresh herbs. It is really good but hard to eat with chop sticks. The girls pack up the stuff to send home for us and they drop the top off at the hotel later - great service!