A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: neillkylie

Crawling ants to finding nemo

Krabi, Thailand to Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

sunny 30 °C

It was weird but also nice to see the group again at Khao Sok National Park and for the first few hours the conversations all revolved around what each of us had got up to during our ‘week off’. The accommodation in Khao Sok was rather cute with jungle huts perched high up on stilts overlooking the river, the dining area set out amongst the jungle trees and a cute guard by the name of Robert.
We spent the afternoon by the edge of the river enjoying a few beers, in the boy’s case climbing the rocks and cooling off in the clear water. A few fish were spotted to Neill’s delight so a couple of hours was spent trying to catch them but as Neill’s luck with fishing hasn’t been with him at all on the trip, why would he start now??
Being in the jungle is great during the day when you can see what’s around you but as night rolls in it’s a different story. Neill nearly stepped on 2 small snakes and a scorpion on his way back to the hut and we both spent the night flicking ants off us. It’s no fun trying to sleep when you have these small ants crawling amongst your bed and there’s nothing you can do about it when your bed it bolted to the wall. It was a horrible sleep.
The joys of going places in off peak season are always less tourists, you can get some great deals on accommodation and attractions and you never have to book at a restaurant. The down side for us at the National Park was that 7 out of the 10 sights were closed and restaurants only have limited food. The day that was planned to explore the park as we decided not to go anymore with limited sights open was spent enjoying a fantastic lunch (and we even pre-ordered for dinner so she would have enough food) and some internet research which worked out well as the rain poured down for a few hours in the afternoon.
Our next destination was Penang in Malaysia where we had a fantastic night market opposite our hotel, a few large shopping centres to wander around in and escape the rain and loads of hair dressers that it convinced us to get our hair cut which was game but it turned out ok. We went in search for dim sum again and we weren’t surprised when we couldn’t find any so we are giving up on this until we get back to Melbourne. It’s just not meant to be.
MAL10001_-..ge_Town.jpgClock Tower

Clock Tower

Beach time was back on the itinerary again and we made our way to Besut which was our jumping off point for the Perhentian Islands. We only had a night in Besut and just as well as there was nothing to do there apart from eat at the handful of restaurants that line the ugly waterfront area and purchase snacks from the few stores that open past 5pm. Needless to say we were glad to be leaving in the morning and making our way to the islands. We must admit it didn’t look that impressive as we were driving along but as the boat pulled in closer to the island we were staying on, the crystal clear water appeared and the soft water sand was calling.
The island only has 6 or so restaurants and a few resorts so it was a perfect place to chill, relax and enjoy the sunshine. The snorkelling was amazing as the water was so clear and we spotted turtles, white tipped sharks, lot’s of nemo’s, parrot fish, puffer fish, angel fish and the list goes on. The water was warm but refreshing, the sand was soft and the seafood was delicious....what more could you ask for?
We decided to be adventurous for a morning and trekked across to the other side of the island through the jungle, spotting monkeys, large monitor lizards, snakes and various birds but our best discovery was in the afternoon. We were watching the squirrels jumping between the branches when something above us caught our eye and we discovered flying squirrels amongst the trees. We watched them for ages and by luck, managed to get some great photos of them.
The trip is coming to an end and we only have 5 more days left with the group before heading off on our own to Singapore for a few days. We have Taman Negara National Park and Kuala Lumpur left to explore before we say goodbye to the group and hello to our new life in Australia

Posted by neillkylie 05:19 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Island Paradise

Kanchanaburi, Thailand to Krabi, Thailand

sunny 32 °C

Within the itinerary, a week is built in where we are able to do what we like amongst the fabulous Thailand Islands and with so many to choose from, it was hard to think of where to go. After reading up and friend recommendations, we decided to head to Ko Phi Phi and Railay which are both in the Krabi province with Taylor and Katie.

Our overnight bus from Bangkok was an experience and we were thankful to be the last stop as some heading for Ko Tao were dropped off at 3am on the side of the road with the only piece of information as to their end location being a small square sticker stuck on their shirt. They were assured a minivan will be along soon to pick them up.

Assuming isn’t something that should be done in Asia but its hard not to when you are told before departure ‘you’re on this bus until Krabi’ and then asked to vacate at Surat Thani and change buses. We did wonder if our journey down to Krabi which was 3 hours was going to be in the back of a ute as that was the transport that picked us up...but it was only our transfer to the next minivan.

We didn’t spend any time in Krabi and boarded our ferry to Ko Phi Phi and it was a rather nice sight when we pulled up to the beach front with the aqua blue water below. However what was annoying was the 20baht fee which tourists are now being charged so they can fix the pier (surely this should be fixed by the government to entice tourists to come?).
We already had somewhere booked so passed the many touts trying to get us to stay at their hotel, even telling us theirs was nicer without knowing where we were staying. But looking back now, they may have been right. What the internet says and shows is two different things when you are standing in front of the resort itself. Firstly they said that they had no reservations made for that day, our huts had air conditioning in them but we weren’t allowed to use them and the small fan did very little to circulate the air. The room itself was extremely small and hot so we made the decision to leave the place the next morning and find something cheaper – which there was plenty of. It was a shame as the website was so nice but it seemed that they had tried to put as many huts on a piece of land designed for half the amount.
We strolled around the town of Ko Phi Phi and with its numerous bars with expats handing out flyers to get you to come in; restaurants offering all sorts of deals and tourist shops selling the same tours at all different prices, we certainly weren’t going to run out of places to drink, eat and explore.
We opted for a full day snorkelling trip around Ko Phi Phi and Ko Phi Phi Leh which took us to various beaches and lagoons around the 2 islands including: monkey beach which as the name suggests is full of monkeys jumping in the tress, Viking Cave, a fantastic lagoon which was spectacular and something you see in magazine ad’s advertising island paradise resorts, Maya Beach where the movie The Beach was filmed (however is now overrun with tourists and looks different than the movie), Bamboo Island and Mosquito Island.
THI10142_-.._Island.jpgMonkeys at Monkey Island

Monkeys at Monkey Island

THI10157_-..hi_Phi_.jpgTHI10158_-..hi_Phi_.jpgThe Lagoon

The Lagoon

THI10164_-..hi_Phi_.jpgMaya Beach

Maya Beach

We explored more of the beaches over the next 2 days, climbed to the viewpoint overlooking the 2 bays of Ko Phi Phi and ate and drank our way around the island.
We decided to leave Taylor and Katie on Ko Phi Phi and head to Railay Beach for our last 4 days and although upon pulling up in the boat we thought we had made the wrong decision, it proved to be the right one. As the boat came around to drop us off the tidy was out with the mangrove trees covering the shoreline and no sand was in sight. Neither of us spoke whilst we walked to the hotel but we were both thinking.....what have we done by leaving Ko Phi Phi?

The morning proved us wrong and by walking across to West Railay and Ao Nang Beach the white sandy beach was beautiful. Railay was a lot quieter than Ko Phi Phi and more what we wanted. With only a dozen local restaurants, a couple of bars and very few tourists it was nice to chill and relax. It was also nice to have long stretches of beach with no restaurants or shops on them and where locals came to you selling barbequed corn, cold drinks or frozen ice cream.
THI10212_-..__Krabi.jpgTHI10250_-..__Krabi.jpgOur Resort

Our Resort

It has been such a relaxing week that it will be hard to pack up our stuff tomorrow and head back to Krabi to catch our transfer to Khao Sok National Park where we are meeting up with the group again. We’re sure everyone has had a great time relaxing and sure there will be lots of stories over the next few days of what everyone got up to.

Posted by neillkylie 01:21 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

Where is the heart and soul?

Siem Reap, Cambodia to Kanchanaburi, Thailand

sunny 32 °C

Bangkok is a place that most people really enjoy but for us we struggled to find the heart of the city. Maybe it’s because we were in the wrong area, maybe it’s because we didn’t do enough research or maybe we have just visited enough cities. Who knows but we were glad to leave after 4 nights.

We thought Bangkok was going to be extremely busy, flashing neon lights everywhere and chaos that was to the point of unbearable but we found it to be difficult to get around as the streets didn’t really match the map that we had; very spread out and apart from the backpacker area that we were in, Khao San Road we found very few other areas with restaurants and bars.
The first day we got scammed but without handing over any money, losing any of our belongings or being stranded in dodgy area we are still having trouble trying to figure out what happened. With plans to walk to China Town and find dim sum for lunch we ventured off from the hotel and as we stand out as tourists against a country full of Thai people, we pulled the map out to emphasis the point even more to try and figure out where we were.

It was then that we were approached by a Thai gentleman who helped us figure out where we were and then all our plans changed. He started telling us that it was a special day as today was Buddha Day and the government were subsiding tuk tuk drivers who drove tourists around visiting all the sites for only 20 baht (60 cents). On this tour we would visit various Wat’s and temples which included the standing Buddha, the sitting Buddha, the lucky Buddha and the Royal Palace and all of these would be free today. The tuk tuk’s that we needed to look out for were the ones with the Thailand flag and the government flag so we thought why not and as we walked away, one appeared from around the corner.

We first visited the Lucky Buddha which we thought was appropriate as it seemed to be our lucky before moving on and in true tuk tuk style, being taken to a Tailor shop where we were showered with suit and dress brochures. We needed to make a decision within the next hour as they were closing so explained that we didn’t have the measurements for our groomsmen who were in London so politely walked out. Next it was the jeweller’s with fake silver rings as some of them were scratched with the black being visible underneath.
Thinking we were going to another temple, we pulled in next to a travel agent where all sorts of tours could be booked but with not knowing what we wanted to see, we asked for a card and left. Hurrah we finally pulled into a Wat where we explored the Standing Buddha and it was here that we realised our tuk tuk driver had abandoned us. We circled the Wat 2 times before realising he had left so made our way to the palace by foot. We couldn’t work out what had happened but maybe it was the fact that we didn’t purchase a $300 suit, a $3,500 ring or a day tour that we didn’t want so his commission was 0. We didn’t pay for the tuk tuk either so essentially we got a ride around the city for free. We noticed a few days later that the same spiel was being given to other tourists so it was a scam but we are still confused as to what we lost.
In true Pete style whilst we enjoyed a casual drink, he ducked off and purchased a bag of what we would normally call insects but to the Thai people are delicious snacks - worms, Christmas beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, frogs and a rather large flying insect of some sort. The bag was mixed up and it was a lucky dip as to what you pulled out and ate. Neill ended up with a grasshopper which tasted like crispy potato skins and Kylie ended up with a white worm which was swallowed like a tablet and not chewed. She couldn’t stomach trying it and after constantly refusing, took a mouth full of water, stuck the worm and gulped it down. Ben put on a great performance of not trying one and whilst ‘enjoying’ his half worm with Heather, Pete poured the remaining bag over his head. He moved to quickly for the cameras and all we ended up with is a blur of Ben. The night ended with us listening to some great live music at a bar on Khao San Road and enjoying delicious spring rolls from the street stalls on the way home.


P1050100.jpgBen in a blur...

Ben in a blur...

We made our way to China Town the next day but it wasn’t anything other China Town’s that we have visited. Hardly any restaurants were around and those few that were, were extremely expensive, the markets that they mention in the book either sold fabric, hair clips or Indian clothes which most tourists probably wouldn’t want and not a dim sum restaurant in sight. We were told by a couple of locals that China Town only really comes alive at night when one of the roads is closed off to traffic and is replaced with street stalls so I guess we came at the wrong time. With our expectations shot, we headed to the Siam Square for some retail therapy.
P1050115.jpgP1050120.jpgP1050121.jpg4P1050124.jpgWe finally replaced Neill's Marvin the Martin thongs (flip flop's for you english people)

We finally replaced Neill's Marvin the Martin thongs (flip flop's for you english people)

We spent the morning of our last day on the Chao Phraya River cruising up and down and viewing the sights from a different angle and explored Wat Arun which is probably one of the most interesting Wats we have seen. The whole monument is covered in colourful floral mosaic tiles with the main stupa standing 82m high. We climbed to the top which we thought was bad until we realised that we needed to get back down again which proved to be even more difficult than it looked.
We spent our last afternoon exploring Khao San Road and wandering around the market stalls before leaving Bangkok and heading up to Kanchanaburi where the Japanese ran a POW camp in WWII and where the famous bridge of the River Kwai is.
We had a couple of days here to chill and explore and chill we did indeed. It was nice to be somewhere that peaceful with greenery visible when you looked out your window. We wandered across the River Kwai Bridge and with it's gapping holes on the sides, it was a rather scary place to be when dozens of school kids were pushing you and trying to squeeze passed. We strolled through the small town, visited the Chinese Temple and explored the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery where nearly 7,000 allied prisoners that perished during the construction of the 'Death Railway' are buried. Apart from that we ate some really great Thai meals, organised some weddings details, researched jobs and chilled.
A great way to spend a couple of days. Next we are heading off to Krabi to spend a week exploring the islands surrounding with Katie and Taylor as we have a week to do what we like...bring on the sand and the beach.

Posted by neillkylie 21:50 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

2 for 1 dollar

Phnom Phen, Cambodia to Siem Reap, Cambodia

sunny 30 °C

The Temples of Angkor have been on our list of places to visit for a long time so needless to say we were very excited when we finally arrived into Siem Reap and had 2 full days to explore as many as we could. We decided to go and see Angkor Wat for sunset but unfortunately the clouds came in so instead we explored a small amount of the complex before heading back and preparing ourselves for our 5.30am departure.
The temples span more than 600 years, starting in the 9th century and with each new Cambodian ‘God King’ came more temples and they strived to better their ancestors in size and scale which in the end caused the construction of the world’s largest religious building, Angkor Wat.

The temples surviving today are the skelton of the vast political, religious and social centre of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer Empire with a population of nearly 1 million. The houses, public buildings and palaces of Angkor are long gone as they were made from wood, as the structures of brick and stone were reserved for the gods only.

It was in the 15th century that Angkor was abandoned and left for the jungle to take over, which some of the temples have been left as they were found.

We spent 2 days at Angkor with the first day exploring Angkor Wat, Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom and Bayon by tuk tuk’s and a very informative guide which was actually to informative when we have no idea of all the kings that ruled and during what dynasty. An hour lecture on the history of Cambodia and Vietnam also wasn’t needed in the middle of the day.

The second day we decided to go it alone and hired push bikes to get us around and we had probably one of the best days on the trip so far. We re-visited Bayon and Ta Prohm which are our favourites and also explored Ta Keo, Ta Som and Preah Khan.
Angkor Wat was built in 12th century which is the largest monument at Angkor and believed to be the largest religious structure in the world, holding 1 million people which served as a temple and a tomb. The structure of Angkor Wat covering 9 hectares, involved 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants and has more than 3,000 apsaras (goddesses) carved into the walls, each of them unique.
The monkeys jumping around the back of Angkor Wat caught our attention for a little while and they were not on the cute and cuddly side. They knew if you had food in your bag and in Taylor’s case jumped up to his shoulder where he was holding the bag out of reach and ripped the plastic bag apart. The monkey then grabbed their peanut butter sandwiches and devoured them in a few minutes.
P1040851.jpgP1040858.jpgP1040861.jpgBanteay Kdei was a Buddhist monastery built in the 12th century, which is believed to have been built over another temple. The temple was never really finished and due to a rather relaxed attitude when building, the monastery is now mostly in ruins.
Apart from Angkor Wat, the other famous temple is Ta Prohm, the one used in the movie Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie one of our favourite temples. Ta Prohm was a Buddhist temple dedicated to the mother of King Jayavarman VII and one of the few temples where an inscription provides information about the temples dependants and inhabitants.

Unlike other temples of Angkor, Ta Prohm has been swallowed by the jungle and looks like how most of the temples appeared when first discovered. Large parts of the temples have been turned into ruins because of the trees roots which are 300 years old. The silk cotton and strangler fig trees start in a crevice as a seed and extend their roots downwards to the soil. Because of this, the roots work their way through the stones causing them to collapse which is evident around the temple. It was extremely weird to see trees growing on top of the temples and this is one place which shows the power of the jungle.
We also visited The Terrace of the Leper King which is another of Angkor’s mysteries as to what its purpose was, The Terrace of Elephants which was used as a viewing stand for public ceremonies and Baphuon, a massive 5 tiered pyramid temple all of which are within Angkor Thom’s complex.
Another of our favourite temples was Bayon which also sits within the city of Angkor Thom and is a temple with narrow corridors, steep flights of stairs and 37 gothic towers with large faces of King Jayavarman VII carved out. Originally 54 towers were built, each with 4 faces but now some only have 2 or 3 faces. The faces were carved to show power and control and from every angle at least a dozen are visible at any one time. The exact function and symbolism of Bayon are still a mystery, especially with its location in the centre of Angkor Thom.
We have experienced some very good selling techniques on our journey but we must say Angkor Wat has topped the list and had us baffled at times with what 3 to 7 years old kids were saying, trying to convince us to purchase things. On the other hand, most were extremely annoying with a repetitive saying of ‘2 for one dollar, just 2 for one dollar’. This saying was though very drawn out and lengthened to emphasis the fact of the word dollar. Everything seemed to be 2 for one dollar. ‘Lady...you buy a bracelet? No thank you I don’t want one. Ok then you buy 2’; 'Lady...you buy a scarf? No I have no money. Ok then you borrow from your husband, he don’t mind’; ‘Mister...you know how to play naughts and crosses? Yes. Ok we play, you lose, you buy’

We could have spent a few more days there, exploring the rest of the temples and taking our time as the afternoon heat was just too much but the 2 days that we had there, we fantastic. Now off to Bangkok....

Posted by neillkylie 22:02 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Neill returns

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia

sunny 34 °C

Cambodia has been on our list of countries to visit for a long time so it was great to finally arrive although it was rather a depressing start.
Our journey from Saigon was shorter than expected so we arrived into Phnom Penh with the afternoon free however the heavens opened up and kept us indoors. Pete informed us that this should only last 45 minute’s however 3 hours later the monsoon rain was still teaming down.

Cambodia is still recovering from the devastation that was caused by Pol Pot in 1975 and we spent the day trying to understand what the country went through during that time visiting the S-21 prison and the Killing Fields by tuk tuk. The Khmer Rouge run by Pol Pot marched into Phnom Penh on 17th April 1975 and took over the capital, forcing everyone to evacuate and head to the countryside to work as slaves. His goal was to turn Cambodia into a peasant-dominated country. Within 3 days, the 2 million residents of Phnom Penh and surrounding areas had left, leaving Phnom Penh as a ghost town.

Pol Pot turned Tuol Svay Prey High School into Security Prison 21 (S-21) which today is known as the Tuol Sleng Museum. S-21 was a place of interrogation and torture where the vast majority of the capitals educated residents were tortured. The Khmer Rouge felt threaten by them and if they weren’t found with their families, they were tortured until they revealed their location. Within the 4 years more than 18,000 people passed through the prison and once the location of family members were given, they were then taken to the killing field of Choeung Ek blind folded. Class rooms with a bed, a toilet pot, shackles and a food bowl were located on the ground floor and used as the torture rooms with blood stains still visible in some. Other class rooms were turned into cell blocks with each cell measuring 1m x 1.5m and it wasn’t uncommon for the prisoners to die in these cells from starvation.
P1040685.jpgP1040690.jpgP1040691.jpgP1040703.jpgCell blocks

Cell blocks

Men were kept on the ground floor whilst women and children were kept on the floors above. No one escaped from the prison and only 7 people survived, with 4 people still alive today. They used their skills of painting or photography to stay alive. The classrooms are now covered in photographers of those that were killed after leaving S-21, instruments that were used for torture and the torture rooms as they were found. As the Vietnamese were closing in on the city, 14 prisoners were killed and it wasn’t until 2 weeks later that the High School was searched and this was only because of the smell coming from the decaying bodies. Everyone that passed through S-21 were photographed and labelled which is how the museum has been able to identity people today.
The last 7 survivors

The last 7 survivors

The last 14 prisoners

The last 14 prisoners

From S-21 the prisoners were transported to the extermination camp of Choeung Ek or the Killing Fields which it’s called today. 383 killing fields are located across Cambodia, but this one just outside of Phnom Penh is the biggest. 129 mass graves are here with 43 of them still left untouched. Most of the executions were done from tools such as shackles, leg irons, hatchets, knifes, hoes and shovels as they did not want to waste precious bullets. Prior to 1975, the area was an orchard and a Chinese cemetery with some gravestones still visible.
P1040716.jpgP1040732.jpgP1040733.jpgMass grave of 166 people

Mass grave of 166 people

In 1980 nearly 9,000 people were exhumed from these graves and their skulls and bones that were found are now displayed in the Memorial Stupa for people to remember them.

Mass graves were found, one containing 166 bodies without heads which is believed to be high ranking officials from the Khmer Rouge as they were still in their uniform and another containing 100 women and children who were naked. Babies were killed by bashing them against a tree and then thrown into a grave nearby. Due to the floods, pieces of human bones and clothing emerge every year and whilst walking on the paths which we were told to stick to, bones and clothing we visible through the dirt and grass. It was a very eerie feeling. When the Vietnamese finally took over the country, half of the population had been killed and it’s thought that every family has been affected by it.
The Killing Tree

The Killing Tree

It was a very heavy morning and a lot to think about especially since it happened only 30 years ago so most of us just chilled in the afternoon before heading off to the Foreign Correspondence Club to celebrate Simon’s 50th Birthday.
P1040760.jpgBen enjoying his creme brulee

Ben enjoying his creme brulee

Kaye, Kylie, Taylor and Katie

Kaye, Kylie, Taylor and Katie

Kylie with the birthday boy

Kylie with the birthday boy

With Neill in Australia for one more day, it was decided that the morning would be spent exploring the Russian market where I must admit only a few purchases were made despite there being so much to buy.

Neill arrived back safely and the best thing was that he brought some treats from home in terms of food and an empty backpacker for us to fill over the next 5 weeks.
We explored the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda in the morning but unfortunately a few of the temples were closed due to the Slovakian President’s arrival in the afternoon. The Royal Palace still serves as the residence of the King and was first built in 1866 but most of what is seen today is from the 1920’s when the wooden structures were replaced by cement buildings.
IMG_8830_-_Copy.jpgIMG_8833_-_Copy.jpgIMG_8838_-_Copy.jpgModel of Angkor Wat

Model of Angkor Wat

The Silver Pagoda is named after the floor, as it’s covered in over 5,000 silver tiles which are mostly covered up apart from a small section at the entrance for visitors to view. The structure of the Silver Pagoda was preserved by the Khmer Rouge however, the half of its contents were destroyed.
The various wat’s and temples within the complex are surrounded by lush gardens and leafy havens but on closer inspection, the flowers are fake which we found rather amusing. Some of the temples that we were allowed into were the Preah Tineang or otherwise called the Throne Hall which is topped by a 59m high tower which was inspired by the Bayon at Angkor Wat. The hall is used for coronations and ceremonies and unfortunately many of the items once displayed were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.
P1040785.jpgIMG_8818_-_Copy.jpgThe Throne Hall

The Throne Hall

We wandered up to view Wat Phnom which is set on top of the only hill in Phnom Penh and is surrounded by fat Buddha monkeys. Some of them had trouble moving, let alone running which they tried when the sight of food was seen. They knew exactly how to peel a banana and what parts of the sugar cane to eat.
For dinner we headed to a restaurant called Friends which is a charity run restaurant which helps children stay off the street by helping them with schooling, finding jobs and providing them with housing. The chef's are all street children that have been trained within the restaurant and we must say the food was fantastic. Honey and garlic meatballs with plum sauce; zucchini, aubergine and pepper spring rolls; Khmer steamed fish wrapped in banana leave and the best was last - chocolate and banana spring rolls. All of that was accompained by pineapple and chilli margarita's and raspberry and lime daiquiri.

Posted by neillkylie 00:43 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

And we thought Hue was scooter crazy

Jungle Beach, Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

sunny 0 °C

The definition for a scooter is a mode of transport carrying 1 to 2 people with limited storage under the seat for purchases but we believe that the Vietnamese have confused the definition with that of a car which can hold up to 5 people and has a boot for large objects. We now know why no one else is allowed to drive in Vietnam from other countries and why Calypso wouldn’t have been allowed in – we would be in an accident. They are crazy drivers not caring which side of the road they are on, cutting across oncoming traffic, squeezing through any gap possible and simple taking up the whole road. We thought Hue had a lot of scooters but it’s nothing compared to Ho Chi Minh City.
We wanted to understand the Vietnam War a little better so we headed out to the Cu Chi Tunnels, by-passing the Cao Dai Great Temple for a day. Cao Dai is a religion established in 1926 that is based on Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism and grew rapidly in the 1930’s due to its emphasis on simplicity, appealing to disaffected peasants. The temple itself was built in 1933 and has been described as a Walt Disney fantasia of the east, dragons and snakes in technicolour which does make sense. Inside the temple are numerous pink pillars entwined by green dragons and the ceiling is covered in silver stars. We stayed to watch the noon prayer session which was very different than anything we have seen whereby they enter the temple, sit down in identical rows and pray while singing.
We made our way onto the Cu Chi Tunnels which is a winding maze of tunnels, totalling 250km’s used by the Vietnamese to hide from the American’s during the war. The tunnels at stages were 10 meters deep with 3 different levels and had rooms for storage, kitchens, weapons factories and command centres. This allowed the Vietnamese to control the area and make surprise attacks as they could disappear suddenly into hidden trapdoors. Due to the large number of American casualties, the Americans resorted to massive firepower, turning Cu Chi into the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare.
The tiny trap door holes

The tiny trap door holes

Tiger Trap

Tiger Trap

The tunnels have been doubled in size to fit westerns climbing through, but at one point we both struggled and the only way to get through was to sit on your bum and shuffle yourself forward. The rest of the tunnel you needed to walk hunched over so we can’t imagine what it was like half the size but then the Vietnamese people are very small and skinny.
Inside the tunnels

Inside the tunnels

Our drive back to the city gave us plenty of time to scooter watch and it was amazing to see what people carried on their scooters or how many they tried to fit on. Plasma screen TV’s, dead chickens, pigs, pipes and a spiral staircase.
But sometimes they crash

But sometimes they crash

We spent the next day exploring the War Remnants Museum which details some of the devastation that was caused by the American’s during the war, the weapons used and the photograph’s taken by photographers at the time. Stories of how the Vietnamese people survived and tortured were listed all around and how towns and cities ended up after the bombing ceased. During the Vietnamese War that lasted 17 years and 2 months, 3 million Vietnamese people were killed; 2 million injured and 300,000 people went missing. 14 million tonnes of bombs and artillery shells were dropped by the Americans, costing them $676 billion.
After a depressing morning we strolled around the city exploring various other buildings, markets and back alley streets before heading back to the hotel, packing Neill’s bag’s and setting him off in a cab to the airport. His off to Australia to validate his migration visa so let’s hope there are no problems and all is good when he returns in 5 days.
Vietnam's version of Notre Dame

Vietnam's version of Notre Dame

City Hall

City Hall

Wire city

Wire city

Our time in Vietnam has been short and we’ll definitely come back to explore further north but tomorrow we are off to a new country, Cambodia where we are back to normal currency as they use the US$ and we can finally get rid of these 100,000 and 500,000 notes.

Posted by neillkylie 22:09 Archived in Vietnam Comments (6)

Tailor Made and Relaxation

Hoi An, Vietnam to Jungle Beach, Vietnam

sunny 35 °C

Hoi An is one place that we are definitely returning to in the future but next time we will bring an empty suitcase with us! Tailor made clothes with choices from either sample’s hanging up to UK store catalogues, shoes galore which are ready in 2 hours, fantastic food and beautiful bamboo souvenir’s. We spent a lot of time shopping to the point that we needed to visit the post office to ship the stuff home as our bags were already full.

The main attraction in Hoi An is getting clothes and shoes made for you. Nearly every second shop is a tailor or a shoe maker so you didn’t need to go far to find one but if you were having trouble, they also found you. We explored the streets once we arrived as we heard that if you want something made, the more time you give them the better so we headed down towards the town and explored a couple of shops on the way although we had no idea how any of this worked. Nothing really stood out on our way down and then it all seemed over as we discovered the market area selling wine stands, bamboo bowls, chop stick sets, place mats, hammocks, serving platters and lanterns. Wow.....Christmas shopping here we come but it would have to wait for another day as the heat was getting to us and the pool at the hotel was calling.
On our way back Katie spotted a dress she had seen early and thought ‘why not let’s go try it on’ and then it began. A few samples were hanging in the entrance of the store but the piles of gossip magazines, fashion magazines and shop catalogues was really where you got your ideas from. As we were virgins to this tailor making business, we decided to just stick to the samples hanging up. As Katie tried hers on, I browsed the racks of material available and after finding a piece, all I needed now was a dress. With Taylor being bored by the girls shopping, he started to browse the Next catalogue and ended up walking out of the shop with a pair of shorts and a white linen shirt being made. ‘Come back tomorrow’ was what we were told and all would be ready.

The next morning we spent the day sweltering around My Son which is a complex of ancient ruins within the jungle, dating back to the 4th century. It was the most important intellectual and religious centre of its time and was constantly occupied until the 13th century. After this time it was left abandoned and only 20 of the structures survived the American bombings, with traces of 68 being found.
We spent the afternoon exploring the shops for clothes to be made and as normal, Neill came away without anything being made but it was a different story for Kylie. Lots of dresses! We decided to sample some of the local cuisine for dinner and opted for a tasting menu – white rose, Vietnamese pancakes, cau lou, spring rolls and fried wonton’s – and all for £2.
We continued our Master Chef experience and spent the morning on a Vietnamese cooking course where we cruised along the Thu Bon River to Thuan Tinh Island where our cooking course would be based. Part of the course also involved a Magic Table which mysteriously moved left or right when spoken to, both verbally and through thought. Of course this all seemed very unrealistic and with 5 pairs of hands on top of the table and speaking the words ‘left’ or ‘right’, we thought someone was pushing it in the direction it needed to go. We were then told to turn our palms upside down and Kay was picked to think of the direction she wanted the table to turn without telling us and it moved.
It was now our turn individually to try our powers and Kylie, Taylor and Kay managed to move the table in the direction they wanted it to go but Katie and Neill has no powers. With the help of Taylor’s hands on Neill’s the table moved but once removed, stopped abruptly. It’s still very weird and we are having trouble trying to figure out if it’s magical or if there is a remote control somewhere.
The next part of the tour involved an unsteady low boat through the water coconut trees to our Ms Hoa’s home where we drank iced tea and snacked on rice crackers. A lovely old man swinging in his hammock above his bed gave up his fan for us and being 84 we felt rather guilty but he had a great sense of humour and was just lovely.
With fields of morning glory all throughout Vietnam, it was great to see that we were going to be using it in our cooking and the best part was that we got to pick it ourselves before heading back to start our cooking.
Our cooking started off with de-husking our own rice and making rice flour for our pancakes and with such hard work going into de-husking rice, it’s crazy to see why it’s so cheap but I guess the factories have an easier way. The rice needs to be crushed 3 times to crack the husks so the rice falls out and the boys did good but it’s definitely a woman’s job as once Kylie got the hang of it, there was no stopping her spinning that contraption (apart from the fact that her arms were dying).
The rice is then sieved through 3 different bamboo baskets and the remaining husks left are removed by hand. It was then time to do this all over again but in a different machine, adding water to the rice which was then crushed into a smooth paste for our batter.
With our cooking tables overlooking the water coconut trees, we had the perfect setting to watch, learn and practice our dishes from Ms Hoa – Vietnamese salad rolls, Vietnamese coconut crepes with pork and shrimps and chicken stir with lemon grass and chilli. The salad rolls were amazing, the crepes all managed to be flipped successfully apart from Kay’s ending up on the floor and the chicken stir came with garlic morning glory. The food was fantastic, the passionfruit juice flowed all day and the best part was that everything was cropped up and the dishes were done by some else.
Ms Hoa

Ms Hoa

Vietnamese Salad Rolls

Vietnamese Salad Rolls

Vietnamese Coconut Crepes

Vietnamese Coconut Crepes

IMG_8555.jpgChicken stir fry with lemon grass and chilli

Chicken stir fry with lemon grass and chilli

With our stomachs full, the best thing to do was to go shopping and shopping we did. Bamboo bowls, bamboo plates, wine stands, place mats, dresses and ties. Boy this is a great place to shop and we’ll definitely be returning.
P1040463.jpgP1040465.jpgHoi An by night

Hoi An by night

After 2 full days of activities and shopping, it was nice to get to Jungle Beach and relax for 2 days with nothing to do but turn up on time for breakfast, lunch and dinner and sun bathe.
P1040525.jpgP1040524.jpgOur hut

Our hut

The setting was rather spectacular with our bamboo huts being surrounded by palm trees, the beach only a few metres from our huts, the water was crystal clear and the food was fantastic. We swam, ate, relaxed, sun bathed, relaxed, ate, read, drank and swam. Basically we did very little and with the sea being like a warm bath it was a great escape from the heat.
P1040504.jpgBen and his sand castle

Ben and his sand castle

Night swimming seemed to be popular and why not when you have amazing phosphorescence in the water lighting up the area you were swimming in. Names for movements to get the most lighting was created such as ‘feet on fire’, ‘playing the piano’, ‘blender’ and Roberta’s favourite ‘doggy style’

It was a fantastic and relaxing 2 days which we needed and has geared us up for the chaotic ciaos that awaits us in Ho Chi Minh City or what use to be known as Saigon.

Posted by neillkylie 10:18 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Scooter Madness

Vietiane, Laos to Hue, Vietnam

sunny 33 °C

We took a longboat down the Nam Hin Bun River to the guest house which was about an hour away and after Kylie’s last ride on one to the elephants, it was going to be a long hour however; the faster they went the more stable they became so it wasn’t too bad.
The scenery to the guesthouse was stunning passing village’s, local’s going about their daily lives, water buffalo strolling around and other longboats cruising up and down the river.
We spent two amazing days in the Phu Hin Bun National Park where ‘back to basic’s’ applied. Our accommodation was thatched bamboo huts with numerous holes in the walls and roof so the only protection that we had was a mosquito net from the creepy crawlies which also had holes in it.
Our guesthouse

Our guesthouse

The reason for us staying at the guesthouse was so that we can explore the Tham Kong Lo Caves, a 7km tunnel where the river passes through the limestone mountain and over the years have caused stalagmites and stalactites. The journey through the cave was incredible and thinking that they would be small and enclosed, they were actually massive and at some points 100m wide and almost as high. Our driver steered us through at a gentle pace avoiding rocks, branches and the falling water from the ceiling but as he pulled up to join the rest of the group, managed the park our longboat right underneath exactly where Kylie was sitting.
It was here that we got to witness half naked Laos guys as without us knowing why, all our drivers striped down to their undies and started tugging on something in the water which turned out to be a large rock. This was rather amusing as they were fighting the current but at the same time, trying to move the rock so that we could get passed.
Entrance to the Caves

Entrance to the Caves

Kirsten, Katie and Taylor

Kirsten, Katie and Taylor

We had lunch once we came out the other side before turning around and heading back the same way but at a bit faster pace this time which at times proved to be a bit scary as the guides head torch was running out of battery.

We spent the afternoon hopping in and out of the river to cool down before torrential rain kept us indoors for about an hour. We enjoyed one of our best meals on the trip for dinner – stuffed steamed fish wrapped in banana leave and stir fried ginger chicken with steamed rice. Who would have thought that an out of way little guesthouse could serve great food.
Neill, Taylor, Katie and Ben

Neill, Taylor, Katie and Ben

From the guesthouse we made our way to Savannakhet which was a stop over town for the night so that we could get an early start the next morning and head to the Vietnamese border. Possible the easiest border we have although we did have to pay $1 for them to process our visa, after we had already paid $50 for the visa itself. Guess that goes straight in the pocket!

Hue is our first destination in Vietnam and the first thing we noticed when pulling in is that there must be 100 scooters / bikes to each car or truck. It’s crazy...not only are the roads full of scooters not bothering to follow the traffic lights but also bikes transporting large cupboards, obviously there is no easier way. There is also no easy way to cross the road and you just have to go and hope that the scooters go around you as pedestrian crossing’s are everywhere but they don’t stop.
We enjoyed a cruise along the Song Huong or otherwise known as the Perfume River, stopping off to see a performance of Kung Fu which was pretty amazing and then further along the river, stopping to explore the Thien Mu Pagoda (Heavenly Lady Pagoda) which is one of the oldest religious buildings in Vietnam.
Our last stop on the boat was to explore the Tomb of Minh Mang who ruled from 1820 to 1840. With numerous temples, buildings and lakes to explore we spent some time wandering around searching for the tomb of the emperor. It’s not known where he is buried as the Vietnamese have a believe that if the body is cut up, then that person will not be able to go onto the next life. Minh Mang had many enemies and if they knew where he was buried, they would cut it into pieces.
Pete had finally joined us after being stuck in Lhasa for just over 3 weeks so we had a fantastic ‘welcome back’ party in the DMZ Bar complete with pool tables, cheap drinks, cheesy music, the all famous Odyssey Blue Cocktail and our contribution to the graffiti on the wall...
Our last day in Hue was spent exploring the Imperial City which had until recently been left to fade away which is a shame as the complex covers some 10km’s square and is a predominate feature of Hue. It was heavily bombed by the American’s but restoration is now taking place to bring it back to life. Within the Imperial City lies the Forbidden Purple City which served as the private life of the emperor. Much of the grounds have been left unattended but the buildings that have remained were pretty impressive. We stayed out as long as we could as the humidity was around 85% with the temperature reaching 35c and with the sweat dripping down our backs and legs we retreated to the air conditioned hotel room for the afternoon.
Tomorrow we are off to Hoi An for some more city action and then onto Jungle Beach, our first proper beach on the trip with bamboo hut’s facing out to the beach. Paradise....

Posted by neillkylie 11:22 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Health and safety doesn't exist!

Luang Prabang, Laos to Vientiane, Laos

sunny 32 °C

Vang Vieng is one town that we pulled into and were instantly like ‘why would anyone want to spend more than one day here’ but as we were leaving we wished we had some more time.

The town is overrun with backpackers – something we aren’t use to yet – English menu’s, flat screen TV’s with re-run’s of Friends and Family Guy, numerous bars and as many t-shirt shop’s as restaurants. The main thing to do in Vang Vieng is bar hop your way down the Nam Song River whilst steering an inflatable tube which is against all health and safety rules that nearly every other country would have in place. Alcohol and water shouldn’t be mixed but we gave it a go anyway as that’s what we came for.
As we left the hotel for breakfast, the clouds had covered the mountains and the rain was heavy. We were going to get wet on the tubes so we still decided to go, although lost a few others due to the fact ‘that they would get wet’ so we were now down to 8 of us.

The tubes were thrown on the roof of the tuk tuk and we were taken down stream to our first bar – one of many along the river. We decided to experience the tubing first so we skipped the first bar and headed onto the second but as the platform was approaching, it then dawned on us that we had no idea how to stop these things. Ropes were thrown from all angles with empty bottles on the end however Katie managed to miss this and ended up towards the end of the bar.
We wandered what we had got ourselves into when we looked around the bar and saw drunken Aussie’s, Brit’s and Kiwi’s but we managed to slip into the thick of things pretty quickly with local whiskey buckets and free snake whiskey. Bar 3 we had to ourselves before moving onto bar 4 where a flying fox was the main attraction and ‘beer pong’.
We cruised down the river with Ben losing his glasses – great place for this to happen - and ended up at the Mud Bar which is exactly what the name suggests – mud volleyball and mud wrestling. Oh what fun!!!
Katie, Taylor, Kirsten, Heather, Ben, Kaye and Neill

Katie, Taylor, Kirsten, Heather, Ben, Kaye and Neill

With time ticking by, we made our way to the last bar where the slide and cheesy music were the main focus. Thinking that the town was only around the corner, we left the bar and made our way to the finish point, only to be faced with a sign saying 2km to go but no sign saying where to get out so some of us stopped at the island and some of us cruised down trying to stop where ever they could. Now we know why people stay here for more than one day!
Vientiane, the capital of Laos was our next destination and it felt very much like a chilled out tropical town with dozens of temples dotted around the place, coffee shops dotted here and there and plenty of places to eat.

We enjoyed a day of cultural sightseeing in a tuk tuk and although some had opted for push bikes to ride out to the Buddha Park which was 25km away, we were very happy with our choice of transport.

We visited Wat Si Saket which is a Buddhist Wat and possible the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane as it was spared from the ‘Sacking of Vientiane’ in 1828 because of its Bangkok design. Our next stop was the Patuxai or know as Vientiane’s Arc de Triomphe. It was built to commemorate the Lao who died in the pre-revolutionary wars and was made from cement donated by the USA for the construction of an airport.
Pha That Luang or the Golden Stupa is Laos national monument and a symbol of Buddhist religion. The golden stupa that is seen today was built in 1931 as the one previously had been destroyed by treasure seekers. The stupa stands 45m tall and it wasn’t until we were standing virtually underneath it that it seemed that high. Opposite the stupa was a beautifully decorated Wat which is probably the most colourful one that we have seen so far. The pictures inside the open-air lounge were stunning.
Our last stop on our tuk tuk adventure was the Buddha Park which was miles outside of town and we weren’t surprised to see the cyclists on our way there and even on our way back although they did make it there in the end. It was worth the drive and as the name suggests, the area is full of Buddha statues of various shapes and sizes with additional heads, arms and feet and all sorts of weird things.
IMG_8126.jpgIMG_8127.jpgIMG_8152.jpgIMG_8140.jpgIMG_8155.jpgIMG_8161.jpgNeill, Taylor and Katie

Neill, Taylor and Katie

With Vientiane being the capital city, you were just about able to get everything here, even Vegemite but it had a nice price attached to it to. We also managed to track down a bowling alley for the night’s entertainment complete with very shining and slippery floors which Neill ended up on on his first go and now had a massive lump just under his knee which is turning black as the days go on.

Our remaining time in Vientiane was spent researching and booking our flights home from Singapore, lounging by the side of a pool which was superb, enjoying fantastic food and watching the sunset which has been the best we have seen so far.

Posted by neillkylie 03:06 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

Master Chef's

Luang Nma Tha, Laos to Luang Prabang, Laos

semi-overcast 27 °C

With the recent rain and change in weather that this part of the world has been receiving, sections of the road on our way to Nong Khiaw had been blocked by landslides or turned into mud pits. The drive took longer than usual but the scenery was stunning and it didn’t stop until we pulled in to Nong Khiaw and we realised what a magnificent place we were going to be spending the next 2 nights in. Huge jungle covered mountains with the Nam Ou River running below was our view from our thatched huts complete with balcony and hammock. It was so picturesque that it was hard to believe we were here.
Our bungalows

Our bungalows

We did very little with our time in Nong Khiaw but relax, go for a few walks, eat some great food and stare at the scenery. We had re-discovered our love for ‘morning glory’ which is similar to spinach and it has been present in every meal so far and surprisingly we are not getting sick of Lao food, only finding we can’t get enough of it.
Fighting Chickens

Fighting Chickens

Our main reason for heading to Nong Khiaw was to take a slow boat down to Luang Prabang along the Nam Ou River. With 10 of us to a boat and our luggage at either end, the boats sat rather low to the river level and cruised casually along with the whole journey taking just under 6 hours.
We stopped off at the Pak Ou Caves where 2 caves in the lower cliffs house around 4,000 Buddha statues which have been placed here by worshippers. Most of the statues have been carved from wood or moulded from a tree resin, then coated and covered with gold leave. Many of the statues date from the 18th to the 20th century.
Pak Ou Caves

Pak Ou Caves

The boat was comfortable at the start but the thin cushions became non-existent after a while and most of us had numb bums as we pulled into Luang Prabang. It was a short tuk tuk ride to our hotel before we ventured down to the main street and explored the night market, full of handicrafts and street food. Our stomachs were grumbling so opted for food first and then shopping and in some way we had made the right decision. As we were enjoying our grilled fish and random salads / vegetables the heaven’s opened up and neither of us had seen rain like it. It lasted for about 45 minutes and there was no letting up in between for us to make a run for it so we sat it out on top of the tables as the back splash was so forceful that even though we were under cover, we were getting soaked from the feet up. Guess this is what we have to look forward to for the next couple of months as we are following monsoon weather. By the time the rain had eased a little to escape, the shopping stalls had packed up so the next best thing was to sit in a bar and watch the rain trickle down.
Neill’s birthday gift from the group was a Laos cooking course so we headed off to the market where Caroline gave us a run down on the different types of vegetables that are used in common Laos dishes, even tasting some of them which were extremely bitter to sweet and sour. A lot of the same ingredients are used in most dishes and it’s mainly the spices that change the flavour. After talking to us about vegetables, bamboo and mushrooms we headed in further to the market to taste test some local savoury and sweet snacks – marinated mushrooms, buffalo skin, caramelised biscuits and various sauces. The cooking course was located outside Luang Prabang and our location for the next few hours was magical. The cooking tables had been set up under a bamboo thatched hut with a lotus pond behind and their herb garden in front.
The ingredients were all laid out on the main table and most of them we knew apart from a couple which were explained throughout the day. Sticky rice was the first thing we learnt how to cook and whilst it was cooking, we started work on our dip called Jeow Mak Keus or otherwise known to us as Aubergine Dip which is very similar to buba ganoush but more spicy, or if your Neill extremely spicy as 2 small red chilli’s ended up in his.
The afternoon was spent making lemongrass stuffed chicken which was coated in egg and deep fried, a clear buffalo soup which was on the tough side and not one of our favourites and steamed fish wrapped in banana leave.
P1030910.jpgMaking Steamed Fish

Making Steamed Fish

Stuffed lemongrass with chicken

Stuffed lemongrass with chicken

The best thing was that once everything was ready we were able to sit down and enjoy our meal that we had prepared. Everything was fantastic apart from the soup which is probably something that we won’t make again. As we were enjoying our lunch, the chef’s were busy preparing our ingredients for our dessert which was purple sticky rice pudding with fresh local fruit.
We weren’t expecting a day like that at all as we thought we would be stuck in the back of a restaurant being shown how to cook the dishes and not actually cooking them so we left the course extremely happy and enjoyed the rest of the day strolling around the streets and wandering through the night market.
Night Market

Night Market

An elephant experience was on the agenda the next day for Kylie and a small group headed out to the drop off point where a long boat was waiting for us. Now this boat wasn’t exactly stable and proved to be the worst mode of transport Kylie has taken yet and one not wanting to be experienced again, however we’re not holding our breathes as it’s one of the most common boats around in Laos. Luckily the ride was only 10 minutes before we disembarked and headed up to where the elephants were waiting. We took a stroll through the jungle before heading back and walking through the waterfall. They are not the most graceful of animal’s and after a while the constant motion of them rocking you back and forth starts to wear thin but the best was yet to come.
Taylor and Katie

Taylor and Katie

Roberta and Heather

Roberta and Heather

Washing an elephant was something completely different and you have no control over them and what they do. They are rather big animals which means that they can hold their breath for a lot longer than us normal humans can so when they go under, you hope that they don’t stay down too long. Roberta and Kylie shared an elephant and he was rather a good one compared to Ben’s but we weren’t sure if it was the elephant or Ben. You are suppose to just stay on the back of the elephant and go with the flow but Ben seemed to do semi-circles on the elephants back and ending up backwards when he was suppose to be forward.
The elephants take their time and decide to go down when and for how long themselves and this is something that you don’t really have control over so you just sit on its back and go with the flow. What they do know is that half way through the wash, they are getting bananas so they all walk back to the platform and stick their trunks in your face, waiting for you to feed them.
We had an hour after washing the elephants to enjoy the waterfall before boarding the horrible long boat’s back to the bus. We spent the afternoon researching flights home before enjoying a cheese and wine night for Kaye’s birthday which was divine and clearly there wasn’t enough as the brie and camembert were gone within 5 minutes . We have been looking forward to this for about 2 months now or ever since we left Europe as cheese and good wine has been a rarity or like in China non-existent. We did manage to get hold of mozzarella cheese in Tibet but this was at a high price and had been smuggled over the border from India.
Tomorrow we are off to Vang Vieng to enjoying the talked about tubing experience down the Nam Song River before making our way further south to Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

Posted by neillkylie 08:40 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

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