BANGKOK

11th February 2015

Very early start and we are all dreading the long journey to Bangkok but once again Intrepid have made it as easy as possible with the journey broken up and we have a long rest stop at Poipet. As we are all there to look and try and get food for the journey a funeral cortege passes. What I noticed most was popcorn being thrown onto the street.  I have also seen shop owners do this in the mornings over their entrances. It’s feeding souls at rest.  They believe that if you die from illness your soul is prepared and ready to be reincarnated, however if you die in and RTC or by suicide this soul isn’t really and needs to be fed. The popcorn on the road was for previous deaths, over the centuries it is assumed that people have died here.  At the shops it is to feed the Gods and make them happy and thus bring good business that day

So on to the border crossing at Poipet, oh this is bedlam.  We leave our bus nd head for passport control on the Poipet side.  Our luggage is taken through for us separately and we queue and queue and queue some more.  Photographed, finger printed and we are let leave.  We walk over the no mans bridge to Thailand immigration.  Another very long queue snaking up and down and 3 pages of information to complete before we ever get to a desk.  As our Thai stay is less than 16 days we don’t need to purchase a visa.  So back on the bus, or should I say busses.  Fila is no longer our official tour guide, so we are joined by a Thai, Fila in one bus and a Thai in another.  So we are now on Thailand

What came home to be forcefully at the border was the ages of the Cambodians. There are no old people, most didn’t survive the war, those who did were wealthy and could afford passage out in the early days.  There are very few young people, few jobs, poor pay, no prospects.  There were queues upon queues at the Thai immigration.  All crossing over for work 

A few more hours and a few stops later we finally arrive in Bangkok.  Our hotel is the Vietgtri Hotel.  It’s in a superb location and is fine.  We are lucky again, our room is very high up so the street noise should keep it’s distance. On the Intrepid trip notes there were a few optional activities which we could do in Bangkok, however, we don’t see Fila and can’t find any information.  The majority of the group have been in Bangkok before but the Diamonds and us haven’t.  I felt Fila slipped up here assuming we were fine. Bob and I dumped our bag and went straight out for a walk.  We are parallel to Kao San Road so strolled up here while it was quiet, then we walked over to the Buddha taking in a few Thai temples on the way.  The wealth of this country in comparison to Cambodia hits you as soon as you cross the border.  We returned to the hotel for a quick shower and change before our final group meal. This was upstairs in a restaurant in a private room.  The meal was fine, everything was fine but many of us were disappointed as it was our final meal together as a group and there wasn’t anything really special about here.  As the younger members of the group clicked better with Fila we organised a tip and left it to Ben to say a few words. Fila thanked us then and in my opinion did something very unprofessional. He produced what was leftover from our group kitty money and asked what he would do with it.  Didn’t amount to much so we all said to keep it, hmm, no problem but if you remember Khanh was so particular about everyone signing the receipt and insisting own giving us the money before the final dinner I was a bit surprised at Fila.  When dinner was over we headed to a bar on Kao San Road where we got mojitos by the bucket!  At one stage there was a group of us dancing and another group taking pictures and videoing us.  Its out there somewhere. As people left we said our goodbyes and said we were having breakfast opposite the hotel at 10. So duly packed and really to go we were early the following morning and joined most of the group for our final goodbyes and breakfast.

So we had 24 hours in Bangkok and we both agree it was long enough. I cannot stress how hot and uncomfortable it is. Even with air con I’d have a shower, dry myself and was wet again before I was dressed.  I and others seemed to spend our time there in a lather of sweat.  The city is crazy, mad, hectic, bustling, loud, frenetic you name it.  Yes I would have liked to have seen more of the city but there is no way I could do longer than 24 hours.  The rule of thumb seems to be 3 days. I have no doubt that at some stage in the future we will be passing through Bangkok and I’m happy to take another 24 hours just to seer what I need to see and for me that doesn’t include a ping pong show

So at 11.30 we faced the craziest traffic in the world and headed for the airport in a taxi. Our flight would take us to Phuket then a transfer to Cape Penna which is on the tip of the Adaman Peninsula.  We are both looking forward to our down week

This marks the end of the Intrepid Tour “Best of Vietnam and Cambodia”

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BATTAMBANG

FEBRUARY 10th 2015

8.30am start in another private coach and we set off for Battambang. Bob isn’t well. There has been a flu like dose going through the bus and it has really flattened him. Last night I suggested some meds and again this morning but he says no.  Half way on our journey he’s now roaring for some paracetamol, this virus seems to be 24 hour dose that has really flattened the men

On the way to Battambang we stop at Arts of Angkor. There is a centre for stone and wood carving.  The people who work here are mostly deaf and or have other disabilities.  We are taken through their various workshops, lace, carving, cutting, polishing and quality control.,  ?Then we were given the opportunity to browse in the showroom. Their goods are amazing and quite a few bought, however, ever conscious of travelling light I pass but the polished Buddhas and the photo frames really caught my eye

So back in the bus and we’re off on our journey again. In Battambang we have been told we will be staying in the Asia Hotel and that there are no windows, all along we’ve expected to be in a windless room and I’ve been dreading it so it appears our luck has ran out.  Lunch stop first and then a walk to our hotel.  It is extremely hot, roasting and due to the lack of parking at the hotel our luggage has proceeded us.  Towards the end of lunch Bob leaves to try and get some air, it is not apparent that he is running a fever. I ask Filo if it is possible to pay and leave lunch early.  He phones ahead to the hotel and advises them we are on our way and organises a tuk tuk.  All poor Bob wants to do is sleep.  At check in the receptionist asks if we are booked for a twin or a double – double!  Ok there’s a double on the first floor, I should mention this hotel has no wifi, with no windows, however very they do have one with windows on the second.  Its the only double room in the hotel with windows. Talk about being lucky!  I grab the key and off we go.  The room is massive and is a corner room at the end of the building with huge windows and very close to balcony access. Bob gets into bed, meds taken and I make coffee and head to the balcony.  I watch the rest arrive to the hotel,  it is incredibly hot, well into the mid 30’s with no wind

Battambang is a very small place, very laid back with colonial architecture.  A river rinse through it and there are many laid back cafes.  There is noting to do here yet it is quirky and charming.  With Bob now out for he count I decide to do the Bamboo Train Ride, this is to tie in with bats flying which I’d happily skip, so some of us are doing both and others are just going to visit the bats.  This afternoon turned out to be another adventure where we all laughed and laughed but also where we were once again humbled by nature

Into the tuk tuks we went and meandered through the countryside until we arrived a O Dambong on the East Bank, 3.7km from Battambang.  The train bumps 7im southeast to O San Lan along warped, misaligned rails and vertiginous bridges left by the French.  Each bamboo train – known in Khmer as Nori or Lorry consists of a 3 metre long wooden frame covered lengthways with slats made of bamboo.  It cruises along at 15 km/hr or is supposed to.  Ours was a bit slow to get going but when we did we flew along until…. as this is a single track if you meet a train coming the opposite direction the train with the most least passengers stops, disables the train and stands track side to let the larger one through, then rebuilds their train again.  It happens!  We arrived at a small village.  A wedding was taking place and we visited a brick making furnace. I gather this is what sustains the village people. A year ago the floods washed everything away and they lost everything.  They are starting up again.  Soon it is time to return to our trains and head back. We had to stop on the track for ages – a train – I should explain that each ‘train’ sits 4 people on cushions but 3 or 4 of these trains will leave together so a train coming against us was deemed to have less passengers to they ceded but when all the trains met together it became apparent that we had the most people. There was much laughing and picture taking as we continued through.  It was time to get back into the tuk tuks and head to see the bats

I cannot believe I almost missed this. It was fantastic.  Just before 6pm 3 million plus bats fly out of the same cave.  It takes 20 mins for the cave to empty.  They fly in formation and is a wonderful sight.  Once more humbled I returned to the hotel. 

Bob still not great and he has decided he will stay in bed, try to sleep as much as he can and might try to go out for soup later. The Vietnamese Homestay dinner was so brilliant that more chose to go to tonights Cambodian one.  It could not have been any more different.  A long table was laid out in the garden ? maybe or certainly an open space in front of the house but within their walls.  For Cambodians it really was a lovely home.  A couple of times I went to have a stroll outside and it looked like an extremely upmarket area.  Hmm, I’m not so sure that this isn’t a type of special restaurant.  It does not have a 100% home feel to me. We didn’t meet the children and it all had the feel of being in an exclusive restaurant.  I felt so sorry for our group who elected not to do the one in Vietnam feeling it would be too touristy but after hearing about the fantastic night we had deciding to do the Cambodian one which in my opinion wasn’t a true homestay.  Dinner was different, a Cambodian BBQ, think Swiss fondue but it’s a bbq.  Three of us were vegetarian that night. As the meat is cooking, tofu in our case, soup is heating around the outside and juice from the meat runs into it.  It is lovely and warm and everyone enjoyed it.  Then the karaoke started.  Oh Dear! Try as we might it was very difficult to get an upbeat fast tempo song.  They were all slow love songs and by everyone singing 2 lines in rotation we did murder quite a few! Back to the hotel to book a breakfast – roll and jam – again TG for my kettle and mug, pack and get ready for a very early start

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SIEM REAP AND ANGKOR WAT

FEBRUARY 7th, 8th, and 9th

Out latest start yet for what was to be a long day. We were back on the large coach and we set off for Siem Reap.  Everything changed within a few minutes of leaving Phnom Penh.  The roads were dreadful, very much third world.  the poverty had to be seen to be believed.  The contrast with Phnom Penh was 360 degrees. This country has a totally unfair division of wealth and yet the largest hotel in Phnom Penh is owned by a Vietnamese.  I do wonder ho some people can sleep in their guided cages with such poverty on their doorsteps.  A familiar sight on the roads was a van jammed with motorbikes and people.  This is a type of long distance taxi. They wait on a corner for people who don’t have bikes suitable for driving long distances and stack them and the bikes in and take off.  Another very familiar sight was a motorbike with a driver and three passengers, nothing so unusual about that – the more the merrier – however the passenger sandwiched between the other two was attached to an IV Drip with one of the other passengers holding a piece of wood to which it was attached.  Invariably these were young people, very few old people in Cambodia, and in many instances toddlers and I even spotted a tiny baby. The reason is the person was so sick they had to go to hospital, however they did not have the funds to remain and so are brought home to be nursed.  Motorbikes crammed with food, wares, veg etc are everywhere.  Their load is often the size of a car, very scary to watch them weave in and out

Our first stop is to a big market with a Happy House! We are greeted by children with tarantulas on their arms. Education is very important to the Cambodians and there are 2 school shifts, morning and afternoon. The country knows that the only way to move forward is through education. This is why Intrepid do not support children either begging or selling and we are asked not to support them. Likewise the orphanages, at last count there were in excess 0f 180 orphanages in Cambodia and only a few of these are legitimate. The remainder are used to make money at the sake of the children many of whom just turn up on a daily basis. 

This market at Skuoli was famous for the Tarantulas, not looking at them but eating them.  They also have a number of bugs for sale.  Surprising myself I did eat one, it was deep fried with chilli and garlic and tasted very crispy, not too different from prawn crackers.  However in the cooking process it has kept its shape so was quite obviously a tarantula, of the group of now 15 only 3 of us tried it!

Vin update – there is still talk of him joining us, however, as a group we feel now he should stay and wait for the next group as yesterday, albeit horrific beyond our wildest expectations, is too important a day for him to miss

Our journey continues and our next stop, also lunch is in Bardy and it is the Santuk Silk Farm. This is a very rural location and is run by Budd Gibbons.  This is one of the few places in Cambodia where you can see the entire process of silk production. The farm employs 18 locals, mostly weavers and as a visitor you can watch the entire process.  Budd Gibbons is an American Vietnam War Vet who has lived in Cambodia since 1996 with his Cambodian wife.  He was initially involved with the support of the US and working as an NGO providing prosthetic limbs to victims of landmines.  Today huge areas of landmines have yet to be cleared and the traveller is constantly reminded not to stray off well worn paths.  To Budd’s dismay he would find the amputees betting with their prosthetic limbs out of sight – there is more chance of cash begging as an amputee! With funding he proceeded to educate people in the area on silk farms in the north of the country with another lady but this folded when his funding was stopped.  He refused to return to the US and instead moved to Bardy where he set up his own small silk farm. His scarves were lovely, if expensive and few bought.  The lunch was delicious and yet, although what he is doing is good, educating and giving work to the locals, a number of us left with a bad taste in our mouths.  Impossible to put a finger on what was wrong but there was something just not quite right.

Bank on the bus again and we continued to Kompong Pluk on Tonte Sap Lake, the largest lake in Cambodia.  Here we boarded a boat and sailed out into the floating community.  This was, without doubt, the most humbling experience of my life.  These people have nothing and I mean nothing, and yet in many ways they are richer in life that many of us. There is a fantastic sense of community, everyone smiling and waving to us, it went on for miles and miles and children, like children everywhere, laughing and playing.  The reason we were visiting this particular fishing village is because this is where Fila was born and his family lived for many years.  He still has some extended family members living there

Back on the bus, once more and we had an unexpected stop at Fila’s family home.  He is married and lives in Siem Reap, however, his father, who me missed, step mother, sister, brother in law and 10 day old baby still live there.  We walk there to visit his home and for him to give a present to his new nephew.  His mother died during childbirth when he was 7.  They were still living on the floating village but when complications arose there was no immediate help and she died.  His brother is a tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap.  Fila worked very hard to get where he is today, fighting with his father to remain in school, he’s the only one of his family who is educated.  As there is not free education in Cambodia he moved in with an uncle in Siem Reap and worked as many jobs as he could to fund his education.  He learned his English from tourists but also studied for 2 hours a day with a monk in a monastery.  We smiled, said our greeting in Cambodian, prompted by Fila, admired the new baby and headed to the Freedom Hotel in Siem Reap

It has been a long day, we didn’t arrive until after 19.00 but it was so worth it.  Our hotel was fine if a little out of the main part of town but only $1 for a tuk tuk. We quickly checked in, freshened up and headed our for a lovely and very welcome dinner. This was right in the heart of the night market and at the corner with Pub Street and yet another shock – it was pure crazy as in Ibiza, Magaluf or anywhere that kids go on holidays.  Yet another totally unexpected culture shock.  All I could think of was what my kids would think if they saw me now, dancing in the streets with the wildest group of people imaginable plus an 11 year old girl who was the best break dancer I’ve seen.  Her $1 wristbands were selling like hot cakes

Another early start the following day after a poor breakfast, pancakes you’d to watch like a hawk as they only brought out 2 at a time, dire coffee, I was told, yet again I’m delighted to have my own coffee and travel mug.  So off on the bus again and a 6km drive to Angkor Thom the farthest one away. The temples of Angkor are purely heaven on earth. They are the earthly representations of Mount Meru, the Mount Olympics of Hindu Faith and the home of the Ancient Gods.  Angkor is one of the worlds foremost ancient sites with the epic proportions of the Great Wall of China, the detail and intricacy of the Taj Mahal and the symbolism and symmetry of the Pyramids all rolled into one.  No matter how many documentaries you’ve watched, how may books you’ve read or how many pictures you’ve seen nothing will prepare you for the splendour of your first view of Angkor Wat.  Once again we had a personal guide who made the purchase of a 3 day pass including photograph and lanyard very easy and we were through and our bus was waiting the other side. In order to try and beat the crowds we headed for Angkor Thom first. This is one of the furthest points away from where we had entered.  It is a great city on an epic scale.  Unfortunately not long after we arrived a massive party of Japanese turned up.  Our guide christened them VIPs Very Ignorant People! They were rude, arrogant, obnoxious and proceeded to photobomb all our shots.  We weren’t letting them away with it though, we’re made of sterner stuff and whereas as a group we loved Angkor Thom most of us were just sick to the teeth of these VIPs. While visiting Angkor Thom we saw many things in the enclosure including Terrace of the Leper King, Bayon to name a few.  We then ventured outside the Temples of Angkor to the art gallery of Angkor, Banteay Srei which is 21km northeast of Baton and 32km from Siem, Reap.  It is known as the Woman’s Temple or ‘Citadel of the Women’ and it was very beautiful.  It is also the first major temple restoration undertaken by EFEO in 1930 using the anastlosis method

Following our visit we had lunch and a visit to see how palm sugar is made into syrup, sweets etc.  Its very sweet, even for me and we returned to the Temples of Angkor Wat to visit Angkor Wat in what is considered to be a quite time. It was busy but not so busy that you couldn’t move around freely and the queue to the uppermost level moved freely

Angkor Wat is the Temple that is the City.  It is huge.  You enter by a causeway only to realise that there are another three entrances before you see Angkor Wat in all its glory.  As we were coming to the main temple disaster struck – our camera battery had died.  While annoyed at first, accepting that there was nothing we could do about it I really enjoyed my visit more without trying to take photos.  The Temple goes on and on layer after layer and all too soon it was time to leave.  Yet again I felt so tiny and insignificant leaving this incredible place.  

The following morning we left the hotel at 4.30 to view sunrise at Angkor Wat.  There can be few things more humbling in this world. Despite 1000’s of people there not a sound was heard.  As the sun slowly rose in the morning in full view of Angkor Wat and all the colours changing by the second.  Following sunrise we quickly set off to Ta Prohm which is undoubtedly the most atmospheric ruin at Angkor.  It looks as if it has been swallowed by a jungle.  Ta Prohm is also famous as one of its spots is the so called Tomb Raider tree and indeed we all had great fun attempting to imitate Angelina Jolies Lara Croft stunts.  Indeed several scenes from Tomb Raider were shot around the Temple of Angkor and having been there now I want to see the film.  Soon it was time to return to the hotel for breakfast and then a free day for all.  

Bob decided to hire a bike a cycle back out to the Temple of Angkor.  He said, although very hot it was very quiet and he spent the day there.  Others were arranging to go to a show/circus or some other activity so it was decided we would all meet up in the Irish Bar in Pub St later. Firstly Debbie, Pauline and I went for a Cambodian cookery lesson.  It was wonderful, totally different to our Vietnamese one.  It started with us going to the market with the sous chef to purchase all the ingredients,.  Anything we asked about was purchased and our lesson began with a fresh cocktail of juices and desserts. The chef introduced himself and we started.  This time we ate as we cooked and we were shown the finesse of serving a meal.  It really was wonderful. When we returned to the hotel Debbie and I lay by the pool until it was time to go for a massage. We were collected and taken to the place where we had been booked into.  Our first impressions in the tuk tuk were not the most favourable and had Fila not made the bookings we would have kept going.  However, we trusted Intrepid and their choice.  We both elected to have a 4 hand, 90 minute Swedish massage.  We were shown to a room with 4 mattresses on the floor and told to strip and lie down.  When I say strip I mean strip! There was at most a foot between Debbie and I.  Whatever 4 hands did to her another 4 hands did to me simultaneously. The giggles and roars coming from the room would have left anyone wondering.  I will not go into any further detail apart from saying we both felt it was the weirdest but best massage ever.  We did, however, leave wondering exactly what was happening behind a row of darkened doors and windows! Left sore but still laughing.  That evening Debbie joined Bob and I for something to eat and the group met up in Pub St for our last night in Siem Reap

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Adventure of a Lifetime, Cambodia, Phnom Penh

February 5th and 6th

Days `11 and 12

Phnom Penh

It was a very early start as we had a long journey ahead which we were all dreading.  It was also with a heavy heart we left Vin behind.  His passport was reported lost as it’s apparently not worth the hassle of reporting it stolen with all the red tape to go with it.  Khanh was taking him to the Embassy to apply for a temporary one.  His cards were stopped, he contacted his parents who were going to wire him money.  I explained how this worked and the easiest way to do it was through Western Union. It looked like he would be staying in HCMC for an extra 2 days to join a group which were coming behind us.  As we had 3 days in Siem Reap there would be an overlap so we planned to see him there.  however, we had also found a flight that evening which would mean he would catch up with us which we all hoped would happen, however, Khanh said not.  So we set off.

It was a long journey and we were told to expect it to be 7 hours in total.  We travelled on a public bus, basically just us and some others.  As usual there was a stop on the way to the border.  The Moc Bai Bavet border is bedlam.  It was, yet again, another huge advantage to being part of a group.  All our paper work was completed on the bus and we were taken as a group to the passport area.  I should explain there are 2 passport controls for leaving Vietnam, cehcking entry and departure visas, then a walk across no mans land where you go through passport control for Cambodia.

I’m now on my 3rd pen since starting this diary!

At the passport control our photos were taken, fingerprints of both hands and finally we were allowed through.  Back on the bus and then a stop for lunch.  It was a very welcome stop.  Back on the bus again but yet again another stop – a ferry crossing and finally we arrived in Phnom Penh.

We checked into our hotel Mondulkiri Hotel.  Bob and I didn’t even go to our room, had our case sent up and jumped on a tuk tuk to take me to a book shop I’d sourced on the internet to buy the Lonely Planet book of Cambodia.  I could have bought a single one of South East Asia but from previour experience I knew that individual country ones are so much more detailed.  We got back in time to see our room – again our luck was with us and we head off with the group on tuks tuks to do a tour of Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh so deserves it’s name The Pearl of Asia.  The city surprised us all.  It is large, bright and modern.  It has serious financial investment behind it and there are many skyscrapers.  It really is a beautiful, modern city and such a shock after the quality of the roads when we passed the border.  Both Bob and I commented it was very much like Africa and then we’re suddenly in this oasis of wealth.  It didn’t take long to realise that this is another corrupted city with many of the leaders of Pol Pot in power following an amnesty.  The Cambodians are very forgiving people who believe in the true nature of Buddahism.  They’ve been so badly hurt and so recently they don’t look back but look forward with peace.  A Mother’s role is to rear her daughter to be a good wife to a husband who must prove himself both financially and of character before he asks to marry her.  He then cares for his family giving herhis salary every week.  Cambodians have been to hell and back but look to the future with optimism, with an unbreakable spirit and infectious optiimism.  And they smile, non stop smility.  It is the spirit of the people i want to take away with me, they are fantastic.  Our tuk tuk tour was fantastic, great fun hoping and off at the many sites. The used currency is the dollar and we were soon laughing because everything cost $1.  Our trip included the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom, Olympic Stadium Independence monument. We stopped in the Foreign Correspondence Club for a pre dinner drink. Not only is the FCC a hotel it also has a roof top bar.  This was the centre for the Foreign Correspondents during the war and the walls are adorned with fascinating reading. I knew I had to return. Following dinner Bob and I, John and Debbie headed back to FCC. An hilarious return to the hotel in a tuk tuk followed. First we were taken to the wrong hotel and the driver buckled up laughing, the laughing continued.  He then pointed out a rather risqué elephant monument and laughed some more. Then he started shouting Monkeys!  While we were all searching for the monkeys he laughed even harder, it turned out there were two monkeys, two soft monkeys tied to the front of the tuk tuk. By now none of us could speak we were laughing so much.  When we finally arrived at our hotel he insisted we took his photograph and then proceeded to try and kiss John. And the cost? $1 best laugh we’d had in ages. Our meal this evening was lovely, very different to Vietnamese food bud sadly the coffee isn’t as good and yet again I’m delighted I’ve my kettle with me. Our briefing from Fila this evening was very serious as tomorrow we will be visiting the Killing Fields and S-21. He said we would have our own guide as he found it too upsetting to visit

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Many years ago I saw the film The Killing Fields. I watched in horror as this all happened between 1975 and 1978 when I was old enough to be aware and yet I do not remember reading one thing about Cambodia/Kampuchea during that time.  During the film it builds up to a final scene, having watched it with tears running down my face I totally broke down when I saw the date flashed up on screen

9th October 1981

This was a day I remembered from the time I woke up till I went to bed.  It was my 21st. I was horrified.  I was a frivolous 21 year old planning a party, Skitting around all day in work and this outcome was happening on the other side of the world of which I knew nothing.  My trip to the Killing Fields was my private pilgrimage to apologise for being so totally unaware and to play my respects. I knew it was going to be hard, I thought, reality is I hadn’t a clue.  We know and have read the horrors of the Killing Fields but the reality is our minds will not let us go the far. The reality is just too horrific to even try and explain

Vin update – he got his temporary passport and cash from home but didn’t make the flight to join us today.  The delay is his Vietnamese visa which obviously was with his passport. He cannot leave the country without it so we have to wait to hear more from his tomorrow

I am noticing a huge difference between Khan and Fila. Whereas when we arrived at a hotel with Khan he not only gave us our key but also the hotel cards, in case we got lost.  The wifi code, he did this in every restaurant and a map with the hotel marked and also other restaurants and places of interest. With Fila you just about get your key!  The younger members of the group appear like him though.

 

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Bright and early start, me with my mug of coffee as usual and a rather quiet bus headed to the Killing Fields. We had our own personal guide who was 5 in 1995 at the start of the evacuation of Phnom Penh, a survivor who lost many members of his own family.  At times its was obvious that he found it difficult to speak but one recurrent theme is that this story must be told but also one of forgiveness.  the most obvious sight in Cambodia is  there are no old people. Very very few of them survived but also very few found people, due to the economic state, this really is a poor country, most of them head to Thailand for work.

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Before long we arrive at the Killing Fields of Cheoung Ek. Our guid is to lead us through,  Interestingly I am reading a good recommended to me – First They Killed my Father – this is also written by a survivor who was a 5 year old girl from a middle class family aft the time of the evacuation in 1995.  Our guide may as well have been reading my book out loud, their stories are so similar.

Upon entering the first thing you see is the famous monument to the tortured and murdered.  We left that till the end.  I should explain that Choeung Ek is only one of 180 killing fields that has been found has hasn’t been fully excavated. The rains continue to wash up bones, teeth and fragments of clothing, basically rags.  To my absolute horror the guide asked me to move my foot, I was standing on what they think, due to its size, is a baby’s skull. It just goes on and on. We arrived at a grave that appears to contain only women. Beside it was a tree adorned in wristbands etc that others had left there.  This was the tree they bashed the babies against until they were dead and then murdered their mothers.  At this point I could no longer keep my emotions in check and the tears started to fall.  I just cannot understand how a human being born to a mother with siblings could do this to another human being. And so it continued finally ending at the famous monument.  I paid my respects with incense and a prayer and entered.  Rows and rows as high as the eye could see of skulls.  It is build in a pyramid shape and goes on and one.  Skulls are divided by age, sex and method or torture and murder. I could contain myself no longer.  I stood rooted to the spot, unable to move and I cried and cried.  Totally broke down. Pauline tried to help me and helped get me out.  This was totally unimaginable horror. Although Cheoung Ek is a non smoking area right outside the monument there was a massive ashtray fill of butts.,  I obviously wasn’t the only one. By now Bob had disappeared, a few days later he told me that he thought we were going to a monument and not the actual killing fields.  Had he known he would have remained in the bus. We couldn’t take many pictures.  We felt it was disrespectful. We have a pic of the outside of the monument and I was horrified at the people taking photo after phoot of skulls. Why?

It was a sober group who got back onto the bus and we made our way to Tuol  Sleng Museum. In 1975 this was Tuol Sy Ay Prey High School and was taken over by Pol Pots Security Forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 S-21. It became the largest centre of detention and torture in the country. Between 1975 – 1978 more that 17 thousand people were held at S-21 and taken to the killing fields of Cheoung Ek. Each prisoner was photographed, sometimes before and after torture.  When in 1978 Phnom Penh was liberated the Khymer Rouge ran but not before killing the prisoners who were left behind.  Three days later the liberators entered S-21 to find those murdered prisoners. The photographs of what they found are on display in the rooms they were found it and their bodies are buried in the courtyard. In the kitchen they found 7 survivors who had hidden including 2 brothers aged 7 and 9. We were very lucky as the younger brother was there that day and came to speak with us.  Never again in my entire life will I every meet a man that you know when you look into his eyes has seen nothing but horror.  This play is just evil and I couldn’t bring myself to enter every room of cells. there is no doubt but pure evil does exist in this world.

When we got back to Phnom Penh, following lunch we had a free afternoon and we decided to return to the Royal Palace where, with a few others we hired a guide. He was fantastic and this is an incredible place of opulence.  The floor of the silver pagoda is made entirely of silver.  The Gold, the Diamonds are incredible but so hard to marry with what we had seen that morning. I really feel I’m in part of a split universe.  Bad the time we got back to the hotel we were in time for mojitos at sundown and found a lovely bar on the rooftop. That night, as a group, we ate in Friends like Koto, it offers street children a start in the hospitality industry,  As I wandered outside I discovered Friends had a great shop of different items attached to it and an incredibly cheap nail bar for manicures and pedicures.  As it closed at 9 I ran back into the restaurant to let the ladies know.  I am writing this on a dairy whose cover is made of trees and I bought Ciarán a wallet made of rugby balls

 

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Adventure of a Lifetime, Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon

056

February 2nd, 3rd and 4th

Days 8, 9 and 10

Saigon – everyone calls it Saigon and is known as HCMC for short

After a very early start and a packed but uneventful flight where everything, apart from check in, was done for us, we leave the airport, our bus is waiting and we head to Saigon. Everyone calls this city Saigon.

Our hotel is the Family Inn, Saigon Hotel http://www.familyinnsaigon.com/ once again very central, clean and with windows. Bob and I are doing well with our hotel rooms and all have way surpassed our expectations. Before we arrive at our hotel, because our flight was so early, our rooms aren’t ready so we are taken on a city tour of Saigon.

It is a massive city and was once the capital of Vietnam. Parts of it are incredibly modern and indeed you could be in any major European city with Financial Centres, Skyscrapers etc. There is a marked French influence in this city and is so much the opposite of Hanoi and yet not much different either. The traffic, as usual, is chaotic. Once you start to cross the road you just don’t stop, ever, of you will be stranded in the middle of the road with traffic, tuk tuks, motor bikes, cars, buses etc dodging you and blaring their horns. Don’t be fooled by pedestrian crossings either. Yes there’s a green man but in reality this means absolutely nothing as there seems to be a free right hand turn but everyone coming from all directions seems to be making a free right! It really does suit my natural jay walking skills, I love it and breathe in the intensity of this frenetic city.

Our first stop from the airport is the War Remnants Museum. http://warremnantsmuseum.com/ 200Before you enter there are original US Armoured vehicles, artillery pieces, bombs and infantry weapons outside. Me, being a total pacifist, walk past these. Our visit to Vietnam, to date, has had some interesting propaganda. Most amusing were the clips of how well the US POW’s were treated in the Hanoi Hilton, celebrating Christmas etc – eh I don’t think so. By now I listen to it all and take what I believe to be true. I do believe this was a war between 2 super powers, Russia and the US with too many lives lost. Some of our group had no knowledge of this war at all. As a teenager I remember seeing the anti-war demonstrations on tv this was just before the end of the war. In this museum I was to see hundreds and hundreds of photos taken from around the world of anti-war protests. despite looking and looking I did not see one photograph that was taken in Ireland. Are we too neutral to even had an anti-war demonstration? Were we too tied to the US in the 60’s and 70’s to not speak out? Did we actually protest but are seen as such a tiny country no photograph was worth recording?

Entering the museum there is a room celebrating the lives of the Vietnamese since the war. It really does show how far they have come and the support they received to help rebuild their lives.

The exhibition takes place over three levels and I started on the top floor. I knew if I went to the 1st I’d just leave, but more on that later. On the top floor is the Requiem Exhibition. This is very moving. It was compiled by legendary photographer Tim Page and documents the work of photographers of both sides who were killed during the war. It includes the work of the famous war photographers Larry Burrows and Robert Capa. I cannot stress how moving I found this exhibition. Many of the photographs are the final rolls in photographers cameras which were only developed after they had died.

The second floor shows the experimental weapons used during the war by the US and also instruments of torture. This was so very upsetting. How on earth can a human mind even devise such instruments?205

When we came to the 1st floor exhibition Bob had to leave. I couldn’t as I felt it was my duty to honour the innocents killed in this war. It was awful and I mean truly awful. From photographs of atrocities to children, to a glass case of deformed fetuses either lost through miscarriage or abortion, to the photographs of children born since the war and deformed beyond anything that medical intervention can help. There are also images depicting the brutal My Lai Massacre http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/my-lai-massacre The famous photograph of the napalm Girl. 206The words of wisdom from a child. the horrors that the dropping of napalm and other Dioxins have now got into the DNA of those who survived and future generations will be deformed beyond belief. The totally unneccessary and brutal massacre of a village. How is this a way of winning a war? How arrogant were they to take out random villages? Makes no sense to me. How can a human being do this to another? There was a quote from an US soldier to others saying ‘Don’t let this fucked up war fuck with your head too’ Will man ever learn from previous wars or is it a case of taking things to a next level? After all look at ISIS now. one thing for sure the force of evil definitely does exist.207

We were a quiet group leaving and we continued on our tour. This took us to Notre Dame Cathedral, 210a very imposing building which unfortunately was closed. We also visited the Central Post Office which is amazing. It is also a working post office still but the design and decor need to be seen215

It was now lunchtime and we found ourselves at Pho 2000 http://www.pho2000.com/ 233This is tiny and is above a group of even smaller shops, you’d struggle for a sign but it is very close to Ben Thanh Market. Not only is this tiny restaurant famous for its food, what really put it on the map was a visit from Bill and Chelsea Clinton. 236 The food was fantastic but think fast food canteen as opposed to luxury. By now I am totally hooked on Vietnamese coffee and, as usual, order 2 at a time.

Following check in and refreshing we meet the Diamonds at 16.00 and head to the Alto Heli Bar, http://www.visit-mekong.com/vietnam/alto-rooftop-bar.htm for sunset downers. This is on the 52nd floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower and we arrive after approximately 30 min walk – we’re still walking everywhere and probably driving people nuts! We are literally just in time for the end of the Happy Hour so once again, mojitos are ordered. It was lovely to be away from the hustle and bustle of this city, so high up and watching the sun set.241 We figured we would be eating in the market, which we had passed on the way, so instead of doubling back to the hotel we contacted Khanh and met them there. The market was its usual crazy market but yet again the meal was fantastic.

The following morning we were off on a boat trip through the Mekong Delta, 343also known as the River of Nine Dragons. We meandered along through canals between My Tho and Ben Tre. Ben Tre is famous for its coconut candy and we stopped at Huong Dua to watch local crafts people at work including sampling some coconut candy and rice wine, snake wine and some other shot! Leaving there we boarded an unusual type of Tuk Tuk – we’d to wear helmets, for a tour. It was hilarious. We arrived at a restaurant to sample the famous Elephant Ear Fish,290 I elected to go vegetarian again and following another fabulous meal we relaxed in hammocks. It has to be unbelievable that we have not had a bad meal in this fabulous country yet. After lunch we were back on the Tuk Tuks and off to the river again but this time we were on Saipans. There were four to each boat and as we paddled slowly through the Mekong Delta, all wearing tradition Vietnamese Hats, it reminded me of the mangroves in Florida. We arrived back on our boat and sailed through fishing villages on the way back to Saigon.315

Tonight marks the end of the Vietnamese leg of our tour and our final day with Khanh. Often some people leave the group at this stage and others join but we are lucky that all 16 of us are continuing on the Cambodian leg with a new guide who we will meet tomorrow. We all head for KOTO, http://www.koto.com.au/ for a group meal. KOTO stands for Know One, Teach One as learning should be passed on, knowledge is there to be served. 349This is a Training Centre in both Hanoi and Saigon for hospitality for disadvantaged children. We had a private room and it was really a lovely evening. The food was more similar to fine dining but was lovely. An official tip for Khanh was collected and I gave a short speech presenting him with it, a pair of chopsticks and thanking him. Debbie and I had heard of Bar Saigon Saigon, http://www.caravellehotel.com/restaurants-and-bars/saigon-saigon-bar was worth visiting so we persuaded most of the group to go. This is set on the rooftop of the Caravelle Hotel and was the first 5 star hotel rebuilt after the war. Many of the war journalists and photographers hung out here during the war and the photographs that hang on the walls are fascinating. Cocktails were good too, mojitos of course! 078However, prices were expensive compared to what we were by now used to paying, view magnificent, more a place for the beautiful people to hang out with dreadful service. Don’t think our group were too impressed!

The following day was a free day as our Cambodian leg of the tour starts with meeting our new leader from Intrepid at 18.00. However, us being the group we are had other plans. the optional trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/cu-chi-tunnels 412was in the morning and a few of us elected to go. It/they were incredible, 200km of underground tunnels with the opportunity to go in excess of 100m down one. A few of us, including me, did it, one reversed out after a few seconds, Debbie and others chose not to go down fearing claustrophobia. It was very tight and for much of it you are on your knees crawling. There was a display of the many items of torture and ways of trapping POWs that the Vietnamese used. Just horrific and it really upset me. There was a constant drone of shots being fired, you had the opportunity to fire an AK47 and the noise, I found to be very upsetting. the entire place was too real and too horrible and I was happy to leave.

We return to the hotel and I find Vin at the PC very quiet. A guy approaches him and asks is he the fellow with the Intrepid Group who has had his bag snatched. Poor Vin, he’s 22, first time travelling on his own and his bag was snatched while he sat to look at a map. The snatcher immediately jumped on the back of a motorbike and took off with Vin’s passport, cards and cash. This totally sums up HCMC to me. There is an edge to it I don’t like. The hotel, when I go outside won’t let me continue if I’m wearing my necklace. It’s small with a few tiny charms on it. I’m travelling with a Pacsafe backpack and find myself locking it to everything. It is the first and only time in Vietnam I have found anywhere intimidating. The men are constantly being invited to massage parlours, which are everywhere, full of girls sitting as a group to the front of the shop, painting their nails and looking thoroughly bored. Drugs of all sorts are also being offered to the men and openly. In a bar on our last night there was a mafia type chap with minders and lots of girls. I have enjoyed what I’ve seen, enjoyed our time in Alto Heli watching the sunset and also the time we spent with some of the group on top of a bakery but I will not be sorry to leave and have no desire to return. The single travellers, unless electing to come with the group are going to a hotel with a roof top pool and relaxing, they just don’t feel comfortable wandering around on their own.

That afternoon Bob and I returned to the Reunification Palace 482http://www.vietnamonline.com/attraction/reunification-palace–ho-chi-minh-city.html The gardens are splendid and again some American Fighter Jets are on display. This was the home to the South Vietnamese President until the end of the war. It’s opulence is phenomenal. Is is an oustanding example of 1960’s architecture, very airy and spacious with meeting rooms on the ground floor and reception rooms upstairs. There are the Presidential quarters including games room. On the roof top is the Presidential helicopter, ballroom/nightclub and cinema. The double basements are fascinating, war rooms, telecommunications centre, a warren of tunnels. It really is extraordinary. The Palace is shown very vividly in two world-famous photographs

  • 30th April 1970 The Communists Tanks arrived crashing through the wrought iron gates. A soldier ran into the building, up the stairs and hoisted a VC Flag from the balcony. In a private reception chamber, General Minh, who had become Head of the State 43 hours before, waited. As the VC Officer entered the room Minh said ‘I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you’ the VC Officer replied ‘There is no question of you transferring power, you cannot give what you do not have’!
  • The other photograph is of people queuing up on the roof to board the helicopter and be evacuated at the end of the war.

Usually the Intrepid meeting with the new leader is at 6pm, however, we as a group, throw everything. The girls had discovered that the A OH Show were playing in the Opera House. This show is Vietnamese and is similar to Cirque du Soleil. The majority of us wanted to go and Khanh arranged the purchase of the tickets. It was an oppportunity to see not only this highly reviewed show but also to enjoy an evening at the opera house, BUT we would not be able to make the 6pm briefing. It was suggested that it be delayed but some of us didn’t want to be rushing back from the show so it was fixed for 4pm.

After the visit to the tunnels, earlier, we all said our goodbyes to Khanh who was taking a 3 day rest before starting again with a new group. As I entered the hotel I met him heading out for lunch before checking out, however, he didn’t even get his lunch ordered before he had to return to assist Vin and indeed gave up his free time to help him getting a temporary passport, giving him cash and going with him to the various official departments to get Vin sorted.

So we arrive to the meeting at 4, when eventually Fila, our Cambodian leader arrives. He thought the meeting was in the lobby despite the note specifying it was on the top floor in the restaurant. He began by saying that in his 6 years with Intrepid he never had a meeting changed from 6pm! Hmm not the best of starts in my opinion and it got worse. He talked and talked, a lot, so was interrupted and asked to be aware that the meeting needed to be over by 4.50 as we were heading to the Opera house. I thought he was quite put out and harassed, however, we were a group of now 15, 8 of whom were together 2 weeks longer. We had gelled well as a group, plenty of Irish craic with some quiet young folk and we were not afraid to speak out. Daniela, who works at the Sydney Opera house knew this was too good an opportunity to miss and had told us all about it. Fila was still going on a bit, said he needed our passport and insurance details all over again and wanted to talk about the group kitty. Well we were well ahead of him. Khanh had already given me a photocopy of all our details to hand over, we were keen on the kitty but said as we were not going out for an official group dinner we’d sort it out tomorrow. The group kitty was a great idea so far. It was used for tipping drivers, restaurants, bell boys etc of all the group activities. Khanh kept a running total, made us all double-check it before the KOTO dinner and handed us back any surplus despite it being a small amount and we all said keep it, he said no that it was ours and insisted we take it. So anyway, having heard what the plans were for the following day we abandoned Fila and took off to a great night at the Opera House and the fabulous A OH SHOW!527

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Adventure of a Lifetime, Hoi An

January 31st and February 1st

Days 6 and 7

Hoi An195

Hoi An is another UNESCO World Heritage site and is incredible beautiful.  Bob thought it full of tourists – it was – understandably though in my opinion because it is such a beautiful place.  Over 800 buildings are preserved in the Old Town.  We were blessed as our hotel was only a 5 minute walk away.  To enter the Old Town you purchase a pass which is valid for three days.  Most of these houses may be visited, the owners still live there and spend the day in their private quarters upstairs.  142The majority of these homes have been in the same family for generations, 6, 7 or indeed 8.  Hoi An is on a river and at night the entire place is lit up with lanterns.  196There is also a Japanese bridge which is very beautiful.414

Our journey from Hue was about 4 hours but made longer by many stops.  First we stopped at Lang Co Beach.  386This is a Vietnamese Tourist Resort but we were the only people there.  It is totally different during TET, Vietnamese equivalent of Chinese New Year which falls on the same date, as many, many Vietnamese travel here to celebrate the holiday.  After a welcome visit to the Happy House we ordered drinks – my 2 double Vietnamese Coffees – and I headed straight to the beach and in for a paddle.  It was so nice to be by the sea again and it was refreshing as days were getting hotter.  Soon it was time to get back on the bus and head to Danang but not before driving through the Hai Van Pass.  407On bad days there is an option of going through the tunnel but we were blessed with the fabulous views and many stops for pictures or just to take it all in.  As usual Vin was singled out by the hawkers!

Denang, otherwise known as China Beach, is being developed as a Vietnamese Dubai.  Speaking to other people it’s taking them a while!  Personnally I wasn’t impresed though.  Once again leave it to Khanh to know the good lunch spots and we all did enjoy the freshly filled baguette at the bakery he took us to.043

Bank into the bus and it wasn’t long before we arrived at our hotel in Hoi An.  Phu Thinh 2 http://www.vietnam-hotels.net/hotel/hoi-an/phu-thinh-2-hotel-hoi-an.html A lovely small hotel with a pool in the courtyard and a brilliant location.  Once again we were in luck, 2 windows and a small balcony.

135After a guided walk with Khanh to get our bearings we had a very welcome free afternoon.  I cannot stress how pretty Hoi An is.  While on our tour Khanh took us to a tailor he would recommend.  Narurally we all went in.  They had many samples hanging up but also many books for you to choose a design from.  I didn’t think the samples looked great so left.  There was also the opportunity to mix and match.  Tops of one style, waistline or another etc.  I was conscious of Bob hanging around outside and I was too hot and sticky to be bothered stripping and being fitted.047

We returned to the hotel.  Bob hired a bike, all for $1 for the day and took off.  Meanwhile I booked 2 hours in the spa.  I had a body scrub, massage, facial, manicure and pedicure all for €24!  It was fantastic.

That evening there was an opportunity to do a Vietnamese cooking class.  Surprisingly only 3 of us choose to do it, Debbie, Pauline and myself.  We arrived at the cookery school, Gioan, http://www.gioancookery.com/cookery/cookery-vi to discover that we were the only 3 in the class.  Our teacher, Vina, was hilarious and if you learned nothing you had a full nights entertainment.  She had us laughing, singing and drinking wine.  She was fantastic.  We were taught and cooked ourselves. Our ingredients were prepared for us apart from the chopping.  We made Fried Spring Rolls, A Green Papaya Salad, Sweet and Sour Chicken Soup, Tuna Steaks in Banana Leaf and Chilli Paste.  OH MY GOD it was absolutely delicious. 776 We walked back to the hotel, got lost but eventually saw Vin and made it back in time to persuade the hotel to reopen the bar for more mojitos! Hoi An goes to sleep very early at night.  They were not happy and when it came to the bill we were overcharged for 3 extra beers, we eventually paid up but it was annoying.  Still for an extra €2 we weren’t too bothered, just annoyed at being ripped off.

The following morning, after breakfast, I just wasn’t well.  The tums had decided it had enough.  I stayed by the pool until I felt it was safe to venture out.  Bob went off on his bike, another $1.  Debbie, meanwhile, had ordered 2 dresses so I said I’d meet her at 13.30 for the first fitting.  I was hugely impressed and raging that I’d missed such an opportunity.  She said she was unsure exactly what she was getting as the designer more or less took over. The dresses were incredibly well made, one for the office and one for a wedding.  There were a few minor adjustments and a 2nd fitting 30 minutes later and they were delivered to the hotel, packed, ready for travel, that evening.  The total cost of the dresses, fully lined, including fittings was $70, Debbie did well.

Following a free morning where we could wander around at will, some did a tuk tuk tour, others relaxed by the pool, some went to the spa but 7 of us, Vin, Debbie, the Diamonds, John and us choose to go on a cycling tour and BBQ that afternoon.  It was hilarious.  Helmets – yes, gears – no and we left Hoi An and took off through tiny villages over Paddy Fields with barely a walking track much less a cycling one, there were many stops along the way.  Not only did we cycle through Paddy Fields we were also cycling along the Mekong Delta.  Eventually we arrived at a boat – a tiny boat! To much amusement the bikes were loaded on first, then us.  We found a coolbox of beer, sodas and water and duly shared them around. Now we’re sailing on the Mekong.  It was fantastic.  Loads of people were out in their boats fishing, two people to every boat, one at the front with sticks, banging them repeatedly to get the fish to the surface.  We arrived at an island for our BBQ, ok, now, this wasn’t what we’d expected.  It’s a deserted island! Tables and chairs are somehow found on our little boat.  The fisherman also produces a BBQ and proceeds to cook us all dinner.  We laughed.  Here we were, all 7 of us, on a tiny deserted island, somewhere in the middle of the Mekong with only a Happy Bush, having the most fantastic BBQ ever while listening to the clap clap of the fishermen.  Just before sunset we were back on the boat and returning to Hoi An.  Another brilliant Intrepid experience..777

Soon it would be time to leave Hoi An and we were taking lots of memories.  Denang disappointed though I can see why the Americans were sent for R & R to China Beach.  It was time to head back to the hotel to shower, change, pack our case and backpacks as an early start in the morning, 4am, we are flying to Ho Chi Minh City

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Adventure of a Lifetime, Hue

Vietnamese Coffee

Vietnamese Coffee

374January 29th and 30th 2015

Hue

I’ve discovered Vietnamese Coffee.  Delicious!  When served properly it comes in a cup with a drop filter on top.  When dripped through you add some sweet condensed milk.  I loved it.  Others found it way too strong and added extra sugar, I couldn’t get enough of it and started ordering  2 at a time.

Hue was the nation’s capital for 150 years in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  It’s situation on the banks of the Perfume River is wonderful.  It’s famous for the majesty of the Hue Citadel with royal residences and elegant temples.  On the edges of the city there are impressive pagodas and royal tombs in natural settings.

As a group we’ve discovered the Brown Eyes Bar.  We got a table in a section the first night, following welcoming shots which were repeated everytime some new joined our group, Jenga was produced.

Rules

  • Only 2 fingers allowed
  • If is collapses you sing a song

Some people sang many songs, I sang once, the 2nd night! 376We also ate at the Mandarin Cafe,  http://www.mrcumandarin.com/?cat_id=25, This is owned by Mr Cu who is a photographer.  His walls are amazing as was the food..

249Hue (Hway) is an beautiful place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site  and once again we were in a superb hotel – Gold 1 Hotel http://www.goldhotelhue.com/ The first day was a day on motorbikes. We were on them for the entire day and visited the Citadel and Royal Tomb.  We also have a cruise on the Perfume River with a visit to Thiem Myu Pagoda and a fabulous private meal, vegetarian, of course, at a monastery.  This meal was to be one of the highlights of the trip. Cars were provided for those who didn’t was to ride pillion on Bikes.  We went everywhere, totally off

Vegetarian Lunch at a Monastery

Vegetarian Lunch at a Monastery

the beaten track and yet again confirmed for me that doing an Intrepid Tour was the right thing to do.  We saw and went to places an independant traveller would never have found.

Perfume River

Perfume River

On the first night a group of us went on an optional homestay dinner.  Some thought it would be touristy but it was far from it.  As a student Khanh decided to travel around his own country.  When he arrived by train, like us, in Hue he asked a local motorbike taxi to show him around.  At the end of the day he was invited to Mr Tu’s house for dinner.  They became friends and he told him of his plan to become a travel leader and that one day he would bring a group of visitors to his house.  Four years later he did.  We were so very glad we went.  This was a real home with fantastic local food.

Hometstay dinner

Hometstay dinner

The children came and played with us and I have fantastic memories of this night.

The following morning we were back on our bus again visiting Tanh Toan Bridge, Japanese and a sleepy village that tourists would struggle to find.  We also visited a farm equipment museum where an elderly lady, who was hysterical, showed us not only how everything was done manually years ago but frighteningly these mothods are still used in rural areas.  Truly back breaking work.  The only Royal Tomb not enclosed by a wall, Tomb of Thieu Tri, was visited as part of the tour.  Again a rural one and we were the only tour bus.

A second evening at Brown Eyes bar but not too late a night.  Case is pack, backpacks packed, alarm set for 5.30 as tomorrow we set off for Hoi An

Such wonderful children  Nguyen Van Dinh Vu Nguyen Dday Ngoc Hoai Nguyen Thi Minh Chau Le Van Huan Shu Hong Le Kier Oarh Hong Le Kier Chau

Such wonderful children
Nguyen Van Dinh Vu
Nguyen Dday Ngoc Hoai
Nguyen Thi Minh Chau
Le Van Huan Shu
Hong Le Kier Oarh
Hong Le Kier Chau

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Adventure of a Lifetime Halong Bay,Hanoi Street food and Overnight Train to Hue

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Halong Bay

Day 2 and 3 Tuesday 27th and Wednesday 28th January 2015

So, what is to be the norm for our tip is early morning starts.  The bus is due to leave at 7.30.  Reality is, set alarm for 90 mins before, pack the night before and be ready to go.  As we are returning to this hotel our cases stay behind and we just need an overnight bag.  Our total luggage consists of our case and 2 backpacks.  Bobs is 30lt, mine is a Pacsafe, http://www.pacsafe.com/venturesafe-15l-gii-day-pack-4.html but is bright orange.  It is anti slash and has RFID, also each zipper has a locking mechanism.  Packed carefully it takes loads.  Our case has compartments and is divided in half.  I’ve all our toilitries, meds etc in one half and clothes in the other.  We’ve a 30kg allowance each and our case is only 25kg  We’ve packed lightly!  I also bought packing cubes, http://travelstore.ricksteves.com/catalog/index.cfm?fuseaction=product&id=102 which prove invaluable.  Our clothes are sorted and have a cube each.  Packing for overnight is now easy.  We grab a cube each and we’re ready to go.  Khanh has also given each of us an Intrepid shoulder bag which is a huge help.

Our drive to Halong Bay takes approx 4 hours in a mini bus.  There are stops along the way, usually every 2 hours, either at a local craft industry or a small cafe.  This is to allow us use the ‘Happy House’ – you’re happy when you see it and twice as happy when you use it.  When we arrive we are shown to our junk boat, it looks incredible inside, and lunch is ready for us.  062We have two vegetarians in the group.  When the meal is over we are shown to our Cabins.  Ours is fabulous .  The weather is overcast but this gives the Bay a very ethereal quality.  We slowly sail out through this incredible landscape.

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Double Cabin

162

View from bathroom

We visit Hang Sung Sot cave, otherwise known as Surprise Cave.  It is incredible with 3 deep chambers and magnifient views from the top. 102When we return the group decide to go kayaking.  Wonderful experience, in and out of lagoons.  The sight of Vin and Tracy trying to do it is hilarious and has us all laughing.  We kayak for approx 90 mins and are all hungry when we return to freshen up and have dinner.  Another wonderful meal.

As we continue sailing along there is nothing nicer that to go onto the top deck and watch the stars as we continue through this incredible landscape.  It is truly unbelievable.

Halong Bay by night

Halong Bay by night

Meanwhile, back at the bar, we have discovered the cocktail menu and we all appear to have a liking for mojitos.  This was to set the tone for the remainder of the trip. Daniela has a set of Uno cards, we are taught the game and many hours of pure laughter continue.  This was to be a bonding night  126One  of the crew gets drunk and proceeds to show us his cutting skills using vegetables.  He was also insisting that we all take photos!  The following morning we head back to Hanoi where we’ve a few hours before we head to the train station.  Shared rooms are arranged for us to freshen up and repack our overnight bags as we will not see our cases again until we arrive in Hue. A few of us choose to do the Tour of Street Food in Hanoi with Urban Adventures, http://www.urbanadventures.com/ It was fantastic and took approximately 90 mins where we walked all around the famous streets for food and ate our way around.  It also included a visit to a fresh beer bar.  I tried but I just cannot drink beer, however, the beer lovers said it was good.  The tour ended in an Hanoi BBQ.  It was fantastic although the men who tried the Happy House told us ladies not to bother.

A selection of street food

A selection of street food

We arrived back in time to purchase some food from the local bakery for our breakfast as Intrepid don’t recommend the food on the train.  So into the bus again and off to the station where we are met again by more bedlam

Overnight Train to Hue

Overnight Train to Hue

Overnight Train to Hue

We had been told that we might have to share with others from outside our group, that nothing was guaranteed.  Everyone was anxious about this trip.  The carriages were small and we got to share with the Diamonds.  It was tight!  Khanh had bought the makings of mojitos so we all had a laugh and a few drinks squashed in one compartment.  Originally it was supposed to be ours but with all our luggage, Diamonds have 2 cases, there was no room.  When we turned in both Bob and Philip went out cold straight away whereas Beth and I struggled.  I just found it very difficult to get comfortable.  My sciatic nerve started and eventually I gave up and took painkillers.  I got a few hours in the end.

We all woke early and watched the country pass us by.  An interesting sight were the number of tombstones in peoples gardens.  Vietnamese do not have to bury their dead in cemetries, they may be buried in rice fields or outside their kitchen door! This is really having your loved ones close to you!!!

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Me trying to get Beth’s attention

The train made a couple of stops on the way and I was able to hop off.

It was hot after Hanoi.  Hanoi was in early 20’s but now I know it’s just going to get hotter and hotter the further south we go.  Before long the train had stopped and we got through he bedlam unscathered and had arrived in Hue.

 

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Adventure of a Lifetime Hanoi

The excitement had been building for weeks and finally Rupert was in kennels, house clean and we were packed and ready to go

Saturday 24th January 2015

And we’re off.  Plan is to park car in long stay car park in Dublin airport as Ciaran is in France skiing he will collect it when his flight lands on Tuesday, so checked in, ready to go and we’re off

Abu Dhabi

Only a 2 hour stopover which, by the time we found where we had to go it was almost time to board again.

Bangkok

An uneventful if long flight and we’ve a 5 1/2 stopover.  We found somewhere to park ourselves and charge our devices but time crawled by.  Finally it was time to board again.

Hanoi Sunday 25th January

27 hours and 10 mins door to door and we’re exhausted.  Our driver is waiting for us and we set off to the hotel.  Traffic is bedlam with motorbikes everywhere.  There seems to be no rules of the road and its hot and we’re tired.  Our hotel is the http://hongngochotels.com/our-hotels/hong-ngoc-cochinchine/ Having read reviews I was dreading a noisy, windowless room so was pleasantly surprised when we were seven floors up and had windows.  It’s not a luzury hotel but it is clean.  We have 2 nights here as our trip with Intrepid doesn’t officially start till Monday at 6pm  this means we have a day and a half to ourselves and so it was time to explore.

Our hotel, we discovered, is in a terrific location, right in the middle of the Old Quarter.  One thing we must buy are 2 silk sleeping bags.  Our journey includes an overnight on a boat and an overnight on a train.  We’ve been advised that, although, many of the hotels are basic they should be clean but a silk sleeping bag is recommended.  So the hunt starts.  It is bedlam. We cannot cross any road.  Cars and bikes are everywhere and everyone uses their horns.  005I decide the only way to cross is to go on the safe side of a Vietnamese and follow them.  It doesn’t take long to learn that once you step forward you keep moving, constantly looking and don’t hesitate or you’ll be stranded in the middle of the road.

We make our way to Hoan Kiem Lake and take a walk to the entrance of Ngoc Son Temple, which means Crossing the Bridge. 011We decide not to pay to enter and then I spot the Water Puppet Theatre.  As we were determined to stay awake as long as possible we decide to go to see it.  However this meant crossing a major junction with traffic everywhere and suddenly an old Vietnamese lady using a walking aid, grabs Bob to help her across.  This was truly the blind leading the blind.  Meanwhile I’ve decided that I’m a natural Jay Walker!  The 18.30 show is booked so we go for coffee and buy tickets for the 20.00 showing.  It is fantastic and I’d recommend everyone to go.  Very clever production despite me nodding off! We head back to the hotel, God if only it was that easy!  We ended up smack bang in the middle of the night market.  Finally we were glad to see our beds and fell in

Monday 26th January

Breakfast was ok, yet again I am travelling with my kettle, coffee, sugar, creamer and my travel mug.  I just need my coffee.  Just as we are about to leave we meet the Diamonds, Philip and Beth, from Northern Ireland and discover they will be part of our group.  I do find myself looking at people wondering if we will be travelling with them.  For a city as large as Hanoi it’s very weird that we keep bumping into them.  Our day takes us to many interesting places 043Hoa Loa Prison usually known as the Hanoi Hilton.  Temple of Literature, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex , Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh Stilt House, 016The Presidential Palace and Ho Chi Minh Museum.  We walked all around the lake and I also bought a pair of Vietnamese trousers and before long it was time to return to the  hotel, shower and meet the other members of our group.

017Hanoi 18.00 Day 1 of Intrepid Tour – Best of Vietnam and Cambodia

We arrive to discover we are a group of 16 of whom 9 are late as they’ve just arrived from Laos.  Our group are as follows

Khnah – Leader

Vin, 22 – Australia

Ben and Janelle, 26 – Australia

Daniela, 27 – Australia

Marissa, 28 – Switzerland

Debbie, 38 – UK

Bob and I – Ireland

Philip and Beth – Northern Ireland

Ed and Debbie – Canada

Pauline – Australia

John – Ireland

Tracy – UK

Bill – USA

So out of the 16

5 are Irish

5 – Australian

1 Swiss

1 American

2 Canadian

2 from UK

There are 4 couples, 3 single men and 5 single girls.

It is decided that the 9 who have travelled from Thailand through Laos to Hanoi will continue to share so of that 9 the single girls are Pauline, Tracy and Daniela.  As no one has paid a single supplement they will rotate among each other with one having a single room. The 3 single men will do the same and Debbie and Marissa will share the whole way through.  Vin is the youngest of the group and I hear from the others that he has to be minded as it is his first trip and he sometimes gets lost.  Bill is the eldest, quite odd and not chatty at all.  Khanh, our leader, seems very nice and after giving our insurance details and kitty money – for bus drivers, porters, etc we head off for a group meal.  Khanh made the recommendations and we ate a delicious meal and then John, Bob and I headed for a bar.  John is determined to make this a good holiday.  We are too but I’m not sure I want him latching onto us.  He’s 66, separated and enjoys ‘Thai Women’!  Finally I get them out and we return as we’ve an early start in the morning028038029

 

 

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Day 6 Thursday and we’re homeward bound

Day 7 Thursday

The following morning, before I went to look at books, we went for a long walk – well tourist office said 90 mins – we didn’t walk that fast and did it in just under an hour. I would recommend getting the trail sheets as the walks are well worth doing. Then coffee and I hit the book shops – actually I was very restrained and only went into one – Murder and Mayhem. There were books everywhere, nooks and crannies, rooms, floor to ceiling, you look and there were books. There have been quite a number of murders locally over the years and I was just fascinated. Yes I left with books including 2 by a local author whom I hadn’t heard of before but has a great following in the States. I was sad to leave Hay but would love to return some day for the www.hayfestival.com I would be in my element.

So began our journey back to Holyhead. By now we had given up on both the sat nav and the heater and checked local maps for the best route – he was not doubting himself cause most of the road was so narrow and there were many hairy turns and me with my eyes shut! As we were not sailing until 2am Friday morning we decided to stop in Shrewsbury on the way, it rained, like serious rain so after a short walk we headed back for the motorhome and decided to park alongside the river for a bite to eat. I went off and investigated the theatre where The Kite Runner was being performed that night. I didn’t know this was a stage production also, I loved the film and book, and I was sorry we didn’t have the opportunity of seeing it but I will keep an eye out for it should it ever be staged here in Dublin. We did finally get out for a long walk along the river where we passed 2 boat clubs getting ready to head into the water. Shrewsbury seems like a lovely place to visit, it was just a shame that the weather was so awful.

We arrived in Holyhead early and joined the queue. The return journey was uneventful, however, Rupert never settled in the kennels and, with hindsight, he was by now so used to the MH we regretted not just leaving him in his own bed. Sailing into Dublin as dawn was rising was lovely as too was greeting my own bed for a couple of hours.

It was a great week, far better than I had expected despite the problems with the heater and Rupert settled down so well. Despite the expense of getting his pet passport none of us were asked for any form of ID Bet if I didn’t have it I’d have been asked for it. Murphy’s Law

Since our trip the MH has been returned to the dealer to have some minor glitches repaired under guarantee and to find out exactly what has happened to the heater. Finally a result – a fan was broken which necessitated the part being ordered from the UK so we did not have the use of it for the Bank Holiday weekend which was a shame. I am also waiting for a quote on an alarm system to be installed. Yes we are insured and no I’m not concerned with someone trying to break into it while we’re asleep – Rupert would put them off – I’m more concerned with someone happening to it while we are off rambling around and feel it would be necessary specially on the continent. Can you imagine it being robbed while we’re off somewhere abroad and being left with nothing!

Update on heater

  • Bad gas – nope
  • Fan broken, new one ordered and installed
  • Supposed to collect MH but told heater still not working properly
  • Finally he admits he hasn’t a clue what’s wrong with it, suspects frost damage in 2010.

–          Result for us – we’re getting a new heater

No quote for getting an alarm system installed in MH and on bike racks so if someone could direct me to somewhere reputable I’d appreciate it.

Thanks for taking the time to read

 

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