Friday, November 24, 2017

Dalat with a tinge of Europe

On our way to Dalat we came across a new type of bus, one that we were to find is the preferred mode of bus transport throughout Vietnam, the sleeper bus. As its name implies it comes filled with little capsules, generally three rows across and double storey, like the baby seats in cars just much bigger (but not big enough). Problem was that they would use these during the day and even for some trips that were only two hours long. You had to take your shoes off to travel on them and they got mad if you argued about that as it was not easy for Elizabeth to take off her shoes with a broken toe. The capsules were not quite long enough to stretch out but you get used to them. Weird way to travel.

Anyway, back to Dalat. Dalat was like being transported instantaneously to Europe. Being high in altitude and inland it has a cool climate without the oppressive humidity we had come to accept. First time we had been cool (even cold) since entering South East Asia. Dalat was full of rolling landscapes, beautiful scenery, fruit and coffee fields and flower gardens. We wanted to make the most of the 3 nghts we decided to allow ourself here and tracked down a good tourist shop. We booked a city tour and a country tour for successive days. 

They were wonderful tours that filled a full two days with sights and adventure. Some of the highlights of the city tour include:

The cable car trip to the Thien Vien Truc Lam Monastery as well as the monastery itself. Beautiful views from the cable car and passing over a pine forest. We went to Bao Dai's extravagant summer palace, saw a very long reclining Buddha and visited the Datanla waterfall. The waterfall was down a very steep slippery path, and despite the attempt, Elizabeth was unable to make it with her broken toe. So I took lots of photos and video. We also went to the fabulous Flower Forest, like a botanical gardens, but more visually extensive with fake giraffes, silver dolphins, sorcerers apprentice like brooms holding buckets and more.
The Reclining Buddha
Flower Park

The country tour was even better, warming up with a visit to a flower farm and a village of a local minority group. There was a cricket farm, the insect not the sport, where crunchy crickets with sauce were offered. We politely declined as unsure of its status for us vegetarians. Research later revealed this is a bit of a grey area for us. They are more environmentally friendly as a protein source than even vegetables, less animals are killed as harvesting fruit and veg inadverdently kills small species and some science said they have no pain receptors. So still on the fence about that one.

We came across a huge fantastically smiling very happy Buddha and saw, felt and heard the brilliantly wide Elephant waterfall. Sat, relaxed and contemplated the cares of the world with a weasel coffee in an expansive coffee plantation and finished the day marveling at the Dr Seuss type architecture of the amazing Crazy House. Sure wish my grandson Sam was with us for that one, we could have wandered around aimlessly for hours :-)

Yep Dalat was certainly a special kind of Oasis in Vietnam with something for everyone and a little touch of Europe.

Elephant Waterfall, flower farm and smiling Buddha
Time for some Weasel Coffee
Crazy House
More Crazy House
Bye, bye, beautiful Dalat

Monday, September 4, 2017

Ho Chi Minh City and a pot of Weasel coffee

Elizabeth spent the rest of her time in Cambodia recovering from her toe misadventure, until the date arrived on our visa that allowed us to enter Vietnam. We bought our bus tickets and high tailed it out of there. It was a long trip taking all day, needing to go through Phnom Penh, before heading into Vietnam. Elizabeth was taking it very carefully with my hiking pole now doubing as a walking stick. The last section crossing into Vietnam went very slowly with many many trucks passing us coming the other way filled with people. We did not find out why but I suppose the assumption is that they go into Vietnam to work and come back at the end of the day. The number of trucks and people was endless.

Independence Palace and the Ben Thanh Market
So we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam was going to be rushed: we wanted to traverse it from South to North in under a month and see the best spots. We did not want to do it by plane, so it was going to be a challenge, but then challenge is my middle name (well, it should have been anyway). Our initial thought was city tours; t ahey were really cheap and included everything such as water, lunch and entry tickets. After settling in to our hotel we found a travel agency just around the corner and booked a tour for the next day.

The morning took us around some main sites of the city - palaces, pagodas and the like - and finished at a coffee shop where I got my first taste of weasel coffee. Apparently the weasel eats the coffee beans but is unable to digest them and its stomach juices do some magic that adds extra flavour to them. Nature takes its course and then some lucky fella gets to collect the beans, which are dried and used to make coffee for me to drink. Surprisingly yummy, if you do not think about it too much. Tasted a bit sweet with a hint of chocolate and very strong.

Then was lunch and we got our first taste of a full-on Vietnamese meal. Starting with a hearty vegetarian Pho (noodles) and fried spring rolls through to stir fry and rice. We were packed solid and all vegetarian and gluten free. Luckily for me they use rice paper for the spring rolls and, especially in the south, most soy sauces do not include wheat. Then back in the van for the several hours to the Cu Chi Tunnels.

Spikes under the grass
The 121km of criss crossing interconnected tunnels were a thorn in the side of the US during the Vietnam War. Complemented by many ingenious booby traps inside and around tunnel entrances they were basically impossible to shut down, despite several campaigns to do so. They formed a veritable underground city including hospitals, weapons storage and planning areas. Seeing the different types of booby traps was chilling and you could imagine the pain and suffering they would inflict.

Elizabeth in the tunnel
Since Elizabeth was injured I made the sacrifice and disappeared under a secret entrance only to re-emerge moments later wth a 'ta da'. We were then given the option to walk along several sections of tunnel. Elizabeth was weary of missing out and decided to persevere and impressed our guide by making it through two sections of 10m tunnels so small you had to crouch waddle through them. We decided against shooting guns for fun and ate some baked cassava (tapioca) bread instead. This was the staple meal during wartime, which as it was not nutritionally complete contributed to the small size and short lifespan of the Viet Cong.
Eating cassava bread

Back at Ho Chi Minh City we found a lovely Indian restaurant for dinner as we prepared to jump  on a bus again to continue our discovery of Vietnam. No time to kick back and relax just yet...

Monday, July 31, 2017

Sihanoukville and the saga of Elizabeth's toe

This is a 2 way road and yes we are on the
wrong side
Buses! We have travelled in small buses, big buses, transport vans and trucks, both local and tourist, all around the world. From Peru to Portugal and Egypt to India we have experienced some of the world's most lawless roads and craziest drivers, but never did I actually seriously fear for my life. That changed on the trip to Sihanoukville from Battambang. Our driver was seriously dodgy. I constantly saw vehicles coming directly at me as he weaved in and out spending most of the time on the wrong side of the road, overtaking on blind corners and double white lines, and following behind trucks overtaking without knowing the road ahead, ducking in at seemingly the last moment or forcing the vehicle he had just overtaken to brake to let him in. Vehicles were constantly flashing and beeping at us, and even though this WAS actually normal for Cambodia, this dude took it to the next level. He forced most smaller vehicles coming towards us to move on to the shoulder as he played chicken with them in his bigger vehicle. The bus came with wifi so we googled 'leading cause of death in Cambodia', answer 'traffic accidents'; we were not comforted, or surprised. As a fellow traveller said in his Trip Advisor review, 'A food cart would have been safer.'

To add insult to injury, when we arrived we were dumped at a petrol station outside of town and set upon by taxi and remork drivers. Armed with google maps, we threatened to walk several times until we negotiated a sensible price and arrived a little shell shocked at our hotel the Don Bosco Hotel School. Run by students this was an awesome hotel to relax in at an incredible price. Final word on buses (and I could write a blog on them alone): check Trip Advisor for ratings. We chose our bus companies in Cambodia a bit more carefully after that.

Now that is off my chest, Sihanoukville, a cosy little coastal town famous for beaches and islands. We went into town to try to find an activity for the next day. We settled on a relaxing, peaceful hike that was available in the nearby national park. In the morning we woke up early and waited for our transport (a remork) to arrive, and were delivered the news that it was cancelled, not enough people, but a certainty for the following day. In compensation we were offered a boat trip to three islands that they could get us on for the day. We took up their offer, grabbed our bathers and set off for a pleasant day on the water (or so we thought).

The boat was called 'Happy Boat' and took us to the first island, a veritable Shangri La with beautiful beaches and bungalows on stilts so you could stay high up in the trees. Would have been a great place to stay, maybe next time :-) Next stop was out in the blue ocean where we were allowed to swim and snorkel. They had a slide going down from the second level so you could enter the water with a splash, and splash we did.

Finding a cat on the way to the waterfall
The day progressed like that until we arrived at the last island. It had a waterfall, and we wanted to see it, but with wet dirty feet we broke a long standing rule and did not put our shoes on. We arrived at the bottom of the waterfall without a problem so decided to climb up to a higher vantage point. As the path got rockier I turned and said to Elizabeth that this is getting a bit dodgy and that we might need to give it a miss, but I kept moving forward without waiting for a reply. Next thing I know Elizabeth is yelling up for me; I hurried back down to her and was presented with a small toe at a right angle to where it should be. Apparently it got caught between rocks as she slipped and her foot went one way without the toe following.

She attempted several times to stand on it but it was too painful. While I wondered what to do a  strong young Cambodian on his way down from the waterfall stopped and offered to piggy back her. Elizabeth enthusiastically took up the offer and he piggy backed her down the hill, along the path, across the beach and back on to the boat. It was a sizeable distance, and he did take a few breaks, but he refused offers of help and insisted on taking her all of the way, with me and his partner struggling to keep up. During one stop some local ladies had a look, confidently announced it was broken and pulled bottles of fluid out of their bags that they liberally doused on the toe.
The bottom of the waterfall
Heading back to the boat

Monday, July 24, 2017

You can't take the bats out of Battambang

We hopped on a bus and travelled to Battambang (pronounced Battambong). The bus kindly deposited us in a mud field with a hoard of tuk tuks (remorks) waiting. Our hotel had sent us our own remork and we jumped in with our friendly driver for the trip into town. He offered to show us around the countryside on a personalised tour the next day, but we declined as we had not had a chance to see what was available. Once we had dinner and looked at the options at the hotel we thought that a day out with a tuk tuk driver, which had worked so well in Siem Reap, would work well here. A lot of the attractions were spread far and wide.

So in the morning we headed out to see if we could find someone and lo and behold waiting just outside the hotel was the very same driver looking for work for the day! We later found out his name is Dara and he used to work in a factory in Phnom Penh but it closed down and he's now trying to survive as a tuk tuk driver with a vehicle obtained for him by his brother. We negotiated an itinerary and a price and set off for our adventure of a lifetime!!!

First up was the bamboo train. Cambodia used to have trains but they're not going anymore and there are many disused tracks. So they made small flat carriages out of bamboo and take you for trips to a little village and back. Thing is it's a single track so if someone's coming back you have a problem. The way they've solved it is by getting the carriage with the least people to hop out; they lift the carriage off the wheels and the wheels off the track, the other carriage goes past and then they put it all together again and off you go. As there were only two of us we were the ones who had to hop off EVERY TIME (about 7 times), but you start joking with the people coming the other way and everybody has a good time. Once they get going it can be more like a fairground ride as the carriage whizzes along a fairly rickety track with overgrown bushes brushing past your shoulders and the occasional buffalo can bring it all to a sudden halt. You need windscreen wipers on your sunglasses for all the insects that land. And keep your mouth firmly closed.

After some small stops at a suspension bridge, fruit bat hangout and a Muslim fishing village, we arrived at the next major destination, Banon Hill Temple. The temple ruins were at the top of about 400 fairly steep steps. You saw from the red faces coming down that this was going to take some effort, especially in the characteristic heat and humidity of Cambodia. So off we went, on the way playing tag team with a couple of other visitors. We would stop for a break and they would pass us, then they would stop and we would pass them, and then...well, you get the idea. We ended up chatting and trading pictures with them on the way up. The top was worth it, not so much for the temples although they were nice, but for the fabulous views and atmosphere among the temple ruins.
Rest break

We next headed to Phnom Sampov, a small mountain that again required a considerable amount of uphill walking. Along the way we visited a cave with an opening in the top where Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge killed many people and threw them in. The cave's now a shrine containing victims' skulls, a reclining Buddha and a prayer section. At the top there were temples and many spectacular lookout areas as well as mischievous monkeys coming out to play.

Waiting for the bats

We had to head back to the bottom at double pace because this mountain was home to another famous landmark, the bat cave. Not the one with Batman and Robin but about a million actual bats, and every night around 6:30 they all head out to go feeding for the night. They hunt insects, including many agricultural pests, and it's estimated they prevent the loss of 2,000 tons of rice per year. Running about half an hour late the bats did indeed start streaming out from the cave for well over half an hour. It was longer and more impressive than I expected and fun to watch. I could not capture it well on film, one of those things where you did 'have to be there'.

Our trusty guide then told us he knew where there was a secret cave with twice as many bats so off we went again. It required some steep climbing to reach his 'secret cave' that appeared to be a fairly well known secret when we got there and found a crowd. Nevertheless it indeed had a constant stream of bats impressively streaking across the sunset for a night pillaging the insect population as far as 50km away.

It was a long day, but we had a fantastic adventure with another hardworking tuk tuk driver that will be a happy lingering memory and another friend made.

Roller coaster, Cambodian style


Friday, July 21, 2017

Discovering Angkor Wat

If it was good enough for Angelina Jolie then it is good enough for us. So off we set to the Hindu/Buddhist temple complex of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Used in the first Tomb Raider movie and stretching over 400 square kilometres, this sprawling ancient city is too big to cover in a day. But then again a lot of it is very similar so you just need to focus on a few of the most well preserved or special interest temples.

Churning the ocean of milk

First up was the Angkor Wat temple itself, the most famous of the complex. Adorned with numerous bas relief sculptures, one complete wall was devoted to the 'churning of the ocean of milk' Hindu epic. Roughly the story is about the gods and devils fighting over obtaining an elixir that gives you immortality and peace (yes, very ironic). It ain't working so one of the supreme gods Vishnu tells them if they work together by churning the ocean of milk they are more likely to obtain it. You would think this is the moral of the story but no, once the elixir appears they start fighting over it again. To make a long story short the devils grab it first but the gods cheat by getting Vishnu to intervene again and they have had it ever since. The bas relief is impressive and very long.

After Angkor Wat we went to Bayon Temple. This temple is a bit like wandering into the twilight zone as everywhere you look you see the same serene and smiling face in varying sizes. The faces are thought to be of King Jayavarman VII. Probably likely since he built it and vanity is normally a king's strong suit.

We also visited the temple called Ta Prohm. My favourite, this temple was left as it was found, with nature taking over. Trees were growing through walls with roots pushing up and snaking around structures. It was actually pretty cool and eerily beautiful. Surrounded by lush forests and fields where cows chew contentedly, the atmosphere is romantic and calm as nature reclaims what we abandon.

As the area is so spread out we took a friend's advice and hired a remork (tuk tuk) for the day, basically a motorbike with a carriage. Our friendly driver Li Hong looked after us by picking us up from the hotel, taking us to the ticket office (which is not where the temples are) and going around from temple to temple. When we were all templed out (about 4pm) he took us back to the hotel for a freshen up and then we concluded the day by going to the Phare Circus.

Ordering a fresh coconut juice
means cutting the top of a coconut
and putting a straw in it
This is a show performed under the big top, without animals, and with students from a school in Battambang that caters for disadvantaged and abused youth, teaching them skills in many artistic disciplines. The show has a social message and an artistic flair to it as well as producing some great acrobatics and juggling performances. A bit of a cross between a play and Cirque du Soleil, the show had a theme of ordinary Cambodians and tourists in the street coming together to help each other when problems arise. The school runs mainly on donations and the proceeds from these shows. A great night out, a great day out, and thanks to our fabulous remork driver, safely delivered back to a comfortable bed and a good night's sleep
Dinner before the show.