Exploring Angkor…. What?… I said Exploring Angkor!

By the time we leave, we will have spent a fantastic 5 days in Siem Reap, the city that basically exists to feed the awesome Angkor Temples. We arrived here full of expectations and ready for some serious cycling.

There are a few main ways to get around the temples of Angkor…
1. By Tour Bus with about 60 other people, and about 60 other tour buses… herded on and off like cattle
2. By motorbike… not the cheapest option for 2 people
3. By remork or tuktuk… costing about Us$10
4. By bicycle… US$1 per day!

So for budgetary and health reasons we went with the bikes. Now $1 will get you something with wheels, but not necessarily any brakes or gears… so we upped our budget to $2 and got a couple of decent bikes for our stay.

Biking it up

We decided to do the temples in 3 days, which costs $40 per person… not cheap, but I guess it is the 8th wonder of the world! We had a tip that if you purchased your tickets after 5pm – you would get free access for that night plus the 3 days… so we headed off towards the sunset… along with hundreds of other tourists. It was a real circus with huge buses kicking up dust and touts everywhere and people running up a hill to get the best spot. To be honest it was so un-magical and an odd introduction to Angkor. Much better to do the sunset once you know where your favourite spot is and you can head back there.

PFB enjoying the sunset

Unpeturbed however, we got up at 5am the next day to head to a sunrise spot… this time avoiding the typical place which was Angkor Wat’s west gate – we headed to the lesser used east gate. The view of the sun doesn’t rise between the famous towers of Angkor Wat from this point but we seriously had the whole temple to ourselves for 15 minutes… which was totally magical.

Angkor Wat is the largest religious building in the world and it is truly astounding up close. The carvings are so intricate and well preserved and the stories they tell are fascinating. We had breakfast in the shadow of the temple watching the sun climbs higher and the tourists filter in and it felt very peaceful. So at about 7.30am it was starting to get hot so we hit the road. All the roads are really flat and well maintained so it is really easy to get around the temple complex… with guidebook in hand you can work out which ones you want to see… you would need alot long that 3 days to see them all!

Angkor Wat

Our favourite apart from the Wat, was Ta Promh where the trees have totally taken over the temple… very jungley and interesting but full of tour groups. We found some peace and quiet in some of the further out temples and before we knew it, we had been out on the bikes for over 9 hours and we very saddle sore and covered in red dust. We covered about 30km on the first day so slept like babies and decided to bypass the sunrise on day 2 in favour of beauty sleep.

Day two and our muscles seemed to be mostly intact! So a later start saw us off to the ancient fortified city of Angkor Thom… again by the less touristy route through the VIctory Gate in the east… which added about 5km onto the trip! The city really needs a good 4-5 hours to explore and we managed to find some quieter spots to relax and soak up the atmosphere of the ruins. We lunched by a royal bathing pool; now used by local kids for cleaning up, then climbed the terrace of the elephants before heading to the awesome Bayon… famous for its 216 stone faces. It is really unsettling looking around all the giant faces but they are quite peaceful looking if not slightly intimidating. As we had covered most of Angkor Thom by foot, the bums were a bit rested so we power-pedalled back for another look at Angkor Wat… this time from the touristy west gate. Hundred and hundreds of people and a lovely view of scaffolding made this a little less magical than day one…  Finished off the day with a Seeing Hands massage by the blind (see Andy’s Blog on Massages).

Tandem Time

So day three hit and we decided to swap the bikes for something with a bit more combined power……. a tandem! Not so common in Siem Reap, it drew alot of interests from the locals and tourists and as we powered down Highway 6 towards the oldest temples in the area at Roulous… lots of beeping and shouting ensued! By this time we were a little templed out but we wanted to see the Roulous temples famed for their surviving plasterwork and it was worth the 13km slog out there in the heat. By the end of the day though we were exhausted…. but had enough energy for a night on the lash!

We decided to stay one more day to relax, eat the good food (I am addicted to Fish Amok… delicious Cambodian Dish) and have one more massage by the blind before moving onto Kratie at 5.30am…. why are all these transportation methods so early???

Battambang goes Bamboo Bonkers

After leaving Phnom Penn we headed up to Battambang north-west  of  Tonal Sap Lake. We only planned to stay a couple of days but our top priority was to ride on the legendary Bamboo train……

Once we’d arrived we checked into a cheap hotel and looked to hire a scooter for the following days adventure. The locals insisted on a guide at a small extra cost but we both decided that we had enough experience of finding places with crap maps and a compass that there was no need…..or maybe they just was trying to make some more money out of us???

We hired a scooter (125cc) for $7 (approximately 4 pound) and took our bums out into the wild in search of the Bamboo train.

After only a few wrong turns and a mouthful of dust from the dust tracks we finally found where the train runs from…..it runs along just a single track  in a straight line for approximately 6km to the tiniest station where you are accustomed to purchase water and food from the drivers mother. A return trip costs $5 each and takes around 1 hour….

Love at first sight…..

The bamboo train

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When we got off the bike and parked up we were pleasantly and disturbingly surprised. The train? consists of a wooden frame that has slithers of bamboo nailed across to make a sitting surface. This area can fit about 5 people on it at a squeeze as we found out. This sits on 2 axles, one has a drive pulley and belt attached. The train is powered by what looks to be a lawn mower engine. The engine fits to the frame on slots and the belt is pulled over the pulley on the engine. To make the train move the driver at the back uses a stick to tension the belt by sliding the engine outwards, this then grips the belt and the train starts moving. No brakes just a stick. It is very primitive but amazing to see this working and loads of fun. Once we got going this thing got up to some serious speeds…..around 30 mph. It might not seem much but when that’s combined with being 6 inch from the ground and the track as wonky and out of line as a donkey’s appendage then it felt pretty scary at times.

The really funny thing is that there are quite a few of these moving up and down the track so when two meet, the lesser loaded one has to disassemble and let the other pass. I even got to assist in the process.

It turns out that the track is owned by a private company who take almost all of the cash from the rides so the drivers are in short supply. The next big future plan is to replace the track and the Bamboo trains and use a luxury train to ferry tourists and goods to and from the surrounding areas. This will be disastrous to the operators of the Bamboo trains as they wont exist anymore….we feel lucky to have experienced it.

The rest of the day resulted in us driving the scooter to a few temples situated around the area. By this time in the trip I was a little bit templed out so I probably wasn’t the most excited person there. To make this worst I stubbed my big toe on the crap concrete steps but managed to tear open the end like a tin of sardines. Ouch! Luckily there was no blood and a nice guy gave me a plaster to stick it back together.

On the way back after many hours of riding along the dusty roads we stopped off at the only Cambodian Winery to sample the local brew. It wasn’t worth buying a case…..we did however meet some funny Korean school kids who were out on a field trip who seemed to like it….some of them needed help getting back on-board the bus.

A well earned massage…….

As we’ve been traveling through the many different countries we’ve taken on-board lots of different cultures, cuisines, languages and weather systems. But in each country we’ve also sampled the native massage. Apart from it obviously being cheaper than in England (approx 3-5 pounds) it also has its own characteristics. These can vary from a table lying down to sitting in a chair to fully clothed to fully naked to relaxing music or to the massure chatting on their mobile….

All of the masssages we’ve had have been well-earned, usually from the days heavy activities such as canyoning, trekking, cycling, climbing, walking or simply lazing on a beautiful sandy beach.

The best massage by far that we’ve had is from a blind Cambodian. It’s a full body Shiatzu and you get to change into some nice pajamas (no oil and no nakedness this time). The feeling is amazing. Due to their disability they can instantly feel where the problems are. The massage centre’s are usually called ‘Seeing Hands’ and it only cost around (3.5 pounds)…..bargain

In total we’ve had about eight massages and they all differ in comfort and satisfaction but I would strongly suggest the ‘Seeing Hands’….

Later today after our laborious bike ride we’re heading back again to see the ‘Seeing Hands’….before the massage starts you usually get asked how strong you would like it, soft medium or hard. This time i’ll try not to wince when I get the back of my calves squeezed HARD…..

Paradise on Phu Quoc Island

Andy on our own beach doing some ''tree pose''

 

 

 

A late addition to our Vietnam trip, Phu Quoc Island turned out to be a fantastic location choice…. thank god we made it there as it might just be paradise!

Phu Quoc sitsa little way off the coast of Vietnam in the gulf of Thailand .. its almost close to Cambodia than Vietnam and indeed they do claim it as their own… its a source of great rivalry and we can see why…. it is simply gorgeous.

We were lucky enough to choose a quiet spot as much of the island is undergoing serious development. There are plans to put an international airport on there. Mercifully at the moment it is very unspoilt and you can still have a whole beach to yourself. It rather worryingly has been called the Phukket of Vietnam… so god knows what that will lead to!

We stayed at Ong Lang Beach in a resort owned by a lovely German couple…. they could only put us up for one of the nights we wanted to stay so they offered us a special beach bed… which turned out to be magical, if not a little “ópen” (check out the photo below)

Beachside Bed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was rustic where we were staying but it had its own beach, rickety wooden jetty, snorkelling straight off the beach and a fire pit as well. We loved it!

We took a snorkelling trip on the second day to the An Thoi Islands on the southern tip… fantastic sealife but already the coral was starting to die off from unwanted visitors… so we were ultra careful whilst swimming around. The beaches on the islands have powder white sand and noone lives on them… perfect for a bit of island hopping… although the boat we were on served the worst lunch ever!

On day 3 we took a moped around the island in search of our own private beach and didn’t have to travel for long to find it.

Rach Vien Beach

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We passed open stretches of sand and tiny little villages with rickety wooden bridges over river tributaries… good honest beautiful people who returned our camera to us when it bumped unnoticed out of our backpack (ooops someone didn’t shut the bag properly!). At the top of the island sits the village of Ganh Dau where we explored the narrow road running alongside the ocean with a shop for every possible need or want… and even an internet cafe for the local kids to play games… the revolution is everywhere… hey?!

Next stop was Rach Vien where we had incorrectly assumed there might be a restaurant for lunch! What was there though was a group of Vietnamese from HCMC on hols who offered us the chance to join them for BBQ squid and beer! With our phrase book and their bits of English, we managed to share lunch and some laughs… then we lay bloated on a perfect beach with an ocean filled with bright pink starfish!

Ah the international language of sunglasses!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We did have a night on the booze on the island… drinking neat brandy with a couple from Canada and a lovely lady from London…. never again… bad heads and beach beds do not mix! The drunkeness did spur us on for a night swim though where we discovered the gorgeous phospherescent creatures in the sea… magical swimming with the stars above and diamonds in the sea with you!

So we decided the stay an extra day and just relax on the beach… to be honest we could have stayed another week! Definitely the only reason to come back to Vietnam… We feel like we have done the country quite exhaustively with no reason to return… but we could be tempted by Phu Quoc!

Mekong Delta

Well, our last moments are running out fast in Vietnam….we’ve toured the whole of the country from north to south and are now ready to leave and cross the border to Cambodia….. But before we do let me tell you a little about the Mekong Delta and what we once again experienced……so the story goes….

Just what you always wanted to do...hold some bees!

Leaving Saigon was easy, we managed to do it  in a pretty well organised travel bus that had all the correct papers and insurance  etc….so getting to My Tho was straight forward. Just to let you know that there are quite a few charlatans out there who operate on a shoe string. (Most of these buses need a shoe string to lock the back doors due to there being so much [“goods”]being transported. Also having some leg room is considered a bonus.

Based on previous bus journeys there were few problems worth reporting once we arrived in the bus station we realised that in order to get into My Tho we needed some more transport as it was about 3 miles out of town…..to where the cheap hotels and the riverside. Within the blink of an eye we were presented with the option of boarding our very first Xe-on taxi or scooter taxi…….”What about the massive backpacks?”……just stick them on the front and off we went.

I’d manage to break Rach in a little with our Bajaj 200cc so this was  easy rider….

Surprise surprise, the scooter rider takes us to his friends hotel, whose other friend also arranges a river tour at a bonus price….he gives a discount because we have the room and the tour booked???.This is easy we think.

The tour includes a boat for 2, coconut candy factory experience, honey bee tea, free fruit and bike to ride and an English speaking guide and takes 6 hours to hope around the Mekong islands….. “meet me outside in 15 minutes”…….we assumed he was our guide, we were wrong……our guide spoke no English. All he could say was VC, VC, VC, …..and could not answer any questions. He did try to explain how the Americans entered the war by flying up the Mekong in boats and helicopters by showing us hand movements and shouting VC,VC,VC….

narrow canals on the Mekong Islands of My Tho

the bea tea was very tasty but it was soon evident the everything was a sales pitch and so it went to the coconut candy factory. We did however buy some that we believed to be coconut but on closer sampling Rach described them to taste of duriam???  I think it smells like bum. The boat ride was funny, we did manage to almost capsize when a log in the water hit the front side and toppled us. The driver, an older lady had to release the throttle by dropping the shoestring from between her toes.

The high light of the experience was when we got to one of the inhabited islands and could take a bike ride around it. It was lovely and also we got some New Year exercise that we urgently required. On the way back we got to see and catch fire flies which was a cool experience as we’d never seen them before. We did say our goodbye’s to the guide who surprisingly looked a little like Willem Defoe.

Our intention in the morning was to leave and head to Vin Long. The helpful hotelier also said he could provide a bus ….we did however say that we would like to travel by the local bus service that operates from the local bus station. “You need a Xe-on to take you there, it is far”……we then get taken to a random cafe on the high way miles from anywhere….one of the xe-on riders waits with us. It was a clever scam ….we never fell for that kind before. (Our experience of Vietnam seems to be more scam infested than in India so be warned). How else do you get commission from tourists?….take them to a place where they don’t know where they are then say the bus,( that they’d told to pick you up, which is a transit van), comes and collects you and asks for 10 times the actual rate…..I was not impressed, and when the over crowded bus stopped and demanded 200,000 dong ($10 each) I said F###off. He instantly dropped it to 100,000 which was still 5 times more expensive. Rach said keep calm and all will be thine. We did have a laugh though as we drove along the high way bundled next to half of Vietnam…..a few hours later we were quickly informed that we’d arrived and our bags were ejected. “This is not the town centre we cried”……”it is that way they said and drove off”.

At least in India you kind of have respect for the transport systems. We did find out later that the police do fine the drivers of these home run businesses for a percentage of the takings, so it wasn’t worth the risk for them to go into town. Communism is a shady business, expect the unexpected……

Sunset over the Mekong

Our spirits were lifted when we arrived in the town an met a lovely guy who offered us a home stay for cheap. He showed us pictures of his family and the place looked lovely. It was on the small island over the river, just a short ferry ride away. We were taken to the house on yet another scooter driven by the guys sister who could barely touch the floor. Hammocks were swinging on the porch and the guys mother welcomed us in with a cup of coffee. We relaxed for a while. We also had some free bike to take out and investigate the island. It was a beautiful experience. The price of $10 each included evening meal which was a whole elephant ear fish with spring rolls and soup and also breakfast. It restored our faith in the Vietnamese.

The next stop on our Mekong Delta experience was Can Tho. It was the best place to see floating markets. The bus ride was straight forward and no extortion took place. When we arrived we found a cheap hotel, was offered a floating market experience by a woman who somehow showed up just after we’d checked in. We thought at least we don’t need a guide for this, just a boat that floats. We even bumped into some people we’d met earlier in Mui Ne and had a few drinks with which was lovely.

Meeting the locals in Vinh Long

Our early morning boat ride was to be a long one, it took about 1 and half hours to get there and then an hour drifting around the market. It was really interesting seeing how natural the river seemed to the Vietnamese. On the way back it seemed to take forever. I think the boat felt like it was power by strimmer motor. Every boat overtook us. The worst thing was that we’d spent 4 hours in the tiny vessel and we only had a plastic vessel to wee into. Rach went first. I managed to get stage fright when we sailed past a bridge full of locals.

In the morning we then set off to Rach Gia to head onto the exotic island of Phu Quoc but more about that later……

Phu Quoc... paradise on earth

 

 

 

 

 

Saigon in 60 seconds……

At first let me just say that expectations and reality are sometimes missleading and not always true. We had very little expectations of Saigon as we arrived at 9.00pm in the evening….. there was loads of traffic, traffic jams, fumes, and bright lights. Not to mention the heat….. Hear we go again….scam men on every corner….cheap drinks and massage girls offering cheap sessions…..but wait

Once we’d got our bearings and took a breath we were pleasantly surprised to see how nice and clean the city was. We arrived in the backpacker area so there were loads of bars, but not so busy. The locals and tourists were blended into the background and the smiley faces of the Vietnamese helped us to see the pathway. Yes the traffic is crazy, but following the simply rule of don’t run just walk, we seemed to be able to cross the busiest streets without problems. The street food in the market was very cheap and also the beer too, obviously the big bars charge more and aren’t that good.

We did manage to find our way to a music bar slightly out from the tourist trap called Acoustic Bar which was a great experience. It was a live karaoke bar with a resident band that were excellent musicians. The problem was that all the singers (who were of a high singing standard) loved to sing power ballad after power ballad….three rather strong cocktails later we found ourselves the last people at the bar and the band had left…..oops….the security were hanging around for us to leave…. You wouldn’t see that in England….

Rachel's new Saigon nose piercing

Saigon is definately worth a few days as there is so much to see. The parks are packed full with people playing badminton and a game that involves a shuttle-cock type football. You do need to keep you bag close to you as there is always the chance that  someone might like it.

Mui Ne Beach Life

After the fantastic experience in the mountains of Dalat, it was time to head beachside for some surfing action. We arrived in the strange resort town of Mui Ne which seems to be a little ‘Russia-by-the-sea’. The place is totally geared up for tourists and in particular kite surfers!

Kite Surfing Beach

Now don’t get me wrong… Kite Surfing certainly looks cool as hell…. but its not exactly accessible for the average backpacker… at a cost of $300 for a day lesson! So there isn’t much on offer for us really here – since surfing is not seasonal in January and swimming is a pretty hazardous pastime with all the razor sharp boards flipping in the air!

The other problem is that every hotel is full – so it took quite a while to find a place to bed down… we did manage in the end though but it certainly isn’t cheap here.

Easy Rider

The main drawcard other than the watersports in Mui Ne are the towering sanddunes which surround the area. Tours head out every day via jeep – but as with many tours… they are overpriced and underwhelming… so hiring a motorbike was the best option for us and our first chance to experience 2 wheel self driving in South East Asia. Blasting out on the highway towards the White Sanddunes, we wondered if we were going the wrong way as there was just so little traffic. We passed some gorgeous windswept beaches, devoid of resorts and tourists and dotted with locals laying their fishing nets from coracle boats. But the development onshore is creeping ever further north so these beaches may not remain this way for long.

Ready for some sandsurfing

Once at the white sanddunes, we paid about one pound each to grab some plastic sheeting and careered down the dunes at semi-high speed. Andy did a bit of a stunt and ended up in the stagnant lake… pure comedy and a video will hopefully be on Youtube soon. It was a good job we were there in the morning as at 10.30am the dunes were starting to get a little hot underfoot! The Red sand dunes offered a very similar experience, but with more tourist-orientated locals… who offered to look after our bike if you purchased a coca cola… they also tried to tempt us to eat in their restaurant by dangling a packet of instant noodles in front of us… shockingly we were not tempted! We saved our hunger for the evening when we had fresh tuna from the BBQ at a local restaurant… who had not quite grasped the concept of a BBQ cooking the fish and keeping it moist… our tuna was cooked within an inch of its life – but the cocktails were BOGOF so we weren’t too interested in complaining.

Local Wildlife at Mui Ne... not getting on that well

So we are leaving here a day earlier than planned to explore the delights of Ho Chi Minh City… I am sure this will be a BIG contrast to the Vietnam we have seen so far… we hear that crossing the street is a near impossibility and that it is scam central!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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