A Travellerspoint blog

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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05.01.2012 – Wandering around our hotel area this morning trying to find somewhere for breakfast and we have already been offered a Tuk Tuk about 50 times! The locals just sit around all the hotels and restaurants waiting for tourists to come out and overpay to go somewhere, rather than run around with locals all day long. Makes sense, we read somewhere that the average Cambodian survives on $1 per day – so if they can sit and wait for a few hours, and then get a tourist to pay them $4 or $5 – they are laughing. We are pretty determined not to play into the overpaying game, as it does nothing but fuel the problem for future tourists, so refuse to pay more than $1 for our trips around town, maybe with a 1000 riel tip ($0.25) if they are a good driver. We’re probably still overpaying – but sometimes it’s not worth the arguing over $0.25 or $0.50 between 2 people, when you’re probably dealing with someone who has 3 kids to feed at the end of each shift.

We walked up to Wat Phnom, a temple set on the only hill in Phnom Penh, 27 metres high. Having seen plenty of temples by now, this one wasn’t anything particularly special, but it was still nice and for $1 entrance, was worth a visit. There are plenty of locals there trying different things to get you to part with your money, but the most ingenious one I saw was the girls with birds in cages. Apparently you pay to ‘set the birds free’ – but they are trained to return to the cages after you leave. You’ve got to hand it to them, at least it’s different!

Afterwards, we walked to Psar Thmei, the Central Market, which is a huge architecturally designed dome – some say ranked as one of the 10 largest domes in the world. It sold an assortment of things, but we were really only there to check out the dome. Afterwards we walked a few streets and had lunch in the Soyra Shopping Mall (mainly for the air conditioning!) but if you go up to the top floor, you also get views over the city. There are several chain restaurants, as well as a 20+ stall food court on the upper floors, so plenty to choose from.

After lunch we took a Tuk Tuk to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. We had read that it is only open 8-11am and 2-5pm, so we went back for 2pm and once we’d entered head straight for the Silver Pagoda and surrounding gardens. It turned out to be a good move, as the place was practically deserted while everyone else was still visiting the other side. The Silver Pagoda was a bit disappointing really, despite being described as over 5000 silver tiles, there were only about 30 or 40 on display, and the rest were hidden under dodgy carpet.

We grabbed our photos before heading back to the Royal Palace and surrounding buildings. It’s very similar design to the Royal Palace in Bangkok, although not nearly as grand in my opinion. Quite a lot of the buildings and gardens were closed to the public which was disappointing, so after about an hour we were finished and wandered up along the waterfront for a cold drink.

Sadly, the Mekong isn’t the picturesque hangout that you want after a long hot day – there’s rubbish everywhere, it smells disgusting, and if you can go more than 2 or 3 minutes without being harassed for money, or to buy something you’re doing well. Such a shame, as they are obviously trying to build up the area and there are some nice restaurants and cafes there.

Tonight we said goodbye to Laurence and Tessa, who we met in China and have been travelling with again since Hoi An. We have had a great time over the last few weeks and it was really nice to spend Christmas and New Year’s together. Hopefully our paths will cross again, either in Cambodia, or Australia/Holland – fingers crossed.

06.01.2012 – This morning we set out to the Tuol Sleng Museum, a high school that was taken over by Pol Pot’s regime and converted into the S-21 Prison. The morning was pretty grim, and it’s hard to imagine this was all happening in the late 70’s, only a few decades ago.

Afterwards we head to the Russian Market, which is filled with clothes, souvenirs, DVDs, household wares etc etc. A lot of clothing is manufactured in Cambodia, particularly on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, so a proportion of the labels end up in these markets. Esprit, Next, Abercrombie, Timberland, Tommy Hilfiger, Levis – plenty to choose from. We picked up a few new t-shirts, but were determined to try and keep our bags light - we’d only just sent yet another box home and they were ideal weight at the moment.

After the market, we grabbed a Tuk Tuk out to the Killing Fields of Choeung Elk. They have made the audio tour compulsory for foreigners, to ensure that you understand just what happened here. We spent about an hour and a half wandering, reading and listening to the audio guide, and one can’t help but feel depressed at the end of it all. They estimate up to 3 million Cambodians were killed by their own countrymen. At the time, that was almost 1 in 4 people within the country. It also helped us to understand the statistic we read the other day about the population – 50% of Cambodia’s people are under the age of 16 (as of 2010). Hard to imagine, but when you think about the millions that died in the American Bombings and under the Khmer Rouge, you can begin to believe it.

We finished up at the museum and grabbed our waiting Tuk Tuk driver outside. He took us on a great back road back into the city and we passed the rice fields at sunset. Back near our hotel, we grabbed street food for dinner, and nearly ended up with testicles after Chris mistook them for beef meatballs. Close call.

07.01.2012 – This morning we are taking the bus to Sihanoukville, a beach town on the south west coast of Cambodia. I’m taking the opportunity of a few hours on the bus to update my blog, as I am falling far behind! It’s been much harder since we hit Vietnam to find the time to do my updates. Hopefully I can get things back on track and provide more regular updates. I hope you're enjoying our stories, hard to believe we have been travelling for over 5 months now!

Posted by Long way home 06:44 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Mekong Delta and crossing the border to Cambodia

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02.01.2012 – Our bus to the Mekong Delta left from the Pham Ngu Lao district at 8am this morning, and after the usual chaos we were shoved on our bus and off we went. A short drive before our first stop - a tourist trap selling some sort of painting and ceramics.
Back on the bus we drove to the docks of the Ben Tre province and caught a boat out onto the Mekong. Onwards to our next tourist stop – a coconut candy workshop where you can see how they make the candy, as well as drape a python around your neck once you’re finished….different. We caught a little horse and cart through to the local markets before re-boarding our boat and continuing down the Mekong.

We were taken for lunch to a little island where, if you wanted to, you can tease crocodiles with meat on sticks until they finally snap and grab the bait. Otherwise, you could relax in hammocks, or walk through the small theme park designed at the end of the island. Anyone who thinks the Mekong experience is authentic is clearly paying more than the $45 we paid! But we knew it would be like this, and to be honest, didn’t really think it was worth spending more money on.

After lunch, we took small rowing boats down little canals. This was lovely, and the ladies rowing were friendly, just a shame it was ruined by the people calling ‘give money, give money’ as they rowed past our boats. Obviously you have to tip the women; we get it, but no need to let it ruin the journey! After the boats we were given tropical fruits and listened to some local music before getting back on the boat and heading to the docks and our waiting bus.

A few hours later we arrived in Can Tho, and as we had booked into a homestay rather than hotel, continued our journey on a small boat down the river. We arrived at a homestay that was clearly aimed at tourists, as there were about 25+ people there. They had overbooked, so were sleeping on the floor in the lounge room – maybe it was authentic after all. They fed us dinner, and then the 4 of us took a short walk along the path beside the river. We were invited into a local house by some farmers, and after initially declining, thought – why not!

They loved that we had joined them, and started pulling out all the stops – fruits, prawns and plenty of rice wine. Fortunately we also had something to give them and shared some chocolate biscuits, which went down very well! They were so friendly and generous, and it really felt like a genuine interaction. Most of them didn’t speak English, but one young teenager did, so he translated a few things for us including where we were from and our names. The older guy just seemed determined to keep feeding us the rice wine! We stayed for about 20-30 minutes before saying goodnight and heading back to the homestay a few doors up.

03.01.2012 – This morning we woke at 5:45 to wander the rice fields at Sunrise. A local farmer took us around and showed us his fields, as well as different plants/flowers. It was nice, despite the early wake up. After breakfast, we loaded back into the boats and headed back out onto the Mekong. We met up with the rest of the group who had stayed in the hotel and took a tour of the floating markets

A few hours later we arrived in Chau Doc, the border town between Vietnam and Cambodia. We head straight to the Post Office to get rid of the last of our unwanted clothes, as we’ve heard bad things about the postal system in Cambodia and didn’t want to risk it. The women at the post office kept trying to jam our clothes and shoes into a box far too small, and after I kept telling them no, finally got the message, albeit with some dirty looks and plenty of talking about us in Vietnamese.

Tonight we ate on the water in a floating restaurant, our last dinner in Vietnam. Can’t believe how fast time flies. We are really looking forward to heading to Cambodia tomorrow and experiencing a different culture and country.

04.01.2011 – This morning we are crossing the border and travelling to Phnom Penh by boat up the Mekong River. We met at the hotel and were taken to a nearby café for breakfast before heading to the docks to depart. On our way out we visited a floating village and fish breeding area, before making our way up the small canals to the Cambodian Border. The guide organised our visas for us so by the time we got to the border, we were handed our passports back and simply boarded our very cramped boat to head for the checkpoint. We off-loaded at the Cambodian border and got our visas checked and stamped, then re-boarded for another 2+ hours on the boat. Mid-afternoon we switched to a very cramped mini-van for the final hour to Phnom Penh. By the time we got there, we were well and truly sick of ‘cheap travelling’, and wished we’d paid the extra for a more comfortable trip!

The bus dropped us somewhere on the outskirts of town, despite us being told it would be central Phnom Penh, but it was obviously a ruse as there were Tuk Tuk drivers everywhere trying to extort money out of us for the trip into town. We refused to buy into it all, and simply sat until they’d all driven away before walking about 250m to the main road and hailing on ourselves for a third of the price. Unfortunately though, as the other 30+ people all took the Tuk Tuks and paid over the top for their journeys, there’s no way they will stop doing this.

We got the Tuk Tuk to take us to the Backpacker district around 182 Street/111 Street, and from there Tessa and I went looking for a hotel while the boys watched the bags in a nearby café. It’s always easier to leave the bags behind when you are looking for a room as when you have them you look more vulnerable (i.e. you need somewhere to keep you off the streets tonight, rather than you’re simply interested in changing hotels/or for next time you’re in town).

We wandered a few blocks and checked out several different places, before deciding on Town View II ($17/night) for Chris and I, and a slightly cheaper hotel nearby for the others. Settled in our hotels, we showered and met for dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant. Dinner was $25 for 5 people including drinks, expensive for Cambodian standards, but we really enjoyed our Indian feast.

One last thing - everything is priced in US Dollars in Cambodia, despite them having their own currency – the Riel. The ATM dispenses US Dollars, and the prices in supermarkets are all labelled in US. The street rate is 4000 Riel - $1, so when they quote you $1.50, you can give them $2, and get 2000 Riel change. It’s a bit confusing as you find yourself constantly getting the Riel in change, and several times in only 2 days we’ve found ourselves being short-changed; presumably because they think we won’t understand the currency. The other thing is that because it’s priced in USD, you automatically assume it’s a lot more expensive, particularly compared to Vietnam. It probably isn’t, when you stop and think about it, but pricing it in USD definitely makes you think a bit more about the money you’re spending compared to VND or Riel. Anyway – just something I found interesting – it’s probably the Accountant in me!

Posted by Long way home 06:41 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

New Year Celebrations in Saigon

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31.12.2011 – This morning we need to look at options for our trip to the Mekong Delta. We want to leave on the 2nd, so are trying to get it sorted today. We went to a few different agencies, but they all seem to be offering the exact same sort of trip. We thought it might have been nice to do something a bit different, perhaps smaller groups, but it is really expensive - $200+ for 3 days/2 nights, and even then we can’t find one that has consistently good reviews. We’re not sure what we’ll end up doing – it might just be a case of cheap and cheerful to get us through the Mekong and across the border to Cambodia.

We gave up on travel agencies after realising that most of them really are exactly the same and headed down to the centre of town and checking out a few of the shopping areas. There was one market in particular that specialised in war clothing/medals/weapons etc which was pretty cool. We didn’t have big plans for today, keeping it low key in preparation for our big night tonight.

Back at the hotel we got ready for our party and tried on our new clothes. Looking glamorous, we caught a taxi as far as we could towards the river, and then walked the rest of the way as the roads were closed in preparation for the events later that evening.

We arrived at the Renaissance Hotel and were taken up to the pool terrace where we had secured the best table of the evening, right on the riverside with a great view of the river and streets below. The evening was a buffet BBQ, and the chefs were on hand to grill anything you fancied – Lobster, king prawns, kebabs, scallops, steak, calamari – as well as all the entrees, canapés, side dishes you could imagine, and a dessert bar that was to die for. The four of us were very happy. Add to that unlimited wine, champagne, cocktails and beer, the evening was merry and we celebrated the close of an amazing 2011, and welcomed 2012 with fireworks over the riverside and glasses of champagne all round.

Looking back over everything we have done this year was incredible. We have been to 24 countries. Chris pointed out that he has only worked about 4 months, and for me it was only 6.5 months. We visited a new continent – Africa. We’ve said goodbye to our life and friends in London after 5 fabulous years. We have been lucky to have travelled to amazing countries, seen things we only dreamed of seeing and met some great people along the way. We haven’t killed each other – despite spending 5 ½ months together almost 24/7. We’re slowly spending all our savings, yet have never been happier. Life really has been good to us, and we hope that it continues in 2012.

01.01.2012 – We got home in the wee hours of the morning, so the day was never going to hold much for us. I left a sleeping Chris in bed and had crepes and a smoothie for breakfast, may as well start the New Year with something nice.

We booked a trip for the Mekong Delta, and ended up going cheap and cheerful. We paid $47 for 3 days/2 nights including a homestay and dinner, so we’re not expecting too much, but hope it will still be good fun. They say the Mekong experience is like entering a gift-shop these days, with everyone expecting a piece of the tourist cash bubble. We will see.

Posted by Long way home 06:37 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Mui Ne, Vietnam

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26.12.2011 – This morning we caught our bus to Mui Ne. It left just after 8am and we arrived around lunch time. We grabbed lunch in a café called ‘Joe’s Café’ right near where the bus dropped us off while we worked out a plan for accommodation. Chris and I had only taken small day-bags, but Laurence and Tess had brought their big backpacks, so we asked if we could leave them at Joe’s while we wandered to find accommodation. We walked all through the centre of town, finding plenty of places that were fully booked, or too expensive. Eventually we began to head out of town and eventually found a place called Saigon Cali, just after the fairy stream/river about 6km out of town. It had large rooms, a beautiful swimming pool and we were about 10 steps from the beach for $25/night.

We caught a taxi back into town to pick up the guys backpacks and had dinner at one of the BBQ grill restaurants near the beach. The food was delicious, freshly cooked and very tasty. Back in a taxi and back to the hotel, where I bought 3 mangoes for $1 from a street stall which will do very nicely for a beach snack tomorrow :o)

27.12.2011 – Today is beach day. Nothing more. We lay on the beach, beside the pool, in the shade when it got too hot. Went for a walk on the beach and grabbed lunch in a nearby resort (our place has no restaurant – it’s still being built). Read our books beside the pool in the afternoon and then ate biscuits and cheese while watching the sunset. Life is tough.

Tonight we had dinner at a nearby restaurant and booked a jeep safari trip for tomorrow morning to see the nearby sights. It’s a sunrise trip, so after our lazy day today we have to wake up nice and early.

28.12.2011 – This morning we took off in a jeep and caught the sunrise on the white sand dunes before heading to the nearby red sand dunes and fishing village. Afterwards we walked the fairy stream and red cliffs. By 9:30am, we were finished and back at our hotel for a late breakfast.

After breakfast we hired bicycles and cycled back into the centre of town. The roads here are really flat and easy to ride; you just have to keep an eye out for the moped drivers. We had lunch in town before riding back home and spending the rest of the afternoon on the beach watching the windsurfers and kite-surfers and working on our tans.

29.12.2011 – A few clouds today so not the ideal beach weather – but perfect for a sleep in! After yesterday morning’s 4:30am wake up, we were not waking up early today. We skipped breakfast and grabbed lunch nearby before walking our way down the beach towards the town.
The fishermen were getting ready to bring in their nets, so Chris and a few other tourists helped them as they dragged them in. They had thousands of little fish in the nets, as well as octopus, crabs and bigger fish. The little fish are used in the fish sauce that Mui Ne is famous for producing (and the smell that wafts around the entire town!). We helped for about 20 minutes before continuing our walk along the beach.

Tonight’s our last night in Mui Ne before we head back to Saigon, so we had dinner with Laurence and Tess at a nearby restaurant and then enjoyed a walk along the beach on our way home.

30.12.2011 – The sun is shining again today and we spent our last few hours on the beautiful beaches of Mui Ne before catching a lunch time bus to Saigon. We are pretty excited about our rooftop party tomorrow night and can’t wait to wear our new clothes! The bus journey took about 2 hours longer than we expected due to traffic and we arrived just in time to avoid a big storm and some heavy rain. Fingers crossed the weather is better tomorrow night!!!

Posted by Long way home 06:36 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Christmas Celebrations in Vietnam!

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24.12.2011 – This morning we caught up with Laurence and Tessa again over breakfast, we were staying in the same hotel. We wanted to find somewhere for Christmas dinner so began the trek around town to all the major hotels and restaurants and see what was on offer. There were plenty of buffets in the major hotels, but we wanted something a little bit different. We had eaten in a restaurant called KOTO in Hanoi, and I knew it had a branch in Saigon, so we looked it up and gave them a call. They were still accepting reservations for Christmas Eve, but not for the Christmas set menu, just the A-La-Carte menu. As we had a vegetarian in our group, this actually worked out great – so we went around and checked the restaurant out and made a booking.

The restaurant itself is lovely; it’s a modern design restaurant upstairs/downstairs with a large courtyard area outside. The staff are always smiling, and seem to thoroughly enjoy their jobs. The concept of the restaurant is ‘Know One, Teach One’ (KOTO), and the non-profit restaurant is run in conjunction with Australians as a project to teach skills to disadvantaged and street children. They take on ‘trainees’ onto a 4 year programme to teach skills within the restaurant, as well as financial skills, interpersonal skills and English. Once they have graduated they have a 100% success rate in placing their trainees within restaurants and hotels in Saigon and Hanoi. We had eaten in the restaurant in Hanoi and were very impressed with the food and service, so this was the perfect place for us to celebrate Christmas.

We spent the afternoon wandering around the streets of Saigon and checking out the area near our Hotel. Later that afternoon we got ready and left for KOTO around 5:30pm. We were the first to arrive and had a lovely table in the courtyard underneath the stars. We ordered a bottle of wine and began to unwind, away from the chaos of the Saigon traffic.

We had starters of pumpkin, feta and pesto flatbreads which were delicious. So delicious that we enjoyed second starters of duck (and tofu) before heading onto the main course of sirloin steak with green beans. The wine kept getting topped up, and after our mains the staff performed Christmas carols in English and Vietnamese for us. The KOTO choir was fantastic and the staff looked so happy and excited to be singing for us. That was when it really began to feel like Christmas celebrations.

After the singing, we enjoyed desserts (that were delicious, but I can’t remember) before wishing the staff a Merry Christmas and heading out to the streets of Hanoi. The dinner may have been our Christmas celebrations, but the street party was definitely our fun! There must have been thousands of people on the streets, mopeds filling the streets and the roads blocked in every direction. Everyone smiling and wishing us a Merry Christmas (even though they technically don’t even celebrate it!). We made our way to the cathedral area and there were street sellers selling cans of fake snow. For Laurence and Tess, who usually celebrate Christmas in the cold snowy winter, it was a chance to bring a piece of home into the celebrations, so we grabbed a few cans. After some happy snaps with the snow, we soon realised it was also a chance for people to target one another and cover them in snow and as foreigners, we were prime targets!

However what they didn’t realise when they came in to spray us though, is that we also had cans and were great at retaliation. They were always surprised when we sprayed them back and burst out in laughter. We ran around the streets spraying these cans for ages, and met lots of people who wished us Merry Christmas along the way. After about 4 cans, we decided it was time to keep heading in the direction of our hotel as we were still a little way away, and with the streets blocked it was going to take a little longer than normal.

We made our way back to the streets around our hotel and the boys enjoyed a 50c beer in one of the street-side bars. Around 1am we called it a night, wished each other Merry Christmas and headed to bed.

(**If you are ever in Hanoi or Saigon, I thoroughly recommend you visit the KOTO Restaurants; they are a fantastic environment to relax within the hustle and bustle of Vietnam, and the staff so friendly and warm. And if you need any more reasons, the food is exceptional! ***)

25.12.2011 – Merry Christmas Everyone!! While Santa didn’t manage to find us (I suppose he’s still too busy looking through the 23 other countries we’ve been in this year!!) we still woke feeling festive at yet another Christmas overseas. With most of the celebrations happening last night, it really was just another day in Saigon unless you were in a big hotel having a buffet dinner. We’d decided that last night was our Christmas, so enjoyed burgers for lunch before having a restful afternoon. I went for a wander around town while Chris watched the afternoon movie. Boring perhaps, but Christmas is really all about family, and when you’re away from family it just becomes another day.

Posted by Long way home 06:33 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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