A Travellerspoint blog

Bangkok, Thailand

Temples, Monuments and Hospital

semi-overcast 31 °C
View Honeymoon World Tour on Nick-n-Charlie's travel map.

For once VIP actually meant it! On so many of our previous "VIP Buses" through South East Asia there has been nothing remotely VIP about them - many of them being Chinese hand-me downs. Our coach from Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand was going to be another long overnight journey, but we were so pleased when we boarded and found huge comfy seats that almost fully reclined, free water and box of biscuits, blankets and pillows etc. That being said sadly neither Nick nor I got a great deal of sleep so when we arrived at Mochit Bus Terminal we were both feeling and looking a little worse for wear (again!).

Our hotel had emailed us with directions in both English and Thai as it is brand new and a lot of taxi drivers don't know it. They also advised getting a metered taxi rather than a tuk-tuk and that it should cost no more than 150Baht, so when the touts started quoting us 500Baht we knew something was up. We kept refusing them, much to their annoyance and could not figure out what the best option would be, when Nick spotted a Tourist Information booth - hurrah! The lady basically said "Metered Taxi - about 200Baht" and pointed to the queue - perfect! We headed for the taxi rank and Nick resisted the urge to stick his fingers up at the touts, where we were ushered into a waiting car. Our driver was really cool and turned into a mini-tour guide for us as we weaved through the crazy rush hour traffic watching the most amazing sun-rise over the city and it only cost 165 Bhat

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We arrived at iSanook Residence at 07:00 so knew we were too early to check in to our room (although we had our fingers crossed there would be a room available). Thankfully our wish was granted and we were given our keys and a free breakfast! Being so tired after our journey and me not feeling 100% we ate our boiled eggs and promptly went back to bed. A couple of hours later (opps!) we woke up feeling a little better and took the hotels free tuk-tuk to the jetty to catch one of the water taxi’s, that ferry's people up and down the river. For only 30 Bhat (15p) we went 6 stops up river to Tha Chang Pier to visit the Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Place where the famous Emerald Budda resides.

The palace is highly religious, so we donned our temple clothes (long trousers and shirt for Nick, long skirt and cardi for me) and had to laugh at the people who were buying trousers from the touts while standing in front of a huge sign saying they offer free robes inside. We walked into a huge complex of temples, stupas and gardens.

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The decoration was the most elaborate yet, with most buildings covered in gold and mirrored mosaics.

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Reading a sign saying the temple with the Emerald Buddha was closing in a hour we thought we should head that way first. The Buddha had a story behind it and was often referred to as the Loas buddha. This was because it was stolen while travelling from Chiang Rai to Bangkok and had a long stay in Luang Prabang until being seized again by Thailand and finally made it to Wat Phra Kaew - it's new home. So we were a little disappointed that once entering the Temple it was easy to miss as it's so tiny and surrounded by so many other statues of Buddha and other deities.

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After a couple of hours exploring and getting free ice cold water (which was a bonus) we went back to the scorching heat and walked to Wat Pho to see the huge reclining Buddha. Now this was more like it. It was humungous measuring 46 metres long and 15 metres high, it was impossible to photograph and barely fitted in the room it was in. The Buddha was again a gleaming gold with painted black feet and mother of pearl decorations. We again got a free bottle of cold water which was much needed as I was getting really hot and had to keep sitting down.

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Because I was still feeling bad, Nick saying he was really worried we headed back to the hotel for me to lay down and Nick to have some pool time as our hotel had a nice outdoor pool to relax in. Unfortunately as I was feeling so bad we ended up not doing anything else that day, only just managing to make it to the nearest shopping mall for some much needed food, although I couldn’t eat all mine.

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The next morning still not feeling any better, in fact feeling worst, we ended up missing breakfast and having a slow start. Nick was trying to get me to stay in bed but me being my stubborn self said we should explore. So yet again we went to the pier to get a ferry to Phra Artnit (number 13). From here it was short walk to Khao San Road which has featured in a few films (The Beach and Hangover), it is a street full of stalls, cheap guesthouses and pubs making it a backpackers haven.

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After a quick walk round and sighing in relief that our hotel wasn’t near here we went on to the Democracy Monument. This had a large political demonstration taking place, which meant it had a traffic jam, lots of people and lots of noise.

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We did a quick photo stop and moved on to the Giant Swing monument instead.

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Again this wasn’t what was expected and we weren’t sure what it was about, but it was outside a nice looking temple. I was starting to feel bad again so had to sit the temple out. However Nick went and took lots of photo’s and said that the large Buddha was impressive.

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After a small argument as to whether or not I should go back and lay down, I managed to persuade Nick to go to one more place before going back. This was called the Golden Mountain and offered views of the city once you climbed 318 steps to the top. Yet again there was a debate whether I should go up Nick telling me that I didn’t look great. Once again my stubbornness won out and we went up together. The views were ok nothing special as there isn’t really anything in Bangkok which stands out as a landmark. It was only 50 Bhat (25p) so wasn’t too bad.

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Now I gave in and we got a taxi back to our hotel just in time for me to collapse on our lovely comfy bed until the next day. Dinner that night wasn’t happening I didn’t want food and Nick didn’t want to eat on his own so it was to 7 eleven for a shredded pork bun and a packet of crisps.

Our last day and after me missing breakfast yet again Nick put his foot down and insisted that I go to the doctor, which in Bangkok meant going to the hospital. This felt a little dramatic but I had to admit I need to see someone as I was; feeling sick, couldn’t stand the sight or smell of food (which as you know is not like me) had a constant headache, bad cough and had been bitten once in a malaria area. The hospital was not what we were expecting it was more like a 5 star hotel with a reception desk, chandeliers and comfy leather sofas.

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I had to check in which involved a digital photograph and a few details, I was given a plastic card with me name on and instructed up a level. Expecting this to be when in turned into a hospital we were yet again surprised by waiting room with leather comfy arm chairs. I waited all of two seconds and had get my vitals checked and two minutes for the doctor, who told me that I most likely had dehydrated and may have to go on a drip for one night. At this we both looked shocked and told him we had plans to travel that night. He said he would do blood tests to rule out malaria and dengue fever first. Another shockingly long wait of one minute and I was having my blood taken and nose swabbed. We were now told we would have to wait for the blood test results to come back and were gob smacked when they said it would be under an hour, which it was! Results back and the doctor had confirmed his diagnosis I had dehydration but he wouldn’t keep me in so I could travel and instead told me off for not eating, giving me sickness tablets, sachets of powder to rehydrate me and something for my cough. All of this and it only cost £85 I was amazed! Medicines in hand we went back to the hotel grabbed some food (well a small bag of chips for me) and went off to get our train to Krabi.

Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 16:00 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Four nights dinner for only £5.60

sunny 33 °C
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After a ridiculously long journey from Luang Prabang, we finally made it to the Tree Residence Hotel around 17:00 looking, smelling and feeling a little worse for wear! We were in no mood to explore and it was already getting dark, so after a long and much needed shower we walked about 5 minutes away from the hotel to the South Gate Food Market where we had our first bad street food (Crispy Pork with rice - both of which were cold and not very tasty!). However for 60p each we couldn’t complain. We popped to Tesco (yes you read that right!!) for some naughty munchies to make ourselves feel better before heading back to the hotel and crashing out!!

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Late the next morning, we headed out to explore and get brunch. Walking into the old town which reminded us a little of Ha Noi, with crowed streets, food stalls, markets and lots of traffic. Our brunch turned into lunch of some very strange not so nice toasted sandwiches, we were starting to think Thailand didn’t do good food. Now it was time for sight seeing which was mostly temples, after seeing so many on our trip we decided to just choose two and take it easy. Both temples were amazing with brilliant decorative artwork and the most amazing monk shrines, they were wax work and looked real.

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It was starting to get really hot and I wasn’t feeling great (as you can see in the photo), so we stopped yet again for some much needed ice-blended fruit shakes.

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It was now late afternoon and a Saturday meaning the Saturday Walking Street was getting set up and it was supposed to be near our hotel. Heading back we saw it was indeed near the hotel, right outside having to weave through the stalls to get to the front door. After a quick shower we went to explore. These markets differed to the ones we have seen through most of SEA as it was goods you would buy in shops, no rip offs, no real bargains and quality. Once half way down the street it started to get very crowed and repetitive so it was time for food.

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This time we decided to go for a stall that had someone cooking from scratch with fresh food to order. We came across a women with a huge queue and great smelling food so put in our order which meant shouting over everyone else and sat down to watch her cook. It was brilliant!! She was so fast, putting a sprinkle of this, a sprinkle of that, breaking eggs one handed on her spatular and all on a small wok over a small single hob. It was almost mesmerising to watch! This time our plan had worked and the food was amazing (again all for 70p each!) so good we went back the next two nights.

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Our next morning was spent doing boring stuff; booking bus tickets, accommodation and checking our bank balance! The day almost gone but the sun still shining we went to the only park in town to relax. The park took up a small space at the corner of the old city wall and was quiet small but perfect for relaxing, with a pond, small bridge and plenty of grassy spots to chill. Once the sun finally went in we headed back for a much needed shower and a change of clothes before going back to our fantastic street stall.

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On our last day I was starting to feel even worse and lacked any energy so thought we would make it a relaxing one before our night bus to Bangkok. We ate breakfast at a small coffee shop, checked out, brought snacks from Tesco and relaxed in the park till late afternoon. Perfect! It was then back to our now local food stall, where the women now remembered us and laughed at the “No Spice!” hand gestures. Stomachs satisfied we grabbed our packs and jumped into a “Jumbo” to the bus station.

Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 16:00 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

From Laos to Thailand

24 hours, 4 tuk-tuk's, 1 coach, 1 boat, 1 minibus and even the back of a pick-up truck...

sunny 27 °C
View Honeymoon World Tour on Nick-n-Charlie's travel map.

We had a couple of options for getting from Luang Prabang, Laos across the border to Chiang Mai, Thailand and were struggling to make up our minds. Flying would have cost us nearly £200, so well out of our budget, although would have only been a 1 hour flight. Our second option was to take the Slow Boat which takes 3 days / 2 nights involving stopovers in a couple of towns along the river. We had been told that if you had the time this was a good choice as it offered beautiful scenery and was a very relaxing way to do it. However the prospect of two 9 hour days on a boat, then arriving somewhere and having to rush around to find a guesthouse (plus the prospect of me feeling sick on the boat) put us off!

We opted for our third choice which was the overnight sitting bus (not comfy recliners or beds here!) which was one bus straight through to Chiang Mai and would take 17 hours. Although the prospect of that long sitting on a bus was not appealing to either of us, it was our cheapest and best option, (300,000 Kip each) so at 17:00 we were picked up from our hotel and taken to the bus station. We checked in, but had about 40 minutes to wait for the bus and killed time by chatting to some other travellers who were heading to Ha Noi, Viet Nam. However as 18:00 drew closer there was still no sign of our bus, and the lady behind the counter was starting to look stressed before we were ushered us and four others into a tuk-tuk and taken to the other bus station on the outskirts of town - hmmm, something was up!

We arrived at another bus station to get a local bus, we weren't told this just put on and given new tickets. A hour and a half later we finally set off on a full bus which was cramped and smelly and sounded awful when changing gears. We actually managed to get some sleep and the bus only broke down twice with them pulling over and getting in the engine to fix it.

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Then 13 hours later we were at the border town and everyone was ordered off. We were then asked for our original tickets (which luckily we kept) and the 6 of us were put, yet again, on another tuk-tuk and not told where we going (we were being very trusting, but thought if we stuck together we'll be fine). After a 10 minute drive we arrived at a guesthouse/bus depot and given stickers (which said “Boom House” randomly) and told by a lady that she would see us at 09:00 (it being 08:30) to help us cross the border. The tuk-tuk was off again dropping us off at a port/immigration and pointed us down to the water. Standing around we decided we to “check out” of Laos getting our passports stamped and waited for our random lady to return. Surprisingly she did in only a few minutes and ushered us on to a small boat over the Mekong to Thailand.

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Once at the other side she passed us over to a man with a van and said goodbye. Our driver who could speak great English and Chinese told us to go to the immigration window to get our free VOA (Visa On Arrival). This was actually very straight forward, just a small form to fill out and then you get a stamp with an exit date and some how we managed to get 30 days. All with our visa’s sorted we were taken to a pickup truck with two more passengers and had to put all our bags in the back, it was then we realised their were only 5 seats, the 5 men would have to sit in the back on the bags while us 4 girls got to go inside the cab. Just 10 minutes drive and we arrived at the Boom House guesthouse (now the stickers made sense) and told to wait for a minibus. After a little confusion about whether the bus would go to Chiang Rai first we finally set off in an amazingly comfortable minibus.

By 16:00 we arrived at Chiang Mai only 3 hours late! Managing to get a free tuk-tuk to the centre of town, we then had to walk 20 minutes to our hotel in extreme heat! By the time we arrived it was 17:00 making a journey exactly 24hours!!!!

Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 16:00 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Luang Prabang, Laos

A touch of French chic...

sunny 30 °C
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Our coach ride from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, Laos was horrendous!! Once again we were on a clapped out, former Chinese owned coach which was literally falling apart and was so uncomfortable for the whole 8 hours! The only plus point to the journey was the trip was through some of the most stunning jungle-covered mountains! Finally though we arrived at the bus station and again as there were so many backpackers, we had the advantage and thanks to a handy Australian guy who knew the area we managed to get a bargain tuk-tuk ride to our hotel!

The Khammany Inn, http://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/Khammany-Inn-Hostel/Luang-Prabang/63621 was a Guesthouse/Hostel about 5 minutes walk from the centre of Luang Prubang and was decent enough, although it could have done with a good clean. Also rather annoyingly our room was right off the main communal area meaning it was quite noisy. However it was a room and cheap so would do. After dumping our bags we went off to explore and get some food.

The town is really only made up of three streets, one street running along the Mekong River, one running along the Nam Khan River and the last street running along the middle. At first glance you could easily mistake it for a remote French village with each building in French colonialism style and shop after shop a restaurant, coffee house or patisserie. We could see ourselves staying here forever.

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At night the middle street Sisavangvong Road became a street market, filled with covered stalls selling, quality handicrafts, silks, lamps, artworks, clothes and accessories. It was brilliant and we spent ages looking at them and for once we were not being pestered to buy and were able to ask questions and feel the soft silks. However this market did start getting annoying if you wanted to get from one end to the other as it was on every night and took up all the road and pavement.

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At breakfast we decided we should make the most of the day and booked on to a tour of the Kuangsi Waterfall which the hostel had at a bargain price of 40,000 Kip (£3) each. By 11:00 10 people were packing in a mini van for our 25km drive to the waterfall. 45 minutes later and we arrived at our destination (yes they were travelling at a top speed of 20mph) a beautiful jungle with a huge waterfall and bear sanctuary. The bears were sooooo cute, we arrived just after feeding time, so they were climbing trees, swinging in hammocks and just being cute. The bears were Sun Bears which are actually quiet small compared to other bears we have seen and have all been rescued from "herbalists" who were harvesting their gaul stones for the bile. According to Chinese medicine it helps cure all sorts of ailments, which obviously it doesn't and just kills the bears. They all seemed well looked after with lost of space and of course being placed next to a tourist trap were getting lots of money for their cause. http://www.freethebears.org.au/web/Projects/Laos/Tat-Kuang-Si-Rescue-Centre/

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After making silly noises at the bears cuteness, we headed to the main attraction a series of; huge, turquoise, clear waterfalls. We slowly walked through the jungle working up from pool to pool each one bigger and more impressive then the last and all of which you could swim in if you wanted. I decided it was too cold but Nick took the plunge telling me it was amazing (although his face was telling me it was a little chilly). Once Nick was dry we sat at a little bench eating our amazing cookie from JoMo and watching 50 somethings enjoying the pools. By 15:00 we had to be back to our slow mini van, so after another look at the now sleepy bears we went back to the hostel.

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Our next day was set to be Nick's best day ever, as we had booked onto a half day elephant riding and bathing tour. I wasn't too sure at first, as some of you may remember the horse riding didn't go too well and I was sure this would go the same way. However I didn't need to worry, we arrived at a reserve for 14 elephants most of which were female and the ones we would be riding, as it was mating season making the males uncontrollable. The rest of the group were on a full day trip so went off to another part leaving Nick and I alone with all the elephants and Mahouts. A seat was mounted on to our elephants backs and we very inelegantly climbed on to board behind the Mahout who was riding her neck and we were off down a grass covered bank to the river and a small sand bar. After only 10 minutes the Mahout jumped off and instructed Nick to sit on her neck and guide our elephant while he took pictures for us. It was fab and Nick had the biggest smile, which really made my day.

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After taking us round it was time for some food for our elephant, banana's, banana trucks and leaves which we got to hand feed to her. Food finished it was now time to get in our swimsuits and bath our elephants.

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This time I had no choice but to get directly on the elephant and her neck, with the Mahout behind me and Nick on another elephant we headed into the Mekong River! Once in the water we were given scrubbing brushes to clean or elephants and then were given baths ourselves when the Mahouts shouted "Ba Ba" making the elephants dive under water getting us soaking wet, Nick’s elephant even started spraying water at him with her trunk. Elephants clean and us not so much we rode them out of the river with a stop at a tree for a good scratch and more feeding, before we had to say goodbye. Sadly we didn’t get any photo’s of the bathing as we didn’t want to get our camera wet.

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That afternoon and the next morning we spent sightseeing around the small town, racing up Mount. Phousi just in time for sun set, and seeing the elaborately decorated temple Wat Nong Sikhounmuang before stopping for an early dinner ready for our night bus to Thailand!

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Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 16:00 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

Vang Vieng, Laos

Jungle Trekking fun, with the odd leech and a handy guide holding a machete

sunny 32 °C
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Our journey from Vietiene to Vang Vieng was thankfully very simple and only 4 hours (our shortest yet in South East Asia!) in a comfy air conditioned mini-bus through some stunning scenery, albeit on some very bumpy and winding roads! Strangely the mini-bus dropped as at a guesthouse rather than the bus station where we were launched upon yet again by touts trying to get us to stay there. Luckily though the Laos people are so friendly they ended up helping us find our hotel which as Vang Vieng is so small was only a 5 minute walk.

Laos Haven Hotel & Spa (there is no Spa before you ask!) http://www.laoshavenhotel.com was really nice, but could have been stunning. We got the impression that it was quite new, and still needed some finishing touches as our room was quite sparse with mis-matched furniture (and not in a quirky fashionable way!). The staff though were brilliant and it was a great location, easily walkable to the main street, but just far enough away to avoid the noise.

Contrary to what we had read in Lonely Planet or the newspaper article Susie sent us, when were said we were coming here. We arrived in a small sleepy town with the most amazing views. All around us were huge Karst mountains, Jungles, a stunning river and quiet town. The bad reputation was for a party town for backpackers with riverside "beach bars" offering ridiculously cheap drinks and "Happy Food" containing various mind altering ingredients. This firstly has the effect of causing rowdy and inappropriate behaviour with scantily clad young adults running around the town offending the very modest Laos people (a T-Shirt is as risky as as you should get in Loas along with shorts covering your knees). Combine this with a large fast flowing river running through the town where you can hire a rubber ring and float down the rapids and jump off rope swings and you have recipe for disaster with a number of backpackers being killed each year, and countless others injuring themselves. Our response to Susie's concerns is best seen in the pictures below!!

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It was already dusk by the time we ventured out to explore the town and after a quick walk discovered a bar with fantastic views over the mountains and the most amazing sunset!

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We knew that we wanted to do some Jungle Trekking while we were here and after a lot of looking around (seriously we went in every travel agent!) and our in-decisiveness which has slowly been getting worse throughout this trip was in full force with us finally booking a tour for the next day 10 minutes before the agents closed at 21.00! So after a good nights sleep we were bundled into the back of a large tuk-tuk with some other travellers and set off towards the mountains. After about 20 minutes we pulled over by the side of the road and only the two of us got out to start our trek with our own private guide (everyone else was apparently going kayaking!) - amazing!! Just walking through the rice paddies and villages on the way to the base of the mountain was stunning.

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Then we started to climb!! It was steep, seriously steep, slippery, thick with undergrowth that scratched at our legs and so humid we were both dripping in sweat within seconds. It was fantastic!

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Once at the top we came to a ledge with a amazing views of the jungle, mountains and the valley below which used to be a Hmong Village, now just two small derelict huts remaining. The Hmong would do this climb in reverse everyday to get to school, the market and even hospital! However in the last few years the government persuaded the Hmong to move out of the Village, to the bottom of the mountains closer to town, giving them land and free range as encouragement. I can see how this is for there safety, I would hate to have a broken leg and do this trek!

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Once safely down the other side of the mountain (over some very slippery rocks with nothing to cling onto but overhanging vines) we had reached the valley and what had looked like a flat plain of grass from above turned out to be a jungle in it's own rite. Pampus grass at least 8 feet in height which had completely overgrown the supposed path we were following. It scratched at our legs and was the perfect home for clouds of mosquitos (luckily we were smothered in replant!). You could not see were you were putting your feet and just had to go for it and trust our guide was doing a good job clearing the ground in front of us!

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It was at this point our guide asked if we wanted to see the river as there was a cave near by he knew saying "I think the path is this way", pulling out his machete and cutting a new path for us. Nick was not so sure at this point thinking our "tourist friendly jungle trek" may have gone wrong, especially when our guide started pulling leeches of himself, jumping in the air with a scream when he did and cutting them in half with his machete! Again luckily our repellant also works on leeches, and we followed him through thick undergrowth, ducking under branches and squeezing through bamboo. When we finally made it to the river with lots of "come, come, we try, we try" from our guide, he took of his shoes and socks (removing several leeches in the process) and started to wade into the river. It was at this point we said no (largely due to the leeches) so, following the river bank along (again ducking branches and spiky plants) before reaching a clearing in the middle of the jungle where we had a delicious (although very spicy!) BBQ lunch - I mistook a huge chunk of green chilli for bell pepper NOT GOOD!

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After lunch we trudged back through the high grass (with more leeches being plucked from our guide!) before starting our second steep climb through thick jungle before descending the other side down a very steep and very slippy "path" with both of us taking a couple of tumbles unfortuntely leaving a few bruises!!

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Once we reached the relative flat we soon realised we were not quite were our guide had wanted us to be and it took a short scramble along the edge of the river (more leeches!), a hop over some barb wire and a short walk through the mangroves before we reached our destination - the Water Cave. Here we got to do a spot of Cave Tubing where you sit in a rubber ring and use a guide rope to pull yourself through a cave which is flooded with water in the pitch black (they give you a head torch!). Needless to say Nick was not 100% sure about this prospect, but with his new found confidence after the Củ Chi Tunnels in Viet Nam he was not about to say no! The water was freezing, but it was great fun and a real experience to go that far into a cave floating on top of the water.

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From here it was a short walk through a farm and a quick boat trip to cross the river before a tuk-tuk picked us up by the side of the road to take us back to our hotel. It had been an incredible day and such an experience!! Not many can say they went on a jungle trek with their own private guide cutting their path for them! Needless to say we slept well that night!

We woke a little later than intended the next morning, but still managed to make breakfast. I wanted a lazy day, and Nick had read about The Blue Lagoon; another of Vang Vieng's "must sees" where there was a large cave and clear pool for swimming in, thinking this would be a nice place to relax for the day. The only problem was that it was about a 7km bike ride outside of town.

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Somehow he convinced me, but after about 5 minutes of riding along the extremely bumpy road having to dodge huge rocks and pot holes, and being shaken so hard it hurt I was not amused! We kept going, stopping for a quick drink along the way to catch out breath until we finally made it - and were both instantly disappointed. Not only was it expensive to get into, you had to climb up some very steep rock stairs to reach the cave (not great after our exploits the day before) and the clear pool, was more of a muddy river - hmmm, we had wasted half the day and still had to cycle all the way back - poo!

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Once we did make it back, we dumped the bikes and headed for one of the riverside bars where we sat, ate, drank and were generally lazy until long after the sun had set behind the mountains. We left the bar, just as they were cranking up the music and headed back to our hotel to pack for another long bus ride to Luang Prubang the following morning.

Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 16:00 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

Vientiane, Laos

semi-overcast 30 °C
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Our rather vintage night bus from Pak Se in the south of Laos was actually relatively comfortable with both Nick and I managing to get some sleep. Unlike the ones in Viet Nam they are completely flat, albeit double beds, so if you are a solo traveller you have to share with complete strangers! As usual the bus station is in the middle of nowhere, but there were so many foreigners on the bus that for a change we had the upper hand with the touts and managed to negotiate a decent deal straight to our hostel.

Sihome Backpackers http://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/Sihome-Backpackers-Hostel/Vientiane/69394 was a Western style hostel, something we had not seen for months now and according to the reviews promised a good atmosphere, friendly staff and great location. We opted for a private double (as we could not face the prospect of a dorm) which was huge and very clean, but as it was right above the bar/terrace area was quite noisy, The hostel was ok, neither of us think it is worth the rave reviews it gets, but suspect that if we had opted for a dorm after all it may have been different.

We only had 24 hours in the capital before moving north and had a lot to squeeze in, as well as sorting out transport and accommodation for the next day. We set off to find some breakfast and found JoMa Cafe http://www.joma.biz another Lonely Planet top tip where we had some yummy pastries and great coffee to wake us up.

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From hear we were able to head to another Tourist Information to ask about bus tickets and they recommended just going to the bus station directly. They also said that Pha That Luang, the famous golden stupa and symbol of Laos was only about a 20 minute walk even though we had read it was 4km outside of the city? We started walking towards it trying to reach it before it closed for lunch, but after 20 minutes in the baking heat realised we had made an error as we were nowhere near it (we could see it, it just wasn't getting any closer!).

Instead we doubled back via the Patuxai, which is a structure very similar to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, only it has four arches rather than two. It is a fairly ugly concrete monolith even having a sign apologising for its appearance. It does however have a very ornate ceiling and offers great views of the city from the top.

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We were quite close to the bus station at this point so decided to go and have a look to see if we could figure out how to get to Vang Vieng the next day, however they said we could not buy tickets in advance, only on the day of travel and to arrive early to guarantee a seat. We took one look at the bus and thought there had to be a better option though. It was a local bus and looked like it would break down as soon as it left the bus station and had peoples bags piled high on top. Hmmm, maybe a rethink! Annoyingly with all of this walking my nice new flip-flops (which I bought dirt cheap in Hong Kong) had started to rub and I was not coping well in heat so we had to walk all the way back to the hostel so I could plaster up and change into my trainers!

So it was now 14.00! We had not managed to see half of what we wanted, were no closer to getting a bus ticket and still had the dreaded internet trawl for accommodation! We set off back towards our original first stop, Pha That Luang however this time took the easy way out and bartering hard with a tuk-tuk driver to get us there. Finally, much later than intended we had made it - and were pretty underwhelmed! The stups is huge and covered in gold leaf so looks quite striking, but all you can do is pay to walk around the outside of it with no explanations or information (other than LP).

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There were however some very impressive temples next to the stupa which were beautiful and well worth the trip, one even having a large reclining buddha outside it!

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Still feeling rather underwhelmed we bartered another bargain tuk-tuk back to the centre, stopping to peer through the gates of the Presidential Palace and spotting the best crazy moped yet!!

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Running out of both "sights" and time we had to get a bus sorted so headed to a travel agent close to where we had stopped for coffee. She was brilliant and very helpful explaining to us all about the bus and gave us a really good price 40,000Kip each!! (£4!!). We then headed back to our hostel to cool off, shower and book a hotel (which we did surprisingly quickly!) before heading back out to get some food at a really nice roof-top restaurant bar (even though we had to dodge a few Laos Ladyboys (apparently they are not just in Thailand!) to get there!

So after a very brief and some what disappointing day in the capital it was an early start the next morning where we were picked up by our minibus to take us to Vang Vieng.

Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 16:00 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Pak Se, Laos

sunny 30 °C
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After another epic bus journey we finally made it to Pak Se, Laos about 22:00 (only about an hour late). Unfortunately, our bus dropped us about 2km outside of town, but there were plenty of Jumbo (large tuk-tuk) touting for business and we ended up paying US$10 dollars when it should have only been about $3!! But at that time of night our choices were limited and they have you over a barrel.

They dropped us at the Lankham Hotel, http://www.lankhamhotel-pakse.com where we had one of their newly renovated rooms for 150,000Kip (£12) which was nice and big and very clean. Unfortunately there was no water coming out of the taps in our bathroom. The guy at reception was very apologetic about this and gave us they key to another room next door saying keep both and either move rooms or just use that bathroom!

We slept really well and were up early as we needed to decide whether we were going to stay in Pak Se longer (in which case we needed to book another nights accommodation!), or whether to arrange transport to our next stop. After a nice breakfast at a local cafe we were able to do something we have not been able to do in about a month - we took a trip to the Tourist Information!! They were great and helped us come up with some options realising that Lonely Planet was a little unfair on this sleepy town and that it actually had a really nice relaxed atmosphere, but is also a great base for local activities.

On our way back towards our hotel we walked past the Phi Dao Hotel http://www.booking.com/hotel/la/phi-dao.en.html which had been our first choice for the previous night but it had been fully booked - we took a chance and luckily they had a room available and after a quick look round agreed to take it for two nights. After swapping hotels we hired bikes and cycled round the town and along the Sedone and Mekong rivers taking in the beautiful scenery and stopping for a beer along the way. The day ended with a chilled out dinner and drink before heading to bed as we had organised a trip to Bolaven Plateau famed for it’s tea and coffee plantations early the next morning.

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In our private air-conditioned Minibus we drove out to the Plateau and our first stop a Tea Plantation. We were a little disappointed as our driver pointed to a field of Tea plants and left us to it. We thought we would get an explanation of what tea was growing and how it was harvested but were just left to wander around. We did however get chance to taste the tea which was very nice. From here we went on to the Tad Fane Waterfall which is also a hotel resort but again were just dropped at the entrance wtth explantnion of where to go - this was what we had booked! The waterfalls are beautiful, but sadly you can’t get anywhere near them and you are jostling for position with large tour groups to take photo.

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Now it was time to go to a Coffee Planation and luckily this was much better. We were taken round by the owner/farmer who pointed out all the fruit and veg he was growing as well as describing the process of growing tea and coffee. Everything grown on the farm apart from the tea and coffee was for him and his family consumption so the only money he made was from selling the tea and coffee to the big factories to process. We then got to try more tea and Nick had a really strong, but delicious Lao coffee - he also gave us a homemade Passionfruit Juice!

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Just as things were starting to be on the up, we were taken to our next stop, the E Tu Waterfall but again were left to our own devices! The falls were very beautiful and this time you could go really close, so we got very wet before stopping for lunch overlooking the river.

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Our final stop on the tour was to, you guessed it...another waterfall. The Tad Lo falls were also stunning and were set inside a “cultural park” where you could also visit an Ethnic Village with traditional stilted houses, but again without a guide we were left a little clueless as where to go and what we were looking at. The tour operator had also said this is where we would be able to go swimming, but we could see no signs of this and no one else doing it so said went back to the minibus to be driven back to town where the they were surpised to see us back so soon.

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The tour had been a little disappointing. Although the scenery had been beautiful, it was essentially a very expensive taxi service. We could have hired a tuk-tuk for the day for half the price!

Our final day in Pak Se was spent, well not really doing much to be honest. We had a nice lie in, went for a long lunch and a walk by the river before spending the rest of the afternoon outside a coffee shop reading - nice and relaxing.

We had also booked our tickets for the night bus through the same tour operator who had arranged our “tour” of the Bolaven Plateau so were concerned that we may get screwed over again, but true to her word she picked us up personally and dropped us at the rather vintage looking sleeper bus to Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

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Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 17:00 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

The road to Laos...

...is long, dirty and corrupt.

sunny 28 °C
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We knew that from Siem Reap we wanted to head up into Laos, but were struggling to find reliable information about buses. The journey times seemed to vary depending on who you spoke to. We Googled, Lonely Planet’d, and Trip Advisor’d as much as we could but were not having much success again with conflicting information.

The crux of it was a long journey either way, but that some bus companies try and screw you over demanding more money at the border, or in some cases conveniently not even making it to the border in time to cross, being dumped at an expensive guesthouse in the middle of nowhere so you have no option but to pay and be picked up again the next morning. Hmmm, this was going to be interesting!

Deciding to break the journey up after reading the horror stories we stopped in Kratie, roughly 60km south of the boarder, for one night. Our bus here set off from Siem Reap at an unreasonable 05:00 with the aim to be at Kratie for 13:00. Yet again another bumpy bus ride we were happy with our VIP air con bus, until after 5 hours it randomly stopped at an unknown town and everyone was told to get off and told to get on the bus behind and older VIP bus which was packed and for some reason had the heating on! Eventually, feeling very travel sick and hot, we arrived at Kratie only two and a half hours late! We brought our bus tickets for the next day and then needed to find accommodation. Normally we book at least a day in advance but everything in Kratie had bad reviews so decided to wing and pay as little as possible. As with all bus journeys this one ended with people trying to sell their hotel. Normally we stay clear but today decided we would trust one, he told us his hotel was close and only $5 a night and if we didn’t like it we didn’t have to stay. Looking round it seemed ok and it was only for one night...

... However on closer inspection Morhaoutdom Hotel wasn’t great, the bathroom was home to a few ant colonies, the window sills were filthy covered with what looked like rat poo and sheets had lots of holes in them (slightly resembling teeth marks). Again thinking it’s only for one night we decided to suck it up and stay, wedging the chair in front of the door to make it feel safer.

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We’re glad we did after reading fellow travellers reviews http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g729351-d2051626-Reviews-Morhaoutdom_Hotel-Kratie_Kratie_Province.html#REVIEWS. Kratie is a small unremarkable town and as such the only thing to say about it is, nice sunset.

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The next day we walked to the bus stop which is actually just a random shop on a side street and waited for our bus (our tickets were for the 13:30 bus which promised to cross the boarder before 18:00 when it closes) after ten mins a couple we saw on the bus yesterday turned up. They should have been in Laos already as they were doing the crazy long journey from Siem Reap?? Unfortunately for them after the bus dropped us off, the day before, they were told they wouldn't make the boarder before it closes and had to go tomorrow with us instead. This is why we chose to break up the journey. Now even more worried the bus wouldn't make it we waited together until well after the time it was due, when a tuk-tuk turned up to take us to “the junction”? So all four of us got on with no choice but to trust them and were dropped off 10 minutes later at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. We then had to wait a further 20 minutes for our bus to turn up and finally we were on our way. Well for 5 minutes when it stopped for a break! Back on the bus and a bumpy ride to the boarder, imagine riding in a 4wd drive off road on one of those adventure course for 5 hour drive and your close to our journey to the boarder.

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A few hours in and we are asked to fill in three forms and hand over the cash for the Laos visa, $36 which we’re sure is more then it should be, a stamp fee of $2, a leaving fee of $2 and $1 fee for the bus operator helping us. Luckily we had brought passport photos with us or that would have been even more. So we attempt to fill out our forms on the bumpy ride and became $82 lighter. According to Lonely Planet (our bible) the boarder closes at 18:00 so when it started getting dark and then went past 18:00 we started to panic a little, thinking we were going to have to stay another night in a random place. Then when we stopped again for some people to get off and a shipment of fruit to get on (the buses are used as cargo and animal transport as well) we panicked some more. However just before19:00 the guy tells us it's fine and we'll soon be in Laos getting our passports back. Surprisingly in only 20 minutes we had crossed both boarders and had a new visa in our passports! We had made it to Laos! Now for another 4ish hours of driving and thank goodness on actual road.

Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 17:00 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Who needs Indiana Jones and Lara Croft?

semi-overcast 28 °C
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!!!WARNING - A LOT OF TEMPLES AND A LOT OF PHOTOS!!!

We had been told that our mini-bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap should take about 6 hours but our driver seemed determined to do it half that! It was a very bumpy and jerky trip with lots of harsh braking making both of us feel very travel sick! Hence we were very surprised we arrived an hour late, but as arranged there was a tuk-tuk driver waiting with Nick's name on a board and it was only about a 5 minute drive to the Angkor Pearl Hotel http://www.angkorpearl.com/hotel/. Nick was not 100% sure at first but it was a nice comfortable room and the staff were really friendly.

By now it was about 17:00 and as we had not eaten all day we went looking for an early dinner. About 10 minutes walk from our hotel was the centre of Siem Reap and Pub Street which as it's name suggests is nothing but bars and restaurants. Lonely Planet in hand we went to one of their recommendations, the Khmer Kitchen where they give opportunities to local people teaching them English and waiting skills. The service was good but sadly the food was revolting with neither of us finishing our meals. After a quick walk round we stopped for a drink (Angkor Beer!) and headed back to the hotel for an early night...

...however, even though we had a map, the name and address of the hotel and directions (as learnt from lesson number 5) we somehow managed to get lost. In Cambodia only the main streets have names, everything else either has a number or nothing at all. After 10 minutes we asked a passing tuk-tuk driver for help and were willing to get him to take us back but he had no idea where our hotel was (I suspect because everything we had was in English). After some back-tracking and crossed words getting very hot and sweaty we finally found our hotel!

Next morning and after a good breakfast we went out to our tuk-tuk driver Mr. Theoun from the previous day, to start exploring the temples of Angkor (tuk-tuk $27 for the day) - the main draw for travellers to Siem Reap (and Cambodia it seems!). Mr. Theoun was brilliant! We had a rough idea what we wanted to see and knew we wanted to leave the "Big Three" (Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and of course Angkor Wat) until our final day, so he suggested a route including some of the smaller and more remote temples.

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After only about 10 minutes we reached the entrance to Angkor and pulled over to purchase our tickets. You can buy 1, 3 or 5 day passes. We opted for a 3 day pass at US$40 each (which you have a month to use) knowing it would be worth the money. Tickets in hand (with our horrible digital pictures on them) we set off towards our first and farthest away temple. But after only 10 minutes there was a popping sound and we realised we had a puncture! Mr. Theoun was more concerned about us than the tuk-tuk, but once he was happy we were ok he suggested starting at Banteay Kdei only 1km up the road, telling us to go and explore and he would have it all fixed by the time we got back.

Banteay Kdei was incredible and still our favourite temple. It was much larger than we expected expanding backwards into the jungle as you walked through it. It was like being in a film set with crumbling ruins covered in moss and vines with the smell of incense burning at the still used shrines. Throughout the temple (and all of the Angkor complex) there people (normally young children) trying to sell you things from guidebooks to bracelets. They ask where you are from always responding to our answer of England with "Ah London, lovely jubbly!". One girl even started quoting facts and figures about population sizes! At the end of the day though they want your money and will whine and moan with everything being "one dollar, one dollar, you buy from me for one dollar". You just have to keep your patience and stay friendly remembering it is their parents who are making them do this.

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Anyway temple thoroughly explored we went back to entrance gate to discover Mr. Theoun had a nice new tyre and was ready to go back to our original plan. The 30 minute drive weaved through jungle roads, rice fields and Khmer villages with traditional stilt houses dodging the occasional dog or even cow from time to time.

Banteay Srei is know as the Women's Temple, not because of any religious of cultural reason but because the carvings adorning every surface are so ornate and intricate the locals believe only a women could have carved them. The temple is beautiful, albeit much smaller and more ruined than our first stop. It is also noticeably a different style being much older and made of different stone. Again after exploring it was back to our trusty tuk-tuk to head to our next stop.

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As we reached Banteay Samre the heavens opened so we took shelter in the conveniently located restaurant next to the entrance until it slowed. This temple was the smallest so far, but by no means less impressive.

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From here we visited two more temples; East Mebon and Pre Rup both beautiful, but again different in style. Both also involved steep climbs up to the top levels where we were rewarded with stunning views over the jungle.

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Calling it a day after 5 temples we returned to the hotel. Sadly the rain had continued to drizzle throughout the afternoon making Nick grumpy! However his phone suddenly sprung into life. Corrina and Teresa (our friends we met on our Ha Long Bay tour) were in Siem Reap! We arranged to meet for dinner later that night at Temple Club on Pub Street (another Lonely Planet suggestion). This time the food was delicious. After 21:00 though and still eating the lights dimmed, the strobe started and bass kicked in, apparently Temple turns into a nightclub in the evening. It was very strange as there were lots of other people eating and no body rushing to the dance floor. We decided to move on and head to The Blue Pumpkin, a coffee shop/ice cream parlour, again with ethical links to the community and again a Lonely Planet top tip! Yummy! As usual we were last people lreft and had to be asked to leave as they were closing! It had been bucketing it down on and off all evening so it was no surprise that we had a walk back in torrential rain (in flip flops and flooded roads but with an umbrella). It was actually quite good fun!

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Day two of Tomb Raiding (Nick told me to put that!) and back with Mr. Theoun and his tuk-tuk (only $15 today as a shorter distance). Again we followed his suggestions on a route which would make sure we completed the Grand Circuit as well as a few others.

We started at Preah Knan, another crumbling, jungle covered temple which sprawled in lots of directions and had a curious structure which would not look out of place at The Forum in Rome. It is classed a “fusion temple” as it blends both Buddhist and Hindu iconography.

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We then visited Neak Pean a tiny floating water temple you can not walk around, but which was accessed by a long wooden walkway across a moat and mangrove swamp and was quite eerie.

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Then to Ta Keo, a pyramid structure, symbolising the mythical Mount Meru. This typically was covered in scaffolding, (as it is being renovated by the French) so we couldn’t go up it.

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Next was Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda, two very small temples which sit opposite each other and are very beautiful.

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Then, finally ending at the old bridge and South Gate where Mr. Theoun turned into our photographer! Haha.

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We were back at the hotel by 13.00 but on the drive back the weather was starting to improve with the cloud cover lifting - should we risk trying for an Angkor sunset or would we be wasting our time? Mr. Theoun didn't seem convinced we would see anything but agreed to wait for us while we went for a coffee to make up our minds. An hour later and the weather was much the same, still more cloud than sun but we decided to go for it. On way to Phnom Bakheng temple we passed the entrance gate of Angkor Wat giving us tantalizing views. Nick couldn't resist a sneaky peek, so Mr. Theoun pulled over for 5 minutes so we could have a closer look - amazing! You however have to wait until tomorrow! We continued to the temple where we had a 20 minute steep climb up to the top (you can pay $20 to ride up on elephant!)

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We had read in LP that it could turn into a bit of a circus up here and they were not wrong, it was obviously where all of the Chinese tour groups ended so was packed. We planted ourselves in a good position and refused to move. We were confused though as they way the guidebook had read made it sound like you would have sunset views over Angkor Wat - you don't as it's in the opposite direction and although you can see it, it's too far away to get a decent photo. Anyway, the sun started to set and although it was not the postcard image we had hoped, it was still pretty cool.

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Back down and regretting why we had not bought a really good camera for this trip as our sunset photos were pretty crap compared to other peoples we had seen. We asked Mr. Theoun to drop us at Pub Street rather than the hotel as we were both starving. After two days of him being our personal tuk-tuk driver, It was time to say goodbye. We ate at Le Tigre de Papier, yet another LP recommendation and a famous restaurant in Siem Reap where we had delicious food.

Day three (and our last day of exploring the temples) and we had organsised a private tour guide to take us and Corina and Teresa around the largest of the temples. Our guide Mr. Vy Keng was a little slow to warm up, but once he did was fantastic! We started at the South Gate and entrance to Angkor Thom which literally translates as “Great City” and was the Capital of Angkor and home to the royal family. It takes monumental to a whole new level and is a series of temples and buildings set over 10 sq km all still surrounded by it’s original 8m high wall and 30m wide moat (which was dug by hand!!).

Our first stop inside was at the Bayon Temple, famed for it’s 54 gothic looking towers with 216 heads. The temple is huge and it would have been very easy to get lost in it without our guide who gave us loads of information about the history of Angkor and the different icons within the temple, explaining how they were changed from Buddhist images to Hindu ones by simple adding a third eye to the forehead.

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From here we continued to explore the rest of Angkor Thom, visiting Baphuon, Phimeanakas and the Terrace of the Elephants before taking a much needed break and a spot of lunch.

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Feeling refreshed, our next stop was Ta Prohm or “The Angela Jolie Temple” or “The one from Tomb Raider” as it is known! This temple has truly been reclaimed by the jungle with some stunning trees and roots intertwined with the stonework, and in many cases even being what is holding the temple up!

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Our final stop was the symbol of Cambodia and world famous Angkor Wat (and what Nick had been so excited to see!). Surrounded by a moat of 190m wide which forms a giant rectangle measuring 1.5km by 1.3km (so that’s huge then!) stretching around the outside of the central temple with it’s tower measuring a whopping 31m (Dad that is just over 100ft!) To Nick’s delight the weather was incredible meaning he got that famous photo of the temple reflecting in the lily covered pools. Angkor Wat is stunning and so so impressive. We definitely made the right decision in leaving it to last, and we can’t believe that some people only see this one temple - madness!

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It has been the most amazing day and one of the highlights of our trip so far.

That night we went for dinner with Corina and Teresa for one last time to say goodbye before they travelled back to Vietnam to catch their flights home. It was a lovely evening and it was so great to have met these two wonderful characters!

Our last day was spent relaxing and sorting out our onward transport to Laos for the following day.

Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 17:00 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia angkor Comments (1)

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

So much to see, so little time!

sunny 31 °C
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After another 3 bumpy hours on the coach we arrived in downtown Phnom Penh to the usual crowd of tuk tuk drivers and hawkers trying to get you to go to their hotel, telling you theirs is cheaper and nicer than what you've booked. We successfully managed to dodge all of these and headed for the nearest ATM to be very surprised to find they only dispense US Dollars (after a quick re-consult with Lonely Planet - thanks Susie!) we realised this was the norm and EVERYTHING in Cambodia is in dollars.

Money in hand we had to weave our way back through the crowd of touts who were all very annoyed when we told them we knew where our hotel was and we wanted to walk. However, 10 minutes later in 30+ degree heat, carrying our packs, we realised we had made an error and that perhaps we needed to stop being so suspicious of everyone! We hailed a tuk-tuk and agreed a price of $3. It was the best thing we could have done as we soon realised we were still a fair walk away.

One Up Banana Hotel http://www.1uphotelcambodia.com/reservations (yes it's a strange name) was really nice and as usual the staff were incredible. So friendly, welcoming and desperate to help. We had to wait a couple of minutes for our room to be ready which they couldn't stop apologizing for. The room was nice and big and suitable for our new flash-packer status - although Nick was annoyed it was on the ground floor and right next to Reception but he soon got over it.

By this time it was about 16.30 and Nick had not been feeling well all day as he kept feeling dizzy and queasy, which in his usual paranoid state meant he had a tropical disease. I suspect however he was just dehydrated and tired. So he lay down for half an hour (which turned into two) before convincing me he was ok and he wanted food. By this time it was dark (making Nick more annoyed as it had been a glorious sunny afternoon). We walked past the Independence Monument which was all lit up, then past a park where people were doing aerobics / line dancing to techno music (?!?), before reaching the riverfront which is apparently the up market end of town. We were both starving though so after a quick look round settled on a first floor restaurant with views over the river and we're ashamed to say both had burgers! I think we both needed a bit of western comfort food and this seemed to perk Nick up a lot. After dinner we walked the short distance along the river to Phnom Penh Night Market which was packed and slightly disappointing selling more cheap clothes than anything else. We decided to walk back to the hotel - another error as we ended up walking though some very dirty, smelly streets with no street lights in flip flops - Yuk! (I actually held my breath for the whole time)

After a good nights sleep Nick seemed nearly himself again. We had already arranged with the hotel to have a tuk-tuk for the day for $20, to make the most of our brief time here. This felt a little strange and upper class having a driver but the distances were too far to walk. Mi was ready and waiting for us at 09.30 so we jumped aboard and set off for our first stop.

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The Choeung Ek Genocide Centre (The Killing Fields) which are about a 30 minute, very bumpy ride outside of the city. $6 each to enter and you're given an excellent Audio Guide to help explain the history and give you an understanding of what happened there. For those who don't know about the atrocities of Pol Pots and The Khmer Rouge this was the site of a former "work camp" where Khmer people (and anyone who disagreed with the regime, in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply had always worked in an office) ended up. The area is covered with mass grave sites, some of which have been left undisturbed. The worst area though was the killing tree, so named because it was here that babies were snatched from their mothers, taken by their feet and had their heads smashed against a the tree, to then be thrown into the near by hole. Near the end of the walk way is a huge Stupa with a collection of bone and cloth over several levels. It was a very moving and sobering experience with both Nick and I commenting how scarily it compared to what had happened in Europe with the Holocaust.

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It was back to the tuk-tuk, where we turned down the offer of a shooting range where apparently for a mere $100 you can fire a rocket launcher at a cow (I wish I was joking!) and instead headed back to the city for a quick lunch stop before visiting the Tuol Sleng Museum or S21. Again this is not the nicest of places to visit but is a must see in Phnom Penh. The former High School campus was closed down under the regime (as were all schools) and turned into a prison where detainees were tortured to confess crimes they didn't commit. Again the comparisons with our European leg was scary and how this took place AFTER WW2.

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Feeling in need of some lighter subject matter our trusty tuk-tuk took us to our final stop, the Royal Palace. Luckily we had read that you needed to be dressed modestly so we were both covered up and we couldn't help but laugh at the tourists turning up in tiny shorts and vest tops being made to buy t-shirts or be turned away. The inside of the palace grounds are simply stunning. Gorgeous Khmer temples and buildings with soaring spires and curving eaves all with ornate gold carvings, where orange clad monks (and even monkeys) dart between buildings. For Nick this was the highlight of the day.

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Monk with orange phone

Monk with orange phone

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From here is was back to the hotel to decide on a plan for the next day (as we were due to check out). After coming up with lots of ideas and then changing our minds about 10 times we settled on heading to Siem Reap by bus the next day which the hotel could organise for us for only $12 each. Another couple of hours later and we had a hotel booked too so headed out to a nice local restaurant for our final meal, a great restaurant which also gave back to the community http://www.anisehotel.com.kh/?page=front&menu1=6&ctype=article&id=6&lg=en. We both felt we may have made a mistake in not deciding to stay in Phnom Penh for one more night but it was too late to change our plans now.

Next morning we had just enough time to pop to a bakery before getting our mini bus to Siem Reap.

Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 17:00 Archived in Cambodia Comments (2)

Việt Nam to Cambodia

Crossing the boarder

sunny 31 °C
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So crossing theVietnam Cambodia boarder is fun. We decided to get a bus from Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh. We thought this would be the easiest way to cross as the bus should go straight through with no changes. We are told the journey is 7 hours long taking in time to cross the boarder and go through passport control. So when an hour passes and our “guide” asks everyone for their passports and $25 (£15) were a little surprised. It feels very strange handing someone your passport but everyone is doing it even locals. Two hours later and we arrive at the Vietnam boarder only this isn't announced, the bus just stops and everyone gets off with the man holding our passports disappearing. We see a mass of people around 4 passport booths so along with the other foreigners we head towards the crowd all asking each other what's happening. Then guys at the booths start shouting out names and passing passport back over the heads of everyone waiting. Hearing our names we grab our passports and walk confused through the boarder to find our guide at the exit who then takes our passports back. Once back on the bus we go literally seconds down the road (we could have walked) and are all told to get off. This time watching our guide like a hawk we are ushered through a room and told to sit down. One by one we're called, given our passports and get to go through passport control with a slip in our passports. This is unexpected sophistication we are asked to digitally scan our finger prints and look into a camera for our mug shot. Passports stamped get to board our bus and keep our passports. We are now in Cambodia!

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Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 03:00 Archived in Cambodia Tagged ho_chi_minh_to_phnom_penh boarder_crossing_vietnam_cambod Comments (0)

The Mekong Delta, Việt Nam

Is not so mighty...

rain 26 °C
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Up early and checked out, we were ready to be picked up for our tour into the Mekong Delta. We left our big backpacks at the hotel (as we would be staying one more night after the tour) and boarded our bus. It took around 3 hours to reach the Delta where our first stop was a local family's "home" where we ate fruit and drank tea while they performed traditional music during which the heavens opened. The set up was a tourist trap even being offered a CD of the music and did not feel genuine at all - not helped by two other tour groups!

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Performance over and with it still bucketing it down it was time to board our hand rowed sandpan to explore the narrower tributaries of the Delta. It was time to get wet - very wet! We covered up as best we could with all our waterproof covers over bags etc but we were drenched in seconds. You just have to go with it though and its still stinking hot. The sandpan was the part Nick had been looking forward to the most and although it was good fun (even in the rain) it was over in less than 5 minutes where we were deposited at a traditional Coconut Candy making workshop where our guide explained how it was made before getting to sample it. Both Nick and I wondered how traditional this was and whether they would be making it if there were not tour group after tour group being filed though.

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We then boarded a larger boat (the rain had stopped by this point and we were already drying nicely) to go for lunch in a fruit orchard which was ok and where we got talking to a nice couple from Poland. It was then back to the boat where we sailed along the Mekong for a couple of hours taking in the scenery before re-boarding our bus to visit the Nam Mô Đương Lai Hạ Sanh Di Lặc Tôn Phật Temple with its huge laughing and reclining Buddhas.

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Again though this felt rushed as we had to be back on the bus for a 2.5 hour journey to our hotel in Can Tao where we were pretty much given a key and told to be ready for 06.30 the next morning. Hmmm. This was not living up to our expectations at all and we were regretting not paying the extra money to use the tour company we had used for Halong Bay. Our room was very basic but comfortable enough so we popped out for food at a nearby restaurant which served everything you can think off (and would not want to eat!) rat, dog, snake and even hamster. We had want we think was chicken and pork but can't be 100% sure before heading back to the hotel.

Very early the next morning and after a surprisingly good sleep and basic breakfast (a Dairylea slice, bread roll and a tiney tiny banana) we walked to the river to get back on our boat to visit the famous floating market at Can Tho. Even though there were lots of tourist boats and people trying to sell us things (they would hook onto the boat!) this actually felt more genuine as there were actual locals buying and selling. Our guide explained what the different boats were selling and how you could tell by the bamboo poles they had displaying their products. She then said that Gordon Ramsey had recently visited the markets and tried a snake blood wine concoction before vomiting into the river and insulting everyone by saying "if it moves they will eat it". After looking at the menu the previous night I tend to agree with him! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODg309JkPRo

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While trying to leave the markets it all got a bit heated with lots of the smaller boats fighting for our business and at one point we were completely surrounded and our boat managed to snag one of their ropes - it was all very entertaining! Finally we broke free and set off to visit a rice paper workshop. Fearing the worst after the previous days tourist traps we were pleased to end up in what appeared to a be a genuine "factory". They were working so fast and kept telling us to get out of the way (again making us believe it was real) and our guide explained the process and showed how the paper is dried and then made into rice noodles. Very interesting.

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Back on the boat and this time we were heading for a fruit orchard where our guide explained all of the different fruits they grow in the Delta which was really interesting. Sadly at this point the heavens again opened so it was cut short while we fled for shelter and a chance to sample the fruit, I didn't expect to get a whole pineapple.

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From here it was about an hour on the boat back to the hotel where we had lunch before getting the bus back to Ho Chi Minh. Nearly 5 hours later we arrived and checked straight back into our hotel where of had time to shower and book a hotel in our next destination before heading out to meet Corina and Teresa (again) for dinner.

To my annoyance Nick had told them that it it was my birthday and bless them they had got me a party hat and a little cake with a sparkler in it (which was very amusing when Corina was bent under the table trying to light it in secret but the ceiling fan kept blowing it out!). Our meal was delicious and in a great restaurant where they help locals by teaching them English and giving training in Catering and Hospitality. Excellent food and service and more importantly and excellent venture. Go here if you are in town.

Photo by Corina Hintermeister

Photo by Corina Hintermeister

Sadly the night ended sooner than we would have wanted as we were on the early bus to Cambodia in the morning, so we said our goodbyes (again!)

Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 02:00 Archived in Vietnam Tagged mekong_delta Comments (0)

Hồ Chí Minh, Việt Nam

semi-overcast 28 °C
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We were at Da Nang airport with plenty of time thanks to our private taxi transfer from Hoi An, but when we checked the Departure Board could not understand why our flight was missing?!? We asked at the JetStar counter who informed us that our flight had been delayed from 16.45 to 22.00 due to technical difficulties - wonderful! So we know had 8 hours to kill in a tiny airport. Nick had a mini-meltdown at this point - I think things had finally gotten to him as we were struggling to finalise our onward plans and this was the last straw for him. Surprisingly they gave us food vouchers, although we were only allowed to order one thing from the "restaurant" - noodles with Beef which were ok, but nothing special.

Somehow we managed to kill time thanks to some coffee, the laptop (until it died), hangman and a dirty Burger King (sssh!). After finally being able to board our flight, 1 hour later and were touching down at Ho Chi Minh. By the time we collected our luggage it was nearly midnight (joy!) so we had no choice but to get a taxi. There were English speaking porters keeping track of things and our taxi driver seemed decent enough, even phoning out hotel when he couldn't find it - it was down a side alley so you couldn't see it from the main road - although it cost us more than we think it should have. Our hotel hello http://www.booking.com/hotel/vn/hello-hotel.en.html were waiting for us, knowing we were delayed so swept us into our room to rest without any of the usual formalities. Our room was nice, although nowhere near as nice as our swanky hotels in Hue and Hoi An.

During our extended stay at Da Nang Airport we had booked a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels, unfortunately we had to be at their offices for 07.30 so it was a sleepy start to the morming with both of us falling asleep on the bus. It was worth it though. On arrival you watch a 20 minute film about the war and the Viet Cong before following our guide into the main complex. The first stop was at what appeared to be small clearing but when he brushed the leaves aside it revealed a tiny wooden hatch which a member of staff then jumped into to display how to get in and out. This hole is tiny, half full of muddy rain water (and god knows what else) and pitch black when the hatch is closed. Members of the Viet Cong would stay in there for hours at a time waiting to ambush passing US troops. We were then all invited to have a go, but neither Nick or I were brave enough.

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We then walked through lots of exhibits of the different entrances into the tunnels, how they disguised air holes as termite mounds and all of the different traps they used - some of which are barbaric involving razor sharp bamboo. They also used pieces of American munitions they could find against them, so gunpowder, shards of metal for spikes etc.

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The tour ended at a series of tunnels which have been constructed especially and believe it or not are 3 times larger than they actually would have been. Now as not all of you may know Nick suffers with claustraphobia and has had panic attacks when we have visited small caves in Monte Carlo and even in lifts. He is normally ok if he can see an exit or if he can feel movement (a lift or plane etc). The tunnels are between 4-6 meters underground for a 100 metre stretch with exit points every 20 metres just in case. He was determined to do it though so we followed the rest of our group into the hole and into a dimly lit, very hot narrow crawl space which slowly worked its way down twisting and turning. At 20 meters I broke off to the exit but Nick was adamant he wanted to keep going so we carried on for another 20 metres going deeper underground and getting narrower, darker and hotter. By this point Nick had had enough and wanted out so we headed for the 40 metre exit along with a couple of others I'm so proud of him for facing one of his biggest fears head on and I know he is very pleased with himself, although you can see from the photo how scared he was - that is the most forced smile!

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Back in the fresh air we had a final few exhibits and obligatory gift shop before getting the bus back to Ho Chi Minh. Our bus dropped off us very close to the War Remnants Museum, so after a quick drink at a local cafe we went in to learn more about the War. Outside the museum are a number of tanks and aircraft (all of which. I'm sure Dad can name) and a reconstruction of a POW prison with the infamous tiger cages.

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The highlight of the museum however was its photographic exhibits with documented the war and also the aftermath including a particularly moving exhibit of photographs of the victims of Agent Orange, the chemical agent used by the US for deforestation and which continues to have long term genetic side effects for children 4 generations later. What was so upsetting was that American soldiers who were also affected have been paid large amounts of compensation from the US Government and chemical companies yet the Vietnamese claims are still being refused by the US Supreme Court. We completely lost track of time in the museum and were surprised when at 17.00 on the dot they started locking doors, turning off lights and ushering people out while they were desperately trying to read display boards.

After our very early start it was a dinner at a local street side restaurant where we found it very amusing to watch an older "lady of night" try her charms on an unsuspecting older American tourist to no avail.

Next morning and we had a bit of lie in, but still managed to make breakfast! Today we decided we wanted to see more of the city so set off to the Central Market where we only lasted about 10 minutes before getting fed up of being grabbed and saying "no thank you" to everything they offered. From here we walked to Notre Dame Cathedral which looks like it has been teleported straight from Europe and the Central Post office which was designed by Gustave Eiffel who I think build some tower in Paris?!? Haha.

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We then went on a bit of a hunt to find somewhere to change some money into US dollars as we knew we needed some to pay for our Cambodia border crossing in a few days time. This however was surprisingly difficult to do! Lots of places would change Dollars into Dong but not the other way around. The last place we tried gave us the card of somewhere nearby. We arrived to lots of people handing over wads of cash. We told them what we wanted and were surprised the price they offered us was a like for like swap with no commission. We said yes, handed over our Dongs and were given brand new Dollar Bills with no questions or receipts etc. We then spent the rest of the afternoon convinced we had been screwed and had been given fake Dollars (We even Googled how to tell if they were fake later that night when we got back) luckily they seemed genuine!

Anyway after a spot of potential money laundering we walked to the Reunification Palace, a very cool 60s building which was the seat of the President during the war and which is now preserved as a museum in the state it was when the tanks rolled in. We arrived just in time to take the free guided tour which was really interesting and gave us loads of information and helped us make sense of the huge building. Nick likened it to being in a James Bond set from the 1960s. Surprisingly this being the equivalent of the white house in South Vietnam building it was only bombed once in the war. A double agent who had a small window to bomb it, missing it on his first attempt but miraculously managed to fly round again before being shot down and hit the target on the second run destroying the helipad and the central stair case. The building was captured till near the end of the war when some 10 tanks invaded the grounds, two of which are on display at the main gate.

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From here it was a stop for some local street food before another rock and roll early night ready for our tour to The Mekong Delta the next day...

Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 17:00 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hội An, Việt Nam

Sun + Sand + Sea = Happy Nick...

sunny
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The bus from Hue was only about 4 hours and very straightforward. As usual when we arrived at the bus station there was the usual crowd of touts selling their services, although this now also included having a suit made (Hoi An is famed for it's abundance of tailors - some more skilled than others apparently). Avoiding them as usual we walked the 20 minutes (in baking heat) to the Vaia Boutique Hotel http://vaiahotel.com and for the second time thought we had arrived at the wrong place - it was stunning and right up Nick and my street!

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After a quick shower we walked the 5 minutes into the centre of Hoi An which is a Unesco World Heritage Site with it's wooden buildings, ornate temples and it's famous Japanese Covered Bridge. The town is so picturesque although, thanks to the typhoon the previous day, partially flooded..

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There is nothing higher than 2 stories in the centre with some of the streets being pedestrianised and being set along the banks of the Thu Bon River. The pace of life here is so much slower than up in Ha Noi so we spent the afternoon mooching around, looking in shops, the huge central market selling all sorts of exotic fruits and vegetables (and everything else you can imagine) and even bumped into our old friend Teresa!

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We knew that Teresa and Corina would be in town when we left them in Ha Noi so had already arranged to meet up that evening at a restaurant the British guys on our Ha Long Bay tour had recommended; The White Marble http://www.visithoian.com/whitemarble/ which had fantastic reviews. It was a little pricier than we would normally pay, but we all decided to treat ourselves, sharing a couple of set menus. The reviews were right, the food was amazing and we spent the evening catching up and chatting until we were the last ones in the restaurant! We said our goodbyes agreeing to meet up when we all reached Ho Chi Minh if the timings worked out.

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After a great night sleep in our queen sized bed, we were up early to be collected for our half day tour to Mỹ Sơn (another Unesco World Heritage site!). These Hindu temples pre date Angkor Wat (the largest temple everyone knows) but were still part of the Champa Dynasty which at it's height covered area's of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. These temples were constructed in the 4th century and abandoned in the early 14th century for reasons unknown, it may have been decease, living in the jungle, climate change or even war. Over the centuries the jungle reclaimed the land covering most of the temples, so they were all but forgotten until French scholars discovered them in the 1930's and soon started to restore them. However when the American's carpet bombed North Vietnam during the American War in the 60's they were greatly damaged. Today you can still see bomb craters and there are a large amount of unexploded bombs in the area killing locals daily.

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I think for me the most amazing thing is there construction. The older ones dating back to the 4th century were made completely out of brick but they used no mortar and are still standing 12 centuries later with no moss or major decay. This technology must have been lost as when new temples were built or additions made these bricks are noticeably different with thick coverings of moss or discolouration - very interesting!. Scientist still don't know how the bricks were made and are currently studying them. The very late temples were constructed from stone from a quarry up in the mountains a good distance away. It's fascinating to think while in the UK we were building medieval castles with hardly any detail, here they were building beautiful ornately carved temples using technologies we would take a centuries to discover.

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We explored the ruins in the heat and humidity of the jungle for another couple of hours (even bumping into Teresa and Corina!) before taking the mini bus back to Hoi An. Sadly we then had to spend an hour or so sorting out our onward travel arrangements and how we would get to Ho Chi Minh. We opted for another nights stay in Hoi An to make the most of gorgeous weather (unusual as this part of the country was supposed to be well into it's wet season!) and opted for a flight down south, rather than the gruelling 18 hour bus ride.

Boring stuff done, we picked up some free bikes from our hotel and set off for the 2km ride to An Bang Beach for a bit of rest and relaxation in the sunshine. This was so much fun cycling along on the rural roads with very little traffic until we reached our destination about 25 minutes later.

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After a couple of hours we decided we should make the trip back before it got dark (having no lights or helmets - or street lights!). As we cycled back the sun was setting into the rice fields where water buffalo were grazing so we could not resist staying to watch - simply stunning!

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Instead of cycling straight back to the hotel we went to the riverfront as there are lots of street food options and had a delicious meal sat next the river watching candle lit paper lanterns float by.

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Our final day in Hoi An was a lazy one! We got bikes again and cycled back to the beach where we spent most of the day soaking up more sunshine. That night we ate at another really nice restaurant called The Blue Dragon which was really well priced and donates part of it's takings to support under-privalidged children throughout Vietnam - ethical and yummy!

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Sadly though it was an early night to pack and get ready for our flight to Ho Chi Minh the next day...

Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 17:00 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Huế, Việt Nam

Cycling in the rain...

rain 28 °C
View Honeymoon World Tour on Nick-n-Charlie's travel map.

After a remarkably good nights sleep on the 12 hour night bus from Ha Noi through some amazing thunderstorms, we arrived in Hue at around 07.30. Annoyingly our bags (which had been in the hold under the bus) were soaked through when we collected them! Avoiding the crowd of touts trying to sell their taxis, cyclos, and hotels we walked towards out hotel just as the rain started!

About 20 minutes later we arrived at the Serene Palace Hotel http://www.serenepalacehotel.com soaking wet with mud splashed up us and looking hot and sweaty at this very swanky looking hotel. As we climbed the steps to the lobby two uniformed door men rushed towards us, grabbed our backpacks off us while two of the female staff gave us cold towels simply asking for our passports before inviting us for a complementary breakfast. By the time we were finished we were all checked in and our bags were already in our room - incredible service and all for only £15 a night!! We even paid for them to do our laundry as it was so cheap!

Because of the typhoon we were now a day behind our schedule, meaning we only had 24 hours in Hue, so wanted to make the most of it. After a shower, we decided to rent bicycles from the hotel (£1.20 all day), much to the staffs amusement as it was still throwing it down with rain. As we waited we started chatting to a Swiss lady (who was also renting a bike) who had just come from Cambodia so we swapped stories and tips for a good 20 minutes. Raincoats on we braved the downpour and set off into the thankfully less chaotic and scary traffic of Hue.

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After 2km we arrived at the Imperial City (in glorious sunshine?!?), Hue's former Citadel which is a huge complex of former Royal buildings of the Emperor which was still in use as recently as 1956! It's currently being completely restored due to the American War however some parts of the complex have been "over-renovated" and look brand new so it is a little strange to walk around. They don't seem to have found the balance been restoring and rebuilding. Still amazing to walk around though.

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From here we stopped for a quick coffee and got talking to the owner who was really nice and gave us loads of tips on where we should go, not only in Hue, but also throughout Vietnam. Back on our bikes and another 3km ride brought us to the Thien Mu Pagoda and Monastery just as the heavens opened with the most amazing monsoon downpour! Luckily these normally only last about 5 minutes so after sheltering with some other tourists we are able to explore. The pagoda and monastery were beautiful and really tranquil to wander around. The monastery was also the home of Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist monk who drove to a busy intersection in Saigon and set himself on fire in protest against the way that Buddhists were being treated by the South Vietnamese. They proudly display the car he used outside the monastery.

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We cycled back to the hotel (dodging another couple of downpours) to find immaculately clean, ironed laundry waiting for us - it smelt so good! That evening we ate at a really nice restaurant called Golden Rice which the hotel recommended where you had to cross a small bridge with tiny ducklings floating in a small pond! The food was delicious and the staff were so friendly. We got chatting to one of them who was asking about our travel plans and giving us ideas on where to go and what not to miss. We had really enjoyed Hue and it was a shame that we had missed out on another night, but our onward bus and hotel were already confirmed.

Next morning after a fantastic nights sleep in the largest and comfiest bed, we were up early for another great breakfast before being picked up for our 4 hour journey to Hoi An...

Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 17:00 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

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