Dalat > Bai Xep

We left Dalat at 7.45am but not before the hotel manager forced us to at least take some bread with us so we wouldn’t starve. The drive was pretty long we were on the bus from 7.45am till around 5pm with only stops for lunch and happy rooms. We felt like we must have covered such a large distance but when we checked it was only 201 miles. That’s like Aberdeen to Edinburgh.

The first part of the journey was through a mountain pass with long twisty roads. Along this part of the journey Mia told us about Vietnamese burial traditions.

In Vietnam, they do not cremate they only bury. There are 2 sections to a graveyard: a community area and family areas. When a family member first dies they are buried in a wooden coffin in the community area for the first 3 years after they pass. After 3 years the family then dig the body up and clean the bones and put them into a ceramic pot within in the family’s area. They do this because they believe that our flesh belongs to the earth and what belongs to earth should return to earth but our bones belong to our family and they should return to them.

After a parent dies it is the sons job to worship to the ancestors every day as it is believed that the ancestors of the family help the family with their lives in the present.

We continued on the road stopping in Nha Trang for lunch. Nha Trang is a popular Russian holiday destination in Vietnam with beautiful beaches. Although Stray does not stop for long here we could have hopped off and caught the next bus later on. Apparently it is one of the most expensive cities in Vietnam.

We continued on toward Bai Xep after this, the only hiccup in this being our bus tried to fit on to a bridge that it was not built for it and the top of the bus scraped along the metal and the fan hatch was hit. Once we got through we were told no and had to reverse back under it.

Once we finally arrived at Bai Xep, we had to leave the bus at the top of the village and walk down as the roads were not built for cars only mopeds. We stayed in a cute little hostel/hotel called Haven Vietnam right on the beach. We had dinner with the group and made an early exit as we were so tired.

The next day we had the laziest day ever. We got up around 12pm had breakfast and then had a walk along the beach. I put my feet in the South China sea (which felt as cold as the north sea) and we walked back. The rest of our day pretty much revolved around eating.

Today we are on route to Hoi An!

Ho Chi Minh > Dalat

After issues checking out of our hotel in HCM we literally ran to meet our next Stray group. Thinking it would be all new people we were pleasantly surprised that we had been with 3 of them before!

Mia, our new guide introduced herself – she’s our first female guide on Stray and I’m so glad we’ve got her.

We hopped aboard the bus after he had decided to take down a couple of traffic cones to get to us and started our long drive to Dalat. Vietnam is such a long country that our travel days are pretty brutal. The drive to Dalat would take around 7/8 hours.

Mia introduced herself telling us that Mia is her English name and she chose it when she was younger based on her love of the Princess Diaries. She then went onto explain how she is 2 different ages. In Vietnamese culture she is 26, even though she was born in the same year as me and I’m 24. In Vietnam you are born 1 and they go by the year rather than the date. So in Vietnamese culture I would also be 26. In western culture, she would be 25.

On our drive we had a few stops for “happy rooms” and lunch and then we stopped at Datanla falls. A waterfall where you take a rollercoaster down the mountain to them. I wasn’t feeling well so decided against going down and sat in the sun at the top.

When I was sitting at the top it very much felt like Scotland in summer under the pine trees and with a much cooler temperature than what we’ve had since probably India.

When we arrived in Dalat, I could already tell it was going to be one of my favourite places and now after we’ve left I stand by that. That night Mia took the group to a restaurant called Artists Alley and it was cute and the food was absolutely delicious – best garlic bread I have ever eaten. We then went to maze bar which is literally a maze with thousands of staircases.

The next day we walked along the lake and around the town. We had a cute dinner and then sorted our stuff out for our journey to Bai Xep the next day.

Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh

7.30am, Ben and I are sitting in the “Fancy Guesthouse” waiting for our pick up. Today we’re catching a public bus to Vietnam. Part of the unguided sector for Stray and we were nervous about it. Public buses in Asia can be significantly different to ones at home. In some cases they’ll put seats in the aisle (little stools not fixed to the ground) in order to make more money. Luckily this was not the case for us!

Once we had been picked up and taken to the bus station and processed. We boarded the bus and said goodbye to Cambodia.

We were given little breakfast boxes and bottles of water and kept going until the border.

First we needed to be stamped out of Cambodia, we then hopped back on the bus and stopped at a restaurant in no man’s land. The food was good and the duty free had British Cadburys so we were happy. After this we drove to Vietnam immigration, this time we had to take our bags off the bus to get them scanned before going into Vietnam – much stricter than the Lao Cambodia border! Once we had all done this we were on our way straight to Ho Chi Minh!

When we arrived in HCM there were clear differences between Vietnam and Cambodia already. In Vietnam there are mopeds and coffee shops everywhere. It already felt more developed and has been easier to find things we were used to getting at home.

After checking in at the hotel we walked ourselves to McDonald’s – a truly beautiful thing.

The next day we walked to see the independence palace and the war remnant museum. Both very interesting places. Walking round HCM, I felt very safe and the city as a whole felt a lot cleaner than anything we had seen in a while.

The next day we would be driving to Dalat!

Kampot > Phnom Penh

We left Sihanoukville with only 8 in our group. This was strange for us as we had just come from a group of 27. Our new guide was called Tong. We took the short trip to Kampot and checked into our hotel. Ben and I were completed zonked. 20 days of doing nothing had ruined us.

We eventually got up and wondered around the town stopping at a bakery for a sandwich. I didn’t take many pictures there but here are some:

The fruit above in the middle of the roundabout is durian. Durian is probably the worst fruit I’ve ever tried but Asian people love it. Tong likened the taste to creamy garlic. But the smell is rotten. Many hotels will not let you have durian in the room as the smell is so bad. But I’m still going to bring home some durian sweets and biscuits for my parents (you’re welcome guys).

This morning we started our journey to our last stop in Cambodia – the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

On our way there we made 2 stops. Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng. These are also known as the killing field and S-21. These are both the most well known of the killing fields (there are over 300 in Cambodia) and the prisons. If you aren’t familiar with the Khmer Rouge regime, basically a man named Pol Pot and his political party wanted to make everyone equal, no rich and no poor. He did this by forcing everyone in the cities out of their homes and forcing people to become killed. Enemies of the Khmer Rouge were people who were intellectuals – scholars, doctors, teachers, monks etc. Even if you looked like an intellectual you would be killed. Examples of this include if you wore glasses and if you were white. They severed family connections and forced people to live with strangers.

No one knows the exact figure of how many people died but it is estimated over 1.5million which is more than a quarter of Cambodia’s population. They were not killed quickly by bullets either. Bullets were too expensive. Most were beaten to death by wooden clubs, axes, farming tools. Thrown into mass graves, women and children too. One of the quotes that has stuck with me is how they justified killing babies “to remove the grass you must remove the roots too”.

Choeung Ek (the killing field) is where people came to die. Music played to mask the screams and today there are mass graves everywhere. They have not recovered all the bodies as it is an impossible task, in the monsoon season it is common for more bones and clothes from the deceased to surface on the top.

We then drove a short distance to Tuol Sleng (S21). S21 was where many of the people executed at the killing field were tortured for information on intellectuals before they were killed. Today I not only saw the methods of torture, I also saw photos of these innocent people after they had been. It was truly horrific. My only thought for them was that at least once they were dead they were no longer suffering at the hands of their torturers. The regime even had painters (other prisoners) come in and paint these people as they were tortured.

Today, we met Chum Mey one of the 11 survivors of S21. He survived by becoming a painter.

Today was an emotional day for all, once we arrived at drop off point we said goodbye to all but 1 of our group who we will head to Vietnam with on Saturday. We arrived at our guesthouse and got ourselves a well deserved curry.

Koh Rong Samloem

On our way to Sihanoukville Dollar told us his family’s story during the Khmer Rouge. He was born after the regime ended but his family lost his grandparents, his aunt and uncle and his older brother and sister. His grandparents were tortured and had their fingernails pulled out, his aunt and uncle were tortured by water boarding and his older brother and sister were swung by their feet against a tree. Every family in Cambodia was affected by the regime and they all have their own stories.

3 days later in Sihanoukville we had said goodbye to Dollar and the rest of our group and hopped on a ferry to the Cambodian Island Koh Rong Samloem, our home for 15 nights. Longer than we had spent in both India and in Myanmar.

On arrival we jumped aboard our resorts boat and were taken to the resort where we were welcomed by Joyce and Vig and their entire team. The next 15 nights were spent relaxing and getting so sunburnt that I got blisters.

Our resort had 7 dogs which already makes it heaven for me but it truly was a paradise. Here are some photos from our time there:

Next: Kampot!

Battambang and Sihanoukville

From Siem Reap we met our new tour guide Dollar and got on our way to the home stay. We stopped off along the way to try some of the local delicacy – rat.

I decided I was never going to have the chance to try it again so I might as well. They only eat the rats which live on rice paddies where they only eat the rice. It tasted like juicy chicken and I would definitely try it again. Someone had the tail and said it was like crispy skin…

After this we stopped for some lunch and for people to swim if they wanted we ended up staying for 4 hours just hanging out on hammocks and chatting.

Guaranteed you can’t find me in this picture!

While we were here a group of 8 of us decided we wanted to go to see the Battambang bat caves so instead of going straight to the homestay we got 2 tuk tuks and off we went. Our tuk tuk was a ‘super’ tuk tuk which means it’s a car with a tuk tuk back and our driver called Small had named it Wendy. But not because the name of his girlfriend was called Wendy – he then proceeded to fly a paper (sort of) person round saying look my girlfriend can fly!

We drove for around 40 mins to the bat cave and then got the opportunity to see one of the killing caves from the Khmer Rouge. This was one of the most sobering experiences of my life and made a few members of the group cry. We were led down some steps to a cave with a hole in the roof here we were told people were thrown in here blindfolded. There were many skeletons and you could just feel like something awful had happened there. For me it was a similar feeling to being at ground zero in NYC.

After the sobering experience of the killing fields we went down to watch the bats for sunset. Every evening at the bat cave over 6 million bats leave at sunset, this takes over 40 minutes and is quiet a sight to see and a smell to smell.

After our drive back to the homestay, we arrived at our home for the night. Unlike the lao one we would all be sharing a room, all 27 of us. This wasn’t as bad as it seems. To start with we made our spring rolls which I’m now a total expert at (but don’t test me) and the home family fried them for us. We were then served with spring rolls, Khmer chicken curry and Fish amok. The curry and the spring rolls were insane but I stayed clear of the fish.

After dinner we sat round and chatted, the other table started a drinking game with a chicken head and cobra blood that I did not want to get involved in that shit.

Everyone slowly started heading to bed after that. To get up to our room you had to climb a rickety near vertical steps which wobbled and had giant human sized holes. One of our friends who hadn’t been drinking ended up flipping over from the top and falling 8ft on to the concrete floor below. He was ok but did need to go to hospital for scans and stitches but miraculously got on the bus next morning with a headache and dizziness!

Our bus journey the next day was a long one – 12 hours to Sihanoukville. This took longer when the bus broke down and we had to change buses!

When we finally arrived in Sihanoukville we were quite disappointed at the town. We were there for 3 nights and after one outting we knew there was nothing for us here. Sihanoukville has 152 casinos and not a lot else. Most people use it as a last stop before heading to the islands which is where we would be spending the next 15 nights.

Siem Reap

This is going to be a pretty long one…

Leaving Don Det we took the long boats back to the buses but this time I managed to stay dry! We boarded our buses and drove for 45 minutes to the Lao/Cambodia border. We said goodbye to our bus driver and went to get stamped out of Laos. Here we had to pay 10,000 kip (90p) to leave the country, this is an overtime fee for the police which you pay on weekends and after 4pm. We then had to walk for about 300m into Cambodia. It was probably the most surreal experience just walking through no mans land and into Cambodia.

Here we got our temperature taken which was mandatory to ensure we were fit and well to be in Cambodia. Once our temp was checked we got a yellow card to keep throughout Cambodia to prove we were fine when we arrived if we got ill. The next step was to get our Cambodian visas depending on the police officer giving you the visa you may have to pay extra as corruption is pretty high in Cambodia. After they’ve given you your visa you the join another queue to get your fingerprints and photo taken. At this point we saw a guy skip the queue, walk straight up to the counter with a wad of cash and just walked through… literally shit you see in movies. The whole process took us 2 hours and was probably the scariest visa experience I’ve had this trip.

Once we arrived we grabbed some food and boarded the next bus for our 7 hour journey to Siem Reap. I was a real moody cow on this bus journey because I couldn’t get comfortable so looking back I feel a bit sorry for everyone around me.

Arriving in Siem Reap we said goodbye to Pao our guide for the final time as we would get. Cambodian guide upon leaving Siem Reap. Our hotel in Siem Reap cost us £10 each for the 3 nights and was the most luxury we have had.

The next day started off unexpectedly. We had been told we would be picked up at 7.45am for our tour of the temples of Angkor. But at 7.30am we were walking down to grab breakfast from the bakery a guy on a tuk tuk was holding a piece of paper with our names on it so we got in. He took us to the tour company office after a 10 minute ride of complete confusion on our part. We sat for ages wondering what was happening before our tour guide finally appeared, we got in the bus and headed for the rest of our group who we knew from the bus.

Our guide was called Mari and he really liked to name drop. “I was a tour guide for the day to 007 my friend Roger Moore” or “when I was here with my friend blah blah the national geographic photographer we did this”. It was pretty funny and I’m pretty sure he was speaking shit 99% of the time. He also had a lot to say about Thai people and not in a good sense, it became pretty clear the Khmer people and the Thai’s don’t get along, he blamed Thailand for taking Khmer land saying they were thieves and cheats who had been forced out of Mongolia many years ago and the Khmer people had given them part of their land which they had expanded over the years. He told us anecdotes of when he was a teenager and would guard the temples of Angkor from looters from other countries and being given an AK-47 to do this.

He first took us to Ta Prohm “Tomb Raider temple” this is where Angelina Jolie’s tomb raider was filmed.

We went relatively early were still fighting with Chinese tour groups to get photos. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people in a temple, you were basically climbing over people to see things.

After we were done here we headed to Angkor Wat, Mari had the bus driver drop us across the river and we walked over the bridge. Here Mari told us to watch for crocodiles, when I asked if crocodiles were naturally from Cambodia he told us no people got them as pets and released the in the river, so now they have massive crocodiles in the rivers. He then told us he had got his mother in law 98 crocodiles for around her farm.

Luckily we didn’t see any crocodiles and walked over to Angkor Wat.

Throughout the tour in Angkor there would be random points where Mari would show us bullet marks from where they had decided to “shoot for fun”. To get to the top of Angkor Wat there was a queue to get up the new UNESCO built stairs. These stairs replaced vertical thin stairs which would have required going up on all fours for me, the wooden stairs were put in after a man died falling down the originals. You can still see the original stairs and there’s no chance in hell I would be going up them!

Mari sat for ages at this point telling us about his life, he has a green bean farm where he works for all of January and most of February. He raises cockerels for cock fighting (which we have since found out is completely illegal in Cambodia) he showed us his house which he built and pictures of his 2 daughters. He told us is views on Cambodian politics (they were not good).

As we were leaving Angkor Wat for lunch we decided to stop and take some pictures

Ben managed to capture the moment someone for the billionth time tried to walk through my photo!!

After lunch we went to Wat Thom but before this we got to try and move stones the way the builders of these temples would have

Clearly I was a natural?

My pictures for the last temples got less as the heat got to us all and we were exhausted so here’s a few

After our exhausting day our second day was spent in a bakery and at the cinema seeing Black Panther.

Next we headed to our Cambodian Homestay in Battambang!