It’s been a while…

Hey friends!

I got home and life took over and my blog fell by the wayside.  What’s new? well I got a new job, I hiked the highest mountain in Scotland, ran a 10k, lost 3 stone and of course took a couple of trips!

I feel like I do need to round off Asia though, after Hoi An we drove to Hue.  I’ll be honest, I wasn’t a big fan – anything in comparison to Hoi An was going to be anti-climatic though.  After Hue, we arrived in Ninh Binh.  Ninh Binh is on the very outskirts of Hanoi, we arrived late here.  The next day was our last day with Stray – we stopped at Trang An, where we got a boat around and I nearly fell in on more than one occasion!!

Trang An is where King Kong: Skull Island is filmed, which was pretty cool to see.  Each boat had a local doing the rowing and steering.  But we had to help too, whenever our lady thought we were getting too lazy she would give me a nudge in the back with her oar and laughed every time I had to get on or off the boat because I was so clumsy and clearly just do not have boat legs. I also want to note, each boat was big enough four only 4 westerners, but they were squeezing atleast 9 Vietnamese onto each boat  It was a great last activity before Hanoi where our tour with Stray ended.

When we arrived in Hanoi Mia (our Stray guide) took us on a walking tour and to the railway that runs through a street, she told us that this is where the poorer people live, which really makes you see the quality of life some people have. We took a walk round Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.

 

I loved Hanoi, frankly I loved Vietnam.  I’d love to go back and revisit and stay for longer – hopefully I get to!

After Vietnam, we headed back to Singapore.  I love love love Singapore.  It’s so clean and modern and it has my one true love – Innisfree. We spent our time in Singapore at the night zoo, shopping and going to the free attractions at night – the gardens by the bay and the water show.  We also went to Universal Studios Singapore which is well worth the visit!

Singapore was the end of the road in Asia for me.  I was ready to be home though, ready to get back into a routine and stop living out of a backpack! 6 months on and I’m dying to be living out of that backpack again!!

 

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.

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!

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!

Don Det (4000 Islands)

Our final full day in Laos began with us leaving Pakse and heading toward Don Det – an island in the Mekong River. We stopped at a place called Wat Phou first, this was a Hindu temple which had since been turned into a Buddhist temple, the most prominent religion in Laos by a mile. At this point I was still suffering from whatever bug I had picked up and decided I wouldn’t walk to the top as I was still pretty dizzy (and lazy).

After Wat Phou we hopped aboard the bus again and headed toward the 1st of our ferries for the day. This one the bus was able to board. These ferries were like none I had ever seen before, more like wooden rafts with 2 buses, 1 car and a whole bunch of people.

After this crossing we took the bus to Nakasong to catch our next ferry which truly gave me the fear. The next ferries were long narrow boats with tin roofs that wobbled when you got on them to the point of the roof falling on you. When 9 of us and our bags had got on we set off. There were 3 boats of us and the other 2 boat drivers took their boats and passengers to piers. Our driver decided he would try and beach us, it didn’t work and the boat went sideways, with us not able to get out onto dry land our driver announced right get out and we were forced to jump out the side of the boat into the sea… when it was my turn to get out one of the girls panicked and went to the other side with one leg out the boat tipped back and my other leg got stuck in the boat it’s safe to say my converse are ruined and our tour guide wasn’t happy with the boat driver…

Don Det seemed like a pretty special place. We signed up to see some rare Irrawaddy dolphins at sunset with 5 others from our group and it turned out to be pretty special. We saw the dolphins although I didn’t manage to get any pictures of them, so everyone will just need to believe me! To get to the dolphins however we had to take a tuk tuk and there are no tuk tuks on Don Det so we ordered a tuk tuk from Don Kon which is joined to Don Det via a bridge to collect us. The only road on Don Det is a single track road and is more like a land rover track in the hills back home. After our dolphin adventure we had our final meal with our friend Becky who was hopping off in Don Det to stay in a teepee for 4 nights. This was our last day in Laos which has definitely become one of my favourite countries now. The next day we crossed the border and journeyed to Siem Reap, Cambodia.