A Travellerspoint blog

Entering Cambodia ...

It takes about a total of 9 hours to get from Saigon to Phnom Penh which includes bathroom stops and making a run for the border. A full day's experience for only $9.

The road to Phnom Penh alternates between pavement and dirt with an emphasis on bumps - many, many bumps. The land in Cambodia is flat and arid and the temperature is hot and humid, especially during the dry season.

Cambodia itself is an intriguing country. In the northwest, they have the temples of Angkor. These are magnificent temples that were built thousands of years ago. But Cambodia's recent history has been marked by turmoil. One the worst parts of their history occured less than thirty years ago with the reign of the Khymer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. I recently read the book Brother Number One: Pol Pot. This book documents Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge's rise and fall from power. During their reign, it is estimated that between 1 to 3 million people died including most of their intellectual population. A very sad and troubling time.

Cambodia is still trying to recover from the Khymer Rouge's reign and it is a very poor country. I got my first glimpse of the poverty at a river crossing on my way to Phnom Penh. While our bus was waiting for the ferry, we were bombarded by kids peddling drinks and food to us. Just past them other kids were searching through trash while they carried their younger siblings. A sad sight to see. In Phnom Penh, it is estimated that 20,000 kids live on the streets.

Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia with a population around 1.5 million people. My stay in Phnom Penh was for only one full day but during my stay I visited the Killing Fields and Tuol Seng Museum. There was a movie made about the Killing Fields. The Killing Fields are located about 15 km or 10 miles outside of Phnom Penh. It is estimated that 15,000 men, women and children were murdered there. There is a temple in the center of Killing Fields that contains the skulls of some of the victims and they show the brutality of the Khymer Rouge. All around the temple are ditches with signs marking the mass graves of the victims who were buried there.

Tuol Seng Museum or S-21 was an old high school that was converted into a prison by the Khymer Rouge. Pol Pot used S-21 to torture and murder people that the Khymer Rouge believed were conspiring against them. No one was immune to their brutality. Pol Pot tortured and killed colleagues who had been loyal to him for twenty years. While S-21 was in use, an estimated 12,000 people were killed and only 12 people survived.

Although my time in Phnom Penh was short and melancholy, it is definitely a place to visit. I had some delicious food from the local food stands and the river side area is very nice to see.

Posted by ejgalang 01:40 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Nha Trang, Saigon and the end of Vietnam

Travelling throughout Vietnam is really easy. For one, you can pretty much book a ticket anywhere on almost any type of transportation. At many of the "cafes" in Vietnam, you can book a ticket, rent a room, and grab dinner all in one place. Plus there are a variety of options when traversing Vietnam. The cheapest and one of the easiest ways to travel is by using the Open Bus ticket. For a measley $30, you can travel from Hanoi to Saigon or vice versa (Roughly 1700 km or 1020 miles) and you can stop in six cities in between, not too shabby. The buses are full size buses and although they aren't the most comfortable of rides, you just can't beat the price. (I think $30 on a greyhound bus will only get you to Bakersfield and who wants to go to Bakersfield).

After taking an overnight bus from Hoi An, I arrived in Nha Trang. Nha Trang is roughly the halfway point between Hanoi and Saigon and it is a mid-size city with great beaches. When I arrived, I was greated with hot weather and clear blue skies. It's a hard life but someone has to live it. I liked Nha Trang not only because of the weather and the beaches but because it has something for everyone - nice beaches and warm sea water, a plethora of bars and clubs to visit and a variety of places to eat seafood, local food and different ethnic foods. I spent my days chillin' on the beach and the nights visiting different restuarants and bars. I also took a day tour of some of the islands just off the coast of Nha Trang. Not a bad way to spend a couple of days in Vietnam.

Next up was Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon. I arrived after an overnight bus from Nha Trang and the weather was hot and humid. My stay in Saigon was very short, just two days but while I was there I visited the War Remnant Museum formerly named the American War Crimes museum and Cu Chi Tunnels which are about 50 km outside of Saigon. The War Remnants Museum had a lot of interesting pictures of the Vietnam war and it had an interesting exhibit about the effects of Agent Orange, Napalm and chemicals that were used during the war. The Cu Chi tunnels were a maze of tunnels that were built during the war. The tunnels ran for miles and had different levels and size rooms throughout them. They were an amazing work. Of course, two days in Saigon is not enough time to experience the city, but I will be heading back to Saigon in early May to meet up with my old roommate and just hang out.

Posted by ejgalang 00:50 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

China Beach and Hoi An

After 13 days in North Vietnam and the onset of cold weather, the mission was to find the beach and sunny weather. Like birds flocking south, we moved south to China beach. China beach was a popular R&R place for American soldiers during the Vietnam war. My friend and I stayed at local guesthouse 50 meters from the beach called Hoa's place. Hoa's Place is a legend among backpackers and there are guestbooks filled with backpackers logs to prove it. If you ever visit, I have a note in there too! Hoa's place is run by none other than Hoa and his wife. He offers a clean place, good food (try the local burger - burger with an egg :) and cheap beer with a laid back attitude. Some of his favorite english lines include "Take it easy man" and "Enjoy". Hoa was one of the most genuine Vietnamese I met in Vietnam. He makes you want to come back and visit, which many people do. Hoa's place is a home away from home.

About 20 km or 12 miles from China Beach is the city of Hoi An. Hoi An is mid-way between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). It is adjacent to the Thu Bon river and has small french colonial buildings of differing colors. Hoi An has something for everyone. It is near the beach, about 3 km away. You can get tailored clothes for cheap prices - a tailored suit cost about $50 and takes about a day to be made. A variety of small restaurants that offer local cuisine and almost any type of food you are jonesing for, even swedish meatballs. There are numerouse bars offering cheap drinks and a relaxed ambiance. A fun town to visit and stay in.

On the outskirts of Hoi An, lies My Sun. My Sun was a religious centre back in the late 14th century. My lonely planet guide book raved about it. Although it sounds nice, my visit there was very disappointing because only part of the temples were still standing because the rest had been bombed by the American's during the war, nice.

Posted by ejgalang 00:00 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Sapa and Halong Bay

If you have the opportunity to visit northern Vietnam, you definitely need to visit Sapa and Halong Bay.

Sapa is a small city in the mountains about 375 km northwest of Hanoi. Sapa was a former hill station of the French and is home to many of the Vietnam's indigenous cultures - Red Dao, Hmong and Tay people.

We were greated with blue skies and warm weather upon our arrival into Sapa. After checking into our room which cost $9 a night, we rented a couple of motorscooters to tour the area surrounding the town of Sapa. We attempted to find a waterfall but we got lost twice (Seems to be a recurring event for me), crashed the motorbike (no harm no foul) and our motorbike was backfiring because we put a higher grade of gas in it, pretty funny. But after all this, we bumped into another person that we knew from Hanoi and we decided to venture down into the valley below Sapa. The road down into the valley is a gravel road with sheer drops down the side. (I don't like cliffs, the last one that I got near, I fell off, but that's another story) As you descend down the road you see the valley below that is filled with farming steppes, green hills and a river that runs through it. A breathtaking sight. The day consisted of a visit to a local village called Ho Bien village, playing frisbee in Sapa's town square and eating all sorts of food at a local food stand.

Our second day in Sapa we trekked down into the valley. Our group consisted of a local guide, Tom, myself and two friends and two women from Korea - Su and Sa. During our two-day, one night trek, we learned about the three main indigenous cultures living in the valley of Sapa - the Red Dao, Hmong and Tay people. At the beginning our trek, we visited the Hmong people. The Hmong people are the poorest of the three indiginous people and can be recognized by their blue dyed clothes. They live in small sparse houses and live a very simple life. After visting the Hmong people, we trekked down to the Taven village which is home to the Tay people. The Tay people are the wealthiest of the three indigenous people. The Tay people are good entrepreneurs and value education very much.

In the Tavan village, we stayed in a local house and slept on the second floor of the house. The night we sleep there it rained and it was cold because bamboo ain't insulated. The highlight of our stay in Tavan was our dinner. Our group ate dinner around a small table with the hostess of the house. After we ate, she brought out some rice wine and made everyone take something like 15 shots (Reminds of my days in college), even the two Korean women. (They tried to dump their shots out but the hostess wouldn't have it, she kept giving them bigger shots) [ Halfway through the night, the Korean women decorated the house with the rice wine]

Our last day in Sapa, we hiked out of the valley. On our way out we visited the Red Zhao. The Red Zhao people came from China and can be recognized by their colorful scarfs. Farming is their primary skill along with making wicked yet smooth rice wine.

As we left Sapa, the weather turned cold [ Snow was forecasted the next day ] and our overnight train ride home was highlighted by a drunk local Vietnamese man who was awake our entire 9 hour train home. I can say that I didn't get a lick of sleep. Good times, good times.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay is about 170 km east of Hanoi and it consists of limestone islands that protrode from below the water with jungle vegetation growing atop them. And some of the islands have large caves inside. Although the weather was overcast during my visit it didn't take away from the beauty. My tour of Halong Bay was a two day-one night episode on a Junk Boat. My trip highlights included jumping from the top of the boat (about 15 feet) into the water below, touring a massive cave and meeting people from all over the world. I met a couple from Holland who were biking through Asia, an American living in Israel, a guy from Australia and a girl from New Zealand who drank a case of beer by themselves, a Japanese guy who was biking through China and Vietnam and a Vietnamese-American who bought fresh crab both days and let me have some. If you have a chance to visit Halong bay it's picturesque scenery will not disappoint.

Posted by ejgalang 00:00 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Minibuses, Motorbikes and Mai Chau

One of things that you have to get accustomed to in Vietnam is that no matter how good a negogiator that you are, being a foreigner, you are never getting the best deal. I can't count the number of times that a Vietnamese sellor laughed when they told me the price. And when you convert the price to US dollars, it's really not that much money, maybe a$1 or $2. I think it's just the principle that gets me sometimes. Once you get over this, your time in Vietnam will be filled with good times and champange dreams or something in between. With that being said, let the good times roll ...

Hanoi is a city filled with cars, buses, trucks, motorbikes and people on the move. The stale air is filled with smog, the sounds of karoake, cars honking, laughter of children, and the ringing the catherdral bells. A quiet moment can only be achieved with either a pair of ear plugs, turning up your ipod or getting out of the city.

So with two other people from my hostel, we decided to venture out of the city to see the parts of Vietnam that we had only read about in our Lonely Planet guide book. Our first adventure was to Mai Chau, a collection of villages, huts and farms spread out through a large valley about 135 km west of Hanoi. Now of course we could have tried to book a tour but the price was too much and like I always say , "we don't need no stinken' tour guides." The adventure is the adventure ( A true yogi-ism). So the night before our planned departure we went looking for the bus station, which seemed easy enough. A couple of hours later and some help from some local Vietnamese we had the name of the bus station we needed to use but we never found it that night.

The next morning with a day pack full of clothes, we took a taxi to Da Long bus station. Now, when I think of a bus station, I think of large buses that are parallel parked and a nice clean bus station. Well in Vietnam it's not quite like that. Da Long bus station had a dirt parking lot and a cornucopia of minibuses heading to places that I had never heard of. Once the three of us walked into the parking lot we were bombarded by peddlers coaxing us to their minibus, like vultures circling to dead meat. We boarded a minibus which was destined to Mai Chau ( we would later find out that we had to transfer at Ha Binh with an additional cost). Now a minibus looks like a big minivan that seats about 28 people. The bus that we boarded had about 10 people on it which didn't seem too bad. (There were numerous stories about minibuses being filled to the brim with people) Well, 30 minutes later the bus was filled with 43 people not including the driver and we were the lucky ones with seats. Pretty much every inch of space was in use except the area between our heads and the roof. Our row had five people in four seats and an old lady and man were sleeping on my friend. Pretty hilarous!

Roughly five hours later with a stop in Ha Binh Bus Station which had the world's worst bathroom, we arrived in Mai Chau. The road down into Mai Chau gave us a breath-taking view of the valley below - Steep, lush mountains surrounded the basin that were filled with green rice pattys and small enclaves of houses. Our three days in Mai Chau were filled with sunny skies and temperatures hovering around 24 C or 75 F

In Mai Chau, we stayed in a stilt house village which was surrounded by rice pattys, water buffalo and roosters that were up early! A stilt house is pretty self explanatory - a house built on stilts with the second floor housing the sleeping quarters and the first floor was used either for storage or a place to sit. The first floor in our house was used to sell silk scarfs and had a table for us to sit and relax at. Accomodiations were sparse - a padded mat on the bamboo floor on the second floor and a curtain around your "room" but the price was cheap - 50,000 dong or $3.25 a night. Each night the owner of the house cooked a delicious meal consisting of vegetables, meat, fish and rice for a mere 30,000 dong or $2. Those have been the best meals that I have eaten in Vietnam so far. Mmmm, Mmmm good! Although our stay in Mai Chau was short ( just two and half days and two nights), we had a great time. During our second day in Mai Chau, we rented a couple of motorbikes and cruised around the valley. The day was filled with winding roads, small villages, little kids saying hi to us and a glimpse of Song Da Reservoir - Vietnam's largest reservoir.

Posted by ejgalang 00:00 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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