thereadrovers

Our retirement adventures

Thailand 1

Thursday 8 November

Ferry from Douglas an hour late so we don’t arrive at Heysham until after midnight. Stay at a new Holiday Inn Express at Preston the standard of which far exceeds the norm for this type of hotel. You could fit three people in the shower it was that big!

9 November

Just make it for breakfast with three minutes to spare and then off south on the M6 stopping at IKEA for a free coffee and a look round. Yes, we were tempted with a few things as well.

Near M50 turn off of M5 get a call from Phillip to say they are both in the local casualty! This is not a good start but thankfully the splinter and septic finger were treated quickly and they were back at their house an hour after we got there.

10 November

As one who has ( as far as long haul flights are concerned ) been brought up on a diet of British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, the flight with Thai Airways was a revelation with food and drinks in abundance.

Sunday 11 November

Bangkok airport is not really taken in at 6am but immigration and arrival formalities quickly passed and out to be met by our guide. Boy is it humid.

Arrive at hotel, Ariysam Villa, at 8am so room not ready, understandably. However, hotel pull out all stops and we are in bed asleep by half nine, waking again at midday to get to the Sunday market at Chatuchak.

Thousands upon thousands of stalls selling everything you ever needed and everything you didn’t even know you needed.

IMG_7390

Thoroughly worn out so dinner in hotel which was good quality although staff did have some strange ideas on what items were and when to serve them.

Monday 12 November

Visit to The Temple of the Emerald Buddha today via, again, overcrowded sky train and water boat. Lots of others had the same thought and it seems to in places resemble a Disney theme park for the number of people. Thankfully no rides though and a walk around reveals the utmost beauty and ornateness in the Temple grounds. Sal at Bangkok Golden TempleTaxi back took us through many streets where gold Buddha’s are for sale, some as tall as a room.

Tonight’s meal is booked at “Cabages & Condoms” which sounds an interesting choice for 4 60+ year olds! As it turns out the food was good although sitting at a table which had row after row of differently coloured condoms under the glass table top was a unique experience and one that I would probably never repeat. There is a social side to all this as it is run by a charity promoting safe sex in other parts of the country.

Cabbages & Condoms, Bangkok

Dinner finishes early and off by Sky train to a late night market selling everything from fake watches and Jimmy Choo handbags and shoes. The market is in an area that would in most other cities be called a red light area and we were bombarded with invites to meet the girls and those men who thought they were girls, watch kick boxing matches between men, girls and those who didn’t really know what they were as well as the gay bars. Needless to say we beat a hasty retreat after looking at the market stalls and called it a night.

Tuesday 13 November

Off for a ride on a long tail which is a speedboat with a very long tail at the back that had the propeller attached to it. A three hour trip for four cost about £77 and we were taken around some of the backwaters to see houses on stilts, river vendors – we obliged, had lunch at an orchid farm after looking around the farm although most were not in bloom, sadly. A fascinating experience to see how some others live and make a living. There were even some shops that had only a water frontage and a few boats occupied by little old ladies off, presumably, to do their shopping.

cooking, Bangkok style

River living, Bangkok style

Finished tour at Memorial Bridge, making our way through the flower stalls and onto the electrical market, the clothes market and out onto a gridlocked road which scuppers our plans to go to see a golden Buddha that Phillip says is good. The flower stalls were often worked by women threading flowers onto sticks for selling on, possibly to hotels or bridal parties. The work involved is amazingly intricate and probably very time consuming.

Flower arranging

Water bus back exceptionally over crowded but we made it back in one piece via the sky train and in time for a swim and some more insect bites! Last minute change of plan and we eat at Hotel again to save on shoe leather!

Wednesday 14 November

Our last day at this lovely hotel, Ariyasom Villa, we shall be sorry to go. An early start and a Sky Train journey to National Stadium for 20 Bhts to visit Jim Thompson’s house and a well thought out guided tour for 100 Bhts each, bargain. An American who fell in love with Thailand after WW11 and was involved in the silk industry. Sadly he was lost in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia in 1967 but his work lives on in many silk shops in SE Asia.

jim

After lunch, off into the perpetual traffic jam that is Bangkok towards the airport and a nice relaxation two hours waiting for the plane to Hanoi.

Overall, Bangkok was an interesting and bustling city as one would expect but with a charm that needs further exploration especially in the eating out arena. The downsides are the traffic and the lack of escalators / lifts to the sky train.

The business class seats on the way to Hanoi are even more spacious than those from London to Bangkok, I can’t reach the seat in front with my legs.

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Vietnam

Arrive early in Hanoi and through immigration and out to meet Audley rep in under 30 minutes from landing. Very efficient, although the immigration guy was allowed to smoke in his “cabin” – a strange sight.

Difficult to gauge first impressions as it is dark but so many motorbikes, some with a whole family on and none of them seemly having any highway sense. Hotel Silk Path in old quarter and very modern and despite noise outside, very little noise inside. Early night after room service of two deserts for $15.

Thursday 15 November

Buddah of the North
Our first full day in Vietnam. Visited the shrine of the Buddah of the North who faces north to ward off the evil of the next door ( in the north – China ) then on to a Pagoda by a lake, past a fisherman fisherman @ Ho Chi Minh cityand a rubbish collection boat.Rubbish collection single column PagodaAnd still there was more to go to in Hanoi – Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

As you would expect, a very regimented operation but no cameras allowed so only outside pictures taken. Climbing up the stairs on a red plastic carpet sounds like marching but we all file past his body that is guarded by 9 statue like guards who take it in turn to guard him for an hour at a time. We are told by our local guide, Loi, that it is an honour to guard the founder of “modern” Vietnam who died before the North beat the South in the Vietnam war in the early 1970’s.

Ho Chi Min was a modest bloke and declined his right as leader to occupy the palace that hadformer President's palacebeen vacated by the French in 1954, preferring a more modest house in the adjacent grounds. Ho Chi Minh's house

He actually wanted to be cremated with his ashes split into three for burial in the North, the Centre and the South of Vietnam. What he would have thought about being preserved ( now ) for over 40 years is not worried about by the present leadership and countrymen who still revere him.

After a look around the adjacent grounds, we visit a site that was the former university dating back many hundreds of years. There are many tablets that bear the names of students although the writing is in Mandarin. The tablets were place on carved large tortoises and during the civil war were all covered in sand to protect them from the American bombs. As the tablets are in places over 6ft tall, a lot of sand was obviously used.

It was graduation day and many students in traditional costumes were celebrating. Pictures were being taken by what could have been professional photographers or just fellow students studying photography as some of the poses were very original. Fortunately we were allowed to take photographs of the girls in what I must say were stunning costumes. graduates posinggraduation, Ha Noi style

Now it is off to lunch at a noodle bar which comprises of noodle soup and a drink which comes to 240,000 dong – about £2 a head! Lunch menu (33,000 = £1)

The Hanoi Hilton is next on the list, so called as American captured soldiers were treated well there during the civil war as opposed to their treatment elsewhere – a bit of a propaganda exercise. The prison was used quite savagely by the French and even up to the early 1900’s witnessed beheadings for misdemenas – gruesome. Picture of beheadings in 1900s

We say good bye to our transport for the first part of the day and now walk the streets of the old town. Again, as in Bangkok earlier in the week, every conceivable item is for sale, especially food which is cooked by the side of the road amidst the fumes and of noise that is Hanoi’s perpetual traffic jam caused by scooters who seem to have no regard for lane sense, direction sense, or indeed any fellow user sense.Motorbike "chaos" Bikes ridden the wrong way, jumping red lights, crossing in front of each other, unsafe loads, dogs in tow, families on board just to name a few. It is a wonder that there are not more accidents although Loi says there are many, although thankfully not serious ones.

A couple of purchases later and we are back at the hotel for a well earned rest. We get chatting to a young lad who is a tour guide who was struggling with his English. He needed help as he is setting out an itinerary for some American students and wasn’t sure on phraseology. Sal helped him though.

Dinner was at an Audley recommended restaurant – Verticale Madame. Restaurant- a French influenced restaurant that cost $100 for the four of including desert, drinks and coffee /tea! Still that noise of the bikes and the horns although the Hotel, the Silk Path, was peacefully quiet.

Friday 16 November

We have to leave Hanoi for Halong Bay early so a 7:00 breakfast, check out and just enough time to run the gauntlet of the Hanoi rush hour to get that one last photo of the hotel before we set off for the 50 or so mile drive to Halong Bay.

Now, whilst a 50 mile drive from the centre of London, may take about 2 hours, here it will take close on 4 excluding a 45 minute stop at a craft centre where handicapped people make things in a Government funded “workhouse”. We really only looked at a few areas but the quality and craftsmanship was excellent although there was not a great deal of evidence of handicappedness. A couple of things were bought but it was noticeable that the cashiers and vendors appeared to be able bodied persons.

The road was not up to any B road UK standard, and again, lane sense was not practiced at all by any driver, even ours. We passed many types of housing, many of them in the thin style that is popular in Vietnam. Long thin housing

Lorries trundled along at probably 20 mph which is why it was such a long drive. It appears that many planned improvements (road, underground, rail etc, have been started but worked stopped although it is understood that a Subway system is in course of the early stages of construction).

We parted with our main bags, and boarded our traditional South China Sea Junk South China Sea Junktaking on board only clothes etc. for two days. Our room is spacious with a bathroom bigger than P & O’s cruise bathrooms although the bed was a bit too big for the room. Bedroom on South China Sea Junk

Lunch was soon served and was very elaborate and with separate dishes provided for those of us with allergies to certain foods.

We thought that it would be a relaxing time but not a bit of it with a planned kayak trip planned. After negotiating another Junk we went under a cave where virtually no motor boat would go and none were allowed and with Sal in front mastering the kayaking we went round the bay, stopping to admire the monkeys.
Sal and Rich Kayaking in Halong Bay
kayaking under caves Phillip & Sylvia kayakingOur return to the Junk was all too quickly upon us and although we both had difficulty in getting out of the kayak, it was thoroughly enjoyable.

One of the guys on the Junk is an Australian from Melbourne who is disabled, with one leg and one arm and had managed the kayak well with his brother. We got chatting and we very nearly missed the next activity, a visit to a beach for swimming or a climb to the top of the hill. Sal and Sylvia stayed on the beach whilst Phillip and I climbed the 420 or so steps for the views.Halong Bay view
View from Halong Bay
Halong Bay view

A commotion at the top was caused by someone collapsing who was reported to Phillip by the Aussie as being me! In fact it was a German aged about 70 from another boat who, we found out later, did not make it despite mouth to mouth and chest pumping and had tragically died. Very sad and just shows you how fragile life is.

A young girl from our boat was there at the top when it happened, had assisted and put him in the recovery position but there was nothing she could have done – there was no telephone etc. at the top to summons help. Understandably, she was somewhat upset as to why she could not have done more for him.

The return by tender was again organised chaos as all the tenders – probably 25 of them, vied for the 4 berths available. Too many people on the quay and too aggressive driving by the tender drivers, no wonder at least two people fell in the water. It was just as if they had been taking lessons from the scooters of Hanoi. rush hour in Halong Bay

A fruit carving lesson back on the junk and the swan prepared was wonderful even if it did take him the best part of 10 minutes. A swan apple A brief sit on deck prior to the excellent dinner and then a showing of the Top Gear Vietnam programme shown on the BBC a couple of years ago which went down well with those who watched it.

Saturday 17 November

We have now been in SE Asia for about a week and have done so much it is difficult to know where to start. Today is no different with an early start (even earlier had we been bothered with the Ti Chi at 7am) to board a day boat and visit some caves. The main boat was taking other passengers back to the mainland as some had only come for a day, we were here for two days returning with new passengers. Only eight transferred to the day boat, all Brits. Phillip and I were the only ones canoeing out of the eight day boat passengers whilst Sal and Sylvia and the other four went out on a bamboo san pan.

Canoeing away from the day boat with Dai, our guide, we entered a cave to reach a lagoon completely cut off from the outside world with us having just entered by the only method. Kayaking in secluded lagoons
Peace was everywhere, hardly a sound from wildlife as well. A paddle to the end of the lagoon and another cave, much lower than the first and with a 90 degree bend in it. Out the other side was another lagoon only accessed through the second cave. Kayaking under the caves

I have never been in such a peaceful place. Countryside invariably has wind noise and cattle or sheep noise but this had nothing except the very occasional bird song. The echoes from our voices were magnified wonderfully around the sheer cliffs that encompassed the lagoons all of which were covered in lush green vegetation. Certainly one of the highlights.

Both caves had thousands of stalagmites dropping their acidic water from the limestone each as wonderful as the last or the next.

Back to the junk and Phillip went swimming before we set sail for a village on the water which incidentally had been featured on the Vietnam Top Gear special. Ha Long Bay floating village Some of these residents never go to the land, buying what they want from a supply vessel and making a living fishing and selling gifts to tourists. Dai by now was our guide and told us all about the school on the water, their mini hospital, weddings and life in general there, a hard but fascinating existence.

Lunch on the go whilst we cruised to our next stop, the Pearl farm. Lunch was a splendid presentation of about four mini courses and they had even catered for our allergies.

The Pearl Farm is where they effectively use oysters to fertilise pearls, rather like an IVF treatment I suppose. Fascinating and delicate work which by all accounts could not keep up with demand. Oyster Farm, Halong Bay

Sunday 18 November

Another early start for today a cave visit. Only Phillip and I as the 138 and 153 steps required to get up to and out of the cave system really weren’t Sally and Sylvia’s thing. The caves when we got there, after a slight detour in the tender to another floating village were magnificent, surpassing probably Clearwell caves known to us in Gloucestershire. Cave in Halong Bay Sadly it is now time to leave Ha Long bay and chug slowly back to retrieve the rest of luggage, pick up Loi and the driver and head for a water puppet show on the way back to Hanoi.

Water puppet shows are unique to SE Asia and the 20 or so minute show was put on for us 4 + two other Audley clients who were also on the Junk but were going down the Vietnam coast afterwards.

Lots of little tales shown in the puppet show, mostly farming themed although they did have some running races. Very colourful and skilfully performed with fireworks.

Some bananas and peanut goodies provided with some tea and a sort of dumpling – very nice but we had also eaten a ” packed lunch ” provided by the tour company so couldn’t do it justice. We were given models of one of the puppets as a memento, very sweet and I do wonder if they made a profit on the time spent with us.
Vietnam water puppets
The return to Hanoi was very tortuous and we arrived at the hotel at about 5pm having been held up in heavy weekend returning traffic. We then had an hour to sort our luggage for the next few days, sort any washing out and shower etc. We were to leave what we could at the hotel as we were using the same hotel on the way back from Sapa in 4 days time.

Meal booked on Loi’s recommendation at Seasons Hanoi and get taxi in view of shortage of time. Food good but service a bit slow as we had to be back at hotel by 7:30 for a pick up and drive to station for overnight train to Lau Cai.

The King Express

We had “upgraded ” to a two berth cabin from a 4 berth one and it was just as well as 4 would have been a complete squash. We had been warned that we probably would not sleep much and the warning was justified although I only recall four stops some of which seemed to be for passing trains. The train left on time, passing through the Hanoi streets with the masses of scooters waiting to pass overr the level crossings as soon as they could after the train had passed. Toilet facilities were basic but Westernised, a trolley service passed through early on and we arrived at 05:20 the following morning, 15 minutes early!

Monday 19 November

The square at Lao Cai was jammed packed with mini busses of all sorts meeting, probably, everyone off the train. Our guide was found easily enough and we were probably one of the first away on our climb of about 38 km to Sapa. A surprisingly large number of shops were open at this time of the morning and not just tourist shops. The ride was less stressful than in Hanoi but still noisy and did include some unauthodox driving, such as overtaking on the wrong side around a 90 degree blind bend! I just shut my eyes.

Victoria Hotels and Resorts welcomed us at about 7am and we managed a doze until breakfast at 9am. Victoria Hotel, Sa Pa Our new guide, Hoi then took us on a walk to an infant school at Matra village (occupied by a Black Hmong minority tribe) where we were given the opportunity to look around a couple of the classrooms and took tea with one of the teachers. There appears some changes afoot locally which would give the government more say in teaching rather than the local community.

We walked past animals galore, pigs, piglets, water buffalo, ducks, chickens to name but a few. A Water buffalo costs the farmer $1000 and is only used as meat for special occasions such as weddings and funerals. The crops grown were on every conceivable piece of land and included rice fields and other crops such as Chou and a salmon farm, met some locals who managed to sell us some bags. One of the vendors could speak English very well and could also converse in French. She could have been a tourist guide!

Sa Pa school

Sal was able to do the couple of steep inclines we encountered on the way very well and we were met further on on the path by the transport – our third driver today and we had only been in the area 6 hours.

A relaxing afternoon followed.

Tuesday 20 November

What a day! A walk down into a valley to see some local villages (Red Dzao Villages of Ban Lek and Ban Moi) lived in by some minority tribes some of which were Chinese in origin (about 700 years ago). The walk was about 4km long we were told but took over 5 hours including stops for lunch etc. First of all, we were driven to the entrance track and managed to pick up a group of locals from the Red Dzao Tribe, four of which walked with us until we stopped for lunch and bought things from them. On the way we were shown many types of plant including tobacco plant and different types of farming in the rice fields, passed many animals including water buffalo all the time having to answer questions from the four ladies who were all keen to improve their English.
Hmong tribespeople
The area is obviously geared up for tourists and although it is nice to see the villages, the pestering did get on your nerves a bit. There were many souvenir shops en route as well as a few stalls from which Phillip & Sylvia bought lollipops for some young kids and then some pens (7 for a $) for a couple of girls who had also been given some leftover food from our packed lunch. The girls were very pleased, shared the left over food between them but not with other children.

We did learn that one of the ladies that had followed us all the way down from the entrance track was aged 16, had just left school yesterday (today is a public holiday to celebrate school teachers) and wants to go to high school but has to work in the village first before she can go. She was very shy and perhaps was just trying to learn English so she could earn some money from passing tourists.Hmong girl

Another one was 34 but looked well over 50! It is indeed a hard life, with children running around with no shoes and poor clothing. It is also a life that could disappear if the old traditions, such as the preparation of incense sticks, is not preserved.

The route is obviously a well trodden one and the party, including the guide had to pay to go through the village. The road was tortuous but mostly downhill. Some of the road further on had been concreted over and the idea was that when the road had been improved by the locals, the government would give the village some money.
stalls in Hmong village
An absolutely fascinating insight into how the tribespeople live and survive.

Wednesday 21 November

A day of rest and a visit to Sapa, a bustling town with a lovely market selling many North Face products, but sadly nothing for anyone under the age of about 11. Bought a couple of pressies but didn’t go for the $13 trainers as I thought, do I really need them? (as it turns out I should have bought them as my trainers developed a hole and had to be ditched 15 days later)Sa Pa market

Went to ATM to get more folding money. Extracted 3 million Dong which is about £95 and for which I was charged a service charge of about £0.63p!

Funny money

Funny money


Sal tried on a blouse but their sizes are so stupid, she couldn’t get into a XXL which was too small, although the North Face trousers she bought were the same size as they would have been at home but a third of the price.

We retreat to the hotel past a ubiquitous scooter that this time carried two over large vases (we saw it again later with four vases on!)Vase transport whilst Phillip & Sylvia lunch in town and collect the altered blouse Sylvia had bought.

Left Sal at bottom of hill on her own whilst I fetched the hotel’s “golf trolley” to take her up the hill. Hopefully the driver was happy with his $2 tip.

Hoi collected us at 5 and we were on our way to Lao Cai and the train back, rounding the twisty roads, descending from Sapa and passing many bikes with no lights, many children helping their homes by carrying things and lorries on the way to the border crossing.

Dinner takes longer than expected so we never get to see the Chinese border under half a mile away but have our 3rd driver of our N Vietnam visit (7 journeys) which for tipping purposes was ridiculous and confusing.

Train noisier than coming and seemed to stop more frequently at first than the other one did nearer its journey’s end. Perhaps the other three night trains were different. Not sure there will be much sleep tonight and the train is supposed to arrive in Hanoi at 04:35.

A few stops later and we get to a station which at 11:45pm seems to be a hive of activity awaiting the trains to and from Hanoi and Lao Cai. Platform vendors everywhere and each carriage manager on the platform with his or her lamp “guarding” the open doors at each end of the carriage. Setting off on time, we decide to use the rather rustic looking toilet facilities. I don’t think I have ever gone to the loo in a room that has been pebble dashed before, let alone trying not to hit the floor because of the uneven ride!

Thursday 22 November

Overnight sleeper ride on the train, arriving in Hanoi promptly at 04:20, was not as disrupted as I had thought, maybe because we are tired and could sleep anywhere, and trundling through the Hanoi suburbs seeing the streets virtually devoid of motorbikes was eerie. Each level crossing though did reveal a few bikes and a crossing attendant even at this time of the morning.

Reclaimed our luggage and washing left in Hanoi whilst we were in Sapa and had short sleep in the hotel before breakfast and departure to the airport. Silk Path hotel

Had a history lesson on the origins of the Vietnam war from our new guide en route to the airport who had completely different views on the present regime to those of other guides but was nonetheless a good orator.

Catch a flight to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) which was on time, full and with good food but foul coffee. How come Vietnamese airways, a communist state run airline, has a business class, not that we went business class?

Arrival at HCMC and we locate our new guide and driver who takes us on our pre arranged tour to Cu Chi underground tunnels the Vietnam Cong used in the war.
Saigon war tunnel
Quite a well presented “museum” which showed us some of the traps used, the size of the tunnels and other implements used at the time. The tunnel we were allowed to go through had been especially enlarged to take modern day Western visitors who tend to be larger than the SE Asians. I for one was grateful of the alterations as I had to shuffle in a crouched position anyway.
Saigon war tunnel

Exit from Saigon war tunnel Watched a N Vietnamese propaganda film from 1961 that was interesting as it was total propaganda and anti American. The museum discourages American visitors from watching this.

Despite it’s history, you have to admire the resourcefulness of the people who built the tunnels and that is replicated today as they use everything, there is little waste.

Vietnam is a large rubber producer and there were many rubber trees in perfect lines near the tunnels that seemed to stretch for miles.

On way to hotel, passed several hairdressers. Visuals can be deceptive as the hairdressers in question were all young girls and provided the service in a private room. Whilst prostitution is illegal in Vietnam, hairdressing clearly isn’t!! Understand later that there are also two types of karaoke bars, one of which you wouldn’t take your wife or girlfriend to!

During brief time we had at our hotel, sorted luggage out for Mekong river cruise the following day as we could only take small hand luggage.

Dinner tonight at a BBQ restaurant for 855,000 dong which with 145,000 tip was about $50 for a 3 course meal + drinks. Was puzzled by a skirmish at restaurant in which it appears a waiter was being sacked and forcibly removed from the premises, very bizarre.

Rummaged in the lively night time market market for bargains and returned to hotel. We have been in three beds in 24 hours! Sounds not quite right really.

Friday 23 November

Not a particularly early start but our guide suggests we have a few minutes sightseeing around HCMC on the way to our Mekong cruise. Saw the former South Vietnam President’s palace, former S Vietnam presidential palace the post office,Saigon Post Office looks like a Railway station, and the Notre Dame and drove down their Oxford Street. Certainly HCMC is far more sophisticated than Hanoi – I liked it.

Drive to our Mekong River cruise starting point sent us through more towns full of motor bikes and past many a market. The service stations here revolve around lots of outdoor seating and a hammock or two strung up between the trees. Drivers stop, buy their drinks and use the hammocks for free for their rest.

Onto a small long tail type boat for a short journey past many a barge selling so much produce, including pigs, and get off at a small stopping point where they showed us how the rice is turned into products including rice wine, an interesting tasting experience. Rice  "processing"

Arrive at larger Junk, Mekong Feeling, and set sail with two other Audley travellers (David & Pippa) for our overnight on the Mekong. Lunch is again a scrumptious affair – just too much of it again – as we sail on past many a building including some brick kilns. Mekong FeelingThere are only six passengers on the boat but with 7 cabins, we have plenty of room, it is like our personal cruise. Again, cabin spacious.

Afternoon walk after a speedboat ride to a local community. Access to the boat is interesting and the boat’s engine stops mid river. The look on the girl staff member’s face was priceless, she was not a happy cookie. Fortunately the boat was soon moving again, probably some weed or fishing line in the propellor and we disembarked for a leisurely walk through the jungle that appeared to be home for a number of people who live off the land and river. We were shown many different types of fruit growing, from water coconut and sweet potatoes to jack fruit, durian (the smelly one), pineapple, a fruit like a grapefruit. Basket weaving was also in evidence. Basket weavingWe even saw a frog being devoured by a snake, some pigs, many chickens and snails eggs.

Just before we return to the boat we were treated to a fruit feast of many of the fruit we had just seen and some bamboo leaf models were presented to us.

Back on the boat and it was time for a shower in our wet room. Water was too hot really for a shower but we managed and we left our cool room for an 8pm meal only to be met by millions upon millions of insects flying around the lights. We are told they were not midges but just insects, however, they were just everywhere but by 10pm had virtually disappeared. Fortunately, insect repellent seemed to have done it’s job and no bites.

Another multi course meal for dinner this evening with some local wine. Won’t say it was the best or worst wine but we drunk it. Food however, was excellent again.

Saturday 24 November

Another early start and although we missed one of the floating markets, we managed to get to Cantho for a short small boat ride to the floating market, saw a pineapple sculptor who provided us with half a pineapple on a stick, fascinating. Pineapple lolly David bought some garlic from a vendor, about 10 bulbs for $1 and we bought some headwear. Rain threatened and started whilst we were at the floating market. Not drizzle like we have at home but monsoon heavy rain.
Can Tho

Met Xuan at the jetty and got into our uncomfortable worker’s type transit van. After an hour or so, stopped and walked around another village, more of a shanty town where houses have been built illegally and some of the rooms visited were very spartan and basic including one where there was no flooring, it was just solid mud. The road we are now on is narrow, rutted and by now full of puddles as it absolutely chucked it down whilst we were walking around the village. Fortunately Xuan brought two umbrellas and also bought a pink and orange “pack-a-mac” for Sally and Sylvia – very fetching, not. very fetching waterproofs

Lunch was at a crocodile farm and transport into it was right to the door as it was still absolutely pouring. They have 15000 crocodiles in pens, some of which were exported by road to China, a journey that must take days if not weeks. Crocodile farm at Long Xuyen

Arrival at the border town of Chau Doc and overnight at Victoria Chau Doc Hotel Victoria Hotel, Chau Doc with a meal in and another early morning start: tomorrow on to Cambodia.

Sunday 25 November

Get rid of my remaining Dong by combining it with some $ for guide’s tip and board boat for Phnom Penn although floating weed may hold us up.

Floating weed

Floating weed

I hate this tipping business.
Today is sunny and despite the early start it is very hot. So, why are we chugging along on the Mekong for what seems like an eternity at about 1 mph when this is a speed boat? Why did Audley travel put David and Pippa on a private vessel and us on one for 34 people? Mind you, why did we go in a transit to Chau Doc whilst David and Pippa travelled on the last vessel’s, speed boat, a journey of about 4 hours in an open top boat in the rain with at least two stops for fuel and on one occasion, abandonment whilst the driver got help!

We gather speed after 40 minutes and at least some air now starts to pass through. The problem was a broken gear but a replacement was available and fitted by the crew – possibly a regular problem.

Heavily populated by the river side as is usual in Vietnam with many house boats and ferries. Fishermen abound.

On towards Cambodia but first we have to go through the formalities of border control, the first part of which is dealt with on the boat at a cost of $23 each.

At the Vietnamese side of the border, we disembark for exit formalities and back on the boat. A query on a fellow passenger’s passport delayed our departure some 30 minutes and we pass on to the Cambodian border.

Enjoyed N Vietnam more than S Vietnam, especially Halong Bay and Sapa. Whilst I would not rush to go back to Hanoi, it would probably have to be a place to go to to get to Sapa, Halong Bay and the north. Although I liked Saigon, by the sounds of it we saw everything that there is to see so a return visit is probably not worth it.

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Cambodia

Sunday 25 November

The border formalities on the Cambodian side are reached from the Mekong up a wooden plank up the bank supported by some bamboo poles. Presumably anything more rigid is washed away when the river rises. Waiting time here is probably only about 30 minutes whilst the border staff process all the passports although once our passports are stamped with the visas, we then have to show them again 100 yds further on before we re-board the boat to Phonm Penh.

Some fellow passengers have visas already so they get processed quicker than us but they all have to wait for us.

Border control, Cambodia style

Border control, Cambodia style


Once in Cambodia, the densely populated sights of Vietnam give way to much more vegetation and houses rather than “shanty type settlements”.  We have three hours to go and lunch is served at about 11:30 which was welcome and better than I had anticipated.  River wider now but little traffic, we seem to have left that back in Vietnam.

This is my 13th country since retirement and Sal’s 14th and we arrive at the landing stage at Phonm Penh, which is near the middle of the town with the hotel not far away and somewhat like the one in Bangkok, tucked away down a side street, but perfectly presented.  

Swimming Pool @ Villa Langka

Swimming Pool @ Villa Langka

Top floor very modern and minimalistic room from which we can see about 8 temples at least one of which is the supplier of some chanting throughout the hour or so we are pool-side. The guide we have in Phnom Penh tells us that he thought that our itinerary had been prepared for people younger than us! Cheek of it!

Out for meal at Mali’s – only chose it as it is the name of one of Phillip & Sylvia’s grandchildren. Set off walking only to go too far because we are talking with David & Pippa, turn back and the heavens open.  Restaurant seems to be almost flooded in places but food and service very good and we manage to get back to hotel avoiding further showers and the large puddles that have formed.

Dinner at Mali's with David & Pippa

Dinner at Mali’s with David & Pippa

Try a Skype with Sarah but picture no good, so just resort to speaking over Skype.  I then notice water had dripped through roof in the storm and on to our bed.  A quick call to Reception and someone was up within a few minutes and agreed that the bed needed changing.  Another few minutes and they were back to change it with a promise that we could change rooms tomorrow if they needed to repair the room or the rain persisted.  Thankfully, slightly moving the bed and no more rain meant we had a good and dry night’s sleep. Very impressed with their response though.

Monday 26 November

An emotional day.  

No need for alarms here as the Temple music starts at five to seven and lasts for a good 35 minutes. Down for breakfast and then off to see the main temple – the palace.  Because of the death of the King last month he is still lying in state so much of the palace is closed although the grounds are open still.

As with the Temple in Bangkok, there are many different but similar statues, Buddahs, minarets and other similar structures.  However, the crowds are not here which is a blessing as Bangkok was crowded, and somehow the place seemed cleaner.

Phnom Penh Temple

Phnom Penh Temple


Certainly the first building made entirely of concrete was spectacular in it’s appearance, especially the intricate carvings.
Intricate concrete carvings

Intricate concrete carvings


It, and others housed remains of past Kings, Princes and Princesses.  The mural around most of the walls had been severely damaged over the years but was being repaired to a high standard.
Murals at Temple

Murals at Temple

We skip the museum but instead go to prison.  No, we didn’t do anything wrong (except perhaps take a photo of the Emerald Buddah when I wasn’t allowed to) but it is s21, the prison in centre of town which was used to incarcerate and torture during the brutal Pol Pot regime of the 1970s.  

S21 prison

S21 prison

The numbers of people murdered in prison and the killing fields is beyond belief.

The gallows, S21

The gallows, S21


The sensless brutality of it all, must rank alongside Austwich in WWII.  Our guide (his name is pronounced T) had provided us with a very detailed talk on the history before we went to see the buildings: his passionate talk was about 20 minutes long so you can imagine how much detail he went into.

To describe the torture cells, the equipment used and the conditions experienced is too long for this, but we did meet the only two remaining survivors out of the seven who survived because of their specific skills and have signed books to read from them.

Bou Meng, S21 survivor

Bou Meng, S21 survivor

Lunch nearby and a brief visit to the Russian Market which is no place for the faint hearted;  narrow alleys, bags, clothes, souvenirs galore and we only were in there for half an hour or so.

We now were taken to the nearby killing fields site, 16 km outside Phnom Penh. The roads are dusty and pitted, especially as we go on a detour past a clothes factory.

Taxi lorries

Taxi lorries

Lorries act as busses here with some exceptionally crowded.  

This was one visit we thought maybe was too harrowing for us but were ultimately glad we went. During the Pol Pot regime of the 70s, over 120 pits were dug here with prisoners who were not going to cooperate with the communist regime – most townspeople in reality. They were blindfolded, led from trucks in darkness and lined up on the edge of the pits so that their shooting or decapitation would result in their bodies falling into the pits.  In one pit alone 450 bodies at least were discovered when excavations started in the 1980s and it is thought that of the 20,000 bodies of men, women and children executed, they still have not accounted for over 2,000 heads.

Entrance notice, The killing fields

Entrance notice, The killing fields

As the women were all found naked, it is beyond belief what suffering they went through.  

During our walk through the killing fields, the guide described how there were only rice fields there before and locals were tending the rice fields at the time of the killings.  They were unable to understand what was happening as very loud music was being played which drowned out any gunshot noise and screams.  

Tree used for loud music to drown out killing noises!

Tree used for loud music to drown out killing noises!


Missing heads grave

Missing heads grave


No words other than "appalling"!

No words other than “appalling”!


The bodies were covered in DDT which ensured that there was no stench from the rotting bodies and also killed anyone who didn’t die instantly. Appalling!

Within the area now designated as a museum, a temple like structure has been built into which has been inserted a glass case 10 shelves high that houses a collection of skulls. Macabre it might seem but the collection of heads brings the history home to the visitor in a striking way.

Temple of skulls

Temple of skulls

Human skulls

Human skulls


A group of Australian youngsters seemed understandably very moved by the experience. It should also be remembered that this is only one of many areas around the country where similar atrocities occurred.

The overnight rains of the previous evening had revealed some more pieces of human remains and clearly visible were some teeth which we were told would be collected by the security guards later and placed with other remains in a dignified manner.  

Human remains still surfacing after rain

Human remains still surfacing after rain


Although we did not participate, an audio commentary was available and by judging by the length of time taken by the Australian youngsters took, there was more to see and hear about than time for us permitted.

Return to Phnom Penh was subdued with dinner in Metro, or rather on the pavement outside, spent people and Lexus watching. Word has it that those who drive Lexus’s are those who have received bribes for whatever. There are a lot of Lexus cars in Phnom Penh!

Tuesday 27 November

Ok, so the monks are only part time ones and don’t chant every morning, and whilst we were not planning on getting up early a bit disgruntled at waking up at 6am!

We were supposed to be watching the water festival today but due to the King’s death it had been cancelled so a day not doing much and we went by tuk tuk to the main market.  T had warned us that everyone gets lost there and he is right.  A central circle with feeder avenues galore all looking the same as each other. Nevertheless, a pair of beach shoes and a couple of Harry t-shirts later and we emerged, walked three quarters of the way round the outside to find Mr. tuk tuk man to drive us back to hotel for a leisurely afternoon by the pool and a packing session for the internal economy flight tomorrow.

Hotel and pool

Hotel and pool

Mr tuk tuk man takes us into town for a dinner at Friends, a charity run restaurant but it was closed for the water festival public holiday even though the water festival was cancelled because of the King’s death.  We also wanted to see the street dancing but heavy rain appears to have scuppered this idea as well so make to the upstairs of the FCC (foreign correspondents club) for dinner and watched the world go by on the street below – a bit like Key West or Miami Beach in Florida. A good dinner but it is advisable to book and I guess many of the tourists there, which is why it was so crowded, had, like us, booked their travel before the King’s death to co-incide with the Water festival but had still come to Phnom Penh anyway. Not sure if it would be so crowded at other times.

Wednesday 28 November

Another early start with a ride to the airport and a domestic flight to Siam Reap.  We are only 3.8 kgs over our weight allowance and Phillip & Sylvia are about 8kg over but the airline are quite relaxed about this so no excess baggage charges.

Both airports are modern, especially Phnom Penh, and luggage retrieval at Siam Reap was efficient so we exit to meet our new guide.  Outside the airport perimeter, we get diverted off the main road on way to hotel as a Chinese VIP party overtakes us on their way to a hotel for a conference.

Siem Reap hotel

Siem Reap hotel

Our hotel is again of the boutique type and as we are being advised of the hotel facilities it transpires that the cycle ride in our summary itinerary is not in the main itinerary and has not been organised. Cost of organising is about $150 but we have an opportunity on the last morning if we can find out from Audley what the position is.

Leisurely afternoon by pool although there are not enough loungers for all guests and two noisy kids seem to occupy much of the pool.  The one downside to the hotel is the pool and it’s surroundings.

Leave hotel at about 6 for a visit to Siam Reap market which seems to come to life the longer we stay there.  Many propositions for tuk tuk rides and again we are thwarted in our eating attempts as the vegetarian restaurant was closed.  Eat at Noodles for $45 for the four of us including tip! Good value although only one spoonful of Phillip’s desert was eaten, eughhhhh!  

Phillip was persuaded to have a foot fish pedicure whilst at in the market and a few “bargains” were bought.

Fish pedicure

Fish pedicure

However, the effort and workmanship involved in producing the items is amazing and again, how much profit is there in what they sell – their standard of living is so low.

Sadly, we hear 10 days later that fire ripped through the market, as a result of an electrical fault, destroying 100 stalls and killing 8 people including at least 3 children.

It is very hot here and a cool drink is called before bed and yet another early start although our noisy neighbours – Brits of a certain class and age – were loud talkers until about 10:45 talking about shareholder and director’s loans and dividends on the phone!

Thursday 29 November

Our noisy Hoi poloi neighbours were awake talking at 5am waking up everyone around – very inconsiderate but that is obviously not their concern.  

Our guide is late arriving and still has no charisma, not explaining anything really as we get bundled out of our van to get a photo card so that we can enter the Angkor complex. More brownie points lost when he helps himself to a bottle of water from the in car fridge without offering us one.  It is by now getting hot.

We then go out to visit one of the small temples and walk in the soaring heat back to the van which had moved to a new position.  

Anghor Thom temple

Anghor Thom temple

We even have to ask twice when back in van for water – not a good guide.

The access road to the temple gate to Angkor Thom is overly crowded and why they allow vehicles to pass through the gates, polluting the air is beyond belief. The vehicle fumes must do untold damage to the vast display of fabulous stone carvings that guard the South entrance and the foot flow through the entrance at the same time as the vehicles must add to the slow destruction of the site.

Crowds at Angkor Thom

Crowds at Angkor Thom


Angkor Thom visitors

Angkor Thom visitors


One or two electric passenger vehicles are around but nothing’s properly organised.  A couple of elephants saunter by with their two passengers each and to add to the wildlife, a couple of monkeys bounce around. Possibly what is needed is an organised electric vehicle access with parking outside the temple only allowed.

A lot of what Mr guide tells us is so quietly told, we really cannot take it all in, especially when he tells us from a position just next to the road.  However, Phillip and I climb up to the main temple the centre of which is exactly 1.5km from each of the 4 gates that surround the main temple in a square. Missing out one of the side temples, we pass the elephant verandah and head towards a car park of virtually identical transit type vans.  

Transit park

Transit park

We have to wait 5 minutes or so whilst our guide tries to find our driver; apparently our driver has no mobile phone!

Back to the hotel for lunch, nothing else around so bit of a captive market and grab the four chairs as all 6 loungers taken, some of them by Mr Noisy & wife who are from Wallingford and are going today. Yippeeeeee!

Mr guide arrives 10 minutes late for our next visit, the mother of all temples, Angkor Wat.  Despite it being nearly 3pm, the area is very crowded but not as crowded as it was when we passed it on way to Angkor Thom.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

 
Steep stairs to "Middle temple" Angkor Wat

Steep stairs to “Middle temple” Angkor Wat

The  main temple is within extensive grounds much of which is accessed only by many stairs.  The intricate stone carvings are amazing and it is a wonder that they have survived for so long.  
Intricate carvings

Intricate carvings

Once up a flight of stairs ( they also helpfully protect each doorway threshold by wooden steps) and we are into the central area and a queue to get up to the top temple.  

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

The queue moves fast and although Phillip and I go up, the 65 – 70 degree steps that forms the only access point for the main temple is a no go for many people including Sal and Sylvia.

The top temple is in fact at least two separate courtyards with two Buddhas to view, hidden away in the centre of the structure.  One absolutely abhorrent sight is some graffiti on a pillar although I don’t know how long it had been there.

Angkor Wat buddah

Angkor Wat buddah

Making our way down and out we stop and view some changing colours on the structure but progress to some stones outside the main complex.  Here we wait until the sun has finished for the day on Angkor Wat watching the colours change on the stone.  In fact the colours seem to be better on the photographs I took without the benefit of photoshop than in real life.

Angkor Wat at dusk

Angkor Wat at dusk


Angkor Wat at dusk

Angkor Wat at dusk


Outside Angkor Wat at dusk

Outside Angkor Wat at dusk


despite the heat and the crowds Angkor Wat is a must to see, but a guide is pretty essential to get the maximum benefit.  Let us hope others have a different guide to our one.

Dinner in town tonight and a new tuk tuk driver.  Despite extensive directions from hotel staff, he trundles off the wrong way, ending up on a dusty dirt track of a road, having to rely upon the information from a passing motorcyclist to get us to Pub Street. First two restaurants that Phillip had picked from the Audley list are full, the vegetarian one only appearing to have 4 or 5 tables.

Ended up in a good Khmer restaurant for $37 for 4. How is that for good value? Sal not well so off to bed earlyish for a very, I mean VERY, early start. This is supposed to be a holiday!

Friday 30 November

We saw the sun set and we now should see it rise at Ta Prohm the following morning.  We are told be at reception at 5 am for a 5:15 start.  We arrive on time, as does the driver and the transport.  Surprise, surprise, Mr guide is 15 minutes late so there is a feeling we might miss the sunrise.  However, we find ourselves the first people there and wander up to the buildings just as the sun starts to shine on the buildings in front of us.  Not so much a sun rise but the effect of the sunrise is what we are witnessing.

Ta Prohm temple at dawn

Ta Prohm temple at dawn


Ta Prohm is the temple area where thick roots of trees have pushed downwards from the trees themselves which grow on top of the stone following the dropping of seeds by birds over the years.  Getting there first does mean you have the sense of having the place all to yourselves, giving some extra photo opportunities and perhaps the very early start is now beginning to justify itself.  
Tree roots at Ta Prohm

Tree roots at Ta Prohm

An added bonus is the dawn chorus which, with no one talking at certain times was absolutely magical and Sal makes it around the temple even though she is still not well.

The site itself is, like many temple sites, under renovation, but only in one part did it prevent a photograph being taken.  The temple was the location for the filming of Indianna Jones and the Temple of Doom.  So many different structures here and possibly better than Angkor Wat.

Tree roots at Ta Prohm

Tree roots at Ta Prohm


After breakfast back at hotel we set off for a boat ride, after all it is only 3 days since we went on a boat so we must be missing it.

You can tell why it takes such a long time to move around on Cambodian roads, no motorways, bicycles everywhere and drivers with no road sense – just like Vietnam really.  Through a couple of villages with rice fields or Lotus plants on either side we are travelling on a raised track and the houses are on stilts at road level with the fields about 10 feet below the road.  

We pass a couple of schools and although the road is pitted, there is a good amount of street lighting, probably just as well as the houses probably do not have any electricity.  Certainly a different type of village life to what we have seen in our travels so far.

Cambodian house on stilts

Cambodian house on stilts


Or boat trip starts off on a bad note as we ask Mr Guide if there is water on the boat and he says yes. We are ushered onto a mini type of long tail boat experienced in Bangkok with just a driver and a little boy to keep us and Mr Guide company.  But there is NO water.
Boat transport on Tonie Sap Lake

Boat transport on Tonie Sap Lake

Scoot along the waterways whilst little boy gives first me and then Phillip a top back massage. Interesting experience.  We go past many more floating houses with men relaxing after the fishing and the women cooking, one even cleaning the boat. Visit one of the floating shops that includes a cafe if only to buy water.

Floating house, Tonie Sap Lake

Floating house, Tonie Sap Lake

We were supposed to be taken to a bird watcher’s paradise but for some reason this is missed off our trip or we are never told about it.  David, and Pippa had a similar problem yesterday and got a very sincere apology but nothing similar from Mr Guide.  In view of the fact that we had limited water, the bird watching are visit was probably not even a good experience.  Mr Guide is in serious danger of not getting a tip.

On way back we visit Artisans D’Ankor, a silk and other type of craft workshop where handicapped people make items for sale.  The quality is very good, especially the paintings and lead us to buy a couple of Xmas presents although leaving my credit card there was not the best moves I have made.  (I did retrieve it after the shop assistant tracked me down before I left the complex).

Lunch and a relaxing time by the pool beckoned although Sal still not 100% and retires to the room for an attempted sleep only to be woken by a strange phone call and the delivery of the laundry.

Dinner in the hotel tonight and say goodbye to David & Pippa who are on their way to Thailand for a few days rest before returning to Uk.

Saturday 1 December

Awoken at about 6am by chanting of monks and noisy neighbours.  I must admit I do like the idea of a Siesta in the hot weather.  Sal feels a bit better today, and after breakfast we set off for our bike ride.  Mr Guide said he would not be with us yesterday but due to sickness of the other guide, he is. Out of town to a mud track that is as straight as a dye for many a mile.  Helmets fitted, water bottles fixed (we had to ask for them again) and we set off.  The countryside is flat and we manage to go for a couple of miles before a stop.

This one is not for Sal and she retires to the van for a lovely drive through the countryside following us, probably the best option in view of the increasing heat.

We stop ( we asked to stop ) to give out some pens and paper we had bought from home which were well received by the youngsters. Nearby was an orphanage and school which we decided to visit and are shown around by Lang, a 12 year old girl whose English was outstandingly good.

Orhpanage

Orhpanage


Orphan girl

Orphan girl

Lang told us that her father, a fisherman, had died when she was 9 months old and her mother could not cope with bringing her up on her own hence she is in the Orphanage. “Don’t forget me” were her words. A few buildings were sponsored or had been built with funds from organisations in Canada and Wales and communual living but were running short of funds. There are about 70 orphans and in excess of 600 pupils at the school in the grounds who appeared well fed and, for those who we saw, happy. Another emotional
experience.

Lunch and departure from Cambodia to Laos by Vietnamese Airways.

Cambodia is a fascinating country with a very tragic recent history. Hopefully we will return some day although I doubt whether a return to the tourist spots of Siem Reap will be on the menu.

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Laos

Visa application seems to be a minor affair but plenty of form filling in. Through in about 20 minutes and $72 lighter.

Ken is our guide who is far more personable than the last one we had in Siem Reap. The Hotel (Sala Prabang) is different, split into a number of houses along the river front road none of which are joined together. We are not in the main part of the hotel but one of the other buildings and the rooms are basic with no storage for clothes. Another 3 days living out of suitcases- not an ideal scenario, am not liking this hotel already, especially the musty smell and the strange door arrangement for the bathroom.

Not overly hungry as lunch in Siem Reap and Vietnamese airlines food filled a hole. Go out into town into the street market which is awash with coloured lights, colourful garments, toys and materials. It is very much like a town with a strong hippy scene, similar to Key West, USA. I suppose given Laos history, the French colonial style architecture is to be expected. Lovely quaint old buildings abound.

Street market stall

Street market stall

Sit at wine bar on pavement and eventually retreat back to Hotel via a street Creperier who charges 20,000 lek for 2 creps (about £0.80p each).

Manage to Skype Mel on a very good picture, much better than when we tried to Skype Sarah last week. Mel’s voice still very croaky and her ear still hurts. She has been off work for a number of days and actually got told off for going in when she was unwell! Nothing like Park House.

Sunday 2 December

Breakfast at this hotel is over the road from the main part and like the hotel is basic self service. The advantage though is that you can sit and watch the Mekong river meander on it’s long journey to the South China Sea as well as the numerous fishing and other craft that ply the waters.

Mekong river shipping @ Luang Prabang

Mekong river shipping @ Luang Prabang

Even here, the current is strong and some vessels have to make a detour to counter the tide.

Today is a city tour which is given by Ken who delights in telling us all about all the temples in Luang Prabang, their and it’s history and he fact that he was a monk for 6 years, does not know how old he is or what his birthday is but seems to be well educated.

Buddah at Temple in Luang Prabang

Buddah at Temple in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang temple

Luang Prabang temple

Ken has not travelled out of Laos though and told us that his village in the north was a few hours trek from the nearest road.

As neither Sally or I were feeling 100% today, probably the last thing we wanted was a guided tour of several temples, but tours we got. The one other part we saw was a museum of traditional clothing with a history of marriage of tribespeople.

Traditional clothing

Traditional clothing

We were even shown postcards of a tribes woman bearing both breasts indicating she had two children and one postcard of a younger woman showing one breast as she has only one child! Bizarre.

One of the temples is now a museum devoted tot the former king’s possessions. Very ornate in parts but basic when it came to the Queen’s quarters and that of the king’s mistresses. It is said that if the king asked a girl to be his mistress she had to accept or be killed during the lifetime of the king. The present kingdom ceased in 1975 and the Royal family now lives in Exile in France.

Former king's possessions

Former king’s possessions

Afternoon at leisure, which for Sal and I was mainly spent sleeping! I am now officially templed out and dinner at l’elephant which lived up to it’s trip advisor reputation.

L'Elephant restaurant

L’Elephant restaurant

Wandered through market with a few items to buy, got talking to some Australian school /college students who didn’t like their accommodation also but were looking forward to their visit to Sapa and Halong Bay.
The young have so many opportunities that we never had.

Luang Prabang market

Luang Prabang market

Monday 3 December

Not a temple in sight on today’s programme! Instead, a trip down a dusty road that is being rebuilt, to an elephant “camp”.

Today’s mission, should we choose to accept it, is to ride an elephant for 90 minutes. After a brief introduction at the Elephant camp, Shangri Lao, our guide, “Phone”( pronounced porn!) invites us to “get onboard”.

First steps on the Elephant

First steps on the Elephant

Surprisingly easy so far, and the elephant starts off without any pause for us to survey the surroundings of our new mode of travel. Passing the new construction that will be the extra lodges to stay in, we descend to the river, crossing slowly with the elephant keeping the end of his trunk above water for most of the crossing.

Us on elephant crossing Gaeng Noun river

Us on elephant crossing Gaeng Noun river

The elephant made the crossing look easy, despite a fast flowing river, the other way. All the time, Phone was taking pictures with our cameras as it clearly was not going to be possible to take still photos whilst riding an elephant as I discovered when trying to use the little camera. Up the other side into some fertile area and the up into the jungle, up and up we went, the elephant not worrying once about the path although Phillip & Sylvia’s one was livelier at 11 years old and kept stopping to munch on the way. After a while both Phillip and I were invited to sit on the elephant’s head to replace the mahout. Even more trepidation as we set off, this had not even been considered by me before we set off.

Pretending to be a Mahoot

Pretending to be a Mahoot

Still pretending to be a Mahoot

Still pretending to be a Mahoot

The top of the leg joints of the elephant were right underneath my bum so I then had a 20 or so minute ride with a bum massage, interesting!

After a brief stop at a view point, fantastic views, I resumed the position on the basket next to Sal and we continued. Nearing the end of the journey, the path was very steep down and due to yesterday’s rain, a bit muddy, so I am glad I was not on the elephant’s head.

Dismounting, the elephants returned and we walked briefly to the waterfall area and then Down to the river and our boat back to the camp.

Waterfalls @ Tad Sae

Waterfalls @ Tad Sae

But, what we had not realised, was that in the middle of the boat was a table set for four – us!- and lunch was served.

Private lunch

Private lunch

After lunch was eaten, we never gave it justice, it was just too much, it was back to the camp and time for a look around the hotel accommodation.

Bedroom at Shangri Lao,  Ban Xieng Lom, Luang Phabang

Bedroom at Shangri Lao, Ban Xieng Lom, Luang Phabang

Only three rooms at the moment but three more planned. The rooms have beds overlooking the river and jungle, are ensuite, have tea and coffee facilities and the cabins are completely separate from each other.

This had been one of most fantastic experiences of the holiday.

Back in the nice van after passing a game of Petanque ( laotians started playing it about 10 years ago and it has become quite popular) and back along the bumpy road we stop at a village to see some weaving and then back to hotel to pick up Ken who is to take us to a craft centre this afternoon. More weaving, more craft work, it’s almost as many as temples. Possibly the highlight here, though was the silkworm Poo tea which Phillip tried. He said it was ok and he isn’t renowned for “just being polite”.

On to a craft centre that specialised in paper products and watched a girl make a Christmas card out of paper mâché.

Hand-made Christmas card

Hand-made Christmas card

After the ubiquitous purchase it was back to the hotel in readiness for dinner at the Blue Lagoon, finalise packing and bed.

Tuesday 4 December

Yet another early start as the boat cruise leaves at 7am.

Bye Bye suitcase- en route up the Mekong River

Bye Bye suitcase- en route up the Mekong River

We did not have time to stop and watch the daily procession of Monks between 5 and 7 am when they walk around town for offerings – it would have been one early morning too much although we did manage to catch a glimpse this morning.

We say goodbye to Ken and, along with 2 Belgians, 2 Swiss and two other Brits, we start our two day journey to the Thai border, staying overnight at a lodge on the way. The weather is, as has been so far in Laos, cloudy in the morning but by 10:30 was to clear up. Breakfast on board and we settle down to watch the world go by.

There are three types of public transport going our way, ours, which is boat built for 40 but would feel cramped with half that, a speed boat for which you have to wear a helmet but is bumpy, gives you back ache but does the journey in 6 hours, or the slow passenger ferry which is considerably cheaper, with no food and water on board. Our one came with a bar and had meals included.

The Mekong is indeed a mighty river, as we had found out on our cruise around the delta at it’s exit to the South China Sea in Vietnam. There, it was bordered by many houses, fishing villages and craft of all kinds. Here it is still fast flowing but not so many commercial craft, though craft that take people from one side to the other abound, both large and small.

As the mists burn away, the mountainous jungle becomes clearer and we see little villages scattered by the waterside although as the monsoon heightens the water level considerably, they are invariably up a steep incline from today’s water level.

The prison at Luang Prabang in the early morning mist

The prison at Luang Prabang in the early morning mist

The rock formations change too, from the reddish colours that were evident in Luang Prabang to a white limestone by lunchtime.

We stop off at a cave at a junction in the river and climb the 30 or so steep steps to see, yes, you’ve guessed it, Buddhas. Over 400 here and another 200 in an upper cave that we do not have time to go and see. There is one are with Buddhas in every square cm as of space – perhaps irreverently, described as a “where’s wally” area.

Where's wally, sorry, Buddahs in abundance

Where’s wally, sorry, Buddahs in abundance

In 2006, the river level virtually reached the cave and appears to be the highest recorded level of the river here. You can see trees where their roots are visible and are reaching out to the river, some 10 or so meters below so the monsoon does increase the river’s complexion dramatically.

Exposed tree roots on Mekong River

Exposed tree roots on Mekong River

We stop after lunch to visit a village Ban Bo (Ban means village) which is, after a steep climb on the sand full of people selling scarves, throws, bags, and other items they have made. The village has no electricity but has running water from a spring in the mountain. Nevertheless, they do boil the water, and use some for Whisky making. Education to secondary level is In the village but for secondary they go to Luang Prabang to stay there for a few months at a time, quite expensive. Again, the ubiquitous purchases are made and we set off down to the water’s edge for our onward journey.

Whisky making in Ban Bo village

Whisky making in Ban Bo village

Still forests surround the water and the occasional group of water buffalo, some pink, some dark are in evidence but surprisingly little bird life oth than what looks like a kingfisher or two.

The captain steers the vessel through what can only be described as treacherous waters with consummate ease, and we pass through passages where the water flow gives way to whirlpools and eddys formed from the rocks below. This is all done without any navigational maps or guides! It is noticeable that every time he passes a fishing vessel or very small bamboo craft on the water, he slows down to protect the small craft from our wake – very considerate. There are less and less small craft as we get to mid afternoon, it is just too hot of them to venture out, I bet they are all sleeping.

Every so often we pass very small hamlets of houses, perhaps two or three with some people working the land at probably subsistence level. The sand brought down from the mountains of China and Nepal has deposited itself on the banks and is used to grow a crop of peanuts which for the villages is a cash crop.

Typical Laotian Mekong river village

Typical Laotian Mekong river village

Peanut crop on Mekong river bank

Peanut crop on Mekong river bank

Whilst no one appears to be tending them, there are footprints in the sand showing evidence that the crops are not neglected. Fishing lines and pots are in abundance although the fishermen set them up in the early moong, leave them all day and retrieve their catch later on. An occasional woman walks by the water with contraptions for gold panning and whilst none were seen on our journey actually panning, it is, we understand quite common.

The captain suddenly slows down and we enter a narrow passage with high jungle on both sides and many a rockfall showing that a rockfall had sent trees and debris into the river to be dispersed downstream. A path, probably big enough for a car had been hewn into the south side of the gorge and a group of children frantically wave at us. We don’t stop.

We arrive at our lodge at Pakbeng just before dusk, a delightful cabin on stilts equipped with a very welcome mosquito net but fear we might have already been bitten before we get chance to put it down over the bed. Tent sleeping with a difference!

Pakbeng Lodge

Pakbeng Lodge


Mosquito tented bed at Pakbeng

Mosquito tented bed at Pakbeng


Evening meal followed by good discussion with Belgian couple and Swiss couple before returning to our lodge and an early night. Let us hope we are insect free.

Wednesday 5 December

Another early alarm call 5:30 for a 6:15 breakfast and 7am start. Good night’s sleep so the mosquito net did it’s work.

More of the same today with early morning fog clearing about 10:30 and dense river side jungle interspersed with a few hamlets. Various different rock formations along the way and several groups of locals harvesting and selling hops and maize. We pass a couple of groups of people panning for gold and two commercial freighters in their way to Thailand to buy cement for use in Luang Prabang.

Mekong rock formation in N Laos

Mekong rock formation in N Laos

Stop before lunch in Ban Houi Phalam that only two years ago received electricity. They were hospitable, there were lots of children all of whom seemed to be well nourished. The village had a school and within the last week or so building work had started on a new medical centre. The pencils were we,ll received it seems and an address taken to send our photos we had taken to them as they hardly ever get photos of themselves. The girls all giggled when they saw their photographs on our cameras.

Mekong village Ban Hui Phalan

Mekong village Ban Hui Phalan

Return to boat for lunch and then on to the Thailand border although stop beforehand to pay the boat tax of $5.

2:30pm and we leave Laos behind on the port side and we now have Laos on the starboard side and Thailand on the Port side. Another two hours to go on our cruise which has flown by and was another absolutely fabulous experience.

We get to the end of our cruise at Huay Xai which is a hive of activity with boats crossing from side to side carrying lorries, people, luggage and probably many items of produce.

Lorry crossing at Huay Xai (Laos) to Chiang Khong (Thailand)

Lorry crossing at Huay Xai (Laos) to Chiang Khong (Thailand)

We go past the passenger crossing point, land at a congested freight crossing point, disembark onto a tuk tuk which wends it’s way back to the crossing point where we pay our $1 exit fee, buy our boat tickets, watch the porter struggle with cases down the ramp, board the small long tail type boat without our luggage and cross to Thailand. Hopefully our luggage follows in the next boat about a minute later.

Possibly the most backward country we have ever visited which has only been open to the outside world for a few years and really needs to be seen soon before the crowds of tourists get there. The government are keen to encourage tourism and it is indeed a beautiful country to see. We will be back but not to stay at the Sala Prabang hotel in Luang Prabang.

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Thailand 2

We cross the river and disembark on the Thai side where lorries wait patiently to cross to Laos.

Laos & Thai border crossing, Thai side.

Laos & Thai border crossing, Thai side.

Will our luggage follow us from Laos in the next boat about a minute later than us as promised? Fortunately it does, what a relief!

Immigration formalities are slightly better than when we crossed fromVietnam to Cambodia and I suppose we could have just walked up the hill and made our own way around Thailand. Or there again, we might have been spotted walking past the border control post. There were so many people there though it would have been so easy to miss it so we opted to conform and got our passports stamped.

The Anantara resort and spa is about an hour away and we arrive just as cocktails are being served to celebrate the King’s 85th birthday. Shame we really were too late to join in the festivities.

Anantara restaurant

Anantara restaurant

Thursday 6 December
We can see both Laos and Burma from our bedroom window and although it is not overly picturesque, to see three countries from your hotel bedroom window is probably a first.

Thailand, Burma and Laos  from our bedroom window @ Anantara

Thailand, Burma and Laos from our bedroom window @ Anantara


For each day we are here we are entitled to a free activity; boat ride into Burma, elephant trekking, massages galore and a two hour session with the baby elephants learning about their welfare etc. Sylvia, Sal and I chose the two hours with the elephants which was interesting and were guided around by Rachael, from Hawick, although the time spent was only about 90 minutes possibly because she wanted to get away to catch planes home for a Christmas break.
Elephants at Anantara

Elephants at Anantara

We learnt about the different types of elephant, their ever decreasing numbers; there may be no wild elephants left in Rachael’s lifetime she says, their health and go through a routine that a vet would do on a monthly basis. Female elephants are all together and the males do nothing for the welfare of the babies.

The elephants are then led down a path and enjoy a splash in the water from a hose which we are encouraged to point at them. The baby is led back up the path and the two adults down to join the other adults in the fields adjacent to the river bordering Thailand and Burma.

Elephant bath time

Elephant bath time

Lunch by the pool, Sal off for a pedicure and manicure and Dinner tonight in the Italian restaurant at the hotel. These all inclusive hotels are good, no spending any more money on food or drink!

As it is our last night here, the hotel has a tradition of setting off lanterns with our names on. So, after the meal, Mr Richard, Mrs Sally, Mr Phillip and Mrs Sylvia get lit and float up into the night sky.

Prepare to lift off.

Prepare to lift off.

No wind so they go straight up which in itself is amazing. They could be visible for probably 5 minutes before they seemed to find a cloud layer and drift northwards towards Burma.

Friday 7 December

A massage is planned for me as part of the package, now that will be a first! I go through the registration process, get led into a room with a couch, told to put on a gown, slippers and brief disposable undies on. Being a massage virgin, I have no idea how to answer the question, “what type of massage do you want” and then when I have chosen, oil seemed the best option, to be asked, “what part of the body do you wish me to concentrate on” seems bizarre as I thought the whole body.

A foot wash later and I am on the couch, face down peering through a hole in the couch at a bowl with a flower in which I somewhat irreverently likened to a sick bucket.

The hour passes with, nearly, every part of me rubbed in oil. Glad I didn’t go for the other massage which, I understand now involves being stood upon. Not sure my back was up to that. Relax further at poolside.

Anantara hotel

Anantara hotel

A stay at the Anantara Resort Hotel and Spa on an all inclusive package is around £700 per night. I wonder if the coffee sachets they leave in the room are the ones we read about in Sunday’s paper that sell for $50 a serving – Elephant poop coffee: a pricey cuppa from the North”.

To the airport we go and our flight to Bangkok and the end of a lovely stay at a lovely hotel, The Anantara, a definite must come back moment. At the airport we pass through security as soon as we enter the airport building here which was a bit off putting. Rubbish meal on the plane so it is just as well we stocked up in the business lounge beforehand.

Met at Bangkok airport and driven for about two hours, mostly at 120km per hour to a jetty where we board a speed boat to Koh Samet.

Disembarking onto a small wooden jetty it becomes a feet wetting moment as we move from the jetty to the sand with the water lapping around us. Straight up the beach to the hotel, or so we thought, as this is not ours and we retreat, tails between our legs and get shown to our hotel having to pass through a number of areas that can probably best be described as Greek Taverna like in appearance before we reach our lodge. I must say that I was expecting more from these four days in accommodation but then it is all about managing expectations. Cold steak sandwich for a late dinner by the beach and Internet only available in the reception area but a welcome Christmas Tree!Christmas Tree at Au Prau resort

Saturday 8 December

Well, first impressions may have been a bit deceptive but this is still not what we had hoped for.

Hotel chalet

Hotel chalet

View from pool to sea

View from pool to sea

Nevertheless, a day with a swimming pool just behind us and the warm sea just in front of us is very relaxing albeit that we have to move several times to get out of the searing heat.

Skype with Sarah & Harry who is nearly walking, dinner by the beach watching fire dancers and a Skype with Flic.

Sunday 9 December

Slightly cloudier and cooler today but not much. Went through Christmas promises list which seemed to take ages but we ordered most things. Mr. Amazon is going to be kept busy. Managed a walk to end of bay and back in the sea, probably half a mile in total!

So sad to read about the fire at the night market at Siem Reap that claimed 8 lives including 4 children. To think we were only there on 30 November and now over 100 stalls also destroyed due to an electrical fault. Seeing the state of the street wires, it is not surprising though that there are faults and fires.

Monday 10 December

Our penultimate day! Clear blue skies again and searing heat at midday. Sally, Sylvia and I go on the back of a green pick up truck with benches that masquerades as a taxi into the only village on the other side of the island, Samet village

To say the road is uneven is the understatement of the century: potholes, ruts and mostly just dirt track and we take about 15 minutes for a journey of about 2km.

Just don’t try leaning back on the support rail, you will not like the bruising. Taxi, Ao Prau resort style Samet village is just a few shops, is very dirty and is populated mainly by the younger set with clothing stores to match.

Au Prau village - Samet

Au Prau village

Sal did find a couple of bargains though and it certainly was an experience. Nothing to tempt us to drink or eat so we head back for lunch, a rest, a swim in the sea and watch the crabs emerge from their holes in the sand just before sunset.
crab for starters?

crab for starters?

Tuesday 11 December

Our last day!!!!

We have a late check out and spend much of the time before our 5pm departure in the sea. I don’t think I have spent so much time in the sea for a long time, a bonus really after all our travels.

Departure is quirky to say the least as the shallow water prevents the speed boat from getting too close to the moveable landing pier and beach so each of us in turn clambers onto the luggage trolley to be moved 10 ft forward to avoid getting our feet wet.

Departure boards with a difference

Departure boards with a difference

Departure transport

Departure transport

Lovely sunset over the bay as we speed to the mainland and a short trip in an oversized golf cart to the terminal to await our transport to Bangkok airport.

Sunset on our SE Asia adventure

Sunset on our SE Asia adventure

our last boat trip in SE Asia

our last boat trip in SE Asia

As we sit in the lounge awaiting our departure, I decide to go for a walk to see what the airport has to offer. 6th sense or what, but I bump into my friend Donald and his partner Ray! They had spent a few days in Bangkok before returning to Manilla. Another co-incidence to add to the many I have encountered on my travels over the years.

I hadn’t really seen or spoken to Donald for many years so Sal and I had a good catch up with Donald for about 20 minutes.

Wednesday 12 December

It is -6.5C when we reach Phillip & Sylvia’s with the trees covered in frost: what a contrast to 24 hours ago, swimming in sea more like bath water temperature.

Unfortunately, Andrea, Phillip and Sylvia’s daughter was unwell whilst we were away so Phillip & Sylvia go to see her and we go and see Flic, stay overnight at Walsall before catching the ferry back home to the dreadful weather the following day.

32 nights, 4 countries, air, road, boat, bicycle and elephant transport that took us over in excess of 4500 miles, excluding flights from the UK to Bangkok. 16 hotel, train and boat bedrooms, countless prepared and restaurant meals, loads of memories, over 2400 photos and countless souvenirs / gifts. One amazing adventure, shared with Phillip & Sylvia.

What were our highlights?

We have been asked what was the highlight of our visit and I for one have found this difficult to answer so here is a list of “likes” and “not likes”

Highlights

Ariysum Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand
Halong Bay, Vietnam, especially the kayaking
Walking with tribespeople near Sapa, Vietnam
Saigon war tunnels, Vietnam
S21 & the killing fields, Cambodia
Angkor complex, Cambodia
Visit to orphanage, Cambodia
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Elephant riding, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Mekong cruise, Laos
Sea swimming, Au Prau resort, Thailand

What were the downsides?

Crowds at Bangkok temple
Journey from Hanoi to Halong Bay
Transport (transit type vans)
Guide at Siem Reap
Hotel at Luang Prabang, Laos
Early morning rises!
I’m templed and noodled out!!

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