Well New Year was a total wipe out for all of us apparently as not ONE of the group was there to se wit in with Hung who was apparently enjoying the free flowing wine until the early hours, well ok maybe until just after midnight!
Today was as a part travelling day as we headed further south to our next overnight destination of Hoi An – the town I’d heard most about from other travellers to Vietnam that apparently was a must see and do not miss place and I’d love it. Remembering the bumpy roads from Cambodia in the bus, I used my neck support from the plane to help ease the jolty movements and so cause my neck any unnecessary extra pain. I felt proud of my self as I really do think that it was a tremendous help. We took the Hai Van Pass which is a beautiful winding mountain road where you pass a great number of sights. Thankfully I was on the right hand side of the bus so I was unable to see the utter nut jobs on their bikes overtaking the bus on sharp bends. There were a number of shrines at the side of the road that I had full view of which I can only assume were for those killed in accidents on the roads. When we weren’t climbing the pass in the bus we passed the typical scenes that I was expecting to see and hoping to capture on camera (but have failed it appears) of workers or should I be calling them farmers out in the paddy fields.
It was on this road the Hai Van Pass that THE Vietnam episode was filmed for Top Gear, the one that I have never seen, yet have still put a link to, despite never having seen it 🙂 The pass was the boundary between Vietnam and the kingdom of Champa back in the 15th Century and until the war in the 60s was heavily forested. There is a fort at the top which we stopped at which is full of French bullet holes and was also used as a bunker later but the Americans and South Vietnamese. It was clearly also THE place to have your wedding photograph taken, as everywhere in Vietnam seemed to be!
If we weren’t in a bus we could have shaved an hour off our journey by using the Hai Van Tunnel but lorries, tourist buses, motorbikes and bicycles are banned from taking that route, mainly in case they get stuck apparently?
We headed to Thuy Son which is the largest and most famous of the Marble Mountains which houses a number of Buddhist sanctuaries, that were originally Hindu and pagodas which also gave some wonderful views of the sea. They were very picturesque and it was lovely to see some sights finally in some warm sunshine after a quick 10 mins on the beach in Danang to paddle in the frankly FREEZING waters of the South China Sea! Definitely not tempted to strip off and have a dip, that was for sure!
From here we headed on to Hoi An. Having checked into our hotel which was walking distance from the main town and, even better, had a massage & pedicure option which I was sure to be partaking in the following day! Hung took us on an orientation walk after a little time to ‘freshen up’ in our rooms. My word, having heard so much of the town I was certainly not disappointed. The atmosphere and lack of traffic was enough alone to make me want to stay here for longer than the 36 hours or so that we had. Sadly the photos of the evening walk did not come out well enough t really demonstrate the utter beauty of this place, Ill try adding a few though to try and give you an idea.
We had a delicious dinner in a restaurant called Banana Leaf where I sampled one of the traditional dishes of the area called Cao Lau which was delicious. In fact everyone had a delicious meal that evening and went to bed stuffed and ready to explore on our own the following day as we had a day at leisure, a day I was really looking forward to to potter and do my own thing.
Pronounced Hway or even Hey, Hue was our last stop of 2017. Exhausted from the ‘experience’ of the overnight train we thankfully were able to get into our rooms at the hotel where we would be for two nights. An interesting room. The bathroom was separated from the bedroom by a LARGE pane of glass and as far as I could see, absolutely no curtain to maintain dignity if sharing. I jumped straight in the shower relieved to feel slightly more awake and, well err clean. Slight issue on the exit from said shower – there were no towels in the room. I looked literally everywhere. Thankfully I travel equipped with a travel towel from the days of the Great Wall of China when we were told the towels were the size of tea towels just in case the same happens again in a foreign country – never needed to use it again until now! Blimey, the organised packing was TOTALLY paying off now!
On arrival at the hotel we were pointed to Mr Fix It who owned a little shop next to the hotel where was good for a basic authentic lunch and did laundry on the cheap and if you needed pretty much anything – Mr Fix-It was your man! This was welcomed news and I put in several bits of laundry and when I came to get a beer and lunch found the majority of the rest of the crew also dining there. What a lovely friendly chap and tasty lunch for very little, man just a sandwich, bag of crisps and a drink back at home was the same as a 3 course meal for two here with beer. Crazy. But then I am also a millionaire here (sadly only in Dong). It’s a nice feeling seeing in the new year as a millionaire!
We set off on a trip down the Perfume River before our walking tour of the Imperial City. By boat of course. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting but I think perhaps something slightly more picturesque and perhaps more floral along the banks? We thankfully had the boat to ourselves and we chugged down the river to the Thien Mu Pagoda which was built on a hill overlooking the river. This Pagoda is deemed to be another icon of Vietnam and symbol of the city of Hue almost as much as the citadel itself (which I’ll come to later). With a wide stairway leading up to the Thap Phuoc Duyen sits impressively at the top with its 7 storeys standing at 21m high and dedicated to a manushi-Buddha (one that appeared in human form).Originally constructed in 1844 the tower itself was a built during the reign of Emperor Thieu Tri. The Pagoda itself was believed to have been originally founded in 1601 by a gentleman called Nguyen Hoang who was the governor of the Thuan Hoa province at the time. Sadly over the centuries many of the surrounding buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt on numerous occasions and since the 60’s it has been a key spot for several political demonstrations. To the right of the tower is a pavilion which contains a stele which is thought to date from around 1715. It’s located on the back of a giant turtle – a symbol of longevity in Vietnam as I have mentioned in a previous post.
To the left of the tower stands a six-story pavilion which houses an ENORMOUS bell from 1710 which weighs 2052kg and can be heard from an amazing 10km away!
The actual temple itself is found in an inner courtyard past the triple gated entrance where there are three statues of Buddhist guardians stand keeping watch. It was a very serene and tranquil location and there were a few Buddhist monks around and at one point started a small ceremony in the temple which really was rather calming, I could have stood and watched the goings on for hours but sadly time was pressing on and we needed to see the rest of the site before moving on to the citadel in the centre. There were a number of monks tending to the trees pruning them ahead of spring and collecting wood and I even witnessed a class of children being taught as I peered over a wall at the sound. All of the different colour of robes denoting their rank or perhaps status is a better word within the religion. There were HORDES of people (well more than we had seen or even encountered at our other tourist spots) and trying to get photos without them in was quite an accomplishment to put it mildly!!
The coach picked us up outside and we headed towards the citadel which is based in the centre of the city. Built between 1804 and 1833 it is heavily fortified with 2m thick walls that are 10km long and there is a moat that is 30m across and 4m deep surrounding the citadel and it’s 10 gateways. There are several sections to it, the Imperial Enclosure and the Forbidden Purple City are deemed to be the most important and formed the epicentre of Vietnamese Royal life at the time.
We entered the Imperial Enclosure through the Ngo Mon Gate which faces the huge flag tower and reminded me hugely of the gateway to the Forbidden City in Beijing. The central passageway, noted by its yellow doors was reserved for the use of the Emperor only as was the bridge to it across the lotus ponds in front. Anyone else coming into the Imperial Enclosure came in through the other gates seen on the sides as well as the pathways around the pond. On top of the main gate is Ngu Phùng (Belvedere of the Five Phoenix) and a massive drum and bell right on top. It was at this gateway in 1945 when Emperor Bao Dai abdicated and the Nguyen dynasty came to an end. The Imperial Enclosure itself is pretty much a citadel within a citadel as the walls 6m high and 2.5km log walls surrounding the emperor’s residence, temples, palaces as well as the main state buildings. It was sadly bombed during the French and American wars and so what is left is sadly only a fraction of the original with 20 out of the original 148 buildings surviving in tact. It all felt rather run down in general, well what was left obviously, with weeds often popping out of random places, a lot of rubble and broken masonry but yet none the less I could almost picture the Emperor and his dignitaries wandering around in their gowns. We passed several places where small restoration projects were taking place – clearly wisely using the money that they had to the bed of their ability.
The Thái Hoa Palace (Palace of supreme harmony) dates back to 1803 and it was where the Emperor would receive guests on state visits as well as to welcome other important ceremonies and official receptions whilst sat on his the throne on a small raised platform in direct line to the entrance gate I mentioned previously. It’s essentially a large hall with a highly ornate timber roof all a deep reddy colour and amazingly the majority of it original, just a few pillars were in the process of being restored.
The seemingly most in tact area of the citadel was the To Mieu Temple Complex, mainly as it has undergone some significant restoration. The temple itself houses a shrine to each of the Emperors, identified by their photos. A solemn peaceful place of worship and respect to times gone by. Outside of this building stand the Nine Dynastic Urns which are dedicated to only one of the Sovereigns. They are HUGE things – standing around 2 meters high and weigh apparently 1900kg and 2600kg. They each symbolise the strength of the power and stability of the Nguyen throne at the time. I had my photo taken here next to one so that you can see how tall they really are. (The main photo of this in particular blog post). There were also some really random dragons in what looked like telephone boxes that I didn’t really quite work out.
We headed back to the hotel via one part of the Nine Holy Canons on the way out which are located either side of the flag tower. They were never intended to be fired and weight about 10 tonnes a piece – I’m not sure how many people it would take to move each of them into position if they did want to use them but it would certainly do my back in!
We went out to Elegant Restaurant, chosen by Hung, as our New Years Eve meal. It was in a street which was a hive of activity compared to our hotel a little out-of-town. They were gearing up to celebrate the New Year further down the street with THE MOST god awful singer RUINING a number of well-known ballads from across the years. I was THIS close to going over to either pull the plug or take over myself. Even Hung was getting wound up with it and went off to identify what all the racket was. After the meal we headed back to the hotel where a ‘party’ was being held by the manager of the hotel in the foyer to celebrate new year with all of the guests. There was red wine for all and we were given, very thoughtfully, a present each. Wrapped in a box that was totally different to the contents it was all rather bizarre. I got a compact mirror – as someone who barely looks in a mirror apart from to put contact lenses in or, more recently, pluck out the odd whisker off my chin, it was going to be hiding in a drawer never to see the light of day again. The gesture was gratefully received and we all stood round sipping the fairly offensive red wine that we were given and everyone kind of wanting to piss off to a bar or head back to where we had just come from to see the New Year in with some what more atmosphere than there was at the hotel. I, however, was blooming grateful and as a loather of New Year festivities when I’m just not in the mood for it found it TOTALLY acceptable to actually slip off to my bed. Tucked up I was by 1030pm enjoying the fact that the bed wasn’t constantly moving around & that it was quiet after the journey on the train the night before. I left a fair few of the group all ready to see in the New Year, somewhere. I’d be waking in 2018 with a clear head and rested.
The penultimate night of the year was spent on the overnight train from Hanoi down to Hue. A 10 + hour journey. We boarded the train for a 10pm departure, unsure of what jollities lay ahead, apart from the fact that I was highly unlikely to get much sleep!
Split into couples in one 4 berth, the boys (with Hung) in another, 4 ladies in another and the remaining ladies (myself included) in the final with a random stranger that could be male or female – there was no knowing. The higher priced tickets (that we had) involved a ‘soft’ bed in a cabin with bedding, water and a wafer biscuit included. I was VERY thankful that we weren’t in a lower class where we could have literally had a board to sleep on – oooo the thought!!!
Thankfully we had a lovely lady join us in the cabin who was the tour leader for a group travelling with Intrepid travel doing a similar thing to all of us. She had her work cut out though, come the morning time there were several of her group who had been drinking all night & were to be found in their bunk lying in the foetal position!! Her comment to it was, oh well, they are Australian (as if that explained their behaviour!).
We suddenly realised that beers were needed to be purchased before the train moved and spotted a little shop on the platform and so Paul, Chris and I darted off to go and get a few each. Not that we were planning on getting plastered but more that it might help us sleep. I didn’t really fancy the idea of getting up umpteen times in the night to try the loo. Many a giggle was had as doors were ‘jammed’ shut and the general hilarity of the sleeping conditions got too much. There was no elegant way to get up and down from the bunks and I was glad that I was a demanding madam and requested bottom bunk owing to my insomnia/ often need to visit the loo in the early hours – TMI? Oh well!
The morning came and I guess I must have got some sleep – amusingly the Fitbit begged to differ and recorded precisely none despite repeated synching as a result of not quite believing it! The night had been entertaining all round, mainly so on the comments from Hung who said that he didn’t realise that it was actually possible for anyone to snore louder than the noise of the train 😂 and that he had 2 hippos in his cabin ALL night!!
A fun must-do experience for sure but I’m not sure I’d want to travel a country purely by sleeper train like this as I’d get LITERALLY no sleep – even according to FitBit! One of the group was saying how he thought it would be a lovely peaceful way to travel – and he too was sharing with the so say hippos. Each to their own I guess!! I’m quite happy that I turn 40 soon & REALLY don’t feel like I’ve missed out in life by only encountering this experience whilst 39!
I’d seen so many photos of the Bay over the years and it always looked simply stunning. Our 5 hour trip out in a Chinese style junk boat did not disappoint in the slightest. The weather was perhaps not amazing as it would have been lovely to have had a bright blue sky but I thanked my lucky stars that it was not actually raining. We could have had it way worse.
The bay is formed of a lot of limestone structures or mini islands I guess with trees and so on on the top but whilst cruising along I was confused that there did not seem to be as many birds as I had anticipated seeing and hearing. Not that I was here as a twitcher – they just were noticeably absent. The word Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descends to the sea’ and legend has is that this area was created by a giant dragon charged towards the coast with his tail gouging out the valleys and so on that now exist.
It was named a World Heritage site in 1994 with all of the mini islands, grottos or caves and beaches and is deemed to be the main tourist spot of Northern Vietnam. There are a number of grottos that are in the trusty Lonely Planet but I’m not sure that the one that we actually visited is in there.
It certainly puts the magic of Wookey Hole to shame I have to say. The natural formations inside the cave were simply unreal. The stalactites and stalagmites almost didn’t look natural in places and there were parts that looked like cauliflowers as well as draped blankets. Extraordinary sights to put it mildly.
We all talked about the idea of waking up on a boat out here on the ocean & what an amazing place it would be to have a night, of course we are restricted on this tour owing to the amount to do in such a short amount of time. I’m not sure that the comfort of the bed on the boat would really be all that appealing though thinking about it. And I’m also not entirely sure that I could cope with the seafood that would be breakfast!!
We ate off linen table cloths and the food seemed to just keep coming thankfully the peppers and the sea food/ shell fish allergies has been accommodated and we had been on the beers since 930 – oops – but we were on the boat pretty early in the morning and when in Rome right?!!
Next stop for us was back to Hanoi to recuperate (and as it worked out – have more beers) before boarding the overnight train to Hue.
The last stop in the complex was the One Pillar Pagoda built to express the gratitude of Emperor Ly Thai Tong to his wife who had produced a son and heir for him. It’s built of wood and on a single stone pillar (unsurprisingly) and designed to resemble a lotus blossom – the symbol of purity rising out of a sea of sorrow as it is surrounded by a small pool. Sadly it’s not the original as the French destroyed it before they left Hanoi in 1954. Now there is a Buddhist shrine at the top adorned with offerings.
After finishing up at the Ho Chi Min Mausoleum Complex we visited the Temple of Literature which is also known as Confucius Temple. Not so much a just a temple in itself but there were a variety of things to see. All beautifully calm and serene whilst the scooters manically circle around on the roads. There is a rare example inside of early Vietnamese architecture which houses the honoured amongst Vietnam’s finest scholars and writes with literary accomplishments. These are all carved into stone tablets which are held on the backs of turtles – one of the three most sacred animals in Vietnam along with storks and lions/dragons. There are a number of impressive gateways and one of them is a symbol of Vietnam and Hanoi and is found in one of the many notes (of money). There are lots of bonsai trees everywhere in pots and many of them seem to have stories in them with pagodas and little people in. Something tells me it’s the story of Confucius himself but I didn’t get clarity.
From here saw our last preplanned stop of the day before a visit to the Water Puppet Theatre which we had booked tickets for earlier in the day. The infamous Hanoi Hilton or as it’s real name – Hoa Lo Prison Museum. Nicknamed as such by American POW during the war as many were brought here. There were parts only that still remain which exhibits relate to the use of rooms up until the 50s and even included a French style guillotine which was used to behead Vietnamese revolutionaries back in the day. One of the notable American Pilots kept here during the American War was John McCain (once nominated as a candidate for presidency in USA in more recent years) and there was a hugely thought provoking exhibition on memories after the war. There were the remains of the sewer tunnels that several of the Vietnamese prisoners managed to escape though at times. Tiny, tiny gaps. Fascinating & thought provoking but thankfully not such a hideous outing as the jail in Phnom Pen.
The Municipal Water Puppet Theatre was something that a few people in the group had been told not to miss. It wasn’t expensive and lasted an hour and sounded a bit different from the norm and so most of us went o watch. Originally created by the rice farmers on the Red River Delta about 1000 years ago. The puppets are made out of fig-tree timber and is always performed in ponds or lakes and so on with the puppeteers standing waist-high in water with the puppets on long sticks that create the story in front of a curtain at water level in front of the puppeteers. The musicians accompanying were all live and it was dark inside and pretty easy to fall asleep in given our jet lag and so on. One of the chaps I was sat next to did – only to wake up every time the section ended and there was clapping. I’m not sure it’s a not to be missed event but it was certainly something different.
The other restaurant that we tried was called Home – recommended to us by Hung. I wasn’t overly keen on one of the others that was recommended which was just one choice of a sort of fish hotpot. Traditional and like street food but I just felt I’d avoid fish whilst I had the option so I took 4 others off here – no idea what it was going to be like but it was utterly delicious I must say. By far the most expensive of meals that we would eat in this country but not really expensive for UK prices. Everyone’s (well mine didn’t) meal came on a bed of fire as it sat in a sort of Balti dish in front of you as you ate your way through it with the sticky rice accompanying it.
The other experience I wanted to try was the fresh beer. It took a while to try finding it but we got there in the end with help from a very helpful man who could see we were a little lost aimless looking around and trying to work out where the f*** we were from the guide book to the street signs. We weren’t that far off. Bia Hoi is Vietnam’s own fraught beer or microbrew which is similar to a light bodied pilsner and was first introduced to the country by the Czech’s. It’s brewed without preservatives and is meant to be enjoyed immediately. We went to the local Bia Hoi junction and found a few establishments with small plastic chairs to sit on similar to those seen in a Reception classroom. It was served in recycled glasses which made it look almost green in colour initially. It wasn’t that bad but the others were adamant that it would give them dodgy tummies – none of us wanted this so we only partook in the one to say that we had done it!
It would have been funnier if the chairs had sides as well as Paul and Chris (quite possibly myself as well) would potentially have needed cutting out of them!
A route via a stop in Kuala Lumper in Malaysia was how I finally made my way to my latest overseas adventure. Identified one of the group in the seat behind me on the second leg and we were met at the airport having made our way through both immigration and collected our luggage successfully without too much hassle. I’m sure when I checked I needed to get a visa to enter Vietnam & so had the extra sheet of paper which clearly wasn’t at all necessary after all but had sent my new travel buddy into a small panic as he had no paperwork re a visa. Ah well, better to be safe than sorry I say!
Arrived at the Anise Hotel about 2.30pm desperate to sleep but also, not wanting to knowing how badly I’d then sleep in the evening. I showered & managed about a 20 min power nap before venturing out to try familiarising myself with the locality of the hotel & what amenities we had close by. Having failed to have changed any money into dollars prior to my trip I was on the hunt for an ATM. I found two and was rather panicked that neither would accept my card. I was moneyless in a foreign country & felt very very vulnerable. I realised that despite all my prior research to the trip we in the guide book we were actually MUCH closer than I had initially anticipated to the Old Quarter. I was grateful to Mike (off of the Cambodia trip last year) for the introduction of maps.me which I recommend strongly as you can drop pins on where you are at a particular point in time and name them what you want etc. (helpful hint – download the map that you need on wifi and then you can use it off line as it works on GPS.)
Our initial meeting of the tour to tell us a little about Vietnam & to meet the others that would become companions for the rest of the trip, was held on the top floor of the hotel where the restaurant was – the 11th floor and only one away from my room. I’d say the views out were stunning but, as it was dark I’d have to wait until morning to find out. Already one of the ladies was clearly sticking out as one that would irritate not only me but the majority of the group in the fullness of time. Not listening to what our guide (Hung) was saying EVER & then asking him to repeat it as she didn’t hear. The temptation to point out to her & her friend the obvious was clearly going to come out of my mouth at some point this holiday without my being able to do ANYTHING about it.
Supper was a set menu in a delicious restaurant very close to the hotel called 5 Spice. Negotiating the puddles, pedestrians & potholes in themselves was quite some feat but add in the scooters factor and oh dear god – NIGHTMARE! I was catered for so that despite the set menu I was able to eat as the meals were tweaked accordingly, I was very impressed, and there was beer. Much needed beer.
Our first walking tour was in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, which was good as it was nailing it down with rain as we first walked out. Negotiating the traffic for every direction and of every form is something of an art form. In the UK we have pedestrian crossings painted on the ground and only on a few occasions do cars ignore them. Here THAT is the norm but it’s scooters, 15 years ago it would have been bicycles and it wouldn’t surprise me to see more cars on the roads here in 20 or so years. Hung told us that the average car price for nothing fancy was $25,000. In my book that’s A LOT when the average wage is around $150-200 a month. But there would be no room for them all anyway were they to start becoming more affordable. With the rain beating down they were all wearing ponchos that have a see through rectangle at the front that covers the handlebars and lights and so on. Clever. Here was one lady using the same that I spotted on a bicycle.
The historic Old Quarter was a maze of packed streets that were an explosion on the senses with the noise of the scooters to the smog from their engines. The sidewalks are crammed with parked scooters and the small shops were stuffed full of a plethora of goods which often spilled out and onto the side walk, then you have the shopkeepers making their simple meals on the pavements too – some selling food and some just creating for themselves. You have the street sellers passing with fruits freshly picked and presented in bamboo baskets and sellers on scooters with a record player shouting out what they were selling as they slowly made their ways down the streets. Food hygiene leaves A LOT to be desired and although Hung kept telling us the food would be ok but the issue with the hygiene would be more to do with how they washed the plates and so on rather than perhaps the food itself. We had heard their staple breakfast was a duck embryo boiled and still in the shell of the egg. None of us were keen to try, a step to far in my book. None the less Hung got one for himself and we all stood round in the rain as he showed us how it was prepared and how it was eaten from a street seller. My stomach churned and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one!
We continued through the streets taking in the sights and sounds, dodging the scooters from all angles. We passed what is believed to be the oldest Buddhist temple in the city originally dating from the 11th century but the current building dates from the 18th century. Bach Ma was originally built by Emperor Ly Thai To honour a white horse that led him to this very site where he chose to construct his city walls that now has evolved into this fascinating city.
Despite there, of course, being a number of other areas to the city I enjoyed spending the short amount of time that we had in this city just familiarising myself with the organised chaos of the Old Quarter. It felt all a bit too much on first view but once you got used to the different pace & way of life, I really rather liked it.
North Face jackets were on every street corner, blatant knock offs – some looked good & some looked & felt frankly shocking. None the less I wasn’t about to buy one for the sake of it. I don’t need one back at home & I had a perfectly decent pac-a-mac with me (nothing remotely like Mr Flatman’s almost famous black bin bag coat I hasten to add).
Popping out of the Old Quarter by the Hoan Kiem Lake we met our bus which would be swooping us up and ferrying us away from the hustle and bustle of the street and the peace of a bus – all kitted our with WiFi – too as we headed off through the busy traffic to the complex where we would see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and other sites on the complex. It was all rather surreal as you were literally allowed nothing as you walked around – everything had to be handed in and you were walked like working ants from the ticket office to the Mausoleum itself and encouraged just to keep walking around the frail body of Uncle Ho. I’m JUST not sure if it was/is him lying there or not?! He’s of course been embalmed (in Russia apparently where he returns for a month every year for ‘maintenance’) and lies in a sarcophagus surrounded by guards who are members of the National Army who were all wearing the ceremonial dress of white (this included white wellie boots which made me think of fish mongers or butchers) and we all thought that honestly they looked a little ridiculous – not that I was about to tell them that! It looked like they were cheap as sh*te sets from a fancy dress store rather than OFFICIAL uniform. I was pulled along at one point – still not quite sure why. A member of the group was asked to take her glasses off – they were those dark ones that turn into dark glasses and they had ‘gone dark’ and another was pointed at as we shuffled past as he had his hands in his pockets. The whole area was an open expanse and traffic free and you could tell that there has been a soviet influence in the design as there is plenty of opportunity for parades in front of the Mausoleum. What makes me so angry about it all with the pomp & ceremony is that it’s clearly been stated on a number of occasions that actually Uncle Ho was not in favour at all – his dying wish was that his ashes be scattered in a number of locations the length of the country. We also saw the stilt house where he actually lived in the gardens, he chose this over the Presidential Palace whenever he was in the city. It’s been preserved just as he left it and sits on a pond FULL of koi carp. The actual Presidential Palace is still used today and so visitors are unable to go inside of it but it’s a bright sort of orangey yellow colour and immediately reminded me of the building up on the hill as you drive out of the centre of Bristol on the M32. Apparently all of the presidential palaces are this colour throughout the country.
Medieval Times – we had a hilarious evening here supporting the Yellow Knight for the evening in a medieval tournament set inside the walls of the King’s 11th century style castle – sadly we were not able to choose the colour we wanted to support – as clearly this would NOT have been mine! On top of the regular cost of the entertainment and meal we upgraded, I managed to cleverly do a bit of research and found a free upgrade to bing a VIP Royal for the evening. Was it worth the extra buck – Id say definitly. We had preferred seating – in the second row with further supporting materials other than the paper crown that we all wore for the duration of the evening.
As with everything in America they try and sell you so much other stuff as well before and after going in as well as during. Anything Mediaeval Times could pretty much put some branding on was available. Its ok I didn’t succumb to this HARD sell, just went rebound trying on loads of the hats with the kids and taking photos and selfies! (OK perhaps not strictly true as I did buy the group photo of us all taken at the start of the evening as it is actually really lovely).
The evening involves watching jousting and combat battle between 6 differently coloured knights on valiant horses, all of whose supporters were seated in the same section of the arena to help build the noice and support of their warrior in the battle we were about to see. There was a bit of a story about them all wanting the hand of the Princess, the daughter of the King. The horses were pretty amazing, similar in style to those from the SPanish Riding School I once remember visiting in Vienna when I went to see Tom, golly, probably about 13 or 14 years ago now! So clever and yet also pretty dainty and such skill of the riders/trainers.
I wont lie, I enjoyed being referred to as M’Lady when offered food or drink or anything and when I thanked the serfs and wenches that were looking after us for the evening. It was all part of the environment of the evening – as was eating entirely with your hands. All pretty easy food to eat with hands and actually pretty tasty considering how often this meal is rolled out to the tourists and residents alike night after night, day after day. First up was a warm Tomato Bisque Soup served with Garlic bread in a metal bowl with a handle on the side followed by Oven roasted chicken (half of one – ??!!) herb-based potato and corn on the cob with a delicious Lemon cake for pudding (pastry of the castle). There was a full-service bar at which I might have had a pint or two – help lubricate the vocal chords for shouting for my Knight in yellow!
It was all in all confirmed to be a huge success by all ages. The kids really enjoyed it and were all able to eat the food – granted not all of it but then it was a meal for for a King (boom, boom!) Did the Yellow Knight win – sadly not – it was of course the blue Knight, which would of course have been the chosen colour had it have been up to me. Did it matter that ‘ours’ did it win? Not in the slightest, a wonderfully amusing evening and something so totally different to Disney which we will be inundated with bin just a few days.
Boggy Creek Air Boat Ride – The Everglades are best explored on an air boat. Of course there are a mass of different places that this can be done. The first place that I tried looking was sadly booked out already for the day that we wanted as I had checked online for reservations and so we went ahead and tried a place called Boggy Creek out – what a name 🙂 It also had 10% discount on the cost with the presentation of the guide book that I have (Brit Guide) at the desk – originally left in the car but quickly retrieved. Book had already paid for itself!
OH MY DAYS IT WAS HOT! There were a few things to look at in the smallish park but I opted for a walk around a couple of times pausing infront and then perching in the shade as I was ‘glowing’ like mad!
By the time that we were out there it was 1115 and the sun was making it really quite toasty and unsurprisingly the hotter it is, the more likely we were not to see any as they would retreat deeper under the water to the cooler water to loiter and keep cool. We did however see two aligators, one biggie and one that was about 3ft and so 3 years old. We were very lucky. There was apparently an American Bald Headed Eagle which most people managed to see after several careful instructions from Captain Chris, but Im blown if I could see the darned thing. I took a photo of the general direction in which he was pointing and the descriptions were aimed at in the vain hope that I might be able to see it more easily on a print out!!
The scenery was simply beautiful and we went straight through some pretty high reeds and so on which was at times a little unnerving as I sat thinking, how the hell does he know he’s not going to get caught up in this? The trees were mesmerising, cypress trees, very eerie looking and spikes roots which is where they get their carbon dioxide from & hanging down from them was a lot of the SPanish Moss which apparently Henry Ford first thought of using this (and did) to stuff the car seats in his first cars, before realising quite how many bugs and creepies lived in it and so had to recall and think again!
After this we decided that an ice-cream was an order of the day and in fact probably some lunch as well and we headed to MacDonalds. I made careful choices, owing to Fat CLub, would hav loved MASSIVE chips and Quarter Pounder with cheese with a HUGE drink. But i spent a while taking in all of the calories as they have them next to all the foods here (though, by the looks of the clientele in this particular branch – none of them took any notice. It even had in it a rather large chap, to put it mildly, with his own oxygen tank by the side of him and the pipes to his nose). Felt proud of myself – I could also see that I really would not be doing that much more walking today and so wasnt going to hit my 10k step target – way way too hot for that already and we still had one stop left on the visit before heading home. The food in the bellies and the sweet icecreams (for them NOT me – god Im feeling so good) led the kids to all fall asleep in the car on the way to out final port of call. Light snoring heard from Keira and Emily dribbling away – bless them! The peace for the 20 mins was very welcomed!
Wild Florida – Arrived here just after what must have been a down pour as the cars in the carpark were all pretty wet but not the ground. The boat rides, that were all fully booked, were on hold as there was a lot of rumbling thunder around and so the potential of a storm coming, thankfully it never arrived (while we were in the park anyway), maybe that was why we were all literally dripping with sweat. The heat didnt feel too intense, it was the humidity that was killing us all.
2017 was welcomed in as a group with dinner on the River Front in Touk to see the masses congragating outside as well as the fireworks which seemed to begin off all over the place including from boats on the River.
I seemed to set a tradition for myself by finding myself on water for the second New Years Day running as we took tuk tuks down to a river boat as some of us took the optional extra of taking in the views of the city skyline from the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River over to Koh Dach which is known by foreigners as ‘Silk Island’. The life is far more rural and rustic compared to the hustle & hustle of the busy city and moped & tuk tuk laden streets.
As you can imagine from the name a lot of silk weavers inhabit this island and we were here to visit them, do some shopping and find out more about their fascinating trade. We heard all about how the silk is made and the cycle of the bug to cocoon to moth to egg to bug etc and saw how by creating the cocoons is where the silk comes from and what they have to do to get the various forms of silk – as in raw, fine, coloured and so on. It was amazing to watch the ladies at work all hand made silk and cotton that would take a couple of days work to create such beautiful end results.
It was baking hot it must be said but that deterred none of us from shopping for a bit of silk. We were told why there was cheaper & more expensive piles – one was factory made and some were handmade there. We all flocked to that table to ensure that the money that we were paying was supporting the family and local economy rather than the factory made goods. It’s an amazing craft and I could have spent hundreds of dollars on gifts for all they were all so beautiful.
From here on the island we walked on a little bit further to see the Pagoda and temple. I don’t know but it kind of gave me the feeling of being in a neglected theme park with statues all over the place looking weathered and a big reclining Buddha. We saw a monk wander past evey now and then as Art was telling us more about the religion of Buddhism and how most Cambodians have volunteered as monks at some point in their lives. Be it a day, or two. A week, or two or indeed a month or two. There is no time limit as to how long you need to be one for. He was also telling us about how he went to a school taught by the monks as a child and how his parents are illiterate which fascinated all of us.
We were all melting at this stage, the sun was at it’s peak and we were all feeling it quite strongly. The beads of sweat were even starting to appear on my eyelids which is the strangest sensation ever!! We headed back to the boat and the journey back to the mainland for mid afternoon. Did spot this guy taking meter readings which did make us all giggle!
We headed back to the hotel on tuk tuks again from the boat, many more people were on the road this time being later on on New Years Day. Once at the hotel we visited the facilities, put our scarf haul in our rooms and headed the around the corner to the Friends Cafe for lunch. Much needed and such a lovely place similar to many of the giving back style cafes that I had read about in the guidebook.
Some of us headed to the central market to pretty much take in the tat! It reminded me of the market that we went to in Beijing after the Great Wall. I managed to pick up a few bits including a hat which was going to be an absolute life saver over the following few days as well as a small rucksack as I’d not got one with me – couldn’t find it anywhere before I left. Also picked up a T-shirt, some magnets & a couple of beautiful bowls made out of dried coconut that had I seen at the S-21 museum but that I simply couldn’t buy from there as I didn’t want to remember as the place where I brought it from.
I’m not really quite sure where to start with our afternoon of culture in Phnom Phen. I had done VERY little reading on the Khmer Rouge era and Pol Pot’s regime and as a result I think I was even more shocked with all of the information that I absorbed. First off, in the heat of the day after our lunch, was The Killing Fields (Choeung Ek) where I had tried fish amok as suggested to try by H and actually enjoyed it, using quite a meaty fish makes it not quite so fishy tasting which I think might have stopped me from perhaps trying it again.
First we paid our respects at the (Buddhist) Memorial Stupa, erected in 1988, to honour the victims of the atrocities that took place here. This particular location is only one of over 300 locations currently been identified across Cambodia and it is believed that at this location ALONE 17,000 men, women & children were killed. I think I had read about the tower of skulls prior to my visit but had not really taken it in. It was breathtaking, as in a shocking way. It wasn’t just a tower of skulls, it told you on the glass as they were separated into sections by sex, age and what was presumed to have happened to them from the excavations. I spent a while taking in all that these victims were put through by reading the labels on all four sides. 8,000 skulls lie here in sections. Each individual was savagely tortured before being brutally murdered in some of the most barbaric circumstances and this was something that was happening around the time my parents were getting married and up to the first year of my life. Bullets weren’t used as they were considered to be wasted if used to murder in this way. This happened IN my lifetime.
People were rounded up, mainly from what was the prison at the time called S-21 a former primary school that we were going to visit later the same day. Mainly in the dead of night after being blindfolded and brought out here on trucks. Loud music was played from a speaker placed high up in a tree so that the noises from the victims were not heard from neighbours at the time. There seemed to be no specific criteria for those destined for a gruesome ending, if you had a job, were an intellectual and even young, tiny children were taken. All to be ‘re-educated’ they were told after interrogation to learn more – nope taken to be slaughtered. The thing I think that got me the most about this site is that it is still only part excavated. There are still remnants of bones or teeth and sometimes even clothes that have been brought to the surface of the ground through rain and so on. Only in the past few years apparently has the wooden walkway been built as visitors had commented that it was like walking all over their graves to be walking direct on the ground.
There were several mass graves here (only 43 of the 129 communal graves have been uncovered) and areas which had significance such as the tree where the loud speaker hung that played the music whilst the killing took place. The other one that was really really quite hard to take in was the tree against which the youngest children were battered. Sorry to paint such a bleak picture but LITERALLY whacked against after being held by their feet so that their skulls were crushed. Then casually tossed into the mass grave next to it. Bodies would be gayly tossed into the air and caught on spears – as if for fun. It was worryingly easy to envisage and therefore simple horrendous to think of. What totally got me was the information on the age of these Khmer soldiers. I’d imagined them to be twenties upwards ish but 20s being the youngest. Not a bit of it – those that did this to these innocent people were anything from 12-17. That’s ONE YEAR older than primary school. On what level did they believe that they were doing the right thing??!!!! They had to have been brainwashed. I kind of lost focus on the info from the guide trying to absorb all the information and more to the point process it. I have some fairly harsh reading to do on my return to fill in the gaps.
It felt awful taking photos of the resting places but it’s important to share the information I feel. Our local guide, Sam, has a few grandparents, Aunts, Uncles and cousins still unaccounted for from the genocide. No remains have been found so they have no inparticular place at which to remember them which, to me, must be one of the hardest things to come to terms with, but the larger memorials to all victims offer him & his family some small amount of solace. Just hearing our guide’s information from the horses mouth as it were, from someone so closely linked to the atrocities kind of made it all hit home a lot harder. Watching him take a moment at each individual board and spot on the site having told us the gruelling information was heartbreaking.
Our final but if culture for the day and indeed year was S-21 the Security Prison which was once Tuol Svay Prey High School. It soon became the largest detention and torture centre in the country holding over 17,000 people between 1975-1978 the majority of whom then all were taken on to the Killing Fields as I mentioned before. Similar to the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept a record of every single victim that passed through, some even before AND after their torture. One of the blocks today, B I think it was held rooms and rooms of the individual cells taken out on the bottom floor and boards with faces upon faces of the headshots of the victims of the regime like some sort of glorification or proof of their barbarism. It was sick. Utterly sick. All of them dead behind the eyes, the womens dark hair all chopped off to a bob cut about earlobe level. It was just too horrific to think that of all these faces I was looking at virtually all, bar a handful, were later killed. Even foreigners in Cambodia at the time were inflicted under this regime with some photos of Australians, Kiwis and some from USA in amongst the head shots.
In the latter stages of the Regime the insanity stepped up a level as the torturers were taken over by others who in turn them tortured them. Come 1977 the prison was claiming an average of around 100 victims a day through starvation and torture. But one of the most shocking this is for me which I really hadn’t taken on board is that a huge percentage of these barbaric beings (the Khmer soldiers) now live as ordinary people in Cambodia with few, to no one, aware of their involvement of the regime. Some are being brought to justice and the trials are on going for some, sadly too some of the bastards have since died of natural causes. I find this so grossly unfair in comparison to the number of murders they will have each completed yet they state that they had no idea what was going on.
I, for one, couldn’t do much more of the gruesome images, the constant reminders of the past with the descriptions of the types of torture that was undertaken and the ‘rules’ at the prison. Thankfully we were coming to the end of the tour with our guide and offered free time for a further 20 mins or more to take in the remainder of the site. This was just before meeting two of the prison survivors for that time. I did the tourist thing I’m afraid and had my photo taken with & paid for both of their books of their ecprriejce, memories and indeed life since. I’ve already read a few pages of the first gentleman’s (Bou Meng) who managed to survive as he was a painter and painted portraits of Pol Pot as his means of escaping being re-educated. What the hell do you do when meeting these people? I greeted him with the typical gesture of palms together fingers pointing up and quite high on my chest as a mark of respect. I apologised for what he suffered through, bloody stupid thing to say in reality but my heart was in my throat. I had tears welling up in my eyes as we hugged, squeezy BIG hug and he kissed me on the cheek & said thank you, thank you. A mere flash in the pan but it just seemed to kick me into touch. There was a second survivor Chum Mey (there were 7 originally) with his book there and I too purchased that. I have some fairly hideous films to watch on my return.
UPDATE: interview with Chum Mey 20th Feb 2017
Further beyond the two survivor was another playground area if the former school where you could just envisage the children kicking a ball around. Only in the last year or so has a memorial been built here with plaques with all of the prisoners names on, the photographs and information of whom is in existence from that time. I just stood quietly and strolled round the area. I popped into one of the buildings to see the size of the individual cells but didn’t brave it to the other higher floors where the rooms of victims were larger and more in them. The bodies of the 14 that were in the torture cells at the time of the Vietnamise invasion in 1979 lie in white coffins in the first courtyard are just outside the cells in which they were found. Quite a depressing visit to end the year on but none the less eye opening and fascinating. Looking at the population of Cambodia today there is a very small percentage of elderly and you only really see those younger than me as anyone older was simply wiped out.
Why did the Khmer soldiers slay so many? What was their motive?
What would they gain from doing this?
Why was Pol Pot himself not put on trial/murdered himself?
Our first stop of the day was to the Royal Palace which is where the current King is usually in residence. The flag was up as it is when the Queen is in residence back in the UK but I think I’ve heard on 3 different occasions that the King left for his seaside residence for new year on the train yesterday. Here we needed to be appropriately dressed, no short shorts and no shoulders showing – no need for long sleeves as I’d packed for as t-shirts will do thankfully. I’d kind of imagined the necessity of covering all skin as much as possible not just the bare minimum. I guess that as it’s so hot in the height of their summer visitors would be wearing very little as even though it’s their winter it’s still a tad sticky.
Sadly, despite being pretty warm the sky was overcast so the photos don’t perhaps look as spectacular as they could. It’s an impressive complex within the gated walls and thankfully the large majority of it has survived the Khmer Regime of the late 70s. During that period the King was kept under house arrest, not allowed out for any visits to his people as he is known for.
The Silver Pagoda was another beauty, again photos of the interior were banned sadly. Not silver in appearance from the outside however, so named because of the remarkable floor which is laid in silver tiles each weighing 1kg in weight and there are 5000 of them! Covered in carpet in the main and visitors are asked to remove their shoes upon entrance there are parts of the carpet peeled back for you so see the beautiful floor. The building was rebuilt in 1962 as the first building here was from wood in 1892. The contents are simply stunning despite being massively depleted in number since the regime when a large percentage of the contents were stolen or destroyed. The main highlight is the Emerald Green Buddha thought to be made of Baccarat crystal which sits a top a guided pedestal. Also, which was rather impressive, was the life sized gold Buddha which is decorated with 2086 diamonds, the largest of which is in the crown and is a whopping 25 carats. It was created in the palace workshops here and weighs approximately 90kg. The steps leading to this treasure-trove is made of Italian Marble, and although still early in the day a nice cooling sensation on the feet!
Being the official residence of King Sihamoni there are only a few buildings actually open to the public. The Throne Hall being the main one is tipped by a 59 Meter high tower which was inspired by the Bayon at Angkor an tod was inaugurated by the king in 1919. It’s used for coronations and ceremonies such as the presentation of credentials to diplomats. Whilst the building was kept in tact as I mentioned by the Khmer Rouge the contents of some of the buildings that were on display were destroyed. You weren’t allowed to take photos of the room itself. It was long and had a splendid full length carpet in the same style of the mosiac on the floor surrounding the room. The throne as you can imagine was incredibly ornate and golden and the ceilings were adorned with paintings of a Cambodian story similar to an English one (at this moment I can’t remember what it was). To the right of the Throne Room was a separate house that is still used for meetings today that was also where the King would once alight the elephants – his chosen mode of transport for centuries for when he went out to the countryside to visit his people, however clearly modern modes of transport are more viable in this day and age!
The Silver Pagoda complex itself is surrounded by a mural depicting the classic Indian epic of Reamker (as it’s known in Cambodia). Created in around 1900 there are many parts of it that were destroyed or defaced during the Khmer Rouge regime. There are also several stupas within the complex which are shrines, ashes of the deceased are kept inside them one housing the previous King in a stupa dedicated to his 4 year old daughter.
Just before the exit was the Elephant Room which had a whole load of the seats that the various kings and dignitaries would have sat in over the years on top of the elephants. Some were more ornate than others as you would expect. Quite strange in a city so full of mopeds to think that elephants were once the choice of transport for the royalty.
From here we headed to the National Museum of Cambodia which we could have actually walked to from the hotel if needed as it was just round the corner, I’d stumbled across it the previous evening on a stroll having had a tactical nap and shower after the flight over. It’s a terracotta coloured building built in the early 20th century with a beautiful courtyard garden. The sculptures from across the centuries are in chronological order and we had our own guide that showed us round with our own commentary. It seemed that the majority of the pieces had come from Angkor Wat and surrounding temples which kind of made you wonder of the was actually anything of any significance left at the sites! Many Buddha, Vishnu, Shiva, Laksmi statues, enough to make you feel some what lackadaisical about them come the end of the tour. I’m sure that they will feel more beautiful and relevant when we see any at the temples themselves later on in the week. The religion in Cambodia is a real mid of Hindu and Buddhism as far as I can work out, quite confusing initially to be seeing Vishnu statues in a country I thought was Buddhist bit according to our guide they celebrate all gods. Buddha is seen usually in 4 different forms, teaching, meditating, and I can’t remember the other two (will fill in later!) and we saw enough of each in the museum to sink a ship!! It was getting ridiculously hot by this stage but we still had one more thing to visit before our lunch stop Wat Phnom which we got back on the bus to head out to.
Wat Phnom is the only ‘hill’ in the city standing at 27m high on top of which is a Buddhist temple and multiple shrines at which there were many of the locals laying gifts to Buddha and to other gods as it is new year this evening. Lions and naga (a mythical serpent) adorn the eastern staircase which was how we accessed the temple. Many of the locals come here to wish for good luck and if it comes true then return to bestow gifts to the gods such as lotus flowers, fruit, suckling pig (this might have been an exception to the rule tho!) they also set free birds to take away their bad luck (they often return to the cages as they are trained to so the guide book tells me). It was ridiculously busy and there were numerous beggars and so on trying to sell us things with signs in English about how they are trying to make a living. On the one hand one wanted to buy abut the cautious soul in me avoided like the plague, mindful of tourist scams and the fact that is then be surrounded by others trying to sell me similar things.
Lunch was on route to our afternoon cultural activity that I was mentally preparing myself for. I tried the fish amok as recommended by H to try as it was delicious. Made with quite a meaty white fish it’s a very flagrant mild current with a lot of lemongrass. I rather liked it – for a fish dish!