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.
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!