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Kalaw and the Green Hill Valley Elephant Care Centre

On arrival in Kalaw we headed straight to the Shwe Oo Min Paya caves which has around 9,000 Buddha images in there from a number of different patrons all hidden in every nook and cranny of the caves. It was like we’d kind of come across an unknown shrine with the amount of them in there it was frankly most bizarre!! We only made it into the main cave & didn’t head up to the upper cave which apparently has a blank space for even more Buddhas to be put in the fullness of time. Outside of the caves were a number of bright golden pagodas and more Buddha icons in niches across a man made wall. There was the usual bell to announce of your three good deeds which, of course, I got a Kodak moment of! I do find some of the Buddha images to be somewhat kitch (I think that would be the best word to use) with flashing neon lights surrounding several of the images and gaudy looking cloths that had been draped over some of them as well. I am sure that this is because I don’t quite get the reasoning behind (for the lights mainly) the cloths I can see, are all from anyone and everyone and so could be all that the locals could afford at the time? The Buddha images were again in a number of their different traditional poses which gives more meaning to each of them and the majority of them were seated with only a couple were standing or in a lying down position.

If you have one experience in Myanmar – please, please let it be this – Green Hill Valley Elephant Care Centre. I went ‘off piste’ from the group having Googled prior to my adventure when back in the UK, then reviewing where it was again when I was staying on Inle Lake, I suddenly realised it was actually not far from where we were in Kalaw. Kalaw was where we had half a day of trekking planned and not many sites or pagodas to see and so I investigated and also asked our guide to help me book a trip out to visit the elephants. Frankly the remote idea of walking, let alone trekking, in what was 36-38 degree heat when already sweating like a beast really didn’t appeal – been there and done that in China thank you and yes, thinking about it I suppose I have actually got the t-shirt too! I was as high as an absolute kite the night before once it was all booked and I realised that dream was going to turn into reality. (With a somewhat dodgy tummy though so was hitting the Imodium like they were mint sweets) I was so excited I could hardly sleep. Only time I ever remember being anywhere near as excited was in the count down to picking up Honey to take her home (for the record I was EVEN MORE excited then).

I was collected from the hotel we were in (Dream Villa) and there were two other couples already in the mini bus but neither spoke to me when I got in – bode well (thankfully they turned out to be lovely couples – clearly not morning people though!)! The Green Hill Valley Elephant Care Park was a good 45 min drive into the mountains down some hellish roads for Dad and Caroline. Hair pins, chicanes narrow, sheer drops & steep! Apparently Top Gear have done a special in Myanmar and it really wouldn’t surprise me if this was the road that they did it on!! There was lots of work being completed on the road which was actually built initially years ago apparently but they are widening it at present. The drivers are fairly patient in general, letting each other past and so on, but you couldn’t really go that fast on here owing to the numerous blind corners & bends and I hate to think what it would be like driving it at night with no road markings or indeed any lighting. Several trucks were stopped at the side of the road along the route being sprayed with water which I can only assume was to cool the engines and breaks which would be having heavy usage on this road! The views were stunning though but I was very thankful I no longer suffer from travel sickness like I did as a youngster.

On arrival at the park we were greeted by the friendly staff with a damp cloth and a very refreshing lime juice, shown where the mozzie spray was and put into groups – there were others that had arrived at the same time but my group was the five of us from the bus in. Managed to leave my Chilly’s water bottle on the bus which was most infuriating but we were given one each in the introduction, helping to reduce non-essential plastic and in line with their ethos and mission of giving back to the country. We were given an introduction to the park and a run down of the day ahead and left our stuff in the lockers at the main reception. I had made a good decision in relying on my iPhone only for photos I think.

The park was set up in 2011 by a family of three, the father being the vet and the other two to help run the business. They had 2 elephants and 6 staff and both numbers have grown in size and they now employ 48 staff and have 6 elephants. All of them are disabled or orphaned mainly left over from the working in the teak industry where they would more often than not be carrying the timber around in their trunks which can weigh anything up to one and a half tonnes. Some have been purchased from private owners when they have no further requirement for them and they offer to buy them instead of the owners killing them for the black market in medicine (apparently there’s some cure for a particular type of cancer in the elephant but I can’t remember which part but of course it is not proven), for their skin or the meat on their trunks. One is an orphan which they acquired at the age of 3 after his mother was killed by poachers and he was unable to survive in the wild on his own as they rely on the milk from their mothers until they are 3 or 4. The population of Asian elephants in the world is around 35,000 and, owing to poaching, one a week is lost to poachers in Myanmar alone, as a result, they are now classed as an endangered species. Not all Asian elephants have tusks though, it’s typically only the males and they can have short or long tusks and sometimes even only one, it entirely depends on their DNA, like we humans can have different coloured eyes for example.

Our specific guide for the day was called Keong Keong and he was to be my camera man for the day creating videos and capturing the special moments (so a HUGE thanks to him for his sterling work). We walked down from the main reception to the area where the elephants are fed and there were 4 of the magnificent beasts. Two were TOTALLY ready for food, putting their feet up on a ledge and moving around a lot in anticipation and excitement of food! They can eat anything up to 160kg of food a day and ready chopped were palm cane, pumpkin and wheat balls ready for us to feed them with. They can eat a whole host of fruit and vegetables, this was just what happened to be in the menu on that day. We were shown exactly how to feed them either by putting the food on their trunk which they would clasp and then bring up to their mouths but if you hold the food above your head they would raise their trunks high and you can put it straight into their mouths. A daunting thought at first but, I grabbed the bull by the horns and did both straight away with a selection of pumpkin. I got braver as the day went on and on a number of occasions inadvertently managed to get most of my hand sucked into the elephants mouths. They have MASSIVE strong, thick tongues which don’t really come right out as such and their teeth are, as you would imagine, humongous too. They have rows of teeth set in ridges as they don’t chew their food more grind it to then be able to swallow it. I enjoyed immensely the close contact with the animals. I loved talking to them and in a small way bonding with them. I adored the ones with more character the most I think as I kind of wound them up a little and talked back to their cheekiness and as a result had one that pushes me away to go and get more food. (Video somewhere later in the post of this) Wow, just WOW – unless I visit a similar park then I will never experience something like this again. I had SUCH a big grin on my face all day. I adored every second of my day. I wasn’t the only one though, some of the others could be seen as well just taking a step back to take a moment every so often to just take in what we were doing and the beautiful surroundings.

The characteristics of each of the different elephants was interesting to see, one would throw to one side the palm cane when you took that to her telling you that she’s far prefer the pumpkin thanks! She, we discovered, had a gunshot wound that was constantly weeping and clearly must have done some damage to the bone on her left shoulder. The one that we ended up in washing was stood next to this one. A female that had a hernia that was very clear to see on her tummie on her left hand side. We were told that it had been operated on but evidently was still causing her some grief. She couldn’t be walked out into the forest later in the day for exercise for fear of aggravating it and so for exercise she was just walked around the camp.

The Medical record of the elephant we washed

Info on the history of her hernia

We met the vet for the centre and heard all sorts of fascinating facts. Most of the medicines were for cattle mainly, not prescribed for elephants (understandable really!!). It took a while to tune into his accent to understand a few of the things that he was saying. It was fascinating to see things like the nail file and clippers that they use on the elephants. The size of the needles – made my stomach totally turn knowing my dread of the hideous things. It was here that we were shown the medical record for each of the elephants that they have to keep an ongoing record of their health and well being. Now I’ve always referred to large pills that I have ever needed to swallow over the years as horse pills. This I need to change to elephant pills! I put my little finger on them to try and give you an idea of the actual size of them!! HUGE!!

Each of the elephants had a mahout that cares for them all day every day and they lived on site with their family in housing provided by the business with lighting and electricity which they would not have been able to afford if they were still living in the village that they came from. Each of them clearly have an amazingly special bond with their elephant who, despite poor eyesight as a species, would recognise them more for their sound and smell. A primary school has since been set up and run in the grounds of the centre for all of the workers children and there are currently 48 children enrolled. They are properly looking after the community and bringing employment and now education to many from the local area. It was lovely to be able to give back to this as the centre has absolutely no funding from any wildlife organisations, conservation programmes or indeed the local government. They rely solely on the donations of the visitors who come and visit the centre. Responsible tourism, knowing that every penny is being put back in to running the centre with the elephants being the priority.

When it came to our time to wash the elephant, none of us could really contain ourselves. We were given THE most unflattering trouser/short things which you sort of had to tie after tucking them each side and then fold the top over. I was wearing my tankini already under my clothes & was sweating like a beaut. From here we walked down to the river where we could already see the elephant walking down with her mahout. I want to make some suggestions for their website as to what to expect when you get there and clarification over the sort of things to wear so that those tourists interested have a clearer idea of what to wear etc.

Walking down to wash –

Washing the elephants –

Once we were down there the elephant was already in the water kind of kneeling down so that we would be able to reach the top of her head and onto her back without needing to climb on her ourselves. We were given some sort of bark/twigs type things which was to act as a loofah to try and get the dirt off her – we all joked that after a while it really looked like a handful of pulled pork! The elephant did a massive poo just as we were stating to wash her and in my very mature fashion I shouted ‘floater’!!

It was amazing and simply surreal to be in such close proximity to and be so up close and personal with the animal. We were told to clean behind her ears and I know in one of the videos I’m still talking to her like Honey – ‘itchies’ as I could tell that she was loving having them cleaned! You scrub the skin and then douse it in water – I was even brave enough to do her face and around her eyes, being extra cautious and gentle, all the while chatting away to her. At one point her trunk (where they feel most of their senses through) cake up right by me clearly checking out this babbling Brit giving her a scrub & I kind of held it for a little while. I guess we must have been in there (all of the group with the same elephant) about 20-30 mins giving her a good scrub. She only had to readjust her position once – elephant equivalent of a numb bum I guess! WHAT an experience. WHAT a memory.

We headed over to see one of the elephants after some more feeding (grab every opportunity when offered!) so that we could see how the vet gets to check the elephants feet and the mahout got the elephant to turn around and put his back foot up on one of the frames so that we could touch it’s nail and feel just how thick and big the bottom of their foot is. They used to have a cage made out of bamboo to check things like this out but understandably this severely distressed many of the elephants and so that is no longer used. Walking away from here we saw the clear bond between mahout and elephant as the mahout said something and the next thing you see the elephants trunk going to the mahout’s hand so it looked like they were walking hand in hand. It was divine.

Lunch was included so we headed back up to the main reception area where the dining area was passing the conservation/ nursery area where, in the right season, visitors are encouraged to plant a tree in the park as well to help with the conservation. I was quite gutted that this was not something that we were able to do owing to being out of season.

After lunch we went over to the area where they use some of the elephant poo to make paper. Passing through an area where they were planting young coffee plants which were also being fertilised by the elephant dung. The process for making the paper was similar to how we had seen on landing in He Ho but there was an extra process of needing to boil down the poo with water first so as to kill any bacteria or any other living things within the poo which would also help to take the initial poo smell away. You are left with a very fibrous sort of paste out of which the paper is then made. Here we also saw the skeleton of an old elephant that they had lost a while ago, interestingly Asian elephants have nothing similar to a collar bone in them?! There was also the skeleton of a young elephant that was found dead by its mother which the park have also for research purposes it would have been about three months old when it died.

We visited the small little shop where I purchased one of the wooden bells like the elephants wear around their necks, I asked which one was similar to the elephant that we washed as it looked like they had their names on inn Burmese & is noticed that they were all slightly different in shape. After seeing this sign outside the little hut, I’d made us all want to ensure that we got something & amusingly we all ended up going home with the totally unflattering shorts things that we wore to wash the elephants in!!

I came away from the whole experience brimming with information and very aware that I’d actually remember very little the moment I got home! I wanted so much to think of ways to try and help support them. I have mentioned that I want to help with the copy on their current website and give them suggestions of other ideas to look into – such as taking donations via PayPal, perhaps giving people the option to sponsor the elephants, increase the amount of images on their Instagram page and so on, all things that I will liaise with them about upon my return. I’m keen to help and support now that I have such wonderful memories engrained in my mind for many years to come from my superb day here.

Restaurants we ate at in Kalaw: Red brick Restaurant, Nepali – Everest, 7 Sisters

Yangon (formerly Rangoon)

Despite the city being the largest in the country it is not actually the capital city. It was seen however, as the capital of British Burma after the Second Anglo Burmese War of 1852, being a port as well with connections to the Indian Ocean and the Ayeyarwady River (which goes deep into the heart of the country) the industrial hub for the country. After World War I the city also became a key location for the Independence movement in Burma (as it was then). The British were finally ousted during World War II and Japanese took occupation (when we sadly, in hindsight, did a lot of bombing across the country) until the allies retook occupation in 1945. During this period the city was known by the British as Rangoon but was returned to being called Yangon in 1989 under the military rule of the country.

Example of colonial buildings in Yangon

More colonial buildings in a fairly rundown state

There is a distinct lack of mopeds bombing around the city by which I was quite surprised. Remembering how much an average car cost in Vietnam, I had assumed that the prices would be similar but I will need to find out from our guide. (An average car starts from around $25,000) The downtown area of the city that we visited was mainly the colonial area along Pansodan Street with some wonderful colonial architecture and an esteemed decadence of a former time. As expected many of the buildings are in a severe state of disrepair yet striking none the less. The multicultural mix of the population stems from India, and China and there are also many Muslims in the country, many of them run the numerous sprawling street shops and food stalls on the streets of the city.

Shwedagon Pagoda in all its glory

Our main highlight in Yangon and must not miss site was the fiercely impressive Shwedogan Pagoda. Known as THE greatest temple in Myanmar and one of the most majestic monuments dedicated to the Buddha, all Burmese endeavour to pilgrimage here at least once in their lifetime. Whilst it’s a temple the main stupa in the centre of the complex is actually more of a mound as one is unable to see inside. The centre of it is believed to have 8 strands of hair of the historical Buddha – Gautama – as well as a few other relics as well from his three predecessors (staff of Kakusandha, water bottle of Konagamana and a fragment of Kassapa‘s robe. All enshrined it’s not possible to view the relic itself, more the casing in which it is housed)

The original Shwedagon dates back to around 588BC according to local legend, which would make it possibly the oldest stupa in the world. It’s more likely to have been built between 6th to 10th centuries however. The height of the stupa was raised to 18m by the Mon king, Binnya U of Bago who ruled from 1348-84. Next, in the reign of Queen Shinsawbu from 1453-72, the height of the stupa was doubled to 40m, the old not destroyed but more built on top of again. It was at this time also that the terrace around the main stupa was laid out, the northern stairway to access the complex from street level was built and further land was acquired and slaves employed to look after the upkeep of the Pagoda and its growing complex. The Queen also started the tradition of gilding the main stupa by initially donating her own body weight in solid gold to do so.

During many of the conflicts in the country throughout the years, troops often looted from the Pagoda. In the 16th century the Portuguese carried off the 325 tonne Great Bell of King Dhammazedi with the intention of melting it down to make canons but that never happened as in transit it fell into the Bago river. The pagoda was also repeatedly rocked by earthquakes, the worst being in 1768 which caused the top of the stupa to collapse and the current stupa that you can see today was commissioned by King Hsinbyushin of the Konbaung dynasty in the late 18th century. The British seized it during the first Anglo Burmese War in 1824 and held it almost ransom so Buddhists could not visit it for two years when it was fortified and suffered a great amount of pillaging and of course vandalism. They also tried digging under the stupa to try and see if it could be used as a gunpowder magazine but did not succeed.

The pagoda became, during the 20th century, a key location for a lot of the political upheavals, using the location as a meeting point to plan protests and General Aung San addressed the masses from here in 1946 to demand independence from Britain. His daughter Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to a huge gathering in 1988 for the pro-democracy uprising. It was also the focal point of the 2007 Saffron Revoloution where as many as twenty thousand monks and nuns congregated and subsequently marched.

Lift to entrance level

The site has four entrances from street level, we entered through the Southern stairwell which has a lift (which literally only goes up two floors!). As for all pagodas and religious sites, no socks or shoes are allowed and legs and shoulders must be covered. Shawls are available to borrow if you come wearing a vest top though. There is a little man in the lift who seems to sit there all day just pushing the buttons to go up and down up and down from street level to the entrance to the pagoda.

Bodhi Tree

On our arrival into the complex we passed by the tree which derives from a cutting of the original tree Banyan (or Bodhi) tree that the Buddha found enlightenment under from all those centuries ago. The stupa complex is full of smaller shrines all of which have been added over the years. The main stupa itself was sadly covered in bamboo scaffold when we visited so the magnificence of it was a little dampened. None the less it was still a fairly impressive site as the gold shone through the bamboo pretty well. Standing at an impressive 99 metres high it was covered with the bamboo owing to it being in the process of being reguilded with literal tiles of gold. Buddhist followers see it as part of their religion to donate to Buddha and to pay for a new gold tile is a part of this and the cost sound $900 for roughly a 30cm x 30cm square. There was a title ceremony that was happening to one side where people were having their photos taken with their gold tiles before placing them in a sort of chariot which would then travel up the wires to part way up the main stupa itself where I guess they would be almost used immediately to replace the existing. Apparently the main stupa needs this work completed every 5 years or so as the gold becomes weathered and not so shiny.

We were explained by our guide about how Buddhist followers want to give clothing to the Buddha and often donate the robes to the monks however if every one did this to the Buddha statues then there would be piles and piles of clothes and so, instead, gold leaf squares can be purchased and these can be rubbed onto specific buddhas in the pagodas as their way of donating the clothing. We watched as Zar Zar put a piece on though so we could see what Buddhists actually do themselves. Buddhists also bang a large bell three times to tell people that they have done the good deeds, which we watched several people do. You don’t then have to say them or anything though, I guess you are meant to think of them in your head as you are doing do?

There were also several stations in the complex that are linked to the planets as, unlike the Chinese who take meaning from the year that you are born and it is linked to an animal, the Burmese take the days of the week and so the idea is that you visit the day on which you were born (Friday for me) and wash the Buddha at that ‘post’ and give donations of flowers and prayers. There is also an animal linked to each of the days – mine is a Guinea Pig. The rest of the days of the weeks animals are as follows (Wednesday is a little different though as it is split into morning or evening): Monday is a Tiger, Tuesday a Lion, Wednesday am is an Elephant WITH tusks, Wednesday pm is Elephant WITHOUT tusks, Thursday A Rat or mouse, Friday a Guinea Pig, Saturday a Dragon and Sunday is a Garuda Bird.

Hideous selfie of a sweaty me at Friday’s planetary post

The Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda is another show stopper of a sight to visit in Yangon and a fairly impressive site, tho hard to take in the size from the photos. It’s a humungous reclining Buddha lying almost 66 meters long. A fairly feminine face that’s 7.3 meters long, despite all depictions of Buddha being male with amazing 33cm long eyelashes, a nose of 2.7 meters and 50cm high eyes with blue eyeshadow. He has a little bindi, a diamond encrusted crown pink fingernails and golden robes that are decorated with glass mosaics and golden markings. The soles of the feet are red with lots of different markings on them. Surrounding the drama of the giant Buddha are lots of individual Buddha images all in the various positions that he is depicted in. The building of this Buddha first began in around 1959 but wasn’t in fact completed until 1974 and it replaced a previous giant seated Buddha that was on the same site which was demolished in 1957. The name of the pagoda means six storey pagoda which is in reference to the original Buddha on the site, the current one now in place is only around 3 or 4 storeys high.

Hard to capture the scale of the reclining Buddha in a photo

Our first meal out was our introduction to Burmese food where we were explained by our guide to the background of the style, there are a lot of curries which are heavily influenced by India to its left and there is also a Chinese influence with the country being located to the right of Myanmar. Essentially a lot of noodles and rice, morning glory, ladies fingers and everything else in between. The Myanmar beer, at 5%, was pretty much the order of the day and we all enjoyed the added ‘fun’ of the on bottle promotion where you had to peel back the plastic on the underneath of the bottle top to see if you had won a free beer or money. I was lucky on either my first or second (I can’t remember which) and won a free drink, a positive start to the holiday!!


Hotel stayed in – Panda Hotel

Restaurant ate in – Doreen

Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon

We made our way to Saigon by plane on an early flight after an early departure from our hotel in Hoi An flying from Danang. The weather was definitely warmer and incredibly humid in the capital city. You could tell it was far more cosmopolitan than the previous places that we had visited really and certainly not as quaint I felt. The room was wonderfully (and thankfully) air conditioned and a welcome relief from the sweat central heat of outside – with only such a short visit there was no chance my body was going to acclimatise in time!! It was quite a stark contrast to the previous temperatures that we had been in.

After about 10 mins in our rooms we were back downstairs for a walking tour and lunch out. I didn’t really feel the vibe of the city – it was quite hard to work out my bearings in general but with little more than 48 hours we did a pretty grand job of shoving everything in, well the major sights. There seemed to be even more bloomin mopeds on the streets and passing through the city from the airport was eye opening watching all of the mopeds at all of the traffic lights stops. Obviously being a much larger city there were bound to be more but it just felt as there were even more as the streets were wider than they were in say, Hanoi.

We headed out to wander the streets to see the sights and first off was to grab some lunch. The weather really was stifling and I was struggling a little, downing water like there was no tomorrow. Unsure of what to have to eat as I was always wary of ordering something that had the jolly old bell pepper lurking in it. I decided to go with another Cao Lau which I had chosen back in Hoi An and which was utterly delicious – Japanese style noodles seasoned with herbs, salad greens and bean sprouts, served with a slice or two of roast pork. I knew what it was & I couldn’t really go wrong with that choice. HOW WRONG COULD I BE??!!

Unfortunately my dish was a little dissimilar to the version that I had in Hoi An and most importantly atop of the dish was delicately placed a prawn in its shell still. This was not mentioned on the menu at all and Hung was excellent at explaining to the restaurant why I. Could not have the dish and how they simply couldnt just take it off the top and I eat the remainder of it. After much. Agitated discussion the dish was taken away and was being remade without the prawn on the top. I was incredibly suspicious of the second version and I was adamant that there was still prawn in it. Hung reassured me that the restaurant had promised that there was none in the replacement. I kind of had to take his word for it and so had a few mouthfuls before declaring that I really wasn’t that hungry after all and that it was probably because of the heat.

We walked past the People’s Committee Building which we, as tourists, were unable to enter. Its style was French colonial of course looking similar to a sort of Hotel de Ville as you would see in France. At one end of it is a huge statue of Uncle Ho and the other a ole Thor’s of construction where the proposed central city station will be for the new Metro station that is slowly being built/created in the city.

Other sites that we passed on our walk were the Opera House, which is near to the construction of the new metro system. We saw the Notre Dame Cathedral which was a rose brick colour and built between 1877 and 1883. Its based in an area of the city known as the city’s government quarter. Being so close after New Year and so close to Tet, we did find that most of the places that we were keen to see the inside of were not actually open, I think I would have liked the opportunity to explore the city a little more I have to say. The impressive towers of the cathedral, Hung told us were around 40m high and the top bits are iron spires. Its still an operating Catholic Church. The Central Post Office we did get an opportunity to look inside of and it was fascinating – a HUGE portrait of Uncle Ho (obviously) took the main position and line of sight as you entered the building.

I’m not sure that I could honestly say that it was the highlight of the day, more the most poignant part of the day was the visit to the War Remnants Museum which we had already been advised in our trip notes was to give us a very different version of the Vietnam (American) War than that depicted by the Americans. It was a gruelling visit. But a very. Necessary one to fully appreciate the more recent history of the country. It was already sweltering and I was feeling incredibly feint walking around all of the halls of the artefacts that were on display as well as the mass of photos of the atrocities in the other areas of the country during the 60s. The after effects of the chemical warfare and the clarification../realisation that actually millions died in this country for, as far as I could tell, very little reason what so ever. The descendants of those that were hit or came into contact with the napalm and other chemicals that the Americans exposed millions of Vietnamese to are still disfigured and disabled to some degree. Seeing some of the images of those that were effected first hand were disturbing to say the least but yet one wanted to soak it all in to truly understand the utter atrocities that took place in this beautiful country.

I couldn’t do all of the rooms, too emotional and was starting to feel not just too hot but really quite unwell. I came outside and perched with a bottle of water out of the sun and watched an American dressed in American clothes, many apologies to any American readers, sort of all saluting to and in praise of the army who spent a good 10-15 mins setting up a camera to take a photo of himself all thumbs up happy smiley posing next to the American built F-5E just that was used to bombs he Presidential Palace in 1975 and sits in the courtyard area of the museum. I felt sick. I mean I did anyway but I couldn’t honestly believe what I was seeing. It was certainly NOT the act of compassion or understanding of the atrocities and frankly murder or millions of innocent civilians in this country. I was INCREDIBLY close to going up to him and saying how inappropriate his actions were, but if Im honest I thought I might actually have thrown up all over him my stomachs was starting to churn something chronic.

We made it back to our rooms to freshen up etc before all heading out to supper – mainly tot he delicious sounding restaurant around the corner that Hung had suggested and booked for us all. Whilst ‘freshening up’ the idea of ANYTHING passing my lips at this stage bar itsy bitsy teeny weeny sips of water made me nauseous and I had spent quite a while not more than a step away from the bathroom. There was absoloulty NO WAY that there was no prawn in the second version of the lunchtime dish. This was typical of a shell fish reaction – GET OUT OF MY BODY by ANY means possible and via any entrance or exit point. Im present sure that I do not need to go into much detail. I binned the idea of going out for the meal and went through a FREEZING cold stage where i was literally shivering in my room, had ALL the clothes I had with me on pretty much in the bed, air-con off & I COULD NOT get warm. It was 33 degrees outside and yet I felt like I was in the arctic. I decided to have a bath, that might relax me if not warm me up. I sat in it as it filled up so that my body could get used to the heat, my body was BRIGHT pink front he heat of the water yet STILL I was shivering. Safe to say that I was NOT in a good way. I was really quite concerned and had decided that if it didn’t subside by the morning I really would have o go to hospital to get checked out as this was not actually funny. What with he head cold as well for the majority of the holiday I just felt like a massive bundle of feebleness.

I put out an emergency call for Imodium for the following morning as I was really looking forward to the day ahead but it was ALL on little boats out on the Mekong River and I honestly had no idea what to do if it continued into tomorrow as I couldn’t possibly make the trip out.

At some point I must have got to sleep, how Ive not idea and why, in hindsight, I didn’t just go and stand in the corridor outside my room which had no air on in it I have no idea! That surely would have warmed me up?!

Hanoi – Part 1

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 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.

Phnom Phen – Royalty & Buddhas

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.

Panoramic picture of the Throne Room area of the Royal Palace

Golden in colour the roofs are the typical Cambodian style with the corners adorned with snakes heads and the all seeing Budda with four faces looking in all directions in the main turret on top of the throne room. The French influence is also in some of the architecture but that was a little hard to see as it’s currently under renovation and so had a mesh around the building within the complex in that style.

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!

Just to the right hand side of the building is where the King used to alight the elephants from

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!

The Silver Pagoda building

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.

The most well preserved part of the mural

Close up of a section of the mural

Very damaged section of the mural which was done by the Khmer Rouge

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.

The elephant seats (ie for people to sit on atop of the elephant)

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!

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