A Travellerspoint blog

November 2011

Good Morning Vietnam! I'm a $6,000,000 man...

overcast 33 °C

Okay, so it's not really six million dollars, but we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City yesterday morning and hit up the first ATM we could find. When the exchange rate is a whopping 21,000 to 1, it doesn't get you much cash for 6,000,000 Vietnamese Dong. Nat has a friend from South Africa here on a work contract, so we grabbed a cab and headed to her house. She had mentioned something about hoping that the water level was low when we arrived so the taxi could actually drop us off at the front door. We weren't sure how to take that news, but after our flight from Cambodia showed us so much flooded devastation in the country side, we were a little weary of what we were in for. Luckily our timing was perfect and the cab had us at the front door just after noon with dry shoes and dry luggage. Last night we were treated to a roof top bbq at her house while we watched the sun go down and the water levels rise until the street was at least a foot deep, if not more.

This morning started slowly as the water level rose earlier than we did and it was easier to wait for it to subside then for us to swim. Nichola didn't have to work today and with her boyfriend, Bastiaan, in town, the four of us headed out to explore the city. We are staying in a suburb just outside the downtown area, that is heavily populated by French ex-pats, so the restaurants here are all top shelf and right up our alley. We headed into the city to a market that was a feast for all of the senses. First we walked through the meat market, then the fish market and then the vegetables. Everything was so fresh that a lot of the fish was still swimming. Next was the restaurant section that was simple stalls with a few stools each, it was chaos and it smelled amazing....except the couple of stalls selling the durian fruit. Durian fruit really should be outlawed, it smells worse than the dumpster behind the market (I checked). It is a prickly husked thing that looks like a spiny breadfruit with the worse smelling contents imaginable. Despite that smell, I tucked into a breakfast of clear noodle soup with pork belly and prawn...absolutely delicious. After, we wandered through the rest of the stalls of various stuff. It can't have been that good because I only remember a lot of t-shirts and tiny people grabbing at me to look at their wares.

Of course Vietnam has some sad history and we went to the War Remnants Museum after the market to take in a little bit of history. As a Canadian we don't study a lot in school about the Vietnam War, but the museum was a pretty grim reminder of how horrible human beings can be to each other. It is also interesting as I have read a little bit of the American version of the story and now to read a little of the Vietnamese side of the story how each government has their own version while millions of soldiers and civilians on both sides get caught in the middle.

The rain started to fall as the museum closed for lunch, so we explored some shops along the streets, It is very metropolitan with every shop you can imagine and probably ten more shops for each fancy one, knocking off the same stuff for a fraction of the price. Nichola and Bastiaan then took us to the top of the city for lunch. The menu was a wide variety of international cuisine and the 23rd floor rooftop view of the city made for a great backdrop to an amazing meal. To look across the city is great as you can really see how integrated the river is and how much green space they have here as well. We actually grabbed a water taxi back to our neighbourhood and relaxed a little in the late afternoon while the heat and humidity were peaking. We went back out for a little bit to grab dinner and fought the rising tides on our way home.

So far, Vietnam is great. Always good to be with friends and the food is great too. And, of course, it is good to be a $6,000,000 man!

Ps. If you send us anything on Facebook right now, we apologise for not responding. Our Ipad app lets us read what you write, but we can't reply through that and we can't log on to the regular site as it is blocked by the government here...something about not being so fond of social networking...

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Posted by colincampbell 08:36 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

Going Local

sunny 31 °C

In a couple hours we are off to the airport, headed for Ho Chi Minh City in Southern Vietnam and we both agree that Siem Reap has gone by too quickly. We haven't had enough time to see everything, eat everything and, I'm ashamed to say, we haven't even managed to figure out how to pronounce our guide's name. We have had a really wonderful time here.

Yesterday morning came very early as our guide assured us we had to see the sunrise over Ankor Wat. It was a spectacular view for half of us, I won't say which half, but someone definitely wasn't getting out of bed at 4am again no matter what she was going to see. I wandered around for a few hours before heading back to the hotel around seven to have some breakfast. At 9am we were back on the road with a different agenda today, it was time to take a break from temples and go and visit some rural living. Every time we drive through town he takes a different route and it is amazing what this small city has to offer, so far we have seen lots of restaurants, museums, parks, monuments and palatial homes for various members of government and royalty when they are in town.

We headed south out of town and the road went from wide and nicely paved to one lane, bumpy dirt track that wound down the river to the edge of the Tonle Sap Lake. I just googled it myself and it's pretty amazing because it changes size so much with monsoon season that the actual directional flow of the water current changes twice every year. We bought some tickets and got on our own ferry for our three hour cruise (not just a Gilligan's Island joke, it was a three hour cruise!) The landscape didn't change a whole lot (even though we were on the water) as the path the boat took was lined with trees and brush that grows up out of the water. Beyond the trees were plots of water that were being fished by locals much like farmers working a field, everyone seeming to respect that they had their area to set their nets. The trees got denser and we stopped seeing anyone fishing just before the forest opened up and we had arrived at a police station and the local high school. Before we knew it we were downtown in the floating village of Kampong Phluk, a bustling economy built completely of houseboats and buildings on stilts of concrete or bamboo. We cruised down main street while the locals went about their day; one guy was building a new canoe, a few ladies were paddling around boats full fresh vegetables selling them door to door, kids were either at school or swimming to avoid the heat, it was pretty unreal. Beyond the town we motored through a floating forest that was a little less impressive and then we were out of the river and right out in the massive Tonle Sap Lake. We watched some locals fishing in the deeper water before heading home, back through town and the shallows.

Back ashore, we grabbed some lunch and headed to catch a temple or two. We also visited a local orphanage that I think must be where Angelina Jolie picked up her kids as they seemed to think everyone that is white must want a couple little ones. Don't worry, we didn't come away with any souvenirs from that stop.

It was definitely time for a nap after the 4am wakeup call so we headed back to the hotel. When 8pm rolled around, Nat was feeling a little under the weather so she grabbed some room service. Our guide was back ready to show us the town, so I couldn't let him down. Nat was resting up for Vietnam, while I headed out on the town. I asked him if we were headed to all highlights I had heard of and he replied that he wanted to show me a Cambodian beer garden which also came with a live show. We went to the other side of down and ended up in a giant fancy shed with a stage full of singers and tables full of celebrating locals (and a very few tourists). I have read a few things warning tourists about ending up at the head of a table full of locals as the party can get out of hand and so does the bill, but after this week, I trusted our guide and he didn't let me down. It was long before we had a table full of tuk tuk drivers, some of the singers from on stage and a beer rep from the local beer. Plates of fish and chicken and even frog arrived with rice and sauces and more beer. Saturday night was jumping at the beer hall, dinner was great and was fun to meet so many people, language wasn't a barrier and we had a blast. I thought it was time to go and check on Nat so we rolled out just after a big rain shower. The big tab after our party night ended up being $34 which just doesn't add up as I think our table must have consumed a case of beer plus all of the food.

We might just have to come back here one day. Our guide has already assured us that he will meet anyone we send him at the airport with a sign with their name on it and he will give them the experience like we have had. In case you are wondering, the cost of having this tailored tour and surefooted tuk tuk driver is $15/day.

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Posted by colincampbell 00:31 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

Siem Reap - Day 2

sunny 31 °C

Early mornings aren't usually our thing, especially after years of both of us working in the bar business, so this week has been a workout and Friday was no exception. We were done breakfast and on the road by 8am as our guide had more big plans for our day. It started with a an hour and a half tuk-tuk ride to Phnom Kbal Spen, a thousand year old site that is built into a river bed as a temple to purify the water that flows in to the Siem Reap area. We hiked a couple kilometres into the hills and found the magical ruins, it doesn't look like much of a filtration system, but it is still pretty amazing what people can accomplish.

We opted for a late lunch and got back on the road, we were sharing good roads with pedal bikes, mopeds, cars and farm equipment as we drove through these very rural areas. It is pretty interesting to get on the back roads and see how the people live. The next stop on the temple tour was Banteay Srei, also known "The Lady Temple" because of its petite size and pink colour from the red sandstone it is made of. Probably the most beautiful site we have seen so far, this one was amazing.

With the many miles of driving, hiking and exploring it was mid afternoon by the time we got out of the Lady Temple. We found some lunch and were pretty wiped out, so opted for a nap instead of taking our guide up on the rest of our days plans...I really think he could keep us going around the clock if we let him. As it was he already had plans to start at 5am Saturday morning to see the sun come up over Ankor Wat.

The nap was a good plan as Siem Reap comes alive at night and we wanted to check out the night markets, restaurants and bars as we are only here for a short time. We had found a place that offered a 12 course tasting menu and my taste buds weren't taking "no" for an answer. All small dishes made of banana leaf, the meal was an excellent sampling of chicken, fish, eel and vegetables mixed with spices in the traditional Khmer way, it was delicious. Don't forget the four desserts they brought to finish off the flavour adventure! Back on the street we were headed to the heart of the action which is around the corner from our hotel and aptly named, "Pub Street." Everything from food carts and bbq's to three story food, booze and live music venues, this street is a feast for the senses. We wandered for a while, but had to head to the "Red Piano" to see if it could live up to the name. The Belgian owner has put together a nice place, but there is no red piano, the staff doesn't measure up to the crew in St.Maarten and there is no Frankie G and no Gomez Bros (this list could go on!), so we have to say, it just wasn't the same.

Another great day, it doesn't take long to decide that this is a place that we think everyone should see once in their life if they have the chance. We are only here for 3 full days, but you could definitely fill a week if you wanted to!

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Posted by colincampbell 16:37 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

A change in the weather

sunny 30 °C

It has been a busy few days for us as you can see from the additions to our map. Lots of early mornings and long days to get to where we are tonight, relaxing in Siem Reap and thinking of all our friends and family celebrating Thanksgiving this weekend, best wishes to all.

Yesterday we packed up early and headed for the airport in Goa at 5am for our 7 o'clock flight that took us through Mumbai to New Delhi. It is a huge airport, but the airlines were being reasonable and we had plenty of time to find our bags and get onto our flight to Bangkok. Our flight arrived on time and our hotel near the airport had a car waiting for us which was great after 12 hours of travel. We weren't sure what to expect, but the efficiency and warmth of all the people we encountered and the cleanliness and (relative) lack of chaos on the roads was a warm breath of fresh air for us. Remember that when I say relative lack of chaos, we are comparing to India and Nepal so it still is very entertaining as long as we are in the safety of a bigger vehicle than everyone else. The hotel was great and the restaurant made the best pad thai we have ever had along with some great soups and rice dishes as well. We almost made use of the spa, but opted for a shower and some clean sheets instead as our alarm was set early again for this morning.

I think the wake up call came at 5:30 this morning and we were headed back to the airport for our 8am flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Cambodia's history is somewhat violent and at times pretty nasty, if you have seen the news lately you know that they are currently holding trials here against a few of the top brass of the Khmer Rouge, the regime responsible for the death of over two million Cambodians in the late 70's. I haven't had a chance to ask anyone yet about their thoughts on the trial, but whatever their feelings and in spite of this years severe flooding, the people here are overwhelmingly warm and hospitable. The airport reminded me of St.Maarten before the new terminal was built; you walk out the airplane door into the warm fresh air and sunlight, down the stairs and across the tarmac to smiling faces and the arrival terminal. We were the only airplane arriving early this morning so it was a rather intimate affair, within minutes we were cleared through and out the other side. More smiling faces and uniforms arranged a taxi for us and we prepaid the seven dollars that it would cost to get us to our hotel. We couldn't help but to be grinning as our driver chatted with us about where we were coming from and when we would like to explore the town, it was obvious he was fishing for more work, but he was so nice about it that we didn't argue. Preferring a "tuk-tuk" to his air conditioned car for our days adventures he made the arrangements that his brother would be our guide for the rest of the day. We checked into our hotel, grabbed a shower and met him at the front door.

Siem Reap is world heritage site and, according to our map, is home to 53 historic sites dating back as far as the 8th century, the most famous being, Ankor Wat. We bought a three day pass that includes access to all of these sites and totally lucked in with our guide as he knows everything we want to see (usually before we do) and has a great sense of humour to boot. He had plans from start to finish, sites, lunch, more sites, sunset views, all the great photo spots, then an hour break for showers and he was back to take us to the best dinner spot in town. The details would make this blog the longest one yet, by far. To give you an idea, I think we took about 50 pictures over the last 3 weeks in India and today alone we took almost 300. Ankor Wat was the first stop and was incredible, the detail in this (and every) temple we saw today was mind-blowing. Lunch was delicious, mine a fish and banana leaves in a coconut sauce and Nat had a chicken curry, both were cooked and served in a coconut which added to the show and the flavour of the meal. The afternoon was temples and palaces that are unlike anything we have ever seen, we wandered from one to the next, and when it was too far to walk, our tuk-tuk was ready to go. One of the last sites we saw was a temple that was used for the set of the Tomb Raider movie from the mid-1990's. It was one place that even Hollywood couldn't improve as the temple left us in awe, while, I am pretty sure, the movie left us a little disappointed.

Just as the long day was starting to take it's toll and we were thinking of a nap, our trusty guide announce that he had secured reservations for us at the best place in town. His excitement was obvious so we couldn't disappoint and we grabbed a shower and sucked it up. We arrived at a fancy entrance equipped with smiling faces and sharp uniforms and were immediately ushered to a table for two. That wasn't going to do, so we grabbed a chair and made it a table for three and brought our new friend along. The restaurant is a huge, with hundreds of seats, a big stage in the front and enough food to feed an army arranged around the back. Food stations are manned by teams of chefs that are mixing soups, noodles and meat skewers faster then we can eat. There was no strategy, we just tried to keep up with the amazing smells and flavours that we dragged back to our table to share. Just as our appetites started to give up, the show started. First was local musicians and then different groups of traditional dancers, a feast for all of the senses.

What a great couple of days. This part of our trip is going to be great. Enjoy the turkey!

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Posted by colincampbell 09:26 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Still searching through India

semi-overcast 32 °C

I guess it might be a bit of a sign of the times that it has been almost a week since we have written a blog. I can't decide if it has been this long because we aren't finding it very interesting or we have just become a bit complacent in the things we are seeing. I hope it isn't the latter as we are still pretty discouraged by a lot of the things we are seeing. We added the first photo of the beach in touristy Fort Kochi to show the traditional Chinese fishing nets (that are top of the trip advisor list of things to see here) and the garbage laden beach that they are built on. Although we have found the south less crowded and a little cleaner than the north, it still holds many questions we still can't fathom answers for.

We left Varkala after a relaxing 3 days, there wasn't much more to do after we wandered through the town and along the beaches. Nat did find a good local artist that made her a painting and also tried a local tailor who made her a pretty cool pair of pants for about $4. We were all set to take the train back to Fort Kochi (where we get the plane to Goa) but at the last minute we decided to avoid the aggravation that would surely accompany the random train schedule and took a car on the four hour journey. We decided to spend a night in Fort Kochi to see what it had to offer after our first attempt had been such a failure. In the guidebooks, the streets were described as "French Colonial" and were said to be full of excellent shops and spectacular restaurants, while the beach was said to be another highlight. We went for a walk when we arrived in the afternoon, it was a marked improvement over our first night in this town, but we still couldn't imagine being one of the regular tourists that had decided to spend their short annual vacation in this place. It would be pretty disappointing.

Friday we were flying from Kochi to Goa. I think it would have taken about the same 12 hours it took to fly if we had taken the train. Regardless, we got safely to Goa and back with our trusty tour guide, Shaz. We are in Northern Goa which is known for its beaches, nightclubs and yoga retreats which seems to mean it attracts a variety of tourists looking for a wide variety of entertainment. We rented a scooter right away so we have the freedom to explore and that's exactly what we did...for about 17 minutes which is when we ran out of gas. Natalie immediately accosted the nearest english speaker tourist and he offered to drive me to a gas station which was a lifesaver as it wasn't walking distance by any stretch of the imagination. Back in action we turned a 15 minute drive home into an hour long adventure as the signage here is rather limited and our sense of direction was ridiculously distorted.
At night we have been checking out the local bars and restaurants which has been crazy as the streets here are tiny, but rival the chaos of Delhi. Nat found a great massage yesterday, so I think I'm heading there now while she has gone to do some yoga with Shaz's girlfriend, Ilena. It is Ilena's birthday today so Shaz has organised a big party tonight which should be great.

A few more days and on to Cambodia.

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Posted by colincampbell 19:16 Archived in India Comments (0)

Getting better....I think...

sunny 34 °C

We arrived in Verkala yesterday after a 3 hour taxi ride that wasn't too bad. The south of India is a little less populated then the north and has plenty of palm trees that distract you a little from the less attractive parts. The hotel lived up to almost half of it's advertised attractions which is becoming par for the course. It is great to be back on the ocean though and it really is a quaint little village that is mostly built around yoga and ayurvedic massage centres, not a great place to open a bar, but a very tranquil place.
Having no interest in an early morning yoga session, we got up late and went for a long walk down the beach and then in to town. The locals give us mixed signals, some are overwhelmingly warm and welcoming whilst others seem to make a point of taking a dump on the side of the road when we walk by. That said, we didn't lunch outside the area near our hotel which rims the cliff above the beach which is almost 100% great.
We were walking back after lunch and were convinced to come and try a massage at one of the many clinics that are apparently world renowned for treating whatever ails you. $30 for 90 minutes, sounds good to me...

The next part of the story has been deleted. There are probably no actual accounts of one of these massages online because no one wants to relive it. It was horrendous, don't email us and ask for details, because we won't give them. Let us just save you the hassle and say....don't, just don't...enough said.

We went for stiff cocktails immediately after escaping that mess, lesson learned...we are looking forward to Thailand as I don't think we will have any other massages until then. Dinner tonight is some fresh local seafood and more cocktails, many more cocktails...

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Posted by colincampbell 08:46 Archived in India Comments (0)

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