Koh Chang

Looking at the islands just over the border from Cambodia, Koh Chang seemed like a good stop due to its nice beaches and nightlife. We aimed for the Lonely Beach side of the island based on some recommendations on things to see and do.

The view from our bungalow hutContinuing with the unplanned theme, we left the taxi and walked around a few places looking for somewhere nice to stay. In theory just turning up gives you flexibility, haggling power and the ability to stay in the best location. All of that goes out the window when you are carrying 25kg on your back with the midday sun beating down on you. Viewing a few is essential but it can quickly descend in to “sod it, this will do” with sweat running down your face. After first viewing a rickety wooden hut with no windows, we soldiered on and found a nice small bungalow hut off the main street, hopefully away from the late, late night karaoke noise.

Petrol stop!Koh Chang is quite big and there’s no easy way to get around without taxis, as per most of South East Asia motorbikes are king here. Passport theft is always an issue over here, one of the two fake passports used on the Malaysia flight that crashed was stolen from a traveller who handed it in as a motorbike deposit. Refusing to hand ours over we previously used the excuse that an embassy had our passports (that was sort of true – they had them a few days before) but this time just declined until we found somewhere who would take a driver’s licence and extra cash.

Biking around the island was fun, the bike was powerful enough to cope with the hills and let us see tons of scenery, open waters and lots of trees! Stopping at a pier, the water looked far too nice not to have a swim, why was no-one else in there? Jumping in at the end of the pier, we had fun until I noticed the crabs walking around where we needed to climb in, shit. Waiting for a gap, we made various failed attempt to climb up before falling in over and over, shit again. Eventually I threw myself at the side, climbed up with cuts and scrapes on my hands, legs and feet – great idea! Time to move on, from the viewpoints we could see quite a few neighbouring islands which were not inhabited but had kayaks rowing back from them in the sunset, looked like fun.

Paul on Koh Man NaiThe following day, we hired a kayak and hit the water and rowed over to the closest island that we could see. This was finally the desert island that the postcards show, no shops, no bars, nothing expect for crystal clear water, sand and trees, beautiful.

Spending a few nights on the island, we first noticed that the Thai people, famous for their smiles, are friendly and warm people who are interested in where you are from and just wanting to say hello. Thailand isn’t coming across as cheap as we expected, beers range from £1.50 – £2.00, a far cry from what the neighbouring countries offer but still not going to break the bank. Food is still cheap, interesting and quite varied – western options available to break up the monotony.

A fine stop.

Koh Kong

Boat to Koh Kong

Our journey around Cambodia was a bit messy as we were making it up on the hoof, and so our next stop, Koh Kong, took us all the way down to the Southern coast. We booked a VIP direct overnight bus from Siem Reap, which we were told would take 12 hours, not too bad. After setting off after midnight, already late, we managed to fold ourselves up into the Cambodian sized sleeping chairs for some sleep. This was harder for Paul, mainly because he was in the aisle seat and was worried he’d fall off the bed at any turn, eek.

At around 8am Paul woke me up to say that the bus had stopped and people were getting off. ‘I don’t care, I’m going back to sleep’ was my grumpy reply. If only. Turns out, they were turfing everyone’s luggage off, and next up it was me. Our ‘direct bus’ actually ended in Phnom Penh, where we were told that in 30 minutes our next ‘direct’ bus to Koh Kong would arrive. It didn’t, and soon enough we were put on a Tuk Tuk and driven to a local station. We were beginning to doubt the existence of this phantom direct bus, and were proved right when the man came back with 2 tickets and said ‘the bus leaves at 10.45’. Two hours wait! I was having none of it – after travelling for as long as we have, you start to get a sense for when you’re getting taken advantage of – so I argued back. After a quick phone call, another bus was located for us. Back on the Tuk Tuk, we were ferried to another station where we were put on the 8.45 bus, it felt like a victory! After driving around the city for approximately 2 hours, seemingly picking up at every and any street corner, we finally left the city. Deep breath required, not so victorious anymore, this was clearly a very local and not VIP bus. Argh.

Quiet Waters Koh Kong is a relatively small seaside town on the edge of the border with Thailand. We came for Koh Kong Island, an island 3 hours from the coast which we had read was as beautiful as the Thai Islands, but undeveloped. It definitely was that. Our little boat was the only one there, and with the exception of some stray dogs, there was no one else about. We were provided with snorkel sets which we tried out, but with nothing but sand to look at, we quickly gave up and relaxed on the beach. Lunch was a brilliant fresh barbeque cooked by our guides; three whole fish, with heads, were presented on the table. Not something I’d usually order, but great to try. Our trip back was broken up by a visit to a mangrove farm, after which we were dropped off back at the port. A very nice, chilled out day – definitely needed after the stress of the bus journey down.

Hearing that we were heading to Thailand the next day, the owner of the tour company sat down and went through all of the transport options, outlining the fair prices we should pay. Great! We thought, this’ll make life easier tomorrow. Not so. The journey to Koh Chang (a Thai Island and our next destination) was made up of a Tuk Tuk – mini van – pick-up truck/taxi – ferry – pick-up truck/taxi. It started off well, with the first two matching our expected prices. However, when sitting at Trin Station, the price quoted for our next leg was nearly double what we’d been advised. Thinking he was playing the negotiating game, we refused. He drove off. Hmm, we had a ferry to catch, and now no way of getting there. After stubbornly sitting there for 30 mins, we relented and paid what we believed to be an inflated price. The taxi dropped us off at a shop where we were directed to buy ferry tickets, the price offered again was far higher. Determined not to be ripped off twice, we tried to negotiate, and failed. Last resort, we decided to walk to the pier and buy the tickets direct, thinking we’d avoid the middle man fee. Lugging our massive bags in the midday Thai heat, we preceded to walk up to and along the entirely wrong pier, only to have to walk back with our tails between our legs and buy the tickets at the original price. But only one way! (convinced we were still getting ripped off, actually we weren’t).

Watching The Waters Go By A little ragged and tired, we eventually made it onto the ferry and decided to treat ourselves to a beer. Taking in the views, we started to relax, our destination in sight. Arriving on Koh Chang, there was a collection of taxis waiting. We then realised we didn’t have enough to pay the fare. We tried negotiating, but it seemed that Thais don’t negotiate, they don’t need to. For the second time that day, we watched our only form of transport drive off without us. The port was absolutely deserted, no cash machines, hardly any people. Oh dear, we shouldn’t have got that beer. Fortunately, after sitting around feeling a bit sorry for ourselves for 15 minutes, I met a lovely taxi driver who took us to another, busier, port for free, where another kind traveller agreed to lend us the money needed. After what felt like the longest journey, we finally made it to our final destination, Lonely Beach. What a day!

Siem Reap

Temples Galore

North Cambodia, home to Siem Reap and the Angkor region with its famous temples (one was used in the Tomb Raider movie, bad film fact!). I’m not going to lie, I’m really bored of temples, Buddhas and the same tourist attractions over and over – we tend to skip past temples now as they all look the same and there’s plenty more ahead in Thailand.

Arriving in the city, we knew there would be plenty to see and do at night, it has a very active night life including a street called ‘Pub Street’ with large neon signs directing the way, which gave it a tacky Spanish island feel. The food was once again superb, plenty of choice both western (Pizza!) and lovely Cambodian rice based dishes.

One evening we left a restaurant trying to avoid one of the many beggars around but couldn’t miss the fact she had a thin looking baby in her arms. She said to us “I don’t want money, just milk for my baby” I brushed her off and walked on with it playing on my mind. Annie also heard it, asking if we should get her the milk she wanted. I said I’m sure it’s not right but for all it costs, why not. The begger had already walked away so we headed in to the 7-11 and looked at little fresh milk cartons in the fridge (naive we were). Picking out what we thought would be normal full fat and water for ourselves, we turned to see a little street kid race in with two Aussie backpackers on toe. He walked them right up to the $8 power milk cans and took it to counter. At this point it was an obvious scam, there was a queue and another few people said to the girls they had heard it was a scam, but the girls went on to buy not one but two cans of milk, we put our 50c carton back and left with water. Outside we were crossing the street when I saw one of the street kids dancing back up to the mother outside the store, shopping bag containing a milk can in hand. She clocked me looking in utter disgust, told him to hide it in the corner; it was obviously about to be returned to the shop for a refund before hitting up more tourists. Sad that she’s using her baby for what is probably quite a profitable scam, and FU to the 7-11 staff who are obviously on it, likely taking a cut on the refund. I wish I thought to open/deface the milk cans after purchase, making them useless for resale.

Private cinema in Canbodia, projector, comfy couch and popcorn, lovely.In a small shopping centre we saw a sign for ‘Tourist Cinema’, which turned out to be a little cinema showing all the latest pirate release. We decided to catch American Hustle, for $5 each – which is actually more than a legit cinema would charge over here, you get taken to a private room which has a couch, projector, decent sound system and a DVD player, after being in cinemas with assholes talking, it was a nice change to have it all to yourself, apart from Annie nattering away a bit…

Up at 4am, we booked a TukTuk driver to take us along to the main attraction around here, Angkor Wat which was located 5k away. In order to catch Sunrise we set off at 5am and didn’t think how dark, very dark it would be out there. At the drop off we started following the shadows of the people using the phone as a light source to avoid walking in to all sorts of rocks and rivers. Annie used her giraffe like legs to spring up on to the ledge of a temple to find a viewpoint, I fumbled up, scraping the side of my knee before falling back and realising there’s are steps just a few meters along, stupid darkness.

Sunrise was gradual, due to it being overcast, this left our photos being a bit drab but meant the rest of the morning was cooler than it would be normally. Arriving early gave us time to explore the main temple and some of the nearby temples before the crowds of tourist buses arrived, and boy did they arrive. Our driver reminded us that it was ‘International Women’s Day’ (a fact I was already aware of, thanks to Annie!) and therefore it was busier than normal.

The temples are rather far apart, when paying to get in you are given the option of one, three or seven day passes. Although its big, I can’t understand what the heck people do for seven days, each to their own I guess. We were happy with one day and with the help of our driver saw about four temples and enjoyed it. But early afternoon the sun was out baking everyone outside shade, the temples were swarming with tourists and the roads were jammed with TukTuk’s and busses – time to head back to the guesthouse for sure.

Phare in Full MotionOne final thing we caught in Siem was Phare, the Cambodian Circus. I saw a flyer for this back in Phnom Penh and was curious to catch it. The circus is all human, no animals being mistreated here, performing acrobatic skills along to a story which to be honest was lost on me. All the performers attend a local school formed by refugees from the Khmer Rouge regime, proceeds from the performances go directly back to funding this, seemed rude not to go along. It was absolutely stunning, all the performers showed amazing skill, the same standard as I’ve seen at Cirque Du Soleil in Vegas but with tons of smiles, they all appeared to be enjoying it as much as we did in the audience.

Another great stop in Cambodia.

Phnom Penh

SunsetArriving by boat in Cambodia, we had little knowledge of the country and what was on offer. The city of Phnom Penh was full of Tuk Tuk drivers wanting to drive you around the sights and no doubt their friends’ shops selling tourist tat, thanks but no thanks!

Two of the main attractions are about the reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79 and Pol Pot’s horrific acts of genocide. A section of the Genocide museum back in Mexico city covered this but to be honest after spending about the hours in there I was physically and emotionally drained and barely took any of it in.

With our trusty guidebook we headed to the “Toul Sleng Museum”, which was called Security Prison S-21 during the reign of the Khmer Rogue and the evil dictator Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979. This former school was transformed in to a horrible set of tiny cells and torture rooms. These were used against anyone suspected to be against the Khmer Rouge, which included politicians, teachers, professionals and anyone with “soft hands”, yikes! Every single one of the 17,000 people detained here was photographed, documented, before they ended up at the Killing Fields.

Baby Killing TreeLeaving S-21, we headed down to the Killing Fields 14k outside the city. A large mass cemetery where the KR brutally murdered the Cambodians. A really well done audio tour is provided, allowing you to walk around taking your time in what is now a nice and peaceful garden, listening to first hand stories on what happened only 35 years ago. One horrible aspect of the KR is how they not only killed who they deemed against them, but also their full family including children to avoid any revenge attack. The “baby killing tree” and nearby mass grave sent shivers up my spine. The central shrine holds an eery collection of bones and skulls sorted by how they were killed.

At the end the KR killed three million Cambodians like this, a massive amount of the total population of ten million. Many of those responsible are still being tried.

Spending a few more days around the rest of the city, we found the Cambodians to be friendly warm people. Plenty of great places to eat and drink, beer was still über cheap and the food was amazing.

I was interested in going to the theme park that we walked past until I read Trip Advisor and the stories of people falling out of the rides, the body being moved the the ride reopening that same day, eh no thanks!

Mekong Delta

Mekong Sunset

The Mekong river has been a constant presence through our time in South East Asia, but it was the delta region we were keen to explore. The delta is a heavily populated area where life is lived on the water – houses, markets and restaurants float on the canals, interspersed with islands that have their own distinct communities and cultures. We booked a 3 day trip which promised to show us the highlights of the area, but at the risk of sounding like cynical travellers, it didn’t really live up to expectations. Whether it’s because we’ve been spoiled by what we’ve seen so far, or if the delta isn’t what it used to be, who knows.

Rice paper drying in the sunOur trip took as to a collection of islands and communities along the Mekong Delta. What I’m sure were once private and natural communities have become giant tourist traps. We were herded from one tradesman to another, being encouraged to buy something, try something, or just give a donation. The purpose of our whistestop tours of a honey farm, a rice paper workshop, and a coconut candy store felt like sales pitches, rather than to give us an authentic taste of life on the delta. Eating fresh mouse was a fun experience, though I’m not convinced the locals eat too much of that, it was more bone than anything else! At one point we were pushed onto some rickety old horse drawn carts, only to go on a pointless loop along the main road. Everyone looked a bit confused as to why. We never found out.

Day 2 started with a trip to the floating markets. I was really looking forward to this as it was the perfect excuse for me to buy ridiculous amounts of fruit and veg. This market is the biggest floating market in Cambodia, but unfortunately there were hardly any sellers, just lots of tourist boats. We had one opportunity to buy pineapples, and then we were off. I guess we got there after all the real action had taken place first thing, and we just saw the tourist dregs. Paul assures me the floating markets in Bangkok are much better, so we’ll have to give them a try.

Mekong BoatsThe highlight of the trip was a row boat trip on Unicorn Island. Because of the jungle like greenery and seclusion, this really did feel like a hidden gem – if you ignored the long queues of tourists to get a boat and being told ‘tip tip tip’ for the final 20 minutes of the ride. Taking a moment to zone out and take in the scenery, it really was pretty beautiful. This was the Mekong Delta experience that I had been expecting, and probably what it was like 10 years ago, before tourism went crazy.

We’ve learnt over the past 5 months that organised trips generally aren’t for us. The fact that the Mekong trip got us into Cambodia was it’s saving grace, and arriving into Phnom Penh, we were happy to be free to explore at our own pace.

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh (or as the locals all call it, Saigon), is a great city. Compared to Hanoi, it felt far more developed, with skyscrapers and shopping malls greeting us on the way in. Despite being more Westernised, the local way of life was still dominant, with endless street sellers and markets, street bars on tiny seats, and the roads covered by Tuk tuks and motorcyclists. It felt like the city had found a happy medium.

VC TunnelOur first trip was to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Used by the Viet Cong in the war to avoid the US, the tunnels are now open to the public. Although you can only go in with a registered guide, this actually helps, as they explain the many booby traps dotted around and give you a better insight into how the Viet Cong avoided the US, and their dogs. It was amazing to get a better understanding of the planning that went into the design of the tunnels, and the extreme lengths both sides went to avoid defeat. The tunnels themselves were brilliant, getting into a Vietnamese sized one (some have been widened for Westerners) was a tight fit, and very claustrophobic when the lid was down. After volunteering to go in first, the tour guide thought it would be funny to put her foot on the lid and lock me in, quite scary. Overall it was an excellent tour, and really gave you a better understanding of how vicious the war became as the US tried to flush the Viet Cong out.

Part of the tour package was stopping at the nearby shooting range to try some of the weapons used at that time. Paul had had his eye on this for a while, and so quickly signed up to shoot an AK47. The noise coming from the range was unbelievable, and with the bullet casings pinging all over the place, I was keen to move on. Paul enjoyed his 10 bullets and then we were off.

On the way back to the bus, walking back through the tunnel area, we heard singing and music, interspersed with the gun fire. Our guide told us it was a wedding. At a shooting range/war tunnels?! Seemed an odd place to be celebrating, but it sounded like they were having a good time.

Saigon by nightWe were staying in the backpacker area of Saigon, which by day was busy, but by night was absolutely packed. Through the evening street side bars would gradually add more and more tiny little chairs and tables to accommodate the crowds. By the end of the night, entire roads were blocked as bars on either side of the street grew and met in the middle. A street that we, and normal traffic, had easily passed through at 7pm became an absolute battle by midnight, crazy stuff.

We spent a few days soaking up the city before we started making tracks to Cambodia. Aware that we were running out of time, and with 2 countries still to see, we booked ourselves onto a 3 day Mekong Delta trip as the final part of our Vietnam adventure.

Hoi An

Knowing little about Hoi An, we started out dropped off in a tailors shop who were friends of Le Family Riders. We naively assumed they were just making small talk and giving us tea before we paid the bill and headed to our hotel.

Hoi An is famous for it tailors, the streets are lined with shops who will make you anything you want, a suit? Jacket? Shoes? Nothing is too hard for them. We were sat in front of catalogues, I was initially confused with the prices being in pounds until noticing the “Next UK” logo, and asked if we wanted anything. I have no use for a suit, my current suit is only dusted off when someone dies and I really hope I never get a job that forces me to wear one, so quickly dismissed their sales pitch. I was tempted with some form of smart jacket, but decided to stick with we are backpacking and this is far from essential, plus we would have to post anything home as carrying that sort of thing when it’s this hot is just silly. We made our excuses, ignored the hard(ish) sell and moved on.

The colourful streets of Hoi An at nightThe town of Hoi An is simply beautiful, a river runs straight through the middle with streets of shops, restaurants and bars all lit with Asian style lights. The locals sell cardboard Chinese style boxes with candles in them which you lay in the river and watch them float down, charming doesn’t quite cut it. We were once again in oldie travelling territory, lots of groups of people aged 50+ wandering the town, I can see the appeal as it’s all very easy to eat, drink and relax for a few days.

Renting some bikes, we headed down to the beach side where Annie got cornered by some guy who wouldn’t let her go down the road. We couldn’t quite figure out who he was employed by, as he was insisting that we park our bikes in the parking lot whilst letting tons of other cyclists past. When asked why they were allowed through he replied he knew them, they lived there – this was big groups of tourists and locals – ridiculous. Instead of making a scene, we just went around the back of his car park and continued on our way, you ain’t scamming us! A little secluded bar and beach area made a fine way to spend the afternoon.

Booking in for a local farming and cooking day just outside of the town in a small village, we hired a couple of bikes again and headed to the local market, Helen from the tour showed us the local fruit, veg and seafood before we headed to the farm to get stuck in.

FarmersStarting with farming, we were handed local clothes to put on and headed out to collect seaweed from the the water. Taking the seaweed we then went though the locals’ method of plotting, planting and watering. All good fun, the family really seem to enjoy what they do. I doubt our pitch was going to be great – I suspect they will dig it up for the next set of visitors.

Next up was Water Buffalo Riding, animal rights over here are non-existent, I do my best to avoid all activities where they are used, previously Annie fancied going to an Elephant “Sanctuary” but from experience these places should be avoided as most are just animals dragged around for fat western tourists, though we have our eyes on visiting a proper sanctuary in the future. For the buffalo I was undecided as they are used in farming here and appear to be in okay condition. Annie asked one of the owners “does this hurt the animal?”, language barrier kicked in and we got the usual reply when you haven’t been understood of “yes”, um… We ended up going on for a quick trot around the paddock, it wasn’t comfortable or an enjoyable experience at all, I’ll stick with my gut instinct in future.

Annie Making Rice PaperThe final part of the day was cooking some Vietnamese dishes, we went through the process of making rice paper; grinding the rice down to flour, cooking the flour on a thin cotton sheet, then rolling them into spring rolls filled with herbs and eating fresh. By this point I was so hungry and would have eaten anything, turns out they were superb, really tasty. Will try and recreate the method at home for sure. After them we were shown how to make various other Vietnamese dishes which turned out rather well.

A great experience and a really lovely town, glad we stopped here on our way south.