Goodbye from Bangkok

Bangkok in the EveningFor the third time on this trip, we returned to Bangkok for one final stay. Ignoring any guest houses we stayed at the Sivali Place apartments located south of the Chao Phraya river for a bit of space and luxury during our final week. Annie loved the fact that she could get out of bed, walk down the stairs and have a clean 25 meter outdoor pool for a morning swim.

The city has good transport, along with the Chao Phraya Express Boat that Annie previously talked about, there is a vast Skytrain that runs above the streets covering the roads in concrete pillars. It’s great to use, has a smart card system and more importantly air conditioning, which made getting about so much easier. The only issue we had was our fancy apartments were a good three kilometres from the nearest stop, we knew this and accepted it as a trade off. The hotel staff were happy to call a taxi, but being frugal travellers (it was only about £1.20) we were happy to walk along, save a bit of money and see the city.

Bangkok is incredibly hot, I would say after months and months of sun and humidity we should be acclimatised but that would be wrong; walking to the skytrain I sweated so much my grey t-shirt was soaked looking like I just came from a gym. Looking around, the locals are all bone dry, they obviously know better and avoid the midday sun and excessive walks.

It’s been a very long time since we have had good beers, it’s not impossible to find some German and Belgian beers in Asia but they are normally three times the price of anything local. I go out my way to avoid Chang, the local Thai beer which is strong and terrible. Singha is the slightly more expensive option which is far from great but fills a gap. Doing some research on beers in Bangkok I was surprised to see that a new bar from Danish brewers Mikkeller had just opened, the city being as big as it is means it was 14k away from our hotel, but surely worth a visit. Using the directions we took the skytrain as close as possible and wandered around what looked like a residential area, wondering if I got my directions wrong. Overhearing someone else ask if the bar was nearby, we found the strange house with large beer garden awaiting with 30 craft beers on draft, heaven. The downside of such a range of great beer is that pints started at 300 baht (just over £5.50) and even cheekier, the “small” at 150 baht was a tiny glass which looked like it held about 200ml – forget that. It was definitely an expat hangout, good to try a bunch of beers but way too expensive for another visit, back to the Singha then.

Bridge Over The River KwaiA trip out to see the bridge over the “River Kwai” was on our lists to do, wanting to avoid tour groups we got up early and headed down on the world slowest train, which lacked any sort of facilities including Air Con, it was hot and a bit boring. Three hours later the train arrived, leaving us four hours to wander around and visit the war museum. All very interesting to read about how the railway was built by prisoners of war captured by the Japanese, how many people died in the horrendous conditions and how it fared during the constant bombings during World War 2. We aimed to get the train back later in the afternoon but managed to negotiate a super comfy taxi to take us all the way back to Bangkok which seemed like utter luxury after that train journey.

Fishy FriendTo sample more of the city, we booked on a slightly expensive walking food tour of Chinatown. It turned out just to be us and the tour guide, no need to fight for attention then. Wandering around the busy streets we went to six places to try all sorts of local food of various tastes. Annie did her best to pass over as much as she could to me, normally a good thing but these flavours did not go down that well. A bowl of noodle soup with liver, tongue, stomach and heart was one of the more memorable choices, it was a chore to get through one bowl never mind two.

A final day of travelling was spent soaking up the city, we decided to get Thai massages and spent a while walking around looking for a good place that wasn’t a brothel behind closed doors (the guidebook helped us figure out what was what). A Thai massage isn’t quite as relaxing as I expected, lying down your legs are bent, arms are stretched, knuckles are cracked and pressure points are pushed. I was concerned that I would fart during some of the moves, which may have been awkward! It was an interesting hour and we both came out unharmed, bonus.

And that’s the end of our travels! Six fantastic months, thirteen countries, across three continents stopping in about sixty cities and towns was never going to be easy, but well worth the effort. Was it perfect? No we made made a few mistakes with our flight bookings, flying in and out of places that didn’t make sense and some of our routes overland were not the most direct – all very easy to reflect on with hindsight.

We really only briefly sampled some of the countries, Chile and Japan come to mind, and missed out on others altogether due to lack of time, Central America and India both look fascinating and will be visited at some point.

Now back to home for some Irn Bru, Haggis and Shortbread!

Hua Hin

Hua Hin beach

Keen to squeeze in some more beach time before coming home, after leaving Chiang Mai we headed down to Hua Hin, a beach resort South of Bangkok. Though the town itself is very built up and quite ugly, the beach is absolutely beautiful.

Me on SlideWe had 4 days in Hua Hin and didn’t want to leave. As well as a stunning beach with the warmest water I’ve ever been in, we also found a water park and a wakeboarding spot. The waterpark was a little disappointing, with only a few slides, but that was more than made up for by the complete lack of queues, there was barely anyone there. Although none of the rides were that scary, some of them had a helmet requirement, which was a little bit overkill. The wave machine was very impressive throwing everyone around like crazy.

Paul was really keen to try the wakeboarding, and at the bargain price of £6 for 2 hours, we signed ourselves up. Using a cable mechanism, you were free to stroll up, pick a board, and jump in. Or if you’re me, fall in on your face repeatedly. Paul was starting to get the hang of it by the end of our session, managing a couple of laps before losing his balance. Although there are staff there who were giving advice, this seemed to be optional, and so for the most part you were left to your own devices. Good fun, but tricky.

Me WakeboardingThe next day we woke up sore and achey, the usual after wakeboarding, so we had an easy day by the beach. For me, Hua Hin is up there with Rio for the beach, and definitely better than the islands we visited. The view is complimented by endless colourful kite surfers in the water. Hua Hin has the perfect weather for kitesurfing and so is a popular spot to learn. I would have loved to have tried it, but time and money meant I’ll save that for another day.

Night life in Hua Hin was quite a limited choice. Unless you were a middle aged Western man looking for a young Thai lady to hook up with, you were basically out of luck. All of the bars had ‘hostesses’ and walking by at night, the bars were full of young Thai women dressed to impress, welcoming any man to come in (including Paul). Our visit also coincided with the National Elections, which meant there was a 48 hour ban on the sale of alcohol, giving our livers plenty of time to recover.

Thai Boxing match leafletThroughout our time in Thailand we had been meaning to catch a Thai Boxing match, and we got our chance in Hua Hin. Not willing to pay the 800B entrance fee, we went to a nearby bar and waited until the first match had finished. We were then happy to pay the reduced price of 500B and watch the 4 remaining matches. Looking at the leaflet, we were confused by the weight categories. 27kg, too light for a person, maybe that’s the weight difference? Our questions were answered when we walked in to find 2 kids fighting, couldn’t have been more than 14 years old. Oh man, what did we just sign up for? Fortunately, the fighting was actually very professional, with a very active ref, and far less violent than I had been expecting. Gradually the weights increased and so did the ages of the competitors. The winner of each match would walk around the audience with a 100B note in his mouth, looking for donations, a bit uncomfortable. An interesting experience, but still not something I would rush back to.

Day 3, restored back to health, we decided to give wakeboarding another shot. I was keen to actually get on the water and hoped that another 2 hours would do it, and Paul wanted to perfect his technique. I was put in any number of different starting positions but they all ended up with me in the water, often with my board still on the starting block. Argh! Despite the blue skies there was definitely a dark cloud hanging over me, stay away! Paul, on the other hand, mastered setting out and enjoyed a much more successful session.

Hua Hin was the perfect stop for us. Now that our trip is coming to an end, we were even more appreciative of the sun, sand, and natural beauty. Although sad to leave, I’m also looking forward to exploring more of Bangkok in our final week.

Chiang Mai & Pai

Elephant Family

Heading north, instead of using another bus we went with an overnight train which as per normal left an hour late; the driver was probably away having his dinner, a wee chat or a sleep. We got on board and headed to our bunks, which were located on the aisle behind a little curtain. The bed was reasonably comfy but oh so noisy, I slept with my headphones in, attempting to block it out.

Arriving in Chiang Mai, we started the crawl around hotels and guesthouse in the old quarter, a large area surrounded by a river looking for somewhere to stay, after being turned away from quite a few which were full and seeing some grim looking place we picked a decent looking hotel with a pool, result. Good base for a few nights eating and drinking, one night was particularly messy with a strong glass of margarita turning to a jug, followed by another, whoops.

Elephant FeedingAn hour outside of the city lies the Elephant Nature Park sanctuary, a fantastic place that is home to 37 rescued elephants, along with hundreds of dogs and cats – kept in separate areas. We initially looked in to volunteering for a week but they were full so we went with a one day visit. At £55 each it’s not a cheap day out but soon enough you realise the massive costs this facility faces.

Arriving in the morning we were in awe at the elephants wandering around so close. Taking a basket we headed over and started to feed them, placing large chunks of food in the trunks and watching them happily munching away. Each elephant has its own mahout (handler) who is a continuous companion for the animal, sort of a big brother.

Elephant WashingThroughout the day we had the chance to go around seeing them up close, going in to the river to help wash them before once again feeding, they eat 10% of their body weight each day. It’s a massive operation to source, prepare and feed them.

After lunch we were told there is a cinema room showing a national geographic film on Thailand’s Elephants but were warned the last 10 minutes are hard to watch. It was really interesting, explaining that elephants are still classed as cattle and have no protection. Since the logging industry has ceased (due to a ban) they are no longer needed to pull logs and are abandoned or sold to the tourist trades. I’ve always been against the idea of the elephant tourist rides but looking at it another way, what other option is there for the locals to make money to support them? Tricky.

The film went on to show the utterly horrific method the use to break a baby elephant’s spirit, basically holding it in a tiny cage for three days whilst beating and torturing it with spikes, no food, water or sleep. Once the elephant can take no more, it becomes submissive to to it’s owner. Heartbreaking to watch, I can’t get my head around how the crew felt filming it.

36c SpringHeading further north, we arrived in Pai, a smaller charming town with a laid back atmosphere. Checking in to a nice set of bungalows we stumbled across, borrowing their bikes we cycled the 7k to the hot springs, normally this would be easy enough but combining bikes that were falling apart, hills and hot hot sun, it was a fair wee challenge. Arriving at the springs we had the option of various pools, starting at 34c they rose up to 38c, I managed to sit in 37c but found the higher one just far too burny!

After a few days in Pai, we started to head back south. There isn’t an easy way to get around Thailand as everything seems to head through Bangkok, realising this we decided to stop once again in Chiang Mai as there was more to see and do.

Biking PaulMountain Biking and White Water Rafting are two big things around here, being dry season rafting was not an option (wouldn’t get very far) so downhill Mountain Biking was the best option. I contacted a company offering rides asking for an intermediate level course to ensure we had some level of challenge. Annie came along but wasn’t as keen on the idea, starting the day off the guide didn’t seem to bother giving out much advise or tutorials until a few people in the group asked/pushed for some guidance, he eventually upped his game. One guy in the group who didn’t speak English came with his girlfriend, she said he was a biker at home and boy it showed, he was right with the guide the whole time throwing himself down the tracks like no tomorrow. On the way down we had various chances to go off the trails and onto single track technical routes, Annie did amazing and warmed up to the idea that it’s a lot of fun, as the single tracks got harder the numbers dropped, I kept pushing but when he started describing them as “hard”, I happily took a rain check and went around as I like my skin attached to my body and not scraped along a tree. One final single track run, the leaders scooted off just out of sight, I was navigating the path well (I thought) with Annie not far behind. Approaching the end with the riders stopped just ahead on the road I took what I thought was the correct route, to the right and suddenly off a larger than expected ledge. Landing to see the others chuckling, we noticed Annie was battering down the exact same route, “LEFT!” everyone shouted but it didn’t work, she went right and off the ledge, landing a bit rough but stayed on the bike fine! Fantastic fun, came away feeling we had pushed our level up a notch.

North Thailand, great fun but now the beach is calling.

Bangkok Part I

Wat Arun

I arrived in Bangkok a little doubtful of whether I’d like it, but as soon as we got off the bus I was taken in by the city. There is so much happening you don’t know where to look, with constant noise and bustle and life.

Our first night was a Saturday, and so we decided to go to nearby Khao San Road, which is the famous backpacker district. It’s basically a street taken over by fast food chains and pubs, bars, clubs, all claiming to offer ‘the strongest and cheapest cocktails’. In theory, it should have been horrible, but it is enchanting, and you could spend hours sitting out on the tiny chairs watching life go by. There are endless street hawkers dropping by, selling all kinds of tat, including ping pong shows, insects to eat, and most memorably, a variety of friendship bracelets with really vulgar statements stitched in. We couldn’t fathom who on earth would ever buy one, but they must sell, because they were all over the place.

Just One BeerAfter getting some delicious street food, for a laugh we opted for a pub whose USP was not asking for ID. Exactly what we needed, obviously, despite being nearly double the age of all the other customers. Paul then decided that it would be fun for us to get a 6 pint giant beer, and that was our first night in Bangkok complete.

Bangkok is an absolutely massive city. I’m usually a fan of walking, but when what looks like a short walk on the map turns out to be an hour long trek along motorways, you need to think again. One of the easiest public transport options is the express boat which travels up and down the Nam Chao Phraya river, which chops the city in two. Despite the fact it’s basically a bus on water, it is so much fun to travel on, with the added game of avoiding any river water getting on you, as it’s filthy. The drivers come flying up to the stops and then crash against the side, with passengers then getting a short window to hop on and off before it speeds off again. It also costs peanuts, with a one way ticket less than 20p, putting Scotrail to shame.

Tiny street catWe only had a couple of days in Bangkok on this stop, but as we knew we would be back to fly home, we didn’t try to cram too much in. We did visit a couple of temples, including Wat Pho, which has an impressive giant reclining Buddha on show, and one of the many huge shopping malls in the business district. At one of the temples we came across a stray kitten hiding underneath a street bench. It was absolutely tiny, and appeared to be on the edge of death. We tried to feed it milk but it was only interested in being close to us, in particular Paul’s foot, maybe it missed company. If we were at home, the kitten would have been coming with us, no question, but as it was we had to leave it to fend for itself. I’m not too optimistic about its chances.

As we were both so taken with the city, and had managed to find a lovely hotel/apartment with an outdoor pool, we decided to spend more time here at the end of the trip to enjoy more of what Bangkok had to offer. But for now, good bye Bangkok, we’ll be back.

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.