23rd – 25th July – Siem Reap (Angkor Wat)

The trip up to Siem Reap was another typical 8 hour minivan journey on changeable quality roads!

As the bus drove up the road to the bus station in Siem Reap we saw hoards of tuk-tuks and motor bike taxis racing ahead. When we got of the bus there was about 100 guys all around trying to get us into their tuk-tuk and to their hotels. It was absolutely manic. Our group got broken up as we were getting our bags and theyn try to keep you separate. You have about 20 people around you all the time shouting to get you to go with them. It was the most surreal thing I have ever seen and very funny (which is a better reaction than getting angry!) It was the closest I have come to being famous! It makes me appreciate how the stars get so frustrated with paparazzi every day.

We got to our guest house and straight away arranged with out tuk-tuk driver to take a tour of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples the next day. We had heard that sunrise was particularly spectacular over Angkor Wat, so that meant a 5am start! I don’t think I have been up at that time in the last 7 months!!

The tour of the Wats was a fantastic day. I thought it would be really tiring because it was scorching hot and there was to be a lot of walking around looking at temples. As it turned out, it wasn’t as bad as we thought. We were out for about 12 hours in total, but decided not to see the sunset as the clouds had come over and it started to rain. I was a little templed out by the end of the day as well!

The quality and size of the temples is a sure sign of just how advanced the Cambodians were back in the day. When London had a population of only 50,000 Angkor was around a million people. And they were massively advanced for their time and were a controlling force of the majority of SE Asia.

By getting all the temples done in one day I have been able to get out of Cambodia and down to the Thai Islands a day or two earlier than I expected.

I have rushed through Cambodia very quickly, but I have seen everything I wanted to see, so don’t feel too bad about it.

20th to 23th July – Phnom Penh

I travelled to Phnom Penh with Malcolm and Max on a 2 day boat trip along the Mekong Delta. This trip included a trip to a floating fishing village, a Muslim village and a nights stay in a small town by the Vietnam/Cambodia border.

On the trip we met 3 other English guys, Nick, Lee and Chris and had a few beers with them in the evening. Early evening, on the boat, just after it got dark we were swarmed by midges. Hundreds of tiny little flies would be all over us at any one time. I have not seen anything so bad (well, maybe when I did the three peaks challenge it was nearly as bad). They don’t bite, like Mosquitos, but they are bloody annoying!

I had 3 days in Phnom Penh with the guys. We saw the Genocide museum and Royal Palace on the first day. It was baking hot and the museum was really moving. The last few days have been a harsh insight into just how bad things have been in SE Asia over the last 40 or 50 years. It makes me so much more impressed with the region and how well things are developing and especially how friendly the locals are. I am sure that deep down the recent history is still a major factor, but not once have I seen or heard anyone mention the atrocities that have happened, from the Vietnam War to the Pol Pot times of the Khmer Rouge. The SE Asians are fantastic people.

The next day we went to the rifle range to shoot some more guns. This time I shot 15 rounds in an AK-47 and hit the target 14 times with some pretty good hits. Next I shot 10 rounds with a CZ 75 handgun. I wasn’t so good here. I only hit the target 2 times out of the 10 shots… but they were both good kill shots!

After the rifle range we went on a trip to the Killing Fields. This is a grouping of mass graves that were used in the mid/late 70’s during Pol Pots rain and the Khmer Rouge.

Around 2 million Cambodians were executed over 4 years and many of them just dumped in mass graves. The Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot decided that Cambodia’s future was based in farming. So anyone who wasn’t a farmer, couldn’t be a farmer or had any sign of intelligence, such as doctors, lawyers, people with degrees, etc were executed. It was damned harsh. As you enter the killing fields there is a big glass display case with around 8000 skulls on display as a reminder of how bad things were. There are still parts of the sites being excavated and as you walk around you still see bits of clothing and some bones sticking out of the ground where it hasn’t been fully excavated yet. It was another very moving experience. It is painful to think that even with all this evidence of how bad people can be it is still going on in the world today. And we call ourselves a civilised race.

I am glad that we went to the firing range before the killing fields, otherwise it would have been a very different and probably more disturbing experience.

On the way home we stopped briefly at Wat Phou. There is a massive clock built into the grass. Very cool. 

17th – 20th July – Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

I was only planning on staying in Saigon for a couple of days, in keeping with my intention of not spending much time in big cities.

When I got there I actually got a real good feel for the place. It was crazier than ever on the roads with swarms of people on scooters and crossing the road is an adventure in itself!

A friend of mine from University has been living in the city for the past year, so I gave him a call and we met up for a coffee. It was great to catch up after so long.

Gordon only stayed until the first evening and then flew out to Bali, so after travelling together for the last 3 weeks, it was finally time to go our separate ways. Shame, we got on great together and had a lot of fun.

The first night in town I bumped into some people I had been travelling with previously, so a few beers down in Go2 bar were very welcomed.

The next morning I went to the Tunnels. These are a network of tunnels that the Vietnamese used during the war as part of their Guerrilla warfare campaign and helped them hide from the American and South Vietnamese forces for so long. It was really impressive to see the initiative shown by the forces and also just how determined they were. To fight, and win, against such an awesome fight, can only be a testament to the mentality of their people. To fight in the day and then spend the nights tending the fields to ensure they could still produce their crops was amazing.

The tunnels themselves were tiny! Obviously the Asians are generally a bit smaller than us westerners, and that helped. When the Americans did find some of the tunnels, they couldn’t fit in to chase the enemy out! They also lived under ground and when they cooked their food they had really long Air tunnels so that the smoke would leave the ground about half a click away from the actual tunnel. So, when the Americans saw the smoke and bombed the area, they missed the tunnels by a long shot! Ingenious.

After the tunnels there was the opportunity to fire some guns. I had been looking forward to this and bought 10 bullets for the M-16 rifle, used by the Americans. It is a lot harder than it looks to fire accurately, partly due to me not really knowing how to line up the sights. Apparently I was firing too low. But I couldn’t see where it was hitting anyway, so I wasn’t too bothered. One thing that did surprise me is just how loud the guns are, especially the AK-47. In hindsight, I wish I had bought 5 bullets for the M-16 and 5 for the AK-47. I should get another chance in Cambodia, so I might try it then.

After the tunnels I was dropped off at the War Remnants museum. On my way in I bumped into Malcolm, a guy that I met on the bus to Vang Vieng, the same time I met Gordon, so I went with him and his friend.

The museum was a very sobering and quite distressing experience. To see just how badly treated the Vietnamese prisoners, and civilians (including women and children) were treated was quite terrifying. And then seeing the pictures of the people who suffered at the use of Agent Orange actually brought a lump to my throat and nearly a tear to my eye.

The birth defects suffered by these people are grotesque. It really was a moving experience. Definitely no sugar coating here.

Around town I also bumped into Gordons friends again so arranged to meet them for a drink later.

I had another good night out in Go2 bar with the guys (Amy, Becky, the name I can never pronounce!, Alex, Malcolm and Max).

I actually got on with one of the girls really well and it is a shame we only had a short time together as I would have liked to spend more time with her. Still, we might get to meet up when I get home. 

Mui Ne

On the way down to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Gordon and I spent a night (ish) in Mui Ne, a small beach town set along a single road, about 11Km long.

Our bus arrived at 2am, so it’s lucky we had pre-booked a guesthouse. The guest house was a little bungalo on the beach. It was basic, but clean.

We got up early the next morning and booked a jeep tour around the sand dunes. This comprised of a tour over the white dunes, a bit of sand sledging which was the most boring thing I have ever done and a complete waste of money (even though it was only about 50p) It is slow, you get sand everywhere and it is just not a thrill!

After the white dunes we went to a waterfall. A 20 minute walk up a small stream led us to a rather dissapointing waterfall. It was about 3 meters high and not interesting to look at at all! The actual walk to it was really nice though. It is called the Fairy Trail and has some nice red sand dunes along the sides.

Next was on to the Red Canyon, which is a sort of canyon, but the walls are made of sand. Really tightly packed sand, that is almost rock. It looks like rock, but breaks away quite easily.

Last on the tour was a drive to the red dunes, which were pretty similar to the white ones, but red!

As you can probably tell, I wasn’t overly impressed with the tour, but it was a fairly fun day out.

The afternoon was spent chilling on the beach and taking in a bit of sun.

Our bus left at 1:30am that night so we had a couple of hours kip and set off for Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

On the bus we bumped into a group of English girls (including one guy) that Gordon was at University with.

Nha Trang

Nha Trang was awesome. This is probably one of the most fun places I have been yet.

It is Vietnam’s premier diving location, so I thought what better place to do my PADI Open Water course. I walked around a few of the dive shops and finally settled on Jeremy Steins Rainbow Divers. As soon as I walked in I was greeted by Vicky who was cheerfull, bubbly and very friendly. I was sold pretty much instantly. Even though thry cost about $30 more than their competitors, I figured it was money well spent. They also took 4 days for the course where others tried to cram it into 2 or 3 days.

The first 2 days were spent with the morning in the classroom watching DVDs and the afternoon going over various skills in the swimming pool. Both these days were quite tiring as there is a lot of information to take in, but due to the character of Vicky, our instructor, we had so much fun.

Clara, another instructor also deserves a mention as she spent a lot of time with us. In fact, all the instructors and Jeremy Stein himself were all approachable and happy to joke around.

The third and forth days were spent putting our swimming pool sessions into practice in the sea. You have to complete 4 open water dives for your qualification, so we had 2 each morning on these days and the afternoon was free to sunbathe on the beach.

We had a pretty big social group, about 15-20, in Nha Trang, so staying relatively sober in the evenings was quite a challenge. Despite this, I did manage it and qualified at the end of my course (with 46/50 on my final exam) with my open water diver certificate, which means I can now dive, with a buddy, to 18 meters. I had such a good time I will probably go for my Advanced at some point on this trip.

Nha Trang has a fantastic beach and the weather was spot on, so I have managed to build up a great base to my tan! There is also some fantastic seafood around, which I really got into, including lobster barbequed on the beach for you. Not bad, since i’m Not a big seafood fan.

Apart from the diving Nha Trang was all about the beach and the partying. We found some great bars such as Guava (chilled), Red Apple (beer bongs), Why Not (dancing), and my personal favourite The Sailing Club (buckets). We always seemed to end up back at the sailing club, which was fine since it had such a good athmosphere.

One night, during my diving course, I was walking back to the guesthouse on my own and 2 prostitutes rode past me on a scooter. One jumped off and walked with me trying to hold my hand as I said “No….No”. Then another came upand another and before I knew it there were about 8 or 10 girls around me trying to grab my hands and a whole lot more!

Fortunately I had been warned about these gangs of girls the prevous night, so was expecting it and was also aware of how to handle it…. You just have to be aggressive.

When I decided my polite “No” and “Don’t touch me”‘s weren’t working and I felt hands going over my pockets, looking for my wallett and camera, I turned around and told them to F— off. This did the trick and they left. Very scary, but one hell of an experience. I am just glad I was not very drunk and had been warned about it. It is one of very few places where girls are safer than guys walking home!

One special night in Nha Trang started off much like the others, but upon leaving Why Not bar we headed to the beach to chill and wait for the sun rise. This was a beatifull moment and an end to a great night. It is amazing how mamy vietnamese are on the beach between 5 and 6 in the morning. The place is rammed! Aparently they are out early and late in the day as it is cooler and they don’t want to tan. In SE Asia, it is sexy to have pale skin so the women cover up theur entire bodies during the day…. They must get sooooo hot!

Aside from this, I had the most amazing time in Nha Trang and just wish I had another week there. Oh well, all good things must come to an end. 

Hoi An

Hoi An
Gordon and I arrived in Hoi An and found a really nice hotel called Than Bihn 3, which came complete with a swimming pool. Hoi An is a gorgeous little town with a lot of French Colonial influence.

The main attraction of Hoi An are the tailor shops. This is the main reason people come here. You basically skim through a western catalogue (the Next catalogue was very popular), choose what you want and they make it for you in about 3 days.

Since I didn’t need any suits/clothes I managed to resist the urge, altough, most people I have met travelling bought a lot.

There is also a great beach with fantastic seafood and a beach party twice a week. Unfortunately I missed the party as I was putting a drunk friend to bed and didn’t know

the party was on till after it had happened.

The 3 days we had there were spent partying and chilling round the pool or on the beach.

We met some great people here, most notably; the Irish girls (Jamie, Claie, Susie and Mary-Ellen); Renata, my Brazilian buddy; and Max and Tasha, an Aussie couple. 

Monday 2nd July – Ha Long Bay

Monday 2nd July – Ha Long Bay

The bus journey to Ha Long Bay was about 3 hours. On our rest stop I heard “Hey guys” in the sexy Brazilian accent I know only too well…. Renata! She is doing the same boat trip, but a different company, so a different boat, which was a shame, but she is also doing the same bus journey, so w ‘ll get to hang out a bit more.

When we got to the harbour, there were about 30 boats all exactly the same and it felt like tourist central! We boarded our boat and it was actually really nice.

The first day was spent chilling and sunbathing on the top deck (between rain showers) and taking photos. Once the boat left the harbour it was a lot less crowded and actually quite peaceful. We spent an hour kayaking and then an hour jumping off the side of the top deck and swimming.

The rest of the evening was spent eating a great dinner and playing cards…. There may have been a small amount of Vodka involved!

Tuesday 3rd July – Ha Long Bay

Breakfast was at 7:30am… Not good, but we made it, we just spent the morning sunbathing (today is gorgeous blue-skies and blazing hot sun)

The weather has been perfect for taking photos and chilling out sunbathing. I’m really glad we chose to do the 2 day trip.

A bit more swimming then back to the harbour for lunch and then back on the bus to Hanoi. We are just about back to the hotel and we should make our bus tonight with time to spare. I just hope all my kit is safe in the hotel store room where I left it. 

Sunday 1st July – Hanoi

Sunday 1st July – Hanoi

The flight to Vietnam was pretty straight forward. We met a couple of Canadian girls, , in the airport that I had met elsewhere on my trip, the waterfall in Luang Prabang and again in Vang Vieng. So we hung out with them during the flight.

I had been warned by a few people about Vietnam. I had been told that you are permanently pestered by hotel touts, taxi drivers and people selling you things. I was told that they are very aggressive negotiators, rip you off and lie through their teeth.

As soon as we walked out of the airport about 3 taxi drivers ran up to us and pretty much tried to push us into their taxis. Prices started high and on driver offered us $10. Another offered us $7 so we asked if he could match it. He thought about it a bit and then reluctantly agreed. We drove 2 minutes out of the airport where he stopped the car and demanded $24 up front!! The bloody cheek. It took us 10 minutes of “negotiations” to finally agree on $14. We paid half up front and the rest would be when we got to the hotel, Camelia 5.

He stopped 3 times en-route, we think to ask directions. Then he took us to the wrong hotel, who tried to unload our bags and get us in. After we sorted that out, we drove along a bit more and I ended up navigating him in from the map in my lonely planet!

When we got there the remaining people paid their money and w checked out our rooms. After accepting the room I went back down to sign the register and the Canadian girls were still arguing with the taxi driver! He was saying that one person had not paid.

The guy who worked in the hotel was helping out and even got his own wallet out to pay the money the driver was asking for. We told him not to, and somehow got the driver to admit he had an extra 32,000dong from one of the girls that he was claiming was his tip! We laughed, said he asked for $14, we gave him $14 and there was no tip. The hotel guy then kicked him out!

We dropped our kit in our rooms and went out for some food. After dinner we went to a bar called the Golden Drum for a quick beer. They closed at 11:30, so w walked back to the hotel.

When we got back we looked into boat trips to Ha Long Bay. There was a one-day or a two-day trip that we couldn’t decide which to do. We ended up going for the 2 day trip, which included one night sleeping on the boat. We also booked a sleeper bus to Hue for the evening we get back from the boat trip. 

Sunday 1st July – Vang Vieng

Sunday 1st July – Vang Vieng

I left Luang Prabang a day ahead of my friends as I was ready to move on and I wanted to get into Vietnam soon.

I took the minivan down as it was meant to be quicker than the government bus and I thought it would Be more comfortable as well. I ended up sitting in the middle seat in the front, which was quite uncomfortable and it had no headrest so sleeping meant bashing my head on the driver or the guy next to me, who switched seats halfway through so I could take some photos out of the window.

I got talking to him as we were travelling and swapped a few stories. We also got talking to another guy called Gordon. When we arrived in Vang Vieng Malcolm, Gordon and I headed to a guesthouse that had been recommended to me by a couple of guys I met in Luang Prabang. The guesthouse was called Babylon and it was probably the nicest guesthouse that I have stayed in yet. We got a triple room to save a couple of dollars, which meant 2 of us were sharing a double, but that was no big deal. We’re all friends here!

We got told that the guesthouse was closing the next day as the owners father had died and they had to be in Vientiane to sort out the funeral. Later we were told that we could stay there, but they would operate with a skeleton staff and certain services, like food wouldn’t be available. Fine by us. That also meant that we were the only people in the guesthouse for our whole time there! There was a room of hot English girls next to us when we first arrived, but they moved out the morning after. Boo.

Vang Vieng is a very bizarre town. Only a few years ago it was a small market town similar to those in Northern Laos. Now, it is THE place for outdoor pursuits in Laos. It offers everything from tubing to kayaking, to rafting, to climbing to caving to hiking and much more.

I had heard a lot about the tubing and had been looking forward to it since I arrived in Laos.

The town itself is like nothing I have seen before. It has been unfairly compared to the Khau San road in Bangkok, but I think that is a bit harsh. The whole town is full of restaurant / bars that have chilled put tables with cushions around then that you can just kick back and chill for hours before you realise just how long you have been there! And the ALL play Friends (yep, the TV show) at full volume! Well, apart from the one that just plays The Simpsons! It is the weirdest thing walking around with Friends playing in every bar. There tag line is “Come and enjoy a beer with friends”. Cheesy.

If you find the right bars, then you can sample the local treats, such as Happy Pizza, Happy Shakes, Happy Garlic Bread, Mushroom Shakes and Opium Tea amongst other things!

I met up with a couple of girls I had met a couple of times before, Laura (Canadian) and Renata (Brazilian) and the 5 of us went tubing on our second afternoon. It didn’t disappoint. You literally have a rubber tube and float down the Mekong. There are no rapids, or difficult bits of river, so floating is quite relaxing and peaceful. Lovely. Oh yeah, there are about 10 bars on the way down serving our beloved Beerlao and playing loud music! Party time! Each stop has a rope swing or a flying fox (rope swing that looks like a trapeze). Some are about 2 stories high as well! It was such a fun day and you get to meet so many people from the town that will be out in the bars later that evening. We were a touch late leaving the last bar, so it was quite dark by the time we got back!

Laos has a midnight curfew, which we had come across previously, but Vang Vieng was know to have a couple of bars open late for those that made it. Unfortunately, while we were there the police were cracking down on violations of the curfew and the bars all got closed at midnight. The curfew is lightly enforced for individuals and tourists, but business owners can get hit hard. So we headed back to our room with some beers and continued the party there! We also had an Aussie called Dave and another aussie called Georgie. I haven’t played Chinese Whispers since school but it was hilarious!

Renata left the day after, which was sad as I quite liked hanging out with her, but she is doing a similar route, so I’m sure we’ll meet up again sometime.

My friends from Chiang Mai / Luang Prabang (François, Lisa, John, Laura, Jo, Amelia and Eddy) arrived the night I was tubing, so it was great to see them in the bars later.

After tubing we decided it would be a good idea to go see a cave and a blue lagoon where we could swim. Originally we were planning on push bikes, but I convinced everyone that scooters would be a better option. Most people had never ridden a scooter before and I had john on the back as they only had 5 scooters for 6 of us. Oh dear! The roads were not particularly great! In fact the were loose stones or mud, complete with hills, potholes, puddles and all manner of bad terrain. Then the heavens opened up!

We found the caves but couldn’t get the bikes all the way up, so a scouting party went to check them out. Apparently they weren’t worth the 20 minute hike, so we continued to the lagoon. This was very nice and swimming in the cool water was very refreshing.

After a bit more partying we had a day kayaking. We kayaked to a cave where you pull yourself through on a rubber ring. The group before us were in there for about an hour and there were sections that they had to crawl through and it sounded great, but a lot of waiting around for us. When we got in the cave w had about 20 minutes. Nothing like the previous group. My guide told me it was because we wouldn’t have had time to finish the kayaking before it gets dark and someone else was told the water was rising so we couldn’t go in as deep. Probably both were true.

Back in the kayaks we hit some rapids, barely level 1’s) and I was trying a standing wave, where you turn around on 2 waves and sit on top of them without paddling. I nearly got it a couple of times.

Along the river we came to the section of the Mekong used by the tubers and Laura and I stopped at the second bar where she had befriended the owner. A few shots of Lao Lao (Lao Whisky) were swiftly handed to us before we left to join our group down river at one of the larger bars.

A few beer laos later and we were floating home. Most of the group went off ahead but Laura, me, 2 of the guides and a Laos couple just linked our kayaks up and floated back singing Laos songs and banging out boats as drums. It was an awesome experience.

Apparently our “drums” could be heard all the down river!

The next day we all planned to have a chilled day with no alcohol as the last few days excess had taken it’s toll. I was meant to be tubing with my friends from Chiang Mai, but that would have meant more drinking. Instead, Laura had heard of a cave about 1Km from town with some nice swimming so we started to walk there. We also acquired 4 new people that had just arrived at her guesthouse.

As we were walking down the road we came across a street party. As we walked past one of the locals grabbed us and pulled us into the party. It turned out to be our guide from kayaking the day before. They poured us beerlao and asked us to join in the dancing. The women kept walking around pouring everyone small cups of beer, including us. It would have been rude to decline. I thought we would only be there 5 minutes before heading off to swim. Our 4 new friends left pretty soon after, leaving Laura, Gordon and myself at the party. 6 hours later we were still dancing with and talking to the locals. They were so welcoming and hospitable, it was so kind for them to invite us to their special day. We each put some money into a gift for the bride and groom, which was received very well. It was so nice to have this kind of experience. To really spend time with real Lao people and experience their real world was worth so much more than you can get from a paid for tourist activity. The Lao people throughout have been some of the most friendly people I have ever come across. Not bad for one of, if not the, most un-developed nations in the world. Apparently other backpackers kept walking past the party taking photos of us!! They were jealous, we were having a ball.

At one point when we were dancing a woman grabbed me and pushed me and, I presume, her daughter together to dance. We danced for a while and she was pretty hot! She said her house is nearby and asked if I wanted to go see it! I was drunk, she was hot and asking me to go back with her! I couldn’t work out if it would be more disrespectful to accept or decline…. So I politely declined the offer! Anyway, it’s illegal to sleep with a Lao woman unless you are married to her!!

We left the party early evening, thanked our hosts, and offered to email the photos to them.

After that I had an early night!

The rest of our time in Vang Vieng was a bit more relaxed in the days and not quite as hard in the evenings. We stayed for about 5 nights in total, but were ready to leave. For some reason, halfway through the week the mood changed a bit in the town. Everyone we had met on our first day tubing seemed to have moved on and the place just felt quite a bit quieter. Time to leave Vang Vieng and Lao altogether.

Gordon and myself booked a bus straight to Vientiane airport and a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. A few of our friends would also be just a couple of days behind us.